15 March 2018

The Bus Stop Challenge

It's called the Bus Stop Challenge.  At least, that's what I call it, and as I don't know anyone else daft enough to have had the idea, it seems as good a name as any.

The idea is you find a queue at any bus stop - in most countries that's no challenge at all, even if finding a bus stop is becoming increasingly difficult in some areas - and ask everyone in it whether they have any contact with - direct or indirect - Western Classical Music.

You might find a man with a grey mop of tousled hair who tells you he conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, or a bald headed septuagenarian who tells you he is kept awake at night by the young man upstairs practising his drums for his next drumming exam.  But both count as having a relationship with Western Classical Music.

The challenge is actually going up to these strangers and posing the question.  It's certainly a challenge too far for me - I did it once when I was so seriously under the influence of alcohol that I can't really remember the responses I got - but a number of my students (who are more courageous than I) have accepted the challenge and their results have been staggering.

This is by no means a legitimate scientific study, but while my London students reported about 1 person in 25 picked at random from a bus queue acknowledged the relationship, in Singapore the figure in Singapore is 2 in 5. 

In Singapore Western Classical Music has seeped into everyday society to an extent which I find astonishing.  Partly that is the active involvement of the government, but even more so it is the emphasis so many Asian parents put on music as an important skill in the development of their children.  The fact, also, that Singapore presents a disproportionate number of its young people to the graded exams administered by the three London-based exam boards - cumulatively, around 10% of all candidates world wide are in Singapore - adds to this; indeed, students report that a majority of those approached at bus stops relate to Western Classical Music through a relative or neighbour doing an exam.

We might also consider that in Singapore travel by bus covered a wider social range than in, say, the UK.

I may need to douse myself in hard drink and go out and do a few more interviews, but it would be fascinating to know how Singapore stacks up with other Asian countries.  (Hong Kong's a good example - the place is positively brimming over with bus stops and their associated queues.)

Certainly it seems that Western Classical Music has a firm foothold in Singapore Society.  The question is, however, whether that is to the advantage of either or both.  Just because people know about something, does not mean they either care about it or even appreciate it.  I have a suspicion that we are not doing enough to nurture this relationship and transform it into a positive thing; at the moment we still seem obsessed with the idea that it is a minority interest and are working to change that when in fact this seems to indicate it is far from being any such thing.

If you ever have the courage, please do the Bus Stop Challenge and let me know what you find.  I can't compensate for black eyes and broken noses when the wrong sort of person is approached at the bus stop, but I can offer my sympathy and a soothing piece of music to ease the pain.

13 March 2018

Music Critic Abuse

A light hearted discussion among critics about the uninvited use of diminutives of people’s names led to some recollections of rude names we have all been called as a consequence of our professional activities.  It was summed up by one of our number suggesting that “it is a hard life being a critic”, to which, I am sure, we all sagely agreed.

But is it?

True, finding outlets for criticism which are respected, read and (most importantly) reimbursed is just about impossible.  Most of my critical work today is submitted to the public free-of-charge, and I only continue to do it to try and hold back the tide of ill-informed, partisan and barely-literate ramblings from those who submit “customer reviews” or congratulate their friends and heroes on YouTube.  Yet I eagerly jump at every chance to submit a piece of critical commentary when even the tiniest amount of cash is on offer.  Why on earth would I do that if it was such “a hard life”? 

All critics seem to have a story or two about being called rude names, about being accused of not knowing what they are talking about, and about their supreme ignorance in the field in which they purport to have some specialist knowledge.  Yet, when I think back over 40 years as a professional music critic, I can recall just three artists who have spewed invective over me for a review I have written, one where an artist certainly should have done, and one bizarre occasion where an entire band spewed voluminous hate mail at me for a review I did not write on a concert I did not attend. 

Of course, such invective from those who were not directly involved is commonplace – people hate it when you prick the bubble of their particular inflated opinions – and has only become more widespread (and vicious) with the growth of social media outlets with their scope for spreading anonymous anti-social poison.  I, like all critics, ignore such things as the incoherent ramblings of the criminally insane; unless, of course, the writers have the guts and intelligence to append their real names and contact details to their comments.  This, though, is not something unique to critics; anyone who utters an opinion in the public domain opens themselves up to the violence of the anonymous imbeciles whose lives revolve around spreading hatred.

