Music in the key of life . . .

I had a lovely chat yesterday with June Welch who embarked on a life-changing career shift in her mid-forties, to embrace the learning and teaching of music.

As she says, “For me, teaching is always about learning, both for the student and the tutor.”

Moving away from her former life as a bank employee, June decided that she would go into her new career properly, with the right training. So she started the new millenium off by taking piano lessons with John Green, then organist at Hexham Abbey, and followed those up with more lessons under the tutelage of Michael Haynes, who became the Abbey’s musical director.

But in some ways, June was returning to her childhood, when she used to play the piano under flickering candlelight at her Granny’s Yorkshire home which in those days didn’t have any electricity! June had taken lots of lesson as a child, but returning to music as an adult in her forties completely changed her life. She was very keen that I should emphasise for the diary that such dramatic steps can be taken at virtually any point of one’s life.

Recognising that she needed proper teacher training, June enrolled in a Certificate of Music Teaching course at the Royal Northern College of Music, having gone through all the grades and exams. Some time later, she returned to achieve a Diploma in Music Teaching, under the auspices of the ABRSM, the examination board for the Royal Schools of Music. And she started offering private piano lessons, building up a number of pupils, until she added another component to her teacherly armamentorium by doing peripatetic group lessons through the county schools. “What a challenge that was,” she laughed. “From Berwick to the Tyne Valley, all the way over to the Cumbria border, and sometimes for just one group lesson!” Eventually the county changed its strategy of peripatetic employment, which didn’t suit her life schedule and home responsibilities, and casting June back on her own initiative.

June believes that listening is one of the fundamental components of music, and that careful listening can start as early as babyhood. She referenced the Music & Movement sessions held weekly at Hexham’s Trinity Methodist Church, which are providing a fundamental experience for the growing, acquisitive brains of young children. June increasingly became interested in group singing, as an accompanist for choirs both of young people and adults, as she still does for the church choir at St. Cuthbert’s, where she also plays the organ. She’s back to lessons with Michael Haynes on that instrument as well, she murmurs cheerfully.

Incidentally, she reminds me that the annual ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ service, which will be held on the last Sunday before Christmas, this year on the 22nd December, could be enhanced with more singers! Rehearsals are held just after the Sunday morning service in the church.

But June remembers with fondness her time with what was then the Junior Dale Singers, and the years that she participated in the North Music Trust’s sessions, a kind of precursor to today’s Young Notes, now lead by Anna Harrison. These days June sometimes accompanies Haydon Bridge’s Shaftoe Singers, when their regular accompanist is not available.

So music in June’s life has played, continues to play, an important part in her own personal development, and she loves that aspect of the art form. She worries about the steady diminution of music education offerings in our schools, but she’s delighted that parents here in the Allen Valleys are aware of the benefits of learning a music skill. I reminded her that our daughter had loved her piano lessons, and that that skill had been of intrinsic value for her application to medical school, oddly enough. Music does seem to expand one’s brain capacity, to enlarge one’s horizons, to increase our eye-hand coordination (think of two hands playing point and counter-point on the keyboard, what mental stimulation that must involve!). But as with all things, it doesn’t necessarily come easy.

Indeed, though she agreed with me that good hard honest work can, in fact, be fun in and of itself, it’s no good pretending that regular practice, day in and day out, isn’t hard. And it’s the practice that so enhances life! June notes that examinations can be a useful benchmark, but in some ways they can inhibit progress too . . . everything actually depends on tailoring individual tuition to the particular needs of the student. June sounded proud that some of her students have gone on to musical careers themselves, but she says, “If one of my students comes back to the piano sometimes later in life, to play and to listen, having learned something from our sessions, then I’m very happy for them.”

And so June’s happiness quotient must be brimming, as she receives word of the musical experiences still enjoyed by her previous students. She says now that she’s particularly relishing working with her adult students, these days, though she probably has room for one or two additional ones. Her slate of child students is full up though, currently. June also wanted me to acknowledge, to applaud, the contributions of other music teachers in these valleys, like Ruth Sansbury, Brenda Waton, and Alan Armstrong, who she feels honoured to have known, as well as the local role played by Anna Jackson who has been teaching violin and piano at Allendale Primary School.

If music be the key of life, maestro, then play, play, play on!

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