Royal Birmingham Conservatoire - Here I Come!

This couple of weeks have been very busy. Last month I was super proud to have the summer concert, and to see my students perform wonderfully in front of a packed hall. I was blown away by the playing of the ensembles, duets and soloists: every single player on the stage was doing something incredible. However, the story for the concert is best told through the pictures and videos on the website, not in words in my blog – so I’ll join you when you come back after having gone and checked that out…


… Welcome back!


So here’s the other busy thing this month. I have kept this quiet, but I had an audition at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire!


I’m going to be studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Jazz Saxophone. Why that? Why now?



Let me take you back a few years.


My story took me away from music for a while. I could have studied at the Conservatoire at 18, but my academic strengths led me to a History BA at Durham, then a PGCE at Cambridge. This was the right choice – I met my husband and had years of fun as a teacher, and learned the skills to form my own music school.


Fast forward seven years, and I have two lovely sons and a thriving music school, and I am now looking at how I can become better at what I do. I’m good at teaching (nobody has yet failed any exam!), and an expert at playing the saxophone and clarinet – but expertise is not the same as mastery. For a person to believe they no longer need to improve is when the rot sets in. There is always a way to improve, to refine, and to change.


I love teaching and inspiring others but I decided that it was time to also start to focus on developing myself. As a teenager I always dreamed of being a jazz saxophonist and performing on stage in venues around the UK and the world with other musicians. I decided that it does not have to be only a dream. There are no excuse any more! The jazz scene in the Birmingham area is flourishing, with loads of clubs and groups out there, and my family is supportive of me getting involved.


I decided in May 2019 that I was going to apply for a Postgraduate Jazz Saxophone performance course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. I’m going to get pro-quality tuition and a chance to form and run my own band. I’m fizzing with excitement!



Here’s the real core of this blog: how do professional musicians practice?


If you’re a beginner in any field you might look at experts and think they have a natural gift. It’s not so – for any complex task, practice trumps genetics every time. I’m referencing Matthew Syed here from his book Bounce, which is definitely worth a read.

By the way, another blindingly good read is Dan Pink’s Drive, which talks about how autonomy, mastery and purpose can build an unstoppable force of motivation.


So I went back to practising the sax like I haven’t done for years – three hours a day for months, recording myself and reflecting on what I heard. Comparing myself with the players whose style I wanted to absorb: setting myself challenges and mixing it up. When you’re really focused like this, time disappears. Part of good practice is learning to create a system and a process, not just focusing on the end goal. Some practice sessions went less well: after hours of playing the high altissimo notes, my mouth sometimes just gave up. However, part of being a musician is that it makes you resilient.


I went through phases of doubt – was I starting to squeak some notes because I was tired? Was it the reed? Was I using the wrong technique? But I went back the next day and the next. Some days were two steps back, but most were one step forward, and over time I got closer to my targets. The distinctions between attempts were slim, but I could tell I was … slowly … getting there.


Wednesday 3 July was audition day. I was still high from the adrenaline of the Summer Concert at the weekend and hours of focused practice. Top performers put themselves under pressure to manage their nerves, so the audition being so close to the concert was a good strategy. I dressed to impress and become the performer I wanted to be. I arrive at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and I’m taken up to the Jazz Department to meet the live band. There is a drummer, bass and keys player waiting to greet me. We chat about my chosen pieces and I lead a 30-minute rehearsal with the band. Then the head of the Jazz Department enters the room and it’s time to perform. I remind myself of what I always tell my students before an audition or exam: enjoy it and put on a show. This is your chance to shine. You have a rare opportunity to perform to somebody who is there to hear you. There is no room to be coy here. I spent 20 minutes performing and improvising with the band. The buzz was incredible.


At the end of the performance I got time to discuss my influences and ambitions. I got on-the-spot feedback on my playing and was delighted to hear praise for my tone, and that the message I was communicating through my music had come across clearly. Suddenly, I knew I still was that teenager with a dream.


And now it is coming true – today, I received an unconditional offer of a place on the course (and I accepted)!


So from September, the teacher becomes a student again. Don’t worry, I’m still going to be running all the lessons and working to do the best for my students. I’m really excited about what the future holds, and I’ll write again soon.

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© 2019 by Alison McAusland.

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