Mostly, the critic receives nothing but praise and respect from artists, even when the critic has done little to deserve it.  The relationship between critic and artist is necessarily fragile, but I have to say in my experience, artists make it easy by being so generous in their acceptance of a critic’s opinions, even when those opinions seem to contradict the artist’s own.  What makes being a critic so worthwhile is that generosity of spirit and willingness to engage in constructive dialogue which the vast majority of artists possess.  Perhaps where that relationship has turned sour is as much the critic’s fault as the artist’s.  Let me give the three examples in my experience; you can decide why the relationship broke down.  (I thought long and hard about whether to name names; but in the end, since two of them are still alive, I decided to spare blushes all round and call them A, B and C.)

Stanley Sadie - editor of Musical Times
A is a hugely popular and successful composer of choral music.  Back in the 1980s when I was writing for The Musical Times I reviewed a collection of his pieces and suggested that, while they were attractive and eminently practical, there was a tendency for A to resort to stylized formulae rather than risk adventurousness or genuine originality.  My editor (the late Stanley Sadie) showed me the response that was sent to him as a personal letter from A.   It heaped abuse on me (“Who is this person?”, “I’ve never heard of him”, “He does not know what he is talking about”, “Unless you get rid of him I will instruct my publishers not to submit anything to your so-called publication”…you get the gist), but Stanley thought it terribly amusing and took no further action.  I have often reviewed A’s work since, nearly always positively, and have never had any further correspondence from him.

Christopher Pollard -
Gramophone editor
B is an organist who, in the early years of CD, produced such a flurry of CDs that one seemed to land on my desk every month.  I liked them all, but once in the pages of Gramophone I suggested that, with so much varied repertory being recorded at such a phenomenal rate, B was “at risk of falling into the routine” and of “allowing the desire to record outweigh the quality of the music being recorded”.  I never said it did; I merely said that one felt that such problems were a hair’s breadth away.  My lovely editor back then, Christopher Pollard, passed on to me a letter submitted from B for my comments.  B had written that he was so appalled and offended that he had seriously considered suicide.  My impertinent response was that it was nice to think that my review “almost had a beneficial effect on the organ world”.  Luckily this correspondence remained private at the time.

The Western Mail offices in Cardiff in the 1970s
C was a hugely popular and famous jazz drummer who appeared alongside a local Welsh band in the late 1970s when I was a general arts reporter for the Western Mail.  I was sent down from Cardiff to Swansea to review the gig and in my piece I suggested that, in order to highlight C’s contribution, the amplification was such that, coupled with his own extremely enthusiastic drumming style, we heard C and just about nothing else.  And more than that, one continued to hear C’s drumming resounding in the ear drums for several hours after leaving the venue.  This ignited a response from C’s agent (C having long since returned to the US) which pointed out that I “knew nothing about jazz” and demanding a public apology and retraction.  Large numbers of irate C fans also wrote in, and I was called into the editor’s office, then occupied by a giant of man called. Duncan Gardner.  He offered me a drink and, on hearing that I was contemplating moving to North Wales to take up a part-time job as Sub-Organist at Bangor Cathedral, encouraged me to take it telling me that, “just because you have kicked up a small hornet’s nest, you don’t need to think that you are God’s gift to journalism”, but then offered me a promotion to Senior Arts Correspondent in North Wales (actually the ONLY arts person with the paper based in North Wales – and I ended up more as a general journalist there).  The brouhaha over C eventually died down, but to this day have tended to fight shy of jazz reviewing not because I don’t like it – in fact jazz is my favourite means of musical relaxation – but because, as the C issue showed, jazz aficionados seem to know intimate details of every jazz figure since the genre began, and I feel very much out of my depth in specialist discussions on jazz.  (Someone recently observed that while, in the classical music world, people have become obsessed by juvenility, child prodigies and a total lack of experience and previous exposure, in jazz, respect is not earned by practitioners until they have been in the business for decades and can point to a lifetime of experience in building their present level of musical ability.)

I probably was too inexperienced to offer views which would be seriously accepted by A, I was probably too involved in the organ world to be seen as impartial by B, and I was obviously far too young and not grounded enough in the world of jazz to have the respect of C’s agent.

Arvo Part in more elevated company than mine
Luckily Arvo Pärt probably never read the piece I wrote in Organist’s Review that suggested he was a “fraud” and was simply trying to fool us all with his “silly Pari Intervallo”; and if he had, I suspect he was then far too elevated (in every sense of the world) even to deign to comment on the one critical opinion I regret having committed to print more than any other. 

