13 December 2013

Music Exam Roadblocks

With more than 30 years conducting graded music examinations under my not inconsiderable belt, I have lost count of the number of times I have listened to inspiring talks given to teachers by chief executives, chief examiners and examiner colleagues (I’ve even done it myself more than once) during which the exam system is likened to the “rungs of a ladder”.  It is a useful metaphor for seeing examinations in the wider context of musical education and reinforces the idea that exams are things which are passed along a journey, but are not in themselves the ultimate destination.  I particularly like the ladder analogy since it not only implies a sense of striving upwards but hints that, while the exams are rungs which, sequentially, help reach whatever is at the top, each also represents a certain level of achievement which can, if needs be, serve as a goal in its own right while promoting a desire to progress further.

Invited to give a series of lectures in China to students preparing to work as music teachers, I have decided to include some mention of graded music examinations.  Students in China live in blissful ignorance of this peculiarly English approach to music education; indeed, beyond the British Isles and its former colonial possessions and protectorates, graded music examinations are largely unheard of.  Music education in such places as the USA and Russia, China and Venezuela, carries on perfectly well without them,.  However, as I believe fervently that there are enormous benefits and advantages in the graded music exam system, I feel fully justified in, at the very least, explaining what it is and how it works; even though these prospective music teachers will have never experienced it for themselves and are unlikely to have the opportunity to involve their own students in the process.
So, in preparing my lectures, I have almost decided to go down the ladder route (if you get my drift), thinking it the best way of explaining the function of graded music examinations to those for whom examinations are usually regarded as essential rather than helpful.  I did have some reservations about this, since my lectures will need to be delivered in the presence of a live interpreter, and I’m not sure how the rungs of a ladder analogy works when translated into Mandarin.  I have thought long and hard for a more obvious Chinese metaphor, but none springs to mind.

However, after travelling in a remote and somewhat hostile border area in south east Asia, a new idea struck me.  There was a history of hostility between the two countries on either side of the border, while a third was actively claiming part of the territory as its own.  The result had been some insurgencies during which foreign tourists had been particularly targeted.  Along the road we encountered numerous road blocks where nervous soldiers and police unsmilingly demanded to see passports, permits and the contents of cases.  After the third of these, and its attendant queues, my driver was clearly getting frustrated, and when a parade of flashing headlamps coming in the opposite direction foretold of yet another roadblock, he lurched on to a dirt track and barrelled through some pretty desperate countryside, until, eventually, he bumped back on to the road.  It terrified me and, having shared his frustration with the roadblocks, I realised that I felt much more comfortable with them than without them.  They were an inconvenience, certainly, but they helped ensure my safety and increased my sense of security in strange and alien surroundings. 
It has since struck me how much these roadblocks have in common with graded music exams.  They are an inconvenience, interrupting and obstructing what we would like to be the free and easy passage from one point (complete beginner) to another (brilliant virtuosity) but ensuring that, at every stage of the journey, we are not only progressing safely, but helping us to feel more prepared and secure on the lonely journey ahead.  A good teacher should understand that graded music exams are an inconvenience, but a useful one.  Having to stop and check things like technique, interpretations, aural and reading skills, theoretical knowledge and musical understanding, seems a lot of trouble at the time, but if we skip them, we risk heading into disaster.  You can bypass an exam, just as you might a roadblock, but are you totally confident that you haven’t put your future wellbeing in jeopardy? 

Continuing the roadblock theme, we can also see how the pupils of a poor teacher - the one who only works towards examinations - will soon lose heart and abandon the journey.  Hopping from one roadblock to another, stopping only to sort out the papers and requirements for the next, makes the journey incredibly frustrating and, ultimately, pointless.  We do not need security on the road if we are not actually going anywhere.  I cannot imagine anyone sitting stationary waiting for the police to set up a roadblock; yet this is exactly what an awful lot of music teachers do.
So, I have rather taken to this road block analogy. 

But there is a problem with it.  I was once in a car stopped at a roadblock on a road out of Shanghai.  The driver calmly wound down his window, handed the police officer a wad of currency notes, and then sat back as the barricade was lifted and we could carry on unmolested. I am not sure that is a message I want to give to my Chinese students, so, regretfully, it’s back up that ladder.

11 December 2013

Nein Audi Einaudi

Asked rather less often than the tiresome, “Who is your favourite composer?”, people do occasionally pose the more entertaining, “Who is your least favourite composer?”  It’s an impossible question to answer because, while it is astonishingly easy to list pieces of music one never wants to hear again (strange how much easier it is to compile this list than one of pieces one could not live without), every composer whose music appears on that list can salvage their reputations with at least one moderately acceptable musical offering.  We do not write a composer off for writing a few bad pieces; even if we are happy to describe a composer as “great” on the strength of one or two really good works (can one claim every single Bach Chorale Prelude to be the work of an absolute genius?). 

