Saturday, July 31, 2004

Deconstructing Faure

I've set to work on the piano part of the Faure A major violin sonata. (Yes, Faure does have an acute accent, but my browser can't deal with it.) This was one of the pieces that got me into Faure when I was still a student. I got obsessed with several of Faure's chamber works, one at a time; this one took over from the C minor piano quartet. I was given a recording of it by Thibaut and Cortot and listened to it every day for about two months. Eventually I had to get it out of my system, so - unbeknownst to my piano teacher, who didn't really approve of chamber music - I practised it until blue in the face, then press-ganged an unsuspecting violinist into playing it with me. Sixteen years later, I'm at it again. Tom and I are planning to play it in our next recital, which will be in Borough Bridge, North Yorkshire, later in the autumn.

The A major sonata goes like the wind, or ought to. It surges along on waves of ecstasy and elan. It's Faure in love. Honest to goodness, he was in the full flood of a passionate attachment to Marianne Viardot, daughter of the great opera singer Pauline Viardot, and hoped to marry her. The sonata is dedicated to her violinist brother, Paul. The year the sonata was finished, 1877, Faure finally got Marianne to accept his proposal, but she later broke it off. It seems that his ardour frightened her away.

All of that ardour goes into the A major sonata - a bittersweet irony, too, in that its passion seems to be a ferment of white-hot anticipation for a love which was never to be fulfilled. (Faure was heartbroken after Marianne dumped him, but then discovered that there were plenty of other women in Paris who were more than happy to say yes to many things where he was concerned. After his eventual marriage to Marie Fremiet, he became one of those notorious French charmers who across many generations have misinterpreted Marie-Antoinette as having said 'Let them have their cake and eat it'.)

The task facing me here in 2004 is how to get to grips with the flurry of notes that convey these surges of ecstasy. A glance at the metronome marks nearly gave me a heart attack; fortunately Roy Howat's edition for Peters suggests slightly more humane ones. Amazingly, after 16 years, this piece is still somewhere in my fingers - not like starting from scratch at an age when the brain cells are dying off scarily fast. But there's nothing terribly ecstatic about it at the moment. It's a question of practising those pages of rippling quavers for hours, varying the rhythm to develop control on each note, steadying the pulse with a metronome, trying to keep the left hand quiet and let the right hand sing though not enough to obscure the violin (who will take all the credit as per usual). And so on and so forth. If, somewhere in the heart, Faure's ardour can survive the hard slog, then it can survive anything.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

From Seville to Warsaw in 22 hours

Musically, an intense little patch is going on, so here's an assessment of my weekend.

Saturday I gatecrashed the first night of Carmen at Glyndebourne. It's a revival of David McVicar's production from a couple of years ago, created for von Otter, but now rethought considerably for its new cast. The Guardian's review comments on its naturalism and mentions Zola, and I share Tim Ashley's opinion on a number of its aspects. Rinat Shaham deserves special mention, however, as her Carmen develops as the opera goes along, more than many. When she flounces out of the cigarette factory, plunges her head into a trough of water and then flings back her wet hair in an abrupt fountain to drench her colleagues, she's gorgeous, she's a sexpot and she bears no small resemblance to Carrie in Sex and the City. There's little sense at this point of her power or pride; these appears gradually, as if hewn into her as her self-defence against Don Jose's increasing violence. By the final scene she has grown into a full-blown Carmen - poised and centred, with stubborn integrity and independence, strong enough to stay outside the bullring to face her likely death. As Jose, Paul Charles Clarke is magnificent, both vocally and in characterisation - he seems to be the one stunning everyone, which is why I wanted to give 'Rinni', as they call her at G/b, more of this write-up. Paolo Carignani does some nice things with the score - it's a no-nonsense reading and the up-tempo of the prelude to the final act is wonderfully Spanish - but I did prefer Philippe Jordan last time, as his conducting had an extra edge of thrill about it. Tom & co seem to like this new guy, though.

