Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Carts and Horses or For the Hell of it…

“I’ll see you next week!” said the lady I didn’t yet know was Mrs King as she strode past the gutter where the grubby-fingered five-year-old me was playing with my friends. I was mystified.

But the next week, I was indeed locked into a sequence of weekly lessons with the old-school but not unkindly piano teacher. I did my practice and a year later sailed through Grade One with a distinction. But the strict, solitary routine rapidly paled; there was no reward in the endless scales practice, nor in most of the dull pieces I was given to learn. Another year later, I scraped through Grade Two – and Grade Three never happened. That was the end of my musical career for a decade – with the exception of  Singing Together, the BBC broadcasts in which we were exposed weekly to traditional song at primary school, which I loved.

In my mid-teens, I passed through and out of the trivialities of pop music in a couple of years, and through chance encounters with a tune book, a guitar and then a mandolin, I taught myself to play. In the years between then and the end of university, far too much of the time I should have been devoting to study was spent playing in bands with my friends. (Luckily, I had enough ability to carry my studies, but there was still a cost on results day…)

Nearly half a century on, I’m still playing traditional music, and it was a major support during Lockdown. Ten years ago, I switched from the mandolin to the fiddle, and picked it up quickly enough for it to become my main instrument – again mostly self-taught, with some online input and occasional steering from a friend who is a good player.

The College where I now work had no more teaching contracts for me this year, but offered work in Learning Support instead. As an incognito ex(?) teacher, this is affording a sustained insight into teaching in a range of other subject areas far distant from my own. It’s informative to see the teaching styles that are deployed. This is not a criticism of individuals, all of whom clearly know what they are doing – but the experience has reinforced my prior conclusion that the personal qualities of a teacher are a vital, and nowadays overlooked matter in the mix. Getting people qualified has become so serious a business, that both pleasure and distinctiveness seem to be getting squeezed out. Horses for courses, of course – and it is certainly true that pleasure means different things to different people. There is not a lot of visible evidence of disengaged students – at least at this stage of the year – but that seems in part because the young people themselves are now so po-faced about what they are doing.

It’s not entirely new. My sister, a skilled amateur classical violinist, summed it up a while ago: “I worked so hard at my music – and yet you seem to enjoy yours so much more…” The same seems to be true in the classroom: there seems to be a widespread absence of Joy. It’s not the teachers’ fault: as I said, they are all clearly very competent at doing what they have been told to do, namely conveyoring young people through their exams. What they are feeling inside, I cannot know. But I think I am also seeing what I have long suspected: the worthy and necessary process of becoming qualified is killing the one thing that makes learning worth it: the joy of doing it – well, joyfully. This is why the teacher’s freedom to practise is so crucial.

It’s been the story of my life: another well-meaning but off-target attempt by my parents to steer my music in my late teens also ended in failure, and my later involvement with a choral society came to an end with a change of musical director from a light-hearted (but highly skilled) individual to one who upped the formality stakes, introduced auditions and gave people a hard time if they ever missed a rehearsal. The dead hand of excessive seriousness should not be underestimated, even when it is well-meaning.

I’m not advocating trite ‘fun’: I’ve argued against that in education strongly in the past. There is no doubt that achieving great skill requires rigour; even an informal genre such as traditional music demands much self-discipline and close work to do it well. But there is more than one way of promoting it – and I fear that we now take education so seriously that the essential enjoyment is being squeezed into extinction. If we kill it, we extinguish the only flame that can really fuel that process in the longer term.

There is a difference between superficial “fun” and the deep enjoyment of developing one’s skills when done from genuine motivation. The heading photo is an unflattering picture of me playing at a recent gig; the expression is not agony, but a deep and very satisfying concentration in what is almost always the joyous buzz of playing music for other people – something that has driven me for all those years, in a way that over-serious, externally-imposed things never could.

I think the same process has occurred across my wider experience; despite that early lack of academic focus, later in life, I came back to self-motivated learning across a far wider range of subjects than the school options system ever permitted. My instinct took me somewhere similar in my career, always feeling the deep need to plough my own reflective furrow rather than blindly follow the constrained, corporate-approved one.

I may not have become a virtuoso; that does indeed require something exceptional – but for most people, this is not the issue – and I wonder even how many thoroughbred virtuosi would really have chosen that route from an early age, had the ‘choice’ not been imposed. While one may of course extend the principle of proportionate returns to the stratosphere, I wonder where the diminishing returns and opportunity costs start to set in. For most, a fulfilled life can and will come from lesser, but still satisfying achievement. Motivation is the key  – that burning inner drive that makes you do worthwhile things.

My instinct didn’t play well in career terms. I enjoyed teaching, but those who sought to impose institutional conformity came closest to killing it. I think I can say now with confidence, that they nearly killed that which made it work for my students too. When I moved to a place that allowed me more discretion, back surged the enjoyment, motivation and sense of purpose many-fold. And it worked once again, for my students too. To me, that was the whole reason for doing it: the innate joy of good things done well. My sister, meanwhile, followed the accepted route, got to Oxford – and ended up locked into a conformist profession which she hates.

I am reading End State by James Plunkett, in which the former British policymaker examines the broken aspects of modern society. He has included education: both the preoccupation with the young at the expense of the life-long education that he argues is needed for both personal fulfilment and career adaptability in the digital economy – and the problem that it is utterly focused on bureaucratic processes whose ends are extrinsic and short-term. A rigid model, that was not the only conception of education that society could have adopted – and one that seems to me to kill much of what makes education valuable in the first place. It is now so much about ‘process’ that its more freeform aspects have been largely forgotten, or perhaps are no longer understood in the first place.

Plunkett argues that in all policy, ends should drive means, not the inverse, and those ends need to be ethical and humane, not just institutional or economic. A well-educated life needs to be based solidly on the joyous humane curiosity that provides the sustained motivation that externally-driven hoop-jumping mostly does not.

While looking up some finer fiddling points online recently, I found a discussion on, of all places, Mumsnet. It seemed to sum it up: a question from a mother with a child who was learning the classical violin but seemed not be enjoying it. As had I, she seemed to be responding more to the jigs and reels of traditional music. As the parent said: they are lively, but very fast. “What grade should my daughter be at before she tries to play them?” The calibration cart well and truly before the motivational horse.

Cross-posted from my professional blog.

3 thoughts on “Carts and Horses or For the Hell of it…

  1. I’ve only just got around to reading this. It took me back to my happy place, lecturing at the now-defunct Civil Service College. One fly in the ointment there was that whilst there was a lot of pressure to accommodate different learning styles, there was much less acceptance of different teaching styles. My last boss ran the touchy-feely courses and it was so hard to explain to her that I was teaching technical subjects dictated by an exam syllabus to students who found the topic really scary, and so I needed to do things differently.


    1. Yes, very good point about the differing tolerances of teaching and learning styles. Exactly what gave me ‘issues’, too. That said, I have mixed feelings about courses wholly dictated by the needs of an exam – though probably very different in a closely-targetted situation like yours. Exams and qualifications are of course essential – but I wonder at what cost they come if in the meantime they kill the motivation that guided the candidates’ course in the first place…


      1. It certainly made a difference that the exams were essential to their professional career. Having said which I showed that a change in teaching style could massively improve the exam results. With the teaching day being 9am to 9p and the students being residential I also had the great advantage of time. That enabled me to separate out the “This what the examiner expects” from the “This is what you need to know to do your job well”

        Liked by 1 person

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