“I cast my mind back to playing tunes with my cousin as children. We swapped melodies we knew by ear, played rounds and made up harmonies with never a sheet of music.”
It's been over a year since and so many other ensembles were silenced or forced to perform to an empty venue. BSO Resound was due to be working with students from Treloar School, making music together, side by side, and face to face. The day was cancelled and gradually, that week, all other concerts and face to face teaching were cancelled too. Thus began the scramble to install and use Zoom, to find ways of teaching which could remain meaningful to young students and rescue whatever possible from the musical rubble.
We talked to Kate about the impact of the last year on her teaching and music practice and what she hopes for the future.
It’s more than twenty years since I began teaching privately. In that time, I have taught both adults and children of all ages and stages of their flute journey. Since 2016, I have taught flute at the Peterborough Centre for Young Musicians and delivered whole class flute teaching in local primary schools, as well as maintaining my home-based one-to-one lessons. This has meant developing teaching resources that enable me to teach print notation in a way that is accessible to me as a braille music user.
Of course, I can get the books of pieces transcribed and I have a stock of braille books of early repertoire which I use. But I didn’t have a truly integrated way of teaching notation from scratch to young children. Around 2015, I therefore worked with the Head Transcriber at RNIB to create an accessible version of the Colour Flute book by Jaana Laasonen and Riikka Rahivaara-Tarkka.
Given this teaching method relies on different colours for different keys and is entirely pictorial, this might seem somewhat counter-intuitive for me as a blind teacher; but in fact, it is also hugely reliant on developing good aural skills and doesn’t rely on lots of text-based material, which young children may or may not be able to read fluently.
We devised a system of labels to enable me to indicate the exact point on any given page. We dismantled the book, laminated each page to ensure its shelf life and interleaved the pages with clear acetate brailled pages, with the information about each page I needed. It’s enormous and heavy but it works! I coupled this with a large magnetic white board with five black tape lines stuck to it and a set of magnetic music symbols so children could create their own rhythms and simple tunes and I could see what they were doing. All of this, of course, involves handling objects and standing side by side at a table!
In re-thinking what to do for my two youngest flute family members who had only just picked up a recorder, I cast my mind back to playing tunes with my cousin as children. We swapped melodies we knew by ear, played rounds and made up harmonies with never a sheet of music. And so, with the blessing of wonderful parental support, I taught via Zoom and supporting WhatsApp practice videos. The results were wonderful. More advanced students who were already able to read music fared well too. With no school and no after school activities, many practised more and progress was incremental, week by week. We did a lot of aural training. As we couldn’t play together, compositions grew up on a my-turn-your-turn model, testing our memories and ability to invent.
One year ago, I had three visually impaired students, learning instruments and braille music. Today, I have confirmation that another new student studying for grade 8 piano wants help, taking my total to eight. Almost all of this work has been made possible by funding from the Amber Trust, who support music learning for visually impaired young people. Ordinarily, I would have taught these students at home, or travelled to their homes; but the pandemic has forced us to think differently and perhaps thrown up unexpected possibilities.
These students have a couple of important facets: they have tremendous listening, concentration and aural skills; they are intensely musically awake, enthusiastic and inventive; they are forced to embrace technology in everyday school life and are skilled at it. They absorb new information quickly.
Not that it has been all plain sailing: for effective teaching to happen, each of us has to have a copy of the same music – no screen sharing. Sharing of braille files is possible, but they need to be in the right format for the individual student and there is no uniform equipment or software provision across the country for students in mainstream school, or indeed in special school either.
All of them have access to braille displays (which display material on the computer screen around twenty to forty characters at a time, via pins which move up and down to form braille cells). But imagine reading piano music one hand at a time, and cursoring up, down and sideways to do it. Imagine re-configuring the lounge to enable you to sit at the piano with your PC and braille display within reach so you can read the music at your instrument and operate Zoom, for which the braille display is also necessary. We all know about the poor functionality of Zoom on an Iphone, which means you can’t hear the instrument properly. Some lessons have of course been almost inaudible to both of us. None have home-based access to a braille embosser, the equivalent of a simple printer you could find in most home offices. Nevertheless, by emailing files back and forth for me to mark, and by obtaining relevant books from braille providers, we have established a productive way of working which has yielded progress."
Behind the scenes, I have been working with colleagues in the field to re-imagine the braille music literacy awards. My work with BSO Resound informed much of my thinking for these new tests which will take young musicians from their first steps in braille music right up to GCSE level.
Going forward I envisage a blended teaching programme, comprising weekly online lessons (these students are spread across the country), with face to face braille days perhaps each school holiday or even group workshops where students come together to create and learn music and socialise. It is a growing strand of my freelance portfolio which I am enjoying and which I may not have imagined possible in its new form pre-Covid.
With all performing stripped away, I count myself extremely fortunate to have had my students. They are a kind of second family, my flute family. Zoom teaching is intensive and exhausting, but if I have been of any help to my students, then they have been just as much of a help to me, giving me music when I found myself unable to listen to an orchestra because it was just too painful to hear. The buzz they gave me by playing a scale or a tune they couldn’t manage last week has been worth at least as much as the money I earned, (welcome though that is).
What am I most looking forward to? A haircut! And the sound of BSO Resound tuning up LIVE and in the same ROOM!