Blog posts, musings, and thoughts on life in general

Tickle's Monster has had a severe aversion to sleep for quite some months now.

Tickle already has melatonin to get him off to sleep (for which we are eternally grateful) but keeping him asleep is quite a different matter. For most of the summer Tickle's internal alarm was set to 4.30am, and once he was up, he was up.

Some days were better than others. Some days he would play in his room (relatively) quietly, or watch cartoons on my iPad. Other days he would stand by the side of our bed and scream. Or he'd hit us until we woke up and talked to him. Or he'd bang his head against our bedroom wall.

This half term Tickle has had a meltdown of epic proportions. I'm not quite sure what triggered him; perhaps it was just the fact that he'd got settled back in to class with a really supportive teacher, and all of a sudden school was disappearing for a week. Perhaps the fact that he's just started therapy didn't help. Perhaps it was just the phase of the moon. He has been bouncing off walls (literally), jabbering nonsense, laughing like a hyena, and generally refusing to engage with the real world, usually for at least 50% of the day. It's quite hard to describe that level of dissociation to someone who's never seen it, but it genuinely is like he just disappears inside his own head, and his Monster takes over and tries to distract us by screaming, spitting, and shouting nonsense. It's virtually impossible to talk to Tickle in that state; he just isn't *there*. I haven't seen him dissociate to this extent for well over a year.

The other day, Tickle woke up at 12.30am, just as Husband and I were going to bed. It's silly, I know, because we *know* T will be up early, and usually at least one of us will head up much earlier - but sometimes we like to actually spend a bit of time together, maybe enjoy a film or a couple of episodes of our latest box set. (Incidentally, we've just done the whole run of 'New Tricks' and loved it so much that we've gone back to the beginning and started again!) Tickle usually settles a bit better for me when he's in that state (and Husband is much better at getting up in the morning!) so I went in to soothe him and get him back to sleep. By 3am, I had just about got him calm enough to sit and watch cartoons on my iPad. I'd given him more melatonin, I'd given him Calpol, a drink, a foot rub, I'd sung to him, held him, rocked him...

The dissociated state lasted at least 45 minutes, during which *nothing* I did made any difference. I tried 'wondering' what he might be scared of; usually when I hit on the right thing he calms down. He talked a bit about his birth family and his fears of being hurt, but that still didn't stop the Monster raging. Somehow, I don't even remember why this came up, I brought up the subject of the friends we'd seen earlier that day who had a small baby. Instantly the Monster was offline and Tickle was back in the room. He wanted to talk about this.

We talked for nearly an hour about the baby. About what it eats, what it drinks, what it can and can't do. Tickle wanted to be a baby. I said we could pretend, but that wasn't good enough - he wanted to be a real baby. We talked about how you grow up, but not down, and he didn't really get it. Earlier that day when we'd seen the baby he had been so sweet and attentive; mopping the baby's chin when they had dribbled, stroking their hair gently, trying to get the baby to join in his jumping game..! It felt like that night it really hit him for the first time what we have been trying to explain to him about how his birth parents couldn't look after him; like he finally realised what that actually means. He saw me cuddle the baby and feed them; he helped with the bottle. Who did that for him? Who cared for him and made sure all of his needs were met? Who made sure he always had food? Maybe he saw it from the other side all of a sudden; he saw a baby that was properly taken care of, and realised what he had missed.

Anyway, by 3am I was exhausted, and having calmed him enough to watch cartoons I slunk back to bed in the hope that he would drift off in front of Postman Pat. It took me an hour or so to unwind, and just as I was drifting off I heard the crazed laughter start up again, and the tell-tale crashing sound that his bedroom wall makes when he throws himself against it. I turned to Husband and whimpered. He got up for his turn. I dozed in and out for the next couple of hours. At 7am I text Gran. She turned up at half past, and whisked Tickle off for the day.

Thank goodness for Gran.

I had a singing lesson today - or more accurately, I had an introductory session with a voice coach. Despite singing being my main source of work, I've never actually had formal lessons, and had always promised myself that I would find a teacher, and work on improving my own practice as well as teaching others! I've been suffering with laryngitis this Autumn and am struggling to shift that last little crackle, so I thought now would be as good a time as any to get started with my self-improvement journey.

The thing I've been mulling over since I left my teacher's house is how relevant all of our background life experiences are to the specific task of opening your mouth and singing.

