QUalifications? Who needs them?

Items about music in the Malaysian press always stir ambivalent feelings in my soul. My initial delight that music is considered important enough to warrant attention is soon tempered by my dismay at the singular inability all Malaysians seem to have when it comes to using English coherently in relation to music. There was a good example in today’s New Straits Times. In a well-balanced piece with the frightful headline “Have you got the X-factor?” one read; “Music listeners do not review your resume when they listen to your song. They don’t care that you received a Grade 8 in ABRSM.”

The sentiments are beyond reproach, but “Music Listeners”? What on earth are they? I accept that Malaysians are forced into being a nation of Music Hearers – you can’t go anywhere without the incessant background (and not so background) wail of the latest hits, often with lyrics which would set the most moderate of clerics beating a path to a Fatwa were they ever to stop and listen to them – but “Music Listeners” is a new one on me. At least we were spared the obligatory “rendition”, a word which has strong resonance with painters and decorators and members of the CIA, but means nothing at all to serious musicians. And, for once, “song” was used correctly (it’s a vocal piece; Malaysian writers regard it as a general term to describe music). I rather feel the writer meant “audiences”; which implies an altogether greater level of involvement in what one hears than does the passive “listener”.

But such reflection on semantics diverts attention away from the message, and once I’d negotiated the verbal obstacles, I was set thinking about the thrust of the essay. It’s an undeniable fact that students and teachers are so focused on amassing qualifications that they forget all about the basic skills of being a musician. Grade 8 (or any other grade for that matter) from the ABRSM, Trinity or anyone else (not least those cowboy operators who prey on gullible Asian teachers and parents with totally baseless – but cheaper – qualifications) is a pretty pointless qualification. It has no value beyond its function of demonstrating to students, teachers and parents that certain skills are being taught and learnt correctly. It certainly shows that solid and worthwhile work is being done, but it doesn’t confer on anyone the right to describe themselves as a musician. So, if putting “Grade 8 ABRSM” on your resume doesn’t impress an audience, what does?

Formal diplomas do have the benefit of being recognised by those within the profession (although I bet hardly anyone outside the music profession has the foggiest idea what the letters FTCL stand for, yet this is the ultimate musical diploma), but they impress only those who like to see a sterile collection of letters after a name. This brings to mind a colleague from my days in North Wales who collected diplomas simply to be able to put more letters after his name than anyone else. I suggested to him that, as a Scot, he ought to sit for the Associateship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He had never heard of it and became convinced that it was so exclusive it must be something special. He asked professors and learned academics about it, and it was only when one of them pointed out quite what those letters would be that he realised he had been the subject of a Rochester Spoof; he learnt the hard way that not all letters after a name look good in the eyes of the public. (I often wish that I could relate this story to all those hundreds of Hong Kong youths who waste so many precious years in the blind pursuit of a pointless diploma just to have letters after their names; they can easily end up looking like Associates of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.)

So, if qualifications don’t impress audiences, what does? Sit in any concert audience and you’ll see that most people avidly read the biographies of the soloist in the programme book (not so many, I regret to say, seem so intrigued by the learned notes about the music over which the great writers of our time have sweated blood). And what do these biographies – written, it has to be said, by the artists’ agents or even the artists themselves – tell us? They certainly don’t mention qualifications, and most don’t even mention their training (unless they were taught by a Famous Name). What the biographies do is list those other artists and venues with whom or at which the artist has performed. These can run on for page after page; I am often tempted to suggest it would be best to list any Famous Names/Places with whom and where the artist hasn’t played. Indeed, when these biographies became so long that they threatened to use up all the available space in the MPO programme books, we decided to take drastic action and edit them ourselves (much to the horror and anger of the artists and their agents). I even took to double-checking the facts – something agents never do – and found several which, shall we say, stated ambition over actual experience; one young violinist claimed to have performed alongside a conductor who had died before she was born. (I gather she had, as a child, played the violin while listening to records of the Great Maestro, so she wasn’t actually being untrue.) But when I started to cut these lists back, concert-goers with whom I spoke expressed regret, and I realised that it was these seemingly dreary lists which were what interested them most. What audiences like to read when encountering a new soloist is what experience they’ve had. For an audience, a musician who has played under the baton of Herbert von Karajan or at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, has valuable experience and is worth listening to, whereas an FTCL, LRAM, ARCM, LRSM, DipABRSM, LLCM, FLCM, ADCM, FRCO(CHM) points to overindulgence in the Alphabet Soup. If it comes to a straight fight between Klemperer/Albert Hall and BMus (hons), the dead German and the Victorian edifice win hands down every time.

Of course, there’s another factor we can’t ignore in this part of the world. Malaysian audiences – at least those at DFP – are immune from this, but in Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent Singapore, Ethnicity is what matters. If you’re Chinese (by looks rather than birth) you’re a sure-fire winner. Put Lang Lang or Sarah Chang up there and, grotesque performances aside (and both churn out more than their fair share of those to Asian audiences), the audience is driven into a frenzy of ecstasy; on their feet before a note has been played, cheering and climbing over each other for autographs. I’ve not noticed the same thing with European audiences and European musicians or, indeed, African/American Audiences and African/American musicians, but perhaps I’ve never been in the right place at the right time.

All that really matters is the performance itself. Audiences’ ears tell them what they like and what they don’t, and no amount of letters, grades or degrees will sway their opinion one way or another. Qualifications in music have their uses – don’t get me wrong – but they have no value in that ultimately essential arena where musicians have to promote their abilities to an audience. If you think a Music Listener is interested in your qualifications, you need a good kick up your Associateship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.


1 Response to “QUalifications? Who needs them?”

  1. November 11, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Agreed. it’s equally terrible that we never get to hear good classical music on public TV stations. But i have to admit, our local audiences don’t usually appreciate classical music being played. In fact most people I know only look at grade levels when talking about piano and other instruments.

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