Teaching music can be a joy, but can it support travel?

YES! Learn about a job that pays to travel the world administering music testing!

Let’s meet a music teacher from England who has a dream career as a music examiner with Trinity College of Music.

Teaching Traveling: Fiona, tell us about your background. 

A poster in India to celebrate Fiona's arrival.

A poster in India to celebrate Fiona’s arrival.

Fiona: Hello! I’m the writer behind Passport and Piano, a travel blog about destinations beyond the ordinary. I graduated with a degree in music just over 20 years ago, and I’ve spent much of my career teaching music in UK schools.

In 2016 I decided it was time for a career change, and although I was still passionate about teaching, I’d had enough of the politics within education. I wanted to be still involved in music and becoming a music examiner for Trinity College of Music in London has allowed me to combine my love for music with travel.

I now travel the world examining candidates in graded and diploma instrumental music examinations. I get to visit schools and academies around the globe. Gaining insights into different educational systems and meeting teachers from around the world has inspired my own teaching, and I continue to learn each day.

It’s a fabulous job to hold, and I treasure all the opportunities that come my way. Having been lucky enough to travel to so many countries, I recently started my travel blog, Passport and Piano, in the hope to encourage people to visit destinations that are beyond the ordinary.

Fiona trying out a traditional Thai instrument.

Fiona trying out a traditional Thai instrument.

TT: Wow! Tell us more about your travels through music examinations.

F: I travel abroad for approximately 6 months of the year, and much of that time is spent examining in schools. I’ve worked in low-income areas of India, as well as some of the world’s highest income private schools.

In my experience, you find that people who own little take more pride in the things that they do have. The hospitality in the lowest income destinations never ceases to amaze me.

A few years ago, I spent a month working in Delhi, and every lunchtime I would be escorted to the local market by my steward. He taught me lots about his Sikh culture, and when I expressed an interest in taking an Indian cookery lesson, he insisted that I visited their family home so that his father could teach me.

After work, I hopped on his motorbike and took a daredevil ride through the roads of Delhi. Indian people will often tell you that your life is in the excellent care of the Gods, so there’s no need to worry. However, it’s not an experience I’d recommend. The traffic is manic, and the cows on the road only add to the chaos.

Their home was an eye-opener to me. They were a family of little means, and the house consisted of just a couple of rooms. There was no decor as such, and no doors or windows; it was completely open to the elements. The kitchen was a piece of stone with 2 small gas burners.

They had every kind of lentil in existence, and his father had gone to great lengths to write down the various combinations of vegetables used in Indian cookery.

He spent three hours teaching me how to make multiple dishes, including dahl, parathas and pilau rice. The meal was fantastic, and this was an experience I’ll always look fondly back on.

Combinations of vegetables from Indian cookery class.

Combinations of vegetables from Indian cookery class.

TT: Powerful story. When administering music tests, how do you decide where to travel?

F: I have no control over which destinations that I am sent to work in, but I appreciate the opportunities that every country gives me. In recent years I’ve worked throughout India, Malaysia, Thailand, South Africa, UK and Australia.

TT: Wow! So your job pays for you to travel as a music examiner? 

F: I consider myself to be so fortunate, as work pays for my transport, accommodation and food. This means that on my days off, I can afford to take day trips to amazing places such as the Taj Mahal, The Great Barrier Reef and most recently some of the islands in Thailand and Malaysia.

Fiona at the Taj Mahal in India!

Fiona at the Taj Mahal in India!

TT: Awesome! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.

Travelling has had a significant impact on me as a person. Having experienced education systems around the world, one of the things that saddens me now in the UK is how little parents and children value education next to other nationalities, particularly in Asia.

In Asia, it seems from my observations that culture and activities such as music are a high priority. Parents will go to great lengths and sacrifice everything to ensure that their children have the best opportunities.

In return, many of the students in Asia that I have worked with seem incredibly appreciative and extremely hard working. They don’t appear to me to be as distracted by mobile phones and social media. That’s not to say some don’t have them, but homework and learning are always put first.

I can only speak for music, but, interestingly, many children in Asia learn the piano, and the average standard achieved is grade 8. In contrast, in the UK, only around 29% of teenagers have practiced a musical instrument in the last 12 months, and although I don’t know the statistic, my experience tells me that the average standard reached is around grade 5.

When I’ve spoken to children about the importance of learning, the answer they always tell me is, “In Asia that you have to work hard to get a job. Without qualifications, you will not survive, as the population is so large. You have to have a degree for most positions in the work force.”

Young piano students in Thailand.

Young piano students in Thailand.

TT: Fascinating. How have your travels impacted you in your music teaching career, and as a person?

F: I think travel has a positive impact on anyone who embraces all that it can bring. I believe that everyone should travel as much as they can. Whether you travel to relax, explore or gain knowledge, the experience of different cultures and sites can be such a positive one.

Through my travels, I’ve learnt so much about myself. It’s made more resilient in everyday life and I value the things that I have far more than I used to. The more you experience the world — its different nations, its magnificent wildlife and stunning scenery — the more you have to offer the world in return. It’s a positive circle that just keeps getting bigger.

A music academy in a small village outside Johur in Malaysia.

A music academy in a small village outside Johur in Malaysia.

TT: So true. What experience has touched you most in the music exam room?

F: I’ve heard many talented young musicians, but I came across an African girl at a prestigious school in Switzerland who was taking her grade 8 singing examination.

She had a beautiful operatic voice, and at the end of the session, I had the opportunity to speak to her. The school awarded two scholarships each year to African children with academic potential. The scholarship funded not only their place at this boarding school but also their studies through university.

This young lady was from a remote village in Africa which had no electricity and no running water. Chatting to her, it was so apparent how grateful she was of this opportunity and what it meant for her village in the future.

She talked about how privileged and blessed she was to have received this place. In the future, she hoped to be able to pay for the village to have access to basic amenities. The school paid for her to return home several times a year, and she told me that even though it was fantastic to live in the western world, she still loved travelling back home.

I was so touched by her story; it brought tears to my eyes. However, it also reminded me that your place of birth still determines, for most, your future. In a world where we waste so many resources, tragically, there are still so many people who don’t have the basics. All children deserve the right to an education.

Just recently, I travelled to Mulu in the north of Borneo, and in the visitor’s centre, there was a sign asking travellers to leave any unwanted books, as the school was short of reading material.

Given how many schools in the UK are now disposing of books and turning to iPads, it’s sad that there isn’t more being done to ensure that our unwanted resources are sent to those who really need them.

TT: Absolutely. What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching? 

There’s nothing more powerful in life than sharing the knowledge you have. The greatest gift is to learn, and there’s nothing more rewarding than teaching.

Whether you volunteer or apply for a job at an international school, you will learn so much more by teaching in a different country. A good teacher will change someone’s life forever, which is an incredibly powerful thought, and one which I cherish.

TT: Thanks so much, Fiona. Readers, what comments or questions do you have for this world traveling music examiner? 

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