On Sunday afternoon Rustem Haroudinoff gave his recital for the Chopin Society, which holds its salon concerts at the Sikorski Museum in Kensington, opposite Hyde Park. It's the most extraordinary place. You walk up the stairs towards the concert room only to find yourself faced with suits of armour on the walls; Rustem and the piano were surrounded by Polish military paintings, ancient Polish flags and glass cases full of medals. Had he been playing any of the Chopin Polonaises ('guns buried in roses' - Schumann) this might have been appropriate - as it was, there was a slight sense of political irony about this Russian blowing everyone sky high with his Rachmaninov B flat minor Sonata. I had a strange experience, listening to this piece. I closed my eyes and was somewhere else. I was listening intently to every note, but somehow when I looked out again at the end I didn't quite know where I was. I think this is called 'being transported' and it is rare and special.

A word too for the Chopin Society itself - a delightful bunch of pianistic eccentrics, who announced the incipient event with a speech full of apologies for one thing or another (come on, guys, this is 2004!) and provided the most fabulous spread of sanis, cakes and wine afterwards. They have an excellent programme of monthly recitals - you can hear Benjamin Grosvenor on 5 September (the BBC Young Musician of the Year piano finalist, who may be 12 by then), Artur Pizarro in October and many more. A deeply civilised way to spend a Sunday afternoon.



Sunday, July 25, 2004

Stop talking and get on with the music

Curious about the Prom the other night - a new John Casken work and Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Ravel G major piano concerto - I thought I'd take the easy option and watch it on BBC4, rather than braving the acoustics at the Albert Hall. Proms on TV have many advantages, one being that with the simultaneous radio broadcast you can hear everything clear as a bell (not always the case in the RAH) and another being that you can see everything too, such as the pianist's hands. But there is one major disadvantage, as I discovered: the way the Beeb likes to have its Proms presented.

I'm not in favour of 'a return to' anything, unlike some of my blogging e-colleagues who seem to think clocks can be turned backwards (they can't; end of story). But I fail to see the advantage of presenting music on TV by having windbags in loud shirts yakking at one another, demonstrating their own superior levels of knowledge and offering opinions and more opinions, all addressed to their fellow windbags rather than the TV audience and, in this case, doing little more than what my analysis teacher at uni used to call 'woffle'. If I was a first-time viewer to music on TV - just supposing I had bought an expensive digital box, found the Prom and thought 'OK, let's give it a try' - I wouldn't even have got as far as the music before switching off. Loud shirts, trendy haircuts and positive spin about painful noises do nobody any favours.

If I was a first-time viewer to this Prom, I'd have wanted to know this kind of thing:

Who is John Casken, what's he done before, what does he looks like, what's so special about him and why should I listen to his music? What should I listen out for if I'm to be helped to enjoy it?

Who was Ravel, when did he live, who did he know, what was his music all about, what did he look like, what kind of guy was he and is this concerto going to be better than the Bolero?

Instead of which, trendy presenter and friends wittered on and on about nothing very much, dropping in tidbits of information that you had to be rather alert to catch...

Particularly noteworthy, or so I'm told, was the interactive audience exchange about the Casken work on the digital text option afterwards. I'd switched off long before, deeply depressed, but my brother told me that, contrary to positive-spinning comments by the on-screen windbags about how the music's pulse pulled you along with it, viewers weren't mincing their words about fingernails on blackboards.

The whole thing should, in any case, have been banned on grounds of cruelty to wind players, who were so exhausted after the Casken marathon that they couldn't cope with the Ravel, let alone The Firebird...

Still, a huge thank-you to the BBC for televising this, which meant that I could watch and listen in the safety of my own home with access to an 'off' button.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Paradise found, in Switzerland

Just back from short, crazy trip to the Verbier Festival, a.k.a. HEAVEN.

