In the febrile political climate which is gripping the UK, Highgate’s Music Department is exploring ‘Rebels, Romantics and Revolutionaries’ of the musical world in its Michaelmas concert this week (Thursday 29/11, 7pm, Junior School Hall), and catching early sight of the programme, I wondered what our aspirant instrumentalists made of their musical preoccupations: after all, to attend rehearsals, they forego the pleasures of a Dining Hall lunch and hang on after school has long since ended for everyone else. So I made my way to the Tuck Shop to put some questions and, having swallowed a very toothsome macaroni cheese, interrogated my unsuspecting blog victims.
Once we got beyond the only just ironic retorts (‘It’s so much fun, Sir!’) and the serious but stolid explanations (‘We get good at organising ourselves’) and tongue-in-cheek suggestions (‘It helps our maths as we count the beat’; ‘We dance more’), these young musicians warmed to their theme: ‘We understand and appreciate music; we can listen to music and hear so much more.’ ‘We get over our nerves; when we’re playing something really difficult – how do I cope? I just slow down, play it slowly, and eventually I get it.’ ‘Are we creative? Probably, yes. It certainly helps me to switch off being analytical. Switching off, yes, that’s good.’
They found it difficult to describe what they did or the effect it had, not unsurprisingly, because they’ve grown up playing their instruments and rehearsing in an orchestra, an ensemble or a band. But they were quite unselfconsciously doing something serious, purposeful and demanding which clearly gives them pleasure, makes them friends and, no doubt, forges connections in their burgeoning brains.
Rescuing myself from the conversation as it slid back into the pleasures, or otherwise, of mac’n’cheese, I emailed colleagues to ask what had stayed with them from their youthful music-making; after all, an adult can speculate on the impact of music on a longer life. I heard from erstwhile trumpeters, pianists, oboists, bass clarinettists (‘Very niche’), cellists, guitar players and violinists and, as you might expect, at least three of them had met their spouses or partners through music. Most agreed that the learning of an instrument had given them an ‘under-the-bonnet’ grasp of music, which they noticed in the way they now listened to music: a richer reading of what was at play. Their current enjoyment of classical music was tinged with regret at no longer playing, with gratitude towards parents (who had played the Sergeant Major over music practice) and towards music teachers (who had been so firm and so patient!) ‘An inspirational man called Percy who talked to me about beautiful sound,’ set one teacher off learning the cello as a child, and later the oboe as a debutant teacher. Another Highgate teacher concludes that music taught him that, ‘It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you fail by default.’ One busy Highgate colleague admits relief that he didn’t throw in the towel at school: ‘I now find that struggling through some Liszt or Debussy after school to be surprisingly calming and a great way to disconnect from the stresses of life.’ Others mentioned the new discoveries, ‘music and musicians I have never previously heard of’ despite thinking he knows ‘quite a lot about most composers’. A number of colleagues attest to life-long benefits even though they never felt they were much good: beyond the understanding of music, they made friends, met people and went places in mind and space. One comments: ‘Although I no longer play the violin, the memory of the shape of the notes is in my fingers, in my arms, and I feel them when listening to music even now.’
We’ve been banging the drum (no pun intended) for the creatives in the curriculum and in the doors it opens for employment as well as for fulfilment, so it’s a pleasure to focus on the extra-curricular opportunities, too: with House Drama competitions (to feature shortly …), Middle School Play (Chariots of Fire), and two concerts in the next fortnight, the creative heart is beating strongly and rhythmically at Highgate! My hope is that more than the wonderful parents and supporters of those who perform will put their nose through the concert hall door, perhaps to re-awaken their slumbering musical memories, or to lay down new ones. Come and join us, and feel the shape of the notes in your fingers!