25 June 2019

Musicians' Feet

A memory which has stayed with me since the very early days of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was of a complaint received after one of the very first concerts in the newly-opened Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS.  Please, the complainant wrote, can you ensure that the violinists clean their shoes before going on stage? 

Here we were with a brand new orchestra in a brand new hall bringing classical music to a city, a country and an audience which, in the main, had not experienced anything like it before. And what were the audience most concerned about?  Footwear!  It caused us a certain amount of amusement and incredulity.  But then someone had the bright idea of sitting in the concert in the same seat as the complainant had used (the complaint forms asked patrons to tell us their seat in anticipation of some issues concerning sight lines, audibility or comfort) and realised that in the direct line of sight were, indeed, the first violinists’ feet.  In fact, in the front few rows of the hall, all you could see without actually straining back to peer upwards, was the stage floor and that part of the violinists’ anatomy which went as high as the low shins.  With nothing else to see, little wonder that players’ footwear assumed disproportionate attention.  An instruction duly went out to ensure that shoes were immaculate before each concert.

Ever since then I’ve taken an interest in musicians’ footwear, and am delighted that so many orchestral players have now gone to patent leather, which shines so brightly and requires just a rub over with a duster to remove any unsightly blemishes.  However, it does not usually concern me, largely because I will never sit in the front few rows of a concert hall where players’ feet are, as it were, thrust at me due to the sight level of the stage from these seats.  There are those who like to sit up that close, but you can neither see nor hear properly, so I assume they are either foot-fetishists or egotists who like the rest of the concert hall to know that they are there. (Which is why, I assume, most late-comers have booked seats in the front row in the middle, where they can make their disturbingly late entry in full view of the assembled crowd.)

However, I was the guest at a concert over the weekend where I had no choice of seat, and found myself thrust right in the middle of one of the very front rows.  It was a terrible experience, and I took the first opportunity to nip to an empty seat I had spotted at a more realistic distance from the stage.  But for the time I was sat at the front, I found all I could see without straining my neck muscles uncomfortably, was the players’ feet.  It was a piano recital in which four different pianists took it in turns to come on and play.

There was one player whose black, lace-up shoes were highly polished, whose long black socks disappeared into the comfortably loose legs of his black trousers.  I liked this; it gave authority and distinction to the performances I could hear coming from the instrument.  There was another who had fairly clean if matt-finished black shoes, but socks of such minitude that I found myself staring at a bare expanse of ankle/lower leg before a tight trouser-leg hid the rest from view.  A third had clean enough shoes but oddly patterned socks which struck a discordant note with the black trousers, which seemed to have been applied with a spray can.  The fourth was astonishing.  From the high point at which his black trouser legs stopped, it appeared that he had long outgrown his suit (or borrowed one from a children’s store).  He wore tiny orange socks and bright brown shoes, which were so visually disturbing that I found it difficult to take his playing seriously.  So much bare, hairless ankle and leg were visible that  I wondered whether he had spent his pre-concert preparation waxing his legs, when I should have been concentrating on the music I could hear him play.

As I scurried to my better seat near the back, where such visual distractions were negated by the totality of my vision of the stage, I reflected on the whole subject of musicians’ footwear.  Inadvertently, I had been affected in my opinion of these players by what they were wearing below their trouser legs, and, indeed, on where the trouser legs had stopped.  For the first time, I really could appreciate how our Malaysians correspondent had been so disturbed by dirty shoes.  Fashion on the street or in the dance hall is all very well, but a concert hall, were the musicians’ demeanour should be entirely focused towards projecting the musical message, is no place for fashion statements in the foot department.  I say; ban bare legs and ankles, ban coloured socks, ban brown or dirty shoes, and, most of all, avoid any hint of showing bare skin below the waist.  Unless, of course, you are Yuja Wang where from any vantage point, the view is interesting!

