27 October 2011

Music Exam Nerves

Holed up in a school for orphan and dispossessed girls set in a remote part of the African veldt, I am obliged to stay overnight in the visitors’ quarters.  In the queue for breakfast I overhear a plaint from a young girl further up the line; “I have a really stressful day. Today I have to do my English paper and then my Math paper, and then this afternoon I have my bassoon exam”.  Cries of anguish from her friends, and words of sympathy; “Agh!  A music exam!  How terrible!  You poor thing!”  No concern at all about English and Maths, but real commiseration for the child with a music exam to face.

This is a phenomenon that is familiar to all of us who are involved in music exams.  From parents and teachers to students and examiners, the music exam is enmeshed in a level of anxiety and anguish which is out of all proportion to its importance in the greater scheme of things.

Personally, I would have thought that presenting the English paper was by far and away the most terrifying of that girl’s ordeals.  After all, in any community even those in which English is not a principal means of communication, the ability to master the language has a direct bearing on your subsequent employability.  As for Mathematics (the English in me refuses that nasty abbreviation “Math”), whilst I was a dismal failure at it through all my school years (I was dropped from the O level class when I achieved 17% - a school record low – at the mock exam), I accept that it is a hugely important subject when it comes to setting you in good stead for a future career.  Set beside tests in such vital – not to say fateful – subjects, surely an early grade bassoon exam is of no consequence whatsoever?

As an examiner I have lost count of the numbers of students who have broken down and sobbed their hearts out all because of a forgotten scale, a missed accidental, a couple of miscounted rests, even, memorably, a left hand scale played with the right hand; which so destroyed the candidate’s confidence that she fled the scene and no amount of coaxing could induce her to come back into the examination room.  No amount of admonishment from me that “We can try it again”, “Don’t worry”, “It’s not a matter of life and death” has worked.  The astonishing fact is, when faced with a music exam, something affects the brain which sets in motion a sequence of horrendous nervous reactions which are devastating in their ability to destroy self-confidence; reactions which do not seem to occur in almost any other situation.

People who glibly sail into their A levels, their degree finals, their professional diplomas, their driving tests, their medical examinations, their dental procedures, with merely a small flutter in the stomach and a slight sweatiness in the palm, turn into quivering and incoherent jellies when faced with Grade 1 Flute.  Adult candidates, especially those retirees who have taken up music as an idle hobby to keep them away from the bottle or the TV screens, are a thousand times more prone to these crippling nerves than the younger ones who, in most cases, are only doing the exam at their parents’ behest.  As one elderly gentleman told me, when he burst unaccountably into tears after fluffing a couple of bars in his grade 3 piano; “I was a dentist for 40 years, and was never once as nervous as I was doing this!”  (I did tell him that now he knew what we felt like when we sat in the dentist’s chair, but in truth, I have never been so incapably nervous, even facing a major extraction, as he clearly was facing Windmills by Felix Swinstead.)

We as examiners are deeply conscious of these nerves and do all we can to alleviate them.  Short of sitting the candidate on our lap and handing out sweeties to help keep tears at bay (that’s all been banned), we have a whole armoury of techniques designed to take as much stress out of the event as we can.  We keep formality to a minimum, we are trained to smile and keep cheerful (and believe me, it does require intensive training), we know how to pick a candidate up from apparently unrecoverable errors, and we do all we can to help them forget what it is they are doing.  None of which stops the tears or calms the shaking fingers for a moment.   

The question is, why do music exams – which rarely have a bearing on future careers and certainly have no implications for health or wealth – engender such terrible nerves in the candidates?  Why be more afraid of a music exam than a life-affecting English or Mathematics one?

Some will tell you that what spooks candidates is the one-to-one relationship between candidate and examiner; yet similar situations in language oral exams do not incur such nervous reactions.  Some will also suggest that the motor skills required in playing musical instruments are so alien to normal human behaviour that the simple feeling of oddness triggers powerful nervous reactions.  But do typists and painters suffer the same nerves?  Both professions trigger serious RSI problems, yet I have yet to hear a prospective secretary or a budding decorator crumbling from nerves at the first hurdle en route to their chosen profession,

I have an answer, but I’m not sure if it’s a correct one.  I’ve certainly never heard anyone else propound it, and it is based purely on instinct rather than scientific analysis.

