22 August 2013

Spotting a Competition Winner

The newsbar which runs along the bottom of the screen on BBC World television the other day included a tantalising snippet which, if it was reported in any of the bulletins, passed me by.  It ran something like this; “Research shows that public can identify winners of classical music competitions from watching silent videos”.  I am not surprised this item did not make it beyond the few lines of text put up on screen in a lull between the latest atrocities in Egypt and Syria; it’s hardly earth-shattering news.  Indeed, for any of us involved in assessment of classical music performances, it is not news at all.  We’ve known it all along.

Ask any adjudicator or examiner and they will tell you that they know how well an individual is going to perform from the very moment they walk on stage or into the examination room.  It takes only a few notes to confirm the impression and, in truth, you rarely need to hear anything at all to arrive at the same conclusion as you do after 45 minutes of a recital.  There’s something about the way a performer approaches their instrument, the way they hold themselves before singing or the way in which they address their audience that tells you straight away how good they are. 

I occasionally jot down my guess as to what the final result is going to be before even the first note has been struck; and at least 80% of the time I’m absolutely spot on.  Which is not to say, of course, that my colleagues and I do not listen with compete attention to what is being played.  All examiners have horror stories about writing words like “an impressive level of accuracy”, only immediately for the candidate to go off on a wild tangent leaving the score in metaphorical shreds, or declaring “a highly intelligent  and perceptive interpretation” only for the player to commit the most appalling interpretative solecisms.  And it’s only once the very final note has died away (and often the final note can destroy a performance – a nervous player often forgetting that the piece ends only in the silence which follows the final double bar) that a truly fair assessment of the performance can be made.  But the fact remains, those first impressions usually give a fair proportion – if not all – of the game away.

There is a solid reason behind this - it’s certainly not just instinct.  Like any craftsman, a musician develops a relationship with an instrument which evolves to an extent whereby the two seem, if not inseparable, then made for each other.  Look at the great violinists – how their necks seem bereft when there’s no violin tucked in.  Look at great singers – how their lungs seem to have developed to such an extent that their whole body seems to be designed around projecting the voice.  Look at a master cellist’s legs – although perhaps we better not go there!

A drunken session in a pub with fellow music students at university resulted in an animated discussion about how we could tell what instruments people played by what they drank.  Pointless as that exercise was, one can often tell what instrument people play by just looking at them.  Oboists have tight lips, tuba players have great rubbery ones, violinists often seem tense and highly strung while viola players let their bottom lips droop as if trying to catch bottom-dwelling notes (which is probably behind that scurrilous and wholly false assertion that viola players are thick).  Double Bass players lope along like bears in a world of their own, Trombone players often seem to have elasticated arms, and Trumpeters have three fingers of their right hand so well developed that when they hold their beer glasses it sometimes looks as if they are about to squash them flat (which takes us back to the business of telling instrumentalists from their beverage of choice).

Which begs the question.  Is this physical similarity between player and instrument the result of a protracted partnership or merely the coincidental natural physical characteristics of the player?  If the latter, then a musician’s performance might be assessed not just before they have struck a note but years before; before, indeed, they had even met the instrument on which they subsequently perform. If this is the case, then the newsbar text might have written; “Research shows that winners in classical music competitions can be identified at birth”. Clearly, then, for a musician to succeed in later life it is vital that the correct pairing of person to instrument is made at the very earliest stages of musical development. 

Despite a growing industry in identifying through psychological and physical profiling which instruments best suit which children, it is still too often a hit-and-miss affair resulting in thousands of children with pronounced musical potential being turned off because they are being taught on an inappropriate instrument.  The problem is particularly acute here in Asia where the incentive to play an instrument is governed largely by peer pressure.  Tens of thousands play the piano, when it is manifestly the wrong instrument for them, and as a consequence too many potentially fine instrumentalists are, in effect, stillborn.  There is every bit as much likelihood that a Chinese child could become a Clarinet phenomenon as a Piano one, but not while this ridiculous piano-or-nothing culture persists.  Too few parents understand how important it is for a young child to take up a musical instrument with which they can properly relate, and thereby express those inner feelings which remain forever internalised without the outlet of music.

I know there’s a lot of research going into this issue, but I wish it could sometimes hit the headlines. If doting parents saw taut lips on their infant progeny, should not their natural reaction be “my son’s going to be an oboe player”, or, when identifying a tendency to bow-leggedness, proclaim “we have a potential cellist in the family”?  Does baby grasp the bottle tightly with the right hand fingers firmly round it (trumpet player) or dribble its contents over their chin (violist).  So much better this than the tendency to see the natural fun any infant gets out of hammering a keyboard and hearing a noise, as indicating the arrival of the next Lang Lang.

Of course, by now, attentive readers will have found the original research at the heart of the BBC text for themselves (an excellent piece by Chia-Jung Tsay of University College, London available on www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/16/1221454110 ) and discovered it has nothing to do with what I have written about.  But why, as they say, spoil a good blog post with slavish attention to facts and, in any case, the real subject of the research – the reliance on visual over aural perceptions – is too close to my heart not to warrant a further post sometime soon.  Watch – rather than hear – this space.

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