Why go on having tuition when you’ve ‘finished training’?

10th September 2018 | Musings, Teaching | 4 comments

I’ve been in London coaching young post-grad and professional chamber groups for ChamberStudio, a wonderful enterprise which provides mentorship and further training for instrumentalists who have ‘finished studying’ but still need or wish to have access to advice and tuition.

Why would people want to go on having coaching when they’ve got degrees, diplomas, prizes and professional engagements? Why make yourself vulnerable in that way?

This topic came up several times during the weekend.  One of the young musicians summed it up by saying that some of the most helpful concepts he had encountered – to do with musical interpretation – were concepts he didn’t even hear about until he had finished with formal training.

If these concepts were so important, why didn’t he encounter them until his late twenties? The answer is complicated and probably indicates how much of musical training is taken up with the sheer work of mastering an instrument to the level needed to play the great European repertoire. (It’s possible, of course, that all along the way, teachers were trying to introduce advanced concepts, which the student had no room in their head to take in at that stage.)

A very simple example would be the extent to which one’s musical awareness can be deepened by really listening to what others in the group are doing. It’s not just a matter of playing one’s own part beautifully, though of course that will contribute a great deal to the whole effect. But what we were working on was the ability to lift one’s head from one’s instrument – or from the printed part – and  notice, actually notice, take in, digest and react to what the others are doing.

Many groups play as if chamber music is just a matter of several parallel lines being played at the same time. As you look at each player in turn, you just know that their colleagues are shadowy figures in their consciousness. But if you can persuade them to become aware of one another, to allow themselves to be influenced by one another, to see themselves in relation to the whole, the music-making becomes alive.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but in practice it often does. You have to be very comfortable with yourself and your instrument before you can truly let the other players into your mental space. Sometimes this doesn’t seem possible until a person has matured in other ways. But formal education (rightly or wrongly) is usually ‘finished’ by the time a person is in their early-to-mid- twenties. So it’s hardly surprising that there are new levels of discovery which still await.


  1. Gordon Lawrie

    I’m interested, Susan. Does that mean that professional concert musicians like yourself don’t have regular lessons of some sort to check their technique, posture, that sort of thing?

    • Susan Tomes

      Many professional musicians have regular visits to osteopaths and physiotherapists to sort out playing-related problems. These visits are at their own expense, of course, so most musicians leave them until they become necessary. Perhaps it would be wiser to have regular ‘tuning’ sessions to make sure that problems don’t arise!
      Interestingly, an osteopath recently told me that many of the shoulder/arm/wrist problems he treats in musicians are caused not by playing but by the constant lugging of suitcases and instruments while on tour. Professional orchestras have staff to do this for them, but non-orchestral musicians don’t.

  2. Mary Cohen

    This is why for many years I ran a project called ‘String Quartets From Scratch’, where all the pupils began their first experience of looking at each other and responding to each other from week one of instrumental lessons. (Usually aged just 6 or 7.) If as a pupil you’ve played chamber music – however embryonic – from the very beginning, being absorbed by and in the ‘full picture’ is a way of life. I’ve tried to get as many teachers as possible interested in this idea, but most just want to wait to introduce chamber music ‘when pupils can play properly’. The repertoire for beginner string chamber music is out there…

  3. Rob

    Hi Susan, I found this very interesting. Thank you.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Risk assessments

Risk assessments

The other day I was part of a coffee gathering where people from various lines of work were talking about their experiences of...

read more