My belief is that, in playing an instrument, irrespective of the level at which we are playing it, we are - often deeply unconsciously - exposing something of our inner soul.  If the famous assertion that “Music expresses thoughts which go beyond words” (I think that particular phraseology came from Orwell, but I’m probably wrong) is true, then by playing even something so banal as Windmills by Felix Swinstead we are actually expressing some of our inner thoughts which we never usually expose to ourselves, let alone complete strangers.  I think that adults, with their inbuilt reticence and sense of reserve, are particularly prone to this inner sense of exposing something deeply private to public scrutiny; which is why they get so nervous.  And that also may explain why it is that only in the very young, whose ability to express themselves in words is still embryonic, do nerves not come into play; the sheer enjoyment of communication is still a novelty and has yet to become a precious and treasured indicator of unique personality.  It certainly explains why it seems to us that some incredibly young children are able to perform complex musical works from which even the most self-assured and capable adults shy away.  Only this afternoon, for example, I was being shown a video of a six-year-old Finnish boy giving a very impressive account of a Chopin Nocturne. 

Glad to report the African girl acquitted herself well in her Grade 4 Bassoon and left the room calmer and less agitated than she had entered it.  She even managed a smile as she fled into the arms of her waiting classmates, tearfully relived that the terrible ordeal was over (and perhaps privately conscious that only the strange fat white man left behind in the room had been afforded that unique and very intimate view into her naked inner soul); until, of course, next year, when she goes through it all again for Grade 5.

23 October 2011

Life is Good!

Sitting by a double life-size statue of Nelson Mandela in prison garb, tucking into a grotesquely overfilled Panini (me, that is, not NM) and sipping a wonderfully zesty white wine (I have made a conscious decision not to advertise on this blog, so if you want to know what this spectacular wine was, you will need to drop by the Dr Marc residence during December where it will be on offer until stocks run out), I was struck by an unusually powerful sense of well-being. Sipping a nice wine in the sun always induces a sense of well-being, but this was different. 
Life is difficult right now; I don’t know if I’ll have any sort of job come January, I can’t see how I can afford to keep up the rent on our current and wonderful home, the Singapore government has made it clear I can’t stay much longer without a permanent and salaried position, the Malaysian Philharmonic into which I have poured so much seems determined to kill itself off and has dismissed me without so much as a simple thank you, Trinity College London, for whom I have been examining these past ten years, gives every impression of wanting to rid itself of its music examining burden, and not only Gramophone, but International Record Review and The Classical Review, for whom I have been writing for years, all seem to be struggling to keep themselves afloat in the current commercial climate.  How I can manage to send my daughter to school or support her as she grows up, is beyond me at the moment.  Yet, imbibing my wine and stuffing my Panini in Sandton’s Nelson Mandela Square, none of these seems to matter.  Life is Good.

Perhaps it’s sitting by the Great Man’s statue that lightens the soul. 
I will always say, no matter how bad life becomes, that I rejoice to have been alive when those four incredible statespeople were in power.  I can never forget that wonderful sense of euphoria that swept the world when Maggie (Thatcher), Ronnie (Reagan) and Mikhail (Gorbachev) were around.  We may have hated a lot of what they stood for but, boy, when you look at the nonentities and ghastly self-seeking publicists that have followed (Blair – pwwwwh, Bush Jnr – pwwwwwwwwwh, Putin – aaaaaaarrrrggggh), didn’t the world just feel good when they were around?  And then out of prison walked Mandela and the world was treated to the ultimate Great Statesman; Maggie (without the inhumanity), Ronnie (without the mental aberrations) and Gorby (without the Communist baggage), all rolled into one, and then some.  Mandela was not without his flaws or weaknesses, but he admitted to them and brought into world politics concepts which had hitherto not been around – compassion and forgiveness.  Every time I walk past a statue of Mandela (especially that one which Red Ken so perversely had erected outside the Royal Festival Hall long before anyone in the world knew what Mandela behaved like or even what he looked like) I utter a profound word of apology; as a student I objected to the elevation of what I thought of as a Terrorist Prisoner to the ranks of the Great and Good and refused point blank to offer any support to the countless demonstrations going on at the time against South Africa. Being reminded of the greatness of Mandela should make everyone feel good.

