So thrilled to be a guest blogger on Greg Sandow’s Arts Journal blog on the future of classical music. I feel a change in the air as far as the presentation of classical music is concerned. And it’s a good thing too!
Sally Whitwell (me!!)
I’m proud to be a guest blogger for Greg Sandow’s blog on the future of classical music. Exciting times! Click on the source for more…
Max Hole, the new head of Universal’s classical music label, has this to say about how classical musicians need to reinvent. As usual, the journalist and the online commenters focus on how alienating the traditions are, that you have to dress up properly and know not to clap between movements etc. Whatevs.
If I could say one thing to my orchestral colleagues on this matter, it would be this - I want to see them communicate their joy in playing classical music. Classical performance should be a real event! As an audient, I should be feeling a kind of tangible, visceral excitement at seeing 100 musicians on the stage united toward a common goal. I certainly feel it as soon as the music starts, but before then…
I’ve been to major symphony orchestra concerts where I felt like I wasn’t meant to be there. I felt that my presence went unacknowledged and they couldn’t have cared less that the people out there had paid good money to come and hear them and feel the energy and excitement of live performance. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this - musicians shuffling onto stage in dribs and drabs over a period of about 20 mins, not necessarily to warm up their instruments but to have a chat with their colleagues, as you might in a rehearsal situation. Some of the ladies even bring their handbags on stage and put them under their seats. Wtf. I’m sure there’s a locker backstage somewhere. Anyway they’re just lounging around, all laid back and casual and it hasn’t any sense of occasion.
If I want a room full of casual, laid back people in formal dress with some classical music attached somewhere, I will pay to go to some pretentious charity ball - at least then I’ll know that my money is going to some noble cause and not to the salaries of a bunch of musicians who, judging by the way they come on stage, look like they don’t give a rat’s arse about classical music.
But here’s the rub; I know for a fact that these colleagues of mine care a great deal about their music and they play it extraordinarily well. But until they can communicate that effectively not only in their playing, but in their performance attitude, on social media, in the way they speak to regular non-musician people about it, nothing will change. Regular folk will continue to think (wrongly!) that classical music is stuffy and elitist and doesn’t speak to them.
I’m doing my best to change the state of play through the way that I perform, but I am only one person. How else is the industry to reignite the fire?
Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop in Hardcore 2
These guys do a nice thing recontextualising their performances of abstract instrumental music. They’re here for the Sydney Festival, and I’m disappointed that I’ll miss them (*sad face*)
I love a little instrumental theatre like this, though I prefer a more absurdist Mauricio Kagel style. This is just a little too serious too much of the time… but still totes brilliant!
Adding my voice to the proverbial chorus on this one - the Landfill Harmonic. It’s so inspiring to see such resourcefulness in the face of great hardship, and to see such joy in making music (classical music, at that!).
Tim Paris, Winner of Three Minute Thesis
“The Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) is a research communication competition developed by The University of Queensland. The exercise develops academic, presentation, and research communication skills and supports the development of research students’ capacity to effectively explain their research in three minutes in a language appropriate to an intelligent but non-specialist audience.”
This whole idea rather appeals to me. I think it would be a wonderful thing to start a similar thing amongst students in Music Schools and Conservatoria. So many classical musicians are particularly bad at talking about their music to the uninitiated and given where we’re at with classical audiences in decline globally, this was be a good kickstart into the future.
Limelight Magazine felt the need to publish this slightly preachy article on Classical Music concert etiquette. Is this really necessary?
Personally, I try to keep all my solo concerts as friendly as possible (ensemble stuff over which I have no control, well, that’s another matter entirely!). At my last solo concert I asked “Hands up if you’ve never been to a classical music concert before?” and I would say that roughly 20% of the crowd answered yes. I told them straight away up front that they could clap at any time they felt they wanted to show some appreciation. The interesting thing was that they didn’t clap between the movements of Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis. Maybe they were still a little scared of behaving appropriately? Or maybe they were actually just really in the music? I prefer to think the latter, but I’m sure for some of them the former is more accurate! *lol* At any rate, I did feel an energy, a hushed anticipation in the room between movements and it really helped me as a performer to focus on what was coming next. I was upfront about my expectations and it somehow managed to pay some dividends in the end. Go figure.
Another recent experience of audience behaviour. I recently performed in a concert with Sydney Children’s Choir, a world premiere work that was the culmination of a bunch of outreach workshops with some kids from Sydney’s western suburbs, kids who don’t normally have any opportunity to make music. To me, the audience seemed very noisy and distracting - there were phones and iPads and people chatting and eating popcorn and… it was as if we’d all gone to the movies to see the latest school holiday blockbuster. It was annoying me that people weren’t really paying proper attention. However, when I stepped outside and saw some of the parents of the kids from those workshops, they were so excited and gushing about how it’s the best thing their kid had ever done and they were so grateful and when were we coming back to do another. Wow. I kept thinking to myself “If you’d really listened, you would have gotten so much more from that performance”. But maybe I’m just being snobby? Argh, the more I think about it, the more shades of grey I seem to find!
