This is a post about some of my own experiences with depression. I am not writing this to give others advice about their own mental health, and I do not suggest that the content is in any way definitive. My motivation for writing this post is to give myself a reminder about how to recognize and minimize ‘dips’ in my own health: a written memo may help me with self-diagnosis and treatment in the future. I’ve decided to publish it here so that friends who want support me can better understand my experience and, on a more public-spirited level, to contribute to reducing stereotypes and stigma around mental health.

There is a useful metaphor about the role of medication in treating mental health conditions. When someone is bleeding profusely, you do not send them on a chainsaw safety course: you  stop the bleeding. I think that is a very valuable rule of thumb, both for focusing on prevention and early intervention with mental health and for understanding the need for medication in some circumstances. I extend the metaphor here, but I do want to state that this is not a post about my experiences with or thoughts about medication, and I hope that any ensuing dialogue will respect that.

I’m just getting over a dip now. I’ve cancelled quite a few commitments over the last few days, and realized that, although I’ve got better at prioritizing my health during times like this, I’m not very good at saying “I can’t come because my depression is bad” – which is slightly odd, given that most of the time I’m very open about my mental health and how it impacts on my life. The chainsaw metaphor applies here too. If I’m covered in blood, I don’t want to get drawn into a conversation about how I feel about being covered in blood, or how I got to be covered in blood, or how it makes you feel that you can see me covered in blood, or whether my blood is more bleed-y than your blood, and how the bleeding might be ruining the fluffy white carpet that we’re obviously standing on during this whole metaphor … I JUST WANT TO STOP THE BLEEDING. So please, help me to feel that it’s safe to verbalize that “my depression is bad right now” by agreeing that you will not push me to talk about it there and then. Let’s have a conversation another time, when I have the energy to engage properly and when I won’t distort everything that I hear you say.

Here’s what you can do. Check in. Just say hi, and that you thought of me today and that you are available if I need you. In rational times, I know that I have a wonderfully supportive network of friends and family. But when depression is encroaching, my unhealthy habit is to tally up how many times it was me, rather than you, who suggested a meeting or call, or began a text conversation – and then to interpret this as meaning that you do not care about me, or notice how much I need you: that I am an intrusion on your real, more important life. So please, just say hi. No gushing or facebook platitudes needed. And if you do want to help by doing more, offer to do something practical (during the last few days tasks like cooking, filling the car with petrol and moving files from one device to another have all felt like major undertakings) or, if you’re not nearby, tell me to do something practical and specific: make me agree to make a cup of tea/get into bed and sleep/put on warm clothes and watch an episode of a British period drama, then check in a bit later to see if I’ve done it. Your practical caring, and showing that you will keep caring, makes all the difference and will help me find the strength to talk about these things at a time that’s healthy for us both.

Now to the writing that is more for my own benefit, to help me identify when such a ‘dip’ is approaching and hopefully reduce its impact (although if you can read it too, and remind me about the content in the future, that would be very helpful). The emergency warning really should set in when there’s a dramatic change in the weather, combined with an unforeseen or stressful work event. I’ve also only just realized that having clung on through the dark days of January and February, March is always going to be  a month of feeling depleted – and that I need to stop kidding myself each March that “It’s getting easier because Spring Is Nearly Here.” Anyhow, if I fail to notice that initial trigger, it can quickly develop into a state of anxiety, sensory overload, overthinking things … and, not surprisingly given all of that, physical exhaustion.  The problem is that these symptoms can easily be attributed to other triggers (PMT, ‘fighting a bug’, a bad hangover, work pressure) and it’s only when consciously linking them to depression that I see them collectively, and take them seriously enough to stop further escalation. Annoyingly, it is often not until I get horribly constipated (which I assume is linked to physical anxiety symptoms) that I piece everything together and acknowledge that both my body and my brain need a break in order to get back in sync. And it’d be really really great to figure that out without having to deal with constipation. So please, if the weather’s gone a bit bonkers and you see me getting anxious, or struggling to keep going with daily routines, or claiming that my friends all hate me: tell me to tell you that I am struggling with depression. And also tell me to eat lots of prunes.





