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How can an interest in sport spark an interest in music?

In this article percussion teacher Rob looks at how drawing on a pupil's interest in sport can help fuel motivation in music lessons.
Children's football match
© Adria Crehuet Cano

Percussion Teacher and Performer, Rob Farrer shares his insights into using non-musical hobbies as a stimulus in music learning.

One of the biggest battles we have as teachers is successfully navigating our way through the school sports fixture list while trying to keep a degree of consistency and regularity to our lessons. Some see the conflict that our pupils have between their sporting and musical commitments as a barrier but as a musician who is totally obsessed with all sports (even now I still believe that there is a chance that I’ll get spotted by the Leicester City scouts), I have always used it to my benefit as a fantastic teaching tool.

There are many technical reasons as a percussion/drum kit teacher that ball sports in particular work as a vehicle to help my pupils understand the basics of stick control. The moment after the footballer/cricketer/hockey player/tennis player etc. strikes the ball (the follow-through) is as equally vital to someone playing a xylophone or a snare drum as it is to the sports person. When playing sport the follow-through determines the direction and power of a shot and for a drummer or percussionist it is the moment that makes the instrument sing and prepares you to play the next note with the same control and balance. Posture is another one that I use a great deal. When standing behind a marimba we have to be aware of our stance and not be flat-footed so we can move easily from one end to the other quickly and, dare I say it, gracefully! If we look at Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic when they are waiting to return serve, they bounce on their toes with their feet apart so that they can easily move to either side and transfer their weight as required. My pupils understand the sporting concept immediately and they tend to apply it straight away (although I do tell them that they probably don’t need to do the bouncing on their toes bit!).

Many of my pupils will talk about the skill-levels of various sports stars and how their favourite Leyton Orient player (no really!) can land a free-kick in the top corner every time or how they love watching Owen Farrell go through his routine before kicking penalties for the England rugby team. It becomes very easy for the student to understand that the reason that they are so consistent is because of repetition and muscular memory. Elite sportsmen and women envisage before they kick the ball exactly where they will be kicking it, the follow-through with their leg, how they will shape the rest of their body to support it and what the trajectory of the ball will be as a result. It is very interesting watching the percussionist Colin Currie go through a very similar routine when he is warming-up before a rehearsal or performance. He will often go through passages very slowly without actually hitting the instrument with the idea being that he is completely certain as to the distance his arm needs to travel and how he will strike it to produce the desired dynamic and timbre. We need the spatial awareness of a dancer on the larger percussion instruments as they go way beyond our peripheral vision. We regularly talk about the choreography of a piece when teaching marimba or multi-percussion pieces because we have to know way in advance where our bodies need to be at any given moment. That said, my wife and daughter regularly tell me to stick to football not dancing and I should concentrate on social not spatial awareness on the dancefloor!

My first question to all of my new pupils is “What are your other hobbies/interests in life?” and of course whilst I pray that they don’t say “I really love Manchester United”, I find that any sport can be used as a great way to create musical understanding and maybe most importantly a good teacher/pupil relationship.

Every now and again we have to ask ourselves “How well do we know our students?” Sometimes we realise that actually it’s very little and as such we have no common interest other than the short time we spend in lessons each week. On other occasions we may discover that we are both really passionate about the same thing and it brings a completely different dynamic to the lesson. It’s even more interesting to see if we can use this knowledge of their interests to further their musical education. Try writing a short paragraph on any one of your pupils, describing what they enjoy doing away from music. Then think about a particular frailty in their playing, be it rhythm, bowing technique, breath-control etc. and see if you can come up with an analogy related to their other interest that will help them to understand the point you are attempting to put across to fix this weakness. Try to make it something that will really enthuse them over a period of time and encourage them to do in their own ahem, daily practice, rather than something that will just take up five minutes of their lesson. These things don’t always work on the first attempt so maybe do your own research in to their hobby too. I never realised how much I would need to know about Marvel characters in the pursuit of a correct rendition of F major on the xylophone…!

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Being a Flexible Music Teacher

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