16 August 2011

The Musician as Servant

Shaftesbury - A Haven of Courteousness
On a recent visit to the UK I found myself in that delightful Dorset town, Shaftesbury, famed for its precipitous hill and rows of thatched houses.  I was stopped in the street by primary school children involved in a survey about what their town offered visitors.  Having been searching in vain for a toilet, when they asked me if there was anything Shaftesbury lacked by way of tourist facilities, I promptly replied "public conveniences".  They met this with a shocked silence and a quizzical look but politely moved on with a "Thank you for your time, sir".  It was only as I turned round to head back down the hill did I see I that the interview had been conducted on the very step of a clearly marked (and spotless) public convenience.

Another question they asked me was; "Is there anything you feel passionately about when you visit Shaftesbury?"  A difficult one since visitors tend not to feel passion in sleepy and quaint Dorsetshire towns, but so polite and well-mannered were these children that I was able to answer; "I feel passionately about the good manners, the courtesy and the consideration shown by the residents".  As so often happens, the question actually set my mind racing, and for some time afterwards I was taken up by thinking what would have been a better answer.  When it comes to Shaftesbury I don't think, even with a few weeks contemplation, I could have come up with a more genuine answer, but broadening it out, I have spent some time recently wondering what I do feel the most passionate about.

In fact, I think the one thing which really does get me passionate is courtesy, consideration, thoughtfulness and respect for others.  When I see people behaving in an inconsiderate, selfish way, ruthlessly putting themselves above their fellow man and oblivious to the common decencies one human being ought to show to another, I think I get more angry, more passionate, than over anything else.  I seethe with hatred at the sight of mindless violence, I am consumed with anger at the sight of graffiti, litter throwing and vandalism, and I boil with rage over the most common of selfish acts (the sort of things most Asians seem to regard as their birthright; pushing to the front of queues, rushing to be the first off the plane, driving recklessly just to get in front of another vehicle, and pushing into trains and lifts regardless of the desires of others to leave  - in the case of lifts, Asians still find them such a novelty that there is a frantic rush to be the first to stand beside the control panel and push the buttons, and I am not averse to pressing coins into their grubby hands and leaving the lift with a loud "Thank you, lift attendant"). 

This passion is positive as well as negative, however, and there is nothing that excites me more fundamentally than serving my fellow man.  When I used to be a bus driver, I derived enormous satisfaction from serving the public.  There was something wonderful about having the power to offer a small service, a small act of kindness, even a pleasant smile, which could brighten someone's day.  I love the fact that Singapore bus drivers are all clearly trained in the art of good service, and I have rarely boarded a bus here without getting a cheerful smile and a courteous greeting.  It makes me want to travel by bus rather than subject myself to the hatred and vicious injustice meted out by Singapore's execrable and astonishingly incompetent  car drivers.

Zubin Mehta does it right.  Does that
diminish his musicality?
Standing in for a semester at the National University of Singapore's Yong Siew Toh Conservatory while one of the permanent staff is on maternity leave, I am teaching a course on music history and context from 1600 to 1830.  I mentioned to the students that in those years a musician was a servant, employed solely to serve a master - be he a king, a prince, a wealthy aristocrat or the church - and drew their attention to the fact that musicians still often adopt an attire which is shared by waiters and servants in high-class restaurants and hotels.  They found it funny and vaguely ridiculous that musicians were once seen as little more than waiters serving up, not food, but entertainment.  Yet, to me, the greatest joy to be found in performing is the sense of service.  Just as, on the buses I had the power to add a little brightness and cheer to a stranger's life, so as a musician I have the power to enrich, for a brief time, the lives of others.  And that is something, surely, we should all be passionate about.

Mr Turnip-Head started the rot!
I despair at the innumerable young musicians who believe that performing is really a path to individual glory, that the stage is for them to display their personal prowess, that the composer's art is solely for the purpose of providing a vehicle through which they can achieve fame.  We can look to the Elvis Presleys, the Michael Jacksons, the Amy Winehouses of this world and say that they died because they could not handle fame; fame acts like a drug with far greater addictive properties than the mineral and vegetable products they consumed with apparent abandon.  Musicians in the classical arena tend not to have gone down that path yet, but it can only be a matter of time before we get our first star suicide, prompted by an inability to cope with the self-imposed levels of fame so eagerly sought at the beginnings of careers.

The warning signs are there for us all to see.  The conductor who wears a colourful frock coat instead of tails, the singer who gives herself over to the promotion of luxury non-musical products, the violinist who poses topless for her promotional photographs, the pianist who employs a fashion guru to advise on concert attire.  All of these have lost sight of their servant status.  They get a lot of money, their names are familiar and adoring crowds flock to see them, but where's their passion?  Am I alone in finding that these star performers often seem to have lost any power to move their audience?  Is not the passion to serve – be it the composer or the audience - at the heart of any great musical performance? 

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