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Inspiring Confidence Through Music Lessons

posted 21 Aug 2014, 01:53 by Chris Morris

What is it that you really learn through instrumental tuition? Of course, you're learning how to play your instrument, and good tutors will also be teaching you how to read notation too. You might even learn a lot about the history of your instrument; how it came about, the influences it has had on historical events, and some of the players who have been considered over the years to be some the greatest. But is this all that instrumental tuition has to offer?

This, for me, has to be a resounding no. Speaking from experience, I would say that one of the most important things that happens through instrumental tuition is that the pupil will find the confidence needed for everyday life. Before I began instrumental lessons at school, I was one of the shyest boys in my year. Teachers would ask questions in class and I would avoid their eyes in desperate hope that they wouldn't ask me. And whenever they did pick me out, my voice would shake as I answered their questions. If you could ask my percussion tutor from school, he would tell you that I'd often go through entire lessons without saying a word, unless I was asked a question.

So what happened? I'm clearly not as nervous or shy as I was when I was thirteen. Part of it, I suppose, is that I simply got older, and (a little bit) wiser. But as someone who works with mental health groups, using music to inspire confidence in others, I've been looking back more often at exactly what it was that gave me the confidence to open my own drum school, or to volunteer in Rwanda, or even just to be a drummer in a band.

As I've already mentioned, before I started learning to play drum kit, I was extremely shy. In second year at high school we got a new music teacher who was the opposite of shy. He was eccentric, boisterous, very very funny, and an all round nice fella. His lessons would always have me and my classmates in stitches, howling at his various antics, and we always looked forward to music lessons. One day, he brought in a drum kit to let us all have a shot. I don't remember much from that day, but I do remember thoroughly enjoying my first bash at the drums, and being quite impressed with myself that I'd actually managed to play “Hey Micky” on the kit. My classmates and I enjoyed the session so much that we all agreed that we'd ask him if he could give us drum lessons after school. Of course, me being my shy thirteen year old self, I was more than happy to just tag along as my friends did the actual asking.

Our teacher seemed interested in teaching us, and he told us he could do a sort of drum kit club on a Wednesday evening after school, but we'd have to pay for it, buy a pair of drum sticks, a practice pad, and Kevin Edwards' book Practical Percussion. Only about three or four of us showed up that next Wednesday, and we all had the gear that our teacher had requested. It turned out that he was only joking about having to pay for lessons though – he said he wanted to see who was actually serious about learning.

Even this initial process of finding a good tutor and actually asking for lessons can be a big confidence boost for some people, young or old. For me, I had to have the confidence to ask my mum to buy all the stuff for me (not an easy task, let me tell you!), and she did. Sometimes, when I receive an email or a phone call from a parent, it has been because a young person has asked the parent if they could start lessons. Parents of course play a huge role in inspiring confidence in their children, and in these cases they act as supporters to get them from the safety of their normal lives and into something new, where the real confidence building begins.

As the weeks went on, our tiny little drum kit group enjoyed learning about constructing basic drum kit beats, using crotchets, quavers and semiquavers, and helping each other out. Each week we'd be asked to play a rhythm on our practice pads, alone. For a shy young teenager, this was initially terrifying, but as time passed I began to relax more, especially when our teacher praised me for being able to play something difficult. This type of motivation is essential in the confidence building process; no longer was I an amateurish learner, I was a musician. I could do things that not everyone else could do. Something that was alien to a lot of my friends and family. Now I could go around showing people what I had learned with a huge smile on my face.

Eventually, our little drum group had to disband because our teacher had to leave. It wasn't the last I'd see of him though, and I've often wondered what I would have done if it had been. I certainly would have kept playing drums, but I'm not sure I would have really done anything with it. Those early sessions in our little group had been fantastic and had certainly given me a confidence boost, but it was really the events of the next few years that helped me.

My teacher returned as a peripatetic instrumental instructor, meaning that now I could get some incredibly valuable one on one lessons with him. As I learned more, my teacher insisted that I get involved in the school's orchestra and wind band. This of course, involved more interaction with other teachers and pupils, increasing my confidence even more. One of the real joys of being a musician is having the opportunity to meet interesting people, but first of all you have to not be afraid of getting out there. At school, the opportunity to play in these bands helps pupils to get over their fears. Eventually, I was involved in the Dundee Schools' bands at the music centre too, and this of course done even more for my confidence.

