Scotland reaching out to the world

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 September 2017 under Musings  •  3 Comments

On Saturday I enjoyed reading Ian Jack’s fine Guardian article about the Queensferry Crossing, our striking new bridge over the Forth (see photo taken from the Pentland Hills yesterday). Many of his comments resonated with me, a fellow Scot. He recalled how the previous Forth Bridges were designed and built by British engineers with British components. By contrast, the new bridge sourced its designers, contractors and materials from around the world. A large part of the workforce was local, but otherwise the project was distinctly multi-national. Most Scots would share Ian Jack’s mixture of emotions on hearing that a) the expertise and materials were not Scottish but b) Scotland is successfully reaching out to the world.

Ian Jack’s words were still in my head when I was researching the result of this year’s Scottish International Piano Competition which finished yesterday in Glasgow. Its website lists the competitors and the results of the various rounds. If you have a look, you’ll probably be struck as I was to see that the vast majority of competitors were from other countries. On the one hand, I feel proud that Scotland now attracts people from all around the world. On the other, I feel dismayed by the lack of home-grown competitors. Is it really the case that we can’t field candidates to take their places alongside the oustanding young Turkish, Romanian and Georgian pianists who won the top prizes?

Part of the answer has indirectly been supplied by an anonymous A-level student who wrote a very enlightening blog, ‘Why are our schools pushing classical music to the margins?‘ for Gramophone Magazine. It’s worth reading in full. For now, an excerpt:

‘The increasing normalisation of viewing classical music as a niche market, as a long-forgotten relic of our past, has undoubtedly led many young people to overlook its qualities, meaning many who may have forged a lifelong passion for classical music have not. We must not overlook the power of a school curriculum to shape popular beliefs, and if a curriculum sidelines a musical genre, we will likely choose to sideline that genre ourselves.’

Old jury notes from music competitions

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 September 2017 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching, Travel  •  3 Comments

Recently I came across folders of notes I had made when serving on international competition juries over the past decade or more. Pages and pages of detailed notes on people’s playing. Most of them played for at least half an hour, sometimes an hour, so there was plenty of time to make notes. I did so partly because I knew that competitors had the right to ask for feedback. Most  competitions offer an opportunity – usually at the point when a competitor is eliminated – to ask jury members what they thought. It’s unthinkable to have to confess to a disconsolate young musician that you don’t remember how they played. So we were ready with our commentaries.

But many competitors don’t ask. If they do, they are not really in the mood to hear feedback, especially if they have just learned that they’re out of the competition. At that point, the competition no longer pays their accommodation expenses and they generally make haste to leave. Some seek advice before they go, but you can tell they’re struggling to listen (and I sympathise). Those who go on to win prizes almost never ask for feedback, which is a pity as I have the most notes about them after listening to them in all the rounds.

All this means that I come home with sheaves of notes which nobody ever reads. I can’t just leave them with the competition organisers, because the notes need interpretation, and a bit of judgement about what to say and how. In theory, competitors could write to ask for feedback when they feel calmer, but they don’t. I remember only one occasion when, weeks after a competition, a chamber group contacted me from a faraway country, asking in very halting English if I could explain why they didn’t get past the first round. Luckily, I could: I remembered them quite well, and I had notes on every piece they played. I transcribed my notes into clear sentences and mailed them a report. I never heard from them again.

Some organisers try to graft educational opportunities onto music competitions, but the two are uneasy bedfellows.  The fact is that competitions are not primarily learning opportunities but rather beauty pageants, designed to produce winners and losers. What is ‘learned’ is often hard to digest.

What to do with all my notes? Everyone will have moved on since those competitions. Many of the groups won’t be playing together any more. The notes are going in the bin.

The cult of the individual

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 September 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  9 Comments

Yesterday I had a message from someone who organises the masterclasses I teach at a university. This year she told me that there won’t be any masterclasses. Students don’t like them and don’t see why they should have to attend them if the music being taught is ‘not relevant’ to them. Masterclasses are an ‘add-on’, not a required module. The organisers have found that if they make attendance compulsory, students complain. If they make attendance optional, students don’t go. Guest professors found they were teaching to no audience at all. It was no different from giving a private lesson, just in a big empty room.

I first came across the masterclass principle when I was a student at the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove in Cornwall. Masterclass seminars were a brilliantly economical way of teaching lots of people at once. Three different students played at each session, and the rest of us listened. Everyone heard every lesson. It meant that the teacher (Sandor Vegh, for example) didn’t have to keep repeating general principles. Nobody missed out on precious anecdotes told to one person alone. We learned so much from listening to other people being taught. If they played beautifully, we felt inspired. If they had problems, we discovered how one could work at them. No compulsion was necessary for us to attend the classes – anyone who didn’t go would have been regarded as weird. Although the teaching rooms were large, it was standing room only. People sat on the floor and crowded into the space by the door.