24 June 2019

Taking Music into the Wider Community

One of my students recently penned a passionate piece about the growing trend of taking music out into the wider community.  While he thoroughly approved of initiatives aimed at spreading music to those sections of society who, for one reason or another, might not feel they have access to it, he bemoaned the fact that so many of those initiatives were not so much aimed at the wider community as one specific segment of it.  And more especially, that the focus seemed to be almost wholly on taking music to those which society labels as having “Special Needs”, a term he found deeply patronising. 

For some time this is an issue which has concerned me, although it was the catalyst of the student’s impassioned comment which really got me thinking about quite what is meant by these oft-use, politically-correct terms “taking music out into the community” and “special needs”.  I did a quick search and discovered that a clear majority of initiatives which aim to “take music out into the wider community” actually do nothing of the kind; they simply redirect music from one special group to another.  The principal beneficiaries of such initiatives are usually either those with a learning or physical disability or those suffering from some kind of degenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s or Cancer.  These are the so-called “Special Needs” people; who, by the very fact of being so labelled, are segregated from society.  In an age when we have trained ourselves to ignore people’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality, it seems perverse, to say the least, that we happily use their mental or physical condition as a conduit of segregation.  I can’t call someone whose skin colour differs from mine as “black”, without causing offence; why, therefore, is it correct to describe someone whose mental capacity differs from mine as “Special”?

Let’s not, for all the tempting avenues it opens up for a discussion on the confused state of our current society, bother about those labels.  Let’s merely say that every single person in society is special in some way – inasmuch that none of us is quite the same mentally, physically, emotionally or psychologically – so those with “Special Needs” constitute the totality of society and therefore the label is pointless (as well as offensive).

Instead, let me ask the question about the specifics of taking music out into “the wider community”.  What do we really mean by this?  And, is the taking of music into communities comprising those who differ in some mental or physical way from the norm, merely a palliative for those of us privileged to possess musical skills as well as both mental and physical characteristics which are seen by most of society as “normal”?  By focusing on music’s much-vaunted therapeutic qualities and flaunting them in front of those who have some kind of disability, are we not in danger of turning music from high art into a branch of medicine? 

Music, from its very beginnings, was not something which addressed the totality of society.  At one point merely the possession of gods, of the god-like and of the churches which worshipped God, music went on to become the unique property of earthly and spiritual rulers, of the aristocracy, of the extremely wealthy and subsequently of the educated elite.  It was really only in the 19th century that it spread to those who had neither the wealth to fund it nor the education to understand it, and it became primarily a form of entertainment rather than an intellectual exercise.  With the advent of recording and broadcasting, music suddenly was accessible to all, and music education flourished as a means of keeping alive the old elitist attitudes; the thinking was, you may be able to hear music, but do you know how to LISTEN to it and do you UNDERSTAND it?  With the 21st century such elitist attitudes have largely been swept away, and with it much of the mystique of music has been demolished. There is a dominant belief that knowing music and practising it should be open to anybody and everybody, and, as if to support this, in the last half-century, the idea that music has very definite therapeutic qualities has grown.

That belief that music is no longer an elitist art nor something requiring intellectual application has been superseded by a concentration on music as a health and well-being beneficiary.  Work out in a gym, follow sport, do any of those things that we are told are good for our health, and you find them invariably accompanied by music.  My father’s 101 healthy years and my recent phenomenally speedy recovery from a serious operation are explained by those who know us, not by our lifestyles (neither of us follows any of the advised health regimens) but by the fact that we are practising musicians.  And it might be right, although I am not at all sure it’s anything more than good luck.  Music is seen as an adjunct to good health.

The corollary of that is that if you are in bad health music can be of benefit to you.  Thus, we single out those in our society who seem physically or mentally less healthy than the norm, and throw music at them.  And it does seem to help, even if all the research suggests that such help is only temporary and primarily palliative.  Little wonder, then, that so many feel that by going to those groups and giving them music in one form or another, they are doing some good to society.  I believe that they are, and from the evidence of my own eyes, it does have a beneficial effect which is well worth all the effort and expense involved.  But does this constitute “taking music out into the wider community”?

