31 August 2015

Telling Musical Stories


It is getting to the stage where any concert featuring Clarence Lee is almost guaranteed to be something special, and that was certainly the case with Monday lunchtime’s students’ recital at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore.  Lee opened with Chopin’s Ballade in F minor holding the usually restless audience in thrall from the very outset.  He does not indulge in the physical mannerisms, the exhibitionist quirks or the machine-like obsession with technical precision of other pianists on the threshold of their careers; rather he addresses the piano as the means by which he is going to convey the visions and ideas of the composer, and through subtle nuance of tone and a real appreciation of musical architecture, he communicates a powerful sense of interpretative authority.  His focus is, above all, on communicating the story of the music, and all his efforts go into that.  In this case we had a vivid and compelling Ballade delivered, as the title suggests, in the manner of a detailed and absorbing tale.  Those irritating Chopin-isms much beloved by so many pianists – anguished pauses, copious rubatos and rolling ecstatic expressiveness – had no place here, and the result was a performance of real musical distinction.

More vivid story telling came with two movements from Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto.  Violinist Xu Minjia and pianist Ge Xiaozhe delivered a superbly lyrical “Aria II” and a truly scintillating “Capriccio”, and if, in both movements, the impact of the respective openings was not fully sustained through to the end – in the Aria it needed a little more interpretative coordination to match  Xu’s instinctively poetic phrasing with Ge’s crisply articulated piano line – both players showed a real affinity with Stravinsky’s almost obsessively driven rhythmic writing and his sharp-edged, crystal clear textures.  Perhaps wit and colour were at a premium; but we could all appreciate the astonishing technical assurance of these two players in music which is not always easy to communicate.

One of the good things about having so iconic a Head of Brass as Brett Stemple is the prominence given in performances in the Conservatory to the tuba.  Although he would be the last person to agree, Stemple is probably doing more to elevate the tuba  from its perceived place as Big Round Bottom than anyone else around today, not by writing new music or promoting it shamelessly in performances, but by imbuing into his students that same sense of musical integrity and conviction that characterises his own playing.  Today it was the turn of Teng Siang Hong to present two short and very descriptive pieces, beginning with a movement from the Tuba Sonata by the 65-year-old Norwegian composer Trygve Madsen.  The haunting, evocative theme given out by the tuba at the start immediately characterised Teng as a sensitive player whose beautifully smooth and rounded tone, gently caressed by the slightest hint of a vibrato, was supported by a wonderful level of breath control and stability.  If the music told tales of fjords and forests, it avoided any hint of the kind of deep grotesqueries we might be tempted to look for in tuba writing.  A fine work, beautifully and compellingly played today.  Although largely reflective and at times subdued, Quiescence, composed by Teng’s accompanist for the day, Low Shao Suan, revealed its origins as a piece for double bass rather than tuba, and from the long sustained notes to the frequent alternations of notes, it was certainly far more idiomatic of string than brass writing.  But in Teng the work had a fine advocate who not only took ownership of these rather obvious string-isms and made them sound quite at home on the tuba, but also understood the piece to be far more than just a catalogue of technical devices. As with Lee and Xu, Teng also showed that a combination of real technical skill and intense interpretative awareness can create vivid and wholly absorbing musical performances.

27 August 2015

Is Culture Necessary?


Following a most enlightening presentation at the National University of Singapore, I found myself in the company of several people from various academic disciplines who, over the customary platefuls of food which characterise any group activity in Singapore, were  eagerly discussing a point made in the presentation about multiculturalism over multiracialism.  An idea had been mooted that while the different races and ethnic groups which constitute the population of Singapore were polarised by preconceived stereotypes, it was easier to create a harmonious society through sharing cultural ties.  The principal speaker in the presentation, a former government minister, illustrated the point with a brilliant drumming analogy which, sadly, only works when seen and heard and makes no sense in print.  Our post-presentation, over-food discussion drew from me the conviction that, at 50 years of age, it was unrealistic to expect Singapore to have established any real sense of cultural identity which would be a cohesive element in a multi-racial society.  However, several around me pointed out that already there were signs at a more superficial level of characteristics which differentiated Singaporean Chinese, Malays and Indians, from those in other countries.  Agreeing to this (after all we were all sharing the same food, which is not the case with some of Singapore’s neighbours) I pushed the point that it was at a deeper, cultural level that true national identities were forged, and that despite a growing independent musical culture here, it was still a long way off being sufficiently distinct to be seen as truly Singaporean, as opposed to Chinese, Malay or anything else.  Composers such as Robert Casteels and Ho Chee Kong have certainly begun to add a genuinely Singaporean dimension to their work, but still one is seen as primarily European and the other primarily Chinese (indeed, as a shocking indictment of the lack of true multi-racialism in Singapore, Casteels is not even listed on the database of Singaporean composers held by the NUS library, despite the fact that he has been a Singaporean for the past 20 years.