I tried to get cynical about Verbier last year. Circus tricks: spot the megastars wandering about ski resort off-season, listen to concerts in a tent where you can't hear anything when it rains - and don't you DARE go through the doorway designated to the sponsors. True. Very true. The megastars do wander about. You can't help but spot them from your cafe or hotel breakfast room or when you're sauntering up and down the main hill. You stumble upon Mischa Maisky reading the daily schedule on the Place Centrale noticeboard, or Pieter Wispelwey in dark glasses heading down to a rehearsal; this morning I ended up having breakfast with the marvellous young pianist Jonathan Biss, a recent interviewee of mine who happened to be staying in the same hotel. It's also true that you can't hear the concerts terribly well when it rains - last night it poured most of the way through the Schumann Piano Quintet played by Andsnes, Znajder, Cerovcek, Imai & Wispelwey. But heck, it was wonderful anyway!!!

So it all feels too good to be true and there must be a catch somewhere. Trouble is, it IS all too good to be true, but so far I haven't quite found the catch. A few possibles regarding aspects of the youth orchestra and of course that tent, but these don't amount to much in the grand scheme of things from the audience's point of view. If your two prime requirements for heaven are the most beautiful mountains and the greatest music, Verbier is for you.

Most stunning of all: Vadim Repin, soloist for Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 on Monday night. That concerto isn't my favourite piece on earth, but I was completely mesmerised by him. I vowed on the spot not to miss any more of his London concerts, because hearing playing of such combined intelligence, power, finesse, magnetism and vitality is rare indeed. He doesn't do the Vengerov showmanship thing, he doesn't do the Josh Bell Learns To Ski knee bends, he doesn't force the tone like some others I could mention; instead he puts everything straight where it ought to be: the music, the instrument, the intensity, the spirit.

I followed this, the next morning, with a trip up the mountain by cable car and a lovely walk at the top, gazing at snowy peaks, listening to silvery cowbells on the local herd and the soft rustle of waterfalls, spotting tiny pink orchids and brilliant blue gentians among the meadows of wild flowers. Mountain walks are shiatsu massage for the soul; over the last few years they have somehow become essential to me. This was my one and only this year, and I appreciated every second of it.

It was tempting simply to miss the plane home and vanish into the mountainside. I failed to work out how to do so in time, however, so here I am at my desk, blogging once again.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Help!

OK, I admit it. I need some advice.

Today I lost something that I really shouldn't have lost. It won't kill me and it won't stop me getting to Verbier on Monday. But it's daft. And it has enough bearing on the world beyond my four walls to make me look a trifle silly. I don't know if it is entirely my own fault or if Tom has been tidying up over-zealously, since I am not a great one for throwing anything away and something appears to have been thrown when it shouldn't have been. Nevertheless...

...I have a problem with piles of paper. They sit on my desk waiting to be organised. Then they transfer to the study rocking chair and thence to the floor. Occasionally I load them, unexplored, into large plastic boxes from Ikea. Meanwhile the CDs are breeding. I honestly think they engage in some form of plastic cell multiplication when my back is turned. As for the magazines, they arrive in a rush once a month; I look through them and try to keep track of the ones that contain my articles and dispose, eventually, of those that don't...eventually......

On TV recently there was a series called 'Life Laundry'. A cheery presenter visited families whose houses had been taken over by their excessive stuff, and helped them to get rid of it. I enjoyed this mainly because I could see that my mess problem isn't so bad that I need to call in the BBC. It was also interesting to discover that most of these families had some kind of past of which they just couldn't let go and which lay at the root of the trouble.

I'm good at living in the present and I do know that it isn't good enough just to clear the study twice a year, once at Christmas and once at - er - some other time as yet to be determined. Yet the task becomes so daunting that I keep putting it off. I'd rather do anything else than face it.

Does anybody have any tips on good psychological tricks to help oneself get organised? If so, please send them my way!

Friday, July 16, 2004

The great British amateur #1: The Piano Teacher

Can you imagine a scenario in which a skilled, specialised profession is so little regulated that anybody, absolutely anybody, can set up as a practitioner? A practitioner to whom young people return week after week, perhaps for years, to have their attitudes and expertise formed? Yet that practitioner has no qualification, accreditation or 'answerability' for what they do? If this person was a surgeon or a lawyer, that would be a national scandal. But for British piano teaching, this is normal.

