John St George – A Teaching Career
John St George is a woodwind teacher of many years. He has taught many prominent musicians and written numerous articles and publications concerning the art of playing wind instruments. John gives some insight into his experience as an instrumental teacher.
My teaching career began as a visiting instrumental teacher at The Kings School, Sydney. Some years further on, I was appointed to the staff of The Kings School and Barker College, possibly the first instrumental teacher to be appointed in a salaried capacity.
Teaching involved chamber groups and a school concert band; a full day’s teaching and rehearsal for school concerts and public examinations. Certainly it was very comfortable having a salaried position rather than the nomadic (collect your own fees) system. Perhaps there is a strong case for the establishment of peripatetic teaching for instrumental teachers in the education system throughout Australia.
During this period I established a private teaching practice from my home in Chatswood, on Sydney’s North Shore. Instrumental music was a relatively new learning in schools at this time, not always welcomed by peer groups. However, in due course it flourished with chamber groups and orchestras filling school concerts.
The St Ives Public School Connection
Many of my private students came from St Ives Public School on the North Shore, which had a very active music department and director. Two students from this source were to become very well known in the years ahead as instrumentalists.
Martin Crook was to be my first student into the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, followed by fellow St Ives student, Alan Vivian, who became the principal clarinet of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Alan won the City of Sydney Eisteddfod after less than two years tuition from his first note, a remarkable feat. He later went on to win the prestigious ABC Young Performers’ Competition in Sydney. There were many other first-class students from this school who went on to pursue teaching and playing careers in instrumental music.
During the Barker College period, the Director of Music, Alan Tregaskis was on the committee of the State Music Camps. These camps were held each year at different venues: Monte St Angelo Girls School, North Sydney, and Sydney Grammar School, Sydney. Auditions were held for all instruments prior to the camp and the tutors were engaged for the week, tutoring orchestral parts and groups. For the following 7 years, I was engaged as a clarinet tutor at the camps.
It was from these camps that the Sydney Youth Orchestra emerged, and subsequently all the states came together at the National Music Camp bringing to life the Australian Youth Orchestra. From very humble beginnings these orchestras were established for Australia young musicians and as a breeding ground for our national symphony orchestras. Along the way there were many fine administrators, conductors, musicians and tutors at the camps. I was privileged to be among them in the very early days of instrumental music in NSW.
The beginning of my learning curve
It was during the early years of private teaching that my first significant learning opportunity arose. A former acquaintance of mine, a lover of clarinet, had of recent years decided to commence learning the instrument. I received a surprise call from him seeking my advice relative to his clarinet playing. He was having trouble with thumping noises before the instrument gave out its pure sound. (That is, pre-noise.) It was suggested that this pre-noise would eventually go away and he wanted to know from me how long it would take. My answer was “Never”.
I had experienced pre-noise as a very common problem with students and had overcome the problem in my own playing earlier on. It seemed to me that to understand the problem, one needed to select an instrument that was not vulnerable to the problem and examine its function: an instrument that can be played by anyone and not produce pre-noise.
I went directly to the piano in the room, lifted the lid, and examined its insides in a new light. Perhaps if I could copy physically what had been achieved ‘mechanically’, I would have solved the problem of my teaching.
The results of this analysis have been the subject of my articles previously published in various music magazines in Australia and overseas.
Invitation to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music
The next period took me to Sydney Grammar School on a part-time salary, teaching individual and group lessons, conducting and tutoring the concert band and establishing the big band. Swing bands were very new to school music and the students took to them with great enthusiasm. The saxophone was to become a very popular medium.
It was during this period that I was invited to join the teaching staff of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The access to full-time music students was now open to me at the tertiary level. Not only that, I had my name on the door!
It proved to be a very fruitful period for my teaching and many of my students. One in particular, Margery Smith, went on to become co-principal of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Another, Deborah De Graff, was the second of my students to win the ABC Young Performers’ Competition. Again there were many other students from this era, too numerous to name, who went on to become prominent teachers and performers.
The emergence of new directions in my teaching
However, the learning of one piece of music was to be a turning point in my teaching career: the Jean Francaix Concerto, selected by Deborah de Graff as her final year concerto at the Sydney Conservatorium. Celebrated clarinettist, the late Jack Brymer, in his book on clarinet playing and repertoire, nominated the Francaix as being unplayable until the human hand, or the clarinet, changed shape. Francaix has now become part of the clarinet repertoire and is performed regularly by talented students.
I suppose most of us take “thinking” for granted, or something we do naturally. Perhaps then there are different levels of thinking as applied to differing tasks. An accurate performance seems to demand the highest level.
Learning the Francaix in the early preparation was problematic and the successful pursuance of the work demanded a new approach to teaching for me. It was not hard to understand that the clarinet could not ‘think’ and it was pointless to keep on playing at the work.
I needed a strategy ensuring the mental was kept ahead of the physical at all times in practice. That is to say, servicing the fingers with a flow of accurate messages at all times. So, ‘say and play’ worked splendidly and errors were eliminated, passage by passage.
For the sound production, I developed the learning of ‘wind skills’, that is, approximating the air pressure changes to produce the wide leaps, without the clarinet. The sum total of these two strategies becomes a mentally driven approach to the reproduction of the music. That is, the work has been played mentally before the fingers act on the instrument. The outcome of these dual strategies came in the final of the ABC Young Performers’ Competition with this brilliant work in Perth, 1983. It was indeed a memorable moment for both Debbie and myself.
The emergence of my writing
The writings about my work were suggested and inspired by Eric Adam, instrument repairer and much more. For me, a mentor. There was so much to write about following Francaix: perceptions leading to concepts in teaching techniques, pedagogy. This material went into several small books then amalgamated into New Directions for Wind Players.
The publishing of my articles in music magazines from Melbourne and Brisbane principally, has been gratifying. It has allowed my concepts to reach a critical and practising pool of music makers. Over the years, I have become a regular reader of philosophy and this has assisted in piecing together my thoughts and words.
The present state of instrumental music throughout Australia is something to speak of with pride. It augurs well for the future of instrumental music and its practitioners. Instrumental musical has become a significant part of the general education scene with peripatetic teaching established in most states. There is also an expectation for instrumental teachers to become more qualified. I believe this is a wave to sweep through the instrumental teaching profession in the coming years.
I would also like to acknowledge my two significant teachers, the late Eddie Simson, Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Donald Westlake, former principal Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Canberra School of Music.