Apparently I am an inspiration. At least that’s what my friend Viv declared in January, when she heard me playing the piano and was motivated to re-start lessons herself. She stopped again after a couple of months since she was struggling to fit in sufficient practice; it seemed to me that she thought she’d let down both me and the teacher that I’d recommended, as well as herself. As an adult, hopefully Viv knows that choosing to stop lessons is not a failure and that it won’t stop her from enjoying other musical experiences (which might include playing the piano in a different context). But for lots of children, stopping lessons can be perceived as ‘failing at music’ and may lead them to avoid other musical activities in the future. This self-perception is reiterated if they move into different musical environments and the teacher shows little interest in their previous learning. Just as owning a guitar does not automatically make one a guitarist, not having lessons does not always mean that one is incapable. We should avoid using instrumental lessons to define our musical identities and the identities of those around us; there are many other ways to be a musician.
My BA final recital programme included a performance of ‘Failing – a very difficult piece for solo string bass.’ Written by Tom Johnson in the 1970s, the bassist has to play an increasingly complex part whilst reading a speech about the nature of failure and success. It was both musically and philosophically challenging, but great fun to play! If I were performing it tomorrow, here are the questions I’d raise in the final, improvised section of the speech: Is failing different to stopping or quitting? How can teachers and parents help young people to withdraw from specific musical contexts with a feeling of success? How do we show that other musical activities are just as valuable? I might also add some reflection on the quote about doors closing but windows opening, and the one about the master failing more times than the beginner has tried.
So, if you are thinking of ‘quitting music’, consider this adaptation of the Green Cross Code: It’s fine to stop participating in a particular activity. But do continue to look out for music and listen to that which gives you pleasure. You don’t have to define yourself as a player in order to be a musician. Oh, and please follow the actual Green Cross Code too. Carrying a double bass is not an excuse to walk in the middle of the road!