To everything there is a season.

In May 2000 I moved to London. To Hendon, precisely. My plan was to teach music and convert to Judaism and, eventually, marry the boy I was chasing. I was nineteen.

I don’t remember how long after moving there I got my first piano student in the area, but it wasn’t a desperately long time. She was a lovely older lady who’d been on a “singing for the brain” course and wanted to study the piano in order to keep her mind nimble.

From then on, I always had students in Hendon and Finchley. Most were children, but there were various grown-ups too. It got to the point where I couldn’t fit them all in on weekday evenings and started teaching some on Sunday mornings. When I went to Trinity this turned out to be a good thing: I kept going back on Sundays to teach, spending the weekdays doing (okay, avoiding) my academic work and Saturday as a day off. At one point I was teaching for nine hours on a Sunday, which was helpful, if tiring. Most of the teaching was in the morning — I started at 8am — or in the evening, after football and other activities had ended, and this left me with long afternoons. I often spent the time outside, reading or walking around, though if the weather was miserable I might head to Brent Cross instead or just take refuge in a coffee shop for a while. There was a period of time when I had friends living nearby so I would go to visit them, sometimes just falling asleep on the sofa for a while, and on one memorable occasion sticking my very broken glasses together with bits of wire and tape.

In my later years at Trinity I started becoming interested in Christianity again, which is perhaps a topic for another post. But it was in Hendon on those long Sunday afternoons that I had time to read and think about this, and it was at St Mary’s Hendon that I found I could go to Evensong most weeks.

When I finished my degree I had to decide whether to move back to Hendon, stay in Bethnal Green or go elsewhere entirely. Marrying the boy I’d been chasing was no longer on the cards, and by then it was clear that Orthodox Judaism was not the right path for me. I chose Leytonstone for a variety of reasons.

I also decided that I couldn’t be having with working on Sunday mornings any more (well, that didn’t last long!). So my students, many of whom by now were the “we’d really rather have lessons on Sundays” crowd, were asked to switch to weekdays… and since then I’ve been going to Hendon and Finchley on Mondays and Tuesdays. Most of my students there are Jewish and in a strange way, teaching them has allowed me to keep Jewish practice, and interfaith issues, in my mind even while I’m now so involved in Christian worship, though besides knowing when the holidays are, ensuring exams aren’t on Saturdays and teaching the odd bit of folk repertoire it hasn’t been a major part of teaching, of course.

I knew this wouldn’t be a sustainable strategy in the longer-term so I decided to take on no new families, letting the hours in North London taper off. The plan was that I’d gradually gain students in Leytonstone and the transition would be fairly smooth.

That didn’t quite work out. At the beginning of this year, I was commuting nine hours per week to do three hours of teaching. I wasn’t gathering much of a class of students more locally, mostly because Mondays and Tuesdays were completely unavailable. I tried cycling, but found it just as exhausting as the Tube and with no great saving in time. I tried finding other things to do locally, spending Monday afternoon in the library in Finchley. Eventually I had to admit that I was tired enough that I wasn’t teaching as well as I know I can. So, this January, I gave my students one term’s notice.

Today I taught my last lesson in Hendon, and walked back through Sunny Hill Park. It’s been sad, these last few weeks, saying goodbye. One of the reasons I hung on so long was that I do genuinely like teaching, and I am very fond of all of my students. A half hour a week over a few years is a long time to spend with anyone in one-on-one situations and these families have been a significant part of my life. The students themselves have been a joy and a privilege to teach, through the difficult bits and the happiness (or just relief) at exam results and school performances. I was teaching only five at the end, but over the years there have been nearly forty students, and I have learned from each and every one of them, and I will miss them. If you’re a former student, or a parent of one, and you’re reading this: THANK YOU.

I suppose North London will still be there, but it feels strange that I no longer have any reason to go.

Still ticking.

What have I been up to?

I’m learning to play the organ. This is a lot of fun, but rather difficult. I try to play the right hand line with my right hand, the left hand line with my left hand, and the pedal line with my other left hand. It’s going well, though; I’ve played at a few services, and a funeral, and I have a few more lined up.
I’m also rehearsing a lot with the Brigantia Consort. No, we haven’t a website just yet, but soon, hopefully!
I’m still playing serpent with the London Gallery Quire, and enjoying both the metrical psalmody and the camaraderie.
I’m still teaching piano, and I still love it. I’m finding I do notice the commute much more than I used to, partly because it’s a little further but also because there are days when I don’t have to leave Leytonstone at all, so the days when I travel across London seem very long indeed.
Longer-term, I’m writing some bits and pieces of music, some for competitions and some for specific performance situations. It’s mostly choral, mostly liturgical. I love doing this, but I lack confidence; I’m never quite sure whether what I have written will turn out to be very good, or a bit naff. I guess that comes with experience.
I’m also planning a series of workshops on psalmody. I want to start with the origins of psalmody and then explore how the psalms would have been said, sung or chanted in different liturgical traditions. I know that I won’t be able to do a full treatment in the four to six sessions that would make this a manageable project… at this point I’m just reading a lot and letting ideas slosh around in my brain.

