At the behest of my sister-in-law whose friend was connected with the place, I attended an end-of-year concert given by students at a private music school. Seated amongst the throng of Mums, Dads and siblings, I realised I was the only person there without any vested interest in the performers so could enjoy the concert from a totally dispassionate stand, unclouded by familial loyalties to a son or daughter having their moment in the limelight. And a very enjoyable event it was, the standard of performances being really very impressive and the obvious enjoyment the children had from being on stage more than compensating for the technical and memory shortcomings. It was nice, too, that all those Mums and Dads stayed on to appreciate the whole event. Usually at these sort of things there is a continually moving procession of audience members who, having heard their relation do his or her bit, make for the door in haste, demonstratively disinterested in how other people’s children fare. (This was Sarawak, after all, where people tend to appreciate the performing arts rather more than their peers on the mainland.) But as I watched all these students having a lot of fun on stage, a certain unease crept over me. What was the purpose of it all?
I’m often accused (usually by my wife) for not having fun, a charge I hotly deny; my idea of fun may not be the same as others, but I have it all the same (I love nothing more than to jump on to a bus at random just to see where it takes me, and I am dying for a free day at home just to spend it discovering exactly where the No.48 goes). So I am always reticent about complaining when others are clearly having their own kind of fun. But with this concert it struck me that, while all the performers were having a lot of fun pretending to be other people (we had a male Vanessa-Mae complete with skin-tight white trousers and so much walking about the stage one wanted to direct him to the nearest toilet, as well as a born-again Kenny G, a Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford impersonating pair and even an ersatz Simon Cowell), they were not really benefitting from it musically. Now, I’m the first to say that music should be fun and that too many people take it too seriously. But is it the function of a concert organized as a showcase to parents by a music school just to be an excuse for the children to have fun? Surely there needs to be a little bit of substance to it to make all the preparation worthwhile?
Those parents will have (hopefully) been greatly impressed – as was I – by the very high standard of instrumental techniques shown by the students, but did any of them question the value of those techniques? Do you spend good money getting your children to be taught to play a musical instrument for no other reason than the sterile ability to make a sound and, possibly, offer up an imitation of a second rate performer (the first rate performers being way out of the league of student impersonators)? Don’t you hope that the school will teach those techniques as part of a holistic approach to enrich and expand your child’s aesthetic and emotional outlook? I would expect a music school to consider it part of its duty to present their students with intellectual challenges as well as physical ones, and surely we would expect to see this aspect of their work showcased at a public concert. There was nothing at this concert which stretched anything more than nerves, fingers, lungs and fabric; the Vanessa-Mae wannabe not the only person on stage wearing a couple of sizes smaller than was comfortable. Musically its content was wholly superficial. Students played covers of pop songs, pieces Vanessa-Mae put on her albums – all mixed up bits from “real” works but so arranged for maximum virtuosity and minimum intellectual effort – and what I call instrumental karaoke; playing against a backing track (which immediately negates the essential musical skill of maintaining a pulse within one’s own head). There were a few famous pieces of classical music, but arranged with an incessant rock beat backing, and one where the piece was so curtailed that it lacked any coherent structure.
And that’s the problem. These sorts of pieces have mass appeal precisely because they don’t require any effort to listen to and put no strain on either the performer’s or the listener’s intellect or artistic sensitivities. But if music is to be anything other than glib and facile entertainment it has to have some intellectual substance; instrumental facility needs to be enriched with aesthetic and emotional content, which is why music is one of the hallmarks of a fully civilized people (and why countries such as Malaysia have been so enthusiastic in showing that they can attract the highest level of musicians – it gives them civilization kudos).
On top of the superficial music in the concert programme there were the inevitable non-musical enhancements. There is, for some reason, a great embarrassment amongst music schools (in Asia, certainly) when it comes to presenting performances “au naturel”. Everything has to be clothed in a wash of amplified sound, with microphones trailing out of every orifice on stage and presenting such a major distraction that often the amplification disasters are more memorable than the performances. Pianos, saxophones, singers, violinists, all seem to need their sound stolen from the audience, re-processed by electronics and then churned out in a suppressed, colourless wash of noise which negates any attempt by the player to show sensitivity or dynamic awareness. And then there is the pre-recorded support which everybody is given. Pianists can’t play without some kind of background beat, the concept of a violin or clarinet accompanied by a piano is out of the question – there must be a professional backing track (as if the parents at the concert don’t have the intelligence to realise that the backing has been bought in and is not indicative of the standard of music-making taught at the school) – and even a simple thing like a piano duet has to have a drum-beat to make it sound like piped music in a hotel lobby rather than real music in a concert hall.
If a music school feels its purpose is to encourage its students to ape the second rate in the name of easy popularity, that’s fine; just don’t expect your child to benefit in any way from your investment in their musical training. If, on the other hand, you feel that learning music has emotional, intellectual and physical value alongside the self-confidence and extrovert skills it inculcates, then you need to look very carefully at what music schools have on offer. Just because the children have fun doesn’t mean they are learning anything of value.
(And one last point. Everything was introduced by a most personable young compère as a “song”. Now, I know that many of the languages in south east Asia have no word which differentiates the vocal from the instrumental, but that’s their problem. In English there is a very specific difference between a “song” (which is sung by a human voice) and a “piece” (which is played by an instrument). Anyone who thinks differently might do well to boil their head in oil and cut out their tongue; if they don’t do it voluntarily I will the very next time some damnable child tells me he is going to play a “song called Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata”.)