One of the best things about doing a PhD is having time to learn broadly – and the North American model probably helps with this. Unlike in the UK, one’s funding is rarely tied to a particular project and exploration of different approaches and topics is encouraged. My own programme has both required and elective courses, including opportunities to study in other faculties (I’ve taken courses in Sociology and Media Studies; ironically, theses are both subjects that I considered, and rejected, as A Level options). But compared with full-time teaching, there is also much opportunity to read newspapers and books, listen to the radio, engage with Twitter. And it is through this “non-academic” learning that I’ve found interests in other areas such as history, science, politics, literature. There is so much to listen to, and read, and watch on Netflix; it’s no wonder that I haven’t blogged for several months! So, a return to blogging with some thoughts that stem from two radio programmes that I heard recently.

Firstly, The Life Scientific episode with Eugenia Cheng. What a fabulous conversationalist! Her enthusiasm for her professions (yes, multiple) was inspiring, and I was particularly taken with her advocacy for maths appreciation. To paraphrase, plenty of people listen to music even if they don’t have the skills to play music – and maths can be like that too. We can appreciate mathematical thinking, and what maths is there for, even if we can’t do the maths. This was a brand new idea for me. I found maths difficult to “do” at school, and have few memories of actually engaging in appreciation for it: although its possible that my peers who enjoyed the “doing” may have far more recollection of opportunities for appreciation and contextual understanding.

Eugenia Cheng made me wonder: what is the difference between being numerate or literate, and having an appreciation for maths or language? And does the current school curriculum focus too much on the former? Can school learning offer both, in appropriate balances to engage individual children? And from there, I started wondering just how much of school learning is actually relevant to young people, when they are doing it. My own research is specifically about music education, and I read a lot of scholarship that critiques the value and relevance of school music education. But based on the glaring gaps in my own knowledge and the spirit with which I’m now filling them in via Radio 4, I’m prompted to also consider the value and relevance of my own school education in general. From there, I’m minded to ask if “school learning” (or should that be schooling, or school education?) is relevant to young people. And if not, what is school for? Big questions, a bit too much like “work” for me to tackle here. So, on to another Radio 4 programme, via a roundabout route.

A few weeks ago, there was a brief ripple on Twitter about a boarding school where the Head has allegedly declared that pupils who have intimate relationships will not be allowed to return for sixth form and/or will be given unfavourable UCAS references. My immediate reactions to this article were curiosity about what had happened at the school to prompt such a declaration, and surprise that specific references were all about relationships between a boy and a girl (there was no suggestion that same-sex relationships were relevant to the matter, which is itself unusual today). I then thought what a shame it was that such a policy implies that learning an A Level syllabus was more important than learning about relationships. And this message cropped up much more explicitly last night in The Moral Maze, which was about romantic love. Especially pertinent was the comparison to playing an instrument: it takes time and effort to get right, and one wouldn’t expect to be able to play the violin brilliantly after  “swiping right.” A great analogy, although we should perhaps extend it by recognizing that, just as many musical experiences other than the development of instrumental expertise have worth, so should love be valued not only for its length or type (there was an interesting comparison in the programme between romantic love and friendship, but I’ve preached about friendship quite a lot already in my blog posts). And if we do not have to “do” maths to appreciate it, perhaps we can also manage to appreciate the value of relationships, even if they are different to those that we “do” ourselves. After all, so very many of them are so much more significant than an A Level.



On Mental Health Awareness Day, some thoughts. Having at times had very visible physical impairments, I know how enthusiastic people are to offer advice, osteopath recommendations and pirate-based jokes, often when knowing very little about the situation. And yet it strikes me that we are much less willing to interject when mental health concerns become visible in those we know. The phrase “I won’t probe” seems apt here, given that medical professionals also don’t probe in the literal sense of the word. Whereas we are often squeamishly keen to hear the details of a friend’s progress with treatment for physical health, it is more tricky to enquire after developments with a friend’s mental health. We worry about being overly personal, about ‘triggering’ something, about potentially making the problem worse: so often we say nothing, or say something bland and non-specific.