It does not.  There are still huge swathes of society, rich and poor, educated and ill-educated, old and young, black and white, who feel alienated from music.  Now they feel alienated not because of their detachment from society’s elite, but because of their detachment from society’s disadvantaged.  If music belongs to the “Special Needs”, is it relevant for the rest of us?  What efforts are made to take music out to that section of society?  The answer is some, but not much.  And the way it’s done is simply to put music on in some kind of public arena (a park or a football stadium) and expect the musically-alienated to turn up.  Nobody actually thinks that there is anything odd about this.  Surely, if you don’t normally feel music has anything to offer you, you would not make the effort to go out and find it, no matter in which environment it is being presented?

People with “Special Needs” are easy to address – they are all lumped together in a single building, either as residents or as out-patients – but the real body of society, the vast majority of those for whom music seems an irrelevance, cannot be so easily located and therefore so conventionally addressed.  Much as I applaud efforts to spread music to other sectors of society, let’s not kid ourselves into believing that merely by going to the old peoples’ home or the cancer ward, we are truly taking music out into the wider community.

21 June 2019

A Recommended Fauré Requiem

Of all the Requiems ever written, I imagine that by Gabriel Fauré is by far and away the best-known and the best-loved.  Since it was not written for a specific performance occasion, and appears to have been conceived simply out of a desire by the composer to assuage some inner yearning, it does not exist in a single authoritative version, and was changed quite substantial over a number of years to suit various performing occasions.  As a result, those who talk of an "authentic" performing edition are talking rubbish - there is no such thing.  One thing is for sure, we very rarely hear it today in any kind of performance which would have rung true to those listening to it during the composer's lifetime.  Here, however, is a recording which has deliberately tried to recreate the sound of one of the performances which took place under the composer's direction and although I have no way of knowing how accurate this is, as a performance in its own right, it rings unusually true to me.  I would suggest this is one of the most rewarding and illuminating recordings ever made of the work, even if it sounds quite different from the norm.  I reviewed it for MusicWeb International and I reprint my review below.  Go their website for details of buying the disc.

Because of its long drawn-out gestation as well as the various performing versions which appeared during the composer’s lifetime, there is no such thing as a definitive version of Fauré’s Requiem. For much of the 20th century the preferred performing version, certainly so far as commercial recordings were concerned, was that involving a fairly large orchestra published in 1900 (much of the orchestration apparently undertaken by Fauré’s pupil, Jean Roger-Ducasse). As the century wore on, it became more and more inflated with huge orchestras and operatic soloists transforming the work into something far weightier than the composer ever intended. With the obsession with authenticity which came in tandem with the CD revolution, some musicologists looked back to the very first version Fauré created, and while those musicologists fought esoteric battles over quite what Fauré had originally written, the so-called 1888 version found itself popularised on CD, albeit in more than one allegedly “authentic” scoring. In between both of these extremes, comes the version scored for a relatively small-sized orchestra (violas, cellos, double-bass, horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani, harp and organ) which was first presented, according to Gabrielle Oliveira-Guyon’s booklet notes with this CD, at La Madeleine in Paris on 21st January 1893 under Fauré’s direction. It is not only that 1893 version that is recorded here, but a deliberate attempt to recreate the sound of that performance. We cannot call this the definitive Fauré Requiem, but I reckon this profoundly impressive recorded performance gets closer than any other of the many dozens I have heard in a long reviewing career to revealing Fauré’s true intentions in the work.

With no definitive performing version, all we really have to go on as to the composer’s thinking are his comments that “I composed it…just to please myself”. While the context of this quote – responding to criticism that the work was not religious enough – causes us to treat it with a certain scepticism, there seems little doubt that his intention was to offer solace and ease in the listener, rather than an expression of religious faith in the hereafter or a dramatic response to the ancient Latin text. And this is certainly a performance which has neither devotional nor dramatic impact, but presents in a measured, unhurried and unexaggerated manner the detail of the score with impeccable control.

