I just failed my DipABRSM. Well, I would have if I’d sat for one, because my idea of what constitutes an appropriate program note is, according the the ABRSM, seriously flawed.
For the uninitiated, the ABRSM is the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, a peak body that represents the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, Royal Northern College of Music and the Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Hallowed halls full of proper classical musicians, not like me at all.
From their website you may download this concise yet detailed (and rather dry) guide called Writing Programme Notes: A guide for diploma candidates by Nigel Scaife. That’s Doctor Nigel Scaife, to you! From the brief bio on the ABRSM website, we can learn that he’s a very scholarly gentleman who started a musical life in one of those sheltered cathedral chorister bubbles in Exeter and continued on to complete many a degree from an impressive list of institutions ranging from Dartington College of the Arts to the University of California to Oxford. There’s those musician bio “lists" again (don’t get me started on that!).
But I digress.
Clever clogs Dr. Scaife offers much excellent advice on how performers may properly research the music they are playing. He recommends the reading of both primary and secondary sources and a great deal of listening. Much of the advice he offers is very good, simple and concise, correct and useful. Working in this way, I could write a very scholarly and impressive dissertation upon a topic.
But it would be as boring as batshit.
"Informative and well-written programme notes will significantly enhance the listening experience of your audience", says Dr. Scaife. Enhance is the key word here. I wish he would practise what he preaches!! The entire article seems to be a lesson in how to preach to the converted, assuming a level of classical music knowledge on the part of the audience. Although classical musicians hate to admit this, that musically literate/educated audience is in sharp decline and we need to start reaching out to new audiences through the way that we communicate about our music.
The musically educated may find very informative this example cited in the article;
"The dirge-like theme of the Adagio is directly related to the ostinato motif of the first movement and is characterised by avoidance of accents on the main metric beat. This imbues the music with the quality of Czech speech-rhythms, a subject Janácek studied with great interest."
However, your average Joe who’s interested in enjoying some classical music but hasn’t had the benefit of an education in it, is going to look at all those technical terms and feel instantly out of their depth, unwelcome, alienated. Why not say something a little more like this, for instance:
"In this passage, Janacek really starts to get his long leather folk-dancing boots dirty. Czech folk music makes me want to dance in the aisles too."
Unfortunately, Dr Scaife and ivory tower classical music types just like him consider “picturesque descriptions of musical events… generally inappropriate to an understanding of the music”. To back this up, he quotes from W. J. Turner’s Facing the Music: Reflections of a Music Critic (Bell, 1933).
"The writers who describe symphonies as if they were sunsets or battles, or election conflicts between the good and evil parties in the Universe, are useless to everybody, and positively harmful to those who are seriously trying to understand the art of music."
"Positively harmful"?!? Strong words indeed, and words written in 1933. 1933!!! You’d think times would have changed since then, but the kind of picturesque descriptions I favour plus my constant use of the first person singular would get me a great big red FAIL stamp on my hypothetical ABRSM exam report. On the other hand, my concert audiences and the people who buy my albums speak a different story.
In the leadup to my last concert, I decided on a couple of little experiments. One of them was to ask my interweb tribe if I should play a solo improvisation for an encore, which met with an enthusiastic “Yes!” from respondents, and equally enthusiastic applause from those who witnessed the never-to-be-repeated event in person. The other experiment was I decided upon was not to write any traditional program notes at all. A couple of weeks before the gig, I created a Pinterest Board in lieu of notes.
I pinned all manner of things upon my online pinboard; pictures of the composers (Philip Glass and Yann Tiersen), video of Yann Tiersen performing on solo violin, a mashup of Philip Glass vs. Blondie, a scene from the Stephen Daldry film whose Philip Glass soundtrack I was performing, reviews and a making-of video about my first album. Things to listen to, things to watch, things to admire, and things to read at your own leisure which served to “enhance the listening experience of your audience”. Hear your own words there, Dr. Scaife? I hope you do.
I did feel concerned that this would require too much effort on the part of the audience, but the feedback was overwhelmingly good. It not only provided the kind of information to which Dr Scaife refers in his research advice, but also the opportunity for the audience to experience some of that material more immediately and at their own leisure. Additionally, those unable to attend the concert could at least enjoy those materials and gain some insight into the music and realise that they’d want to attend my next concert. Aha! It works as advertising too *grin*
So, let’s stop lecturing our audiences and use the technology we have at our disposal to bring the music alive for as many people as possible. Maybe in another hundred years the ABRSM will catch up.