Taking up an instrument abroad
Lucy studies Spanish and History at the University of Southampton. While on her year abroad in Madrid she worked for 6 months as a marketing intern in an art museum and then for the remaining 3 months as an intern bookseller in Casa del Libro. She also spent time creating a year abroad blog and learning to play the clarinet. Here's how she went about taking up an instrument abroad!
In the last month of my second year at uni, Evan Christopher, the famous clarinettist from New Orleans, and his band came to play at the Turner Sims concert hall on campus. As an anniversary treat my boyfriend and I went along and it was on that evening that my burning desire to play jazz clarinet came into being! After borrowing a friend's clarinet over the summer to enjoy a lovely birthday present of 4 lessons, I took the plunge and bought a second hand instrument of my own. Nestled in blue velvet my clarinet was then stowed in my suitcase to end up many miles away in Madrid.
The first few weeks of my time away were pretty hectic what with finding my way around the city, starting work and generally adapting to a life lived entirely in Spanish. Soon, though, I was eager to get going with my clarinet and did a quick Google search to find my first teacher; Marcos. On a freezing cold November evening I walked the 30 mins from my new flat to Lavapies. This barrio is one of the poorer parts of Madrid and many immigrants have set up home here. During the day it's buzzing with colour and life; mothers play with their children, African drumming groups sit on walls jamming away while saris and sequins hang in shop windows.
At night, however, it's a different story... In the dark it takes on quite a sinister feel and I was glad when Marcos eventually turned up; albeit an hour late. A short, dark-haired young man with an impressive ponytail and a bouncing walk, he led me up the many flights of stairs to the flat his friend had lent him for the evening's lesson. (I hasten to add that I had let a great deal of people know where I was and what time I would be back - I wasn't taking any chances!).
I spent one of the most bohemian evenings of my life in that flat. After clearing the tiny sofa of its debris (magazines, clothes, an ash tray etc.) we began the lesson. It was news to me that the Spanish have different names for the musical notes than we do. Instead of A B C etc. I was suddenly dealing with la, si, do, re, mi, fa and sol. After a long rambling speech about how the world of Jazz was a paradise that I had to get to by breaking down a huge metaphorical stone wall Marcos asked me to improvise for him. Improvise?? I tooted a few notes and saw him wince. He then asked if I minded if he smoked and we spent more or less the rest of the evening looking out over the rooftops and discussing how beautiful the moon was, how cats were the cleverest pets and the secrets of Madrid's incredible music scene. After explaining that this first lesson was free, he let me out into the icy night and I hurried home to my nice warm bed.
Unsurprisingly I didn't organise a second lesson... I wanted something a little more structured, something that involved actually playing the clarinet rather than sitting about smoking moodily and rhapsodising endlessly about jazz.
My next teacher, Ricardo (pictured above with me), was just right. Luckily he only lived a couple of streets away and from my first lesson with him I felt like I was really learning something. Having worked as a music teacher in England for many years he was able to conduct our lessons in Spanish but use the English names for the notes. We started out playing pieces from my beginner's book and then later on he gave me the sheet music for a tango and easy blues piece. He was always very patient and understanding (even when I'd forgotten to practice) and I began to really look forward to my hour's lesson every week. Having something regular in my diary helped me keep track of my time abroad and meant that if I'd had a bit of a rubbish morning Spanish- wise I knew that I'd have a good opportunity for conversation practice later. Ricardo was always jetting off to Berlin or London at the weekends to play in concerts so we had plenty to chat about and I learnt lots of new musical vocabulary.
After having a lesson a week for around 6 months, minus holidays etc, I feel like I'm really making progress with my clarinet. Going from nothing to being able to play more or less any piece in my book (after a bit of practice) is a great feeling and having done it in Spanish only makes me feel more proud of myself. You're unlikely to ever have more free time to take up new hobbies or learn something new than while on your year abroad - take advantage of the time while you can!
Top Tips For Learning an Instrument Abroad
Finding a teacher is obviously easier in a big city but don't despair if you're in a smaller town. Search online, on notice boards at uni or in local community centres and ask around - you may just strike gold. The teacher you have is of course the most important thing when learning something new. It's up to you what kind of teaching you favour but make sure to be safe. Whether you're taking lessons from a friend at uni or have found a teacher online make sure people know where you are and what time you'll be back. If you don't already have your own instrument then check out your uni's music department or local music shop. Often they have instruments available for rent. Prepare! Once you know what kind of instrument you want to learn it's a good idea to memorise some of the vocab you'll be using in French/Spanish etc. It just makes everything easier later on. Have a think about what kind of music you want to play. This is one of the first questions a new teacher is likely to ask you and it's so much easier for them if you say you like blues or country, for example, rather than just shrugging and saying "oh anything...". You're also more likely to enjoy practicing your new instrument if you're playing music you love. Have fun! Don't make this another thing to worry about while you're away. There's absolutely no pressure to continue with lessons if you're not enjoying yourself. Maybe take a break, find a different teacher or just grudgingly accept that this instrument isn't for you.