And here’s the catch. Many GPs are careful not to rush diagnoses of mental health conditions – as they should be. A wrong diagnosis or a rushed treatment suggestion without careful follow-up monitoring can indeed make things worse. But for many patients, such a first encounter can therefore be interpreted as a let-down, a sign that you are not worthy of the GP’s time, or that you and your problems are too abstract to be helped by ’the system’. It takes A LOT of courage to make that first appointment with a doctor or other professional, and it’s not uncommon to attend with unrealistic expectations about immediately getting a ‘label’ for one’s difficulties, and a magic solution. It’s also likely that perspective on what is healthy has become quite warped by the time that step is made, meaning that you don’t think to mention things that are actually a significant symptom.

Now we all know that Googling health symptoms is a quick route to panic, but it can be a useful starting point with mental health concerns. For depression, the NHS online self assessment (http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/depression.aspx)  and this article about concealed depression (http://awarenessact.com/15-habbits-of-peoplle-with-concealed-depression/. )are both non-terrifying. Take a screen shot of your responses or note down the things that such articles make you realize, and take this written information to an appointment, not as a self-diagnosis but as a communication aid. Ask a trusted friend or colleague how they are perceiving your behaviour and mood, since they may be aware of things that you are currently unable to articulate. And also consider taking someone with you to that first appointment: it might not ‘be the done thing’, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest taking your mum along to CBT or psychotherapy, but if you’re likely to find it difficult telling the GP how you really are or distort what they say back to you, having an ally there can help. If you are the friend of someone who’s making those first steps to recognizing and finding help with a mental health difficulty, offer to drive them to the appointment and go in with them if they’d like you to. If they refuse your offer, still ask them clearly what that first appointment involved. If the GP or other professional advised them to return for a follow-up, make them do it! Sometimes the disappointment at not finding a ‘quick fix’ overshadows the routes towards further help.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about self-labelling. The phrase “not all who wander are lost” is somewhat appropriate to those of us who abandoned professional, grown-up lives to move abroad and do a PhD! Like many of my friends here, I am taking the opportunity to wander and wonder. Making these changes in my own life has made me much more aware of those people whose lives are very stable, but who do not seem to be happy and healthy. Maybe not all who are lost will wonder about what they could change, about what help is available, about what they are worthy of. I really believe that regular attention to mental health (which everybody has) can help many people to avoid mental illness (which is often so much harder to recover from). Please, wonder about the people you know. Do they need you to probe? Do they need you to organize them into finding help via the increasingly complex and cash-strapped NHS? Do it. Please probe. Please help them to realize that that they deserve to wonder.




Beginning with a disclaimer, I’m aware that my experiences of being an international student at Western may be very different to attending other Canadian or North American universities. Additionally, whilst I have experienced attending three HE institutions in the UK, none of them are campus universities or places that are particularly known for ‘the student life’. So my thoughts below may not be reflective of either the typical British or Canadian university experience, but I want to try and unravel what I perceive to be cultural differences between the two systems. Do comment if you can shed light on anything, or if you feel that I have misunderstood some of the context.

Homecoming, one of those mythical teen movie things to British people, is a big feature in the university calendar here. It’s marketed as being a chance for alumni* to ‘come home’ and attend reunions, visit old haunts, etc, although the majority of participants in Western’s Homecoming are current undergraduates who seem unaware of the alumni events. The weekend’s festivities centre around a football game with a major rival. So, here’s cultural difference number one: university sports fixtures here actually attract fans. With the exception of the Boat Race, do many British university students or graduates know how their sports teams are doing? Or even what sports are played at inter-university level? I doubt it. And how much of a university’s funding is brought in by and spent on those sports teams? I suspect that it’s a far lower percentage to that in North America. Tied in with this is fandom: most Brits at least nominally support a football team.  One’s choice of team is influenced by family, location, strip colour, a particularly dramatic FA cup run when you were in Year 3 – it’s a complex business. The impression I get here in North America is that sporting team support is much more about where you grow up and where you go to ‘school’ (that’s university), with continuing nominal or involved support of one’s ’school’ team throughout adult life. An American friend was baffled recently when I tried to explain that I feel no affiliation whatsoever towards Shrewsbury Town, despite being born and brought up in Shropshire, and that I have no knowledge of how ‘my’ university teams are doing.

