Teaching diploma I AM 25. I am so not 25, you can add a couple of decades to that number. However, this month I celebrate 25 years of teaching music. At the end of August 1995, I went for a job interview for a teaching assistant post at primary school in Torquay. The headteacher told me that she didn’t really need another teaching assistant, but she had noticed from my CV that I sang and played the piano. None of her staff were musical, so would I mind taking on a teaching assistant role with responsibility for music? Well that was my “year out” job and the rest as they say, is history.

Nothing about my journey into music education has been normal. In fact everything about my journey is backwards from the traditional route. I went down the route of singing and piano grades as a child but due to various problems at my school, I didn’t take GCSE or A Level music, I went on to do a Theology degree, graduated and thought “I think I might do a music degree, I want to be in music”. I didn’t actually believe that I would get onto a music degree course, but 3 years later I started studying at Middlesex University and I did graduate! Traditionally, you need grade 8 on a instrument to go on to study music at degree level. I didn’t have that, I had grade 6 singing, grade 5 piano and grade 5 music theory, I’d been performing since I was 3 years old and teaching since I was 18. Sometimes experience opens more doors than qualifications. I often share this story with my students to encourage them; life can be messy and far from perfect but we somehow find a route through to where we are supposed to be.

It seems to be an odd time to be celebrating a musical milestone when the performing arts industry is in chaos, however, this milestone only happens once in a lifetime. The pandemic has changed the landscape of music teaching, but it hasn’t stopped teaching taking place. I am lucky that I have managed to keep teaching online and yes, it is different from teaching face to face, but I still get to help people develop their skills and find joy in making music. It seems pertinent to mark this anniversary as one era ends and a new era starts.

One of the challenges I have faced is the ability to keep going when life is broken. Resilience needs to be at the heart of any business, and on top of that, I have needed a high amount of personal resilience through the difficulties I’ve faced. One reason I feel that I am beginning a new era, is that I wanted to put right some of the things that had failed or not materialised in the past. Some of you know that I survived long term domestic abuse, and the devastating effect that it had on my life. To be fair, this blog isn’t the place to discuss the abuse that I suffered for years, however, one area of my life that was deeply affected was music. It was constantly taken away from me in attempt to hurt and control. I should have undertaken my teaching diploma 15 years ago, but I was never able to and it grieved me for years. Every time I tried to apply for the course, I was stopped and the opportunity was deliberately taken away. The more I fought back, the harder life would become. The pandemic really pushed me to look at how I wanted to end this year. Did I want to leave this chapter of my life having not completed something that affirms and consolidates the experience and skills of the job I have undertaken for 25 years? The short answer is no, I just couldn’t leave this season with unfinished business, so this month I have finally started my teaching diploma!

I really want to encourage you to mark the anniversaries in your life, however small, and celebrate your achievements, resilience and persistence. You showed up, did the work, learnt from the mistakes, gained experience and eventually reached the goal. Just because other people have the same achievements doesn’t mean you shouldn’t celebrate them; your own personal journey is special and precious. It doesn’t matter how many years you have been plodding away at something, long or short. My teaching journey has lead me to meet hundreds of amazing people through individual tuition, arts centres, further education colleges, churches, theatre schools, adult and children’s choirs, and music therapy with community groups. So this month I AM 25. Here’s to the next 25 years…

A few weeks ago I went to see the Amazing Grace film about the recording of the famous Aretha Franklin gospel album. Filmed and recorded in 1972, it is the only gospel recording that Aretha made after becoming a Grammy Award winner. Granted there are recordings of her leading worship as a teenager at her father’s Baptist church, but this is the only album she made with a Christian emphasis in her professional singing career. As a star she often talked her of faith in God and how it underpinned her life, let alone her career.

One of the issues that has distressed me over the years, is the constant criticism from some Christians who declare that she turned her back on God and the church in order to follow a musical path. My own experience is that the church often tries to keep musicians and artists within its walls should they try and do something that would lead them astray and destroy the reputation of the faith. Yet musicians and artists are visionaries who hear and see what God has placed within them. Aretha’s journey wasn’t so much about walking out of the church, but more about being sent by God into an industry that needed him. She was often described as shy and quiet, yet when she opened her mouth the passion and conviction poured out through her singing, a talent and drive that come from the strength of something much greater than her.  

This album celebrates Aretha’s personal testimony of her journey through a difficult life. A single mother by the time she was 13 years old, divorces, an abusive home life and the back drop of slavery and the civil rights movement all led her into a deeper relationship with God. However, while some Christians decry her fame and status as ungodly, there’s also the possibility that God put her into that position so that he could use her to help others. Aretha’s Amazing Grace album is the best selling gospel album of all time, beating her gospel rivals. Not bad for someone who made their name as a soul singer. 