At any rate, I have vaguely niggling doubts about this article. I do feel that some people will find this prescription for behaviour a little distancing, perhaps even alienating. Good on them for trying, I guess…. :s
I’ve been ranting and raving a little bit on classical musician biographies lately, and how boring they tend to be. I admit that I rarely feel compelled to read about my colleagues, because what they put out there on the internet is as dry and unappetising as burnt toast.
I’ve been doing a workshop in Branding with the inspirational Greg Sandow. ”Capitalist bullshit!” I hear you say. But it isn’t. It’s just putting an accurate picture of who you are out there to the world. Money making really hasn’t much to do with it. But that’s another conversation for another day.
My homework this week was to collect images and words that describe how I would like to be seen by the world. It prompted me to write these words, a kind of biography of my life as a pianist. I have other biographies, as a composer, an arranger, a writer, an educator, a conductor (these are also other conversations for other days) but here’s the Sally as Pianist story.
I had a friend once, an alternative country rock musician who faded in and out of my life like a chord on a slide guitar. She was more than a little eccentric. One thing she said, probably just a casual comment to her but somehow monumentally important to me, was this; “You don’t choose your instrument, “ she said, “Your instrument chooses you.”
The piano chose me. It’s been a long and fruitful relationship, a relationship of major significance and intimate proportions.
Sure, I had flirtations, liaisons, affairs with other instruments. The pipe organ took me to great lofty heights, both figuratively and literally. The bassoon escorted me to the symphony orchestra party. The accordion attempted to liberate me by trying to be a different kind of piano, a chest piano, a portable version of my first love. None of these instruments stuck. But the piano. The piano! She has remained steadfast and true through all of this upheaval. She insists also that my dalliances have brought new excitement to our relationship. I would have to agree.
Like a lot of couples, we tend to finish each others sentences. We read the musical scores together and know where to give it a little space or a little urgency, where to make it boldly technicolour or delicately translucent. “Chiaroscuro”, she whispers, “Light and shade.” We shape the music together into what we like to think is an higher truth, an abstract one for which words of description are inadequate.
Life experience, theoretical knowledge and gut instinct combine into a single focussed expression. There’s only one way for us to say these things, it would seem. This is why I play the piano.
Looks like my three-minute-improvisation-for-encore idea for this concert has proved overwhelmingly popular, so I’m going to do it.
I’m really excited about the prospect. I’ve improvised in many situations before, but never in a solo recital. Quite nervous, but I feel in my heart that it will be liberating. Just a gut feeling, ya know.
Do I have the best bunch of followers on the whole of Tumblr? I’m sure I do.
Percussionist Mike Tetreault. Photo by Sean Hagwell.
Read the story here. It moved me to tears.
I’m currently still in recovery from my operation so am spending more hours than I usually would in front of the television set. Pretty much the only television I find worth watching comes from the UK, therefore I am subjected to a great deal of London 2012 Olympic advertising.
Olympic athletes and their publicists are fond of hyperbole. I keep hearing them say things like; “Every second of my life has been leading up to this moment”, “There’s no way to explain the pressure you feel”, “I always put in 110%” blah blah blah. People in the world are quite prepared to accept this kind of language from sportspeople. It is acceptable to use the word “elite” to describe them.
Not so for classical musicians. The word “elite” is brandished as a weapon against us. Actually, it’s more often the word “elitist” that’s used, implying a kind of snobbery, ‘ivory-tower’ distance and that old chestnut people keep throwing at us “inaccessibility”.
We musicians are human. We work just as hard as Olympians, if not even harder and certainly for more years! Not only do we feel the joys and sorrows, the ecstasy and agony, the shining successes and incredible hardships, we express them through our instruments. Herein lies the difference.
Music really is my life.
Architectural Fragment by Petrus Spronk. Melbourne, Australia, 1992.
He should do one of these for an opera theatre or a classical concert hall *laughs nervously*
It’s rolled around again, The Sydney International Piano Competition. This competition is a wonderful thing - so many unique interpretations of great works from the repertoire from a plethora of pianists, practically perfect in every way (Thank you Mary Poppins for that turn of phrase).
From the SIPCA website;
“Thirty-six of the world’s finest young pianists will compete to win the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia in July 2012.
Prizes for winners include a celebratory tour of Australia, cash prizes and valuable engagement offers for the major prize winners.”