Which brings me on to cultural difference number two. School spirit seems to be a significant factor here in Canada. Based on my experiences, I’d suggest that in the UK this is more of a ‘thing’ in large independent schools and the most traditional (dare I say elitist?) universities. Maybe the rest of us are too committed to our football teams to find time and wardrobe space for another set of supporter activities and scarf colours.  Indeed, the branding aspect of this fascinates me. Since nearly all British children have to wear a school uniform until the age of 16, it’s hardly surprising that UK universities are often full of people deliberately trying to look different to one another. Most students buy a university or college** hoody, but then avoid wearing it whilst actually on campus for fear of looking like they’re trying too hard. In contrast, I reckon that for every 10 people I walk past on the Western campus, 3 or 4 will be wearing an item of Western clothing. And it massively increases at events like Homecoming, when the hashtag #purpleandproud really kicks in.

Now for cultural difference number three. Unlike in the UK where virtually all university students can legally drink, the drinking age in Ontario is 19 – and some first year students are only 17 when they arrive at university, meaning that a lot of official on-campus events are either ‘dry’ or have age restrictions. ‘Carry laws’  restrict the possession of alcohol in public places. These factors both affect how students drink, and how honest they are about their consumption of alcohol. I don’t know if this has been an issue here at Western, but U.S. journalism (where of course the legal drinking age is 21) has drawn my attention to the regularity of assault victims not seeking help in case they are reprimanded for being drunk at the time of the crime. Even more uncomfortable is the thankfully now-being-questioned practice at some religiously-affiliated universities*** to avoid recognition of sexual activity amongst its unmarried student population, with huge implications for how sexual consent and assault are perceived and responded to within the community. This is purely speculation, but I wonder how these attitudes and experiences of alcohol, combined with the herd mentality and anonymity provided by school spirit, influence sexual consent.

So these three cultural differences all affect my understanding of Homecoming and its unwritten implications. And maybe if I’d grown up expecting to feel a significant, long-term attachment to my university community, I’d be more #purpleandproud about the branding and the sports events. But I didn’t, and I’m not. And I’ve realized that my discomfort is in part because a huge number of students use the university brand as permission to become anonymous and avoid acknowledging their responsibilities in the wider community. It seems to be less about pride and more about entitlement.  An unofficial event in which 10,000 young people drink from 8AM without organized medical support or stewarding has huge dangers. At the Fake Homecoming**** street party last weekend, 37 party-goers were hospitalized, with one student suffering serious injuries. The gardens of local residents were destroyed, and the city’s police and medical services were under significant pressure. I get that I’m relatively old and curmudgeonly, and I get that I’m less likely to feel school spirit than someone who has spent their school education working specifically to get into this institution. But if school spirit means not having a sense of responsibility to others, then I don’t want to be part of it. I’d much rather discover and celebrate the individuals who make this community special – and who do so by maintain their individuality rather than opting for the anonymity of being #purpleandproud.

*That’s a word we only hear admin staff use in the UK (and admin is not the same as North American administration, just to confuse matters further).

**College has at least two meanings in the U.K., both of which are different to the Canadian meaning – which I think is also different to the U.S. meaning. Got that?

***This is another seemingly considerable difference. And probably one not to get tangled up in here.

****If you aren’t familiar with Western’s student protests about Homecoming, and the resulting Fake Homecoming, google Western FOCO. It probably won’t increase your admiration for university students.



Sometimes I write thoughtful blog posts about music education, or deep (ish) stuff about life.

This is not one of them.

Here’s what I have not done today. I have not driven to Toronto, I have not had lunch with Amy near Union Station, I have not been to the In Dialogue exhibition at U of T Art Gallery, and I have not met Bremely for an early-evening jolly to the Bata Shoe Museum.

Doesn’t that sound like it would have been a really nice day out? I thought so, when I planned it all a week ago.

Here what actually has happened so far today. I got up, left the house, and got into the car to drive to Toronto. I sang along with Rufus Wainwright for about 20 minutes, until I was nearly out of London and onto the 401. At which point I got pulled over by a police officer. If you get stopped in the UK, you have seven days to take your drivers licence or any other relevant documents to a police station: there is no expectation that you carry them with you in the car. Not so in Canada. I got increasingly flustered as I tried to find my licence, vehicle registration and insurance papers, and increasingly unsure why they were all required.

