Home Ed Music

By L Winter

“Wait, you were homeschooled?! Seriously?! Surely not… but you’re…” 

I’m what, normal? Social? Working? Happy? This is usually how the conversation goes when someone discovers that I was home educated for most of my child and teen years. Yes, not only am I a joyful, well-adjusted young adult despite my alternative education, but I’d like to suggest perhaps it is because of it. 

I wasn’t home educated from the start. I’m the eldest of five kids, and while my mum loved the idea of an education outside traditional school, my dad had memories of the wonderful school experience he had benefited from as a child, and so the decision was made that my siblings and I would also go to school. I started prep at a local primary school as a bright, happy and confident little girl who should have done well. However half way through grade one, it was clear things weren’t working. Because I wasn’t stimulated and challenged in class, I had disengaged from learning and wasn’t progressing. I’d come home at the end of a long day having spent all of my emotional energy at school, so I had nothing left for my family. 

My mum despaired; she had hoped for a family where we were best friends, where we would enjoy discovering life together.  But she couldn’t see this being achieved with me continuing at school. As holidays came to an end and I was due to start term three, my parents made the decision to pull me out. My mum figured she couldn’t ruin a six-year-old in six months and I could always go back if home education was a disaster. My dad famously said, “We’ll keep homeschooling until it stops working” and so far it hasn’t stopped working. Two of us are now proud home ed alumni, while my youngest three siblings are still being home educated. 

I would easily say that choosing to home educate was the best decision my parents ever made. The second best decision however was letting me have harp lessons. I come from a very musical background, with my mum studying violin at the Tasmanian Conservatorium in Hobart. It was important to my parents that each of us learn a musical instrument as part of our education. I saw the harp on an episode of Play School when I was four and was sold immediately, but my parents assured me that it was never going to happen. I began piano lessons at seven, which I really enjoyed and did very well at, and along the way I dabbled in a bit of violin, but I never lost the dream of playing the harp. Every time the conversation of a second instrument came up I was only interested in the harp and finally my 10th birthday present was the promise of finding me harp lessons. 

It all sort of fell into place naturally, a clear sign from God I believe that this was meant to be. While attending a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra ‘Classic Kids’ concert one day, I had the chance to meet the harpist, and it turned out she lived just around the corner from our house. Since I was free to take lessons during the day she said she would be willing to give me lessons at our home which was significant because by now there were four younger siblings, making going to lessons tricky. So began my harp journey; nobody knew at the time what we had just undertaken. 

By now music was an integral part of life in our household. My family’s home ed style is fairly structured, with mornings set aside for school work and study. And so instrument practice and music theory were in our schedules alongside maths, English, history and the rest of our subjects. Having said that, once our formal school work was done for the day we were encouraged to learn in many other ways. We’d play games together outdoors, or do artwork and baking inside. We are all crazy bookworms and it became a standard occurrence for us to inform our parents we needed more bookshelves every couple of years! Thanks to the dedication and hard work of my parents, my mum’s dream had been realised; we were a close family who loved each other and who loved learning. Not only that, but I had become a girl who was strong, courageous and confident in herself. 

Being given the opportunity to grow up and discover who I was in a safe, encouraging environment, rather than under constant pressure from peers, is a blessing that I am now incredibly thankful for. Make no mistake – I was a social butterfly and loved hanging out with my friends as much as any young girl! But because of home ed I chose who I spent my time with and avoided some of the bullying and negativity that sadly many kids experience. 

Both of my parents were heavily invested in my education, and my mum showed this especially when it came to music. She sat through all my piano and harp lessons (not to mention the lessons taken by my siblings) so she could then help with practice during the week. While I didn’t always enjoy my music practice, the fact that it was an expected part of my school day meant that I practised diligently, and often early in the day when I wasn’t tired. Due to my parents support and involvement, as well as the accountability to practice every day, I progressed quickly on both piano and harp. But by the time I was a young teenager, I was starting to become disillusioned with music. 

One of the few downsides to home ed was that there were no school ensembles or productions to play in. I knew a few kids who played piano, but it’s not really a group instrument, and there certainly weren’t any other young harpists around. I started to consider quitting, but by this time I was nearly at Grade 8 piano and my parents had bought me a full size orchestral pedal harp. I was stubborn enough to want to finish what I started on the piano, plus I knew just how much my parents had sacrificed to provide me with my harp. While I knew they would support me if I decided to move on from harp, I personally felt I would be the most ungrateful wretch on the planet if I threw it away now. 