Bored yet? I’ve just been reading the initially-extremely-impressive but quickly-ennui-inducing biographical notes on some of the players. (I say ‘some’ of the players because I was too bored to read all of them).
Why are classical musician’s bios so excrutiatingly boring? Here’s an example of what I mean, although to protect the identity of the performer and in an effort to keep you at least a little interested/entertained, I’ve changed some names and so on;
Mephisto McFingers is currently studying at the Ivory Tower College of the Arts under the tutelage of Professor Ade-ours Praktisaday.
Mephisto graduated with the Master of Music degree from Royal Painz Conservatory (2003), Beatitintoya Academy of Music (2006) and Wanka University of Ze Artsy Fartsy (2010).
During his studies he embarked on a busy international career, performed worldwide and won prizes at international music competitions.
In the 2011-2012 season Mephisto’s concert engagements include appearances in major concert halls such as Inaccessibelhalle and Izanyonelisteninkski in Minksni.
I am sure that classical musicians are more interesting people than their concert program bios would have us believe *sigh* and every time I read a bio like this I feel incredibly frustrated. And just a bit disappointed.
I really shouldn’t grumble about this one - at least it’s in sentence form. The last time I read an opera program, they didn’t even bother to write sentences. They were just lists of roles the singers had played, teachers with whom they’d studied and companies with whom they’d performed. ARGH!!
How should a classical musician’s bio read?
What does a average 21st century classical musician’s life look like these days?
Two factors have prompted me to ask this question of myself recently.
1. The continuing dialogue within the music community on the relevance of classical music and how to keep it alive. How is classical music relevant to contemporary culture and society? Should it be? What about young people? How do we get them engaged to ensure the future of classical music? The interwebs are awash with classical musos talking about how to grow audiences, educate audiences, teach them to appreciate our ‘heritage’ art form and so on and so forth.
2. Music education institutions are changing their programs to cater to the “music industry” (for want of a better term) rather than “art for art’s sake”. In more and more music schools today guitar-strumming singer songwriters can walk away with a Bachelor of Music degree alongside their Sibelius-loving virtuoso violinist peers. The skill set required to complete a Bachelor degree in music has become incredibly broad, which the institutions argue is the most important thing in preparing music students for a career in the incredibly diverse “music industry” (there’s that word again. Sorry.). Many are saying it’s a “dumbing down” of music education, that this different focus is happening at the expense of thorough teaching of “core” skills i.e. secure instrumental/vocal technique, harmony and counterpoint, structural analysis of music, knowledge of historical/social context etc.
I’m certainly not going to change the classical music world in one blog post, and neither do I intend to try. What I will do, however, is tell my own story about how I grew into the musician I am today, here in the brave new world of 21st century music making. I’ve been moderately successful thus far without needing all the Machievellian techniques they think they should teach at universities about how to stay employed in the music industry. Let me tell you straight off the bat, the most important thing I had was a quality education in core skills. And the most important thing I do now is communicate directly to the people my passion for all the different kinds of music I play, conduct, teach and compose (classical and contemporary, old and new) and it’s worked pretty well for me thus far.
The musical life story should help set the scene, contextualise my opinions. I was very lucky to have a musically privileged upbringing - that is to say we weren’t rich but my brother and I had great richness and variety in the kinds of music we heard around the house. My parents house was, and still is, never silent. My father’s mother also lived with us in the house when I was growing up and the combined tastes of all the adults were shared (inflicted?) in a constant stream from dawn to dusk and beyond. Grandma loved Chopin and Beethoven, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Mum loves Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Simon & Garfunkel and Frances Yip (Hong Kong’s answer to Barbra Streisand… and so much better!). Dad loves Monteverdi and Bach, and also The Beatles! By the time my brother was old enough to start buying his own music there was lots of Pearl Jam, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Pink Floyd added to this already eclectic mix. We were early adopters on audio technology, we had the first CD player in the neighbourhood (it was quite a few years before any video machine appeared on the scene).
My brother and I also had the benefit of quality music education. He had classical guitar lessons for a number of years (so there was also plenty of John Williams and Andres Segovia on the stereo too), and I had my piano lessons. Grandma played the piano too, and we would often have sing-alongs or play-alongs at her huge old steel framed upright in the lounge. It was a very happy time, musically speaking. Later on in my teens, having decided that a ballet dancing career was not for me, I started having bassoon lessons. I played in youth orchestra, school orchestra, school band, accompanied and sang in various school choirs, had some pipe organ lessons… my involvement in music was all consuming. I’d finally found my people. I knew that music was the life I was going to lead, in some form or other, even if i wasn’t sure exactly how or where that would happen!
