Stories of lockdown – a musical journey

By Alice Maxwell

Music has no barriers, it speaks to everyone

Since moving to Lamlash in 2014 I have been teaching piano and violin to children and adults. I love having folk in and out of the house, and I love their insights and enthusiasm.

To quote the Tibetan lama, Tai Situpa, “Music has no barriers, it speaks to everyone”. Everyone deserves to have their hearts touched by music, every-one has a doorway to a musical world. It is my challenge to help pupils find it.

The Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki (1898 -1998) was fascinated by how children learn their native language simply by being immersed in it. He developed a technique of teaching violin along similar lines, insisting that pupils are surrounded by music at home, and encouraging parents to learn the instrument alongside their child. He went so far as to state that such an environment “would help to foster good moral character”.

While I make no such claims about my teaching techniques, I firmly believe that the study of music is hugely beneficial. Let’s look at how:

Music is mathematical – time must be subdivided into fractions. This can be initially explained using diagrams. (A crotchet whole beat can be represented as an orange. Split the orange into two, and you get two quavers half beats.) Once the basic concepts are understood, the fractions must be worked out instantaneously while playing. There can be no recourse to pen and paper.
Music involves learning other languages. It is full of foreign terms, mostly Italian, but also German and French. The following “translations” offered by pupils still have me giggling:

Me: What does mp mean? (mezzo piano, or medium quiet).
Pupil: A member of parliament.

Me: What is the word for a note with one beat (a crotchet)
Pupil: A Cockroach

After spending a lesson learning about plagal cadences (chord IV to chord I progression):
Me: Tell your Dad what you learnt about today
Pupil: The black death
Me: What?!
Pupil: The black death …. The plague, plagal.

The notation of music is a complex kind of short-hand that uses symbols to represent musical concepts. To learn it, plenty of lateral thinking is required.

Music is physical – through it one learns co-ordination, as different limbs do different tasks at the same time and must respond instantly to the sounds the ear hears, and that the mind interprets. The Swiss music educator Dalcroze developed a system of eurhtymics whereby musical concepts of rhythm, structure and expression are learnt through movement to music. I encourage pupils to leap around the room in time to music, to sing songs requiring actions (If you’re happy and you know it), and to invent dances that fit the mood or title of pieces they are learning.

In our modern world, children are subjected to increasing pressure from all directions, so moving to music can be therapeutic and help them release tension. The release of tension is also of supreme importance while learning an instrument. Yehudi Menuhin describes numerous yoga exercises which aid tension free playing. The body and mind need to be relaxed and in a perfect state of balance for a beautiful sound to flow through the instrument via the performer.

Music has huge social benefits. Through playing together in ensembles children learn to take responsibility for the team, in a non-competitive way. This builds self-esteem, and the sheer enjoyment of playing music together leads to a sense of belonging and well-being which can never be underestimated. On Arran I run a small string group for adults and teenagers (Arco) – we play light classics, and occasionally entertain in local churches and homes for the elderly. For people with dementia, musical memories remain intact the longest, and the effect of hearing music that had special meaning during their lives can re-ignite a joy of life and cause lost memories to return.

If playing an instrument is not for you, try singing – it engages every part of the brain, encourages deeper breathing which helps to prevent infection, reduces stress, improves mood and well-being, and also releases the feel- good hormone oxytocin. On Arran we are so lucky to have several choirs and singing groups – a wonderful opportunity to make new friends, discover new music and sing our hearts out.

The author during one of her online music sessions
…and some of her pupils taking part

Like so many others, I am now adapting to teaching on-line. This requires a lot of imagination, and a need to have plenty of musical activities at the ready that are both educational, fun, and simple to explain. Rote learning works well, and is excellent for developing a musical memory. I run a small music and movement group for younger pupils, involving dancing, singing and action songs where the children play Musical Statues, and belt out Alice the Camel. I am not sure who enjoys it the most – me or the children, especially when it came to dressing up as Easter bunnies, for our Easter themed Music Friday. I am not a sophiscated dancer, (as a child I once won a packet of wine gums for being the worst disco dancer at a children’s party, much to my amusement) but that is not the point, so long as we are having fun.


Arco still meets online. Since playing music together is impossible because of the delay, we switch off our microphones and experiment playing from memory and trying out improvisations over simple chord patterns. For some this is unchartered territory – and this is a grand opportunity to try it out.

So, music is mathematics, language, physicality and therapy. It has the power to calm or lift the spirits, it can be a call to dance or a call to prayer. A powerful means of communication beyond the need for words, it is an art form through which all human emotion and feeling can be expressed.

In the words of Billy Joel: “Music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”

So turn on your favourite music, and get grooving!