External validation

Yesterday was my graduation ceremony: I got to dress up in very silly clothes and was given a piece of paper confirming that I have done the work and can put letters after my name. It was a happy occasion, and a slightly surreal experience.

I have observed, as have many other graduates, that I couldn’t have finished the degree without the help and support I received from family, friends, and Trinity staff. But it has also been pointed out that while I have had some help, it was me who actually did the work in the end, and that deserves recognition. Yes, it was a lot of work: but I think it’s very difficult to separate my part of that from that of the people who helped me along the way.
Yesterday was happy for another reason, too: I got the results back for my students’ most recent round of exams. I had four piano students take a TrinityGuildhall ‘Initial’ level exam this term. I’m extremely pleased that all four of them passed, as I thought they would. I’m delighted that three of them not only passed but were awarded Distinctions! But as a teacher, I am acutely aware that I turn up and teach for a half hour or so a week and my students are the ones who put in the time and effort to practise. I try to make music interesting, I try to show that learning is worthwhile, but no matter what else happens, I cannot practise for them. So while I’m pleased for and proud of my students, I mostly feel very fortunate to have students who work hard and do well.
Clearly there’s some attitude adjustment to be done there, given the gap between how I feel about my students’ achievements and how I feel about my own. Am I to take credit for anything?
But what I told my students going into the exam, and what I told their parents, still holds: it’s only an exam. It’s very useful and can be highly motivating to have an external measurement of how you are doing, to compare your skills to someone else’s, but that isn’t the end point of what we’re doing in piano lessons. It’s good for me to know how I’m doing in teaching basic skills like sight-reading as well as accuracy, technical facility and communication and interpretation, but that isn’t the point.
Likewise, the piece of paper I received yesterday is a good marker of what I have done and how I developed musical skills over the time I was at Trinity, but the piece of paper was not why I was there. I was there to become a better musician, and I am not a musician because I get shiny pieces of paper to frame — or the other sort of piece of paper for that matter, the ones that can be exchanged for goods and services in a lawful market.
I am a performer and a teacher of music because music brings me deep and lasting joy and fulfillment, and I wish to share that with others.

Results, moving on and settling in…

Where to start?

I got my degree. Specifically, I have been awarded a Bachelor of Music (Hons), Second Class Honours, Upper Division. In ordinary terms that’s known as a 2:1 in the British system.

I had a celebratory recital on 10th July. I’m listening to a recording now, to try and make a CD to hand on to someone who couldn’t be there. It’s interesting… a note in the Mozart that I had pegged as ‘always a bit sharp’ is flat in both the exam and the recital. Clearly I should have recorded more of my practising for troubleshooting purposes. Overall, the recital went well and I think I played better than in the exam, so I’m very glad I did it. Also, there’s little better than playing with friends and family for a large group of my friends and family.

I’ve also moved house. No more shall I wander along the Roman Road, at least not in order to get the bus to take me to Trinity in the mornings. The new house has a music room, which means I don’t actually need to leave to practise. I don’t need to book a room, either. This is most excellent. The house even came with a piano, which, although in need of some work, allows me to put off the expensive decision on buying one for myself, at least for a few more years.

So, I’ve been doing some practising, some small bits of composing, and rather a lot of packing and unpacking. In an unprecedented fit of being rather more organised than usual, most of my existing teaching schedule for the autumn is sorted out. I do need to find more students locally, but I also know it will take time to build up a class in this area.

The next few weeks bring a performance on 18th August (I’ll play serpent and Anna will play violin), a trip to deepest darkest Somerset to unwind for a few days, and rather a lot of unpacking. I also need to start doing some arranging and transcription of popular works for horn, violin and ‘cello, as it looks like a group of us are doing some of that. I also want to get going again on putting together a horn and organ concert, but I may need to wait a little longer and get some job applications out of the way, first. A website wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

In future summers I hope I’ll be able to have a longer rest in August, but as so much is in transition and there are so many new starts, this one is turning out to be mostly one where I keep my head down.

How about you?

It’s been a busy week and it isn’t even done yet.

Monday I was teaching, then wandered around a bit and found a silk sari for £5 in a charity shop. That prompted me to come home and do some simple sewing, so I now have two new sarongs (hey, I said it was simple), lovely and cool for the hot weather. I was absolutely shattered, unsurprising after my late night on Sunday.

Yesterday was a day of much rehearsing and some minor slaying of paperwork. I was still very tired and found it a struggle to concentrate well, but managed to have a reasonable day anyway.

The first two rehearsals were for the Trinity Symphony Orchestra, preparing for the final of the soloists competition. I’m playing 2nd horn in the Brahms violin concerto and the Ravel piano concerto, both gorgeous works. The rehearsals were productive but very poorly attended by some sections. The weather was glorious and I accidentally caught a slight sunburn eating my lunch on Blackheath. I was still feeling chilly when inside the Great Hall though. Maybe there’s a passage to some sort of frozen netherworld under the stage.

