Interview with Nubiyan Twist – Teaching music in lockdown

Image Credit: Nubiyan Twist

What’s it like to start again as a music teacher when you’re used to life on tour? We asked two members of the band Nubiyan Twist how they’ve coped.

Musicians worldwide have found themselves looking for alternative income as the pandemic’s stranglehold on live music continues. Are you a musician whose life has been put on hold? Passing your wisdom on to eager students and watching them progress as a result can be very satisfying. But how does teaching online actually work?

We spoke to Jonny Enser and Denis Scully of band Nubiyan Twist about the frustrations and rewards of teaching music in the brave new post-Covid world. Usually they’d be bringing the noise as trumpeter and tenor sax player in the nine-piece afro-jazz band but they’re currently both focused on work as music educators. We chat to the pair just as Nubiyan Twist are gearing up for the release of their third album Freedom Fables. The sprawling, magnetic collective’s latest single ‘If I Know’ featuring K.O.G., is taken from the album – an exhilarating Afrobeat stomper with energy barely contained by speakers. You can imagine the heat from the stage – but that’s not something that’s possible right now, as we discuss.

Read on for what to expect as an online music student, advice for new teachers, Zoom tips, how to stay switched on in lockdown as both student and teacher, and what the future holds for Nubiyan Twist, one of the most exciting live bands creating music in the UK at the moment. Turns out there’s plenty of rewards from music teaching, when you least expect it.


Thanks for taking the time to talk! We’ve all had to adapt to this crazy new world we’ve found ourselves in, and musicians have been hit especially hard. How did you find the adjustment when the first lockdowns kicked in? 

Jonny: Impossible. It honestly felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my life. I had never planned for teaching to be my primary career and before 2020 it only made up about 30% of my income. So… the financial adjustment was severe.

Denis: Yeah, it’s been tough. I actually wasn’t doing any teaching before. I was just gigging, and then Covid hit and kind of forced my hand. So all the students I have now I’ve picked up since the start of lockdown.

Jonny: For me, in an average year teaching is part of my expression as an artist. It also helps provide financial consistency when gigs are slim, and for emotional and inspirational consistency when touring is intense.

Denis: It’s really just kind of helping me to supplement a crappy income right now, so I’m not purely surviving off it. But it definitely helps.

Jonny: Routine is how I’m getting through this time. I’m trying to be kind to myself.

What about your existing students, Jonny, how did they find the switch to online learning?

Jonny: Some have completely fallen by the wayside. Others have really engaged with it. The first lockdown saw all of my peripatetic teaching disappear for months so now it’s mostly online or resource based.

You’re both multi-instrumentalists. Which instruments do you teach?

Jonny: Trumpet, trombone, tuba, music theory and jazz harmony.

Denis: Mainly saxophone, piano and improvisation. I do a bit of flute and clarinet, and harmony as well.

…And what platform do you use to teach online?

Denis: I’ve been using Zoom since the start of the lockdowns.

Jonny: I find Zoom has the most adaptable interface for sharing resources. But whatever the student prefers… Facebook, Google Meets, Zoom, or Skype.

Can you think of any surprising upsides to remote learning? It must be hard to keep the same level of engagement as with lessons in person.

Denis: There’s quite a few upsides! You don’t have to worry about hiring a space – whereas before you might have paid a tenner an hour to hire a practise room, you’re now at home. You’re also not restricted by time like those places, so you’re not leaking over the time of spaces you’ve hired.

Oftentimes students don’t play their best in the lesson – because there’s other factors, you’re nervous or whatever. Whereas with people at home practising, they can record a couple of takes of something they like, send something they’re confident with over to me, then I’m getting their best product as well as hearing what they’re like in the lesson.

Denis

Jonny: Online is great for sharing resources and making sure all students have what they need for homework. It’s much easier to keep everything accessible rather than on pieces of paper that students will eventually lose…

Denis: I’ve had more time to analyse my students’ playing. Due to the restrictions of Zoom – the internet’s not always the best for reliably playing along with each other – I’ve been forced to get my students to send over a lot more recordings and videos of themselves playing. It also means they can send stuff when they’re feeling a bit more comfortable rather than in a lesson setting. That means I’m a bit more focused in the lesson, too, because I’m getting the chance to analyse all these recordings throughout the week.

So it’s a different experience, but not necessarily in a bad way. How about new students? Lots of people looking for a project in lockdown are considering trying a new instrument – or perhaps they’re complete newcomers to music looking to start learning an instrument. What are your top practical tips for anyone taking music lessons in lockdown?

