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


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.


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.