Visiting a private music school run by an expatriate Russian lady, I had a glimpse into the kind of intense musical training which threw up so many of the iconic musical figures of the 20th century. Some of the most memorable occasions of my concert-going career were provided by Russians – Oistrakh stunning the Royal Festival Hall audience with a matchless Beethoven Concerto, Rubinstein leaving me breathless with a one-in-a-million Rachmaninov 2, Maxim Shostakovich directing the unforgettable non-Soviet premiere of his father’s 15th Symphony (with Dmitri there in the Royal Box) – while Rozdhestvensky, Rostropovich and Ashkenazy are still regarded as great musical heroes by today’s concert-going public. The music of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich was among the most popular written during the 20th century, and even the “second rate” figures, such as Khachaturian (whose Spartacus was, for a time, the biggest-selling classical recording of all time) and Kabalevsky (where would young pianists have been without is music?), won over audiences who baulked at the mere mention of Schoenberg, Britten and Stockhausen. Soviet orchestras were about the finest in the world (I recall a visit of the Leningrad Phil to the Proms which had most of us in ecstasy for the rest of the season) and only last year the Australian Limelight magazine suggested that the five “Greatest Pianists of All Time” were all Russians.How did Russian musicians come to achieve the kind of world domination of which Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev could only dream? The answer is obvious; the education system which nurtured promising young musicians from an early age and sent them through a veritable hothouse of rigorous and unrelenting musical training.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent disbanding of so many musical organisations, musicians who had been brought up under the Soviet system suddenly found themselves not just able to travel to the west, but obliged to do so in search of employment. Would the Malaysian Philharmonic ever have achieved the heights it did without its large contingent of East Germans and other “outcasts” from the Soviet system? How would the Singapore Symphony have developed with out an iconic leader forced by circumstances beyond his control to find a suitable playing position far from his Russian homeland? Indeed, for a time, it seemed that every orchestral chair in Asia was competed for by a product of the Soviet musical education system. And, with the demise of conservatoires and universities in the former Soviet states, a flood of music educators came on to the scene, often finding themselves faced with conditions of employment and a level of student ability they must have found heart-wrenchingly awful after their privileged existence under the Soviet regime.
At Universiti Putra Malaysia, where I lectured for a while before the establishment of the MPO, we took on as a staff member Zhakid Khaknazarov who had been Professor of Music at Tashkent Conservatory (where, organists will be interested to note, his staff included Gyorgy Mushel), and it seemed as if every other private music school in Malaysia employed a Russian violin teacher. Indeed it was one of these who gave me my first taste of just how intense the Soviet system was when she harangued me with alarming vitriol after an examiner had given one of her grade 8 students a very high distinction. Keen to defend both my colleague and the examining board from this unusual but undeniably bitter complainant, I asked for more details and was told that the teacher had heard from outside the door (don’t they all?) the candidate play a C natural in a particularly demanding piece. “Every time I tell her; C SHARP, C SHARP”, she railed at me in heavily accented Russio-English, “But this girl she so stupid. She cannot play violin. She cannot read music. She cannot hear. Why C natural? Always C natural. And this idiot examiner (call himself a musician?) give her 146 marks!” A suggestion that one wrong note out of several hundred right ones is no reason to lower the mark, let alone fail the candidate (as the teacher was demanding) fell on deaf ears. The fact is that it had to be perfection or nothing. And under Soviet training system, who could blame her? One tiny lapse, one almost unnoticed error, could be the difference between a career as a musician and one as a factory worker.
On this present occasion I was a little more forewarned and could sympathise with the teacher who despaired at the quality of students she was obliged to take. “I much prefer Asian students. At least they have the same work ethic as the Russians and are prepared to practice hard. My European students are lazy, but the Americans are the worst! They do not see any reason to take it seriously. They are all told that music is FUN! Fun! I ask you, what is Fun about playing everything badly and never getting any better?” I’m not sure I agree totally with her view; music should be fun, and if you make it too deadly serious as a teacher, you are likely to put more students off music for life than to open the doors to one of the greatest avenues of pleasure available to mankind. But she is right that music is only worthwhile when you put your heart and soul into it and aim for perfection. In my view perfection is unattainable, but there’s a huge amount of fun to be had trying to attain it.
The teacher went on to say how much she valued the examination system as it gave her students a discipline which many were otherwise unwilling to accept. She wouldn’t countenance my suggestions that there was sometimes as much to be learnt from taking the exam as from passing it; for her if the result is not stratospherically high, the candidate has failed and may as well give up music.
As I listened to her, it dawned on me just how huge a gap there is between the way music is taught under the western system and how it was taught in Russia; and I was not sure if, culturally, that gap could easily be crossed. With a five year old daughter, I have been determined that her childhood should not be stolen from her in the single-minded pursuit of excellence. I want her to become a thoroughly rounded and socially competent human being, not a total social outcast able to do one thing perfectly and, if not achieving perfection, destroying herself in the belief that she has become an abject failure.
But am I right? My approach denies her the chance ever to become one of the great musicians of the future; at best she will become a competent musician and an enthusiastic member of a concert audience (and, goodness knows, the musicians of the future will need those). As a teacher, I did used to think that at best my students would appreciate music as an entertainment rather than see it as a career. But what if every teacher thought this way? We’d have lots of knowledgeable people for our audiences, but no great musicians to perform for them, just a whole load of mediocrities having fun while the audience drift away aware of, and dissatisfied with, such grim incompetence.
It’s a dilemma, and one which is certainly not solved by the Chinese method of hothousing its young musical talent in imitation of the Soviet model; simply put, China does not have any of the musical infrastructure Russia gave to its Soviet music educators. Perhaps my old colleague Professor Zhakid as well as my Russian expatriate are providing the answer, the former by returning to Tashkent and the newly-reopened Conservatoire and the latter by bringing her Russian standards to bear on a new generation of non-Russian students.