Archive for March, 2010


Nurturing young talent

One of the highlights of my year are the two or three weeks I spend in February and March serving as a Music Mentor at the Regional Festivals held across the UK as part of Music for Youth. Each day-long Festival involves anything up to 20 groups of school children, either from a single school or from several different schools in a single region, who perform to an audience which includes two mentors. After each half day, the mentors give their impressions on each group and also provide a written commentary with suggestions for improvement. It’s not a competition and in most cases serves as the event for which each group has been practising for weeks, if not months. If there are any particularly distinctive groups (not necessarily the best) we, as mentors, suggest that they be put forward for inclusion in either the Schools’ Proms, held in London’s Albert Hall towards the end of each year or at a National event, usually held in Birmingham in the summer. It’s not only a tremendous barometer on the quality of music-teaching and practice going on in British schools, but also a hugely enjoyable event in its own right; some of these young people have a flair and imagination which puts more seasoned performers to shame. I’m not sure if any other countries do anything similar, but certainly the UK Music for Youth Festivals are the largest of the kind anywhere in the world, involving around 50,000 performers and held in over 70 locations.

The performances cover the whole gamut of musical ensembles from traditional choirs, string quartets and orchestras, to costumed musical theatre and rock and pop groups, and what I have noticed over the years is how the dynamic of musical activity in British schools is shifting. When I started doing this – getting on, I think, for 30 years ago – the norm was small recorder ensembles usually conducted by a very large lady in a tartan skirt (for some reason this bit sticks in the mind – when you’ve sat looking at large tartan-clad arses for hours, it’s not something you can easily erase from the memory) and large choirs, singing in unison with someone hammering out an accompaniment on an upright piano. Then we went through the massed wind-band phase (a dozen clarinets to every flute), the “dancing choirs” phase (when every choir felt it was more a dance troupe than a musical ensemble, and produced a sound to match; a habit which, sad to say, is still current in Singapore), the steel drums phase. (where adolescent girls from wealthy private schools performed Beethoven and Bach on beautifully manicured steel pans in the firm belief that they were doing something “ethnic”) and the heavy metal phase (where groups of carefully unkempt youths did their damndest to imitate the latest rock group, usually with phenomenal success). We still get a mix – in Wrexham, north Wales, for example, I heard two fantastic rock bands as well as some brilliant string ensembles, a wonderful stage presentation from a group comprising disabled children and more than one mighty wind band – but the focus seems to have veered back to very much traditional music-making; which is to say choirs which stand still to sing (and, as a result, produce much more rewarding musical results even if one does wish they could, just occasionally, show a little more visual life), string quartets and traditionally-formed orchestras and big bands.

Why the changes? The dramatic falling off of pop groups I put down to the fact that this is a genre which has now become so video-orientated that it is irrelevant to the performance aspirations of any school group; when you come to think of it, how many successful pop groups exist today in sound only? Indeed, when one big band performed a number from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, very few people in the audience recognised the music, not because the band was poor (far from it, they were very good indeed) but because “Thriller” isn’t about music, it’s about Michael Jackson and dance. Pop music seems to have lost the music tag nowadays and, whether that’s a good thing or not, it’s putting that particular genre out of the reach of normal children in normal schools. The schools can possibly afford instruments and a basic sound system; but polished video production units – a prerequisite of any aspiring pop performer – are not covered by state school budgets. So what do these children do? They go back to the more traditional musical styles and make them their own. I happen to think that it’s a good thing and I am delighted to see British schoolchildren take “ownership” of their performances again and not, American-Idol style, spend all their time copying others. More than that, I see the rise in large ensembles – orchestras and bands – a great sign of the return to the value of team work over the excellence of the individual. When St Cake’s School presented four young girls (and their tartan-arsed teacher) blowing angelically into their recorders, they were really telling us that either the school doesn’t want to risk showing itself up by displaying some of its students who may not be possessed of the ultimate musical talent or that it doesn’t care about music and could only bother to get four of its pupils involved. When Canalview Comprehensive sends 130 children to perform, they are sending a much more positive message about music’s place in their school’s life. The results may not be as polished, but, boy, it’s a lot more enjoyable.