Perhaps it was the fact that, as Metal Mandela grinned happily from his plinth on to Sandton Square, playing in the fountains was a little microcosm of everything he stood for.  Appropriately encircled by a rainbow made out of the sun’s rays shining through the water of the fountain, was a handful of children having a whale of a time.  A tiny black boy was in the middle screaming with delight whenever a jet of water shot up through the floor and soaked him, while an Indian girl, a white boy and a couple of Afrikaans children joined in the fun.  When the black boy kicked a spray of water at them and it accidentally splashed some passers-by (who clearly were not happy at their soaking), it was the Afrikaans girl who apologised.  When the Indian girl slipped over and started to cry, it was the black boy who picked her up and led her back to her parents.  That image certainly helped promote my sense of well-being.   

But it should have been short-lved.  After my lunch I tried on a 48” chest jacket in Woolworths – and it didn’t pretend to do up.  I walked the 5 kilometres back to my hotel (downhill all the way) and had to stop and rest twice.  I eventually made it to the hotel, took a dip in the pool, quaffed a couple of G&Ts in the bar, and settled down for a heart-destroying rib of rare beef and a pottle of Binotage (as it were!).  Yet, still, that odd sense of wellbeing refused to go away.  Life is Terrible – yet I feel good about it.  Why?

And it was in the hotel restaurant that I had my Damascene Moment.  At no point in my day had I been invaded by music. 

Had Nelson Mandela Square been transported to London (it has - they call it Covent Garden!), you would have been inveigled on every side by music, be it the live jazz band busking or the sound track accompanying the performing contortionist.  Had I tried on my jacket in a Singapore shopping mall, it would have been to the cacophonous accompaniment of some viciously voluminous pop music.  Had I sat alone in a restaurant in Hong Kong, a barrage of quasi musical sounds would have assailed me from state-of-the-art sound systems. 

In Africa music seems to be respected; as opposed to Europe where it is taken for granted or Asia where it is thrust violently and unrelentingly at you.

I cannot pretend to be a great African authority.  True, I spent six months in Cape Town in 1994 and have spent short periods in 11 African countries (South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Egypt), but that has given me nothing more than a brief taste of tourist or business Africa.  But, from that shallow perspective, I have learnt that music is far more important to the African psyche than merely fulfilling the role of soundtrack or background noise to life which is its function in the perceptions of Europeans and Asians. 

Certainly indigenous African music has a very special role to play in the lives of native Africans – as does indigenous music to societies the world over – but, somehow, that respect which Africans have for their native music runs through into their approach to other musics.  This hit me quite forcibly the other night when I ventured into an Irish pub in Johannesburg.  Sitting at the bar sipping a pint of Kilkenny and thinking of the pints of Kilkenny I used to enjoy in Delaney’s Kowloon, I was not surprised to see a trio of band boys come in and set up their electronic equipment.  With one of them wearing a leather trilby and smoking a pipe while another sported a tiny leather tie and a badge declaring “Smoke The Craigh”, I assumed they were the “traditional” Irish musicians essential to any “traditional” Irish Pub. (That they were all black and were greeted by the manager with that characteristic slapping and grabbing of hands and the words “Welcome my brothers”, didn’t diminish their potential Irishness for a moment.)  It was only when, a few pints later, I realised that neither traditional Irish music nor ear-splitting Karaoke had started up, that I studded these band boys more carefully; Leather Trilby sat staring at the VDU nodding his head rhythmically, while Leather Tie forever fiddled with the sound system.  What they were doing was playing, at such a low level few noticed it, easy-listening tracks from Herb Alpert and that myriad other inoffensive 1960s and 70s bands.  And why?  Because it was Friday night, the pub was full and – get this! - it did not have any sound system of its own. 