Yet this is far more than a mere performance of the music, or a carefully-choreographed re-creation of a particular performing occasion, it evokes with disarming openness the distinct essentially simple, direct and comforting musical language of Fauré’s work in a way which seems wholly in keeping with the sound-world of late 19th century Paris. The most obvious reason for that 19th century sound is the use of authentic late 19th century French instruments along with the playing styles of the time – something in which the period-instrument group La Siècle specialises. These instruments, especially the horns, add a wonderful mellowness and richness to the sound, and with the totally vibrato-less playing of Sébastien Richaud, there is a deliciously innocent piping violin descant to the Sanctus.
Historical authenticity is not confined to the instruments, however. The singers of Ensemble Aedes pronounce the Latin text with distinct French vowel sounds in the style of French Latin pronunciation in the days before Pope Pius X issued his advice in 1904 on standardising the pronunciation of Latin in churches. As Mathieu Romano suggests in his own booklet essay, “the word lux (light) sung with a French u reveals all the brightness of the sound”, and because it is so very different from the usual Latin sound we have come to expect, it seems to shed an entirely novel light on this familiar text.

Romano himself maintains generally moderate and stately speeds, which sometimes catch you by surprise, but which create not just an overall feeling of calm and repose, but which, by avoiding histrionics, give real point to the rare moments of dramatic impact. With trumpets and timpani reinforcing the choir, the words dies illa, dies irae have real potency, while the In Paradisum is shorn of any sentimentality and simply exudes transcendent beauty.

The two vocal soloists are drawn from the ranks of the choir, which certainly concords with the practice of the original Paris performance. But more than that, it creates a feeling almost of the soloist as an organic growth rather than a superimposed voice. This is particularly important with the Pié Jesu, added to the Mass movements for the 1893 performance, where Roxane Chalard’s endearing voice seems merely a continuation of the vocal timbre from the preceding movements. For me, the most jaw-dropping moment in the entire performance is Mathieu Dubroca’s barely perceptible entry in the Offertoire. He seems almost to float in and carry on where the choir has left off; it is a moment of pure magic in a performance which is, in any event, well-endowed with magical moments.

Eschewing the obvious and customary companions of the Duruflé Requiem or Fauré’s own Cantique de Jean Racine Romano reinforces the idea of the Requiem as a work which “addresses itself to every one of us”, rather than as an expression of specifically Catholic faith, by drawing on secular choral works from Poulenc and Debussy.

I have reservations about describing Poulenc’s Figure humaine as secular, since the intensity with which he sets Paul Éluard’s words and the powerful emotional impact it had on the Parisians during the Nazi occupation, is nothing other than an expression of great religious zeal. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast of performances than between the Fauré and the Poulenc: while the former was controlled, calm and collected, the latter has a passion and a fervently dramatic edge which at times seems to push the singers to the very brink. It does tend to go over the top in places, the choir’s barking out the sneering laughter of Première marche la voix d’un autre effectively brushing aside any firm harmonic basis, while the final Liberté feels to be straining just a little too hard at the leash for the full effect to come across.

What is certainly not lacking in either the Poulenc or the Debussy Chansons de Charles d’Orléans is a forthright and impassioned delivery of the texts. Diction is superlative across the entire body of singers, and Martial Pauliat’s tenor solo for the second song, Quand j’ai ouy le tambourin is a model of flawless diction and poised phrasing. And if some might be wondering what a tenor is doing singing a solo usually assigned to an alto, the answer lies in the fact that this is not the usual version we hear but Debussy’s first draft which exists only in a preserved manuscript copy, which is quite different from what he submitted for publication in 1908; Oliveira-Guyon suggests that this is “no evolution…but a complete rewriting”. The first two songs receive impressively secure and committed performances. I am less sure about the third (Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain) where a certain sense of communal excitement amongst the singers leads to a slight lack of collective control.

Nevertheless, all these performances of three key works in the French choral repertoire share a vivid commitment to the music, an absolute conviction and a degree of intensity which transcends any niggling concerns over technical issues.