There was no problem with my driving (phew!), but the car had been flagged up on a camera at a nearby intersection, showing a problem with licensing. The police officer couldn’t see why, given that I had all the correct documents and they were all in date. But then he went to check my licence details on the computer, and the computer said that my licence didn’t exist. That’s the licence that he was holding in his hand. So he very nicely and Canadian-ly explained that he was sorry, but he had to give me a ticket for driving without a licence. And that since I didn’t have a licence, I couldn’t drive anymore until I’d got a new one from Service Ontario. At which point he gave me back my licence, gave me the ticket, and left me to drive home.

So I got home about an hour after I’d left for Toronto, texted Amy and Bremely to cancel our plans, swore a bit (well, a lot), and dug around for every document that might possibly be relevant. Then I took the bus downtown (since I wasn’t allowed to drive) and joined the queue at Service Ontario. At which point I started worrying about the next few days. The reason I’d planned a day out was because my wonderful friend Jess is flying over from the UK, arriving at Pearson airport later this evening. She’d offered to make her own way here to FakeLondon, but I said “No! I’ll spend the day with my friends in Toronto and then pick you up at the airport.” And she said that would be lovely, and then suggested a weekend away, so we’d booked a cabin up on the Bruce Peninsula for Friday and Saturday night. Now it was looking like I wouldn’t be able to collect Jess tonight, and we wouldn’t be able to go on holiday in the car that I was no longer licensed to drive. So I started fretting about booking Jess onto a local flight or the Robert Q bus and refunding her share of the holiday payment that we would no longer be able to use, and what on earth we could do all weekend that would be as fun, bearing in mind that we’d be in FakeLondon without transportation. The Service Ontario waiting area can be a dark, dark place.

Anyway, 70 minutes later I was referred to the incredible Tara, who also agreed that I had a licence and set about trying to make the computer believe us both. It took her about half an hour to unravel the mess via calls to other people, me writing statements and her photocopying lots of papers which prove that I exist, but the licence thing is now sorted out. She also told me who to call in order to get the information to contest the ticket for driving without a licence. And, thankfully, I knew that I could now drive and therefore wouldn’t have to ruin Jess’s trip. At this point I could take no more, so I went to Billy’s and had lunch (see picture. I clearly won’t be taking arty photos of downtown Toronto today, so here’s a picture of a beef sandwich, with chips and gravy).

Then I came home on the bus, expecting to spend quite a while phoning people. I sat down at about 2PM, called the number that Tara had given me, and explained that I needed to speak to Special Inquiries.  Which apparently you can’t do. Special Inquiries are so special that they don’t have a direct line, or an email address. Instead, they have a fax number. Yup. Fax. So the last part of my ordeal has involved finding a fax machine, hand writing yet another statement, and then praying for the number to connect (the last bit took several minutes, at which point I was ready to cry). Now there’s nothing I can do until I hear back from Special Inquiries, who will hopefully be able to stop me going to court for driving without a licence, even though I had a licence.

So, there’s a couple of hours left of my ‘day out’ before I need to set off again to the airport to collect Jess. I could do the housework. I could do some PhD work. But actually I’m going to cover my shoulders in tiger balm (the mental tension has become muscular) and watch The Crown in bed. And yes, I’ve already seen The Crown once. But as I learned today, sometimes you need to do stuff twice just to prove to the computer that you’ve done it at all.




Who are you? What are you? What do you do?

If you stop to think about those three questions, chances are that they’d elicit very different answers. Which answer is the most empowering to you? Which best reflects how you see yourself? Which best reflects what those who love you see?

Recently, I’ve stumbled upon various bits of writing about labels. In Excellent Sheep: the miseducation of the American elite, William Deresiewicz observed that high-achieving young people are so focused on textbook versions of success that they want to ‘be’ something (a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer), rather than ‘do’ something (save lives, pursue justice, build bridges). It got me thinking about my friends, many of whom have job titles that I don’t really understand – but how their work is just as important to society, and just as much about ‘doing’, even if their label is not something that we initially recognize and equate with professional success. It also reminded me of how much my social interactions have changed now that I no longer automatically introduce myself as ‘a teacher’. When I taught full time, I had friends who always asked “how’s school?” – because that was how I had defined myself to them, and how I defined myself to myself. What happens when we stop defining ourselves by what we do, but by who we are?

