24 October 2017

Puzzling Piano Pedagogues

Is there any field of practical human activity in which those who teach do not, and never have, practised?  Are there driving instructors who cannot drive, parachute instructors who have never jumped?  Do medical doctors learn their skills from those who have never faced a patient, or chefs from those who have never handled food? 

Incredible though it may seem, there is one.  Moreover, it is not so much a practical activity in which some of those who teach are not practitioners, but that the vast majority of teachers of it are not, have not, and will never be practitioners of it.  In the world of piano teaching, a complete lack of experience in playing the piano is not so much common as the norm.

I must state straight away that this is not the case when it comes to advanced piano teachers.  In our conservatory in Singapore I count among my colleagues eminent piano professors who regularly prove their unquestionable piano performing skills in the public arena.  The situation – I don’t call it a problem since it is such standard practice – of the non-practitioner teaching exists more at the earlier stages of the teaching process.

It does not seem to exist in other branches of music.  My first French horn teacher was a man called Alan Civil, whose name lives on almost 30 years after his death through his legacy of great recordings.  My first harp teacher was a glorious lady with the wonderful name of Glenys Gordon-Fleet who was Principal Harp of the BBC Welsh Orchestra.  And while I began my organ lessons with my father and later a man called Peter Mound – both highly-respected church organists - I was just 14 when I was sent to be a pupil of Michael Austin, a virtuoso recitalist on the international circuit and an extremely inspirational teacher.  And beyond my immediate personal experience, my daughter’s first violin lessons were from a leading figure in the Scots fiddle world who is also a regular fixture in several prominent ensembles.  So what is it about the piano which gives credibility to the non-practitioner’s guidance of the potential practitioner?

There are, of course, many answers to this apparent contradiction, not the least of which is the unique place the piano has in society and its ubiquitousness in the domestic environment.  And it is an indisputable fact that many piano teachers with no performing experience or ambition are really very good indeed; just because Mrs Smith, Mdm Wong or Mr Levy-Ragonstein has never played the piano in public is no barrier to them being excellent piano teachers.  But that begs two questions.  Firstly, what IS a good piano teacher and, secondly, how can they teach something of which they have no practical experience?

The second question is easy, and I draw on my own experience.  Like most students, I found I was able to make a bit of money by doing some private piano teaching.  When I left the warm, safe embrace of my student life and battled out into the nasty reality of life in the adult world, I carried on as a piano teacher, and built up a large body of pupils.  I hated every single moment, because I knew I did not really know what I was doing.  Yes, I could sit down with a student and watch them play scales, tell them where they had played a wrong note (as if they didn’t already know) and drill into them the mechanical actions which enabled them to pass their music exams.  But I knew in my heart of hearts that if they had turned to me and said “I need you to teach me the Liszt Dante Sonata as I’m playing it in the Wigmore Hall next month”, my fa├žade as a knowledgeable teacher would crumble.  I had no idea how to play the Liszt Dante Sonata, certainly could not even dream of playing it myself and, moreover, I had no idea how to face a Wigmore Hall audience.

(That dislike of teaching stayed with me for years, to the extent that I refused to teach for over three decades, eventually relenting only when a number of erstwhile pupils persuaded me to take them on as organ pupils.  I am a practising organist with a pretty good background in performing, and I suddenly realised that, since I knew my stuff and had real practical experience of the skill, teaching the organ was an extreme pleasure.  My students all did extraordinarily well by their own terms, and I bitterly, bitterly regret that, based in Singapore with no access to an organ nor any potential pupils, I no longer teach.)

I had been able to set myself up as a piano teacher, not because of my experience (as a student I had none) but because the market took no heed of credentials.  If I said I could teach the piano, that was enough, and the pupils flocked in.  Parents did not know any better, and paid up happy that their children seemed to be progressing and periodically taking home bits of paper with words like “Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music”, “Examination” and “Distinction” elegantly printed on them.

Much more difficult is to define what makes a good teacher.  And it is this issue which has led to the common practice of people attempting to teach something of which they have no real knowledge or experience.

For me, a good teacher inspires and encourages, sets an example through their own experience and demonstrates how to negotiate the practical obstacles along the path of gaining professional competency in the skill being taught.  Yet, when most teachers have no practical experience to draw from nor are able to show, from personal experience, how to negotiate the inevitable obstacles along the path of a professional career, there has to be some other yardstick which substitutes for practical experience yet still appears to legitimise the teacher’s practical credentials.