We talked a lot, my teacher and I, about various things that have been going on in my life for the last couple of years. I won't bore you with the details, but I have had a few operations in the last 12 months or so (all requiring general anaesthetic, which means a nasty tube down my throat), plus I have ongoing problems with my back, which affects my core stability. My teacher was really interested to hear about all these things, and as we talked it started to build in to an overall picture and I realised just how much my general overall health is affecting my vocal health. For example, if my back is hurting during a choir rehearsal, that is going to affect my posture, which is going to affect the flow of air through my vocal chords, meaning they may get fatigued more easily. If my core muscles are not working well enough it is going to affect the way in which I control my breath when I'm singing, and so on.

So where will I go from here? Obviously I'm going to continue with the singing lessons, as there's plenty of vocal technique I can work on straight away, but the most important lesson for me today was to be mindful of the bigger picture. Singing is a source of great pleasure to me, but it is also my livelihood and my profession, and in order to do it as well as I can for as long as I can, I need to take great care of my instrument. Up until today, if you'd asked me I would have said my instrument was my voice - but in actual fact it's not, it's my entire body.

My first ever blog post was about confidence - and although I've only actually written about two other things since then, the confidence issue has already risen it's head again and is begging me to write about it!

To be honest, that's not too surprising - I firmly believe that confidence is the single biggest barrier to happy, effective, and healthy singing.

This was brought home to me (again) last night; I was covering for another local choir leader, taking her rehearsal as she couldn't be there. The group was new to me, which is always an interesting challenge as you never quite know what you're going to be facing! What I found was a lovely group of singers, but who were so lacking in confidence in their own voices that I was singing louder than all of them put together, even recovering from laryngitis.

One of the side effects of their tentative singing was that they tended to lose their melody line at the end of each line of the song - they started off ok, but because they weren't confident they were wobbling slightly off the note, which made them less confident, which made them wobble more... and so on! What I pointed out to them was that ironically, they were almost always singing the right note to start with - but they were moving off it because they weren't confident about it, and were actually making themselves go wrong!

So what can you do about this? As a choir leader, at least half of my job is to instill confidence in my singers, but how? Last night I decided to start off by making them laugh - I was honest with them about what they were doing, but approached it in a lighthearted way and we all had a bit of a giggle about it. Then I got them to sing each line of the song, one line at a time - when they got to the end they had to pause on the last note of the line, and hold it until I told them to stop. This made them really listen to the chord they were making as a group, and helped them to hear how their part fitted in to become part of the whole. It also gave them time to find the note, as I would sing it to them if they hadn't quite got it straight away. After we'd done one line two or three times, we'd move on to the next, and then pair them up to sing two lines at a time - building up to the whole chorus.

By the end of that exercise the group were singing that section much better, and much more confidently. Sometimes confidence is just about psyching yourself up and going for it, but as choir leaders we mustn't forget that it's really important that our singers have a chance to get in to their parts, and feel like they know which note they are supposed to be singing. Spending some time really getting inside a harmony can be worth it in the long run; the singers will be happier in their parts and will be able to sing out and really enjoy it. Which is the whole point, really!

I find the actual process of creating and composing new music a very strange thing. Given the starting material I can easily create new arrangements out of an existing tune at any time of day or night, but actually having to come up with something new (that I don't hate) has historically been a much more frustrating experience. Traditionally, inspiration will lurk somewhere out of sight until about 11pm at night, when it will leap out and demand that a song be written *right now* or be lost forever. Once I was in the shower when a new tune floated through the window and I had to cut short my hair washing so I could go and write it down.

Now, staying up writing songs in to the early hours is perfectly acceptable for most musicians; in fact it's actively encouraged, and bags under the eyes are something of a badge of honour in some circles. However when you are required to function as a human being before midday (every day!!) and in my case when that also involves dragging yourself out of bed to take a small person to school it's not quite so convenient.

It's unbelievably frustrating, because everyone knows that you have to take the inspiration where it comes and if you try and force it then it's just not going to happen.

Or is it?

I recently composed a piece of music which is going to be sung by around 350 singers, from at least 12 different choirs. The date for the first performance was set for late November, and the singers were going to learn the piece in their own choirs before we all came together for one final dress rehearsal. This meant that I had to get the music to choir leaders by the beginning of September so they'd have time to learn it, and given that the preceeding month was going to be eaten up by summer holidays and hanging out with my daughter I was on a really strict deadline for the end of July to get it all finished. With all the other meetings, workshops, and committments I had, I was essentially left with two weeks to write the basic song, and two weeks to arrange it - but that had to fit inside school hours and around meetings.