But I have often wondered what prompted just about every member of a Singapore wind band, and their conductor, to shower me with hate mail (some of it threatening physical violence, and all of it unstinting in its abusive content) after I wrote in this blog some comments about an (unnamed) wind band I had seen in Hong Kong which performed bad music very badly indeed under an extremely bad conductor.  I can only assume that the cap I had created for the Hong Kong group fitted the Singaporeans so well they naturally assumed it was for them; apparently they had given a concert in Singapore at around the same time as I had attended the one in Hong Kong.  I have, however, made a personal vow never to review a performance by any wind band anywhere in the world – just to be on the safe side.

It’s not a hard life being a critic, but it is an eternally entertaining and absorbing one.

26 February 2018

Musical Misfires

The story of how the Patron of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, who was the wife of the then Malaysian Prime Minister, walked out of the Orchestra’s inaugural concert in August 1998 in opposition to an arrangement of the country’s national anthem (a melody written as a French Revolutionary song in the 18th century) has passed into legend; a classic example, it is said, of narrow Third World xenophobia.  If nothing else it was a story which reached news agencies the world over and, if it did not necessarily reflect well on Malaysian politics, it let everyone know that a fine new orchestra had come into being.

It would be nice to think that such things no longer happen and that audiences are more forgiving of well-meaning attempts of visitors to ingratiate themselves with unfamiliar communities. But, for better or worse, they do. 

This year The King’s Singers, that marvellous English all-male a capella sextet, are marking the 50th anniversary of their first professional concert with a world-wide tour which, at the weekend, landed up in Singapore.

I am old enough to remember the early days of The King’s Singers.  They appeared on British radio and television almost nightly, often singing unexpected texts to Anglican chants.  One I recall well was the Highway Code being sung to a psalm chant, and there were things like weather forecasts and shipping bulletins similarly treated.  All good fun, and all beautifully done to elevate the ordinary into something special by using that magic which The king’s Singers, as they showed this weekend, still possesses.  And like any well-mannered and respectful visitors, The King’s Singers decided to add a bit of local flavour to their Singapore concert by including as an encore a song which they had been told would be well known to the audience.

Home is a pretty bog-standard if catchy piece of middle-of-the-road 50s-style light music which would fit in to just about any dance hall anywhere in the world and not cause offence.  Dick Lee composed it for the Singapore National Day celebrations in 1998 (what an eventful year that turned out to be for music in south-east Asia!). What makes it special to Singaporeans are the sentimental and (from the non-Singaporean’s point-of-view) mawkish lyrics which clearly mean so much to so many local residents. 

Adopting my standard practice for encores – ie. leaving the hall before they get round to them, because I often find them cringe-makingly embarrassing and usually they leave an unwelcome taste in the mouth after any well-constructed programme – I did not hear it, but I am told it was a most effective arrangement which served the song well.  And, of course, being The King’s Singers, the audience would have heard every word and, being Singaporeans, I am sure more than a few of them decided to sing along too.

So far so good.

But now I hear that it caused a few adverse reactions.  Apparently the concept of six Cambridge graduates emanating from Singapore’s former colonial masters, singing the words “winding through my Singapore” struck some in the audience as inappropriate.  A student relating this to me gave the instance of another time an English choir sung Home with all good intentions but ended up causing offence.  In March 2015 another Cambridge choir – that of St John’s College - was in Singapore and performed Home during the lying-in-state of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father (and, coincidentally, another Cambridge graduate).  At the time it seemed a beautiful and well-chosen tribute, which was widely appreciated and respected.  But now I learn that it did not go down well in all quarters, with several comments on social media and elsewhere suggesting that it was “controversial” and that it was “inappropriate for Brits to sing in Singapore”.

There are always issues with foreign musicians attempting to endear themselves to the locals, either by attempting a few words in the language of their hosts (I’ve heard some desperately awkward moments with European musicians attempting Cantonese) or by taking what they are told is a popular local song and not realising that such songs can be as divisive as they are popular, especially where the host nation comprises several communities in cultural conflict. 