The first Music for Youth Festival I did is memorable for me, because my fellow-mentor (we were called adjudicators in those days) stood up and delivered a diatribe against the then-Prime Minister’s (Mrs Thatcher) education cuts. She had just announced that the policy of providing free musical instruments to children in state schools would be stopped – they would now have to pay a nominal charge. Horror of horrors! It was the end of the world! Civilisation was on its way out! I remember my bemusement, having then recently returned from a trip to Malaysia where NO state school offered free musical training let alone provided free musical instruments, I wondered what all the fuss was about; and the quality of music-making in British schools certainly hasn’t suffered.

But it all raises a question which came up when I was talking last weekend with a man who is poised to set up the first dedicated music school in Cambodia. Asking him how he expected to make money in a country where income levels are so low, he acknowledged that only the rich could afford music and his students would necessarily be drawn from a wealthy elite. This would send shudders of horror down any decent socialist backbone. But wait awhile! If the choice is between a select few receiving musical training or nobody at all, what would be the best course? The latter would sound the death-knell for music. With the former, at least a generation of musicians can be trained to carry musical performance into the future. There was once a belief that music was for all, that every child in the world deserved a chance to show whether or not he or she had musical talent. But that’s idealistic and quite impossible. If music training can only be provided to the rich – the wealthy Cambodians or the generously budgeted British schools – is that such a bad thing, bearing in mind the alternative? Exposing children to music is one thing – and there should be no barriers to that – but giving them a chance to learn to be musical performers is another matter, and perhaps it should be regarded more as a privilege than a right.

In June, I will be chairing a session at the Live!Singapore event on nurturing musical talent. With a high-powered panel of educators and musicians, I intend to look at how we currently identify and nurture talent and whether we can do it any better. Do we, for example, have a mechanism which will ensure that any latent talent in a child, no matter what their background, will be recognised and nurtured? Is it easier for a British child at a fee-paying school to have musical talent realised and nurtured than a Cambodian one from a remote rural area? And, most importantly, does this matter? I’m open to ideas and would very much appreciate your thoughts on the matter. Anyone with some valuable insight would be welcome not only to post your comments here, but to come along in June (details on the link) and add your voice to our debate. And if you have anything really interesting to add to the debate here, I’d like to invite you to the event as my personal guest.


The Myth of Unpopularity

I have been invited to join a discussion at the forthcoming Live!Singapore event (see link – this is an event not to be missed). A proposed topic put forward by one of the panel members is how to get classical music back to the people; the assertion being that it’s become unpopular.

A comment posted on this blog by Vincent4wang in response to my piece about Audience Behaviour suggests that a requirement for audience to dress decently accounts for the reason that “classical music is not as popular as before”.

And you’ll often hear people telling you that classical music is “no longer” popular, or that “people now don’t go to concerts like they used to”. There are horror stories of audience figures falling, CD sales tumbling, orchestras losing funding, and so on, and so on.


When was this golden time when everyone loved classical music, concert halls were full, CDs, LPs, 78s were grabbed off the shelves as quickly as they were put on them, orchestras were flush with cash? It never existed. The “popularity” of classical music occurred only in the imagination of those who find its perceived lack of popularity today a useful tool to support their unuttered conviction that they are members of an elite which takes vicarious pleasure in going against the flow. Not for them the lure of popular culture, the attraction of being part of the masses; they want to stand out, they want to show that they have the taste, discernment and courage to eschew popular fashion. If you can prove that your favourite activity is eschewed by the masses, then you can rightly consider yourself one of the elite.