Having got that all off my chest, one of our group posed the question, “Is culture necessary?”  If the population can forge a national identity through its food, its approach to littering and obeying the law, through its assimilation of a little red dot as a symbol of nationhood and through its positive celebration of racial harmony, is a shared culture not more the icing on the cake than the bedrock?  And if this is so, is not culture unnecessary at both the national and individual level?

Culture itself is such a complex issue that few people would probably wholly agree to a single definition, but for me two of the definitions in the Oxford Dictionary of English seem superficially acceptable; “the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society” and “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”.  For me, culture implies those elements which define humankind; that mixture of intellectual, natural and physical behaviours which not only differentiate human beings from the rest of the animal world, but which help define our  roots in a particular society.  For many, the more intricate and laden with assumptions of knowledge and experience a cultural landscape is, the more indicative is it of an “advanced” society.  Early Aboriginal paintings, for example, have none of the intellectual layers which went into early Byzantine art, so we are inclined to categorise the former as more “primitive” than the latter.  Whether these assumptions and labels are appropriate or even justified is one issue, but I have never questioned whether culture itself is an essential element in any society.



In that societies seem to be largely (wholly?) defined by their shared culture, clearly seems to imply that there is a need for it; and where cultures clash (one thinks most immediately of Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka where cultural issues sparked major conflicts through much of the 20th century) society becomes dangerously fragmented.  Countries owe their very existence to cultural differences, not merely ethnic nor linguistic ones, with their former cohabitees (South Sudan/Sudan, East Timor/Indonesia and, most obviously, Singapore/Malaysia), and where people have built up a shared cultural heritage over centuries, a measure of stability tends to inform their lives.

So it seems that culture is vitally important to the creation and sustaining of a society.  But is it the very foundation of that society, or is it merely the decoration and fabric of an edifice which, structurally, would not suffer by its loss?  Without culture, would society disintegrate or would it carry on albeit considerably poorer; akin to the man losing both arms and both legs yet still alive.  Quality of life is one thing, life itself is another, and I find it difficult to see culture as affecting just the quality of our lives; I really believe it to be fundamental to the creation and establishment of society. 

It follows that, while a country can comprise numerous racial groups, society itself, with all that entails in terms of social cohesion and stability, really does need culture.

26 August 2015

Touching Piano Memories


It was billed as a Piano Recital; which was precisely what it was.  If, however, the Hong Kong pianist Susan Chan had wanted a more descriptive billing, “Looking Back to the Past”, or simply, “Nostalgia”, would have done the job.  All nine works in her recital at Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall last night were, in one way or another, concerned with revisiting the past from the perspective of a later present.

It began with a slice of true nostalgia.  As a young boy in 1950s London, I learnt to love Bach and the piano through Myra Hess’s reworking of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with its superimposed harmonies, lashings of pedal and rich dynamic palette.  Chan went one step further and rooted out a version made by pianist Wilhelm Kempff in 1938.  Blissfully unaware of the period authenticity movement which grew up and, to a certain extent, withered in the intervening years, Kempff threw in opulent harmonies, sensuous phrasing, generous pedalling, copious expression markings and an array of dynamics to create a piece of undoubted beauty.  It is easy, now, to make this sort of thing sound pastiche, even cloying, but Chan’s impeccable performance avoided any excess of sentimentality by a faithful delivery of Kempff’s detailed score gloriously enhanced by a clarity of touch which ensured the perfect balance within the musical texture.  Every line – every note - was precisely placed to create an intricate web of detail, the chorale line emerging effortlessly from the enveloping accompaniment despite Kempff’s abrupt moving of it from treble to tenor half way through.  The only minor irritant was Chan’s shying away from the final fortissimo of Kempff’s “Wachet auf” arrangement.

