It occurred to me over the Christmas break that I talk a lot on this site and on our Facebook page about the jewellery side of the business, but not so much about the music side, so I thought it might be a good idea to start to talk a little bit more in 2021 about all things tuneful.
I'm also conscious that I don't tend to really say much about myself on this site, so thought this might be a nice opportunity to step up and give you some insight into my background and who I am.
So in this post, I'll be telling you a bit about my musical background, and in the next post we'll take a look at the benefits of learning to play and/or read music, and how I approach the various music-related services that we offer at Tawbis Studios.
The first thing to say is that I'm incredibly fortunate to come from a very musical family. Although we are working class through-and-through, both of my paternal grandparents were amateur musicians: my grandmother played the piano and my grandfather (who sadly died before I was born) played the violin.
Despite that, my father didn't have any formal lessons as a child - as the youngest member of a household of nine in a three bedroom house, I suspect there wasn't the space or time and he was probably too busy out playing football anyway! Instead he taught himself to play the piano and could play almost anything by ear but didn’t learn to read music until he was an adult. His main motivation in learning to read music was to be able to play Scott Joplin and boy was he successful in that - the strains of him sitting playing the most complex Scott Joplin rags like a pro were a big feature of my childhood.
My mother then took up the piano as well, but not until she was in her 60s: it turns out she'd always wanted to learn as she was conscious of being the only one in the family that had never played but was nervous about it. She had no reason to be nervous - she kept getting distinctions in her Associated Board exams. Go Mum!
So while being taught from an early age can obviously be an advantage, my parents are both evidence of the thing I always stress to my adult students or potential students: it really is never too late to learn (or re-learn): if you have the enthusiasm and the perseverance to stick with it, there is no cut-off age.
Although Mum talks about herself as having been the only non-musician in the family that really has never been true anyway. My mother is, and always has been, an incredible singer. She has sung in the church choir from long before I was born and was always singing around the house. She has a very natural and lyrical, melodious tone to her singing as well as beautiful tuning.
She also has an incredible range of songs at her fingertips. As kids she used to keep us amused (and sometimes embarrassed) by breaking in to song mid-conversation based on whatever you'd just said. It wouldn't matter what the topic of conversation was, she'd always know a song with that phrase or word in it and off she'd go! I think I may have inherited that trait from her, but perhaps not quite the breadth of her song catalogue or the confidence to go for it regardless of the situation ...
Singing has always been my first love, musically speaking, and most of my favourite memories as a toddler come from my Mum singing to me while I was getting ready for bed. 'Edelweiss' from The Sound Of Music and 'Oh You Are A Mucky Kid' made famous by Cilla Black (otherwise known as the Liverpool Lullaby) particularly stick in the mind. I started going along with Mum to sing with the church choir on a Sunday when I was three but wasn't allowed to stay up late enough for practice on a Friday night until I was seven so I think that's when I officially joined!
Between them, my parents have very eclectic musical tastes and there was always music in the house, from the Beatles to Rogers and Hammerstein to Mozart, Ella Fitzgerald to Maria Callas to Bach: we were exposed to a lot of different music from a young age. I am one of four siblings and my parents were both determined from the off that we would all have at least some musical ability, so we were duly sent to a relative who lived just up the road for piano lessons at the age of 5. She wasn't the greatest teacher but she was relatively cheap, and the plan was always that if we kept up the piano we'd be sent to a better teacher at a later stage.
I did have a bit of a head-start: as the youngest I'd already watched the others starting to learn (I was that annoying kid sister that wanted to know what you were doing all the time!), and my grandmother, who lived with my parents throughout our lives until she passed away at the age of 89, taught me my first bits of piano-playing when I was just 3 or 4 years old. Plus which, if ever I made a mistake while I was practising there was always someone older and wiser to point it out! But even so it wasn't always plain sailing.
I'm a big believer, and always try to stress to my students, that sometimes when we falter or fail it can be a valuable learning opportunity and if handled correctly can end up being a springboard to even greater progress, and that proved to be the case with my piano playing. When I was about 11, I only just scraped through one of my piano exams (passing by a single mark), so my parents moved me from our childhood teacher earlier than planned. The teacher my other siblings had switched to when it had been their turn was no longer available and I ended up having to audition to get lessons from a young musician and piano teacher who had just moved back to town after graduating University. She was fantastic! She discovered that I had been taught some slightly bizarre playing habits by my first teacher (which I still cringe at now) and spent time correcting those but then also challenged me to broaden my musical horizons and push myself. She became a huge influence on me in so many ways. Had I passed that exam more comfortably, I likely would never have met her, so I am actually thankful for that subpar performance.
The other bit of 'luck' we had (if you would call it that) is that, although we were all state-school educated, we were fortunate enough to attend very good schools that valued subjects like music. Our father was actually head teacher* of our primary school (not always fun for us!) and his love of music percolated through the school culture.
We were also fortunate that our local education authority valued music as well, and offered free peripatetic** tuition within schools to any students who passed something called the 'Bentley Test'. If you're in the UK you may well have also taken this test (officially known as a Music Aptitude Test). For those who are unfamiliar with it, this was a terrifying test to sit (I still remember it fairly vividly although I think we were only about 6 at the time) but essentially it assessed your ability to do things like differentiate between different tones being played through a speaker or repeat a rhythm accurately. Although it is controversial in some quarters and most people recognise that there is some bias inherent in this method of testing, with limited funding the aim was to ensure that the free tuition wasn't based on your parents' status, income or background, where you lived or which school you attended, but was genuinely based on your innate musicality. It may be somewhat flawed but I do think the ethos behind it is to be admired.
