BMus(Hons), L.R.S.M, L.T.C.L, L.L.C.M
Hi I’m Fiona Berry a music for Trinity College London, an adjudicator for the National Federation of Music Festivals and a teacher who loves sharing her knowledge of learning music.Click HERE to Boost your Practice Skills Today!
Throughout my teaching career, I have helped hundreds (perhaps even into the four figures) of people achieve high exam results, entrance into music colleges, orchestras and lots of instrumentalists achieve their musical goals.
My musical journey
If I go right back to the beginning I have my godmother Hazel to thank for introducing me to the recorder when I was around 3 or 4 years old. Each week she would visit and spend time with me teaching me to play music.
I don’t remember getting very far on the recorder; however, I was enthusiastic as my mum tells me that I practised every day. We didn’t make a lot of music at primary school (as far as I can remember), but I know that James Galway is the reason that I progressed from recorder onto flute.
Every morning a record (yes that shows my age) would be played as we walked into the assembly hall. James Galway’s flute solos was a favourite of the headmistress and my first appreciation of the instrumental music.
I didn’t excel on the flute initially; in fact, I failed one of my early grades. The Courante by Bach still haunts me now, and I was only around nine years old. However, I was always eager to learn. For reasons that I can’t remember I moved to a new flute teacher and things started to gel.
Father Christmas and the Piano
I would have believed in the magic of father Christmas well into double figures if it hadn’t have been for the arrival of the piano. It’s one of those childhood memories that are still clear in my head today.
After we had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, I was woken by considerable noise as my dad, and a couple of his friends tried to push a piano from next doors garage. Now, if you’ve ever tried to move a piano, you’ll know that it’s a specialist job.
However, these men somehow managed to move it from the garage up the path next door, down our driveway, through the front door, and into the room where Father Christmas always left our stockings full.
I was so excited as I assumed that it was for me. However, there were a lot of tears that Christmas Day when I discovered that the piano was for my sister. Anyway, the long and short of the story is, my sister hated it, and I loved it, so eventually, my dad let me take lessons.
High School Days
By the time I reached secondary school, I was quite advanced musically for my age. The school had a fantastic wind band, and I had an invite to join straight away. I was playing with students who were older and of course, much better than I inspired me further.
I would get up early each morning before school and practice the piano. I’d take my parents in a cup of tea, a small token of appreciation as I knew then that they would rather be asleep than listen to me rattle off scales.
In the evening you’d find me either at the local music centre where I was a member of several ensembles and later doing more practice in my bedroom. I kept up with school work, but I always did the minimum, often completing or should I say copying homework during registration.
The senior school I attended also offered free instrumental lessons (including the loan of an instrument) which were paid for by the local council so I took up the saxophone.
It’s so sad that today this provision no longer exists as music can enrich somebody’s life on so many levels. Of course, science has proved that learning music also has many added benefits to people both young and old. Yet for many, it’s just too expensive!
The saxophone quickly became the instrument of choice although my mum was keen for me to study the flute as a first study instrument at college.
On leaving school I was already teaching saxophone and piano to beginners. If there has been anything that has strengthened my own understanding of music it has been that of teaching others.
I continued to teach at weekends while I was studying music at University. I had some fantastic mentors along the way, including Richard Ingham and Robert Marsh both of which had a profound effect on my understanding and progression musically.
Throughout my education and to some extent even today I have lacked confidence in my abilities. Music is tough as there is always someone better than you. However, on the teaching side my talents were evident early on and it soon became my passion in life.
I landed a job teaching at Bury Grammar Girls school in my final year at college. I soon had a multitude of girls learning saxophone which is a traditional girl’s school was quite an achievement. I set up a Jazz band there and a successful saxophone quartet.
It wasn’t long before another local private school invited me to teach there. I didn’t have to apply they wanted me to bring to enhance their music department. Bolton School, like BGS was a traditional school whereby orchestral and choral music were there strengths.
To put this in perspective for you, at my first Bolton School concert, the wind band that I was conducting performed a selection of hits by the Bee Gees. I wore a red dress and got everyone in the audience on their feet dancing.
I didn’t think anything of it until I was accosted on my way out that evening. Parents, teachers and pupils wanted to congratulate me. Comments like “we’ve never had so much fun at a concert”, “so wonderful to hear something that I recognise” “your a breath of fresh air one dad told me.
Of course, up until my debut appearance, the choirs and orchestras had performed quite serious hefty works. I think the term would be “high brow”. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not against traditional music in any way, but school concerts should be balanced and not too long for everyone’s enjoyment.
Not to mention school chairs are often not the comfiest, so getting everyone up on their feet once in a while, really helps those dearières from becoming numb.
I spent almost 20 years teaching piano saxophone and flute between these two schools. I had an award-winning jazz band and saxophone choir. I organised regular music tours and did a large amount of fundraising to ensure every child had the opportunity to come along.
The Jazz band performed in venues such as the Bridgewater Hall, the Luxemburg conservatoire, Montreux Jazz Festival, Lake Garda Jazz Festival and the Royal Albert Hall in London. My school saxophone choir also travelled throughout Europe and performed at the world saxophone congress, which was a phenomenal achievement.
Life Begins at 40
I loved every moment of my school teaching years, but upon turning 40 I was ready for a change. My other passion in life is travel. You can read more about my explorations on Passport and Piano.
I had always fancied becoming a music examiner, but I didn’t fit the traditional profile. My experience of music examiners was that they were generally retired musicians who were “old school” and that wasn’t me. However, Trinity was advertising, so I thought I’d give it a go.
One of their values is that examiners should portray a friendly face in the exam room, and that was something I knew I could do. I knew I had the skills to put people at ease while keeping to a schedule.
I passed the interview and began the training, which let me tell you is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’d learnt a lot about instruments through my conducting experience, but there was so much to learn.
The week’s field day training was mentally and to some extent, physically gruelling. You had to pass each stage, so the pressure grew at every level. In all, it took around six months to qualify.
Aside from the music, you have to multitask on another level as an examiner. Trust me in the exam room, all sorts of things happen, from power cuts to animals entering the room.
Yes, you read that last bit correctly. I’ve had a cow in India, a sheep in Cumbria and a monkey in South Africa. Of course, these things tend not to crop up in training; you have to think on your feet and adapt as necessary. It’s a job that I love, and I’ve had the privilege to meet so many kind and generous people along the way.
While travelling, I keep up my private teaching online. So way before COVID hit the world, my students were used to taking their music lessons via the sky. And it works so well.
When social distancing was put in place here in the UK my students and I quickly switched to online lessons, and I set up my Facebook Page Musician in the Making to help others continue learning around the world.
We quickly became a community of people learning together and I realised that a membership would be a perfect opportunity for people to learn more.
From my teaching experience I know that everyone has musical potential within them.