My mind goes back to an occasion when the conductor Boris Brott took the rostrum for the first time with the BBC Welsh Orchestra (as it was then).  Having done his homework and conscientiously asked around, he had learnt that the Welsh had their own language of which they were (rightly) proud.  He went to great pains to have his speech translated into Welsh and taught to him phonetically.  Come the first rehearsal with the orchestra, he addressed them at length in Welsh and was met with total silence, until a member of staff took it upon himself to end everyone’s misery.  “Maestro Brott”, he said, “We appreciate the effort you have made to speak to the Orchestra in Welsh, but I must tell you, nobody here understands a word of the language”.

23 February 2018

Sexy, Cool and In Terminal Decline

My good friend from Sydney, Barry Walmsley, draws my attention to an article referring to research which reveals that, despite their own beliefs, students perform better when they have drawn their information from printed materials than online ones.  I had begun to wonder whether it was my extreme old age that meant I found it considerably more difficult to engage with online materials than printed ones, so I am glad that Barry – who is a mere stripling of a young lad – agrees.

Recently I have become seriously concerned about the growing trend to dispense with printed materials and focus exclusively on online ones.  Surely we need to engage with both?

Yes, it’s sexy and cool to be digitally savvy, but sexy and cool are not the same as informed and intellectually engaged.  For all our obsession with staring at little illuminated screens, the enormous amount of time we spend engaging with our electronic media does not translate into greater knowledge or understanding; in fact it seems to have quite the reverse effect.  A generation is growing up whose perception of reality no longer involves the world around them as a world portrayed through the filters of online search engines and questionably authentic social media posts.  This is now seriously damaging the world of classical music, and if it continues unabated will surely see the genre die out altogether.

A survey undertaken last month by a group of my students analysed audience perceptions at a number of classical music concerts.  Their findings were alarming to all of us with the future of classical music at heart. 

They very quickly identified a serious disconnect between the general members of the audience, largely middle-aged and elderly professional people, and students.  More than that, they identified a subspecies of student audience comprising full-time music students, whose perception of a live classical music concert differed fundamentally both from those of the general public and also those of their fellow students.  So pronounced were these behavioural attitudes that they were able to quantify them through a similarly large and representative sample as the general audience.

While general audience members and non-music students generally engaged with the music and voiced coherent opinions based on what they had heard and seen on the concert stage, the music students were, almost entirely, disengaged with the live performances.  They did not share the general audience’s reticence over engaging with electronic devices during the concert and, in fact, engaged with them to the exclusion of almost everything else.  For many of these students, the principal purpose of a concert was a photo-sharing opportunity, while when asked (as the general audience had been) to voice opinions about the concert and the music, included among their responses were “I find it boring”, “I only go because it’s obligatory” and “I’ve heard it before on YouTube – I don’t need to hear it again”. 

Never in a million years would I defend these students’ appalling attitudes, but I can see why they have arisen.  The ready and free accessibility of material through electronic media devalues the concept of a live performance, and the ease and intimacy with which electronic media can be engaged means that its very familiarity lures the individual away from the effort of being part of an audience, with all the implications that involves.  In short, if you can get everything you want easily from your electronic device, why go through the effort of seeking it out elsewhere?  Full-time music students have, in the main, become so fixated on the preparation for a performance that the end result seems to them largely irrelevant.  Consequenrly, they feel freer than others to disengage from it.

Concert promoters and venues are largely to blame by encouraging active engagement with electronic devices during a concert which, in turn, leads to a disengagement from the performance.  Too many venues are no longer issuing printed materials, taking the easy option of leaving them online to be accessed at the individual’s convenience.  But a concert flyer, poster or programme book is not just works.  If nothing else, a printed programme helps maintain the focus of attention on the performance, in that it is exclusively associated with the performance, supporting concert-goers rather than distracting them.  Illuminated screens, like annoying pin-pricks of light, create what is possibly the most comprehensive visual distraction at a live concert; not to those who look at the screen, but to those who try to look at the stage.  Eyes are instinctively drawn towards small points of light and away from larger vistas.

These desperately short-sighted and stupid concert promoters and venue managers hide behind the appalling lie that the emphasis on electronic devices over printed material is environmentally friendly.  They believe that the precious metals taken from the earth to put in phone batteries, the generation of power to charge phones and to provide wi-fi services, and the rapid deterioration of the devices’ hardware through extensive use, is apparently better for our natural world than paper from sustainable resources, recycled and printed with natural ink. (I may be showing a bit of bias here but, hey, this is an online blog so, like all online materials, it presents a highly distorted vision of one person’s perception of reality.)  That may be their belief (all the evidence I have collected contradicts that in a big way), but the harm they are doing to both music and musicians is conveniently forgotten in the desire to appear sexy and cool.