Classical Music concerts in Singapore in July

Here is my monthly list which is as comprehensive as I can make it.  Do get in touch if there is anything to add or you want an event included in future months.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019 6.00pm EST RS International Piano Island Festival Achilel Gallo (pno)
Tuesday, 2 July 2019 8.00pm EST RS International Piano Island Festival Philippe Cassard (pno)
Wednesday, 3 July 2019 6.00pm EST RS International Piano Island Festival Dario Cantela (pno)
Wednesday, 3 July 2019 7.30pm VCH The Choir of Christ's College Cambridge David Rowland (cond)
Wednesday, 3 July 2019 8.00pm EST RS International Piano Island Festival Poom Prommachart (pno)
Friday, 5 July 2019 7.30pm PPC Radiance Hallelujah Singers
Friday, 5 July 2019 8.15pm VCH Standing on the Shoulders of Giants ReSound
Saturday, 6 July 2019 4.30pm SGS Choir of Christ's College Cambridge David Rowland (cond)
Thursday, 11 July 2019 7.30pm VCH L'Invitation au voyage Zhou Zhengzhong (bar)
Friday, 12 July 2019 7.30pm ESP AX Zemlinsky - The Dwarf The Opera People
Sunday, 14 July 2019 5.00pm ESP AX Zemlinsky - The Dwarf The Opera People
Monday, 15 July 2019 7.30pm VCH Not the Big Three The Philharmonia Orchestra
Friday, 19 July 2019 7.30pm SOTA A Summer Recital Samuel Phua (saxophone), Lin Xiangnin (pno)
Thursday, 25 July 2019 7.30pm VCH Stairway to Heaven Steven Osborne (pno), SSO, Carlos Kalmar (cond)
Friday, 26 July 2019 7.30pm VCH Stairway to Heaven Steven Osborne (pno), SSO, Carlos Kalmar (cond)
Saturday, 27 July 2019 8.00pm BAA Through the Looking Glass British-Indian Music ca 1800
Sunday, 28 July 2019 4.00pm VCH SNYO Chamber Concert Singapore National Youth Orchestra
Sunday, 28 July 2019 8.00pm BAA Through the Looking Glass British-Indian Music ca 1800

ESP = Esplanade Concert Hall
ESP AX = Esplanade Annexe Studio
ESP RS = Esplanade Recital Studio
VCH = Victoria Concert Hall
PPC = Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church
SGS = Steinway Gallery, ION Mall, Orchard Road
BAA = Bhaskar's Arts Academy, Bras Basah Complex

24 April 2019

What Makes a Good Recital?

This seems to be Recital Month.  Over the past few weeks I have sat in on more recitals than at any other time in the year, and while many of these have been the usual end-of-year student recitals, there seems to be a fair proportion of professional, public recitals thrown into the mix for good measure.  And all this recitalising has got me thinking; about what makes a good recital?

I come out of some recitals feeling I have had a wonderful, rewarding or stimulating experience and others where I come out earnestly wishing I had never been.  The old Trinity College London assessment criteria for a Fellowship recital – - would you have paid money to hear that?” -– is a really good one, but easier to answer than to define.  So I’ have been thinking I liked some recitals more than others?  Was it the music they played, the way they played it, or something else?  Certainly a recital is a total package which involves a great many things beyond repertory and performance, so here’s a kind of check-list.

Performance: The actual quality of the performance plays surprisingly little part.  An ugly voice, a stumbling technique, split notes or even a complete breakdown cause minor irritations at the time, but are quickly forgotten and ultimately overlooked.  We might remember these things later, but often they do not affect our overall feelings about the recital.  Indeed, a memory slip ingeniously covered can make a recital even more memorable and rewarding;: there was that famous one in Berlin by Ella Fitzgerald in which she just threw in all kinds of random names to cover her complete memory loss in Mack the Knife, – and that flawed performance has gone on to become a classic.  I’ have never forgotten leaving a Rachmaninov recital given in London by Artur Rubinstein in which, as one fellow-audience member put it on the way out, you had to “spot the right note because so many of them had been wrong.  Another great 20th century pianist, Shura Cherkassy, was renowned for his bad technique yet, as he himself put it, “””’’”””””Some people like my playing and some don’t, but nobody can say that ‘I’m boring.”  And that’s the key.  The audience does not want clinical accuracy, polished tone or impeccable technique (although they are quite nice to have), they want to be entertained.

