Hazel Buchanan

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The more I learn...

Posted by Hazel Buchanan on 7 March, 2016 at 3:30 Comments comments ()

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.”


Was there ever a greater truth? I would love to be able to attribute this quotation accurately, but for once the Genius Google has let me down. Socrates or Albert Einstein? It remains a moot point, doubtless with passionate debaters on both sides. I find myself leaning towards Socrates, on the simple basis that someone must surely have said it long before Einstein was born. But I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter. It shouldn't have required a genius to articulate for the rest of us such a profound but obvious truth. It is comforting to conjecture, though, that even some of our greatest thinkers and philosophers have been painfully aware of the limits of their own learning.


Music, which I teach for a living, must be the archetypal rug-puller when it comes to discovering our own limitations. Every day, I'm working with students - often very smart, switched-on, focused kids - who are right at the beginning of their journey with the musical instrument they have chosen to play. Just occasionally, a student will come along who seems almost tailor-made to play the clarinet or sax they have just picked up. And sometimes a child doing particularly well on one instrument decides to take up another, and does it with panache. But even for the ones who find the initial process relatively easy, the learning curve of studying a musical instrument is steep and never smooth.

It's just as well that so many of us start out in blissful ignorance. The belief that the hill we are setting out to climb is fairly small with a relatively gentle incline is surely the only reason we consider the attempt. If the entire rocky mountainside, with all its pitfalls and plateaux, crevices and cracks, was revealed from the beginning in full dramatic splendour, who among us would dare to take those first tentative steps? I wouldn't have very many students, of that I'm sure.

As it is, a music student's view of the landscape ahead of them is, nearly always, mercifully blinkered. Wilfully so, in fact. If not humouressly. I've lost count of the number of primary kids who've come along to their first or second lesson and announced that they want to play jazz or 'the sax riff from that Dire Straits' track'. And, look, I'm all for having ambition and identifying a dream; but I know they mean they want to learn it now or maybe, at a stretch, next week.

"Sure," I tell them, with (what I hope is) an encouraging smile. "And we'll get to that. But you'll need to learn a few more notes first. How did you go with B, A and G? Have you been practising what I showed you?"

"Oh, I didn't have much time this week..."

Time - efficient and effective practice time - is what it's all about. Perhaps it's the cynic coming out in me, but I've never really figured out what's so mystifying about that. I would like to be able to say I've found a way to communicate that concept to all of my students and their parents.

"Just imagine," I often say to them, "that a kindergarten child is trying to learn to read, but the only time they get to see and hold a book is for one half hour session a week. How long would it take them to grasp even the very basics? Now, imagine how much difference it would make if that same child was able to spend an additional 10 to 15 minutes practising their reading at least 5 times a week."

For some, the penny drops. But for far too many, just taking the first few steps up that hill is going to be a long, hard, painful slog. And it's for those kids, in particular, that it's just as well the bulk of the mountain is shrouded in fog. Of course, a few of them will plod along for a bit, making little or no progress, and inevitably give up. The motivated ones, having started, will surge ahead regardless of how rocky the path ahead appears in the little glimpses they get through the mist. The rest will have to be nurtured if they are ever going to advance a reasonable distance along their own path. They'll have to be encouraged, cajoled, rewarded, inspired and, at times, not so gently prodded. And that, in a nutshell, is my job. Except that it's also the job of their parents. And too many of them aren't even looking at the same hill.

So what's the point?

For the ones who give up before they've even started? Absolutely nothing.

For those who race ahead, leaping the smaller obstacles and accepting a hand with the bigger ones? Everything. The joy of making music; the indescribable gratification that comes from producing a beautiful moment of sound with a group of other people; the satisfaction of learning and moving forward; the achievement of success; the ability to work in a team; discipline; self-motivation; a one-on-one evolving relationship with a dedicated teacher; the development and maintenance of cross-brain connections; a glimpse of the top of the mountain... The list goes on.

And for those who will never reach the top, but make a bit of headway with an awful lot of support? Well, they get a commensurate share of the rewards. As the conductor of the Youth Symphony Orchestra I attended always used to say, "You only get out of life what you're prepared to put in."

The further you go up the mountain, the clearer that becomes.