Usually at this time of year, if anyone asks me which work I’d like never to hear again, I’d have no hesitation in pouncing on Lowell Mason’s banal Joy to the World, possibly the most irritating and overblown of all Christmassy melodies.  (I find it incredible that there are still sadly deranged people out there who believe this piece of musical drivel to be by Handel: you have to be pretty ignorant of Handel’s genius to recognise any connection.)   But even then, I would never write off Mason as my least favourite composer (he did, after all, compile some rather nice tunes in his many song books for children), and I live in hope that I might one day see the light and recognise what this Christmas tune has that justifies its ceaseless exposure for around two months of the year.
However, this year even Mason’s music has an allure, largely because it is not by Ludovico Einaudi, a composer of whom I had never heard until I attended a piano recital last week.

I hope you will, like me, on hearing this name instantly ask; “who?”  I must confess that when I saw his name on the recital programme my initial reaction was that it was a spoof.  After all while the given name is Italian-ish, there is something suspiciously concocted about the family name, which could loosely be translated as “One who hears oneself”, and when I heard the piece performed – called Divenire – it sounded suspiciously like a basic improvisation using simple chords which, after a predetermined period of time, stopped dead in its tracks.  The “programme note” with the recital, and I put it in inverted commas because it conformed to none of the criteria one would normally expect in a recital, was of use only if you had the score in front of you (which even the pianist did not), since it merely suggested points of reference in specific bars.  It was dreary, aimless, unstructured and served no point other than to fill a bit of time.  I left convinced it was a very feeble attempt to hoodwink a gullible provincial audience.

But then, during the week, two students presented the same work to me and I began to wonder.  None of the performances convinced me it was anything other than a pointless waste of time and (admittedly minimal) effort, but clearly the students were under the impression it was serious music, and in fairness to them and to Einaudi, I tried to find out more.  I came across an article dated April this year from the London based Daily Telegraph in which a nicely impartial reporter wrote; "The music of Ludovico Einaudi may defy definition – you could call it pop, classical, minimalist, easy listening”.  What dread such a statement engenders in my heart.  We do like to categorise things, and I am the first to accept that defining music in such terms is dangerous and misleading.  But there are limits.  It’s a bit like suggesting a certain drink defines definition – "you could call it wet or dry, sweet or sour, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, tasty or bland" - there have to be some basic perameters.  I am reminded of the time André Previn was supposed to write a new work for the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music.  In charge of writing the programme notes, nothing I did could get Previn to respond to my request for some description of the new piece.  In the end, the Festival Director wrote to him direct and received this matchless description of the new work; “It may be long, it may be short.  It may be fast or slow.  It is scored for a flexible ensemble which probably includes a piano.”  As the Director deduced; “He hasn’t bloody written it yet!”

The Daily Telegraph piece also suggested that Einaudi has legions of “quietly fanatical fans” (whatever they are), and further trawling through the dark recesses of cyberspace, one encounters some of these in full (quiet) voice; “So cute. I love him!” writes Hailey Lytle (albeit beside a picture of a boxer dog, so to whom she is referring remains a mystery).  The more verbose and deeply perceptive Mohammad Nabeel describes Einaudi’s music as “Very very. Very. Very nice”.  Thornham10 has a very clear view; “Just amazing this sing cleanses the mind” (of both grammar and spelling, it seems), while of the 6 million (I kid you not!) who have viewed a performance of Divenire on YouTube, Nick1309 is a little obscure in his comment; “it makes me come the frissons!!”, although his fellow-listener Petr Kolář has neither any reservations nor the need to hide behind pairs of exclamation marks; “this is masterpiece. I love that”.
And if the impression is that Einaudi’s fans are about as eloquent in English as he is in music, here is something rather more substantive from Adarsh Rao; “I live and die for this piece of music. Ever since 2009 I've heard this song on almost everyday of my life. I'm learning to play this on piano and will learn to play it on violin too. I ll play this on every occasion of my life and can't go by a day without listening to it and I hope my family plays this on my funeral”.  The piece which poor Mr Rao’s family must by now be heartily sick of is I Giorno, which is almost as dire as Divenire.  What is it about this aimless, drivelling and pointless music which gets so many people so (quietly) excited?  It passes me by.  Are people’s emotions so superficial that this adequately reflects their mood or fulfils their need for the intensity of experience which only music can provide?

I would hope that one of Einaudi’s quietly fanatical fans will be able to explain what his music has that I fail to appreciate, but unless and until they do, he remains the best placed candidate for my Least Favourite Composer.