Of course, we had chosen to be there and were eager to learn. It wasn’t part of a larger course offered by an insitution, or a module we were forced to take. It was a special course which happened in the holidays and was always over-subscribed. So perhaps it’s not comparable with the kind of masterclasses I teach at institutions during term-time.

Nevertheless I (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) have noticed a trend away from idealism to a much more individualistic attitude towards what is worth learning. Today’s students are encouraged to think of themselves as ‘customers’ with ‘bespoke courses of study’. They can decide what is or is not directly relevant to them, especially with regard to the job market. Tutors have to state in advance what the ‘learning outcomes’ are going to be, so that students can take a view on whether or not they need to know that thing.

In the Prussia Cove masterclasses we never knew what the ‘learning outcomes’ were to be, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. In fact there were more than we could ever have imagined. You know what your own problems are, but you don’t know what other people’s are. Likewise your strengths: you may be complacent about your own level of achievement until you hear someone more advanced, and then your ears may be opened.

How can students know what is going to be useful to them or not? Life takes you in directions you can’t predict. When you’re a student it’s so important to absorb as much information and learn as many ways of working as you can, because there’s no way of knowing which of them will enrich your life.

The lust for loudness

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 August 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  1 Comment

Articles and letters in The Guardian recently have explored why some of today’s singers suffer from vocal problems, develop nodules on their vocal cords from singing so loudly, etc.  Curiously, the use of powerful amplification has not taken away the need to sing loudly: rather, it seems to create a vicious circle in which everything gets louder and louder. The sight of someone screwing up their eyes with effort and yelling into a microphone has become routine. Even opera singers, trained in the technique of supporting their voices, find themselves swept up in the appetite for ‘projection’.

For many classical musicians this appetite for loudness is troubling. Generally speaking, we don’t use amplification and don’t want to. We rely on acoustic instruments and the power of the human hand and arm to produce a range of expressive sound. Naturally the top end of this range can’t be louder than the hand can produce. We’ve been trained to develop control over fine gradations of tone, which would be lost if they were hugely amplified. The human scale of our sound effects is an important part of the aesthetic.

However, many of us are very aware that these intimate effects seem insubstantial beside the sheer decibel level of many pop performances. I’ve been told that after listening to classical music on record, a live performance of the same music can seem disconcertingly quiet and distant. The musicians are far away on a stage, their instruments unamplified. Listeners find they have to ‘tune in’ to the unexpectedly delicate sound effects. Before amplification, these sounds would have seemed completely normal. Now they seem ‘small’.

Holding out against society’s raging lust for decibels sometimes feels Luddite. What is the point of cultivating subtle nuances when everyone else is boasting about having attended pop concerts which made their hearts thump in their chests and left their ears ringing for hours afterwards? We wonder if we should just ‘get with the program’ and use amplification.

But the kind of music we play was not conceived like that. To make it artificially louder would bring no musical benefit. Better, perhaps, to remember that many of the famous 19th century virtuosi – such as Chopin and Liszt – were as renowned for their quiet playing as for their power. Liszt asked for much of his piano music to be played quietly. Chopin’s pupils reported that he ‘abhorred banging on the piano’. His piano playing was utterly captivating, yet ‘he hardly ever played fortissimo’. He described loud piano playing as ‘a dog barking’. ‘You can be struck dumb with astonishment at unexpected news’, he told his pupils, ‘whether it is shouted loudly or barely whispered in your ear.’

Supplying the scenery from your own imagination

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 August 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Interesting discussions with friends about ‘concert performances’ of operas they’ve attended at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. I have been to two: Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ and Monteverdi’s ‘L’Incoronazione di Poppea’, both excellent, and I’ve been told that Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ was tremendous as well.

We found it intriguing that these operas, performed without a conventional theatre stage, scenery or props, were so satisfying. In some cases the singers even wore conventional concert clothes and didn’t bother with theatrical costumes. They used the line across the front of the stage as a minimal space for acting. Yet these restrictions didn’t seem to matter. In fact, some people said that, far from missing the full theatrical experience, it was a relief not to be confronted by some of the bizarre ‘directorial concepts’  offered to the public in recent years. I know from my own experience how such concepts can come between the listener and the music.

In a good ‘concert performance’, on the other hand, the listener supplies the missing scenery from their own imagination. Perhaps this is easier to do if you have actually seen an opera house production of the piece and have an idea of how a stage setting would work in terms of depth of field, lighting, and so on. But I did speak to one friend who was bowled over by Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ last week despite never having seen it in the opera house.

To perform an opera on the concert stage is usually considered second-best and a disappointing way to economise. But this year’s Edinburgh Festival has made me realise afresh that when the performers are really good, and the music is gripping, one loses very little by not having the whole treasury of opera house effects. In fact, their absence can be liberating.