When I was 14, I auditioned for the Royal College of Music. I was told not to raise my hopes, because about 100 people auditioned for every 3 places. Yet when I came out of the audition, I immediately told my dad that I thought I’d passed and got in (and I was right).

Why did I think that? I wasn’t an overly confident teenager (quite the opposite!), but I just sensed that I’d hit a “sweet spot”, and that everyone in the room was with me. I knew they’d seen me at my best. I’d always been told I was “talented” and “muscial”, and that music “came naturally to me”, and so I guess I just felt that’s what they meant.

The reason it went so well was partly because one piece I played was the 3rd movement of Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina for Flute and Piano, a piece I’d grown up with, falling deeply in love with it as I listened to my worn-out cassette of James Galway playing it. But the piano part was FIENDISH, and I’d never found anyone who could play it with me.

On the day of the audition, I met the official accompanist provided by the RCM, and we played through the Lennox Berkeley. Just like that! My accompanist picked up the Lennox Berkley accompaniment, and sight-read it perfectly (and at top speed).

I was on such a high when I got into my audition. I couldn’t believe that I’d finally had the chance to play this piece properly, and I couldn’t WAIT to play it again. I almost forgot it was an audition, and just enjoyed every minute of it. So yes, this ability to lose myself in the joy of the (musical) moment was probably part of my “talent”.

However when I started at RCM, I had a bit of a wake-up call. I found out that the best musicians weren’t just “musical” and “talented”, but they also worked really really hard. They built up fluency by practising scales and studies; they repeated the difficult passages over and over again; they increased their repertoire to cover a range of styles and periods. Only once they had done this, did their “musicality” really shine through properly and consistently., even in the most difficult pieces.

I’ve thought of this often recently, as I’ve come to learn more about ideas like mastery, drilling and automaticity (or “shed loads of practice”).

My instinct was to dislike these kinds of ideas. I want my pupils to be independent, deep-thinking, questioning problem-solvers. I don’t like the idea of pupils on auto-pilot. But I’ve come round to the idea when I’ve thought about my flute playing. I couldn’t be an expressive, “musical” flute player if I couldn’t play the notes. There’s one passage at the end of the Lennox Berkeley that was incredibly tricky. I had to break it up, practice it note by note, section by section, build it up to the full passage, integrate it into the piece as a whole. It took “shed loads of practice”. And my fingers wouldn’t have been able to even form these passages in the first place if I hadn’t built up years and years of automatic sequences. My lips wouldn’t have formed the correct shape for each C in four different octaves, if I hadn’t done this previously again and again.

So clumsy or not, tortuous and over-stated or not, this is the analogy that has helped me come to terms with the fact that, in order to concentrate on the “interesting” stuff, the tricky stuff, and the more in-depth stuff in Chemistry, there are certain things that my students have to be able to do automatically.



Lots of links on mastery here and here

Rosalind Walker and Adam Boxer coined the phrase “Shed Loads of Practice” and they also produce loads of brilliant mastery resources for Science.