Denis: I’d encourage any new student to take a big bulk of lessons. People can get disheartened after the first one or two weeks when they’re looking for immediate results. Give it a good trial. Both you and your teacher get a better opportunity to focus on the long game and there’s more chance of you improving properly.

Jonny: Be prepared for your lesson, have everything you need to succeed ready. Listen and be patient.

Denis: Find the best place in your house with good internet, making sure you’re there ready to go with five or ten minutes before your lesson; have your cup of tea sitting there, have your instrument set up. That counts for both the student and teacher, in case of problems with Zoom, someone’s password’s not working, or whatever.

Education is an incredible social phenomenon, hugely undervalued by many. Enjoy chatting with a specialist who has made the time to offer you support and inspiration. Do your best – ambition and determination are some of the greatest forms of self-love.

Jonny

Jonny: With school lessons, there isn’t really that much space for individual attention and feedback, as the lessons are short with up to four students at a time. It feels a bit more like I’m making instructional videos than interacting live with students.

Denis: Yeah, and with Zoom lessons there’s always going to be some sort of delay when playing with each other, so there’s going to be a lot more talking involved than in a normal one-on-one lesson in person. Just be wary that sometimes it might come across more as like a lecture that you’re watching, with a few little demos.

Jonny: Anyone using online video software should invest in a LAN internet cable. WIFI doesn’t cut it and leads to too many frustrating circumstances. 

Denis: I would also say: ask your teacher to record the lesson or be really strict with your notetaking. Then you can spend the week going back over your lesson, not being worried about forgetting everything that was said. There’s not going to be as many times as normal for the teacher to demonstrate whatever you’re working on during the lesson.

I guess one good thing about our mass switch to online living is how it’s made us more appreciative of how easily we can interact with people, no matter where they’re based. Have you gained new students you wouldn’t have before, because of online teaching?

Denis: I definitely had a load of new people I wouldn’t have reached otherwise. I had two students in Australia, one in America and then a load in England, so it was quite nice to teach people from all over the place.

Jonny: Yes! I have a student in Bristol, and before he would only have lessons with me when he was in London or I’d go there.

Take up music, you won’t regret it. It’s the perfect time and it’s such a good thing for your soul.

Denis

You’re used to playing with Nubiyan Twist, touring, booking gigs and recording as a band. It’s a whole different mindset when teaching. Any tips for musicians like yourselves who are looking to start teaching right now?

Jonny: Good luck, be prepared, be consistent, go the extra mile and keep in touch with your students regularly. I always have quite close friendships with my students and we have a lot of respect for each other.

Denis: Think of the long game. As I was saying before, I would strongly recommend musicians looking to teach now during Covid to encourage any new students to take on a package, four to 10 lessons or something similar. One, to secure a longer period of income for the teacher. But also, when I’m teaching anyway, I like to know that I’m going to have a chance to develop the student.

If you have four private students a week that is your rent… so definitely worth doing! Teaching in schools is even more consistent most of the time, so worth investigating your local music hubs.

Jonny

Denis: It’s true that during a period like this there’s a lot of people looking to start up new instruments and take up music for the first time, but sadly there’s also lots of people who are going to do it once and you won’t hear from them again. If someone’s saying ‘oh, I’ll take a lesson now and I might take another in a month or two’, they’ll end up having to repeat the previous lesson – obviously that’s dependent on how much people practice and stuff like that!

Jonny: Remember that life is teaching us patience whether we like it or not. I learnt how to teach on the job, but now have 10 years’ experience. I’ve made most of the mistakes I needed to make along the way, whether that be getting too invested or burning out.

What are Nubiyan Twist’s plans for 2021, pandemic or no pandemic?

Jonny: We’re releasing our third studio album Freedom Fables in March on Strut Records, which has been pushed back from September 2020. Along with the tour that has been rescheduled four times so far…

Denis: They’re trying to schedule some stuff, it keeps getting cancelled… I think I wouldn’t worry too much about the live shows and stuff this year, just focus on getting our album out.

Jonny: This album has been a mad journey, contouring different collaborations about their life stories. I’m really excited for it to be released. I also have two solos on this record which is new for me! I used to be content playing my parts the best I could, but I’m learning to step into the limelight and enjoy the opportunity to express myself. I am in great company in this project and love the brotherhood it’s brought.  