If Kempff laid on early 20th century romanticism with a somewhat heavy hand in his Bach arrangements, a decade earlier Harold Bauer had shovelled it on in spades, turning the discreet “My Soul Doth Rest in Jesus” from Cantata 127 into something of a display for pianistic expressiveness.  Again, Chan side-stepped any hint of irony in her performance through some subtle inner shading of the texture and by producing a tone which was simply gorgeous on its own terms.  But if Bauer over-egged the Bach, his version of César Franck’s Prélude, fugue et variation thoroughly distorted the original, transforming it from a naïve and innocent work for organ into something almost melodramatic.  Lovingly lingering arpeggios inserted into the bridge between Prelude and Fugue pretty well excluded any memories of Franck but gave us all a chance to relish the delicacy and suppleness of Chan’s fingers, each note ideally balanced to fit into an overall soundscape which was translucent and shimmering.  Her handling of the metamorphosis of Fugue into the decorated restatement of the Prelude (the somewhat disingenuous “Variation” of Franck’s original title) was a moment to savour and will long linger in the memory.

There was one incongruity here; Mozart’s Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”.  The nostalgia here may have been Mozart looking back to the songs of his childhood, but more significant was Chan’s performing approach which harked back to the days when playing Mozart was considered more of a technical exercise than a musical indulgence.  True, with 12 short variations mostly in the same key, at the same speed and revisiting the same basic material, the work is hardly a demonstration of great genius at its apogee, but with no significant use of dynamic or even a hint of rubato to give the overall piece a sense of architecture, we were left to ponder Chan’s essentially graceful technique, where tone and balance rule the day.

The nostalgia of the second half of the recital was mostly in the guise of memories of Chinese childhood.  Most obviously this came with Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolor which, as Chan explained, were written out of homesickness when the composer was first alone in Beijing and wistfully recalling the stories and songs of the Hunan Province of his childhood.  It was described in the programme booklet as Tan’s “Opus 1”, but for all its youthfulness, Tan hallmarks were ever present; the infusion of Hunanese folk songs, real or implied, married to the harmonic and rhythmic discipline of the West, and with touches of jazz and dissonance providing moments of enticing musical spice.  Here, Chan’s subtle sense of colour and discrete virtuosity resulted in a performance which was as memorable for its delicacy and poise as for the images it created. 

The highlight of the recital both as music and performance, was Zhou Long’s Pianobells of 2012.  Chan clearly has a powerful affinity with this music, and while Zhou’s memories of temple bells chiming in the winds could have become a brightly lit musical tableau, his ingenious use of the piano, exploiting a vast array of playing techniques and exploring its full pitch range, coupled with Chan’s astonishingly intuitive tonal control – those huge clusters in the bass had just the right weight to counterbalance the tinklings in the treble – elevated this way beyond the merely evocative and turned it into a work of considerable interest.

It was Zhou’s wife, Chen Yi, who contributed both the final and the most recent work in Chan’s programme; Northern Scenes of 2013.  In this marriage it is she who is, musically, often the more assertive, and that was the case here, with her recollections of the mountain ranges of Northern China given an almost angry – not to say bitter - edge.  The lasting memory of this piece, however, will be its ending which manages to be both abrupt and protracted.  Chan measured this to perfection.

Again there was an incongruity, on this occasion four pieces unimaginatively entitled Music for Piano, by the Canadian composer Alexina Louie.  Attempting to revisit some of the compositional styles of the recent past, it was not always easy in these brief exercises to recognise quite what those styles were, the most successful piece being “Changes” which indicated a nod towards the phase music of the Minimalists.  I’m not sure that Louie’s music stood up to close scrutiny, but with Chan’s amazing ability to weigh each individual note and subtly to place it within a texture so that it was both clearly defined yet absorbed into the overall soundscape, the performance made an impression which will long linger in the memory.

24 August 2015

Exam Boards - The More the Merrier?


The release of national school examination results in the UK has led to the customary debate about standards; are so many young people getting excellent results because they are well taught or because the examinations are getting easier?  National school  examinations are administered by a number of private, commercially run companies who, while having the basic examination requirements (the skills and knowledge level to be assessed and the number of years students are expected to take to accumulate those skill and that knowledge) set by a government body – it changes its name quite a lot but is currently called the Office of Qualifications and Examination Regulation (or Ofqual for short) – are entirely free to decide how the assessment is to be made.  For their part, schools are at total liberty to choose whichever exam board they like.  Suggestions have been made this year that commercial pressures within the examination boards are encouraging them to attract custom by making their exams easier, and it might be better for a single, unitary exam board to administer all national school examinations.  Nicky Morgan, the UK Minister of Education, was asked about this during a recent radio interview, and while she neatly side-stepped the issue, she might do well to look at how graded music examinations are run.  After all, they have been going on for the best part of 150 years and are an undoubted success story.