Step forward the graded music exam.

A vast worldwide industry has been set up around graded music exams, generating vast numbers of self-sustaining career opportunities in the pursuit of the ultimately sterile attainment of a certificate.  While violinists, cellists, organists, brass and wind players, harpists and even singers are trained to perform, most pianists are trained to pass exams.  Without the graded exam, the piano teaching industry would collapse and vast numbers of ersatz-professionals transformed at a stroke into inexperienced amateurs.

It doesn’t perhaps read that way, and I admit to feelings of cynicism, but this is not a criticism of the situation, merely an observation of it.  Most of the piano teachers I have met are well-meaning, caring and conscientious folk; it is the environment in which they work, where the focus is not so much on acquiring a practical skill as acquiring an ultimately pointless certification, which I feel is so weird.

19 October 2017

The Death of Programme Notes

Of the many roles I’ve played in the musical world, without a doubt my favourite is, and has always been, writing programme notes for concerts, liner notes for CDs and – yes, I’m THAT old – sleeve notes for LPs.  The joy of researching around music both familiar and unfamiliar in order to entice listeners to listen to it in a new way and to introduce it to those who have not heard it before, coupled with my insatiable love of language, never ceases to stimulate me.  Writing for a readership which embraces the complete span of prior knowledge, understanding and interest is an irresistible challenge, while the urge to share with others the complete joy I get out of music drives me every day of my life. 

Call me selfish, but I think the loss of the sleeve note, the demise of the liner note and the widespread abandonment of the programme note is nothing short of catastrophic.  Yes, the playing is the thing which matters most, but what is the use of playing a piece of music when, for the audience, it is an empty meaningless sound, devoid of any social, political or historical context.  A great performance should have even greater impact when the background to the music is explained; a mediocre performance should accrue some purpose when the music is put in context and given a human face.  These are the jobs of the writer; and it is a skill which not everyone possesses.

Technology killed the sleeve and liner notes.  The blind rush to embrace the new without regard to what remained of value in the old, has seen most people develop a relationship with music as a free digital experience unencumbered by literary or intellectual baggage.  The result; a generation of musical ignoramuses who know what things sound like but do not know what they mean, and happily impose bland adjectives like “beautiful” and “nice” on music which was intended to be neither.  A performer who prefaced a performance of the E minor Partita at a recital I attended recently by telling us that before Bach wrote the work “he had personally buried 12 of his children” was being as grotesquely simplistic as he was being factually wrong.  Yet nobody in the audience seemed to bat an eyelid at this blatant piece of monumental ignorance.

What is killing the concert programme note is a combination of indifference, financial constraints, political correctness and diminishing attention spans.

Indifference:  If you go to a concert where a programme booklet is available, study its contents. Beyond the adverts – many of which have seen more imagination and thought gone into the copy than the notes about the music itself – what do you find?  Lists of names of course (and that is essential – I think you do need to know who is on stage and who has worked behind the scenes), and biographies of the artists. 

And this is where we find our first problem.  Increasingly, these artist biographies are unedited reprints of marketing materials sent by agents invariably with the instruction “Not to be Edited or Altered in any way without prior consent”.  This provides enough of a threat to send any junior marketing person in an orchestra office into “leave-me-out-of-it” mode, plonk the entire ridiculous blurb into the book, and fill a handful of pages with no mental effort.  In this way, interns have been responsible for killing off much of the value and quality of programme books.  And if any space is left for notes about the music, it will usually be a small chunk of text, as often as not written by someone with a smattering of half-baked understanding about music history. 

Now look around at the concert audience; how many of them are reading the notes in the booklet?  The chances are none.  Why read something so superficial and uninteresting? Best simply to look at the pictures and study the ads.

When I was a diploma examiner for Trinity College London, we began to ask candidates to submit their own programme notes.  While I read them assiduously, often checked references and double-checked facts, most of my colleagues did not.  They simply looked at the word count and issued a mark accordingly.  Most handed the notes back to the candidate at the end of the exam (I think this practice has now been banned – I hope so) insensitive to the hours of effort that had been expended on their composition.  If I mentioned to a fellow examiner that some fact or other was wrong, the response invariably was, “we can’t be expected to check all the facts”.  Such indifference completely undermined (perhaps still does) the value of programme notes.  Many candidates simply cut and paste from Wikipedia the night before the exam, with no consequence on their final result.  But there were (and, thankfully, still are) the few who really cared, whose teachers recognised that, if nothing else, the practice of writing programme notes helped foster a deeper understanding of the music beyond the mere technical challenges it presented.  If you see a diploma as a means of education rather than as a piece of paper, the programme notes are truly invaluable - and I urge all teachers and students to think about this.  If, on the other hand, a diploma is just an acquisition, by all means treat the programme notes with indifference - chances are, you'll get away with it! (I offer my personalised guidance on this to all who ask - but precious few do!) 


