Most of us have had to live in lockdown or under various restrictions on our daily lives due to the coronavirus pandemic for over a year now. It has been a particularly difficult time for musicians, in an already precarious profession, and the knock-on effect of restrictions leading to the shut down for months on end of concert venues and opera houses, rehearsal spaces and other workplaces, has really highlighted the fragility of the musician’s life and how woefully unprepared the industry was to adapt to the challenges created by a global pandemic and governmental responses to it.

The lockdown has offered plenty of time – perhaps too much time – to reflect, and for many of us it has led to a reappraisal of how we work and what our priorities might be. I spoke to a number of musician friends and colleagues in the process of researching this article: it was heartening to learn that many have been able to find positives amidst the difficulties, but equally nearly everyone has faced challenges, often financial, over the past year.

As freelancers and self-employed people, musicians have felt undervalued and excluded by the UK government, which seems not to care about the arts nor really understands how the profession works. And to add insult to injury in a profession already feeling the bruising effects of lockdown restrictions, a further body blow was inflicted when a number of government ministers suggested that those who work in the arts were not “viable” and that they should seek employment elsewhere or retrain. This, understandably, was met with derision; what my conversations with musicians have revealed is that far from “unviable”, most have demonstrated that they are resilient, adaptable and resourceful, utilising skills developed through their training, a strong work ethic and a willingness to support one another. Some have had to take work outside the industry in order to survive financially; it cannot be easy trying to retain a sense of oneself as musician when one is working as a delivery driver or in a supermarket.

One of the hardest aspects of lockdown has been the lack of face-to-face contact with colleagues. Music is a collaborative, ensemble activity and in addition to rehearsing and playing, discussions and conversations with others are an important and stimulating part of the process of creating music. Something is lost when such conversations take place via a computer screen. Alongside this, regular interactions with musician colleagues allow ideas to flow and offer an important support network. Amateur musicians feel this strongly too, with the suspension of orchestras, choirs, piano clubs, meet-ups and music courses.

both my musical activities (choral singing, very socially-oriented) and piano playing (not so much) lose much of their meaning if I can’t physically do them with others

M-N

To try to counter this, ‘Zoom choirs’ and ensembles have been formed to allow people to sing and play together, albeit virtually. It’s an imperfect way to make music, when the activity is about working and playing collectively, in the same space, but it has at least offered an important sense of connection, and of course the opportunity to actually make music; some of these Zoom performances are really quite impressive. Their success relies on people who are fully conversant with the technology to create performances which are both glitch-free, and, as this example below by composer Thomas Hewitt Jones proves, communicate powerfully – which is what any musician seeks to do in a live performance.

Many musicians have had to get to grips with new technology to facilitate remote teaching and rehearsing. Venues too have had to learn how to present livestream performances; again, some of these have been really impressive with high-quality audio-visual effects which help to create atmosphere as well as convey the music to the audience in the best possible way.

although it is suspiciously easy to deliver orchestral recordings without any live players from my studio in the short term, it completely misses the point of what music-making really is, and there is no substitute for the real thing

Thomas Hewitt Jones, composer

For those for whom performing is their life-blood, their identity and a source of income, the loss of public performances has been particularly difficult. While many musicians have been quick to adapt to livestream and video concerts, almost everyone I spoke to profoundly misses the experience of live performance with an audience. Livestream offers a different way of giving concerts, and it has led to an increase in people engaging with classical music, but what all the musicians I spoke to agreed on is that no technology can ever replace the experience of live music – as a performer and listener. And an ongoing issue with livestream is how to monetise performances. Again, progress is being made here as musicians and venues explore ways to offer ticketed livestream performances, and for many, musicians and venues alike, livestream will continue to be an important part of the concert experience after the venues have reopened to live audiences.

When face-to-face working/rehearsing/performing was (and will be) permitted again musicians have, like the rest of us, had to adapt to measures such as social distancing – which means players are much further apart in an orchestral or ensemble setting, presenting its own challenges for players and conductor (and no page-turners for pianists) – wearing masks, taking regular Covid tests (and dealing with the consequences of a positive test result and loss of work/income), playing to much smaller, socially-distanced audiences, travel restrictions and myriad other issues which can add to the stress of an already stressful profession. In these scenarios, musicians have proved their willingness to be adaptable and, in their desire to be making music once again, have accepted the changes or restrictions to their working practices.

