I've had some extreme experiences in the past week. Back from Vilnius, I plunged straight into training for something which, if I'm accepted at the end, will be a useful new string to my bow: examining for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. Training at this stage consists of a number of days spent with a 'real' examiner, out on the road marking 'real' exams. The last couple of days, I've trecked off at crack of dawn to do this. It's a real challenge, hard work and very interesting too.
Perhaps the nicest exams are the 'preparatory tests' - sessions for teenies who have been playing for just a few months. On Thursday we had a string of nine little violin players, aged somewhere between six and eight, taking this informal test. They have to play three tunes from memory, then two pieces which the examiner has to accompany, and then do some 'listening games' (transformed, at Grade 1, into aural tests) involving clapping, singing and listening. That day, we had a grand piano. It struck me that many kids have never seen inside one before. Instead of concentrating on their clapping along while I played, several of the kids stood beside the piano with their eyes on stalks and their mouths open as they watched the hammers going up and down!
It's fabulous to watch and listen to world-class string players like Philippe and Nobuko, their bows going hell-for-leather like rapiers, their tones projecting unique personalities and eloquent expression right to the back of Vilnius's Filharmonja. But even they were once kids who, one day, picked up a small violin for the first time. Everyone has to start somewhere. I'm learning so much from this training: you can see at once which children have been well taught and which haven't (if I had kids and lived in north London, I'd now know exactly which piano teacher to send them to!). It's sometimes said that all children are musical - but it does appear to be true that some have a more natural flair, a sharper ear, a more inherent sense of rhythm, than others.
Yesterday my brother invited me to lunch with him, his very pregnant girlfriend and some friends of theirs who have two tiny children. Feeling a tad out of things on the talk about kiddies, I sat down at the piano and tinkled away at some Chopin. Result: a fascinated two-year-old, wanting to have a go at making a noise on the keyboard. Most small children do seem to be fascinated by music and musical instruments; the challenge must be how to make it part of their lives before some stupid bigger kid at school tells them that music isn't cool. Music IS cool. Music is the coolest thing on earth - as boys sometimes discover when they hit their teens and want to impress girls. (Listen, lads, nothing pulls the girls like playing a musical instrument well. Especially the violin... or, um, is that just me?!) But by the time they realise this, it's usually too late.
Here's a little exhortation to parents who want their kids to be musical. Don't leave it to school to do it for you, because it won't happen (at least, not in Britain!). Instead, play music at home every day. Play music morning and night, on the CD player or the radio or, preferably, play it yourself on a real live musical instrument. Make it an essential part of your own life while your children are still babies, and soon they won't be able to do without it either.