When I turned forty something changed in my thinking. I had been working my entire adult life towards the best orchestral job I could win. Moving steadily up the ladder, from a tutti position to Assistant Principal and to Principal Double Bass; and then from country to country, better orches-tras, better chairs. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough.
I was glancing through the new season schedule. Only a few weeks stood out: a particular conductor I loved or a piece I hadn’t yet played. But most of it was not turning me on. It took a while, but this was the moment when I started to allow myself to think about what I wanted, rather than what other people thought I should want. Many of my colleagues thought I had gone mad when shortly thereafter I accepted a job in Trinidad helping to create and write the programs for a newly forming National Academy for the Performing Arts. The only way I could describe my decision to move to the Caribbean was that when I thought of my life in London I saw it in black and white and sepia tones and when I imagined a life in Trinidad I saw it in technicolor.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets on the amazing orchestral life I led. I toured the world! I can make a map dense with coloured tacks in countries and cities I have visited thanks to my or-chestral career. This shift in my thinking was about allowing myself to change dreams, to recognize that I was the best judge of what was going to make me happy in the next phase of my life, which is not so easy to do when you exist in a tiny microcosm that views itself as the entire world.
As I buckled down to create the first double bass studio at the Academy, I was completely focused on the repertoire and literature I knew best: the standard orchestral literature, the Western Classical solo repertoire and how to win a job in an orchestra. Never mind that at that time there was no orchestra to aspire to, I was here to raise the bar and set my students up for success!
In 2012 the National Symphony Orchestra, based in DC, came through Trinidad on tour. Over din-ner I asked one of my colleagues how many students of his now had jobs. I was beginning to ques-tion what employment opportunities existed for my students. He laughed and said, “Well, define job.” And then he proceeded to list his students, some of whom had become music librarians, others that had gone into teaching and some of whom had gone in other directions entirely. Very few had jobs in orchestras, but all of them were happy and gainfully employed. “So, I guess I would say all of my students have jobs.”
The following year I started teaching one of my favorite courses, Residency in Community Arts, a course in which students identify a need in the community and then create a residency to suit. This is also the semester that students are preparing for their final recitals and ultimately for graduation. I watched a student who had been struggling hard to cope with the intense practice schedule and work ethic that comes from applying yourself at a music conservatory. My experience of this young woman was as a shy, nervous and somewhat unhappy person. And I knew from conversations with other colleagues that I was not alone in this appraisal.
I had teamed up with the Consortium of Disabilities Organisation (CODO) in order to offer students in the class a mentored residency, in which they would attend an intensive series of workshops with a Board Certified Music Therapist and then go in groups into the special schools and coach students for the annual Music Festival for Persons with Disabilities. The program was still in its infancy, but the need was great and I was delighted to collaborate, as it ticked all of the boxes.
In the community arts course students have bi-weekly sessions with me in which we cover various topics, including how to create a residency, classroom management and organization, engaging students before you inform, and integral ways of assessing your students. Over the course of the semester I travel out into the community to observe the students in situ in order to offer advice and support.
As I watched my shy, nervous, unhappy student…who was vivacious, confident and hugely happy, coaching her students who clearly adored her, I had a major lightbulb moment. Just as it was so deeply important to me to identify what I wanted for myself, it was equally important to pass this philosophy on to my students. What I have now come to believe is that all students have the ability to succeed, either on a personal level, a professional level or both. As their teacher, my job is to set them up for success by providing them with the tools necessary to guide them on their own journey, not one that I have identified for them.
My vivacious, confident and happy student survived her final recital and is now considering a mas-ters degree abroad in music therapy thanks to her time working with CODO. I took a left turn a few years back, but I am happy and gainfully employed and I now know how to help students find their own technicolor dream.