There are numerous individual companies and organisations which administer graded music exams and, again, while (in the UK) Ofqual defines the standard, each examination board decides how it should assess those standards.  For most of the past 150 years the ABRSM has been the dominant board both in the UK and internationally; so much so, in fact, that music examinations are pretty much synonymous with its name.  And while Trinity College London actually was the first on the scene with privately organised graded music examinations, it has always played second fiddle to the ABRSM.  This is largely due to Trinity’s history of introspective management, possibly the result of its being founded to furnish just one London music conservatory with potential students rather than, in the case of ABRSM, several.  Trinity long gave off the impression of being a small, family-run concern, while ABRSM has always seemed far better organised and more efficiently run.  Beyond these two, there are many examination boards spread across the world, some carefully monitored by local governments (such as the London College of Music in the UK,  AMEB in Australia and UNISA in South Africa) and some apparently setting their own standards (there is one in Malaysia whose credentials I seriously doubt).  But Ms Morgan could happily confine herself to looking at ABRSM and Trinity to see how, in practice, competing examination boards can be both hugely beneficial and dangerously detrimental to those who submit to their examination syllabuses.

ABRSM has, for the best part of 100 years, pegged its assessment to a rigid framework of six key areas.  These have occasionally been tweaked and adjusted by different Chief Examiners, but with the Chief Examiner always having been selected from someone of impeccable musical and pedagogical credentials and thoroughly imbued in the ABRSM ethos, there has always been considerable stability in and respect for the Board’s assessment methods.  Those six key areas are Technical Work (scales and arpeggios of increasing complexity and number as the grades increase), Sight Reading, Ear Tests and three pieces drawn from different periods of musical history.  Indeed so rigid and long-standing is this framework that it has become the curriculum for most teachers; it not only provides a framework for, but also the boundaries of, their teaching.  This is probably the most damaging aspect of the ABRSM approach, albeit one from which the ABRSM strenuously attempts to distance itself.  As a consequence of this rigid framework, teachers have no concept of vital musical skills like improvisation and believe that an effective programme balance rests wholly on random historical periods (including the astonishing belief that, stylistically, there is no difference between Sibelius and Ferneyhough, both lumped together in a musical period the ABRSM classifies as “modern”). 

After a protracted period of stagnation during which its exams represented a somewhat watered down version of the ABRSM’s differing only in choice of pieces and marking system, Trinity was violently shaken out of its stupor by the arrival of Nicholas King as Chief Examiner in 1998.  He came thoroughly imbued with the ABRSM ethos, but conscious of its failings he was keen to re-position Trinity’s exams as offering a musical alternative to what many saw as the ABRSM’s emphasis on stability and consistency over artistic legitimacy.  The changes he wrought on Trinity’s exams were revolutionary, and brought about an effective and valid alternative to the ABRSM through offering something musically driven yet wholly maintaining (maybe even raising) the accepted standard at each grade level.  King rattled rather a lot of cages in the loose and unprofessional management of Trinity and his abrupt departure in 2002 was celebrated by many in the administration but met with horror by the examiners and many dedicated regional and local agents who had seen in him a saviour able, at last, to put Trinity on an equal footing with its big competitor.  King was replaced as Chief Examiner by Keith Beniston whose soft and unobtrusive manner was seen by many as indicative of academic weakness and musical mediocrity.  It eventually dawned on all the doubters that these first impressions were completely wrong and that Beniston was pretty near the ideal as Chief Examiner.  Under his genial and caring eye Trinity took on a coherence and widespread credibility it had never previously enjoyed.  He tweaked the syllabuses and oversaw a system of assessment which focused on the candidate’s musical abilities rather than an abstract set of ideals as impossible to achieve musically as they were possible to mark consistently. 

It is in this latter area that we find, perhaps, the biggest different between the two boards.  For while the rigid framework of ABRSM allows for the kind of consistency of marking which non-musical parents understand, the artistically-driven principles of Trinity are, like all musical performances, open to a wide range of aural interpretations which are truly reflected in examiners’ wide-ranging comments.  No two people hear the same things in any musical performance; Trinity reflected this, while ABRSM did its best to subvert it.  And thus was set up a very clear difference of approach between two exam boards.  Both were legitimate in that they realistically assessed the required skills and knowledge, yet each offered a very different approach for teachers and students.  True, because these boards had been around for years, brand loyalty played more of a role in customer choice than anything else, but there was undoubtedly the beginnings of a levelling out, and as the Trinity brand gained greater respectability, so the flaws in the ABRSM system were more widely recognised.

