I’ve just read @puffles2010’s latest blog (ok, ok, his bestest buddy, we all know dragon fairies can’t play musical instruments – or can they??) about learning to play a musical instrument and exams. Having studied music up to degree level I knew I’d have some feelings of my own on the subject, and was interested to see how my experiences compared.
In the main I agree with the sentiment expressed that studying music can utterly rip the joy out of it, but the experiences that lead me to that feeling were very different, and I certainly don’t think that this is the case for everybody. For me, it wasn’t taking grade exams that almost ruined playing a musical instrument (or in my case, singing and composing), it was university.
I loved music at school. I didn’t start learning until I was 11 (which was ancient compared to my other musical friends) but once I did, I made up for lost time and then some. My school had a fantastic music department, and the Head of Music became my singing teacher and mentor (and a fantastic one to boot). I skipped most of the grades, doing Grade 2, 4, 5 and 8 on piano and 5, 7 and 8 on voice. Exams were targets for me to work towards, and I was always well-prepared (apart from one exam, which fortunately was counterbalanced by a wealth of positive experiences). I also enjoyed studying for my GCSE and A Levels in music, again, positive targets for me. As I finished school I was very much looking forward to studying music at university.
This is where my experience falls into line with Puffles – basically, doing a Music degree sucked the life out of it. It wasn’t fun anymore. I know that some people would argue that you go to university to study and that is serious, however, when you start to hate the thing you once loved, something has clearly gone very wrong. I became withdrawn (which most people who know me would find extremely surprising) and eventually developed an eating disorder, which I overcame only after leaving.
So what went wrong? Well, I may be reading between the lines in Puffles’ blog, but the sense I get from it is that he was basically subjected to some bad teaching. Which I’d say was exactly the same as my experience at university. It was utterly demoralising. I was made to feel that my voice type was not de rigeur and I felt actively discouraged by the university in pursuing performance as part of my studies, which was the main reason I went! A successful year of composition study (in which my tutor told me I was one of the most natural composers he’d taught in years) was followed by a year of “composition through analysis”. Analysis has its place in music, but I’ve always felt that if you go too far you find things in pieces that aren’t there, or weren’t intentional on the composer’s part. I liked my tutor’s compositions, I just didn’t want to write like him. I didn’t want to be a musicologist, I wanted to be a musician. I left university feeling that I had failed miserably at both. I still haven’t picked up my pen to compose since I left university, and I’m not sure I ever will.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking that perhaps I simply wasn’t good enough to embark on a musical career and that I should accept that instead of blaming others. I’d agree with you, if it weren’t for the fact that a few years ago I finally bit the bullet and took up lessons again. Like a dragon’s best friend, I too had to overcome emotional and mental barriers to pluck up the courage to try. I had sung in bands and choirs, but hadn’t dared to approach solo classical repertoire and training. But I wanted to set myself some targets, give myself something positive to work towards in the same way that exams at school had been (unlike Puffles).
And I was in for a shock. A good one. A fantastic one, in fact. My teacher informed me that my voice was bigger than I thought it was and that in trying to suppress it I had done myself a disservice. Fortunately, no major damage was done, unlike this poor girl, whose story also shows the importance of having good teachers around you, and as I studied more, the voice that developed was quite a revelation to me.
I’m now doing bits of performing, mostly for fun at the moment but hoping to develop it further. I can’t help but feel, like Puffles, that there are lost years that I’ll never get back, and wonder what could have been.