Private teacher focus: Rachel Shirley Jump to main content

Private teacher focus: Rachel Shirley

I did some flute teaching while I was still at school and enjoyed it, but it didn’t grab me as something I wanted to do long-term. At university, it felt like teaching was an inferior option – something you did if you “weren’t good enough” to be a performer. When I finished my course, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Music took a backseat as I worked in a variety of jobs – in a bakery, a pharmacy, university admin – and did further study in other subjects that interested me – philosophy, psychology and linguistics.

It was through my other jobs that I discovered a love of teaching – I kept getting involved in training and mentoring other people. One of my mentees was insistent that I was well-suited to teaching: “whatever you teach, you should teach”. Around the same time, I was starting to play the flute more regularly again, and a couple of people asked me for lessons. It was as if everything fell into place and I realised what I should be doing with my life! I gradually built up teaching and playing work until I could leave my ‘day job’ and make a living from it.

I’m often grateful for having taken a long way round to a music career – it’s given me a lot of life experience outside of music, and training in all sorts of things that have been really useful as a self-employed teacher and musician – customer service, marketing, web skills, accounting.

I really enjoy teaching individual lessons, but I don’t think that they meet all the needs of developing musicians so I’m keen to provide other opportunities too. I run a flute choir for adult players, and it’s wonderful seeing how everyone learns from each other (and not just the less advanced from the more advanced – it works the other way too!). I put on regular get-togethers for my students where they practise ensemble playing and performing in front of other people. I arrange events with guest tutors so that players can benefit from different viewpoints and expertise – most recently a ‘Woodwind Fitness’ day, with sessions on Alexander Technique, posture and instrument maintenance. I’m passionate about how musical analysis can inform your playing, and I’ve recently started teaching music theory by distance learning, taking several students through the higher theory grades, which is very rewarding.

About half of my students are adults, and while I love teaching all ages, I feel there’s a real gap in provision for adult learners. Adults clearly have different needs and challenges to children, but it’s quite a neglected area in teacher training and academic research. My Masters dissertation used the analysis techniques I’d learned through studying linguistics to explore how adult learners talk and write about learning music, and I’ve recently embarked on a part-time PhD to expand this research. My aim is to find out what adults think, feel and need when learning an instrument, and what we can do as teachers to meet these needs.