And there the story should end, but it does not.  The acrimonious dismissal of Beniston in 2010 occasioned by internal petty jealousies, threw Trinity into a crisis from which it has never really recovered.  Beniston's successor was made redundant after just two years, and the post of Chief Examiner in Trinity has been dispensed with, leaving the administration of the examinations to a staff almost wholly without musical or music pedagogical experience, no practical experience in music examining, and an inability to grasp the concept of assessing artistic values.  Driven by a desire both to match the commercial success of ABRSM and to avoid customer complaints (which take up valuable resources), the move has been away from valued assessments of musical performances and towards a strange hybrid between a desire to encourage artistic expression but a refusal to assess it coherently.  Examiners are being given ever more precise instructions about comments they make, thereby removing from the examination report that sense of artistic validity which comes from a recognised professional expressing both an informed opinion and an authoritative assessment of individual ability (examiners are encouraged to draw from a circulated list of recommended comments, they are instructed to conform to an increasingly confining house style, the word “nice”, for example, has been banned, and an instruction given that examiners should never rely on “gut instinct” but adhere rigidly to a set of criteria which include such innocuous phrases as “very good”, “good”, “reasonable” and “limited”, each one of which will automatically trigger a particular result and avert customer criticism). 

There is plenty for Ms Morgan to mull over.  Competing boards can strive to outdo each other in attracting custom, not by “dumbing down” but by positively encouraging a raise in standards and an enrichment of the customer experience, but private companies and unaccountable organisations can often destroy the good work they do by managerial incompetence over which nobody outside the organisation has any control.

18 August 2015

Oil and Music Do Not Mix

 

There was a demonstration outside the Usher Hall in Edinburgh yesterday against one of the commercial sponsors of the Edinburgh International Festival.  The target of the demonstration was the oil company BP, but the thrust of the demonstrators’ argument was that the arts should not be accepting funding from an oil company.  If that seems superficially odd, bearing in mind that the arts need every bit of funding they can get, the reasoning seemed odder still: the arts are a force for good, while oil is a force for bad.  The former is perceived by many as enriching mankind while the latter pollutes and destroys the environment. 

Quite why those in the arts feel they should have a special affinity with environmental preservation does not stand up to too close scrutiny; the vast majority of the hundreds, thousands, of artists performing at this year’s Edinburgh Festivals do not live in Edinburgh and have, collectively created a massive carbon footprint with their travels from all corners of the globe.  Had they stayed at home, the Edinburgh Festivals could never have taken place, but the natural environment would have been preserved a little longer.  But then, in a straight fight between preserving the environment and promoting the arts, which artists would dare abandon the latter in favour of the former?

Of course, BP is a particular target amongst Americans and those whose thinking is bounded by the indoctrination they receive from American media.  BP was, after all, responsible for a catastrophic accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010; small loss of life (11), huge impact on the natural environment and incalculable financial gain made by American legal firms acting “on behalf” of those affected.  Of course, by directing their environmental ire against the British company BP, the Americans were gleefully diverting attention away from their own Union Carbide company’s guilt in creating “the world’s worst industrial disaster” (in the words of Wikipedia) in which 3787 people died and the environmental impact continues to this day.  Of course, most of the deaths were of Indian people; cynics might suggest that in American eyes  1 American/European life is the equivalent of 345 Indian ones; but perish the thought that I should ever be accused of cynicism!

The Edinburgh demonstrators were claiming that the damage the oil companies’ activities wreak on the natural environment rendered them “unethical” as sponsors of a Festival (which, to be honest, has never really put any kind of ethical dimension at its heart).  The Herald, a Glasgow-based paper, quoted one as saying “BP has a business plan for the end of the world, and the Edinburgh Festival is endorsing it”, while a certain Ric Lander claimed to speak for all artists at the Festival when he claimed “World class performers haven’t come to Edinburgh this August to make the oil industry look good”.  He’s right.  World class performers have gone to Edinburgh this August to further their careers and to make money – and very few really care where that money comes from.  Perhaps they should, but is money for the arts from oil companies any more “unethical” than money from governments (against whose policies artists often protest) or, indeed, from insurance companies (who make their profits out of scare-mongering hapless folk).  I could go on; but frankly no sponsor can be 100% ethical in everybody’s eyes.

