I never watch reality television, but for the past few months I’ve been on the other side of the camera, taking part in a series that transformed non-musicians into soloists in four months. Shooting on the show, called Instrumental, started during the summer, when three Irish-based celebrities and three members of the public began learning the clarinet, cello and piano leading to a solo with my orchestra, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. The concept – or cliché – of celebrities doing something outside their comfort zone is a mainstay of reality television. As a form of entertainment it might be out-dated and despised by some. But, here’s the thing. Behind the clichés, I’ve learned some things that might help my studies.
The musical journey has been broadcast over six half-hour programmes, where I teach former New Zealand rugby player (now TV pundit) Brent Pope and a member of the public how to play the clarinet. Brent found the going tough (but triumphed in the final concert) and constantly said that he was outside his comfort zone. He’s right, of course. Being a rugby player is no preparation for playing a musical instrument – and it certainly doesn’t help to have broken/dislocated/sprained almost every finger, making simple finger movements all the more difficult.
But what he lacked in natural talent, he made up for in hard work. He is incredibly disciplined and works hard to achieve his results. Early on, I quickly realised this and constructed a practice plan that was a bit like the type of regimented exercises that he would have experienced on the rugby pitch: start with breathing exercises, move to long tones, then finger exercises (first right hand, then left hand), then practice tunes.
The experiencde has been quite inspirational to me, both as a teacher and as a student. Due to the fast-tracked reality television format, I’ve had to break pedagogical rules and just focus on getting him through stages of development quicker than normal. As a student, it’s inspirational to see how quickly he has learnt a whole new set of skills.
My own studies in Politics and International Relations could be said to be outside my comfort-zone, insofar as they are not directly related to my day-to-day job. But I would hope that whatever discipline I have as a musician would be brought to bear on how I tackle my studies. What Brent has demonstrated to me is that that there’s no substitute for hard graft, no matter how tough the courses.
That might sound like a cliché. Sorry, but after my experiences with reality television, I’m still thinking in clichés. With Brent I’ve discovered that sometimes they have a ring of truth. Hard work. Discipline. Yes, that’ll get me through next May’s exams.