Another non-fiction book, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American daughters on obedience and rebellion, edited by Piyali Bhattacharya. Similar themes emerged about how we perceive success as being (a member of a profession), rather than doing . Labels were used: good/bad, brown/white, light/dark, boy/girl. And in many cases, the labels limited, festered, embittered.  The women who recognized these labels and moved beyond them were inspired, inspiring, seeking fulfilment.

My PhD work has prompted a bit of reading about labelling theory. It’s often linked with alienation, lowering expectations and other negative outcomes: interestingly, it seems that self-labelling can be just as limiting as labels that are ascribed by others. What happens if you describe yourself as single, married, divorced, a widow/er, a parent, a child? There are structures to each, but it’s not always easy to recognize whether the structure is a support or a barrier. What’s the difference between saying “I have a disability” and “I am disabled”; “I have been through a divorce” and “I am divorced”; “I play the trumpet” or “I am a trumpeter”? For some people, at some points in time, the label is empowering – but it can also be a cage.

I had a chat about this stuff with my friend Elizabeth, who I perceive as funny, caring, knowledgeable and enquiring (and whose most obvious label is PhD student). She observed that in self-labelling it’s easy to let the past and future encroach on the present. We talked about how most people currently in your life probably don’t care much about your past, and yet we often let our previous labels affect our perception of how people see us in the present.

So, lots of things above for lots of us to ponder. But also a particular message for anyone receiving A Level results this week: “What are you?” and “Who are you?” are absolutely NOT the same questions as “What grades did you get?”. How would someone who knows you, but has not been directly involved in your A Level studies and exams, describe you? Take time to think about this, and to ask people who will think about their answers. Hold on to those attributes. They are so much more important than your paper achievements.



Watching Dunkirk, I spotted the references to Elgar’s Nimrod fairly early, and found myself thinking about the piece and my associations with it.

On arriving home, a quick google established that it’s one of those pieces for many of us: it features on many top ten lists for funerals, weeping, and general somber-ness.

I first played the Enigma Variations in county youth orchestra, aged 18. What a great piece they are for that sort of ensemble, and how much I enjoyed exploring them! In mid-May, just before A Level exams began, we played a concert on a Sunday evening. A few days previously, the mother of a school friend had died unexpectedly. That concert was the first time that I was palpably moved by Nimrod and, despite losing touch with that friend shortly after we left school, I still think of her and her mother when I hear it.

Ten years later, I began working in a school where Remembrance Day was a focal point of the year. It was then that I realized how important Nimrod is in remembrance services, and that it’s one of those pieces that ‘everyone knows’. It fascinates me that, unlike many orchestral pieces, it translates so well to military band when played at the Cenotaph: despite knowing the orchestral version well, I never feel like the band version is ‘wrong’.

A couple of years later, at the end of the autumn term my A Level class asked for more help with recognizing orchestral instruments. I gave them a list of pieces to listen to over the Christmas holiday. One young man returned in January enthused by the Enigma Variations. His excitement about Nimrod in particular was infectious, and we had a great conversation about how Elgar created such a powerful atmosphere. I’m no longer in regular contact with this pupil (we’ve both since left the school), but out of the blue last summer I received a message with a photo of the Elgar-on-a-bicycle statue in Hereford, and the words ‘found Ed’.

Interestingly, I’d never previously thought of all these experiences as ‘British’. But since watching Dunkirk I’ve chatted to a couple of American and Canadian friends who do not share the Remembrance connotation of Nimrod, and who hadn’t considered it to be as central to the film as I did. I wonder how the British experience of watching the film is affected by our unconscious and conscious musical associations with the music. And I’ve also been wondering why Nimrod feels to British to us: is it because of where and how we experience the music, or is it because of the music itself? I could do actual reading about Elgar’s music and its association with more nationalistic traditions, rather than a quick skim of Wikipedia, but the PhD is calling me today. Still, it’s nice to be reminded that, a bit like civilians in pleasure boats getting the army back home, some of our most memorable music was written by a bloke who pottered around on a bike that he called Mr Phoebus. Both of which seem far more British than anything with actual pomp and circumstance.

green park



I wrote this at the start of July, but have been tardy about posting!

