23 January 2019

Music: an act or an art?

A lecture on Bach’s Kunst der Fuge (“Art of Fugue”) given by the Australian music scholar Daniel Herscovitch, was without doubt the most enlightening, interesting, absorbing and compellingly presented lecture I have attended in many a long year.  He followed it up with a complete performance of the Art of Fugue on the piano, but sadly I had to miss that as I had a performing engagement of my own to fulfil.    There had been an audience of 20 or so at his lecture – mostly local music enthusiasts and supporters from outside the university, but also a sprinkling of staff and a couple of students.  My esteemed colleague, piano professor Albert Tiu was there, and he did go on to the performance, following which he felt compelled to post on Facebook his dismay that, not only had so few piano students attended the lecture, but that, apparently, none of them went on to attend the performance.  I understand his frustration.  When so much is invested in bringing in outstanding lecturers and performers for the benefit of the students, it is a matter of the gravest concern when those students fail to respond.  Albert went on to bemoan the fact that this was by no means the only piano-orientated event this week which had failed to attract piano students into its audience.

Albert is, however, barking up the wrong tree.  We should not complain when piano students do not support special events which feature their instrument, but we should complain, and complain bitterly, when brass, string, percussion and voice students do not attend piano-themed presentations.  We should complain bitterly when piano students do not attend brass-themed presentations, brass students do not attend string-themed presentations, string students do not attend percussion-themed presentations, percussion students do not attend voice-themed presentations, and so on, and so on.  And especially, we should complain loud and long when all instrumental and vocal students do not attend presentations about music theory, history and pedagogy.  In short, why do we expect students only to derive benefit from presentations focusing on their major study area?  There is an argument (which I wholly reject) that it is up to their respective professors to teach them what they need to know about their principal area of study, while they need to look elsewhere to benefit from that broad field of study which is at the very core of a university education.  So we might (just) excuse piano students from absenting themselves from Chopin performances, but we can’t begin to condone them absenting themselves from a lecture on the brass music of, say, Edward Gregson.

When I was studying music at university, all students were obliged (as were all staff) to attend weekly chamber concerts.  I was an organ student – what possible benefit could I derive from such exposure to Haydn string quartets?  Yet when I went out into the world of employment with my university music degree, the fact that I had been exposed to such a broad spectrum of music in my years as a student gave me a huge head start over those of my peers whose training had been bounded by the limitations of their instrument and its repertory.  I could never have lived the life of a critic, lecturer, music administrator and writer on music that I have without that truly universal music training university afforded me.

We no longer live in an age of compulsion, and while we might encourage, we cannot force students to attend anything which is not directly concerned with their obtaining a degree at the end of their period of study.  Yet that very freedom should be seen as a glorious opportunity.  For the keen student, eager to steal a march on contemporaries when it comes to the highly competitive world of a career in music, what better way is there to obtain a real advantage over others, than to take every opportunity presented to broaden and expand one’s musical horizons?  We can’t see into the future, so surely it is best to equip ourselves with every conceivable tool in order to amass an armoury to meet whatever challenge faces us in later life?  The thousands of piano students each year who are cast out into the world of paid employment won’t get far if all they can do is play Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu faster, louder and more accurately than anyone else; they will get a lot further if, in addition to being able to play the Chopin, they can talk coherently on Palestrina, Webern, Gregson, and all those myriad other composers whose music they will not have encountered as piano students, but might have encountered had they taken the effort to seek out and attend the free lectures and recitals open to them during their time as undergraduate students.

Our trouble, especially in south east Asia, is a belief that education is not about learning but about gaining qualifications.  The 60,000 Singaporean students each year who sit for graded music exams (a majority of them in piano) learn nothing other than how to pass a graded music exam.  Their skill set is of absolutely no value once it comes to the world of mature employment.  Yet teachers still focus on this and parents still buy into the myth that, in some way, they are advancing their children’s prospects by forcing them to play Purcell’s Prelude in C week in, week out until the moment comes for them to play it in front of bored and irascible old man in the examination studio.  Only a very few of the multitude of piano teachers in this region seem willing to expand musical horizons by exposing their students to non-piano music, or even share enlightened thinking on music history and context. (I still cringe with horror every time I read the misguided, ill-informed programme notes of diploma and degree students.)  I well recall an occasion when we brought in a world-famous pianist to give a recital at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur.  A few weeks later I was giving a talk to Malaysian piano teachers (about how to prepare students for graded music exams) and asked how many had attended the recital.  Not one.  When I asked why when the pianist was world-renowned and tickets had been available at discounted rates from teachers and their pupils, the response was frightening; “He wasn’t playing anything from the exam repertory, so it was not relevant to us”.

I doubt very much whether a single student from any of those Malaysian teachers has gone on to any kind of musical career.  By the time students reach their tertiary/university level, they are surely seriously contemplating such a future.  They stand no chance if they refuse to open their eyes and ears to the wider world of music into which they are so shortly to be plunged.

Until such time as students are willing to see music as something other than the mechanics of performing, their future prospects are bleak.  We should be encouraging, not just the “Act” of music, but the “Art” of music.  Daniel Herscovitch pointed out that the word Kunst (“art”) had not been in Bach’s vocabulary; we need to make sure it is in ours.

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