Getting Music Out of the Way

This week I have to spend a few days in southern Thailand.  Flight schedules are such that to get here from Singapore without spending days in the air and extra nights in hotels, requires a flight to Bangkok and then another half way back again.  But when I learnt that the Israel Philharmonic were in Bangkok performing The Rite of Spring under Zubin Mehta, the dog-leg journey seemed fortuitous; I hadn’t heard the Israel Phil for the best part of 20 years and I was keen to hear if they were as brilliant as they once were.  More than that, a century ago (or so it seems) I was in a conducting masterclass with Zubin Mehta and of all the invaluable things I learnt from him, the most priceless was that the musical world would benefit enormously were I to avoid wielding my baton at it; if only some others I could mention had taken such advice to heart!  As it was, though, circumstances prevented my attending the concert, so I still have no idea what’s the current state of the Israel Phil or whether Maestro Mehta can still work his magic.

My reason for travelling to the remoter regions of Thailand was not to savour the sublime sounds of Stravinsky, but to examine young children in their graded music examinations.  So when, in the departure lounge at Changi Airport, I picked up the Straits Times and saw at the masthead a mini-headline “Grade 8 at 10”, I immediately set about rifling through the supplements, pages and columns (the Singapore paper was once the heaviest daily in circulation anywhere in the world, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it still is).  When I found it, the article was spread over half a page with copious photos of grinning young Singaporeans with a piano or violin in the background to show that it was musical.

Even before reading the text my examiner bile was up, and although the article itself was intelligently written, well balanced, offered no opinion and simply reported the facts as part of a whole series of pieces about young achievers, I spent much of the hour-and-a-bit in the air en route to Bangkok writing a response.  Of course, I left the paper behind and could not find anyway of sending it to the editor; the Straits Times website only gives details of how to post on to their forum, and as I’d read the piece in a print edition, I didn’t feel comfortable putting it up on the paper’s forum pages.  And I got no response after sending it to the writer’s email; the Straits Times gives their staff writers’ emails, but, like the “phone this number if my driving’s bad” notice on all Malaysian taxis, buses and trucks, I imagine it’s false.  So here’s what I wrote, and although you might want to read the original article (it’s probably on the internet somewhere), I think my comments are self-explanatory.

“ I read your special report “Grade 8 exams by 10 – Little Mozarts in the making” (24 October 2010) with dull resignation.

“For the regiments of music examiners who descend here four or five times a year, Singapore is notorious for its pushy parents and irresponsible teachers who consider the learning of music as some kind of competitive sport.  Rather than regarding it as opening up an avenue of pleasure, developing the senses physically, intellectually and emotionally, it is too often seen as an arid race-track where the only goal is grade 8 at the earliest opportunity. 

“The study of music is every bit as much an emotional as a physical and a mental activity, and while a talented child can be trained to excel in the last two, the first requires maturity and worldly experience which comes with age, not teaching.  It’s all very well to cite Mozart as an example of an early musical developer, but Singaporean parents would be ill-advised to hold up his miserable professional and adult life as a role model for their children.  More than that, he was living over 200 years ago and both society and its demands have changed dramatically since then.  There can never be a Mozart in our time, simply because he was a product of his age, and parents are sadly deluded if they think passing grade 8 by the age of 10 will lead to a life of whatever it is they imagine Mozart did.

“The parents and teachers of the children mentioned in your report have clearly acted responsibly in not pressurising their young charges to take exams against their will.  But have they satisfied themselves that their children’s desire to do grade 8 so early is the result of proper reasoning?  Are they doing it for the kudos it will bring them in the eyes of their peers rather than for the goals it sets for their purely technical talents?  And what do they intend to do afterwards?  The exceedingly small number of Singaporeans on the world musical stage set beside the exceedingly high number of grade 8 distinctions points to an awful lot of wasted time and money in the pursuit of a pointless qualification.  Passing grade 8 at any age (and 16 is considered the earliest) is no indication at all of musical skill; it is merely indication of an ability to pass the technical and artistic hurdles artificially created by the exam boards.

“More seriously, however, a rapid progression through the graded music examination system can do more harm than good, as students miss out on the essential experience and broadening of repertoire which is an absolute pre-requisite of even the most humble musical career.  One father was quoted as saying; “It will be all right if they lose interest one day”.  No it won’t.  It will have stunted a youthful imagination, irreparably damaged a child’s emotional development, and closed the door to an avenue of pleasure which is a symbol of the highest human civilization.”

In the normal course of events, I wouldn’t waste time reprinting on my blog irate letters to newspaper editors, but I was prompted to question people’s commitment to music by a sight I saw while having a drink in the open air bar of the hotel in which I’m staying.  Suddenly, as it does in these parts, a balmy evening was interrupted by a violent thunderstorm complete with lashing rain.  As the tables and chairs were rapidly moved under shelter in what is obviously a well-rehearsed routine, I saw the members of the professional “live” band leaving their island stand and rushing for cover, the scantily-clad singer covering her hair (but not her boobs, I was amused to see) with – wait for it – her copies of the songs she had been singing.  Clearly hair lacquer is more valuable than music – the sheets were clearly ruined by the rain, because I later saw them being thrown away – but obviously had the same consequences for this singer – it kept everything (except the boobs) very, very flat.

Now, a real musician’s instinct would surely be to protect the music – I’ve had to run from car to church with music stuffed down my shirt, just to keep it dry, before now.  Yet this singer and her band boys probably make a very nice living out of their nightly performances, yet here they were carelessly ruining what should have been their life-blood.  I didn’t wait to see what happened once the rain stopped and they went back on stage – presumably there was lots more music to use – but I wondered how a performing musician could regard the vital tools of her trade with such contempt.  Why is it that so many people seem to think that music is something which can be discarded so lightly.  In the old days bands would play as the ships went down (if the Titanic stories are to be believed); now, it seems, musicians would be the first to abandon their posts.  Why bother with music when something more interesting comes along?


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