The printed programme has a value far beyond merely telling us who is playing and what they are playing.  It is a tangible souvenir of an event, the very presence of which in the future helps us to remember that event.  One audience member bemoaned to me recently that, without a printed programme or leaflet, he had nothing to use to collect artists’ autographs – a scribbled name on a loose bit of paper has none of the precious preservative power of a concert programme with the same scribbled signature drawn across the signatory’s face. 

The printed material also provides tangible proof of an artist’s activity.  Students, trying to break out into the competitive work of concert giving, have no future ahead of them if they cannot provide documentary evidence of what they have done in the past.  Yes, they can (and should) make YouTube videos to send out; but that’s not enough, especially if everyone does it.  How can they show that they have performed this, that and the other piece at this, that and the other place?  A sheath of concert fliers and programme booklets is vivid physical evidence of a concert-giving career.  Online resources are not; anyone can easily and quickly concoct a false online presence, while to forge printed materials in the kind of numbers and quality needed to be convincing requires the sort of time, effort and money that only the most criminally corrupted mind would consider worthwhile.

Dispense with printed materials and you deny the audience their souvenir of what should have been a memorable occasion, and you deny the music student a chance to build their own future.  If audiences have nothing to hold on to and new musicians no way of presenting in physical form their past achievements on the concert platform, it won’t be long until live classical music is extinct.

This MUST NOT HAPPEN.  If you go to a concert where no programmes are available, where you are directed to an online resource, write in a say you won’t bother going again – the place clearly doesn’t care about its audience, and the musicians have no future ahead of them.

14 February 2018

Nothing Ever Really Fuses

Wayne Kramer and I share two points of common interest.  Firstly, neither of us knows who each other is (I found his name on a blind internet search) and secondly, Kramer is on the internet as having said; “I hate that expression, 'fusion'. What it means to me is this movement where nothing ever really fused”.   And with that sentiment I wholeheartedly concur.

I suspect we are actually talking about different things when we decry “fusion” music, and if you really get down to it, all music is fusion.  A fusion of the old and the new, of different styles, of different identities, of different functions and of different cultures.  My dislike is of what you might call “manufactured fusion” – where you deliberately set out to take two very different things and force them to co-exist.  We find that in food; and while some fusion food is interesting, it is never quite as good as 100% of the one or 100% of the other.  I love Japanese food, I love Italian food, but when I had a Wasabi Pizza, I fervently disliked both; fusing the two diminished each of them equally.  So with music.

Working in south-east Asia one is constantly aware of the pressure to create a fusion music.  Those with a fundamental misunderstanding (or, more likely, no real knowledge at all) of the history of what we call “western music”, claim that it is an alien import and that we should exert our own cultural muscle and fuse the Western with the Asian.  Such people, blissfully unaware of the province of most musical instruments (very few of which can be said to have originated in “the west” – wherever that might be), and of the enormous influences on the works of the accepted European masters of music from “the east” (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and their admittedly ersatz “Turkish” music, Debussy, Ravel and Britten and their less ersatz Javanese, Messiaen and Harvey and their sincere Indian), go with the mindless flow of popular political correctness and say that for music to be representative of the region, it must have obvious Asian characteristics.  Picture postcard images rather than subliminal messages, if you like.

The problem is particularly acute in Singapore which has no indigenous culture and is made up of a mind-boggling array of cultures each with their own musical traditions, none of which is in any way Singaporean.  What links these various cultures present in Singapore society is the fact that they are not “western”.  During the SG50 – the year when Singapore celebrated 50 years of independence from Malaysia (no such big celebrations marked 2007, the 50th year of independence from Britain – which may or may not be a significant point to make) – calls for a “Singapore Sound” in music resonated loud and clamorous.  As reported in this blog, the ever-enterprising Adrian Chiang even created an orchestra and a concert specifically to fuse western and Asian musical elements.  Like so much fusion stuff, it was interesting but ultimately a failure – the experiment has not been repeated with such a high profile.

But that has not stopped people from calling for such Asianized Western music.  One amazingly gormless Singaporean pianist is on record as saying “I find it ironic that though we are born in this part of the world, we mostly play composers in the western tradition”.  The piano is one of those instruments unequivocally rooted in European soil and its repertory, inevitably, is skewed towards “the west”; if this pianist is so opposed to the “western tradition”, why on earth does he attempt to make a living out of playing the piano?