Spoken Introductions: The most obvious way to entertain an audience is to speak to them, but so very few recitalists ever do this.  There is good reason not to.  You have to remember the notes and in your nervous state you do not want to have to carry around in your head the baggage of a few words to remember (and it is utterly fatal to read from a prepared script, even if some key points need to be scribbled down and referred to), and maybe your command of the audience’s language is not good.  But I urge every recitalist to try, – even if it i’s just a smile and a word of welcome.  But for goodness sake, do not tell them to Enjoy (that’s the job of your performing) and please do not suggest you will get down to playing Without Further Ado”, – it makes it sound as if you are grudging about playing to them. 

Programme Notes: All good recitals have programme notes to serve as both guides to the audience and souvenirs of the event.  Without a programme note, the audience is lost during the recital– and has nothing to remember it by when they have gone home.  You may be lucky enough to find a professional programme note-writer to do this (my fees are reasonable!) but mostly, you will do it yourself.  It makes sense, since if you are serious about your recital, you will have prepared the programme exhaustively not just as a performance but as an interpretation.  And you will have read about and researched the background to the music. Programme notes are also invaluable in linking the works together so that you do not create the impression of simply having thrown your favourite pieces together to form a programme. Back stories are invaluable in getting an audience into a receptive frame of mind, so the more interesting things you can find out, the more amenable the audience will be to your performance.  Frankly, if I read that Dvorak was rescued from a burning inn when he was less than a year old by his father, and forged his butchery certificate, my ears prick up when it comes to listening to his music.  And when it comes to+ describing the music, do not alienate an audience with dry technicalities - he wrote such-and-such a piece in Rondo form and it modulates during it to the dominant, subdominant and relative minor -– but give them a few notable points to listen out for.  Audiences want to know when to clap, so tell them what to listen out for which will signify the ending (is it loud, soft, big or small?) and give them an accurate timing to within 30 seconds. 

Stage Presentation: So few recitalists realise that they are responsible for this, and so need to instruct those concerned in setting up and sharing the stage.  How is the piano to be positioned?  Where are other instruments to be placed to create the right sense of intimacy (if that’s what you want) or distance (if that’s your choice)?  And what does the page-turner do?  Does he come on and bow, does he leave and bow, does he bring in the music, does he take the music out, does he stay there until the applause has died down or walk off with you as it still rings?  Where i’s the piano lid going to be - – fully open, half-stick, quarter-stick, closed? – What is everybody going to wear?  A page-turner, accompanist, and fellow musician must all look as if they are part of the team and not odd-bods brought in off the street.  In any recital there is one principal – do not allow anyone to eclipse the principal - and that goes for printed biographies too;;: I have lost count of vocal recitals where the accompanist warrants less space than the singer, and while the accompanist is vital, it is the singer whom the audience has paid to hear and see.  If you have hired a Master of Ceremonies for your recital, chain them to a chair off-stage before the recital starts, for; an MC in a recital is always an acute embarrassment and distraction, no matter how good they are.

Repertory: I a’m inclined to think that this is the real key.  Certainly analysing the recitals I have attended recently, without a shadow of doubt the most memorable have been because of repertory.  As I see it, there are three golden rules for choosing repertory. 

·         First, choose music you want to perform. There is nothing more contagious than indifference, and an audience quickly recognises when your heart is not in it.  You may play a piece well, but if you do not like it, do not perform it.  It is not necessary to adore everything you play, but you must really want to share it with others. 