One of the most fascinating things about my examiner training has been watching the different levels of ability, musicality and nerves that come through the door with the candidates. Most are nice kids who try very hard. Some of them have an unerring ear, others none whatsoever. Some seem thoroughly to enjoy playing their pieces; others sit petrified, tinkling out the notes with glassy gaze. Youngsters' attitudes to performing - and hence adults' attitudes to performing too! - are subject to influences from parents, peers and more; but the most telling instances are when a teacher enters a stream of pupils for exams and they turn up, one after the other, all exhibiting exactly the same problems.

On one of my days, five or six kids arrived in succession, each pallid with terror. Each was attempting a grade too high for his/her abilities. Not one of them could play scales, other than a basic easy major, to save their lives. They certainly couldn't sight-read (not that many can) and tried to stand about a mile away from me, with backs turned, for the aural tests. The common factor? The teacher - who must be unnerving the lot of them on a weekly basis, has no qualms about entering them for exams ill-prepared and is somehow instilling in them the idea that playing music is something to fear, not something to enjoy.

I find it terrifying to think of some of the people in charge of children's musical education. In my very first job, at Boosey & Hawkes in the educational music department, besides proof-reading scale books I had to write rejection letters to would-be composers of music for educational use, who had eagerly submitted unsolicited manuscripts hoping for instant publication. Many came from alleged music teachers who, to judge from their handwriting, presentation and general idiocity, were mentally way off the deep end and probably should have been on medication.

Regulatory bodies and recommending organisations do exist. If you're looking for a teacher, you can consult the Musicians Union or the Incorporated Society of Musicians, who will help find someone with a decent professional mandate. The music colleges and the Associated Board itself provide courses and qualifications for teachers. But there is no legal requirement for anyone wanting to teach the piano to hold such a qualification; and the too-numerous total charlatans in the profession cannot be stopped, because there is nothing from which they can be struck off.

Even some teachers who ARE accredited, who ARE members of professional organisations, occasionally purvey such crackpot ideas, such dangerous theories, such damaging and often destructive approaches, that to say the mind boggles is not putting it strongly enough. This is not solely an issue for the Great British Tradition of Amateurism: I've heard worse stories still about theoretically respected professors at such august institutions as Juilliard and the Paris Conservatoire.

But the GBTA does the charlatans too many favours. Traditions of good music teaching need decades, if not centuries, to build up, and they require formalisation and support at state level, with sensible advice from the wisest of music educators, if they are to take hold. Amateurism merely begets more amateurism. That greatest of British traditions is deeply rooted in our green and pleasant land and will take a long time to eradicate, assuming anyone ever sets about eradicating it. New Labour's music manifesto - the one that MP Boris Johnson just described, to Tom & co's delight, as 'more hot air than the wind section of the London Philharmonic' - isn't going to do much to help.

It's the taking part that matters, goes the old English maxim, not the winning. OK, we can't all win the Tchaikovsky Competition. But in music, if you are not taught the basics well enough and early enough, you will never even be able to take part. That's how music is. Get used to it.



Thursday, July 15, 2004

...yes, Yes, YES, !!!!!!YES!!!!!!!

See AC Douglas on Historically Informed Performance, or what isn't...

I was going to write something just like this, but ACD has got there first! SO glad I'm not the only one who feels this way, because enduring 4 years of the Cambridge music faculty in the mid-Eighties left me wondering if I was. But not any more. The turnround has arrived, and about time too. You want to hear some good Bach playing? Try Harold Samuel in 1931, playing Bach on the piano as if it's great music - not a sharpener upon which to grind the blade of yet another axe.

Another cause for celebration is the double bill at Glyndebourne of Rachmaninov's The Miserly Knight and Puccini's Gianni Schicci. Sergei Leiferkus stars in the former, Sally Matthews in the latter, Vladimir Jurowski is the red-hot conductor, production is absolutely spectacular and it's a clever pairing of works about the Evil Of Money - in front of the stonkingly well-heeled Glyndebourne-goers! Marvellous evening out. Get down there, PDQ.