But such an attitude – and you hear it almost daily - is not hypocrisy, but simple ignorance.  A failure to recognise that all music we describe as “western” is in fact such a successful fusion of cultures that we no longer identify its constituent parts but regard it as a conglomerate whole.  Nevertheless, in a society where glib cliché is regarded as superior to deep understanding, calls to have a Singaporean identify in Western music continue to resound, and last Saturday I attended another concert put together by Chiang which took a rather more realistic approach to the issue of Asian/Western fusion than the SG50 debacle.  (I reviewed it for Straits Times, and my review can be read here -  http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/fusion-work-and-beautiful-sounds-let-down-by-technical-issues).

The idea of using just ethnic flutes against a Western orchestra was certainly based on sound common sense, but it failed in practice on three counts. 

Firstly, Asian flutes, with their difference in materials, psychology and playing styles will inevitably be overwhelmed by the western orchestral instruments.  We live in an age where amplification can help address such balances.  But once amplification is involved, the musicians lose control of the result and are totally dependent on the sound engineers.  On Saturday those sound engineers were dreadfully incompetent, and ruined the experience for both audience and performers.

Secondly, the idea of fusing ethnic flutes with a western orchestra was never practicable before the advent of effective amplification, so there simply is not the repertory to make up an entire concert.  As a result new works were brought in from composers who lacked experience and full understanding.  Sterling though their efforts were, musically the programme was very shallow indeed.  There were plenty of nice sounds, but nobody had worked to evolve something that went beyond nice sounds.

Thirdly, the beauty of Asian flutes lies in the subtlety of their sounds but, more especially, in the cultural traditions which lie behind the music they play.  Amplification can obscure subtlety, but fusing Asian with Western instruments utterly destroys any cultural tradition within the Asian flute.  At one point the players were reduced to appearing in national costume so that we could tell, visually, where they were from – the sound had lost its cultural, ethnic or even geographical identify.

Had Wayne Kramer been there, I am sure he, like me, would have found some of the sounds fascinating and recognised a potential for something worthwhile to evolve.  But I imagine he, like me, would ultimately have felt it had all been a pointless experience.  I came away with the strong feeling that nothing ever really fused.

13 February 2018

Gender Fluid Choirs

Apologies to the copyright holder - Hoffnung's Choir is gloriously gender-neutral
Choir directing is one of the most inclusive and non-segregative occupations there is.  In my time I have probably directed around 50 choirs.  These have been all-male, all-female, mixed, professional, amateur, members have included people with every imaginable disability, blind people, deaf people, people with limbs missing, people recovering from trauma, the battle-scarred, the very young, the very old, the white, the black, the brown, the lurid yellow (that was me with a bad attack of jaundice); you name it, it’s been in one of my choirs.  My father, at 100, has recently left his church choir, not because his singing has deteriorated, but because he can no longer easily process with the others.  Some of my very best friends have been in choirs, and some of my worse enemies.  The thing about choral singing is it is a complete and utter leveller, drawing in people of all shapes, sizes, creeds, colours, ages, abilities, sexual orientation and political affiliations.  It does not matter to the director; so long as you want to sing, there is a choir for you.

Yet I learn from a radio report this morning that choral directors are dinosaurs, stuck in the prejudice-laden segregation-obsessed mores of the past.  It seems that those of “fluid gender” (defined as “unwilling to accept the random gender stereotype imposed at birth”) feel dispossessed of their right to sing in a choir.

I once conducted a “gay” choir – which was just like every other choir but liked to parade under a banner which made them seem different – elitist – from others.  And from several choir tours I did with other choirs, I seem to have conducted choirs comprising a disproportionate number of people with an obsession with sexual relations with those of the opposite “imposed gender”.  If people want to give their choirs labels, let them; my rule is that if you want to sing, there is a choir for you and you should be welcomed in to it regardless of any other aspect of your psyche.

Of course some choirs are exclusive in their insistence on gender, occupation or vocal prowess.  Yet for every one of these, there are a thousand who accept those excluded.  In short, every choir director manages a complete balance with no hint that anyone would ever be excluded.  We, as a body of professionals, have never really thought about it, simply because inclusivity is endemic in the profession.