Over the last few weeks, my Year 6 classes have been writing songs. We began in May, with each class writing a ‘song in a session’: the girls chose to write about moving on to secondary school, the boys wrote a song about curry.  The purpose of this was to model a possible songwriting process, including chord progressions, hooks, and creating effective lyrics.  Since the boys and I can still spontaneously launch into the curry riff, it was probably a worthwhile activity.

Just before half term, each class divided into small groups and began writing their own songs.  Themes included South African apartheid, bullying, social media and self esteem, Donald Trump, the impact of Brexit …a far more informed and thoughtful selection that in many adult conversations.  We talked about how songs can tell a story, and the potential to explore personal and global perspectives of their various topics.  One group chose to write about the Manchester Arena bombing, finding ways to sample Ariana Grande’s material in their own song.  How sad to think that, were we to begin the project now, groups might also consider writing about the tragedies at London Bridge, Finsbury Park and Grenfell Tower.

Halfway through our lessons, I began to think more about the act of songwriting.  As music teachers, we are often immediately critical of any lesson activity of the ‘draw an orchestral instrument’ ilk – and, indeed, it is very easy for lessons to become dominated by the various ‘write the success criteria in green pen whilst standing directly in a flight path and sorting qualifications into a bucket’ trends that result in less musicking and musical experience in our curriculum time.  Yet in this project some groups spent large chunks of lessons reading the newspaper or doing online searches about topics that interested them, and I believe that this use of “music” time was a valuable one.  We’ve had too many minutes of silence recently, for too many sad events.  Perhaps silence is so important at these times because we don’t know what to say.  And perhaps music, and song writing in particular, can help us to find a way of expressing our responses to circumstances which are beyond our usual vocabularies.

Yesterday, in our last lesson together, the Year 6 girls listened to one another’s songs.  I was overwhelmed by their responses to one another’s work, which often highlighted things I hadn’t considered myself.  For example, a member of the class commented on how powerful it was, in a song about friendships dissolving, that the three singers began in unison and gradually moved towards singing different melodies simultaneously.  There were many such moments in the lesson, where the girls recognized the potential for music to illustrate ideas that we also articulate verbally – and those which we cannot.  How wonderful that through music we have a space for these conversations.




My London is passing along the high street this Sunday morning.

The kid on rollerblades, weaving around as he tells his dad about the driving theory test requirements.

The pushchairs and wheelchairs, occupied by those at either end of life.

The lycra-d and hipster-bearded, the hungover and the church-goer.

My London is choosing whether to turn left towards Woodford and Waitrose, or right towards Leytonstone and Tesco, and hearing a snippet of The Archers whilst I’m in the car.  It’s the bus driver last night, who let me on even though my Oyster card was running low and then dropped me off at the end of my road because the bus stop is badly lit.

My London is the children I teach, who are worldly, inquisitive, in tune, aware; who represent so many cultures and countries, who are British and who call London home.  It’s the woman I chatted to on the tube last weekend as she juggled kids and suitcases, and the tourists who asked us both which station was best for walking to the flower show.

My London is heading into Zone 1 to wander amongst the crowds, meet friends, be energized and excited.  It’s how last year I finally overcame my fear of the central line, which began with a bad Bank station rush hour experience back in 2004.  It’s going to Bethnal Green to hear live music and being assaulted by smells and sounds and traffic and arts and interesting people.  It’s finding a Thai curry place near Covent Garden that does luxurious beef mussaman for six quid, or a weird gig venue with taxidermy in the toilets.

Your London is different to my London, and different to your neighbour’s.  And our Londons carry on today, and we carry on within it.  I love what this city makes me and what I can make of myself here.  So to answer the questions that have arrived on messenger from across the world, I’m ok this morning.  I’m angry and saddened, and so is my London.  But it is still so much more than terror.

st pauls from the bridge