Performance can be a large part of being a successful musician. Here at Northern Music Academy we encourage students by holding one or more concerts per year, providing both the incentive to improve and an opportunity to showcase what you have learned. Though entirely optional, performing is an excellent way to gain confidence and consolidate any improvements you have made. Our concerts provide a supportive, friendly environment where students not only have fun, but also gain a great feeling of satisfaction.
by Ian Clayton
The seeds for the friendship between our family and Northern Music Academy were planted one Sunday morning in the summer of the year 2000. We sat at the kitchen table, Heather, Billie, Edward and me, to tuck into a big cooked breakfast. It was one of those lazy Sunday mornings, when breakfast takes ages, the coffee smells good and pieces of the newspaper are propped on marmalade jars. I washed the pots, Heather dried them and the kids sided them away. I put a Miles Davis record on. Edward, who was four at the time came to sit on a little wooden chair and listened. He didn’t say anything at first, just listened. He listened to the whole 9 minutes and four seconds of the opening track ‘So What’ and then said, “I like this Daddy what is it?” It’s not every Sunday morning you’re going to get an appreciation of the improvisations of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the coolest cat whoever prowled the keyboard Bill Evans, by a four year old in Featherstone. It knocked me back a bit. “Well it’s a kind of jazz by a trumpet player called Miles Davis.” Edward just went “Ummmm!”
Later that morning we went for a walk up in the woods, Billie, Edward and me. Billie hid behind trees to say “Boo!” Edward held my hand. He gently ‘dee-dahed’ to himself, almost under his breath. ” Dee dah dee dah dee dah dee dah dum…dah dah!” It seemed almost surreal in the middle of a quiet wood. “What are you singing Edward?” He had that cheeky smile on his face when he said, “Don’t you know Daddy, it’s Miles Davis, a kind of jazz music.” Over lunch I asked Edward what musical instrument he would like to learn. He didn’t blink for thought, said straightaway “I’d like to play a piano.”
By coincidence our neighbour’s daughter was throwing out an old Danemann upright. We managed to find a space for it and called a piano tuner. On his first visit the tuner told us the piano was approaching it’s 100th year. I joked that Edward ought to play an improvisation on Miles Davis’s “So What!” when the piano reached 100.
We came to Northern Music Academy, I recall saying to Darrell, “I know he’s only a nipper, but can you take him on?” Darrell said “We welcome the young ones who show enthusiasm.” On that day Edward’s musical tuition in this unique and family orientated learning centre began. Edward was eager and Darrell was patient. I will never forget that joyful moment, when after what seemed to be just a few months tuition Edward played in public at an Academy showcase in front of an audience of parents. He wore a little Dickey Bow and a waistcoat for the occasion. Edward did his weekly lesson on a Saturday morning. We walked together the two miles from our house to Pontefract. We told each other stories and dreams as we walked. We did that walk together for the next fifteen years and more. You could count on one hand the number of lessons Edward missed. All the way through his teenage years nothing ever got in the way of piano lessons. When the Academy organised playing holidays abroad of course we went with them. We had great fun in first Italy and then France. We still talk about the Northern Academy ensemble that played on the sun dappled quayside on the Île de Ré. And when we munched home made pizza after a concert in the town square in the ancient Italian village of Dolceaqua.
Edward did three or four grades, but passing exams wasn’t the be all and end all for him, he much preferred learning an eclectic mix of pieces that ranged from well known classical to blues to pop and jazz. Once he got into the world of work Edward found it harder to keep his regular Saturday morning appointment. He’d also got himself the keyboard players job in the band Glass Caves, the drummer in that band was schooled at Northern Music Academy too. They’re a good band, they were well taught.
Edward still plays most days. He’s got a rather elegant electric piano now. The old Danemann still stands against its wall. When it was 100 years old Edward played an improvisation on Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue.’ He played it beautifully. He was taught beautifully.
Learning music benefits us in so many ways that studying for grade exams might be viewed as incidental; yes, it is a handy option that is open to us, but certainly there is more to life than testing. However, it is also true that grade exams can richly support a student in their development, which we would wholeheartedly encourage.
When weighing up whether to start work on music exams, timing is an important factor. For most of us, at some time or other we will really benefit, but for beginners there is little value in rushing into grade work. Far more important is to develop a love for making music, and acquire that key ingredient, the practice habit.
I try never to see any music grade as an end in itself. Certainly, it is a measure of something; that you did some work, that you made some progress, that you developed a certain amount of self discipline. But for grades to be meaningful, you need a sense of mission, because most of all they are about the work you do along the way, which can be work of real quality if you are committed and actually enjoying it.
Of course, everything may not go right first time, but sometimes life’s most memorable lessons derive from experiences where things do not initially go to plan. As we learn how to respond to set backs, they can be highly educational, and a student on a mission to prove to something to him or her-self after an earlier disappointment may take far more from the whole experience than another who coasts to high marks.
Ultimately, many of our students get real satisfaction from grade work, but from my perspective play and practice should generally lead, and exams follow, rather than the other way around. That way, you can set a really high performance level naturally, and your exam results should reflect this.