Back to the radio report.  A daft idiot (oh yes! I did once direct a choir made up of inmates from a hospital for the criminally insane) felt that in the world of choral singing, there were barriers caused by sexual stereotyping.  According to this twit, we expect women to sing with high voices and men to sing with low ones.  As a poor counter-tenor and highly able falsettist, that’s an assumption I never make – and I have had innumerable female tenors in my amateur choirs (although I have yet to encounter a female basso profundo – but I live in hope; it’s just about impossible to get hold of a male one these days).  Who expects women to sing with high voices and men with low ones?  Not choir directors, certainly.  Possibly only those who see an issue which does not exist and use it to promulgate their own private agenda.

As a result, choirs in one American state (I did not catch which one, I was off in search of the sick-bag at the time) are being forced to abandoned one-sex rules.  But it was not an issue of forcing barbershop ensembles to admit both men and women – after all that’s been going for years.  It was an issue of allowing those “real people” (according to Loony Toons) who genuinely do not know what their gender is and who choose to identify with no established gender.  Choirs, we were told, must be ready to accept those whose gender is fluid and who, therefore, cannot be boxed up in the prejudicial stereotypical labels of soprano, alto, tenor or bass.

I would say this is all bollocks – but that would be an unfortunate word given the context.  In all my experience I have never once encountered anyone changing gender during a choral rehearsal (let alone a performance).  I’ve certainly encountered plenty of people whose voices change from high to low in mid-flow; but the breaking of a boy’s voice, tragic though it seems at the time, is not indicative of a gender shift – more a natural process of gender confirmation. 

However, I do concede that there might just be something to learn from all this.  The labels we have long given to the voices do have gender implications which, perhaps, are no longer relevant.  Technically you cannot have a male soprano (that would be a treble), a male contralto (that would be an alto) or a male mezzo-soprano (that would be a counter-tenor).  Funnily enough it does not work the other way round, and while we assume tenors, baritones and basses will always be men, choral directors know otherwise.  Although I am a stickler for correct nomenclature, I am willing to let this drop if it helps make choirs seem more inclusive.  Bring on the gender-free sopranos and the gender-neutral contraltos; anything to prevent anyone thinking that they are excluded from what is the most enjoyable and wonderful activity known to man, woman or gender fluid.

08 February 2018

Why Teach Piano?

How many piano teachers are there?  I am certain that nobody knows or could even hazard a realistic guess.  Teaching piano is about the most comprehensively unregulated profession in the world, and amassing realistic statistics as to how many people do it is made all the more difficult because it is also a leading contributor the black economy in many (most…all?) of the countries where piano teaching takes place.  But while a great many piano teachers collect fees for teaching the piano of which the taxman remains blissfully unaware, the issue is more to do with intentions than finance.

In short, why is there such a huge and international demand for piano lessons, and why has that demand not abated as the piano has lost its once ubiquitous place in society?

When teaching amateurs to play the keyboard began – we can pinpoint the date to around 1716 when François Couperin published his L’Art de toucher le clavecin, the first written tutor to give guidance to teachers – society was in a state of change.  In the main, before then, those who played a keyboard instrument had served an apprenticeship, either with their own father or a master at the court to which they were, by virtue of birth, attached as a servant.  Under the reign of Louis XIV making music had become a respectable pastime amongst the nobility, and people began to learn to play for pleasure rather than for employment.  Over the next century, the ability to play the keyboard was seen as a valuable addition to the armoury of young women about to enter the marriage market, and the ability to play became an essential in the world of aristocratic and noble daughters.

The world has changed.  It’s a good few years since I last went a-courting, but I doubt whether today’s young men, spotting an attractive girl at a disco (or wherever courting is carried out today) is going to go up to her and say “I fancy you.  Do you play the piano?”.  It never crossed my mind all those years back to enquire whether my prospective bride had pianistic abilities?  I knew she could sing because we used to spend evenings in the karaoke bars.  (Be fair!  In deepest Sarawak, once you had traipsed for hours through a mosquito and leech infested jungles to stare at a flowering Raffelesia and savour its unique aroma of rotting durian, visited the orang-utan sanctuary and attended feeding time at the crocodile farm, there really wasn’t much else to do!) So I doubt that modern-day piano teachers see their role as helping to improve the marriageable prospects of young women.

