Sharing music can be so joyful. In our studios, we have concerts and arrange performance days for students, perhaps students perform for exams or even an Eisteddfod. These formal performance environments occur in something of a music-bubble. It’s a culture with a common language, it is musically informed and has established traditions. Outside of this bubble, in the community, where daily life takes place, music is still present, but how do our budding musicians see their role in that? How do they take what they are learning in individual instrumental lessons and make it into something meaningful in everyday community settings? To give their skills context and visibility in daily life and present opportunities for our musicians to share their talents and be valued for doing so. I want to help create confident and capable musicians, musicians who can grab life’s many and varied opportunities. By involving my students in a variety of community performance activities, they gain experience, confidence, and purpose. They learn to “give-it-a-crack” all the while building connections to their community.
As an instrumental teacher, one of my goals is to nurture a student’s capacity to try new things. Each step is a little out of their comfort zone, whilst still being achievable. All they need is some encouragement and support from someone who believes they are capable. This capacity building flows into students’ day-to-day lives without them even realising. Their enjoyment and willingness to try new experiences in public is a large part of developing confidence and self-esteem. Knowing that missteps are part of the process, that it is ok if it isn’t quite right, and that the sky doesn’t fall, builds self-trust, and develops their understanding that contributions don’t need to be perfect to be valuable.
Over a period of about five years, students in my studio participate in a wide variety of community performances. I organise busking opportunities, performances at seasonal community events, fundraisers and show days. My students even provide music in venues in the community. It is broad, and arranged in collaboration with clubs, businesses, and councils in the local area.
My studio instrumental students busk together at our local markets several times a year. It is a great experience because students of all levels can interact with an audience they have never performed for before. They are also not the major focus of the event (as they would be in a concert). They can perform many pieces as people go past. It’s entertaining for the community, creates a nice atmosphere for the markets and has the bonus of promoting the studio. We also perform on the street at late-night Christmas shopping in both Port Douglas and Mossman. My late-beginner/early-intermediate students perform at local Leukaemia Foundation fundraising functions and the twice-yearly Orchid Society shows. As students become more advanced, they also have opportunities to provide incidental music in the main bar at our local pub one Friday a month, four times a year at art gallery exhibition openings and on the main stage at Mossman’s Christmas Celebration Function with an audience of about 3,000 people.
Students involved in these events gradually develop their own ideas about musical experiences and performances they might like to try. In turn, they start to develop their own projects. They have a sense of agency in being able to create their own performance events. There is an inner knowing, a confidence that their ideas are valuable and worth putting effort into. Experience has also taught them they will be supported and encouraged in the process. In addition, the I’ll-give-that-a-go attitude that music fosters, helps students learn new ways to approach uncomfortable, challenging or difficult situations. These musical experiences build memories and skills that positively affect the way students approach decision making throughout life. Their capacity to explore alternate solutions is increased because they’ve experienced doing that before and navigated it successfully.
The only ingredients you need to start this as a teacher are; an enthusiasm driven by a love of music, and a how-can-I-make-that-work attitude. There are lots of different things you could do to create these community music opportunities, some of them are small, whilst others can be a massive undertaking. It is all about creating connections, encouraging the value of performing in the community within your studio, and raising the visibility and connection to music in your community.
When I’m contemplating a new event, I am often terrified. I worry if it is going to work, if everyone involved is going to enjoy it, even if I am capable of pulling it off. I wonder if I have the skills to support this new experience properly. These types of doubts often come up whenever we try new things! It’s when my how-can-I-make-it-work attitude really comes into play and I lean in to demonstrating this type of thinking for my students too.
If you’re considering creating these kinds of experiences and community connections, there are a couple of lessons I’ve learnt, that might help you (and your students) along the way:
1. In your planning, brainstorm a variety of functions that cater for different skill levels. Consider different venues and situations. You’re looking for things that give very broad performance experiences to all participants.
2. Apart from the performance itself, it is important for students to learn how different types of performances demand different preparation and presentation. Communicate actively about things like; appropriate dress for different venues, how polished songs need to be (there is a huge contrast between what is acceptable when busking and a large venue, main stage performance), what skill levels are appropriate in what settings, and any behavioural expectations (before/during/after) their performance at different venues.
3. Consider your resources and if you will need help to set up equipment. If you involve students in this stage, they learn what it takes to make community music happen. They also know how to do it for themselves for any future endeavours!
4. Finally, I would recommend that you discuss audience behaviour in different venues with your students. It’s interesting to note the different levels of attention the performer receives at each type of venue and event. For instance, students performing on a Friday afternoon in the main bar at the local pub get listened to and applauded by all the tradies etc, but those performing at the art exhibition openings get no applause, everyone talks over the top of the music, but the performers get a heartfelt thank you at the end. Preparing your students in advance for this will help them navigate the experience more comfortably.
I want to share one more salient story with you about the value of community music making. Two years ago, I was asked to create and deliver a music program after school at our local youth centre. The youth centre participants range in age from 8 to 21 and are often disengaged from education and meaningful social activities. I am there to give student-centred music lessons and help them to interact with the instruments we have (guitars, keyboard, drums, didgeridoos, clap sticks and microphones.) The pool table is closed on the day I do music, and because of this the 35 or so kids are encouraged to choose music to listen to, play board games and socialise in a non-competitive way across age and gender boundaries. At the beginning they were very tentative with me. They were shy when talking to me and uncomfortable using my phone to pick a song to play. They didn’t want to stand out from the group, hesitant to pick up a guitar or a didgeridoo. After 2 years of earning their trust and building their confidence, they now play their favourite songs, using open chords on the guitar whilst singing as a group in front of their peers. On bus trips they sing, beat box, and do body percussion and socialise very well as a group. There are less arguments and more understanding for others’ situations. They are more confident, more engaged, and much more willing to try new things. If ever there was a resounding endorsement of the benefits community making music can bring, this would be it.
Building a sense of community in your studio and actively making music in the community takes a lot of effort but is worth every second you put into it. The benefits are often not obvious for years but there are flow-on effects that you could never imagine at the time. What I am trying to say is that teaching and learning music is not just about reading the notes on the page. It is an amazing package of experiences that contribute to our emotional and physical capacity to function in our everyday lives. I am always grateful that I have taught music as a long-term career. As a result, I have been able to witness the long-term benefits and changes it brings to my students’ lives and the value and richness it brings to our community.
Lynda has been teaching instrumental music full time for over 30 years and loves her chosen career more than ever. She is still amazed at the amount of music there is to explore and the endless ways there are to teach it. She is based in the small country town of Mossman in Far North Queensland and is passionate about quality, relevant music learning experiences for everyone. The most recent highlight of her teaching career was being one of ten recipients of the Yamaha “Break Out” Award for innovative piano teaching.