“What instrument do you play?” Is the question that almost inevitably follows when people learn that I’m a music teacher or a music education PhD student (I rarely introduce myself as a musician, although I do identify as one). Having met many new people in the last year, I’ve been asked this question far more frequently than previously. And I’m increasingly annoyed that people do not think to ask what music I listen to, analyse, create or teach. Why do I respond to their well-intentioned question in this way? Why do they ask it?
Firstly, I have no idea how to answer the question on a personal level. Do I identify as a double bassist, since that is the instrument I studied at music college? Awkward, given that I’ve barely played in the last decade and am actually trying to sell my bass. Do I identify as a pianist, since my piano is one of my most valued possessions and I regularly play in my free time? Alternatively, childhood hobbies followed by years as a school music teacher mean that I can also play several other instruments to varying standards. Should I reel those off whenever I’m asked about music, or does it sound like boasting?
My second problem with this question is that it highlights the common assumption that being a musician is primarily about performance. I think I’m far better at arranging music than being a traditional “performer”, and it’s the skill that’s been most useful to me as a teacher. I’ve had pupils who create electronic music, who compose songs for others to perform, who write about music with incredible knowledge and perception. To me, they are all musicians and (controversially, perhaps, amongst some of my colleagues) I would never insist that they join an instrumental ensemble or sing in a choir in order to confirm this status.
Of course, within this perception that performance is central to being a musician, there are further hierarchies. On many occasions, I’ve spoken with parents who are adamant that their child must “take exams” in order for their instrumental lessons to be considered worthwhile. Then there are the children who proudly tell their peers that they’ve “done piano for ten years”, not mentioning that they never touch an instrument between their weekly lessons or that their piano teacher fails to inspire them to learn anything other than syllabus repertoire. The child who has taught him or herself to play the piano may have a far greater musical understanding and technical skill – but ask them about their playing, and they often reply that they “just mess around.”
Very few professional musicians earn their living purely from playing an instrument. For example, in addition to orchestral playing and teaching, a violinist friend has recently conducted a school orchestra, played the organ at a local church, organised a recital, and researched the repertoire that she and her pupils are learning. Is she a violinist, a musician, or both? Furthermore, a great many people are employed in the music industry despite not performing on any instrument as part of their paid work. Are their skills any less important than those of the person performing?
My thoughts turned to a Year 11 class whose musical interests and experiences were particularly varied. The boy who taught himself to play the guitar and made his own arrangements of jazz standards. The girl who wrote a song using Churchill’s “We will fight on the beaches” speech: it is the only historical speech that I can quote, and then only because her song was so memorable that it still comes to mind whenever I hear about World War Two. The two boys who would involve me in lengthy conversations about the writing and production on recently released albums. I hope that all of them knew how much I valued their music and how grateful I was that they shared it with me, just as I hope they were prompted to explore different music and musical experiences when I shared my own passions with them.
How, then, do I identify myself? As a musician, yes. As a teacher, a writer, a composer and arranger. As a listener, as a fan, as someone who always has music in their mind, in their fingers, on their lips. As a person who feels most surrounded by love when they are singing with others who love the same music. Ask me about any of those and I’ve got plenty to say. Just don’t ask me to narrow it down to one instrument.
PS. FOR SALE: Hand-made Romanian double bass, c. 2003, one lady owner, further details and photos available on request. Since this post is about not defining myself by a single instrument, I haven’t added a photo here. Instead, here’s a picture taken when my sister and I went to see The Flaming Lips last year. We were part of a wonderful musical experience that night. And that, as much as the hours spent learning thumb-position studies, is what makes me a musician.