Teacher focus: Dr Robin Harrison Jump to main content

Teacher focus: Dr Robin Harrison

To call myself a private teacher is to reflect on only part of the bigger picture. So many musicians have a 'portfolio' of activities. I'm fortunate to be an RCO (Royal College of Organists) Accredited Academy Teacher and as a result I have undergraduate and post-graduate students at Durham University. I am Director of Music at a wonderful independent school (Barnard Castle Prep School) as well as their Chapel Organist. I privately teach all ages, currently from 6 to people in their 80s in piano (jazz and classical), organ, classical singing, musical theatre, pop vocals, theory, aural and even A Level. I regularly record jazz improvisations and uploaded them to my Reverbnationpage (as Dr Ivor E Keys) where I reached no. 1 in the UK and 33 globally. My styles are broad and so is my work. My performances take me from cathedrals to university awards ceremonies to weddings (both services and receptions). I am also on the Guild of Adjudicators and Workshop Presenters, spearheaded by the very enthusiastic Douglas Coombes MBE and now part of the ISM provision.

With all this in mind, there is no typical day, but the hours are always long. I tend to rise around 6:15, or earlier if my 3 year old jumps on me in bed before (the earlier sunrise doesn't help!) and leave around 7:00 am. I arrive at my school around 7:45 and start a supervision duty at 8:15. The day starts with a Chapel service in which a hymn is sung and music is played in and out. I reckon that organists must perform in public more frequently than any other musicians. Sometimes I use the time before a service to further enhance my improvisation skills and this can be based on a hymn tune for the service or a piece that I'm currently learning, often to accompany their Chapel Choir. I take some of the chord progressions and see where they will lead me, or start with a phrase and see if I can continue the style.

The day continues with a range of class music lessons, very much influenced by solfege and the movable do system. I don't join others for lunch as I'm busy preparing for the lunch time activity that may be a choir, orchestra or other rehearsal. I love the school, the staff and the pupils, but, being Prep based, I feel the need to further stretch myself and my skills. In the evenings, I will see a few private pupils at home. I am so fortunate to have wonderful pupils. Of course, they all find challenges in what they are working on and there is definitely a fine art in choosing the next piece in their repertoire that will both inspire them and challenge them in a specific area that they need to develop. A large part of my job, which, thanks to an ISM day course, is now more significantly part of my day is managing anxieties. Most people are very self-conscious about performing to others and so it feels to me that private music teachers have a role as counsellor. I see every pupil as an individual and try to identify specific needs and then a tool or route to a solution. It's the ability to have a toolkit of approaches (no single approach works for everyone) to help people overcome their challenges that matters most to me. Reflecting on each lesson before the next week very much helps and my daily drives help sort information as well as create new approaches. The bigger picture, being creative around a piece from improvising to creating games and exercises are all crucial to stimulating learning.

The final performance aspect of my day is the most important. It's what Dr Stephen Covey would call "Sharpening the Saw". Both as a classical musician and jazz pianist, I take "Sharpening the Saw" as crucial. In essence, this means practising, but, more than that, it means pushing the boundaries and putting myself in positions slightly beyond my comfort zone. If I am accompanying a choir, I like to prepare my pieces in such a way that I know I can comfortably play with a range of professional choirs and so I find youtube an invaluable resource. I also like to improvise on such accompaniments as well as try a range of activities such as transposing them. At the end of the day I try to spend 10-15 minutes creating a new jazz improvisation, but there isn't always the time. I aim to choose a piece and record it live, without editing and then upload it. This pushes me to produce as near as possible a public performance in a short amount of time so that I am constantly gig-ready. In my slightly 'out-there' opinion, if you are not sharpening the saw as a teacher and as a performer then you shouldn't really be teaching.

At around 9:30 or so, I sit down and turn my head to planning and paperwork. I need to review my day, consider what went well and what I need to refine for next week. I also need to think about the next day. There are always 1000 things juggling in my brain. Tonight, it's 10:20 pm and I'm thinking "I promised to write that Blog for the ISM".

I usually stop work around 11:15 or so. TV is crucial for a bit of a wind down, alongside my very supportive wife at my side. I always end the day happily thinking about my incredible range of pupils: the enthusiasm of Reception aged children, to instrumental and choral ensembles, to private A Level pupils, pupils about to go to Dance Schools, Musical Theatre Colleges or to study music at University, then my undergraduate and post-graduate pupils who stretch my teaching much further and in a very different way and finally my performances as a classical and jazz musician. It's exhausting, but very rewarding.