In the 19th century playing a keyboard instrument was recognised as a useful social skill, a way of whiling away the long evenings in formal Victorian drawing rooms.  But the invention of first wireless, then television, then the internet and finally social media (there’s an oxymoron if ever there was one – engaging with social media is a solitary activity and one which actively discourages social intercourse) has thrown the piano into another anti-social box; you go and play it on your own, in isolation and usually careful not to be overheard by neighbours or friends.  You even learn it on your own, closeted in a room with nobody other than the teacher, while for many in south-east Asia, the focus of their lessons is to play it on their own, closeted in a small room with just a visiting examiner (and the day when people will wake up to the potential hazard of this situation cannot be far off).

So if learning the piano is no longer a means to secure employment, to secure a wife or to engage with society, why on earth do we bother to teach the skill to young people?

Innumerable surveys have been conducted which have shown the beneficial effects of a practical involvement in music.  We are told of its power in developing brain power and motor skills, fending off dementia, of its therapeutic value and of its role in helping channel emotions.  And all of that is true.  A survey we did many years ago to mark the centenary of the ABSRM saw us contact major captains of industry and leading figures in political, military and civil life in the UK.  It revealed that a disproportionate number of successful people had, in their youth, learnt the piano.  (We did not delve further to see whether we could prove a correlation between pianistic ability and success in public life – it was enough to hint that, if you did your ABRSM Grade 1 you stood a more than average chance of becoming Prime Minister!)  And I am totally convinced that there are huge benefits – beyond musical ones – in learning to play a musical instrument and in studying music in general.

My interest is the focus on the piano, and why that focus, perhaps explained in the past by the piano’s social status, remains even in an age where the piano is largely irrelevant to society, and indeed, has developed a certain anti-social stigma.  Attempts by imaginative and eager advocates of the piano to bring it back into the social foreground by placing pianos in public areas and encouraging anyone to play them, seem to have attracted much attention, but I have yet to see some conclusive evidence that this has resulted in anything more than people seeing a piano and playing it, regardless of who is listening.  I am not aware that there has been a significant shift for the piano to regain its once dominant social role.

So again I ask, why do we teach the piano?  It remains the most taught of all musical instruments, to the extent that when people talk about “music lessons” they usually mean “piano lessons”.  People who learn the violin, the cello, the trumpet, the flute, the harp, the drums, the organ all have a clear goal; and that is to play their instrument in an orchestra, church or some other social environment.  (Harp teachers tell me that the wedding market has done wonders to their income levels.)  Yet still these are the minority instruments.  A vast majority of people who learn a musical instrument learn the piano.

The motor skills required in piano playing – finger dexterity, hand/eye coordination – do not actually have much use outside playing the piano.  I used to tell my piano students that, if they did not end up playing the piano, at least they had the necessary physical skills to become good typists.  But now type-writers and word-processors are ancient history – as are the finger and hand skills they require – and written communications are by means of two thumbs on a tiny touch screen or voice activation.  So pianistic skills seem largely confined to playing the piano.

The piano has a huge repertory, yet since the instrument has only been in existence since the early part of the 18th century, a knowledge of the piano repertory is hardly sufficient to broaden one’s eyes to the vast scope of social history which is open to those who study music history.  Similarly, while a familiarity with the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, precisely defined on a piano keyboard, is an inevitable consequence of learning the piano, few other instruments have such a clear black-and-white distinction between pitches.  Pianists cannot comprehend the myriad micro-tones and subtleties of intonation which are the basis of string and wind instrument technique.  Listen to a pianist conduct an orchestra and you will invariably notice how little effort is made in tuning chords – a string player, on the other hand, will devote a lot of time in rehearsal to this aspect of a performance.

We might suggest, in the light of all this that learning the piano enables the student to detach themselves from society, to indulge in a wholly solitary pursuit which, in its complete inability to relate to other activities, is a self-sustaining occupation of little worth.  But it’s not.  It cannot be.  Why else would so many the world over indulge in it?  Are we really teaching people to exist in their own unique capsules, detached from their fellow men?

A good piano teacher will use the piano as a catalyst for a whole world of other things, using the piano to arouse pupils’ consciousness to listening, imagining, thinking, feeling, reading, relating and society in general.  You can learn more about the history of the world, and you can learn more about how society has developed by touching a piano than by reading any number of academic books.  All you need is a good piano teacher.  The trouble is, in such a widely unregulated business, who is good and who is bad?  And I remain completely in the dark as to what those bad teachers think they are doing when they teach their students to play the piano.