·         Secondly, there must be some coherence to the programme.  Random pieces thrown together because you like them does not make for a good recital.  Forge a connection between them and make this clear in the programme notes so that the audience feels they are sharing a journey with you and not merely sitting in the hall as outside observers.  The more imaginative the connection, often the more fascinating a programme you can build.  How about a recital comprising entirely works which are “Opus 40, or one where all the works were written in the same month (regardless of year), or all written in the same year?  How about a recital made up of works written in 1519, 1619, 1719, 1819, 1919 and 2019?  Celebrating an anniversary is always a good thing.  As I write this, for example, I note that today marks the birthdays of Giovanni Martini (an Italian composer who lived between 1706 and 1784) and Roxanna Panufnik (the English composer, noted for her choral and vocal works, born in 1968). On this day exactly 100 years ago the French composer Camille Erlanger died at the age of 56.  It’s also the birthdays of singers Barbara Streisand’ (1942) and Norma Burrows (1944), while tomorrow marks the 101st anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. It doesn’t take too much brainwork to devise a programme which includes something with a connection to at least one of these, and if I were a singer, I could construct an entire recital just around these six names.   

·         Thirdly, avoid the predicable, especially pianists.  Everyone who has ever shown even the vaguest interest in the piano will have heard the famous Beethoven Sonatas, as well as most of the music by Chopin and Debussy.  If you put it in, all that will happen is that people will compare your performance (unfavourably) with another they have heard.  I live in continual despair that, while the piano boasts one of the largest solo repertories of any single instrument, fewer of those works are programmed into recitals than for any other instrument.  What is it about pianists that predisposes them towards a mentality which avoids exploration?  Some of the best piano recitals I have been to recently have been presented by Stephen Hough who invariably finds something unusual to play and often devises whole programmes of almost forgotten music.  Why not Pierne instead of Debussy, John Field instead of Chopin, or Rossini instead of Beethoven?  A bit of programming imagination can transform a recital from tiresome predictability to absorbingly intriguing at a stroke, and unlike a concert where audiences like to the familiar, a recital hinges on the individual rather than the repertory, so to be adventurous is good.  Speaking for myself, I will avoid any recital (no matter who gives it) of Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy, simply because I’ have heard it all so many times before it’ has lost its allure for me.  Conversely, I will beat a path to something more unusual.

So with all that in mind, I should perhaps come clean and suggest which of the two-dozen or so recitals I’ have so far attended this month, stands out as the best.  It was, ironically, the one I was looking forward to the least.  A trumpet and trombone recital given by two members of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra – Chris Moyse and Kevin Thompson, – with Nicholas Loh as their accompanist.  In a funny way this was the perfect recital.  The playing was not flawless but oozed enjoyment and enthusiasm.  The spoken parts were informal, easy and informative.  The stage manner was beautifully relaxed (especially from Loh who had an instinctive understanding of his role which played into the narrative of the whole recital).  But most of all, the repertory comprised totally music I had never heard before, yet I felt was well worth hearing, even if it was, ultimately, unmemorable.  Moyse and Thompson told how they had scoured the music shops of Hong Kong looking for unusual things, and you got the impression they were really enjoying exploring this music and sharing it with us.  That, in turn, led to the audience falling into the mood and clearly enjoying the totality of the recital.  This is what makes a good recital.

17 April 2019

Adult Learners, Tigers and Goats

A presentation by a colleague on approaches to teaching the piano to children was quite an eye-opener.  Although I spent the best part of 20 years working as a private piano teacher, I never taught really young children (or “kids” as they are called in Singapore – I always thought a kid was the young of a goat, so perhaps that explains why the song Chan Mali Chan is so popular in Singapore.  But I digress.).  My speciality then and now (I still have a few private pupils scattered around the globe) is in guiding the niceties of interpretation and musical insight in more advanced level students.  I suppose the youngest pupil I ever had was aged 12, so to hear about teaching approaches to younger ages than that was fascinating.  I have nothing but admiration for those who can somehow impart the knowledge of piano tuition to those who can barely walk and talk – which seems to be common practice here in Singapore as well as in Hong Kong and China.