What is also interesting about this album is the rawness of the occasion compared to other recordings of that era. It is reported that Aretha wanted to capture live worship as she knew it in her own church and present it to a wider audience who had no church background. The album allows us to hear Christians worshipping openly in a Baptist church in Los Angeles with a small congregation of both believers and non-believers. This album wasn’t about creating a studio atmosphere with great musical prowess, but about opening a window on praise and adoration of the Lord for those who had never experienced it. Aretha displays a dedication to take the church and God’s love out to the world rather than to wait for people broach the church door tentatively. As Christians, we are asked to take the message of God to our mission field, Aretha just does on a much grander scale using her status and platform to spread the gospel of Jesus. What is notable is that on the second night of the recording, the congregation doubled in size as word spread about the “free” Aretha concert. Even Mick Jagger makes an appearance in the crowd.

However, it isn’t just this album which makes Aretha’s legacy so unique. She was known for singing about women’s rights and independence, performing strong and powerful lyrics that women across the world identified with. Many of her songs became anthems for change and breakthrough; we’re all familiar with Respect and Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves and the powerful message that pervades these performances. 

While the some factions of the church may be mourning the loss of musicians who follow a different path, others are valuing the mission work that they are doing. The music business is one of the most uncharted industries when it comes to Christian missionaries. Aretha’s entry into this world meant the gospel was spread further. I’m not suggesting that all church musicians and artists should up and leave, more that the church should recognise their call and prophethood into an area that needs light and hope. Artists and musicians are called to carry the very heart of God into a world that needs help and this includes the entertainment industries. 

I know the church feels the need to protect creatives from sex, drugs and rock n roll, however in doing so, sometimes it stops people from fully fulfilling their calling. There needs to be an element of trust that God knows what he is doing. I’ve often been criticised for writing secular songs, however I do believe that this is what God has called me to do. One wonders if the church lets down artists, such as Aretha Franklin, by not supporting them more. Perhaps less stars would go off the rails if the church walked with them through their musical careers. I think what we can glean from Aretha’s life is that God used her powerfully and that her music touches the lives listeners around the world. Music is more than worship, some songs heal by the fact that we identify with the pain, others uplift when we feel down, or build community when we all sing together. Music has more than one role in life. 

Perhaps it is time for the church to let more creative people go and do what they do best and reap the harvest of music and art that comes from it. We’re not walking out of church, but walking into what God has called us to do.

Find out more about Helen

Enjoyed this blog? Support Helen’s work by making a donation

Something unusual caught my eye on Facebook the other day, it was a post stating that Alanis Morissette is backing Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 30 day Forgiveness Challenge. At first I thought I’d read the headline wrong, but closer inspection confirmed my initial reading. Why would rock n roll Alanis Morissette back a campaign with Desmond Tutu?

As we all know, Alanis is famous for her 1995 hit single “You Oughta Know” which is about an acrimonious break up with her boyfriend. One thing I’ve always admired about her is her honesty in both her lyrics and in her public life; she has the ability to air her thoughts in a revealing and restorative manner. I too can attest to the need to think through and order my thoughts on various situations through the process of songwriting; there is something very cathartic and healing about letting go and accepting where I am. However, Alanis’ latest response to this creative process made me think…

“I naively thought that the writing of a song could provide healing, but I quickly came to see that regardless of how many nights I would sing ‘You Oughta Know’ over and over again on stage, that the real healing came from actual relationships and communication.” Alanis Morissette, 2014

A bold admission considering the song made her a household name and helped sell 33 million copies of Jagged Little Pill. Through admitting her mistake and making her journey into forgiveness public, she has undoubtedly encouraged and helped many people to experience the same forgiveness and healing. I found her statement very moving as she was prepared to be an “open book” and declare that what she had intended as a public declaration of anger hadn’t fulfilled or healed her. Alanis has stated that up until that point she found songwriting cathartic but it didn’t offer her any healing and that this eventually pushed her to discover where forgiveness begins: with acceptance of each other. In being honest, she has taken responsibility for her former emotions and taken her listeners on a journey that helps them to grow and mature.

The song that she hoped would hurt and seek revenge became part of Alanis’ journey into freedom; she thought her story ended with pain but through time it ended with something very beautiful, absolution and a chance to become a more rounded person. An inspirational tale, it gives us hope that whatever our circumstances are, something good can come out of it if we are prepared to wait and make changes in our lives.