An article written by Charlotte Rowan in July 2021 reflecting on pursuing a career in music and teaching music during the Covid pandemic.

From Fortunas Magazine


Following a Career in Music

Every time I think back to the first time I played my violin, I always have to smile. It was my only successful attempt to avoid the annual Cross Country Championships at school, an event that I just simply dreaded. Instead of struggling up Tarmangie Hill in a light snow blizzard and a pair of gym shorts, I was collecting a new violin—one that would turn out to accompany me through school, university and every concert of my career.

I started learning the violin aged three and a half. From the very beginning, I was passionate about playing and inspiring others through music. By the time I joined Dollar in Form I, I was serious about pursuing this as a career and I dreamt of being a professional violinist.

The dreaded Cross Country Championships aside, I loved being a pupil at Dollar Academy. I was immensely excited and privileged to be given the chance to attend school here. I remember the wonderful diversity in learning; every day was a new adventure. Week 1, and I had already flooded the kitchen in Home Economics; Week 2, I had to be rescued from the swimming pool; Week 3, I was in waist-deep water fishing for algae in the River Devon; by Week 4, I was tramping 13 miles in the pouring rain over the Ochils. Learning had never been so much fun!

These memorable experiences were far removed from the violin world and, because of this, they provided me with essential breadth   and   balance in my education. There was always room to enjoy my other subjects, be inspired by my teachers, go to Ballroom Dancing on Friday evenings and use my lunchbreaks to drink hot chocolate in Café des Fleurs. I learned perspective and benefited from the advantages that playing music with other people can bring—I very much enjoyed attending orchestra rehearsals, playing chamber music with my peers and performing at school concerts.

When I was 16, my violin teacher suggested that I apply to some music colleges in America as she felt they would offer the best continuity to my playing style. I was offered a place at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory and so began an exciting new chapter in Baltimore. With students from all over the world, it was an amazing place to study, and it was an honour to be flying the flag for Scotland and the UK. Going from rural Clackmannanshire to downtown Baltimore was a big culture change but one that, with my Dollar training, I embraced with a powerful sense of adventure.

I stood very much in awe of the standard of my peers and the artistry of my professors. My schedule was non-stop and jam-packed with playing opportunities. A highlight was when my quartet was invited to perform for Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor. In my first year at Peabody I was selected to be concertmistress of the Undergraduate Orchestra, and I had the wonderful chance to perform with the pianist and conductor Leon Fleischer as well as for the Washington Performing Arts Series with Rob Kapilow. I graduated with high honours and decided to come back to the UK where I wanted to build up my solo concert career and teach.

As a classical violinist, this is no easy task; it took much perseverance, patience and, indeed, resourcefulness. I took a job in London with some school music services and I was soon teaching in north, south, east and west London,

zooming up and down Tube lines and teaching children of a staggering diversity of ethnicity, race and religion. On Tuesday mornings for example, I taught young Muslim girls in Bethnal Green; by the afternoon, I was in Stamford Hill, teaching girls of Orthodox Jewish heritage. If ever there was an image of music uniting people, then my experience of that time provides as much proof as could ever be required: so many different cultures and religions, all united by music as a result of Fiddle Time Joggers and their violin teacher. Fast-forward to the present day, and I now find myself in my eighth year of teaching violin, viola and chamber music at four independent schools in and around Cambridge.

2020 has, of course, been an unprecedented time, as a result of Covid-19, and there have been many challenges and changes for us all. The arts have suffered, too. On a personal note, I am really thankful that I was able to continue my teaching work online throughout lockdown. Music has, in many ways, been forced to embrace a new medium for creation and collaboration, and it has been a real learning curve to discover the remote possibilities of teaching. Whilst most activities had to stop during lockdown, music tuition managed to continue, albeit in virtual form. The violin became a loyal companion for many of my students, providing much- needed comfort and reassurance in these anxious times and a welcome break from the isolation of home learning. Many even picked up an additional skill: how to correctly assemble their music stand.

Of course, online lessons, no matter how brilliant they are, don’t always run smoothly. Pupils in Prep 3 quickly found that violins were fragile and could break easily, particularly when they tried to tune them. My heart sank each time a damaged instrument was held up to the screen for examination. These DIY ‘fix-your-own-violin’ violin lessons were trying by any stretch of the musical imagination, but many young pupils did learn an essential life skill—how to change a violin string—by their seventh birthday.