I love to go against the crowd, myself. When the immigration officer or taxi driver asks me which football team I support I proudly boast of my utter disinterest in the “sport” and regale them with my views that football is a loathsome activity, that footballers are, without exception, overpaid, undereducated morons and that those who follow it (not least that curious Asian phenomenon, the Manchester United supporter who has little idea of the precise location of Manchester and even less understanding of the curious mangled, chewing-gum distorted noises which emanate from “Sir” Alex Ferguson’s gob) are poor, maladjusted folk who have empty lives. When a stranger comes up to me and wants to discuss “movies”, I relish the opportunity to declare that I haven’t been inside a cinema since 1972 and that I don’t subscribe to any of the TV movie channels. I can’t name any current film stars and love feigning surprise when I learn that the Lord of the Rings exists in a version other than the fat book or the classic radio adaptation starring Ian Holmes and John Le Mesurier. And that, in itself, is another example of my own misguided elitism; I still happily believe that people don’t listen to radio anymore; but in the UK, at least, listening figures are on the rise and radio can no longer be regarded as a refuge from the great press of unwashed, uneducated and uncultured humanity.

Yes, if there’s any chance to stand out from the crowd by going against the tide of popular fashion, I’m out there, far in front. But, in all honesty, when it comes to Classical music, I regret to say I am not part of an elite, I am not one going against the crowd. Sadly for my ego, in my love of classical music I am just one of the crowd, one who goes with the tide – albeit a neap rather than a spring (let’s see how many of you get that reference!!).

My assertion is that Classical music is today MORE popular than it has ever been in the past. When was this “golden age” to which these misty-eyed prophets of classical music doom refer? Was it 20, 50, 100, 300, 500 years ago? When do they honestly believe that classical music was more popular than it is today?

Let’s look at some facts.

20 years ago. What was the average audience for live classical music in Malaysia? Answer – zilch! Why? Because there wasn’t very much. So why is there a lot now? Answer. Because it has grown a hundredfold in popularity and is certainly now infinitely more popular there than it was 20 years ago.

50 years ago. What was the audience in Singapore for live classical music? Answer. Infinitesimal. Why? I refer you to my previous paragraph with the added rider that the Singapore government decided that the people might enjoy classical music, so made it available for them with the result that the number of classical music concerts of one sort or another in Singapore runs well into double figures each week. Who, 50 years ago, could have ever imagined that classical music would be so popular in Singapore that a concert hall seating almost 2000 and a world-class music conservatory would exist here?

100 years ago. What was the average audience for classical music in Britain?. Answer. Several thousand. What is it now? Answer. Several tens of thousands. Why? There are more concert halls, more orchestras, more broadcasts and more major events than the Edwardians could ever have dreamed of. Audiences cross the entire social spectrum and orchestras and musicians regard the performance of music at schools, hospitals, hospices and the like as part of everyday life. That didn’t happen in my youth, and was inconceivable 100 years ago. And why are so many of them so chronically short of money? Answer. Because the popularity of classical music has grown to such an extent that they are stretched to their very limits to feed the mass appetite for it.

And when we go back beyond that to the days of Beethoven, Haydn, Bach and Monteverdi, how many attended classical music concerts? Answer. A tiny aristocratic elite who probably didn’t enjoy it but regarded it as a symbol of their social stature. If Bach looked down from the organ loft at St Thomas’s Leipzig and saw a full church, he probably thought he was lucky to have such a massive audience. What would he say to the 3000 which heard Simon Preston play one of his Trio Sonatas at a London Prom a few years back, or the vast numbers who have a CD of his music at home? He would be aghast at just how popular classical music has become.

As, if we stop to think about it, so should we. We are living in an age when classical music is more popular than it has ever been and we should celebrate the fact, not constantly be sending out messages that it is an art form facing the death throes.




Alpine peaks and troughs

A very old friend castigates me every time I am in London for my self-imposed exile from the organ.  I haven’t played since April 2009 and I had intended to keep it up for a year.  But persuasion from the MPO orchestral manager found me back at the console last weekend to play with the orchestra in their performance of the Alpine Symphony.  I have to confess to being terrified; the last time I did the Alpine in KL (under Kees Bakels) someone went up and played the organ between the final rehearsal and the performance and changed the settings, with the result that the idiosyncratic and totally insane KL Klais (designed by an idiot and voiced, it would seem, by a committee who didn’t talk to each other) did all the wrong things at the wrong time.  Knowing the KL Klais to be in a pretty desperate state at the moment, I didn’t relish the prospect of a repeat performance, but the chance to play with the great orchestra and work for the first time under Claus Peter Flor in a work which has a really worthwhile organ part got the better of me.  Suffice it to say that, inspired by the makers of Toyota cars, the Klais crescendo pedal decided to stay open at a crucial moment on the Sunday performance and, ,faced with entering fff at a point marked p, or not playing anything, I chose the latter.  The principal trumpet will probably never forgive me for not playing his vital cue, but the shock of the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.  Result; unless and until someone does something to turn this hideous instrument into something which is both reliable and musically satisfactory I won’t be playing it again.

