Being a musician who doesn’t play at Christmas

It’s weird having grown up with music being the focal point of Christmas for me and then not playing or singing at Christmas time. I didn’t have a ‘this is my last concert’ moment in any shape or form. I stuck it out for as long as I could. But the turning point was at a band rehearsal one Wednesday where I cried because I realised I was going to have to go to a&e because playing for a mere 10 minutes made me ill and I couldn’t keep doing it anymore. And that was it. It kind of just hit me at that moment and I’ve not played or sung with other people since.

I tried a bit at home for a while but it was really frustrating not being able to play for more than a few minutes at a time and being really, really bad at it. I would probably be better off learning a new instrument from scratch rather than trying to play one I already know how to play. Sometimes I play piano- if I play from muscle memory, I can still play most things except it physically hurts so I choose not to.

I’m not looking for people to help me solve the problem, I’m actually ok with the fact I can’t play or sing. Any form of playing causes me a lot of pain. I’m in constant pain anyway, and don’t have much more in terms of pain relief I can take, but playing/singing makes my diaphragm lock up so it gets so tight it makes it hard to breathe. Which then makes my rib cage lock up, which makes my back and ribs spasm, again making it hard to breathe. Bits of your neck are joined to your diaphragm, which means I get jaw pain and headache/migraines. I get all those pains just from talking too much and have to see a chiropractor twice a week as it is, so playing makes it a million times worse! The other thing with playing, even the piano, is physical movement hurts my joints but also having to hold yourself in a set position is something I really can’t manage for more than about 30 seconds.

So I’m ok with not playing because the level of pain involved usually involves IV HC and morphine of some description, which means Hospital. And it seems stupid to do something that makes me feel that ill when it could also potentially kill me.

This is the first year I haven’t felt like there’s a huge hole at Christmas. I’ve been getting much more out of being a spectator at concerts and listening to music than I ever did before- I still enjoy music and appreciate it in a different way, I’ve been feeling like that for a couple of years. But this is the first Christmas where I haven’t felt like a huge bit of me is missing. Music was the biggest thing in my life for 25 years- people feel sad for years at Christmas time about relationships which don’t even last that long- so it obviously still feels strange to not be involved in the Christmas preparations, but I don’t feel sad about it this year for the first time. And it’s only been 3 years, so that’s quite good going!

I’d love to play again if I’m able to- I miss the community feel, the feeling you get when you play, the challenge, the beautiful pieces… But for now I’m happy to listen and watch and appreciate the fact that if I do go back to playing, I’ll at least see everything differently and from a new perspective.

The Piano Guys

I’ve used the Piano Guy YouTube videos in hundreds of my music lessons. They make classical music more accessible to the kids, so I used them a lot to illustrate a specific point or technique, but also as a way of getting pupils into the classroom fast and sat down listening before the register, because they seemed to find them almost hypnotic! So I know a lot of their videos in great detail! When my husband bought us tickets for my birthday at the Royal Albert Hall, I was really excited!

I really enjoyed the concert. Jon and Steven were the ones on stage most of the time, joined by Al and Paul for a couple of pieces. They have a typical ‘dad’ sense of humour, but also talked a lot about how music had influenced them in their lives and some of the stories behind their arrangements. They’re clearly musicians rather than a gimmick, you can tell by the way they perform the socks off even simple melodies. 

The musical snob in me instantly worked out that they weren’t playing all of the parts we could hear, because physically they couldn’t be. But then they didn’t keep that a ‘secret’- Steven explained about his different cellos and the loop pedals he used in the first half and in the second half he talked about how they use technology to give them the multi tracks alongside their live performance. However, for a while I felt a bit outraged that they weren’t playing all of it live. Which is really stupid! Clearly they can play all of the parts, they’re incredible musicians, so it’s not their talent which I was questioning. The only conclusion I could come up with was the fact that in my head classical music/piano and cello music ‘should’ be played live. If I’d gone to watch a pop singer I wouldn’t be remotely bothered if they sang live to a backing track.

Then I started looking at the performance in an even more different way. Actually, these guys are bloody geniuses. They combine live music and technology to create their sound. They’ve got loop pedals attached to a cello and they use all elements of the piano when they perform. That takes incredible imagination and their arrangements are so creative and clever if you pull them apart. And they played all of it with passion and commitment, which you don’t always see. There’s no way you could accuse them of being stuffy classical musicians trying too hard to be cool by mixing in pop songs, they’re actually trying to make classical music accessible to the masses and get people excited about it. 

Which I guess I knew when I was teaching, otherwise I wouldn’t have used their videos in every lesson for years. But for some reason I lost sight of this to start with when I saw them live. I was enjoying the concert until I corrected my perception by the third song, but after that I was totally absorbed and loved every minute of it. I kind of wish I was still teaching because I could think of so much material to use! 