Thankfully things started to shift the year I was 15. With a lot of support from my parents I put myself through my Grade 8 piano exam, and shortly after my harp teacher suggested I attend State Music Camp (SMC). This was my first experience of playing in an orchestra and it opened up a whole new world to me. I began to see that there might be more to music than just practicing on my own in the lounge room. As an interesting side story, while at SMC I became friends with a lovely girl my age, who it later turned out was also home educated! We thought it was hilarious that out of over a hundred teens we could have hung out with, we somehow found the only other homeschooler attending. We are still close friends today. 

Over the next year I had the chance to play at a couple of events, attend another music camp and fill in for a community orchestra’s concert, which led up to the moment that changed my music life. At 16 I was offered a paid job of playing harp in the pit orchestra for a local production of The King & I. Looking back now I was crazy to take the role, and my parents were crazy to let me. The music was not only difficult with multiple solos, but the show was long which required huge amounts of mental stamina and physical endurance. There was only one other teenager involved and the pressure was on to keep up both my playing and my attitude to match the other musicians who had been professionals for years. Not only that but the hours were numerous with late night finishes; in ten days I spent at least 45 hours at the theatre, with my dad usually driving me home close to midnight. If I had not been home educated, I don’t think there is any way I could have made it through as the flexibility to adjust my education around my extra commitments, not to mention the option to sleep in during the week, was invaluable. While by the end of it I was exhausted, I also knew that this was it– I loved this side of music and wanted to play for the rest of my life. 

From that time on I have rarely not had a project in the calendar. Every couple months would find me being called up to work for a community orchestra concert, with the occasional function or event in between. I even played for another musical, which was thankfully less intense! As I was unable to drive, a lot of gratitude is due to my dad, who spent countless hours driving and waiting for me at my many jobs, as without his support I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did. And so I began to finish up my secondary schooling in order to focus ahead on what was to come: university. 

Yes, that’s right, home educated kids can get into uni! My dad had started taking me to uni open days in year 10 as a way for me to discover what career and study options were out there, and once I knew I wanted to do music, we contacted the specific universities to ask what the requirements were for non-VCE entry. A lot of people don’t know that many courses have places set aside for students entering from alternate pathways. Based on that, I transitioned from formal Home education to taking uni units online through Open Universities Australia.

Obviously applying to study music, I was required to pass an audition like every other applicant, no matter what their background. Having never been assessed academically by an outside organisation, my parents and I were interested to see how my work would stack up. At the end of my first online unit, which was English based, I received some feedback from the coordinator; they said that when they heard a young homeschooler was attempting the unit they assumed they would have to give me special consideration and mark easy. Instead they were surprised to discover the essays I submitted were consistently some of the best in the entire class, and I received high grades completely off my own merit. Safe to say my home education had not failed me but had actually prepared me well. 

I was accepted into my first uni preference and began studying a Bachelor of Music at Monash University’s School of Music at the start of 2017. Starting at Monash, I guess you could say my home ed journey was finished. There were a lot of people who thought I would struggle to transition, but despite my last minute doubts, home ed prepared me for uni in many ways. I was used to studying independently and self- managing my time, which meant learning to juggle classes, rehearsals and practice, along with assignments, so it wasn’t a huge challenge. Also, I had been brought up to value education and I knew it was a privilege to be a student at Monash. I recognised the fact that incredible people, who were professionals in their field, were giving me their wisdom, encouragement and time to help me be the best person I could be. 

In second year, I had the opportunity to study intensively for a few weeks at Monash’s Italian centre with a select group of Monash music students. In third year Monash allowed me to organise my own internship as part of my course, so I approached Orchestra Victoria and spent ten weeks as their first intern ever. And to answer all those critics who think homeschoolers can’t socialise, I made so many friends my family lost track of them all! 

Through a lot of hard work, both in terms of practicing my harp skills and developing a network of industry connections, my career in music was no longer a dream of the future. I graduated at the end of 2019 and I am still connected with a few of the School of Music staff, not to mention still close friends with some incredible young people I met at Monash. 

Just like everyone else, my life is currently on hold this year. While I am still teaching my music students, my other projects have been cancelled and it’s been difficult to come to terms with the fact that the performances I had looked forward to now won’t happen. But that doesn’t mean that music has to be over, and I have started recording and uploading harp pieces to YouTube which I enjoy immensely. 

My siblings are all amazing musicians in their own right and so we created a brand, Winter Music, under which we run a website and social media pages as a way to support and promote each other’s work. Sometimes we’ll just randomly sit down and have a jam session in our front room, with the Aladdin soundtrack or songs from church or our favourites at the moment. I’m enjoying this opportunity to gather with my siblings while I have the extra time at home. And in a way life has come full circle with my home education journey, as I am back starting every morning teaching my younger siblings their history lessons and helping them with their school work. Because in this family, home education is our way of life. I am proud to be a home education alumni. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Otherways 165

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