24 June 2018

Why Play Piano

It has been my privilege and unmitigated pleasure to spend the week at the Singapore Music Teachers’ Association biennial Performers’ Festival.  As a seasoned adjudicator at music festivals, I can say that this one is special.  It’s so pleasing to adjudicate when there is no sense of competition involved and no requirement to quantify numerically the quality of individual performances.  Instead, each performer plays whatever they want and the adjudicators comment on it.  That’s like real life!!  And while there is a sense of healthy competition within each individual (“I am determined to do this better than I have before”), because there is neither ranking nor graded assessment, there is none of the partisanship and hostility which so often brings an uncomfortable edge to competitive music festivals.  Long may this Singapore idea continue, and far may its tentacles spread.

In the piano field, which was my area, we heard a total of 411 performances, with performers ranging in age from around four or five to 20 (I’m guessing – quite rightly, adjudicators are not told the ages of those performing to avoid a temptation to adjust  standards according to age expectations).  We heard performances ranging from tiny, basic single-line melodies picked out by a couple of fingers to core Sonata repertory from Beethoven, Chopin and Scriabin, music drawn from the great canon of western piano literature to new music by Indonesian composers based on traditional music from their homeland.  If for nothing else, this was a glorious feast of music and music-making, and a wonderful testament to the enthusiasm, dedication and commitment of local piano teachers, their students and, of course, the support of the parents, most of whom seemed to be in attendance to support and hear their offspring in musical action.

As always there were issues of repertory choice.  Probably not a session passed when some small child played one of the great virtuoso showpieces of the repertory, often revealing phenomenal technical fluency.  Yet the maturity needed to reveal the artistic, emotional and, above all, psychological aspects of the music and elevate it from mere technical display to fully rounded interpretation, is inevitably denied most children.  To compensate for this inability to extract art from the music, they too often over-emphasised their technical proficiency by playing the music too fast.  I lost count of the number of times I commented on excessive speed, sometimes suggesting that just because you could play the piece that fast, did not mean you should play the piece that fast.  I worried at those who had failed to grasp the real meaning of terms like allegro. ABRSM Grade 5 might tell you it means “fast”, but it doesn’t; it means a whole world of things, and until the student can understand the implications of the terms, rather than know their superficial translation, they are destined never to present credible musical performances.  It was disturbing how many times we heard, say, Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu rather than, say, a Mozart slow movement or a Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue, let alone repertory which was not drawn either from the core recital repertory or the graded examination books.  If I have one message to send out to teachers it is, fantastic as you all are, do you spend enough time expanding your students’ repertory? 

As ever with this kind of event, for all the obvious enjoyment performers and audience experience, I find myself wondering why we do it.  Yes, it is a glorious showcase of the vibrancy and health of the Singaporean music climate, and it provides a wonderful opportunity to young performers to experience that unique thing which is the fundamental purpose of learning an instrument.  A lot of people (especially adult learners) derive their pleasure from playing in private at home, but even they are missing out on the incredible frisson which uniquely comes from performing to an appreciative audience.  Yet, as these young players performed to appreciative audiences and encouraging adjudicators, I could not help wondering why so many bother to go through the agonies of learning to play a musical instrument in the first place.

There were a few whose performances were so good that one can imagine them pursuing successful careers in music; to put it in Singaporean terms, several of them have the potential to make a lot of money out of their skill.  For the vast majority, however, a music career does not beckon, either because they do not have the technical skill nor the intellectual strength, or, more likely, because they simply see music as a pastime and hobby, to be enjoyed simply on an occasional basis.  So why do so many of us encourage our children to learn a musical instrument?

One point which was raised at the panel discussion sessions which followed the days of performances, was that music was something which enhanced life by emphasising beauty and humanity.  It struck me then that those two terms are mutually incompatible.  We only need to look at what happens daily in our world – bombs at election rallies in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, institutional racism in approaches to immigrants on mainland Europe and the USA, random murders by officials in Venezuela and The Philippines, aggressive polarisation over Brexit in the UK, spite, anger and righteous indignation over political corruption in Malaysia, religious conflict in Syria, Israel and Palestine; the list goes on – to realise that beauty and humanity are not the same.

For me, we diminish the value of music and our involvement in it if we only see it as offering beauty and spiritual enrichment in our lives.  And while we want to protect our children from the harshness of humanity in its uglier manifestations, to do so is wrong.  We need to prepare them for the evils of this world, we need to equip them to handle nastiness, and to cope with the hostility. This is where music should come it.  Therapeutically, music can be seen as a means of channelling emotions; not just positive ones like beauty, love and happiness, but, more importantly, negative ones like anger, spite and hatred. 

Musicians are humans, subject to all the emotions the human race knows.  Yet, through music, most musicians can channel their own negative emotions into positive creativity.  Do not tell me Bach was not angry when he wrote the Kyrie from the B Minor Mass (read what was happening in his life at the time, and you will know he was), do not tell me that Shostakovich had no nasty thoughts when he wrote his “Leningrad” Symphony, or that Prokofiev was not bitter when he wrote “Montagues and Capulets” in the Romeo and Juliet score.  For every time music is “beautiful”, I can find a dozen times where music is ugly, vicious and aggressive.  And so it should be.  If music reflects humanity, it reflects the totality of humanity, not just edited highlights;   it’s not the photo-shopped image of an elderly lady shorn of wrinkles, sagging skin and grey hair, but the close up, unretouched reflection of a warts-and-all individual, both ugly and beautiful.

Music, too, should be ugly as well as beautiful, angry as well as calm, disturbing as well as soothing.  Only then can we fully appreciate what its true benefits are to us.  As musicians, by channelling our negative emotions into music, we dilute their socially destructive properties and convert them into aesthetically enriching ones.

What these young people are really doing by learning musical instruments and playing them in public, is learning how to contain their feelings and emotions and how to respond to the emotional influence of others, and how to confine this to an area where they cause no harm and become a positive influence over their fellow men.  That is why we perform in public and why we should encourage young people to play an instrument even if they have neither the ability nor the ambition to pursue a musical career.


1 comment:

  1. What a wonderfully constructive way of looking at it. Thank you.