This is something I wholeheartedly encourage in my own pupils today – getting out there and playing in any shape or form of band or ensemble or quartet or even going out and performing solo is a wonderful opportunity to not only express yourself musically and to show off the results of your hours of practice, but also to build your own confidence and tell people “Look what I can do, I am a musician, and I'm not afraid”.

Maybe there should be some sort of event where we get all of the brilliant Dundee Drum Academy drummers together to show off what they could do... watch this space.

While I was studying for my degree, I opted to write both of my dissertations on the subject of music education, particularly within schools. I had the opportunity to do some fascinating research on how children who excelled in music also did well in subjects (sometimes considered more “important”) such as maths, languages and science. I couldn’t possibly claim to be any good at maths or science myself, but I did do quite well in French (which really helped when it came to volunteering in Rwanda, a previously French speaking nation). And while I can't go into a lab with some scientists and prove that it had anything to do with music, I do believe that I made certain connections between music and language that helped me to understand French. 

Learning to read music can be a lot like learning to read, write or speak a foreign language. At first, it's a jumble of strange signs and dots and lines that have no meaning. But as you learn what crotchets and quavers mean in a practical way by performing them as you read them, it becomes clearer, and you've learned to read something foreign. In my French lessons, I learned the language in a practical way by speaking out the words and writing down the translations. The connection between the two subjects was so similar to me, that it was almost the same subject, just taught in a slightly different way.

This only helps fuel more confidence in a person. Now they can learn how to play an instrument, and they can learn to speak foreign languages, suddenly there's a whole world of opportunity to explore. What else is possible? 

In recent years I've even compared learning a language to doing sport. I've ran a couple of marathons, and last month I somehow managed to complete an ultra-marathon. You might initially think that this has absolutely nothing to do with learning an instrument, but I have two conclusions as to why it has everything to do with music lessons.

  1. Learning to play drums opened many doors to me, one of which led to a place where a person encouraged me to run a marathon.
    It's all about opportunity. When you learn an instrument and you gain more confidence, suddenly, all of these weird and wonderful things come your way. I volunteered my music skills with a charity where I met someone who has since become one of my best friends. He ran a marathon, and - “suggested” - that I do the same. And I did. Music led me there.

  2. I never would have had the confidence to attempt such a feat if it hadn't been for the confidence built up during my music lessons.
    Let's assume I never learned to play an instrument. But let's also assume that I somehow still met my friend who ran that marathon. I'd have still been quite shy and quiet, and I certainly wouldn't have thought I was capable of anything close to running 26.2 miles. But I did, and it's because of the confidence I picked up when I learned to play drum kit in school.

There's literally no limit to what a person is capable of, with enough confidence in themselves. Human beings are incredible things, and are capable of extraordinary feats. While I was in Rwanda, Felix Baumgartner jumped from space and landed safely on Earth. In the same year, Usain Bolt ran 100 meters in 9.58 seconds, breaking a world record and becoming the fastest man on the planet. People have survived months at sea after being shipwrecked, or fought with lions and survived. I don't know if any of these people ever had music lessons, but they certainly had the one thing that made it all possible: confidence.

Music lessons at school or from good independent tutors can be invaluable to the contribution of who someone is as a person. As I've already mentioned, if it weren't for the outstanding lessons I received as a teenager, I wouldn't be teaching drums today, Dundee Drum Academy wouldn't exist, and you wouldn't be reading this blog. I often wonder what I'd be doing with myself today, and I can never answer that question.

I want to finish this blog with one final story. In my job with Tayberry, providing music groups for individuals with mental illnesses and disabilities, I often encourage public performances, which always go very well. There is one person I work with who suffers from terrible stage fright, and who, over the years, has had a severe lack of confidence. We never force or demand that anyone has to play in front of an audience, but we do encourage them as much as we can. This person refused to take part in these performances for several weeks, until one day, he gave it a go.

After a fifteen minute performance of all the African rhythms he'd learned over the past few months, I asked him how he felt, and I will never forget his response. He said:

'That was the greatest day of my life.'

That's how important music lessons are. And that's why I firmly believe in them. Oh, and by the way, he now takes part in all of our public performances.