I am wiped out by my last day of examiner training right now, so will sign off while I can still see straightish, if not spell.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Bach, pianos and a 'marauding Tartar'

ACD in Sounds and fury has an inspiring post at the moment about Wanda Landowska's playing of Bach. Nice to come across this while I'm in the process of checking out three different versions of the English Suite No.3 on behalf of a pianist friend who is performing it next week and is curious about who does what with it.

My three versions are Glenn Gould (1974), Rosalyn Tureck (1948) and Andras Schiff (1988). Each of them treats Bach with absolute respect. None of them allows their own personality to be subsumed in that respect. Instead, each individual, with all his or her quirks and idiosyncracies, joins forces with Bach to produce a unified vision of this intensely powerful and beautiful work. My personal top choice - after much chewing of cud - is narrowly the Tureck, which is available on a VAI disc called Rosalyn Tureck: The Young Visionary. She once famously said to Landowska: 'You play Bach your way. I'll play it HIS way.'

The following may be sacrilege to some, but I don't like the Gould recording. If madness and genius are as close as people say, I do feel Gould tips the balance in the wrong direction. Schiff sings and dances his way through the work in a truly uplifting spirit, achieving a little more weightiness with slightly slower tempi. I'd choose Tureck because she brings an extra awe-struck inwardness to the Sarabande, and the lightness of her articulation is staggeringly impressive, especially in the Gigue.

What I will be most curious about now is what my mate Rustem Hayroudinoff makes of it when he performs it at the Petworth Festival on 26 July. For any pianist, young or otherwise, approaching Bach is a daunting task. You have to ride on the crest of a wave that consists not only of all the arguments pro and contra playing Bach on the piano at all, but also the outstanding interpretations that have gone before you.

I should introduce Rustem to you. I first came across him ten years ago, when he was relatively new to London, fresh out of the Moscow Conservatory. He's proud to be a Tartar, from Kazan, and he happily marauds his way through life with a few assets: superlative playing, a quick brain and sharp eye and a sense of humour that spares nothing and nobody. He has so many hair-raising stories of life in Russia, people who take shameful advantage of naive youngsters from foreign parts and, not least, corruption in piano competitions, that I often tease him by saying he'd make his fortune fastest if he wrote his memoirs.

For reasons too complex to go into here, he has had some bad luck from time to time which means that he has not yet become the household name that maybe he ought to be. However, when he found a volume of Shostakovich Theatre Music arranged for piano and realised that most of it had never been recorded, it was his sheer creativity and persistence that resulted in this becoming his first solo disc for Chandos a few years ago. The disc bowled over not only me but several other critics as well with its wit and vitality and Chandos sensibly signed him up for more. Earlier this year his CD of the complete Rachmaninov Preludes came out to universal acclaim (have a look at the reviews on his website), and a delicious CD of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata with cellist Alexander Ivashkin was hot on its heels. At last many critics are realising that Rustem has more to say - and a more beautiful way of saying it - than many far more famous note-bashers of his generation.

You can hear him, if you're in London, on the afternoon of 25 July at the Chopin Society; and at the Petworth Festival in West Sussex the next day. The programme includes a substantial Chopin selection and, of course, the Bach English Suite No.3. All his discs are available from Amazon and I can't recommend them highly enough.




Thursday, July 08, 2004

wheee....

Wow! I've just learned how to insert html to make links in my text! After nearly 5 months!!! Can't quite do pics yet because Blogger recommends an online storage system that isn't compatible with Macs, but I've managed to load a link to an online picture from my Vilnius photo album into the entry about the trip and I hope this works.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

London grumblesport

I was planning to spend this afternoon happily writing a substantial article about Faure. Instead I spent it trying to get home.