One of the more memorable comments my colleague came up with was in response to a question about children lacking the life experience to cope with the full emotional range of music.  She suggested that sometimes imagination was a form of experience, and sometimes imagination served the purpose better than real-life experience.  I liked that idea, and realised how appropriate it was for young children.

But as the presentation continued with fascinating examples of how young children had been encouraged to express music through movement and how the principal focus in all teaching was to make it “fun”, my mind began to wander.  It had not been advertised specifically as being a presentation about teaching piano to children, but that is what everyone expected.  In Singapore society “teaching music” means teaching the piano, and teaching the piano is something which is almost exclusively done before one reaches puberty. 

I am currently working on an article for an educational magazine in which I address the idea that “music” is such a wide-ranging term that, in education, we need to use it with extreme care.  After all, both the kid learning the piano and the teenager being taught how to lay down song tracks in a recording studio are being taught music, even if they are mutually incompatible.  So it concerns me deeply that teachers so freely use music as a synonym for piano.

Even more so, it concerns me that we assume “music” is best taught when the student is young.  There are elements in music which can only be taught to those of more mature years, and even the laying down of a technical foundation for pianists is not something which should be the sole preserve of the under-fives.  And as my mind wandered even further, I suddenly realised that, while in most societies of my experience, adults – even the very old – are encouraged to learn a musical instrument, that is not the case in Singapore, Hong Kong or China.  Piano lessons here are the preserve of the young and represent an alien culture to most over-30s.

In my examining life, I examined in some places where adults formed a majority of the candidature – notably in the West Indies and parts of India – and the exam boards have done much to encourage the adult market by introducing such things as performance certificates.  I have been to conferences in the UK which have concentrated on the techniques of teaching adult beginners, and I can look back over my past students and realise that a majority of them has been adult.  Indeed, one of my first ever students was a lady of 65 who passed her Grade 3 after a couple of years work; and the achievement for her was more glorious than that for the 6-year-old kid and Tiger Mum whose real satisfaction was getting past Grade 3 a year before anyone else in the class.

True, if you start learning the piano at 65 you are unlikely to become the next Lang Lang; but, to be brutally frank, if you start learning the piano at 5, it’s still extremely unlikely that you will be the next Lang Lang – as my colleague pointed out, many of those who start young see success in graded exams as an opportunity to quit and move on to things other than playing the piano.  But the therapeutic, psychological and all-round mental health benefits of learning a musical instrument at an older age equal, if not outweigh, the physical, emotional and competitive values of learning it as a child.  Yet so skewed is the Singapore/Hong Kong/China mentality to piano lessons as a childhood thing, that few adults or teachers even contemplate it.

Musical activities for older people here tend to look towards communal things like choral singing and orchestras, but the experience from other countries shows that there are huge benefits for the individual in taking up the piano (or other instrument) in later life.  Perhaps if this idea could be implanted into Singaporeans, we might find our musical climate a little healthier.  After all, we are only young for a short time in our lives – we are old for ages!  If you have given up the piano after grade 8 at 14, you are looking at a bleak musical future; if you take it up when you are 55, you are looking at a wonderfully fulfilling retirement.

16 April 2019

Forgotten Madness

On 30th April our 3rd year student, Lee Hui, is going to present a paper on the issue of mental health and music.  Called "Does Music Make Us Mad?", she takes as her focal point the issue of Schumann's mental decline.

It has been my extreme privilege (along with my revered colleague Prof Craig de Wilde), to guide Lee Hui through her Musicology module and I am hugely looking forward to her presentation.  I hope lots of people turn up as it is not only a fascinating subject, but one which she has shown immense sympathy towards.

By a strange twist of odd coincidence, I accidentally came over a blog post from 2015 which, in my own personal madness, I had forgotten I had ever written.  It seems rather nicely to set the scene!