Financial constraints.  A couple of years back when a major festival was being planned for Singapore, an eminent violinist approached me and asked if I would write the notes “as we want to have interesting, informative and knowledgeable programme notes to reflect the quality of the playing”.  I eagerly agreed and named a fee.  “Oh!” came the horrified response, “We were not budgeting for that”.  I wonder if she would be willing to present a recital for me free of charge.  Of course not, and I would be neither rude enough nor thoughtless enough to ask.  My knowledge and skill has been honed over years and at great personal cost – just as hers has been.  Why is my contribution, therefore, so contemptuously dismissed?  All my professional life I have been battling against those who feel that anybody can write about music, so why bother to pay somebody to do it well? 


Political Correctness.  Putting music in its societal and historic context often involves reminding us about the morals and ethics of the past.  These can be both uncomfortable and difficult.  When I was programme annotator for the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, I was forever having to tread delicately over Islamic sensitives when discussing the music of those composers who, through no fault of their own, had lived in times which did not share the ethics of late 20th century Malaysian Muslims. 

And it’s not just religious; a recent note submitted to a US concert agency about a Haydn work which had been commissioned with money from the slave trade was rejected on the grounds that this was an unacceptably contentious issue, while I had to fight long and hard with one Asian orchestra to convince them that Leroy Anderson was not black, so did not belong in a programme highlighting music from “forgotten minorities”.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Political Correctness killing the concert programme note is the current fad for “green”.  In Singapore, the programme booklet is a dying thing.  Go to most concerts and you are told to download the programme by scanning a QR code.  Since I never take my phone to concerts, I am denied access to programmes, so have no idea who the performers are or what they are playing.  Others find that, once they have set eyes on their mobile screens, they cannot tear themselves away, and sit happily studying the phones in blissful ignorance of the music going on around them.  But the most ridiculous thing about this is that it is not “green” at all.  Ask the children mining for precious rare metals in Africa, the villagers seeing multi-national corporations come in to rape and plunder their ancestral lands, how “Green” our obsession with smartphones is.  Compare that with the managed forests and plantations which supply the paper industry.  And give me trees cut down to make paper anytime over the iniquitous desecration of natural habitats in order to fill the ground with environmentally devastating palm oil plantations.  At least a forest cut down to make paper can be replanted.  Precious metals cannot be replaced, nor can land given over to palm oil be re-fertilised.


Diminishing Attention Spans:  The idea of sitting down reading a block of text is anathema to even the most earnest students today, it seems.  Who can devote five minutes of their life to reading about the sacrifices and tribulations a composer went through to create a great work of art, when the allure of Twitter puts pointless rubbish (aka Trumpisms) in easy reach, taking less than a minute to read, absorb and dismiss?  Increasingly the few remaining commissioners of programme notes impose ever diminishing word counts, to the extent that nothing of value can be provided; their argument?  “People do not like to be faced with large chunks of text”.  A bit of imaginative designing and clever use of photographs and illustrations would help, but there again, that costs money, requires thought and is unnecessary if your programmes are available as downloads for miniscule smartphone screens.

We must recognise that programme notes have only been a common element of the listening experience for a century or so, and perhaps are not seen by many as an essential part of the concert-going, music-hearing environment.  But as the origins of so much of the music we hear slips beyond collective memory and into a world of forgotten and misunderstood societies, somebody needs to remind audiences (and performers) what those societies stood for and what they expected of their musicians.  You could read lengthy and scholarly tomes, you could take a chance and hope that a Wikipedia contributor has done his homework, but best for the audience is to have someone who cares present what you need to know to appreciate the music better in neat, readable and suitably focused language.  That is my skill (and that of a handful of other like-minded souls) and I regret that it has become completely devalued by our society’s elevation of ignorance.

