Do What You Love

This is what I Know:

There is no ‘one way’ to be a musician.
There is no single path.

Even within one ‘style’ or one ‘tradition’, there is no definitive ‘how to do it’.

All those clamouring voices telling you there is, telling you ‘you can’t do that!’ and ‘that won’t work!’ and ‘you must do this or else!’

For once I say “Close your ears!”

I say: Take a Risk:

I say: Don’t do as you’re told!

Do what you love.

*Your* musical voice will emerge, and we will all be better for it.

If you keep going, you’ll discover all you need in your own way and in your own time.

Trust Yourself.


Learning music is not a one-size-fits-all process.

I still have to remind myself of this. There’s still a part of me doubting.

Maybe I should write it on a blackboard 100 times day

Because when I’m teaching, planning lessons or pondering a student’s pathway, there’s that troublesome part of me that keeps popping up with the idea that learning to play or sing is some Musical MonoRail that you either step-on-board for success or jump-out-the-window for certain creative death!

There’s that Pointy Finger hovering over my head telling me to “Keep to The Road! Are you sure you’re keeping to The Road!?”

It’s an internal battle between this and the side of me in the lounge area, quietly humming “Go with the flow! Don’t worry about it. You’ll get there.”

Increasingly, my intuition is that the latter is true. But I can’t quite - yet - rid myself entirely of the Piano-Dangling-Over-My-Head, ready to fall if I make a wrong move. Or even, yes: a mistake!

By the way, that Pointy-Finger frame of mind is also home to the inner critic, the shamer, the self-doubter. Overall, it’s what might be called ‘judging mind’: you’re either judged to be on or off-target. (And, wow, you better be ON!)

Judging Mind veers towards over-cautiousness and a narrowed horizon of potential. In the body it is tight and restrictive. Held back. Inhibited.

By contrast, the chilled-out-musician-in-the-back-room part of me is free and easy. He’s happy. He’s just having a nice day, and he’ll get to it when he’s ready. Despite what Pointy Finger has to say, he’s not lazy. He just knows about The Right Time. He’s awake, alert, and well aware of creative opportunity: sailing along, keeping an eye out for the Port. And when the weather is right - when the wind is in his direction - he just glides on in. (That’s opPortunity for you!).

After a while, he even learns how to manage the wind…

I like the sound of that guy. I’m voting for *him*!

And when he plays and sings… : Woof! He sounds really good!


As I write, my inner critic is threatening me with a variety of branding irons for speaking out:


But my wiser, more experienced self can now, more easily, pour water on them before I scar myself.

You see, I now know it’s not just me with the internal Pointy Finger. It’s not just me battling inside between my intuition and my sense of obligation to something I’m not sure I believe in! It’s not just me toiling down a path that isn’t suited to me as a person.

I’ve seen the same thing, in different ways, in lots of keen amateurs, students, teachers, and even professionals. We’re all part of a larger music-education culture that seems fixated on a certain ‘way’ of learning and teaching music. It’s been handed down from generation to generation. In one-to-one lessons, it’s centred largely on note-reading, and taking exams, as a primary and first-off method of understanding music and becoming a capable player or singer.

Well, the results - for me, at least - are in. And, I’m going to be honest and say that, if what I’ve heard about people stopping music lessons, giving up, or finding it a drudge are anything to go by - and that's a big chunk of conversation about it - well, that ‘way’ doesn’t appear to be benefitting some people, if that’s all their offered.

It’s important to say that this route is not wrong in itself. It just doesn’t suit everybody.

And that’s ok.


I had a Grade-8-standard student a few years back, who was also taking an A Level in Music. Our time together, like with so many of my students (if not all), taught me a great deal.

Tim - not his real name - was (is!) an outstanding jazz improviser and composer. He loved theatre songs and music he’s heard in films.

When we started together, he told me he was really bored with the piano. He’d just changed schools, and up to that point, his playing was centred around Grade pieces. He had found some kind of enjoyment in that material and was approaching Grade 8 work, but his energy for it was flagging. He just wasn’t practising at all any more. That was evident not only from what he told me, but from what I heard in his playing.

Within a couple of lessons, I decided to take a bit of a risk with Tim: to set aside six months to a year to just explore what he enjoyed in his playing, and for him to do it on his own terms, with me helping him in his search. I’m grateful we had the time to do that, because after a while, and after some trial and error, I saw him light up when he started learning ‘Mia & Sebastian’s Theme’ from the music-film La La Land.

I watched as he gradually mastered this piece over time.

He practised - he played! - it a lot, as far as I could tell, and it came across by his significant technical improvement and understanding about the music’s components.

The same thing happened with a modern piano-solo arrangement he found of George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’.

Neither of these pieces were easy for him, or anyone. But he kept on practising - kept on doing.

I could only encourage him, and guide him on how to practise effectively. The rest he worked out himself.

After about a year, we talked about what he wanted to do with music in the future. When I learned that Tim wanted to study Music as an Undergraduate, I suggested, with my ‘Good Teacher Hat’ on, that he really ‘should’ go for the Grade 8.

Tim seemed genuinely energised and enthusiastic. He hold me he’d had the same feeling, that he was committed and ready in his mind. So we got all the books, and started down that road.

What happened, though, was that, after an initial spurt, Tim basically stopped practising again. He chose the pieces he wanted to do for the exam. He told me he was excited by the idea of mastering all the scales, and about becoming an accomplished sight-reader. But week after week, he showed up to the lessons without having practised his Grade 8 material, and with an increased nervousness and verbalised sense of failure.