Then came university. I started a Bachelor degree at the ANU School of Music (then, the Canberra School of Music) majoring in Bassoon Performance. It was a traditional conservatory style music education, an appropriately rigorous degree program with exactly the right balance between instrumental performance studies, aural training, harmony and counterpoint, analytical skills and music history. I did some piano and accompaniment study during this time too, and then went on to study Accompaniment at the Sydney Conservatorium. Despite having some truly wonderful accompaniment lessons in Sydney, I found the creative environment created by the university frankly less-than-inspirational when compared to ANU - fortunately my peers provided me with the creative spark I longed for. I looked for work rather than spending a second year there. And henceforth fell into the beginnings of a very varied and rewarding creative life.
These days, I think I can pretty safely say I have one of those music careers for which the universities are trying to “create pathways”, to use typical bean-counting-university-administrator speak. I perform and record as a solo pianist, with two solo albumsunder my belt (one of them ARIA Award Winning!) and have a fairly extensive discography playing as an ensemble musician. I play a good deal of contemporary chamber music. I’ve worked extensively in improvised music as a dance accompanist. I’ve done the odd musical, doubling as an accordionist. I’ve written bawdy queer late night cabaret shows. I accompany and conduct choirs (young and old, amateur and professional). I teach kids about music reading and sight singing. I compose and arrange music, not only for myself but for community/youth choirs and increasingly for younger or less experienced instrumentalists.
How did I end up here? I’m not really sure. What I do know is that it wasn’t because of anything any university professor might have told me about the “industry”. No sir. What am I most grateful for? Core skills - harmony, counterpoint, aural studies, sight singing, analysis, history. I’ve a pretty solid and adaptable skill set that can be applied to multiple aspects of music making in multiple genres from contemporary to classical, even world music. Alongside this, I’ve had the stimulation and encouragement from not only other artists but from audience members and fans, and from those close to me personally, to do all the things that I do. What do we call this? The School of Life?? I don’t know, but without the core skills to back it all up, I’d have nothing.
As far as the relevance of classical music goes? Well, all I think I can do about that is influence the people immediately around me. A couple of anecdotes;
1. I taught a special music program for a little while at a very special school. This school was for primary school (elementary school) kids who had been effectively thrown out of their normal schools because of extreme behavioural issues. They’d all without exception been affected by hard drugs whilst still in utero, they mostly had pretty bad lives at home, they’d come to school without meals provided for them, occasionally not dressed properly (no shoes), most of them were extremely angry for most of the time, constantly lashing out both verbally and physically. I tried all kinds of types of music with them; kids songs, pop songs, call and response songs, African drumming and more. What was their favourite song? Non Nobis Domine by Roger Quilter, a Victorian era unison song for treble voices. None of them had anywhere near the skills to perform it, but they just loved joining in. I ended up having to use it as a reward - “If you play this percussion game with me, we’ll do Non Nobis at the end of the lesson”. The power of a rousing Victorian hymn tune eh? Classical music speaks.
2. When I perform in recital, I talk to the audience, I tell them what I’m going to perform, any history of the piece that might be interesting/amusing/moving and then I tell them how I feel about the music personally. People seem to like it. I find that my audience then engages me in all manner of interesting conversations, in the foyer after the show and via email and social media for quite some time afterwards. I’ve made all these new friends, it’s fantastic!! To those who never attend classical concerts, this may not seem a big deal, but in classical music world it is sadly the exception rather than the norm. In a lot of classical music concerts the performers can seem, metaphorically speaking, quite distant. For example, in most orchestral concerts, the musicians stroll onto stage in dribs and drabs, warm up their instruments, chat to each other as if the audience is only there to witness some music making accidentally. There’s no sense of excitement or occasion, I don’t feel the musicians are really performing to me or anyone in the audience. They seem very distant, completely separate from me. It doesn’t matter how well they might play, if they don’t perform or communicate their passion, I can totally understand why people might think there’s no point paying to see it live on stage. I could easily be listening to it at home, or on my iPod. When the orchestra finally stands at the end of the concert, it’s often a rather awkward rabbit-in-the-headlights look that the musicians are sporting, and it makes me feel uncomfortable, like they’d really rather I wasn’t there. Such a shame, because I know for a fact that musicians have lots to say and should be loved for what they give to us.
So… for me, relevance is not the issue. The important thing is communication. If it speaks to me, I try to communicate all the things that make it really special and wonderful to me personally. Generally, I find that this makes people curious enough to give it a try and that’s half the battle. If they try classical music and then decide that it’s really not for them, there’s nothing I can do. But I’m pretty proud of the success I’ve had thus far *grin*
Just gonna keep on making music.
Greg Sandow writes on what audiences might want to know about the music performed at classical concerts.
His is my new favourite blog.