There is, though, a very unhappy relationship between oil companies and the arts; and those of us who have been involved in the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra would be the first to acknowledge this.  It’s been four years since my connection with the MPO was severed and, despite a number of veiled threats and personal attacks, my silence on the matter has been occasioned more by an unwillingness to give more publicity to a very sorry state of affairs than by fear of reprisals.  Suffice it to say that, much as it hurt at the time (and continues to hurt), I am glad I am no longer involved in an orchestra I helped, in my very small way, establish and about which I have incredible feelings of both loyalty and love.

The MPO tale is, though, the ultimate example of why oil companies should not dabble in the arts.

The late Tan Sri Azizan, a former CEO of Malaysia’s national oil company, Petronas, loved music and had long cherished a wish that Malaysia should have a proper western-style musical environment.  With enormous wealth at his disposal (through the oil company) and with the support of a Prime Minister who, while cynics might suggest he saw in Azizan’s vision a chance to promote his own artistic and cultural credentials on the world stage, actually was hugely supportive of the idea, he set in motion the wheels which, oiled by seemingly limitless finance from Petronas, led to the creation of a full professional symphony orchestra in Kuala Lumpur and a wonderful, matchless concert hall in which to perform.  It was, in the manner of the great Classical-era orchestras, a personal plaything of a couple of benign rulers, one wielding total political clout, the other unlimited finance; and while both men remained in power, all went well.

The death of Azizan and the departure of Dr M (the Prime Minister, that is, not me) unfortunately let in the incompetents, the ignorant and the aesthetic apostates.  With a succession of impossibly inept managerial appointments, including some CEOs who not only knew nothing about music but cared about it even less, the mentality moved away from creating a healthy musical environment into destroying anything which did not immediately make money or promote Petronas to the widest possible interest-based Malaysian population group.  The environment Petronas have utterly and completely destroyed is an artistic one.

I’d love to see a demonstration at the next Formula One race where a group of drivers stand outside the pits protesting against an oil company’s “business plan for the end of the arts”; but somehow I don’t see it happening.  Perhaps it’s the real job of artists to concentrate on what is destroying their livelihood rather than nebulous if well-meaning demonstrations about wider issues.

13 August 2015

Nice Music


Most students about to embark on a protracted undergraduate course of study should be able to give a basic definition of the subject they are studying.  After all, if you are about to devote three or four years of your life to furthering your understanding of something into which you may already have devoted a lot of educational effort, it seems pretty obvious that you will have thought about the subject and be in a position to describe it to others.  Students of, say, Psychiatry, Sociology, Pharmacy, Botany, Theology, 12th century Icelandic Literature, Interior Design, Hairdressing, even Baristaology (I kid you not: I saw a billboard promoting such a course in Mumbai) would all, surely, be able to give a broad description of their chosen subject (although I suspect Baristaology is less concerned with the art of making coffee than with the ability to press buttons and turn handles on a coffee machine without continually consulting the instruction manual).  Students of music, however, seem to be an exception.  The trouble is just about everybody knows what music is, even if no two people have quite the same perception of it, and so it is highly unlikely that anyone would ever ask a music student to provide a brief description of it.  As a result few music students have ever felt the need to sit down and think precisely what it is they mean by music. 

Over my 40 years of intermittent university teaching, whenever I have a class of first year students, I ask them to define music in a way which encompasses Bach, Boulez and Beyoncé but excludes Birds and Bells; we all recognise the former group as musicians while accepting that the musical sounds created by the latter is not, in itself, true music.  These, though, are instinctive thoughts; surely part of what being a music student is all about it to be able to quantify these instinctive thoughts into coherent definitions?  Yet no student has ever been able to come up with a meaningful definition of music, and my question has been met with blank stares, tears, spluttering utterances and a succession of random words, sometimes including pitch and rhythm, but rarely grouped together to form a coherent sentence, let alone a clear definition. 

Some years have elapsed since I last had a group of first year university students, and perhaps in that time students have become more savvy (or, more likely, the admissions panel has become more rigorous in its selection process), but the first year students I encountered this year nearly all were able to come up with their own sensible, fairly coherent, if flawed definition of music.  True, one or two attempted the opt out “I agree with the previous student’s definition”, but mild coaxing soon produced a reasonable, independent response.  What struck me was how many of these definitions of music from students embarking on their university course in 2015 included the words “nice”, “pleasant”, “satisfying” and “beautiful”.