In terms of managing the day-to-day “sameness” of lockdown, many musicians cited the importance of having a daily routine. The loss of concert bookings has meant not only the loss of income but also the motivation to practice regularly, but equally this has offered more time to explore new repertoire or refresh previously-learnt music. And with all this extra time on their hands, many musicians have allowed themselves a much-needed break from the rigours of daily practicing, rehearsing, travelling and performing. This has also led some to reappraise their career in a profession with often unsociable hours and unattractive working conditions.

having personal projects and focusing on what is important for ME is still possible and that’s where where my growth as a musician is

Eleonor Bindman, pianist

Those musicians who also teach have perhaps fared better, as teaching at least offers regular income, but many have had to adapt very quickly to online teaching and learning new technology in order to continue to work. This has added to their skill set and allows them to be more flexible in their approach to teaching: when face-to-face teaching is not possible, they can at least continue to offer online teaching. Many have also reported that students seem more motivated and relaxed when playing at home on their own instruments.

online courses bring together musicians from all over the world, which is particularly important during the pandemic and post-Brexit

Penelope Roskell, pianist & professor of piano at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance

The overriding comment in response to my question What have musicians learnt from lockdown? is that there is no substitute for live music, before a live audience, and that we should never take for granted the importance of music and music-making (and the arts in general) is in our cultural, social and economic life.

STNS300172_FrontcoverPersonal Demons – Lowell Liebermann, piano (Steinway & Sons label)

Released to coincide with his 60th birthday, American pianist and composer Lowell Liebermann’s new double album Personal Demons features three of his own compositions which have special significance for him alongside music by other composers which has haunted, inspired and shaped his musical career and compositional output. It’s an interesting mix of moods, from the demonic Presto opening movement of Liebermann’s suite Gargoyles (his most performed work) to the fragile lyricism of Kabeláč’s Preludes (a composer whose music I had not encountered before), the dark majesty of Liszt’s Totentanz and Busoni’s herculean Fantasia Contrappuntistica, Liebermann’s unsettled and haunting Apparitions complemented by the expressive peculiarities and unexpected harmonies of Schubert’s Hüttenbrenner, and finally Liebermann’s Nocturne No. 10, Op. 99, written in memory of the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, which provides a moving and intimate, if not entirely settled, close to the album.

Liebermann’s playing is vivid, expressive and, when required, fleet and ferocious. This is exactly the kind of selection I’d happily hear in concert, and the opportunity to experience not only a composer playing his own music, but also the music which is particularly special to him offers some fascinating insights into Liebermann’s musical influences. This is also music which demands concentrated listening, but it’s well worth the effort.

simon-callaghan-hiroaki-takenouchi-saint-sac3abns-chopin-liszt-sonatas-arrangements-for-2-pianos-2020Saint-Saens: Chopin and Liszt Sonatas arranged for two pianos – Simon Callaghan & Hiroaki Takenouchi (Nimbus)

This new release from Nimbus explores Saint-Saens as arranger in his own versions of piano sonatas by Chopin and Liszt.

I was expecting thicker, fuller textures, given that two pianos instead of one are employed here, but there is surprising lightness and delicacy in the passages where both pianos are playing, and wherever either piano is playing alone, it is playing the original text. Saint-Saens exercises surprising restraint in not adding too much of his own musical personality to these sonatas; instead, in Chopin’s “Marche Funebre” sonata, we are invited to fully appreciate the exquisite clarity and variety of Chopin’s writing. In the middle, lyrical section of the second movement, we have the sense of a proper duet between two separate instruments as Saint-Saens’ arrangement highlights Chopin’s elegant organisation of voices. In the funeral march, the bass line is a dark, dead bell, tolling solemnly beneath the famous melody before the second subject opens out into more majestic territory. The contrasting middle section is tender and lyrical, sensitively phrased with sinuous rubato.

Liszt considered making a two-piano transcription of his B-minor sonata and he would have doubtless approved of Saint-Saens’ arrangement which remains so faithful to the original but with the opportunity for expressive emphasis in the passages where both instruments are playing. As in the Chopin sonata, Saint-Saens’ deftly highlights duetting passages, allowing the listener to appreciate inner lines and details which may not always be obvious in the original version.

