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…

Like most composers and arrangers, Rachael Forsyth has dabbled in arranging in many different styles and genres. From, pop to classical, education books and beginner pieces, Rachael has worked across the spectrum of music. A few years ago, she approached me with an idea to arrange some of my music for jazz big band. The English Jazz Orchestra joined Rachael for the project and brought in their strings section from their sister orchestra; the concert took place in March 2019 in North London.

Perhaps the most notable of Rachael’s arrangements was “Without You”.  Scored for brass, woodwind and the rhythm section, she departs from the original upbeat pop song to create a slow burning jazz ballad. The listener is drawn into the world of the 1930s jazz club through her handling of the arrangement. The rhythmic lilt creates a dream-like sound scape and this reinterpretation of the piece frames the melody and lyrics beautifully and space is created to highlight the brass interjections which punctuate the syncopation. The trumpet and saxophone solos weave around the melody and add fresh improvisation.

Forsyth’s ability to create live music is fully demonstrated in this piece. She understands how to reinterpret a piece music into a different genre without losing the essence of the song and how to move the audience and take them on a journey. “Without You” scratches the surface of what she can do as an arranger.

Learn more about Rachael’s music here.

Praise from Liz Mitchell…

“I’ve followed the English Jazz Orchestra for sometime as they originate from my old Uni stomping ground in North London – so was surprised to find a string section front and centre when I arrived at the concert.

The strings added a very Noir style to the existing warm big band sound, conjuring images of 1930s bars, with men who should know better getting wrapped around the little finger of some dangerous, distinctly dressed femme fatale. That’s the power of music as I’m sure Helen Sanderson-White is a lovely lady and not a femme fatale at all. The song ‘Without You’ especially stood out as HSW introduced the song (originally a modern pop song) that had been transformed by long time EJO collaborator Rachel Forsyth. Gone was the modern production, replaced with lush saxophones and a gorgeous trumpet solo.

It was a great evening with some really unexpected moments! Strings and a big band work really well together! Who knew?”

Liz Mitchell, Saxophonist.