If I couldn't *make* myself be creative between the hours of 9am and 3pm then the song just wasn't going to get written, so I had to find a way to do it, and doing so I became very interested in the process that I was taking myself through in order to get the song out.

First, I did a lot of brainstorming. I like to write songs as a way of channeling and sorting what's going on inside my head, so first I had to put a load of stuff in there to shape in to a song. I like to think big, so I did this on sheets of A1 paper bluetacked to the wall in my office. I also decided what sort of song I wanted to write - in this case I decided to go for what I would delicately call "Disney-cheese"; the song was going to be sung by adults and children, and I wanted something really catchy and sing a long. 'Let it go' from Frozen was a bit of an inspiration for this one, I will admit - even gave it a nod in the lyrics!

When it came to actually writing the song I did it with old-fashioned pencil and paper (I use A4 as I like space to scribble). I avoided computers, phones, anything with technology and tried to completely wrap myself up in creative space - for me that's anything relaxing, comforting, or soft, where I can switch off the nagging bits of my brain and just indulge. I moved around the house a lot while I was writing - I have written a lot of songs on my bed (usually the 11pm inspiration ones) so I spent quite a bit of time there, but also did a bit in the living room, in my office, at the dining table, in the garden... just a change of scene, a change of light, seemed to give me a bit of a boost. Much to my surprise it did seem possible to recreate the atmosphere of late-night songwriting in the middle of the day, and although it did take me longer than normal (an inspiration-struck song will take me about 3 hours for the whole thing) the song was there, and it was finding it's way out.

So anyway, to cut a long story short, the song was done - on time! - and it's currently out with the choirs. I'm really pleased with it; the cheese factor does make me cringe a teeny bit sometimes, but that's the folky in me I expect! Both my choirs seem to love it, and lots of them are saying it's constantly stuck in their heads - I told them I know the feeling as it's been stuck in mine since July!!

In my daughter's school at the moment they are having a 'Reading Challenge'. The rules of this challenge are: read to an adult, get the adult to sign your Reading Record, and when you have a signed record you are allowed to put a tick on the chart in the classroom. If you get a certain number of ticks in a week you get some extra playtime on Friday.

My daughter reads a *lot*, so on the surface of it this challenge shouldn't present a problem; as a minimum she usually reads to herself for at least half an hour every day before she goes to bed.

However, I found out that my sweet little girl has been denying herself ticks on the chart (and therefore her extra playtime), because her understanding of the rules is that you only tick if you have a signed diary; it has taken any amount of persuasion from me (and two conversations with the class teacher) to convince her otherwise. As a grown up, obviously I can understand that there is some flexibility inherent within the rules of the challenge; however my daughter strongly identifies with 'being a good girl' and takes pride with doing as she's been asked.

There's one particular Teaching Assistant in her class who seems to get quite frustrated when following instructions to the letter means children don't quite do what everyone else is expecting. What this TA is completely failing to understand is that (in our case especially) they are often so utterly determined to get it *right* that they won't allow themselves to deviate from the instructions unless given explicit permission, even for their own benefit. In my daughter's eyes, she hadn't completed steps 2 and 3 of the Reading Challenge (signing the Reading Record), therefore couldn't progress to stage 4 (the all important tick). The TA will say "Well of course you can have the tick, you've done the reading!" and my daughter will be utterly baffled, because she was clearly told that first you get the record signed, and *then* you can get the tick.

I spent most of the drive to work this morning mulling over this situation, and how it has arisen. Are we as educators so focused on teaching to targets that even at age 6 we are giving children a specific set of instructions for *every* task, and rewarding them for following instructions rather than thinking for themselves?

Yes, there needs to be an element of 'I'm going to show you how to complete a piece of formal writing' or 'This is how you work out a maths problem'. However alongside this, don't we need to teach our children when they should apply rules and when they can be flexible? When they are learning a skill and when they can think for themselves?

I worry that our schools are churning out children who are encouraged to follow instructions without thinking about whether there is room for flexibility; children who we frequently then berate for not taking the initiative or for doing something without thinking about the consequences. Perhaps we need to take more responsibility for balancing out the need for explicit teaching of skills with encouraging children to think for themselves and develop the flexibility to be resilient as they go through life.

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