I have no problem with any of these words being used to describe music, unlike the authorities at Trinity College London who have placed a blanket ban on all examiners from using the word “nice” in their report forms.  (The rationale being that, since the word “nice” has assumed vaguely pejorative implications amongst the trendy middle classes of the south east corner of England, the risk of upsetting Tarquin from Epsom is more important than delighting Tariq from Dubai by describing their various performances as “nice”: the examination board’s obsessive terror of a customer complaint demanding the replacing of artistically-driven individual reactions to a performance by bland, uniform and ultimately meaningless stock phrases.)  My problem comes with these words being seen as defining music, rather than describing aspects of certain musical sounds.  It is what I describe as the Classic FM or Symphony 92.4 approach to “classical music”; the selection of sanitized titbits from the repertoire as a kind of aural analgesic, intended to ease the pains and aches of everyday existence.  Music can provide that, but to define music as being that in totality is to undermine one of the most elevated and profound of all human endeavours.

Music is one of those things which defines humanity.  Only mankind creates and performs music – the wild beasts may produce musical sounds, but they cannot create true music – consequently, music is an expression of humanity; the totality of humanity not just the nice bits.  If we go along with Victor Hugo’s assertion that “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words”, then we must accept that music expresses all human thought and emotion.  And while different kinds of music reflect the society and the age in which they were conceived, one continuous thread running all through human existence is the gamut of emotions passing from hatred to love, from anger to tranquillity, from misery to joy and from nasty to nice.  Music must reflect all of these to be in any way a legitimate art form.

Immersion in a musical performance, either as a performer or as an audience, has a certain element of escapism about it; for the time you are wrapped up in the music, the rest of human existence temporarily passes out of reach.  But escapism does not necessarily equate with nirvana, and one can just as well use music to escape a happy experience in order to indulge in the passion and misery of the composer’s creation, as to escape the drudgery of washing up the breakfast dishes while “nice sounds” emerge from the titbit of “classical music” presented on any one of a whole number of easy-listening classical music radio stations.

If any one of my first year students had defined music as “expressing the totality of human existence”, they might have got a little closer to the point.  As it is, they can rest easy; after 40 years of deep contemplation, I am still no nearer to finding a definition of music which would encompass Bach, Boulez and Beyoncé but exclude Birds and Bells.

28 July 2015

Graded Music Exams - A British Eccentricity?


At the age of six, my daughter unilaterally announced she was going to learn the violin.  There had been no parental pressure, and while she had been exposed to much music around the house and a great many live concerts, she had shown no real desire actually to play an instrument, occasionally mentioning that she liked the harp and the cello, but very conscious that these were very big instruments for a small girl to handle.  Yet out of the blue the violin wish was expressed to the extent that a quick trip into town to buy a cheap second-hand one became unavoidable.  She took to that like a duck to water and, knowing of a highly-regarded violinist in the locality who ran beginner violin classes, we had my daughter assessed and accepted.  Two years on and she is still loving it; pony club and horse riding apart, it is the activity she most looks forward to each week.

The class runs for two years during which it performs two concerts annually, after which those who wish to carry on have individual lessons and continue to perform at these concerts as well as a third during the year.  I was overseas on an examining tour when the last of my daughter’s violin class concerts was held, but my wife sent me a video and I spent many lonely evenings in my hotel watching and admiring these enthusiastic young violinists.  After days – weeks – of indifferent early grade violinists gloomily scraping their ways through grades 1,2,3,4 and 5, it was refreshing to see so much talent and so much obvious enjoyment from young violinists playing in concert.  Any one of these (my daughter included) could easily have sailed through a grade 3 and got a high distinction, such was the quality of their tone, intonation, posture and rhythmic security.   On my return we discussed my daughter's progress and future direction with the teacher asking about exams; “I don’t do those”, was her dismissive reply, and we left it at that.

That was when I realised that the reason these students were playing so well was because they were not saddled with the burden of a graded music exam.  Most teachers will spend at least six months in any year with a student preparing them for the next exam.  Everyone knows the student who, having done grade three turns up at the very next lesson expecting to start work on grade four; parents are usually blamed for pushing this on the teacher, but teachers themselves are to blame for not being professional enough to put their educational ethics above pressure from their paymasters.  It is a sad consequence of the graded music exam system that a student who can rightfully claim a phenomenal distinction mark at grade 8 may well have a total repertoire of 24 pieces (three from each graded exam) and a complete ignorance of any kind of musical activity beyond lessons and exams.