The success of online teaching has, sadly, not been so easy to transfer to my performing schedule. Indeed, the concert scene for all is somewhat of an arid landscape at the moment.

I have spent the last few years building up my recital work, performing for concert series, music societies and music festivals and appearing as a soloist with orchestras including Leeds Symphony Orchestra, Harlow Symphony and the Waveney Sinfonia. I have been on tours around Scotland, Yorkshire, Wales, southern England, Essex and East Anglia. I have performed solo Bach in a beautiful Baroque church in Germany and I have been Artist-in-Residence at the Wetherby Arts Festival.

The loss of this busy concert schedule has been disappointing, but, on the other hand, it has been a time to develop and rediscover. There have even been some new playing experiences. Over the summer I played with the Metropol Jazz Orchestra in Germany. Having never played jazz music in my life, this was certainly an interesting experience. My 16-bar improvisation solo in Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ was comparable to the feeling I had in Form III when the music fell off the stand during a performance of Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’. Nonetheless, it was just heartening to play with other musicians in front of a live audience.

With concert halls closed and theatre hatches battened down in the UK, it would seem that live classical music has nearly been brought to its knees. Whilst Wigmore Hall enthusiasts now have to settle for the King’s Arms Pub, the great irony is that the moment classical music lovers have been waiting centuries for has at last arrived: it can finally be definitively acknowledged that a performance of Mahler 2 is more dangerous than a vodka martini.

We can all appreciate the impact that music can have upon our lives and the lives of our children. We all have a capacity to enjoy music, and music has a unique capacity to unite us all. I am confident that, given time, concerts will be able to resume, the arts will continue to inspire and music will once again, bring great enjoyment to all.

Charlotte Rowan McGirr (FP 2009)

To find out more information about Charlottes work and future

performances, please visit: www.charlotterowan.com


October 2019

After the buzz of a concerto performance, it is important to take a little time to reflect on the journey that get us to that moment.

Being a violinist can be a lonely and solitary existence.

No one is with us in the practice room. There is no witness to that Sisyphean task of commitment, dedication, perseverance and self-discovery.  No one else hears the feeling of building a piece of music, one brick at a time. No one feels the frustration like you do, when your bricks of yesterday have fallen down and today’s job is shovelling from the very beginning again. No one feels the excitement when the bricks fit in easily, when the ideas flow, when the music sings, when satisfaction overrides dissatisfaction. And no one hears a creative mind struggle to be creative when creativity runs out. When the bricks are heavy and they don’t fit. When, try as you do to be inventive and resourceful and determined, nothing seems to work.

In my case, I have found this to happen when you get home after a full day of teaching and try to start practising. To go from inspiring children to inspiring yourself can be a difficult transition. To have ready patience with other people but then to struggle to be patient with yourself in zoning out from “work mode”  before channelling a new energy to achieve what you want to achieve in your own level of playing can be a big challenge. But it can be found and a happy balance between all these elements in a musician’s life does exist. Find that inner stability. Keep going, keep listening, keep analysing, keep trying to practice effectively and strive for the best that you want to be.  And never lose sight of that. For even if you cannot hear it, the piece will be growing and taking shape.  It might be inaudible and go without recognition, but the music begins to take on its own character, it begins, in tiny perceptions, to emerge with details, colours.  

That is what to me, what I have discovered or rather, re-discovered about being a musician. The concerts that we musicians give bring so many wonderful things to the world. The music we create can trigger so much, it offers a bridge to the past and a vision to the future, it makes people think, gives people new confidences or new contemplations. It offers them a time to reflect or a time to look for a new direction in their lives. Or simply, it is gives enjoyment.  These reasons matter to me. They are the fundamental reason of why I play the violin, why I am a musician and why I want to keep giving concerts and reaching new audiences.  But it is also important to acknowledge the journey that get us to that moment, to bring to light all the cogs and mechanisms behind the notes, to reflect on not only the positive feeling at the end of a concert but the myriad of emotion that gets us to that level of musicianship. For that process helps us be the strongest communicators of our music.