Thursday, July 09, 2015

"Self-taught" is not the panacea you think

The other day I went to Cambridge and had a fascinating chat with Stephen Layton, the inspirational director of Trinity College Choir. Layton is one of those rare people who not only lives for music, but whom you can't help seeing does so. You see it in the way his face illuminates as he talks about the composers he loves to perform - whether it's Byrd, Purcell or Eriks Esenvalds - and the disarming sincerity with which he recalls his own start in musical life: he came from a council estate background and found that music "gives me something to live for". He won a scholarship to Eton, came to King's Cambridge as organ scholar, and the rest is history.

We got talking about how many of the best-known British conductors come out of Cambridge. Some musicians of my acquaintance are cynical about this. They think it's the old boys' network that ensures the career advancement. Now, I can't be sure how much of a role that does play. But one thing is clear. Cambridge University is (or used to be - I hope it still is) a melting pot of multi-talented people. If you have the gumption to get an orchestra together and conduct it, you can do so. Nobody will help you, but the raw material will be there: students to recruit to your band, chapels to perform in, halls to hire if you raise the money, college bars in which to put up posters. If you step up, take the initiative and make it happen, you can ensure that you have more opportunities to stand in front of an actual orchestra and perform than many conservatory conducting students will ever get. You won't find any conducting lessons in the music faculty - you might as well be studying languages, medicine or anthropology - but you might have the chance to teach yourself by learning on the job the hard way.

And for some, indeed for most of us, that experience will teach you the things you never forget. You learn to teach yourself by being forced to work out, from within, how it's done.

Some of the best instrumental teachers will leave their students with this attitude and the analytical ability to keep working it out for themselves long after they have finished their formal studies. (That was how I tackled, in my thirties, pieces of piano music I wouldn't have been able to get near as a student. You work out what the problem is, what you need to be able to do, and how to practise in such a way that it becomes physically possible.)

So, to some degree, all musicians need to be "self-taught", because a musical career is an ongoing process in which if you don't keep moving forwards, you move backwards. If you work hard in a systematic way, you'll improve. If you don't, your abilities will ossify. And this is true at any and every age.

But let's face it: you will probably also have some advantage in terms of technique if you have actually had some formal tuition (and this goes for conductors too).

Therefore the fuss attending one young competitor of the Tchaikovsky Competition has reached a point where it risks being seriously misunderstood.

Articles have been appearing saying that Lucas Debargue, fourth prize winner, is "self-taught". Even though his biography makes it perfectly clear that he went to the Paris Conservatoire. It seems he was a late starter: taking up piano from 11 (as opposed to 3), and serious music studies from 20 (not 12). That's not quite the same thing.

It's dangerous to overplay the "self-taught" card because, sad to say, a large part of the British public thinks music happens by magic. That it's something for "fun". That it doesn't take hard work to be good at it. That if you want your kids to have music in their lives as something to enjoy, they don't have to practise every day (despite the fact that it'll be a lot more fun in the end if they can play decently). They seem to believe, too, that if you by-pass all the traditional channels but follow your dream in any case, you'll be bound to come out as some kind of genius. That traditional studies are somehow bad and the inspiration of the moment is good, indeed is everything.

Britain's got canine talent
Pardon my French, but this is bollocks. Britain's Got Talent probably has a lot to answer for, but please note: it was won by a dog.

It bothers me, too, that this attitude is something that might somehow give governments carte blanche to cut funding for music education.

There are people, for sure, who can indeed make some headway on raw talent. But music does not happen by magic. Music happens, for the vast majority of people wishing to make it, by hard graft, long hours of solitary slog, gritty determination and personal sacrifice. Yes, you can teach yourself and many important lessons will be learned that way. But "self-taught" does not mean miracles. "Self-taught" means you did that work, but maybe you did more of it on your own than others might - and maybe you'd have done even better if you'd had good tuition from the get-go. By all means, praise a wonderful young pianist with a slightly unconventional approach. But please don't mistake it for a miracle.