03 December 2013

Why Write Programme Notes

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I ever learnt as a performer came, perversely, when I was not directly involved and when the student in question did not actually perform anything. The organist Gillian Weir had been invited to give a masterclass to a number of student organists, myself included.  With a professorial admonition to us  not to let the university down by presenting “Miss Weir” (as she then was) with poor playing, we all worked assiduously over our selected pieces in the days leading up to the masterclass.  One student, a highly capable pianist called Charles Spanner who had only recently turned to the organ (I last encountered him in Sussex where he ran a very fine music school), was determined to show he was as good, if not better, than the rest of us.  Every moment of every day you could hear Charles practising Franck’s Pièce Heroïque until he had it absolutely note-perfect.  When the masterclass started, he was brim full of confidence happy in the knowledge that, when it came to the delivery of his piece, Miss Weir could have no complaints.  He was called, sat down at the organ, pulled out his stops, raised his hands and was then stopped, before he played a single note.  “Why are you using that registration?” asked Miss Weir.  No response.  An extended discussion ensued during which it was apparent that Charles’s registration was not the only thing she queried.  “Why are you starting with those fingers?  Why use that foot? Why choose that speed?”, and so it went on, with barely a note of the Franck played.  At the end as a mortified Charles shuffled off the stool, Miss Weir turned to us all and with her captivating smile suggested that we should “never do anything in music without first asking ‘why?’”  And I have taken this advice very much to heart, never doing anything in a performance without first asking myself “why?”.

It goes beyond performing.  When a teacher came to me the other day and asked for advice about writing programme notes and how she could teach her diploma students to best approach the task, I recalled the Gillian Weir mantra; “Your students must first ask themselves why they are writing the programme notes”.  
The immediate answer is because the syllabus requires it.  As with anything to do with a music exam, if the answer to the question “why?” is “because it’s in the syllabus”, then the answer is wrong.  An exam syllabus asks for certain things which, it is assumed, have already been learnt; after all an exam is merely a checkpoint along the road of musical development, not an end in itself.  Correctly interpreted by an intelligent teacher, a syllabus lists those skills which should already have been taught before the exam is prepared, and part of that teaching should be to get pupils to understand why these are important skills.  If the pupil understands why they are being asked to do something, they will not only do it with real understanding (in other words, better) but will deliver it in the exam with greater conviction and authority.

So, why do we need programme notes? To put it in a nutshell, programme notes increase listener receptiveness to, and appreciation of, a performance. 
We are naturally intimidated by the unknown and that which we do not understand, and a clear, friendly guide to something we do not really know or understand breaks down that barrier.  Almost all Western Classical Music originates from a society and from an age of which we are not part and  which, almost by definition, is moving increasingly out of our range of experience; even the music of our own time is often written by those inhabiting a society, either physical or emotional, from which we feel excluded.  As music is, essentially, a product of the society which produces it, to understand that society immediately helps us understand the music.  By introducing the composers, placing them and their music in historical context and providing some background to the society in which they lived, programme notes open up the audience receptors so that they can more fully appreciate what message or ideas are being communicated through the music.  We can enjoy music on its own terms, but our enjoyment of it is vastly increased by understanding its historical and social context.

That, though, is only part of the answer.  As well as helping the listener appreciate the circumstances of, and the reasons for, the music’s creation, programme notes guide the listener through the particular journey the music is taking.  All musical works can be thought of as a journey, but, as with any good journey, it is more about enjoying what lies along the route than reaching the final destination. 
For many listeners, an unfamiliar piece of music can seem like an endless and incoherent sequence of sounds.  These may be pleasurable sounds, and quite acceptable as they are, but how much better to have some idea where those sounds are heading.  What’s more, in the wash of sound, so much gets missed which the listener would have enjoyed if only someone had pointed it out along the way.  So programme notes also serve as a kind of road map, showing where the journey is headed and pointing out some of the more important and significant elements along the way.  The directions “at 10 degrees north, 79 degrees east, turn in a north-north-westerly direction” may get us to the destination, but they tell us nothing about the terrain we cover.  How much more enticing is this set of directions; “After the Shell station you will see a small wooden house on stilts next to which is a tiny lane, little more than a dusty track heading into the trees.  Turn up there and keep going through the oil palm estate for about 10 minutes.  It’s a long, slow climb, but at the top you will suddenly come across a small clearing with spectacular views.  If you look to your right you can see over to the Indian Ocean and, perhaps on a clear day, see the coast of Sumatra”.  In programme note terms, the former equates to ; “The development starts at bar 56 and modulates to the enharmonic minor of the dominant major, returning to the tonic at bar 76”, while the latter equates to “it opens with a happy little theme, rather like small birds chirping away at the top of the keyboard, but which takes on a more serious character when the music moves down into its lower register and heavy, thick chords introduce seem to appear like the menacing tread of some giant prehistoric cat”.  

