This week’s weekly programme is an introduction to Mary Cohen a classical musician who uses her gifts to bring music to children in schools as well as educating the professionals who teach a love of music. Here is Mary in conversation with eRotarian John Isles.
John: Mary, welcome may I start by asking you to tell us a little about yourself?
Mary: I am a professional musician with a wide interest in the arts. As a Teacher I am known internationally as a String Specialist, and my ‘Technique’ books are used world-wide. As a Composer, I write to commission for any instrument you’d find in an orchestra, also for piano, for voice, and for choir. I write bespoke music for Education Outreach projects – bringing professional orchestral musicians, students, and schools together. A fun aspect of my composing portfolio is being commissioned to write ‘Miniature’ pieces as gifts for special occasions. Many of these are small enough to be framed and hung on the wall, but the largest so far is an 18th birthday present with 18 miniature sections.
Switching to using a different part of the brain can help the subconscious get on with sorting out problems, so if I get stuck with something I might take a break by doing a photo shoot.
John: How did you become involved in what you do now?
Mary: I come from a background where it was usual to hear classical music all day long. So it was natural to start playing when I was tiny, and it was clear I had talent as a performer. I could read music fluently by the age of four, and started writing compositions down at about seven. Several members of my family were teachers – so that is in the genes too! My mother was a superb organiser, and I think her genes have given me the aptitude for seeing projects through ‘three dimensionally’ from start to finish. This has been very helpful in the past when applying for grants from The Arts Council, The National Lottery, and other large Trusts and Foundations.
When I was in my teens, a neighbour’s baby had serious birth defects caused by German measles. He went to a school for children with profound hearing problems, which used one of the first classroom loop systems in the UK. This triggered my interest in education for children with a variety of learning difficulties. Years later, I got a reputation for being good with children who otherwise struggled with standard learning environments. Through careful observation, I discovered that people favoured different ways of learning – decades before ‘learning styles’ were talked about. This made teaching endlessly fascinating!
At the Royal College of Music, as well as solo and orchestral music, I loved playing chamber music. When I graduated, I joined the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but still enjoyed the contrast of giving chamber music recitals with friends. In my private teaching practice, I began to introduce pupils to the fun of chamber music.
What started out as occasional workshop days in the holidays evolved into a twenty year project called ‘String Quartets From Scratch’. The principle behind SQFS (“Squiffs”) was that every child had a weekly chamber music session as well as an individual lesson. For many pupils, these extra lessons were funded by bursaries. Fundraising took up about 50% of my time.
The principle behind SQFS was that all the pupils were given equal opportunities, and it didn’t matter how long they took to develop skills and musicianship. This idea worked particularly well since as a composer I was able to write bespoke music for each session. Often I would have five or six different versions of a piece, specifically adapted for different players. As a valuable resource, much of this material has been published in the Faber Music catalogue, and some is available as digital downloads in my e-shop, “Mary’s Music Cupboard”, which is run for me by Faber Music.
Mary: I have recently relocated to Wiltshire and want to continue my professional work ‘enabling’ people of all ages and types to learn something life-enhancing – like playing music. Many people are told that they ‘can’t’ do music, for whatever reason, and this rejection can bug them. The Rotary Club seems to be a ‘can do’ organisation – perhaps together we could get something going! In particular, having just finished a very successful Education Outreach commission in Sweden, I would love to have a new one here in the South West. I love composing ‘real music’ for pupils of all ages and stages.
John: If you were able to “bend the ear” of a leading politician what one thing would you want to see them do to make the world a better place?
Mary: Make suitable alternative educational provision available as early as possible for pupils who learn at a slower pace, and who often fail in the current syllabus driven systems. There is nothing wrong with syllabuses, but they should have enough breadth to allow for a variety of learning styles, and for different rates of learning. There are always children who ‘can’t keep up’. They suffer most in the seemingly endless rounds of tests and assessments.
John: Finally, if you hadn’t done what you do now what do you think you may have done?
Mary: Studied landscape gardening and photography.
John: Thanks for sharing with us and we wish you success in the future.