After a while, we approached that time of the year when A Level students decide what they’re going to perform for their final recital the following Term. Interestingly, when I came to speak about this with Tim, he told me he’d already decided he was going to perform ‘Mia & Sebastian’s Theme’. This he eventually did, receiving a high mark!

During that last period together, we continued to explore the Grade 8 material. But Tim just wasn’t doing much towards it. Now and then, I also asked him to play me some of his compositions, improvisations and other pieces he’d be learning. Again, he lit up and truly astounded me with his creative and technical abilities. But, at least in our time together, this energy and willingness I saw in Tim never translated to the Grade 8.

We struggled on together. To be honest, I found the lessons quite difficult. I was being my ‘Good Teacher’ self by pushing him to do the exam. And he was being his ‘Good Student’ self by showing enthusiasm for that idea.

We postponed the notion of taking the Grade 8 to one Term, then the next, and then the next. And then to when we was studying at University. But he really wasn’t doing enough to make it work.

Significantly, I was also guiding two other students on the Grade 8 path at that time, who both eventually took the exam and did very well. The difference between those students and Tim was really remarkable. Not in terms of their ability or musicianship. They were all roughly about the same level. The difference was that the other two students simply enjoyed the exam pieces. They found it fun doing those kinds of prescribed scales. They were the kinds of students who found pleasure in systematically working through sight-reading books. And, more broadly, they did a lot of listening to that kind of music in their spare time. They loved it.

Tim was just different. In many ways, he was actually ‘beyond Grade 8’. His theoretical understanding of music was advanced, but flowered from his interest in contemporary jazz composition. His playing was free. It actually had a wildness to it, which suited the music he enjoyed. He’d learned a load of scales, but very much in his own terms: only when it was necessary to help him compose, improvise or play a piece. And the scales he chose to learn were more varied than the standard Major / Minor. Some of them weren’t even scales in the strictest sense. They were just doodlings to help him on a particular passage of improv. But he impressed me greatly with his ability to pull them off! He could really whizz around the keys. Fumbling sometimes. But it was still very inspiring.

Of course, not much of his playing style (at the time) suited the standard Grade 8 material or marking system.

Increasingly, I felt that Tim saw himself as a failure for ‘not being able’ to do this ‘thing’ that he ‘really should be doing’ in front of him. And despite my best efforts to encourage him, I realised that I was adding to the pressure, adding to the shame, whenever I - however kindly, however gently - straightened him up and put him back on the Grade 8 path.

Finally, I decided to be brave, both for Tim and for myself. In one of our last lessons together, when up until that time we’d been waddling towards the Grade 8, I tried to talk to Tim about the whole deal: about what I’d realised was happening in both of us, about how my thoughts about taking the exam had changed, and that I’d come to see that it wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all.

I’m paraphrasing here, but I said that to be the outstanding musician that Tim surely had the potential to become, he didn’t have to take the exam. He didn’t have to know all that stuff now. He could learn it later, if and when the time was right for him. Because what he had at that point was already much more than the Grade 8 in some ways.

I was trying to point Tim towards his passion, trying to show how his love for a certain kind of music was actually giving him all he really needed for a professional life as a musician.


The experience of teaching Tim really changed me as a musician, and as a teacher.

Although I’d always leaned this way, I’m now much more confident to explore a broader range of styles and methods of learning with my students, to find one (or more) that fits well with each person. And run with that!

For some people, it really is the Grade system; it really is all about learning to read through tutor books.

For others, that system doesn’t fit well with them.

And for those people, it’s important to explore alternative pathways.


What I’ve also learned to do over the years is find ways to teach the ‘blanks’ that certain pathways might leave out. I want to give my students as much ‘equipment’ as I can to help in their technical, physical, emotional understanding. I’ve just become more confident at finding when The Right Time for this may be; for sensing when an opportunity arises; and for intuiting how to communicate all that in a way that’s best for that student.

(I guess that’s maybe the path of all instrumental and vocal teachers!)


But over and above all of that, I think I now really know what Doing What You Love is, and I know about what that can bring.

Doing What You Love is wanting to do it, whatever that music or way of doing music is.

It lights you up. It ignites your curiosity and thirst for understanding. It encourages you search things out. It compels you to have a try. You gain your technical expertise not by way of a hard, never-ending slog, but with a yearning to know, satisfaction once you do, and wanting to know more.

Doing What You Love makes you create a space and time for it in your life. It inspires you to keep repeating and repeating and repeating… not because you’ve been told to do so, but because you have the energy for it.

Doing What You Love is also is forgiving when you make mistakes, or aren’t quite there yet.

So you keep going, sometimes tired, but generally undeterred.

And suddenly, one day, you find yourself:

You really are able to do what you love.


I think I'll end with the beginning: This is what I Know:

There is no ‘one way’ to be a musician. There is no single path.

Even within one ‘style’ or one ‘tradition’, there is no definitive ‘how to do it’.

All those clamouring voices telling you there is, telling you ‘you can’t do that!’ and ‘that won’t work!’ and ‘you must do this or else!’

For once I say “Close your ears!”

I say: Take a Risk:

I say: Don’t do as you’re told!

Do what you love, and love what you do.

*Your* musical voice will emerge, and we will all be better for it.

If you keep going, you’ll discover all you need in your own way and in your own time.

Trust Yourself.

© Robert Szymanek 2020

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©2020 Robert Szymanek