I loved all of it but favourites of mine were the Taylor Swift Coldplay medley of Love Story/VivaLa Vida, I want you Bach (Jackson Five and Bach) and Fight Song/Amazing Grace. We had their version of Love Story playing as I walked down the aisle at our wedding so that was a particular highlight for me seeing it live. The encore was One Direction What Makes You Beautiful with all four of the guys on stage, which was amazing. That video was one of the kids’ favourites so got played multiple times (per lesson usually), so I know every second of that in detail and it was the exact same live as on the video- incredible!

It was a brilliant concert and well worth seeing if you get the chance. I already have some Piano Guys albums but I’m very tempted to download more now! 

Photo Credits: Paul Anderson 

Harry Potter in Concert

The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra is currently touring the UK performing the Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone film score live at the same time as the film is played. I’m a massive Harry Potter fan and particularly love the Harry Potter film music, so I loved it! 

We went to see it in the Albert Hall. There were performances closer to us, but I incorporated it into part of my 30 things list and I thought the atmosphere would be amazing. And it was. It was a great mix of people- film lovers, orchestra fans, Harry Potter geeks dressed in robes, children… it was really good fun. And audience participation was encouraged! 

I studied conducting at university, but never did any film or screen conducting. I found it interesting to watch it being performed live with the film, because it obviously has to be really precise, but usually when the film score is recorded, it’s done with cues and times. This conductor must have really internalised his score and the film to be able to get it so spot on in front of a live audience. Incredible. And the musicians were amazing too. An entire film score, especially the length of a Harry Potter one, is a lot of playing to do in one concert! 

There was also a choir with wordless parts throughout. You know their bits exist when watching the film, but because it was live their parts added more depth to the soundtrack. In fact, in general there was more depth to the music, especially in the lower brass. I guess it’s partly because I haven’t watched the first HP film on a large screen since it originally was released and the sound gets compressed a lot when it gets turned into a DVD. I also noticed a lot more of the musical devices used and our perception of some of the characters was different, which was interesting! All because the music was played live and more of a focus rather than in the background. 

I think my favourite bit was actually the credits because they played them in their entirety and people stayed in their seats and listened unlike at the cinema. The orchestra played all of the themes we’d listened to for the last few hours and it just rounded it off nicely. And also got a really loud round of applause. 

It was a great day out. We managed to get street parking right outside the Albert Hall (£14 ish for 4 hours), and the congestion charge doesn’t apply on weekends. Because I’m not up to walking far, we decided to have lunch in the Italian restaurant at the Albert Hall, which was a bit of a gamble because we hadn’t reserved and it could have been ridiculously expensive, but it turned out to be really reasonably priced and a nice meal. Plus we didn’t have to rush because we were already at the venue. I’ve only been to the Albert Hall once before so I loved being in such a historic venue. The same orchestra are performing the Chamber of Secrets next year so I’m tempted to see that too! 

Banner photo: taken from the Albert Hall box office 


Day 16 of the 30 days of gratitude challenge is songs. I don’t have a particular song that inspires me, partially because some of the pieces which I connect with don’t have words (like orchestral music). Songs can also mean different things at different times. Good songs are ones which are open to interpretation. I’m not a fan of modern music (how old do I sound?!) where the themes are too obviously spelled out and the repetition is too ‘in your face’ and obvious. There’s obviously a place for those, e.g. You dance to them, but I wouldn’t say they’re very inspirational!

When approaching songs with pupils, we used to talk about all of the different ways they could be interpreted so that they could relate to one story and then work on telling the story in their performance. You can teach people how to belt out a tune (like Xfactor likes to demonstrate) but you can’t teach people how to really communicate the emotion of it. The easiest way to do this is to tap into experiences you’ve had, so the more life experience you have, the ‘better’ your communication can be, which can be problematic when you’re only 14 years old! That said, pupils used to regularly open up and talk about their home lives and a range of (often quite terrible) experiences they’d had. So performing their songs gave them an outlet to ‘get some of their feelings out’ and was a kind of therapy as well as a passion. 

One of my favourite songs is defying gravity from the musical Wicked. The lyrics are pretty self explanatory, it’s about breaking down the conventions that someone else has beeen dictating until you decide to not follow them anymore. But the score and orchestration is clever as well, it uses fragments from elsewhere in the musical and changes them slightly to fit the new context. The song in itself shows that just because you think things can only be interpreted in one way (from earlier on in the musical) doesn’t mean that they have to *just* be interpreted in that way. 

There shouldn’t be a right or wrong way to interpret pieces of music. Some pupils came out with some brilliant insights which I hadn’t even considered. As our lives progress, the way we listen to music also changes and develops, even songs which we thought we’d ‘heard’ everything in before can still suddenly give us a fresh perspective. And that’s something which I love about music and I’m grateful for- the only limitations are the ones you set yourself. 

