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A journey of discovery

7 years ago

  At the end of last year three teachers from South Africa seized the opportunity of a lifetime to travel to the UK and study at the Royal Northern College of Music, as Andrew Stewart found out. In September 2012 a trio of teachers – flautist Ilke Lea Alexander, trombonist Justin Sasman and pianist and saxophonist Hayley White – travelled to Manchester, thanks to ABRSM’s Centenary Travel Grant (CTG) fund. They spent a term at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) immersed in diverse aspects of jazz, from its performance and history to effective methods for teaching improvisation and motivating beginners. They also gained from advanced instrumental coaching and access to Manchester’s vibrant cultural scene. The CTG scholars, selected by audition and interview, are at different stages in their teaching careers, with Ilke new to the profession, Justin established in the classroom for several years and Hayley a highly-experienced teacher.

So much to learn

Justin Sasman, Hayley White and Ilke Lea AlexanderBefore taking up full-time teaching, Justin worked for nearly seven years as bass trombonist with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. He recalls that he had no idea what to expect from the Centenary Travel Grant programme. ‘I thought let’s go along and see what happens. I’m so glad I did.’ He admits that after four years away from the orchestral workplace, his own playing skills had grown rusty. Individual lessons and a place in the RNCM Big Band rapidly revived Justin’s enthusiasm for practice and appetite for improving his performance. ‘After holding down an orchestral job in Cape Town, I thought I could play trombone,’ Justin observes. ‘And then I came here and realised how much there was still to learn! The approach to playing and teaching the instrument is different to what I’ve experienced in South Africa. Things which seemed impossible, like lip-slurring between first and fourth or fifth position, turn out to be very possible indeed, as the lessons I’ve received here have shown.’

New approaches to improvisation

Justin has also learnt much about how to introduce beginners to jazz improvisation. Above all, the experience highlighted the importance of associating improvisatory music-making with fun and enjoyment. ‘I was brought up on various very technical approaches which, to the beginner, read like rocket science! Coming here, I’ve discovered a more straightforward method for teaching the beginner improviser and I’ll be taking that home with me.’ As part of their studies, the CTG scholars travelled to Scotland to explore jazz teaching with renowned jazz educators Richard and Morag Michael. Justin notes that he was initially sceptical about aspects of Richard’s methods before meeting him, but then became a convert to his approach. ‘I couldn’t imagine how I might teach a kid to improvise on just three notes,’ he recalls. ‘But Richard showed us how you can give three notes to a child and invite them to have fun making music. And then you give them another three notes and let them have fun with those before combining all six notes in the last four bars of a Blues. It works so much better than saying “these are the chords, these are the scales, here’s the chord-scale relationship and I’d like to see this chord here, that chord there”. Richard’s approach immediately makes more sense to beginners and I’m really looking forward to trying it out in the classroom.’

Tools for teaching

Ilke Lea Alexander, the youngest of the 2012 CTG recipients, has clearly been inspired by the Michaels and by her pedagogy and teaching studies at the RNCM. She graduated in music from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 2011 and has since been teaching in schools and private practice. Ilke began teaching private pupils a year before starting her university studies and had never been trained as a teacher. ‘I didn’t think teaching was something that you could learn – that’s not the idea I was exposed to in Johannesburg. All my friends teach part-time but none of them studied music teaching. I’ll take back tools from the Royal Northern to be better able to teach my kids. I’ve also learned how to make lessons more creative and interactive. This experience has opened my eyes to how much there is to learn and how much further I can take my teaching studies. Teaching music well and being proud of it, I think, are extremely important.’

Creative thinking

Studying at the RNCM, says Ilke, has helped her recognise the need for the teacher-pupil relationship to be dynamic and alive, with stimulation and creative thinking on both sides. She points to lessons learned from Dalcroze classes and is eager to apply them when she returns to Johannesburg. ‘It’s easy to separate yourself as a musician from your body, to focus on the music and your instrument in isolation. Once you find your awareness and expand it throughout the body, so many good things can happen in your playing. There’s just so much for me to take back. Since I finished my degree, I’ve missed learning new things and was already feeling a little uninspired. This opportunity has given me clear direction about the future. Returning to student life has woken me up, which was just what I needed.’

Stimulating and demanding

Hayley White’s Manchester experience has been both stimulating and demanding. Although many of her pupils at a school outside Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal had expressed interest in learning jazz, she was unsure about how to teach them to improvise. Individual lessons and classes at the RNCM helped her demystify improvisation and acquire the skills to teach it. ‘The learning experience here has been challenging and even humbling at times,’ recalls Hayley. ‘I found it hard to get my head round jazz harmonies, chord extensions and voicings on the piano, for example. But I really have made progress.’

Being a student again

Hayley speaks of the personal benefits of taking a complete break from work to return to full-time study after more than 20 years as a teacher. She last took time out from the classroom more than 10 years ago to travel around Africa. ‘It’s amazing to be a student again! My experience in Manchester has been totally refreshing. I’ve never done anything like this before. What I’ve learned from the various tutors has given me so many new ideas.’ ABRSM’s support, she continues, has allowed her to reconnect with the fundamental values of teaching and think about the future evolution of her own teaching practice. ‘There are times when you’re sitting in the classroom and thinking what is this all about,’ says Hayley. ‘Being a student again, receiving lessons, being nervous before lessons and having to prepare for them, being in a group and feeling that everyone is better than you – all those experiences are invaluable as a teacher. I can go back now and tell my pupils how I felt. This experience has given me so many opportunities to see things from their perspective again.’

Lessons for life

Each of ABRSM’s CTG scholars believes that lessons learned at the RNCM will inform their thinking for years to come. Hayley recalls a masterclass given at the college by acclaimed mezzo-soprano Ann Murray, one of many highlights of her term in Manchester. The session allowed her to discover aspects of music-making that had barely registered an interest in the past. ‘I’m not a singer by any description,’ she observes with a laugh. ‘But I gained so much from Ann Murray’s amazing masterclass. This kind of input has expanded my knowledge and appreciation, and that has to infiltrate my teaching, even if only indirectly. And I feel sure that it will support the things we’ve learned here about improvisation, teaching practice and so many other fascinating subjects. ABRSM has looked after us so well and I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunities we’ve received because of their support.’

This article was originally featured in the January 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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