Embrace the Madness 1 Ensemble Education - 22/04/2019

Welcome to my inaugural blog! Thanks for getting this far….

Welcome to my inaugural blog! Thanks for getting this far….

For those of you that don’t know me I thought I’d take a moment to introduce myself. I’m a 36 year old musician, teacher, manager, leader, conductor, wife, dog and cat mum…although not necessarily in that order! I’ve been involved in music Education for 16 years and am currently based in the West Midlands. I’m predominantly a clarinet and sax player raised in Nottingham and a product of a comprehensive school education and the county music service. I’m a Conservatoire trained player but a self taught teacher.

"Embrace the madness is not just a catchy blog title I’ve come up with, it’s actually my mantra for life."

Embrace the madness is not just a catchy blog title I’ve come up with, it’s actually my mantra for life. There are so many things going on in the world of arts education that I or no one else can control but what I (and my fellow teachers) can do is do what we do best. My aim is always to inspire, nurture and involve as many young people in music as possible (even if that means being a little bit crazy) . That doesn’t necessarily mean sending hundreds of kids off to Music college but it does mean that I aim for Music to have a positive impact on and the ability to change the lives of young people.

I’m not professing to have all the answers, or any new ones for that matter, but I like people and communicating so this seemed like a logical step for me. All views are my own and I’d love your feedback and to get a dialogue going about the fantastic things music practitioners are doing up and down the country in the face of adversity. (Follow me on twitter @MrsCBux)

After much debating I’ve focussed my first blog post on elements of ensemble education which I’m really passionate about.

Conducting has been a big part of my life for the past 16 years and I’ve worked with beginner bands to prize winning concert bands and orchestras. Ensemble playing has always been a passion of mine not only on a musical level but a social level.

I’m currently the conductor of a Training Wind Orchestra but I can assure you that their title does not do them justice. This group of young people make me smile and I am so incredibly proud of all they achieve. They had a major performance a month ago and played far beyond their years. The group are typically Grade 3-4 standard and are working on Grade 3 Wind Band repertoire (approx Grade 4-5 Level). I have a great team of instrumental tutors that support me with rehearsals but I often get asked how we achieve such a mature level of performance and successfully tackle music that on paper they shouldn’t be able to play?

Well for me the answer is simple; we have created a community! There is a shared understanding of what a rehearsal entails, what practice consists of and what it feels like to pull off a great performance. The band’s membership comes from across Birmingham -a highly diverse city with pockets of deprivation. We aim to provide a shared musical experience that cuts across any perceived barriers of culture, language or socioeconomic matters to create a community. In our community there are those that take a leading role and those that support but like any community things don’t stand still, they evolve. People move out of our community and those that remain assume new roles. We never have a band where everyone is in the same place in their musical journey technically or emotionally but everyone feels a sense of responsibility and is engaged and therefore our band is a safe place for young people to develop musically and socially.

Some people think this all sounds a bit flowery but alongside this we have extremely high expectations and treat our sessions as an extension of instrumental lessons. In the current climate many students are taught in groups and progress is (wrongly in my opinion, but I’ll save that for a later post!) not as rapid as the traditional 1:1 instrumental lesson. I’ve seen so many sessions that focus on the ensemble, which is obviously hugely important, but as a Training Band trainer I feel it’s our responsibility to further develop technique to meet the demands of the music they are playing. Our sessions have a regular focus on posture, hold, tone and breathing- the very techniques which underpin my personal teaching philosophy. Now I’m not saying that other teachers don’t share my philosophy and therefore we have to do the ground work, but I do think that it can take more than one teacher to raise an all round musician. If one of my students attends an ensemble I hope that the conductor/tutors would help them continue to embed foundation techniques and not just allow them to go through the motions of playing the dots. Surely if we fully embed the foundation techniques at an early stage then quality music making will come quicker?

I am of course speaking at Music Service/hub level but the sad fact is that many musical students are being sidelined in schools as the study of music is considered enrichment and not an essential part of the curriculum. The constant demise of music in many schools is limiting the opportunities for students to connect on an emotional and social level. This must be addressed and there must be a collective responsibility for this-not just the hub.

That is why I think it is so important that we grow the base of the pyramid for entry level ensembles at hub/school level to ensure longevity. To do this young people need to be inspired, feel included and like they are making a difference to a community, especially in a day and age where there are so many other pulls and pressures on their time. How often do you hear ‘I can’t do Saturdays ‘cause of football/rugby/hockey/tennis/netball’? We need to make the music team the one they want to be part of.

My band are currently working towards a big performance in Symphony Hall in July. It would have been very easy for me to present them with a programme of music as a fait accompli, but instead I involved them. Together we chose a piece called ‘One Small Step’ which was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. From there the band decided they wanted to construct a space themed programme and the flow of ideas was fantastic. They suggested everything from Jupiter to Cantina Band and were buzzing at the prospect of performing something that were collectively responsible for. After all, they are not there to play my playlist, in fact I feel my responsibility is to help them create theirs.

This is why I do what I do. Inspiring the next generation of musicians and helping them to create a passion that will last a lifetime is so very close to my heart. Please regularly visit my blog for ensemble updates and more from my life as a conductor, musician, teacher, leader and manager.