The cult of the individual

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 September 2017 under Daily Life, Musings, Teaching  •  10 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.

A five-hour opportunity to ponder audience concentration

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 August 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  4 Comments

Last night I went to a stupendous concert performance of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ at the Edinburgh International Festival. (Thank you, Amber Wagner, Simon O’Neill, Christine Guerke, Bryn Terfel, Karen Cargill, Matthew Rose, conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the RSNO!) The two intervals were kept to a minimum, but the performance still lasted five hours and even though there were no costumes or scenery, the audience was rapt throughout.

We instrumentalists are bombarded by advice to offer shorter concerts, lighter and more mixed programmes, to ‘make contact with the audience’ by chatting to them, taking care not to ‘be intimidating’, etc etc. We’re told that today’s audience doesn’t have the patience for full-length programmes and prefers an hour-long concert to which they can bring a beer. We’re reminded that radio stations like Classic FM thrive by playing movements of things instead of whole pieces.

So I was fascinated by the sight of a packed Usher Hall focusing without strain on five hours of Wagner. Indeed, the roar of applause which greeted the end of each Act was an almost shocking contrast to the hour and a half of quietness that preceded it. It all seemed to make a mockery of the idea that today’s listeners have short concentration spans and need to be catered for accordingly.

Reflecting on it afterwards, I realised that of course in opera there is one element which purely instrumental music doesn’t have: a story. Of course, musicians would say that every piece of abstract music has its own narrative, one which they aim to put across to the audience, but the ‘story’ is not of the overtly dramatic kind that powers ‘Die Walküre’. Take away the singers but leave Wagner’s orchestral music exactly as it is and I expect listeners would be slipping out long before the end. It’s the long arc of the Nibelung myth that enables listeners to follow Wagner’s long-drawn-out exposition patiently.

What can instrumentalists learn from this? We can’t superimpose a storyline on pieces designed as pure music, but we can think about how to map more clearly the ‘journey’ that all good pieces of music invite the imagination to make.

Publicity shots

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 July 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

The Edinburgh Festival and ‘Fringe’ begin this week and the city is plastered with publicity posters. The trend towards anti-glamour continues. Even if a performer wants to look glamorous, they are portrayed in a jarring context. Someone in a beautiful suit lounges in the doorway of a graffiti-covered industrial warehouse. Actors look away from the camera, their faces obscured by deep shadow. Comedians grimace and gurn. ‘Bad hair days’ are the norm. Performers are shown in contexts that have nothing whatever to do with their artistic role. A string quartet walks on the beach. A singer mooches down a disused railway track. Wind players ‘fight’ one another with their clarinets. A cellist ‘sails out to sea’ on his cello.

After passing a whole wall of such posters, I said to my companion, ‘The days of brushing my hair nicely for a publicity photo are over.’

Images have been changing for a while, but classical musicians are still unsure what to do for the best. At least, I don’t know anyone who is sure. We used to be told to dress up, do our hair and make-up nicely and arrange ourselves in an attractive group (girls in front), each person holding their instrument so that viewers would know what played what. Good lighting was imperative, and we rejected any shots where our hair was messed up by the wind. In solo publicity shots I was always required to be playing the piano, or at least leaning against it.

When I started to see images of, say, a chamber group astride motorbikes in the rain, or skulking in sinister wastelands, I wondered what message was being given and whether it was the right one. Since the days when I was part of Domus, travelling with our portable concert hall, we have argued about whether it’s right to pretend that our kind of music is fun, quirky or light-hearted when in fact it’s fundamentally serious and we have worked seriously at it for ages. Yes, we want to attract all sorts of people to come to the concerts, but we don’t want to pretend that this music isn’t what it is.

Most of us are still struggling with this issue. We want to move with the times, but we don’t want to be dishonest. My own publicity has changed to simple head-and-shoulders shots, and I don’t dress up. I don’t mind about hair blowing in the wind, but I haven’t yet felt comfortable about being shown gazing sadly out of a train window, or jumping off a skip in my pyjamas.