Scaling new heights

19th September 1997 at 01:00
To play a musical instrument, you don't have to do scales all day, but you do need enthusiasm. Keith Gemmell explains how music teachers can hit the right note with their pupils

The peripatetic woodwind music teacher, like the Ofsted inspector, has the mixed privilege of entering the gates of all sorts of schools. Mind you, the security checks can be unnerving. Getting the OK from the school office staff isn't always enough. One headteacher, despite the fact that I wear the same (my only) smart outfit every week and I am not in the habit of dyeing my hair, seems unable, after three terms, to recognise me or rid herself of the recurring nightmare that I am a homicidal maniac. She leaps out of her office week after week to demand my identity.

Having gained admission to the school, one makes for the teaching space itself, which might turn out to be anything from a high-tech suite of soundproofed rehearsal rooms and recording studio to a broom cupboard into which sundry lost children, though not the child who has actually booked a lesson, occasionally wander.

Some years ago, in the days of the Inner London Education Authority, I used to teach in one school corner such as this. But the cramped accommodation was overwhelmingly compensated for by the generous provision of tuition and loan of musical instruments to the children free of charge. My timetable included a lesson shared by two little Irish sisters who also shared a school clarinet.

As timid as wrens, they spoke in whispers, but one week they arrived looking even more nervous than usual, and for several minutes mouthed a message to me that I just couldn't catch. After asking them to repeat it closer to my ear, I finally heard their confession: they had left the school clarinet on the bus. Being in the Only Fools and Horses area of south London, I wasn't over optimistic about seeing the clarinet again. But someone prayed to the right saint: it turned up in London Transport's lost property office the next day.

Many professional musicians admit that they would not have had the opportunity to play at all if tuition and instruments had not been provided by the education authority in their day. For while the seeds of musical talent are broadcast in a haphazard manner, the parents willing and able to nurture that talent tend to cluster predictably at the upper end of the socioeconomic scale. In the age of wall-to-wall television, videos and computers, it takes enormous drive and enthusiasm from teachers to get children from less privileged backgrounds involved in music today.

Stuart Horsburgh, head of music at Charles Dickens School in Broadstairs, Kent, where I teach, puts a great deal of work and ingenuity into ensuring that his department excels. He employs an armoury of sticks and carrots to maintain a flourishing orchestra - despite the fact that many of the school's 820 pupils are from disadvantaged back grounds. And the occasional flouting of school rules by girls sporting eye make-up and blue nail varnish doesn't necessarily mean the young models don't have time to play a few old-fashioned scales.

The music department's first achievement was the allocation of funds to buy the instruments for the orchestra. Pupils have free hire of the instruments, which they must play for a minimum of three months. Music tuition lessons set at 20 minutes means that the cost to parents is not prohibitive. Lessons are arranged to overlap by five minutes so that the child coming to the end of a lesson plays in duet with the child whose lesson is just beginning. Apart from benefiting their technique, this gives the lessons a sociable edge.

Children receiv ion at school are required to attend all music club activities, playing in the school orchestra or one of the lunch-time ensembles, a rule that is strictly observed. More advanced pupils are given the responsibility of helping the younger pupils as well. The glittering prizes for the young musicians have included an eight-day concert tour of Spain as well as performances in Wattignies, the French town that is twinned with Broadstairs. They also perform in the Thanet Music Centre Band with children from other schools in events organised by Kent Music School. But before the thrill of applause can be enjoyed, the mundane habit of practising the instrument at home must be acquired.

Schoolboy howlers have offered innocent pleasure to teachers for many years, but I have come across a much rarer form of surrealistic humour in answer to the question: "So why haven't you taken your flute clarinet saxophone out of its case to play since your lesson with me last week?" Children lacking in a practice routine seem to be blessed instead with a rare creativity in this area of self-expression.

One particular boy - a likeable lad, I have to say - has that touch of originality which borders on genius. Snippets from our opening conversations at his tuition sessions go something like this: Week 1. Me: Have you played your saxophone much? Boy: No. My gran's dog died. Week 2. Me: Why haven't you played your saxophone this week? Boy: My next door neighbour's dog died. Week 3. Me: Have you been playing your saxophone this week? Boy: No. My face hurts. Me: What's wrong with your face? Boy: My dog keeps head butting me. He doesn't like the noise. Week 4. Me: Have you played your saxophone this week? Boy: No. My Dad wanted to watch EastEnders.

While I realise that the long, shiny, sort-of-curly-with-knobs-on thing known as a saxophone is today's ultimate fashion accessory for any male between the age of 13 and 30, I am constantly amazed at the number of parents who go out and buy one for their teenage sons without establishing first whether their particular son has any intention of learning to play it. Still I mustn't be churlish, and the fact is that some of my pupils show admirable persistence, talent and sometimes a combination of both.

Without a hint of sexism, I have to admit that over the years I have encountered one problem that seems peculiar to girls. Only yesterday a girl who couldn't quite master a clarinet piece burst into floods of tears, even though I assured her she would manage it soon. My only comfort was that when I glanced through the window of the practice room I saw that the girl learning the piano in the adjoining room was crying as well. I attributed it to hormones, took the opportunity to pop out to the loo, and when I came back the young clarinetist was composed once again.

As in every other area of teaching, the pupils' achievement and enjoyment, whatever their natural abilities, is greatly affected by the philosophy, commitment and skills of the teacher. Canterbury pianist, singer and former head of music, Cyril Wade, has passionate and uncompromising views about the role of the music teacher. "As a piano teacher I always say: 'The pupil employs me, the parent only pays me.' I want to hear things from the child's side. Why are they doing it? What do they want to learn? What's the end product? Is it to play in a group or what? I don't force them into exams. If they want to take an exam, my attitude is 'Good, I'll help you'. What is vital is that children perform in public. Not only the instrumentalists who play in orchestras or groups, but also those who play solo piano or classical guitar. As head of music I instituted evening piano concerts and filled 300 seats. The most talented pupil I ever taught never played scales, but he had enormously long fingers that covered an octave and a half - and he loved playing. Enjoyment is the key to music. It doesn't matter if you make mistakes."

There is a joke that goes like this. Question: "What's the difference between a musician and an endowment policy?" (Pause.) Answer: "An endowment policy eventually matures and earns some money." As a music tutor I hope to avoid the nasty threats that the joke implies.

The regular income from music tuition, if not a fortune, is a welcome addition to the vagaries of performance fees and record royalties. And as for maturing gracefully - apart from the young people I teach, I've got teenagers at home. There is nothing like the company and candour of your own children to remind you that you are already over the hill.

Keith Gemmell is a peripatetic woodwind teacher who works in Kent

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