The fact is, graded music exams have become a self-propelling machine, driving a whole industry on the engine of a system which assumes a legitimacy which few ever think to question.  The major examination boards, all British-based, may only employ a few hundred (largely young and musically unqualified) administrators in their prestigious London headquarters, but they support thousands of examiners, local agents, advisors and all their support staff around the world, not to mention the huge numbers of teachers who derive their entire income from preparing students for graded music examinations.  Add to this the huge publishing business created to support the exams (in-house for ABRSM, through commercial linkage for Trinity and the others) and, if nothing else, one can look at the graded music examination industry as a major employer.  With the ABRSM raking in vast amounts through entry fees in such places as Hong Kong and Singapore, while Trinity rakes in the dollars hand over fist from Indian and Malaysian candidates, it is also a significant earner of foreign currency and plays a key role in maintaining the UK’s position as a leading player in worldwide education.  As one who has benefitted financially and professionally from over half-a-century's association with the graded music examination industry, I am the last person who should be complaining about it.  It’s done me well, and for my part I have always done all I can to promote it and encourage its growth.  My policy has always been that it is a flawed system, but is the best we have, and rather than sit outside and criticise, it is better for me to sit inside and do my bit to improve it.

But now I’m not so sure.  I accept it is the best system of assessing the early progress of music students we have, but I am beginning to wonder whether we need to have any system at all.  When my daughter is progressing far better in her music by NOT doing exams, are, perhaps, we barking totally up the wrong tree in promoting the exam as an essential part of musical training?  After all, it is a peculiarly British thing; possibly seen by many as typifying that British eccentricity which insists on placing every conceivable thing into clearly-defined categories. German, French, Russian and Hungarian friends, all of whom are musicians, are amazed at the graded exam system which, in their eyes, is totally misguided on placing testing and assessment above delivery and appreciation of musical performance.

Graded music exams came into being at the height of the British Colonial era.  They were designed to ensure music students in colonial territories were on a par with those back home and were thus equally equipped to apply for places in the London music colleges and academies.  That link with the London colleges today exists largely in name only - ABRSM (founded 1889) and Trinity (exams started in 1877) have to hand a chunk of their earnings (we can’t call them profits since both are charitable organisations which are not permitted for tax reasons to show a profit) to the Royal schools and Trinity College London respectively – and while a few scholarships are awarded periodically to candidates through graded exams, these are too rare and geographically inconsistent to make it worth anybody working really hard at their grade 8 in the hope of finding a place at the RAM.  There is a handful of (mostly) Malaysian ABRSM scholars who have made it on to the professional circuit (one thinks most recently of Bobby Chen), but the vast majority of professional performers not only never went through the graded music examination system but have never even heard of it.  Its function has evolved into more an assessment of a teacher’s ability to teach than a student’s ability to make music:  if proof were needed to support this idea, take a stroll through any Hong Kong shopping mall and look at the music schools which promote themselves wholly through their successes in graded music examinations.

Teachers have become so absorbed in preparing students for exams that they forget the purpose of music, and it has become almost the de facto duty of exam board local reps to fill the cavity left by these teachers and prepare concerts which give, at last, the opportunity to perform in public to those students who otherwise spend the entirety of their musical training alone with a teacher and, once a year, an examiner.  The trouble is, these so-called High Achievers’ concerts are as much concerned with promoting the exam boards as showcasing potential musical talent.  Too often we witness the cringe-making juxtaposition of, say, a solo grade 1 violin painfully scraping through a dismal grade 1 test piece and a wanabe pop singer, amplified beyond all human endurance, which does neither of them any good yet impresses us all with the extent of what can be assessed in a graded music exam.

Indeed, so central are ABRSM exams to teachers that they now regard the syllabus as a curriculum defining the bounds of their teaching requirements at each year of a student’s training.  Thus, when Trinity decided to make sight-reading optional and did away with the idea of forcing candidates to play pieces from three different periods of musical history in a single exam, many teachers were horrified.  To this day I still get teachers telling me that this is wrong; “Sight reading is important”, they tell me; “Students have to be exposed to different musical styles”.  And they are right.  But it is not the job of the music exam to do this, it is the job of the teacher, and if the teacher is not good enough to teach beyond what is required in a music exam, then they should not be teaching at all.

The graded music examination system, designed to improve standards in the unregulated world of instrumental music teaching, could be seen as a victim of its own success for, while it has become the accepted standard for many teachers and has certainly expanded and improved the level of instrumental teaching generally, it now has turned to promoting, albeit inadvertently, lazy - if not downright bad - teaching practices. My daughter is by no means alone in benefitting musical from not doing a graded music exam; at a rough guess, I would be very surprised if more than 0.1% of the professional musicians on the world stage had ever done a graded music examination. Perhaps the time has now come for us to rethink the purpose and value of this bloated and self-serving system of musical education and concentrate on producing good players rather than successful examination candidates.