20 June 2012

Out with the Old

My good friend James Griffiths sends me an email by way of an American pharmaceutical company which generously hacked into his computer and accessed his address book, offering me a miracle pill for weight loss.  Apparently, all I have to do is take this pill for a fortnight and the weight will just fall off.  The email has thoughtfully provided numerous glowing references from those who have experienced this miracle weight loss and, decisively, a reference to a news item on Fox News (and you don’t find a more reliable source of information than that, surely?) which has investigated the pill and shown it to be all it is cracked up to be.  Certainly it has to be pretty remarkable; it costs a fortune and if it causes kidney failure, liver disease or heart palpitations, there’s no mention (or perhaps those who suffered didn’t live to report the fact).

Only days before this, my wife had received an email from a kindly gentleman in Nigeria who had experienced the immense good fortune of receiving a multi-million US dollar legacy from a deceased relative.  This man, one of the world’s hidden philanthropists, felt he did not deserve the money (possibly he had bought the deceased relative some diet pills of US manufacture which had proven fatal) and wanted to distribute it among complete strangers.  My wife was selected at random and all she had to do to receive the half million he was going to deposit in her bank account was, naturally, give him the full details of the bank account complete with password and PIN.
James Griffiths preparing for bean pole duties
Of course I realised that both were scams.  For a start, James’s email began with the words “I have tried this astonishing weight loss treatment…”.  For those who don’t know James Griffiths (and it is your loss – he is one of the world’s nicest people), excess weight has never been a problem.  In fact, were I to retire to the UK and grow runner beans, he would be one of the first people I thought of when searching around for suitable poles up which to train them.  The idea that he would ever contemplate, let alone try, a weight loss pill is utterly inconceivable.  And the Nigerian gentleman’s email included a request that my wife deposit a couple of hundred US dollars in his own account to cover costs, which seemed an odd requirement from someone with money, apparently, to give away.

Presumably there are people out there who are so gullible as to believe all this.  And, to a certain extent, one cannot blame them.  If the horizons of your life are bounded by what you see on television, the internet or DVD and read in glossy magazines, then you can be forgiven for assuming that the only requirements for success and happiness are a slim body and a fat wallet.  Those of us who go out and about and see real people and have real conversations about real issues, are well aware that neither is the norm nor a widely-held aspiration.  I certainly have no particular wish to lose weight; I just wish clothing manufacturers realised that in some people stomach size is larger than chest and waist sizes. And I’ve long realised that no matter how much money I have, it all disappears quickly and needs to be replaced with even more.
All well and good, so far, except that this contagion for instant relief from perceived  failings (being fat and having no money is assumed to be a personal failing by those who don’t wish their own failings to be investigated too thoroughly) has passed into the world of music.

At a teachers’ meeting some years ago I was asked if I could advise a teacher how she could get her pupils through a music exam in record quick time.  It appeared her pupils had other things to do with their lives and “needed to get through their grades and diplomas” before reality struck in and school exams took over around the age of 16.  My advice was, if it needs to be done quickly, it is best not to do it at all. When asked what hints I can give to help students improve their results, nobody is interested when I say “it takes time to build up repertory and performing experience”.  They want it quick and they want it now.  If I tell them it takes at least two years to build up the necessary skills and experience to tackle a diploma after a grade 8 exam, I am ignored.  The diploma must be taken the next year and who cares about skill and experience?  There MUST be a quick fix to pass.
When I wrote my piece about writing diploma programme notes (http://drmarcsblog.marcrochester.com/2011/02/how-to-write-diploma-programme-notes.html?showComment=1340073724724#c6033364231944567555), I received a rash of requests for me to write them for various candidates – which rather defeated the object of the exercise.  One very persistent girl offered me money to write her notes, and kept upping the amount until, incredibly, she was offering me three times the cost of entry to the diploma just for writing notes on a programme of Bach, Haydn, Chopin, Debussy and Britten.  I almost succumbed, knowing that for such a hefty sum I could toss off totally false notes which any examiner would instantly discard yet she would, in her immense ignorance, not even bother to check.  Integrity got the better of me and I reminded her that with the programme notes not even warranting 10% of the total, she could happily ignore that part of the syllabus if her playing was up to scratch.  I never heard more, but I would bet all the money in Nigeria, that she has not yet passed her diploma.
The latest piano wunderkind playing the
Ravel Left Hand Concerto
from memory 


This desire for a quick fix, however, goes way beyond passing music exams and has now become a kind of industry-sponsored cancer.  Young pianists, violinists, cellists and singers are breathlessly promoted by record companies and, I regret to say, slavering critics who talk of the latest “young” talent.  The not-so-subliminal message is that once you are into your 30s you are a has-been; to hit the big time you have to be young and, regrettably, thin.  So there is this desperate urge to get up there, on to the stage with all the diplomas and competition prizes under your belt (why do music competitions all have an upper age limit?) before you reach your mid-20s and terminal decline into musical decrepitude.
It MUST be good.  It's YOUNG
I was at a meeting last week in which plans for a music festival were being drawn up and a list of performers being shortlisted from reams of names submitted by various artist agencies.  “He’s a bit old”, was a comment I heard more than once.  “She’s a great crowd-puller”, was another, referring to a teen violinist.  Sadly, we are living in an age when the marketing people have come to believe their own rhetoric and that experience counts for nothing against youth.

Perhaps James’s email will be hacked again by a company selling a miracle reversal of advancing years.  The side effect may be that by taking it, you lose all your accumulated experience and maturity of outlook.  But who needs any of that in music when all you really need is youth and a slim body?

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