The third rehearsal was Brahms horn trio. We finally got through the whole last movement… slowly. I would have liked to go faster but slow practise does pay off better in the end, and as my part is probably the easiest of the three I don’t feel I get much say in when we get to play faster. B, the pianist, is definitely interested in trying to organise some recitals. It’s looking like we’ll try to play in some lunchtime concerts in August. Meantime we’ve got a couple of rehearsals booked for next week.

Today was good as well. I’ve just about recovered from my sleep deprivation exercise on Sunday night, in that I found it much easier to wake this morning, but was still flagging quite a bit mid-afternoon. But I practised, and got an assignment handed in, and went to improv class but hardly anyone turned up (probably because of aforementioned assignment as well as the truly beautiful weather), had some lunch and did some banking, and went to horn class.

Horn class today was excellent. We had Johannes HinterHolzer visiting from Austria; we’d all been instructed to learn Mozart’s 4th horn concerto (K495) and be prepared to play it. For the first half we talked about horn stuff in general, as well as the first movement of Mozart 4. Then we took some tea and sunshine and returned to actually do some playing.

A bit of context: when I was busking on the London Underground I played all of Mozart 4 two or three times a day, four or five days a week, for a year and a half. After a certain point it doesn’t really get any easier. I know the piece pretty well by now, and to be honest I didn’t prepare as much as I might have for today’s class. I learned an incredible amount despite both of these factors. Johannes is very precise in his ideas about what makes a line musical and what general phrasing techniques will give the desired effect; the result is that instead of saying, “Do it like this” and then demonstrating, he will demonstrate and then explain exactly what he did to achieve that result. He’s also very clear about the more nitty-gritty techniques for producing a good, accurate sound on the horn, and has an amazing ear for rhythm (or perhaps I just need to spend more time with the metronome). His manner is combination of encouraging and demanding that really inspires students to do their best. I’d very happily take a few lessons with him next time he’s in London, and I’m sure others who were there would also jump at the chance.

The result of all this is that I’m now ready to actually work on Mozart 4 properly again, although I’ll leave it until after my performance exam. I consider this a small miracle given just how much I’ve played it.

I do miss busking, both on and off the Tube, to a certain extent. There were good days and bad days, as with anything, but there’s something very encouraging about standing up in public to play music and having people give you money of their own free will. I had to stop busking in 2006 after injuring myself rather badly when I took a tumble down the stairs in my home. I don’t think I’m physically up to getting back to it just yet. I also don’t think I want to do it for 4-6 hours per day for more than about a month at a time, because it is physically and mentally incredibly taxing, but it would be good to have the option of doing a month a year or perhaps three pitches a week after I’ve finished my degree.

Back to work

Friday was indeed a lovely rest day. I sat around and ate too much toast and read some of a rather grim book by Ayn Rand.

Classes have re-started; this is the last stretch before exams. It’s good to be back, but I’m already very busy.

Yesterday I didn’t get much practise in at all, partly because of leaving home a bit late and partly because of problems on the Docklands Light Railway. I walked from Poplar to Greenwich, which took about an hour and left me too late to really do much before my first class. I did an hour later in the day, but it’s never quite the same.

The class was quite straightforward, it’s part of a series of classes dealing with the details of our Year 4 projects. I think I know now what I’ll be doing for mine: watch this space for details!

This morning I did get a good solid two hours of practising in before a rehearsal. I’d thought today would be very busy, with rehearsals morning and afternoon and then the Brahms trio rehearsal at 6pm, but it turns out I wasn’t needed for the afternoon rehearsal. This gives me a chance to catch up on some paperwork. I never seem to run out of paperwork. If I could afford a competent personal assistant I’d jump at the chance to have one, as paperwork isn’t really something that I’m terribly fond of.

Teaching on Sunday and on Monday went well, I was in a great mood and I think my rest on Friday really helped. I’ve acquired an extra two hours of teaching per week, which is good news for financial reasons. The new students seem enthusiastic and capable, so there’s nothing left for it now but to teach them and see what happens.

General Update

First of all, I have to say I’m quite pleased with the grade I received on my last Arrangement assignment: 80%! Yay!

I’ve got another one due on Thursday. In a few minutes I’ll be off to the keyboard lab to work on it and have it checked over for obvious glaring errors.

Congratulations are due to my three piano students who took exams in December. All of them worked very hard, and all of them passed confidently.

I’ve had a somewhat shaky start to this year. I returned from holiday to find that the landlord’s agent for the flat I’m renting a room in was in a car accident, and that they wanted us all to move out by the end of January. This was quite stressful for me, but thanks to friends I was able to find out that legally my position is quite strong and I can stay put until at least the first of June. It’s all been very much up in the air but I met the actual landlord today, and I think things are going to be alright. Hopefully I’ll be able to get on track now and get on with my academic tasks for this term!

I’m waiting to hear from Paxman regarding a quote for horn repairs. I suspect I’ll have to drop by with my horn tomorrow, as they’ve not answered my e-mail which was sent on Wednesday. Perhaps it got stuck in a spamtrap.