13 October 2017

Black Scottish Horn Players

Among the discs reviewed recently (this particular review appears on the MusicWeb International website, from which the disc can be purchased) was one entitled Edinburgh 1742, and comprising music written by Handel and Barsanti.  I liked the playing, the recording and the music - as, perhaps, you can gather from my reprinted review below.  But what intrigued me most about this was something I read in Michael Talbot's outstanding booklet notes.

The French Horn took on a particular resonance in English "high" society during the 18th century.  (Don't give me that gaff about Edinburgh being in Scotland, not England - I know that: I live there for part of the year.  In the 18th century, the concept of Britain was largely non-existent.  The English crown and government had subsumed Scotland and, to all intents and purposes among those in the "higher" levels of society, Edinburgh was just another fine English city.  It would have been anathema for the ladies and gentlemen of Edinburgh society to consider themselves Scots - until Sir Walter Scott came along with his romantic notions of a distinct Scottish character, the term Scots was more-or-less synonymous with lower-class and common.)

Back to the French Horn.  It would seem that any wealthy family worth its salt employed a couple of horn players to act as urban doorbells, announcing arrivals and departures, and as early car horns, travelling with the family coach to clear the way and warn of progress.  The implication given off was that the family spent much of its time in its country estate on the hunting field - the horn's natural habitat - so when back in town, the necessary horn players for the hunt, were given other duties.  That's interesting enough, but what Talbot goes on to point out is that often these horn players were black.

With the slave trade at its peak - Bristol was the hub of that particular activity - those who made their money from trading human beings, would often cherry-pick from their cargoes to find suitably imposing domestic servants not just for themselves, but for their friends and associates.  To have a couple of black men on display outside your front door playing the French Horn, was clearly a tremendous symbol of power and prestige; and the fact is that these former slaves from west Africa via the cotton and sugar plantations of the southern states of the USA seemed to have a peculiar penchant for powerful horn playing.

This, at least, is the impression I get from reading Talbot's essay, nourished, of course, by my own fervid imagination.   But how true a picture is it of 18th century English life? 

It might seem purely speculative were it not for this news item which BBC Wales presented on 24th March 2007 (from which the picture at the head of this post is taken).

"Among the attractions tourists will be able to see again at Erddig Hall, near Wrexham, is a well-known 18th Century image of the slave trade.  The National Trust property is home to the Negro Coachboy, a portrait of a black youth thought to be owned by the mansion's founder, John Mellor.
The bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery Act is on Sunday.  The painting, also known as the 'Negro Minstrel', 'Black Boy' or 'Mellor's Coachboy' hangs in the servants' hall.  Painted around 1720, it is still not clear whether the youngster was a slave taken to live and work at Erddig Hall by Mellor, who was a wealthy London lawyer, or whether he was just a figment of an artist's imagination. A verse written at the house decades later offers a clue to the painting's origins, claiming the boy worked at the hall and was given a Christian burial locally, but it cannot be confirmed. Jeremy Cragg, house and collections manager, said Mellor was not involved in the slave trade, but like many wealthy people of his time might have had a slave boy as a 'fashion accessory'."

It seems that here is a piece of English music history which managed to get itself swept under the carpet by the Political Correctness Brigade, terrified of offending black people by suggesting that, once upon a time, long ago, some of them may have been forced into slavery or treated as curiosities by white people.  It certainly is worth further investigation.  In the meantime, here's my review of the Linn disc, "Edinburgh 1742".

There is some relevance in the title (Edinburgh 1742) , but the really unifying feature in this programme is the pair of French Horns which appear in all but one of the works recorded here.  But before going any further, I must register my unreserved admiration for the excellent booklet notes by Michael Talbot who, in recent years, has turned his perceptive scholarly gaze, previously concentrated on Vivaldi, to focus more intently on Francesco Barsanti.  He offers here some of the most informative, readable and absorbing notes I have ever come across with a CD.  Beyond the enticing outline sketch of Barsanti’s life – born in Lucca, abandoned law for music, established a solid reputation as an oboist (“permanently in the background, never seeking the limelight”), travelled to London in 1723 and in 1735 joined the Edinburgh Musical Society where he “settled into the role of factotum, even acquiring a set of timpani to play in the Society’s orchestra” – Talbot gives us a wonderful insight into the role of the French Horn in 18th century Britain. 

We read that the instrument graduated “from the forest to the house, the street and the waterway” and developed “a deep social resonance” in 18th century English society.  Any nobleman or rich merchant would have a pair of servants employed to play French Horns  to announce domestic arrivals and departures.  Intriguingly, Talbot tells us that many of these servants were black, having themselves graduated from house-slaves in America, and gained a high reputation for their prowess as horn players.  The very portability of the French Horn made it a particular feature of water parties. 