Like any true musicians, the Band Boys were ready to accept a drink in return for a chat.  And what I learnt was this; Pubs and clubs do not, as a rule, play music, so they don’t have sound systems.  When they want music, they hire in these boys and the instructions are the same everywhere; “Don’t let it get so loud the customers can’t hear each other speak”.

Now isn’t that the sort of attitude that engenders a lasting sense of well-being, no matter how bad life is?

19 October 2011

Choosing the Right Musical Instrument for a Child

Something of an industry has grown up around the linking of musical instruments to certain personality types.  Parents, keen to find the most suitable instrument for their child, can turn to a whole army of consultants, specialist companies and trained counsellors who, through psychological profiling and aptitude tests, come up with the ideal child/instrument pairing.  I’m absolutely convinced they are doing the right thing.

Ever since I hit on the idea of presenting a research paper on the drinking habits of different instrumentalists – all trombonists quaff real ale by the yard, all cellists sip white wine, all harpsichordists imbibe champagne, that sort of thing – and discovered, much to my surprise, that there was a very definite linkage between lifestyle (in this case, preferred alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage) and the instrument played, I have been convinced that certain personality types are most suited to certain instruments.  I wish I could remember the details of my researches now, but after I successfully presented the paper at a symposium I went off and celebrated (all musicologists gulp red wine by the demijohn) and left my paper behind in the bar.  Those were the days of typewritten papers, and unless you went through the messy business of inserting a carbon paper every time you started to type, no copy was ever made.  My researches are even now, presumably, rotting away in a south Wales landfill. 

I have followed with great interest a series run in the newsletter of a Singapore music school about pairing instruments with young children, not least because the time is rapidly approaching when my daughter will need to start lessons and I, as yet, have no firm idea which instrument it will be. There is no question in my mind that she will learn an instrument - the educative and psychological benefits of learning an instrument are undeniable – but nothing on earth is going to allow me to let her start until she has reached her fifth birthday; she’s three-and-a-half now.  As an examiner I’ve seen too often the disastrous, often catastrophic results of children who have been pushed into learning an instrument at too young an age.  But the time is rapidly approaching when an instrument has to be bought and a teacher found.  And as that time draws ever nearer, so my blind faith in the specialists begins to waver.

When she was a baby and lay on her back her tiny hands waving in the air and her feet pumping up and down, I saw in her a potential harpist.  I liked the idea, not least because I used to play the harp myself and would dearly love to have one in the house again.  I can’t see my wife allowing me to spend such vast sums on an instrument purely for my own pleasure, but if it’s something the daughter needs for her development, then no expense will be spared.  Not long ago, I went with my wife and daughter into that fantastic emporium known as Synwin Music in Singapore’s Marina Square.  While there I sat her at the harp and got her to get the feel of the thing.  She was terrified.  The nice Mr Synwin tried out various sized violins on her, but her attention was taken up by a small cello.  My wife was thrilled.  She’s always adored the cello and has long wanted to learn it; how nice it would be for mother and daughter to learn side by side. 

I was not so sure.  I recall an early experience as a music examiner when a young adolescent girl came into to do her grade 4 cello, sat down facing me, hiked up her skirt, stuck the cello between her legs and began to play.  When she first moved the cello aside to arrange the music on her stand I noticed that she appeared to be wearing no knickers, and at each subsequent page-turning occasion, I became more convinced that a wardrobe malfunction had occurred in the stress of early morning examination preparations.  I could hardly stop the exam and ask if she was wearing any knickers – even with a female accompanist present, it’s not the sort of thing that creates the right impression of the examiner’s motives – but the issue did rather monopolise my attention and I found it difficult to concentrate on  assessing her cello playing.  Relating it to a colleague some time later, it was suggested that she might even have done it deliberately to distract my attention from her musical performance, and ever since then I’ve been nervous of young girls playing the cello.  No, my daughter isn’t going down that path, no matter what the speiclaists advise.