This morning I trotted off to the Barbican to interview Rostropovich. I'd met him very briefly in Vilnius - he was staying in the same hotel as me and I accosted him as 'Maestro' (which is what everyone seems to call him) when I spotted him waiting for the lift one afternoon. What a charmer he is, apart from being everyone's hero and a direct link to Prokofiev, Shostakovich and most other great Russian musicians of the 20th century. Even now I find it impossible not to be a little awe-struck by the presence of an iconic individual and the necessity to get him to talk into my tape recorder. At the end, I confessed that the cello is my favourite instrument and that if I had my time over again, that's what I would play (I've never tried it, though used to play the violin rather badly). He promptly declared that, should I ever take it up, I should let him know and he would be my teacher.

******MELT!!!!******

Thence home to write...or so I thought.

The Waterloo & City line shuttles one stop, from Bank to Waterloo, in 5 minutes. Normally. Today my train promptly broke down, sat in the tunnel for about 40 minutes and proved 'dangerous to move'. So they drafted in a train behind, moved everyone onto it and took us back to Bank to find an Alternative Route. When I finally got to Waterloo, nothing was moving there either - there was a fallen tree on a line. Today was a little wet and windy. You'd think that the one thing Britain would be able to cope with is rain...but no... Eventually I found a train whose driver had, remarkably, turned up. Got as far as Richmond, where Tom kindly fetched me. Then we sat in traffic for half an hour. Total journey time Barbican-to-sunny-Sheen: 2hrs 30mins. That was my afternoon, and my priority now is swallowing a large glass of strong red wine, rather than writing about the subtle legacy of my favourite French genius.

Perhaps it's time to take up the cello, move to Moscow and study with Maestro instead. You don't get an offer like that every day. And I understand the Moscow metro system is excellent.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Elitism shmelitism

There's a hot topic under discussion on the music blogs today, with Alex Ross taking issue with AC Douglas (who I've just discovered and added to the Blog List) - re whether classical music is inherently 'elitist'. ACD says it is, and shouldn't pretend to be anything else. Rubbish, says Ross.

Question: how can an art form take a stance? It can't, because it can't talk, it can't think, it can't inherently do anything except be itself. In music's case, all it does is make sounds. It is the people who create it and surround it who take the stances. There is nothing inherently classist about any sound that can be heard by any human ear.

Nope, it's people who are patronising - people in the music business who consistently dumb down by talking down to what ought to be the audience. Witness the Bocelli recording that fished for pearls in Starbucks last week. The notion is being perpetrated in the music biz, and especially the recording industry, that there are vast strata of society that don't see themselves as posh enough to listen to classical music and it therefore has to be dolled up to be 'accessible', with bad voices, pop-like arrangements or 'family concerts' where you have to sing along with a Blue Peter presenter.

It's pretty indisputable that when people do get a chance to hear real classical music - usually on the TV - they often find they like it. Remember Nessun Dorma and the World Cup? What about the Handel in the Levis ad? What about Hovis and the New World Symphony? If you put the real thing in front of people, they respond. The assumption, though, tends to have been that you mustn't put in front of people something that they mightn't like. Funny, I don't happen to like violent films, rap, game shows, reality TV or even, really, football, but people put these on my TV all the time with equanimity. I'm audience too, but nobody has ever asked what I want to see and hear.

ACD makes a good point, which rather echoes mine in my last entry: you have to catch kids young if you're going to help them love music. Because if you don't, they will go to school, where plenty of elements will put them off music for life. First - in the UK - a culture of British amateurism and widespread bad teaching. Second, playground bullies who will punch any musical kid to pieces for being what used to be called 'cissy' (is it still? dunno) and tell them classical music isn't cool. NB, playground bully in question will never have heard a note of it, but after that, you've had it.

Third, said playground bullies of the 60s and 70s are now running the country - especially, from the look of it, Scotland, where the recent fiascos around Scottish Opera are turning music into pure class warfare, which is the daftest thing I ever heard (and has resulted in Classical Music Magazine printing the word "f***ing" uncensored for the first time, in a quote from composer James MacMillan saying exactly what he thinks of it all). If anything can cross divides and bring people together, it's music. Where exactly do the playground bullies and British amateurs think that today's iconic tunes come from? Do they know that someone had to write 'Jerusalem' - someone named Hubert Parry? Do they know that that march tune from Bridge on the River Kwai that everyone can whistle in their sleep was written by a composer named Malcolm Arnold?