Of course, the obvious indicator of this in in Handel’s Water Music, and, given Talbot’s intriguing insight into the unique place the French Horn had in English high society, perhaps we might have thought that the inclusion of at least part of that work on this disc would be obvious.   The tracklist makes no mention of it, but it is here, albeit in disguise!  The Concerto in F HWV331 is Handel’s own reworking of two movements from the second of the Water Music Suites, excising the trumpets from the original and transposing the whole thing into the horn-friendly key of F major.  Alec Frank-Gemmill and Joseph Walters bubble along cheerfully in these boisterous movements finding an enticing balance between the rawness of the natural horn and the elegance of a well-turned concert tone, each phrase intelligently moulded and the whole thing given a marvellous buoyancy by some suitably exotic ornamental flourishes.

The other Handel items also employ a pair of French Horns, but in very different capacities.  The March in Ptolemy was written for a Hanoverian military band and became hugely popular amongst the London public in the early days of the Hanoverian monarchy.  The aria from Alcina adds a pair of horns to the mix, but here they are something of a novelty adding a wonderfully vivid edge to this tremendously invigorating depiction of an angry tigress in its lair deciding whether or not to run from the hunters.  Emilie Renard delivers a stupendously powerful vocal line, shaking with suppressed anger and energy.   You can almost feel her claws!

But where, you must be asking, does Edinburgh and, in particular, the year 1742 fit into the picture?  Barsanti, as we read, was based in Edinburgh between 1735 and 1743, marrying a Scots girl and visiting many parts of the country.  The 1742 connection comes from the fact that the five Concerti Grossi on this recording (each employing a pair of French Horns) as well as A Collection of Old Scots Tunes were published in Edinburgh in 1742  (according to Grove – Talbot suggests they appeared a year later).

Since the bulk of the programme is devoted to Barsanti’s Concerti Grossi for two horns, timpani and strings (Op.3 contains five more for trumpet, oboe and timpani, not recorded here), it might be appropriate to discuss these in some detail.   While Handel never visited Edinburgh (so far as we know) his and Barsanti’s paths crossed in London after Barsanti’s return to the English capital in 1743, and there is something distinctly Handelian about Concerto No.1, although the unmistakable stamp of Vivaldi is discernible in much of the violin writing.  For the first two movements the horns very much play a secondary role to the string ensemble, with the timpani rumbling away in the background.  But they then take the lead for a vivacious Allegro and have a somewhat concertante role in the concluding Menuet.  The Vivaldi influence is even more pronounced with the opening of Concerto No.2, where the horns and timpani again assume a somewhat concertante role.  Concerto No.3 opens with a Sostenuto movement in which that famous rhythmic device, the Scotch Snap, seems to figure (and is much vaunted under Peter Whelan’s direction), while the horns crown the music with their stately presence.  The second movement has more than a hint of the hunting field about it as the string ensemble gallops along hotly pursued by the horns and timpani.  Concerto no.4 is the only one with three movements, and in its opening movement the horns sound out in a blaze of glory above busily fugal strings. The adagio from Concerto No.5 is mostly in the form of a swaying Siciliano for the two horns with a basic string accompaniment, while the same Concerto’s Menuet opens with a powerful timpani solo played with startling presence by Alan Emslie.

In all five Concerti Grossi the Edinburgh-based Ensemble Marsyas play with impeccable stylistic elegance.  The dance movements – all of the concertos end with a Menuet – have a pleasing rhythmic lilt, and the clarity of articulation is particularly impressive in the contrapuntal passages.  Occasionally I wonder whether the continuo is pushed a little too far into the background, and the ornamentation often has a slightly false feel to it, but Peter Whelan directs clean-cut, intricately detailed and disciplined performances which largely avoid pretentious display or extravagant exhibitionism. 

The four short Old Scots Tunes from Barsanti’s collection of 30, are performed by Colin Scobie who produces a lovely quasi-Scots fiddle sound with some wholly idiomatic gestures and nimbly executed slides in the well-known strathspey The birks of Invermay.  Accompanied by the deft cello of Gulrum Choi and the tinkling harpsichord of Philippe Grisvard, the overall effect is slightly schizophrenic – is this Italianate baroque or Scots traditional? – but decidedly pleasing; as is this entire disc.