Deciding which level of information is appropriate is key to writing good programme notes, and for them to be truly effective they do have to be tailored to the particular audience.  How desperately sad it is when orchestras and performers download their programme notes from some anonymous source on the internet or steal them from other performers’ websites, careless of how appropriate they are to their own audiences.  I, myself, have sat in concerts reading cut and paste notes which mean nothing, offer not a hint of help in guiding through the music, and quite often alienate me to the extent that I switch off totally and regret paying the money to attend the concert.  Understanding the audience is essential, as the notes need to be focused on their particular environment.  A note on Elgar, for example, would be quite different when intended for an English audience (the English regard Elgar as part of their heritage and resent any hint that the programme notes might not realise this) rather than a Chinese one (for whom England is associated primarily with David Beckham, Margaret Thatcher and, possibly, Chris Patten; none of them major cultural icons, for all their qualities in other fields).
In the situation of a diploma, the audience is well known beforehand; it is going to comprise one or two professional examiners.  At this point the candidate has to revert to that question, “Why?”.  The examiners do not need to be told anything about the music, they know it all already.  So the inclusion of programme notes in the diploma is not to tell them anything, but to show them that the candidate knows how to explain and describe the music to a wider audience.  To do this, it is vital to remember why we have programme notes in the first place – “to increase listener receptiveness to, and appreciation of, a performance”.  Writing programme notes in this context requires the ability to stand aside from the actual performance and appreciate it from a different vantage point (the “listener’s-eye-view”).  Showing that you understand the historical context of the music and can step far enough away from your intimate knowledge of the detail of the music to describe its journey coherently is the reason why programme notes are included in diploma recital examinations.

02 December 2013

The Missing Piece

“Handel’s Messiah oratorio is recognised as one of the four major choral pieces performed in Western Classical Music.”  A statement from an article in today’s Borneo Post newspaper about a forthcoming performance of Messiah in Kuching.  Newspapers – especially local ones with limited access to expert knowledge - are adept at making claims which they cannot and do not substantiate, and I imagine the reporter here simply jotted down a phrase from a press conference without noting what else was said.  Which leads me to think of suitable candidates for the other three pieces. (And how refreshing, if odd, to describe Messiah  as a “piece” rather than as a “song” - although the joy is shortlived; later in the article comes the lovely phrase which grotesquely mangles the English language; "a repertoire of Handel's Messiah songs" ).

Bach’s St Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass have to be two of the others, would anyone disagree with that?  But what can the fourth be? 

It does not specify that the other major choral pieces are sacred, but certainly there are plenty of sacred ones in the running.  Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Fauré’s Requiem, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; they surely are leading the pack.  However can any of those really stand alongside the Bach and Handel offerings?  Both Mendelssohn and Elgar have their detractors, in a way which the Bach and Handel do not - musicians who justifiably point to innumerable solecisms and weaknesses in both scores and texts.  The Fauré is quite lightweight in comparison with the others, while the Mozart… Well, it’s not by Mozart so you have to decide which completion you would list as the most important.  As for the Beethoven; great music, certainly, but so wholly unsympathetic towards the human voice it has to be discounted on the grounds that it is out of the reach of most choirs.  And, by that token, we must probably also rule out the Verdi Requiem and Berlioz Grande Messe de Morts.  I would be tempted to suggest that the fourth work is Haydn's Creation, but is that a better work than The Seasons or even some of his sublime Masses?

The creation in the 19th century of what we call the “Classical Canon”, that list of composers and works decreed by certain 19th century musicologists as being the apogee of musical creation, has led most to believe that great music can only originate from the 17th and 18th centuries, with a few exceptions reaching into the 19th.  So we tend to imagine that those “four major choral pieces” will be of that vintage.  But let’s forget those outdated notions, and look to music written in the last 100 years.  With the centenary of Britten this year, the War Requiem has been very much to the fore in the field of choral music, and there are many who would undoubtedly list this as the missing piece.  Not for me, though; as with Mendelssohn and Elgar, its flaws are too numerous to be ranked alongside Bach and Handel.  Even my very favourite 20th century choral work, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, could hardly stand comparison with such august company.  Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder must be in with a chance, given its monumental stature, while choirs have developed such a liking for the atmospheric doodlings Eric Whitacre and his chums, that I suspect there are quite a few around who might tentatively put their names forward without, perhaps, daring to suggest a single work.

It has not really crossed my mind before, but if asked to list the greatest choral works ever written, I can only think of three.  What does the Borneo Post know, that I do not?