True elitism in music, however, comes from establishments that for decades have been promoting music that even musicians can't stand. If we had a modern-day Brahms writing symphonies with which people could identify and by which they could be uplifted without wincing in physical pain at the noise, things could be very different. Instead, they stay away from new music because they know it's going to sound vile. Sometimes word gets out about a truly communicative composer who strikes a chord among listeners - John Adams is a case in point. But when the musical establishment has spent more than 50 years ramming 12-tone music and heavy-duty modernism down people's throats, while crushing underfoot anyone who tries to write listenable music, is it surprising that music has an elitist image?

Sibelius was so depressed by this attitude that he wrote nothing for decades. I reckon Sibelius is the greatest symphonist after Mahler, but even he was silenced by the establishment. Imagine what we have lost as a result. It's truly horrific, the number of gifted, communicative, heartfeeling composers who have sunk into depression, decline, film studios, the back rooms of the Beeb and probable alcoholism as a result of people in the establishment decreeing their work too accessible. Again, it goes back to the playground, where the bullied kids, who end up running music while the bullies go into politics, are now determined to get their own back. The battle continues.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Thoughts about both ends of the spectrum

I've had some extreme experiences in the past week. Back from Vilnius, I plunged straight into training for something which, if I'm accepted at the end, will be a useful new string to my bow: examining for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. Training at this stage consists of a number of days spent with a 'real' examiner, out on the road marking 'real' exams. The last couple of days, I've trecked off at crack of dawn to do this. It's a real challenge, hard work and very interesting too.

Perhaps the nicest exams are the 'preparatory tests' - sessions for teenies who have been playing for just a few months. On Thursday we had a string of nine little violin players, aged somewhere between six and eight, taking this informal test. They have to play three tunes from memory, then two pieces which the examiner has to accompany, and then do some 'listening games' (transformed, at Grade 1, into aural tests) involving clapping, singing and listening. That day, we had a grand piano. It struck me that many kids have never seen inside one before. Instead of concentrating on their clapping along while I played, several of the kids stood beside the piano with their eyes on stalks and their mouths open as they watched the hammers going up and down!

It's fabulous to watch and listen to world-class string players like Philippe and Nobuko, their bows going hell-for-leather like rapiers, their tones projecting unique personalities and eloquent expression right to the back of Vilnius's Filharmonja. But even they were once kids who, one day, picked up a small violin for the first time. Everyone has to start somewhere. I'm learning so much from this training: you can see at once which children have been well taught and which haven't (if I had kids and lived in north London, I'd now know exactly which piano teacher to send them to!). It's sometimes said that all children are musical - but it does appear to be true that some have a more natural flair, a sharper ear, a more inherent sense of rhythm, than others.

Yesterday my brother invited me to lunch with him, his very pregnant girlfriend and some friends of theirs who have two tiny children. Feeling a tad out of things on the talk about kiddies, I sat down at the piano and tinkled away at some Chopin. Result: a fascinated two-year-old, wanting to have a go at making a noise on the keyboard. Most small children do seem to be fascinated by music and musical instruments; the challenge must be how to make it part of their lives before some stupid bigger kid at school tells them that music isn't cool. Music IS cool. Music is the coolest thing on earth - as boys sometimes discover when they hit their teens and want to impress girls. (Listen, lads, nothing pulls the girls like playing a musical instrument well. Especially the violin... or, um, is that just me?!) But by the time they realise this, it's usually too late.

Here's a little exhortation to parents who want their kids to be musical. Don't leave it to school to do it for you, because it won't happen (at least, not in Britain!). Instead, play music at home every day. Play music morning and night, on the CD player or the radio or, preferably, play it yourself on a real live musical instrument. Make it an essential part of your own life while your children are still babies, and soon they won't be able to do without it either.