But I did enjoy the experienceof playing the Alpine Symphony, especially with a conductor who turned out to be exceptionally perceptive and communicative, and I don’t intend to maintain any longer my organ abstinence – only in KL.  As the principal flute said, after the brilliant Saturday performance, “It’s a great work, but you only know it is when you play it”.  He’s right, Richard Strauss’s silly programme and outrageously overblown orchestral textures (as one of the desperately over-worked clarinettists said, it has to be the loudest music ever written) seem to offer nothing really worthwhile;  the Storm section is pretty well unplayable as it’s written, and the sound effects of cowbells and wind/thunder machines verge on the grotesque.  But, somehow, it works in the concert hall.  Strauss was not one of the great orchestral conductors of the 20th century for nothing, and,  writing in an age where slavish adherence to the letter of the score was not as important as vivid portrayal of the spirit of the score, he knew that his demands would produce the kind of dazzling effects he fully intended.

By an odd coincidence, I’ve also been reviewing discs of the work which have recently been released.  My critic colleagues slather over the Naxos version – which is about the best, but is not without its serious flaws – but I’m convinced that it’s a work which, rather like Mahler 2 and 8, can never really work on disc; the sheer scale and visual spectacle of the work are too vital for a sound-only recording to be properly fulfilling.  Which makes me ponder again on the value of CDs.  Too many people know their music only through CDs.  There was the case of the idiot Malaysian “critic” who used to compare live MPO performances with his favourite discs of Karajan and the Berlin Phil, or Klemperer and the Philharmonia.  On disc, performances have to be note perfect, and are heavily edited to achieve it; after all, repeated listening in the confines of one’s room draws attention to flaws which, in the excitement and general atmosphere of a concert hall, pass off unnoticed in a one-off performance.  I love my CDs – all 7500 of them – and listen to them daily.  But in no way is a CD ever going to be a substitute for a live performance, especially one by the brilliant team of MPO and Claus Peter Flor (even if the organist has let the side down because his machine has gone wonky) and there are some works – the Alpine Symphony being one of them – which perhaps should NEVER be released on disc; the composer’s understanding of the sense of occasion in a live concert too fully written in to the score for it to work in any other context.

As a postscript, I spent Monday handing out awards to music students in Bangkok.  It was a great occasion, with 138 awards being handed out and the statutory battalions of cameras flashing every young person who came up on stage to receive their shield, their certificate but, as their hands were full, no handshake from me!  All these students had done well in their rRinity Guildhall exams and, while that in itself was a great thing, that they could be shown up in public as having done well was infinitely more rewarding for all concerned.  There’s no doubt about it; a public presentation is so much better than private success, just as a public concert is so much more rewarding than private listening.

One thing which did strike me, as it always does in Thailand, was just how superb the standards of music teaching are, how consistently good the students perform and just how warm and sympathetic the audience is.  The presentation ceremony began with live performances of not one, but two complete piano concertos – Haydn D major played by the 12 year old Chawin Chalisarapong, and the Mendelssohn 2 played by the 15 year old Nicha Stapanukul – accompanied, not by an orchestra, but by some exceptionally discreet and thoroughly reliable piano partners, Usa Napawan and Indhuon Srikaranonda respectively.  They were both outstanding performances – look out for these young players, I suspect they will go far – but most impressive was the fact that the large audience, filling the auditorium of the American University Alumni Association in Bangkok, listened in total silence to both performances; children never fidgeted, parents never took out their phones or cameras, fellow-students never showed any hint of restlessness, and all greeted each brilliant performance with enthusiastic applause, only after the third movements.  If only every audience was as intelligent and well-mannered as the Thais.

March 2010