#30bbdaysofgratitude challenge

A Gift

Day 13 of the 30 days of gratitude challenge is about a gift. I’ve had lots of lovely gifts for birthdays and Christmas but I had to think for a while about this one. My sentiments aren’t necessarily attached to things, they’re attached to people or memories. So photos are more important to me than objects, like gifts. 

On my 10th birthday I was bought a clarinet. I don’t have this clarinet anymore, so it’s a bit weird to be talking about it, but it’s a memory or a symbol of a gift. My grandad bought me it as my first instrument that was mine, rather than his. He was the one who introduced me to music, who let me play piano and organ with him, who took me to concerts, who sang with me… Everything to do with music, my grandad was the one to show me when I was younger. He was the person who understood me the most in my family. 

It was a really old instrument and clunky, but it didn’t matter to start off with. When I knew I was going to study music at university, I saved up to buy a much better clarinet and my grandad came with me to Edinburgh to help me choose. So even though I don’t have the original anymore, the present he bought me 20 years ago was the start of me playing music and all of the great memories attached to it. 

The Loves of my Life

Day 2 of the 30 Days of Gratitude Challenge is the Loves of my Life. Some people might be expecting me to write about my husband, or other bloggers might write about their family, but then I’d have nothing to write on the family and friends days! So I’m going to write about something that I’ve loved for all of my life so far- Music.

There hasn’t been a bit of my life which hasn’t had some kind of music or soundtrack associated with it (in my head at the very least, anyway). I loved it from when I was really young. I liked the different sounds and the challenges of learning an instrument. I was really lucky to have a natural ability for music, so I could play tunes and instruments I’d never played before just by playing them by ear or feel.

The older I got, the more I looked forward to the rehearsals that made up my week. Thursdays in particular were a bit crazy: choir at lunchtime at school then samba band practice after school also at school. Then a few of us walked to the train station (about a mile) and caught the train to the nearest city, had a quick tea at KFC and then walked another mile or so to the music centre for Youth Concert Band and the Border Concert Band. These rehearsals actually overlapped in time, so we used to go to three quarters of one and then half of the other (if that makes sense). I loved it and it was such a valuable and diverse experience to have.

After school I chose to study it at University along with French. I was alright at performing, but nothing special, so picked other music modules. But I still played and started to love the logistics of concert management and directing ensembles, experiences which I’m really grateful for and which have helped me no end while being a teacher.

As part of my year abroad, I moved to France and joined their ‘school’ choir (it’s more like a university standard choir and orchestra). The music system is different in France, and it was obviously all in a foreign language. In having to learn everything from scratch essentially, it gave me an insight into how lucky I was to have picked it up relatively easily as a child, and how difficult it can be to learn. It’s a feeling I used to refer back to quite a lot when teaching students- the enthusiasm of wanting to be able to do it, but also being so frustrated about finding it nearly in reach, but still not quite managing it.

Music was part of my career as a teacher. It was a noisy department, but I wanted my department to be for my pupils like it was for me when I was at school- the door was always open and pupils could come and play or use it as a safe haven. There’s a feeling you get which is hard to describe when you work with a pupil who has found something hard or who seriously lacks confidence who then suddenly manages to ‘do it’. It’s a cross between elation and what I imagine is maternal pride. I’d always end up jumping around in celebration with them, or returning a cool fist bump if jumping wasn’t the pupil’s thing! I became a music teacher because I’m a firm believer in music teaching you more than what you actually physically learn, and I wouldn’t be the person I am without my music teachers from school.

I was really upset when music made my health worse- I physically couldn’t play. Instead, I revisited my love of listening to music. I’m really grateful that even thought I can’t play anymore, I can still listen and get excited about the ‘clever’ bits and still find something new in pieces of music I’ve listened to hundreds of times.

Unless the government start censoring music completely, I’m guessing it’ll always be around. And for that, I’ll always be grateful 🙂


#30bbdaysofgratitude challenge

Godiva Festival

I spent the Saturday and Sunday afternoons of this weekend at Godiva Festival in Coventry. It’s the UK’s biggest, free, family music festival, and it takes over War Memorial Park every year.

The festival has headline acts, this year including Boomtown Rats and Scouting for Girls; an acoustic stage; a rock/rhythm tent; Paradise tent and a community/family area. It also has different stands featuring businesses, charities, organisations and products from Coventry and the West Midlands, as well as a funfair.

We mostly spent our time in the Community area, near the ferris wheel, so avoided the lines and security for the Main Stage. It was great to be able to sit on the grass and chill out in the sunshine while listening to music and watching performances. On Saturday we saw local singer/songwriter Stylusboy, Bollywood Dancer Sneha Singh, and Earlsdon Primary School Choir, and Elite Dance, a folk band and Forte Gospel Choir on the Sunday. Apparently the festival saw 148,000 visitors over the 3-day event. Thanks to the organisers for a great (and free) weekend!


Photo: Sneha Singh



Photo: Elite Dance