Recently, however, my daughter has rather taken matters into her own hands and is persistent in her demands to possess a violin.  We can’t take her to her favourite ice cream shop in the Esplanade any more because right opposite is Gramercy’s violin shop and she is forever wandering in there demanding we buy her a fiddle.  I suspect that her determination to play the violin will outweigh any learned and scholarly advice from a professional consultant on child/musical instrument relationships, but even if the consultant tells us the violin is for her, I will have my reservations.

The thing is, while I am not planning to become an oppressively protective father, I am beginning to realise that there is one element missing from the equations drawn up by those who advise parents on instrument choice for their children.  If my daughter takes to the violin, how will I know when she turns up at the breakfast table one morning with a roll-neck sweater covering an unsightly bruise on the left side of her neck, that her claims for it to have been the result of assiduous practice the night before are true; won’t I suspect it to be the result of intimate and passionate encounters with an undesirable male suitor’s mouth?  I can’t risk that.
True, there is something very sensual about the way you cuddle a harp as you play it, but as the father of a prospective adolescent girl, I like the idea that when some pawing youth reaches out to hold her hand in the darkness of a cinema back row (or wherever it is the young go these days to grope each other), he will immediately be repelled by the calloused claw which greets his exploring fingers.  Harpists quickly develop a strength and hardness in their fingertips which quickly dispels any hope of gentle caresses from besotted admirers. 

Now that’s as compelling a reason as any for my daughter to learn the harp, and no amount of psychological profiling or aptitude testing can outweigh the benefits of fatherly peace-of-mind it brings.

17 October 2011

The Unanswered Question

Is it a good idea to hear a recording of a work before hearing it for the first time in a live performance?  That’s a question which gets asked time and time again and my usual response is along the lines that, as some of my most revelatory musical experiences have come from hearing a work for the first time in a live performance, I suspect that the impact would have been considerably lessened by having heard the music on record first.  So I’m generally against the idea, although it’s not a straightforward matter, as I was reminded only last week.

These have been manic weeks in the run-up to my end of year examining tour to South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.  In addition to the Gramophone Awards, I have been criss-crossing the UK catching up with relatives, friends and renewing professional contacts while, back in Singapore I have been at the Conservatoire working 18 hours a day to get the last few weeks of the semester’s lectures finalised and the examination paper set and checked.  Bundles of CDs have come for review in the pre-Christmas rush, and Naxos has kindly sent me 75 of their latest releases to contemplate for review - in the car and on long plane journeys my portable CD player has been working overtime while my Bose headphones have been eating up AAA batteries by the bucket load.  All this frantic activity has left no time to post anything on this blog or for any serious concert-going. Most distressingly, I missed the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the Berlioz Te Deum at the beginning of this month.

Not that I particularly like the Berlioz Te Deum, but it gets so few outings that, rather like Havergal Brian’s Gothic and how Mahler 2 used to be (until every Tom, Dick and Harry decided to perform it), a live performance is special enough to be a significant occasion.  More than that, I was keen to hear how Claus Peter Flor handled this archetypically French repertoire.  I hugely admire Flor’s Beethoven and Mendelssohn, remain indifferent to his Dvořák and Martinů, but if I’ve ever heard him perform French repertoire I can’t remember.  On top of that, I was very anxious to see what he managed to get from the SSO; an orchestra which can blow hot and cold, but is all too often on the lukewarm side of tepid.  I’d been asked to review the Berlioz concert, but the Gramophone Awards put paid to that, so I was forced to rely on second-hand reports.  And that’s where the issue of pre-concert preparation comes in.

I heard first-hand reports from three very different people, but so divergent were they that I still have no idea what I would have made of the performance.  I know critics often disagree, but you can usually get a pretty fair picture of the event even when there are differences of perception.  But the responses I heard really did not tie up at all, and for that I blame their pre-concert preparation.