Denis: You have a better idea of the longer picture during Covid because you kind of know you’re not going to have gigs and you’re not going to be rehearsing or jamming with other musicians for a longer period… so there’s not as much pressure to be focused on immediate results. We can think ‘OK we can do this now, but what’s this going to sound like in six months?’ When we’re gigging every week, we’re looking at repertoire all the time, we’re looking at new tunes, whereas now everyone’s kind of got the ability to focus more on a long game I suppose.

I wonder if the challenges of the year have changed the way you teach… do you think you’ll keep teaching online after the pandemic? 

Jonny: I’ve learnt to be kind to myself! Whilst I am an ambassador of my instrument, it’s not the be-all and end-all whether a student keeps it up, as long I impart a love for music and they enjoy the session. Yes, I had online lessons before the pandemic, and will continue to after it’s over.

Denis: Yeah, there’s been plenty of challenges, but I probably will still do a bit of teaching after the pandemic. Like I said, I don’t normally do a lot of it, so when I do teach I would rather take on slightly more advanced students, or have a student for a good six months a year and really focus on their development.

And how about your own plans as musicians outside of the band and working in education?

Denis: Plans for 2021? (laughs) The plan is to have no plan. Everyone has been trying to for the last year, rescheduling gigs and all that, and I’ve just completely ignored all of it! I think it’s stupid trying to plan right now. So I’m literally taking it day by day. I’ve started doing a bit of writing but I’m just kind of flat out practising. Hopefully when this all blows over we’ll all have a chance to show off the stuff we’ve been working on!

If we keep thinking ‘oh we’ll have a tour next month’, then that gets cancelled, ‘oh we’ll have another one the following month’, then that gets cancelled… you’re just going to go on ups and downs, and the downs are going to be much harder than the ups, because you’re never getting the ups.

I think especially for people in the arts, your plan this year should be not to plan. I think if musicians take that approach, we’ll be a bit more sane.

Denis

Jonny: I’ve started my own journey with my project ‘Matters’ which embodies all my favourite influences in a way that I can really take charge of. I’m the driving force in the project through developing my own voice from collaborative composition, and I’ll be releasing a six track EP in April – so keep a look out for that on my Instagram. ‘Matters’ brings together my beatmaking, brass band and spiritual jazz.

Denis: I’d just like to say, if anyone is thinking of taking up an instrument – whether you’re brilliant or whether you’re muck at it, you will find a bit of pleasure out of it! It’s the same with people starting baking, golf, whatever you’re trying out this year. Just do it!


Some of the best and brightest musicians now have the time to pass on their expertise to eager students. It’s heartening to know that musicians who are unable to play live are finding their own inspiration through turning to teaching during the pandemic.


About Jonny Enser:

Jonny is a vibrant and exciting trumpeter who has been working as a session musician, educator and live performer for over 10 years. He studied with Neil Yates at Salford University and graduated from Leeds College of Music with an honours degree in Jazz Performance in 2013. He has performed in Cuba and lived in New Orleans, playing regularly in every major bar. Through working with the behemoth project Nubiyan Twist he has collaborated with artists such as Pat Thomas, Mulatu Astatke and Soweto Kinch. For the past 5 years he has been working to deliver peripatetic and workshop-based courses in jazz, brass band and classical music with educational hubs like Hackney Music Service. 

Whilst hailing from rural stock, he has vastly diverse interests and has been a motivated band leader and featured soloist in various ensembles appearing globally, and has accrued the versatility, performance experience and virtuosic knowledge to help guide any audience and student alike.

About Denis Scully:

Denis’s musical journey started at the age of five. He studied classical piano at the Royal Irish Academy of Music under a full scholarship, and at age 13 was accepted on another scholarship to study saxophone. He studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music until he was 18, before moving to the UK to study BA (Hons) Jazz at Leeds College of Music. Since graduating he has played and toured all over the UK and Europe, performing on main stages at Glastonbury Festival, Electric Picnic in Ireland, Istanbul Jazz Festival, Fusion in Germany, and Bahrain Jazz Festival.

While Denis performs a lot of neo-soul, hip-hop and reggae, his focus has always been jazz and improvisation. Denis’s influences are musicians such as Chris Potter, Troy Roberts, Seamus Blake and Dexter Gordon.

I write about music for RouteNote, sharing fun stuff, news, and tips and tricks for musicians and producers. Also a saxophonist and hater of marmalade.

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