Not only was the tuition free if you passed the Bentley Test, but instruments were also loaned out by the local authority so there was genuinely no upfront cost to the parents of children offered tuition (not until they started pestering for their own instruments anyway). The only requirement was that in exchange for the lessons, you also had to be a member of one of the town orchestras or brass bands that were taught and conducted by the peripatetic teachers - essentially as you progressed in your lessons you would also move up through the ranks in the orchestra to first chair, and then up through the different orchestras until you reached the highest level. In hindsight this was incredibly valuable: the musical discipline you gain from playing in an orchestra or brass band, as well as the skills gained from playing in any sort of ensemble are priceless and can't easily be gained from one-to-one lessons.
When you passed the Bentley Test, you would be asked which instrument you wanted to learn, and as long as there was a peripatetic teacher for that instrument with spare capacity and an instrument available to be loaned out (or your parents could afford to buy you one), you would get to take that instrument. I do remember having difficulty choosing, but eventually opted for the violin, to feel some sort of connection to the grandfather I'd never met. Luckily the instrument I was lent was a little gem - beautiful to play and kept its tuning really well. I think my teacher was a bit surprised that it had just been sitting in a supply cupboard! A few years later my parents bought me my own beginners' violin and since then I've been fortunate enough to inherit my grandfather's violin from my aunt to whom he left it.
The other benefit to the peripatetic system was that you could have the same instrument teacher the whole way through your schooling. I was taught violin (and later viola) by the same teacher from age 7 until I went away to University at 18, giving a continuity that would otherwise have been lacking. And it helped that he was a very good teacher!
All three of my siblings and I passed the Bentley Test when it came to our turn and also taught ourselves some other instruments (it gets a bit easier the more you play), so as well as having a family piano in the house we ended up with a whole cornucopia of other instruments. I may have misremembered some of these and forgotten others, but I'm fairly sure that at various stages we had (although not necessarily owned) a euphonium, an E flat tenor horn, a cornet, a violin, a viola, various recorders, a couple of harmonicas, at least one guitar, an electric keyboard and a flute! Since then, we can also add the ukulele (actually three of them!), another piano, a couple of electronic pianos and another guitar to the family collection spread across the UK.
Our secondary school, again a state school, happened to be the best state school in the area (academically outperforming all of the local private schools as well) with a very well-rounded curriculum, and again placed a lot of value on music and the performing arts. The school had an orchestra and a brass band and every Christmas the school would hold a big, and packed out, orchestral concert that brought them together, and in the summer there would be a large-scale production of a musical as well as various other concerts put on throughout the year.
By chance, I was in a school year that also happened to be very musical - for most of our time there the school orchestra was predominantly made up from our year group, and a large proportion of the cast of the musical productions came from our year as well. This also generated other musical encounters and opportunities: the school was often approached by the local theatre when they needed a chorus for a visiting musical, or were looking to cast for kids' roles, as a result of which a lot of my year group got experience of being in professional productions at quite a young age and professional theatre staff would sometimes get involved in our summer musical. We were also encouraged to organise other musical things between us - we would regularly put on our own little musical theatre or instrumental performances and I even had a very short-lived/ill-fated jazz quintet going when we were about 16 (which was really just an excuse to practise my skills as an arranger - I think I might have been a bit bossy as a quintet leader ... oops!).
By the time I left school at 18, I had been arranging music for about 7 years as well as composing, and had picked up a couple of other instruments along the way.
I didn't take music as a subject at University but the music department of the college I attended had closed down the summer I joined (nothing to do with me, I promise!), leaving behind a whole department of instruments and empty practice rooms, which was like heaven to me. I did study drama as part of my joint degree, and my musical background certainly came in handy there. Along with another student in my year who was very musical, we would put together the music for the bigger college productions, write and teach vocal arrangements to the other students and pull together groups of students who could play instruments into makeshift orchestras or bands.
Since then, I've gone on to learn other instruments (most notably the ukulele which is now one of my preferred instruments), have taken up arranging again after a bit of a gap and have carried on singing (even if only in the shower!). Until I set up Tawbis Studios and needed to pull back on some other activities to focus on the business I was a member of a fantastic ladies' a cappella choir, Albacappella (check out their videos on the website or Facebook page - their harmonies really are spine-tinglingly good!). Through the years I've always taught, primarily singing, piano and latterly ukulele, and have also taught people to read music, understand basic music theory and musical structure as well as some music history.
I think that brings us up to date! Next time we'll look at some of the non-musical benefits of learning to read or play music, look at the differences between learning at different stages of life and dispel some of the common myths around the learning process. We'll also look at the services that we offer through Tawbis Studios and what those actually involve!
* Both of our parents left school at 16 after sitting their 'O' level exams and started working in industry but were urged by people they worked for to go back and train as teachers, as there was a national shortage of teachers at that time.
** For those not familiar with the term, this just means that the teachers weren't employed within the school - instead they were employed by the local authority to go between all of the different schools to offer tuition