Firstly, there was my neighbour.  She’d never heard the work before and had no idea what to expect.  She loves choral music, she’s an ardent supporter of the SSO, but I suspect she had vaguely imagined the Berlioz Te Deum would be a bit like a Schubert or a Bruckner Mass.  She was horrified by the sheer volume of sound hurled at her.  It was, she said, “dreadfully noisy” and “didn’t seem to know where it was going. The choir was all over the place”.  I find that a little difficult to believe. 

Next came a report from a colleague who had conscientiously swatted up on the work by listening to every recording he could lay his hands on.  He was Hishat a loss to put into words his ecstatic enthusiasm for the performance, and to hear him talk you would assume it was one of the greatest performances of all time (which, with the best will in the world, I could never accept). “How much better was Flor’s performance”, he said, “than any recording”.    

My third report came from a Berlioz Te Deum fanatic; one of those people who would cross international boundaries to hear it performed. He never listens to a recording of it, believing it to be a work you can only experience live.  His opinion?  “Dreadful!”. The sound was a “blur”, there was no detail and the performers were struggling to cope with the music.  “It was so cramped and one-dimensional, lacking excitement and life”.  I can’t imagine that with Flor at the helm.

So why such a divergence of views and why so obviously influenced, in my opinion, by their pre-concert preparation?  The problem here is that while Berlioz, of course, never intended the work to be recorded, neither did he intend it to be performed in a concert hall.  He devised it as an experiment in the effect created by placing the many diverse forces in different parts of a large building; “A musical portrait of a Gothic Cathedral” is how one person has described it.  So it is just as inappropriate to have it performed live without the spatial element as it is to have it performed on record, notwithstanding the artificial effects which can be implied by surround-sound technology.  In short, both the man who familiarised the work through listening to CDs and the man who knew it from performances which followed more faithfully Berlioz’s stated intentions, were at a disadvantage.  They were bringing pre-conceptions which clearly clouded their judgement.  It may have been wrong to put the work on in a concert hall with all the performers crammed together in one place – I can’t imagine how that glorious opening dialogue between orchestra and organ could possibly have made any sense with them all sitting together. (A vivid recollection was playing the organ part in a performance in Llandaff Cathedral where the orchestra and main choir had been put at the west end and all the audience chairs turned round to face them; I was told the effect of the organ bursting over their heads from behind them was devastating.)  But was my neighbour correct in her assessment?  Might not a taste of the work on record beforehand have given her an idea of what to expect and thereby reduced the initial shock of the performance she heard live?

Although an ardent advocate of live over recorded music, I have to confess that I do rely on recordings to introduce myself to unfamiliar music, having learnt by bitter experience that paying good money to hear unfamiliar music live for the first time can be a huge mistake.  From the Naxos bunch this time, I am glad to have been forewarned that Richard Strauss’s juvenile piano trios (8.570896) are execrable and deserve their place in the rubbish bin of musical history, I might otherwise have been tempted to go and hear them live.  Similarly, good as it is to have a native New Zealand composer - Jenny McLeod - represented on disc (8.572671), her music is too much like insipid early Aaron Copland to interest anyone who is not passionately supportive of New Zealand arts.  And as for French composer René Maillard, my initial shock at reading what must be the most dreadful booklet notes ever included with a commercially available disc was only outweighed by my horror at such miserable and morbid music (8.572623).  Against that, though, is the joy of hearing some really interesting reconstructed works (including a violin concerto) by Respighi despite second-rate orchestral playing (8.572332), some unutterably marvellous solo clarinet playing from Eduard Brunner (8.572470), hearing three of Kenneth Leighton’s greatest organ scores brought to life by Greg Morris (8.572601) and, revelatory and fantastic Chausson brilliantly played by the Wihan String Quartet and the Meadowmount Trio on what must count as one of the finest Naxos releases ever (8.572468).  I only wonder why it took over a decade for this fabulous recording to travel from the studio to the CD.  I urge everyone to buy this intensely lovely disc.

That, though, does not answer the original question, and while hearing a work for the first time in a live concert is the ideal to which we should all aspire, in the case of the Berlioz (and I’m sure a great many other works), it can be both a major disadvantage and a major advantage.   So I offer a clear, concise and unequivocal answer to the original question; I have no idea