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How does a 'learner' become a 'musician'?

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

My School of Music creates musicians. They happen to play the saxophone and clarinet.

But there’s more depth to this. The guiding principle is to create musicians, not just people who play an instrument. At first the two might sound the same, but no: take me, for example. Yes, I am a professional saxophone and clarinet player but I am a musician first and foremost. These instruments are how I express myself, my passion; they excite me and bring me joy. It is through the saxophone and clarinet that I communicate how I feel, and they fit me better than other instruments, but it is the musician in me that allows me to have a voice.

When learning to play music for the first time ever, people often want to mimic a sound that’s given them pleasure. But at the start, the focus has to be on learning the fundamentals of your instrument and that can take up most of your headspace. It’s hard, at the beginning, to think of anything other than where your fingers are. And sometimes, it can be hard to keep an eye on the horizon, where your goal lies.

As a teacher, I want my students to reach their goal, whether it to be to sound like Benny Goodman or Dexter Gordon or whoever. Which would be pretty awesome to achieve! But I want more than this for my students. Simple mimicry is always going to be a weak copy, like reading poetry aloud in a foreign language. If you can’t understand what makes it beautiful at all its levels, you can’t communicate the beauty yourself.

I want my students to learn how to be musicians with all the incredible transferable skills that they possess.

That all sounds nice but what does this actually mean in practice?

All musicians have a core set of musical skills. If these are taught as part of the process of learning to play their chosen instrument, then they are immediately useful. So here they are…


1. Notation skills are fundamental to learning an instrument; learning to read musical notation; recognizing rhythm and melody; realising musical detail and instructions and the ability to read musical phrases rather than seeing each note separately.

This might sound odd, but there is a genuine beauty to written music. Terry Pratchett expressed it really well in Soul Music:

In fact the kind of music he really liked was the kind that never got played... It ought to stay written down, on the page, in rows of little dots and crotchets, all neatly caught between lines. Only there was it pure. It was when people started doing things with it that the rot set in. Much better to sit quietly in a room and read the sheets, with nothing between yourself and the mind of the composer but a scribble of ink.

2. Technical skills– Students need to learn the feel of their instrument. They should feel like an extension of the mind. I would recommend against using an instrumental teacher who is not an expert on the instrument you wish to learn. Of course, I would say that – but it’s the same reason why you won’t reach greatness by learning from YouTube videos. At some stage you’ll need to get specialist feedback to move forward. For example, the importance on the sax and clarinet of embouchure (mouth position); how to blow high-velocity supported air; how to stand properly; how to shape your fingers on the keys; knowing various methods of playing the same note and when to use each of these. These require an expert.


3. Listening skills are vital to a musician. These are the ability to play by ear (repeat sounds without sheet music), to internalize pitch and rhythm and recognise musical features. Many of my students undertake aural test and listening skill activities as part of working towards ABRSM examinations. Some students develop their ability to play by ear through jazz improvisation or transcribing famous jazz solos from musicians they enjoy listening to (I love this challenge. It’s really hard but really rewarding!).

And of course, many students develop their listening skills by playing ensemble music. Most of us practice solo, so a chance to play together and learn together is invaluable. To feel safe not to be perfect (yet) and to learn to synchronise your mind with others’, is incomparable. It’s also fundamental to being a musician.

The converse is true too. Sometimes you need the practical skills to be able to understand what you’re hearing. I heard a great short interview with Alfa Mist on the Jamie Cullum Jazz Show about this very thing. I didn’t know this artist (he’s a grime producer which isn’t usually my thing) but he spoke about learning music, and jazz, in a way that really chimed with me. He says some of the same stuff here on NME.


4. There is a large body of knowledge and understanding required to be a musician. The ability to identify, explain, think and analyse are essential. I learned a lot about how learning works when I was in the classroom, and through my leadership training. At the start, the learning is its own goal, however repetitive and seemingly pointless: can you play the swung Dorian mode of F major at 190bpm yet?

Later on, these skills become critical in ways you’d not thought possible if you read the manuscript as a beginner. Who’d have thought that all that work on ‘modes’ would unlock bebop?


5. Performing skills - musical performance is not just playing through a piece of music. Performance opportunities involve interpretation and communication. To perform combines the craft, the study and the heart. The majority of my students take the opportunity of performing in the summer and Christmas concerts. It’s also terrifying, but everybody had to start somewhere, and everybody remembers it forever. Musicians would play their music even if there were nobody there to listen, but it’s a whole lot better when there is.

Cedric Burnside did a wonderful discussion with Cerys Matthews recently, talking about his first experience of sitting at a drum kit as a 6-year old and later about ‘feel music’. As I write, there’s a couple more weeks of this interview on BBC Sounds.


6. Independence and self-reliance – the most important of all.

True, in the beginning students are totally dependent on the teacher to instruct, direct and shape learning. However, the students that advance most quickly are the ones that recognise that eureka moments rarely happen during the lesson. Most of the work happens at home; for these students, lessons are there to discover where the path leads next, and how to avoid blind alleys.

I want students to shift from dependent learning towards self-reliant learning. I teach you how to practice successfully. Students need to be given the tools required to self assess, identify weaknesses and fix them. I wrote a blog on clarinet high notes recently, but I’m not the one who can change how you blow your clarinet. A true musician maps their own way forward and then reviews their own progress before deciding on the next steps required.

This isn’t just relevant to musicianship. As a classroom teacher I prepared students for GCSE and A Levels. I always believed students should be taught how to revise. Some students would spend hours ‘revising’ but the quality of their learning was poor. They hoped that putting in lots of time would lead to the reward of a good result, but no! It was the students who developed skills to be reflective and self-reliant in their own learning that achieved highly.

The very best of these students would come to me as their teacher and ask a question or request further materials as a result of their own learning discoveries. These would be the most successful students. This is what a true musician does every time they practice. They never waste time on garbage.

As Dizzy Gillespie said,

It's taken me all my life to learn what not to play.

@alfamist @jamiecullum @cerysofficial @cedric.burnside @mcauslandmusic @ABRSM

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