I was doing some teaching at Oxford University the other day, and we were discussing the challenges of making a good entrance on to the concert platform when giving a recital as part of your exams. I was discoursing on the need for calm or confidence, and trying to recommend various thoughts and mind-games that might help as the performer crossed that strange space between the entrance door and the piano stool, chair, music stand or whatever.
My students agreed politely and then added that it was perhaps especially difficult to make an elegant entrance with your instrument if you were wearing a long academic gown and ‘mortarboard’ hat.
I had had no idea that Oxford students taking exams were required to wear academic dress, but it seems that they are. Nobody is exempt from this long tradition, not even musicians giving a concert performance. Apparently they may, once they reach their chair, take off the academic gown and mortarboard and put them aside while they play, but at the end of the performance, these items must be picked up and put on again.
I asked whether it was not possible to ask for a dispensation in the case of musicians who are, after all, trying to prepare themselves for the world of public performance, but was told that it was out of the question. All sorts of other groups would object to the exemption, asking (understandably) why it is any more relevant for engineers, doctors, IT specialists and so on to have to wear academic dress for their exams. In fact, not so long ago, it seems that there was a vote on the subject at which students displayed a preference for keeping the old traditions going.
I was fascinated by this unusual spin on the challenges of the performance situation. It may even be that wearing a black academic gown and mortarboard can be used to advantage when making a dignified entrance, but I imagine it is not so easy to make a dignified exit, especially if you have to carry a large musical instrument.