I have to confess that I never really taken to Liszt’s B-minor sonata, but Callaghan and Takenouchi make a persuasive case for this music in their performance and there are moments of high drama contrasting with great beauty and lyricism. The Andante Sostenuto middle movement is particularly arresting.

The internet is full of articles promising to help you learn to play the piano

  • Learn to play in just 4 weeks!
  • Play piano in 10 easy steps
  • 5 ways to become a great pianist

And so on….

The British pianist James Rhodes entered this busy, lucrative market a few years ago with his book ‘How to Play The Piano’, in which he promises to get the complete novice playing a Bach Prelude in just six weeks. It’s an admirable attempt which may provide inspiration and support to some aspiring pianists, but I am sure Mr Rhodes would agree that to master the piano, whether a professional or amateur player, takes many hours of commitment and graft. As one of my teachers, the wonderful Graham Fitch, observed, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!”.

Those of us who choose to embark seriously on this crazy, fulfilling, life-enhancing, frustrating and fascinating path do so with the understanding that the acquisition of skill, improvement and development are hard won (and for the professional, there is the added burden of the cut-throat competitiveness of the profession).

It doesn’t matter at what level you play – you can be a serious beginner or an advanced player; what matters is the commitment, made in the knowledge that this is ongoing process. For many of us (and I find this attitude is common amongst amateur pianists), it is the journey not the destination that makes learning and playing the piano so satisfying and absorbing.

If you don’t enjoy practicing – the process – forget it. You’ll never achieve mastery of your Grade 2 pieces or Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Practicing is the bedrock of the musician’s “work”. For the professional, this usually has an end point – or rather a string of end points – concerts; but alongside that, there is the need to learn new repertoire, keep existing repertoire alive and fresh, to revive previously-learnt pieces, and to continually reflect on and review one’s skills, technical, musical and artistic.

But there’s more. Because practicing isn’t just about sitting at the piano, turning the dots and squiggles on the score into sounds. Practicing – productive, thoughtful, deep practicing – involves the head and the heart as well as the body. Each phrase, each chord, each scalic run or passage of arpeggios must be considered and reviewed. Listen as you play (and you’d be amazed how many musicians don’t actually listen to themselves!). Reflect, review, play again. And again, and again….and make each of those repetitions meaningful.

Come to each practice session with an open mind and a willingness to fully engage with the music all the time. I’ve read accounts of great pianists practicing technique while reading a book propped on the music desk. This kind of mechanical practice is not helpful – and can even be harmful. Even when practicing the dullest exercises, or scales and arpeggios, find the music within, and bring expression and artistry to every note you play.

Approach your music with a clear internal vision of how you want it to sound. For less experienced players, this can be confusing, the fear of entering unknown territory. How do I know how it should sound? you might ask. But this marks your first forays into interpretation, into taking ownership of the music and making it yours. Our interpretative decisions about our music are shaped by our own experience – playing or listening to repertoire by the same composer, or from the same period, reading around the music, going to concerts, conversations with teachers and other musicians, and harnessing the power of our imagination to bring the music to life.

Don’t feel constrained by the notion that there is a “right way”, but rather forge you own way, and be committed to it. We take ownership of the music by recognising and committing to the value of what we have to say.

Mastery comes not from 10,000 hours of piano practice, but from 10,000 hours of deliberate, intelligent, thoughtful, self-questioning practice. During this process, basic skills are acquired, which allow us to take on new challenges and make connections which were previously elusive. Gradually, we gain confidence in our ability to problem-solve or overcome weaknesses, make more profound interpretative or artistic decisions about our music making, and at a certain point we move from student/apprentice to practitioner.

Now we have the confidence to try out our own ideas while gaining valuable feedback in the process, and our growing knowledge and skill allows us to become increasingly creative, and bring our own individuality and personal style or flair to the task.

When we practice we should do so actively and creatively with joy, playfulness and spontaneity, appreciating every note, every sound, the feel of the keys beneath the fingers, the way the body responds to the music, the nuances of dynamics (both indicated and psychological, as the music demands), articulation, expression, and so forth.

In short, our music making should be an ongoing, responsive process of discovery and refinement, rather than one of predictability, averageness or “good enough”.Such dedicated craft takes inordinate amounts of work – concentrating on very short sections of the score, seeking feedback from intense self-monitoring, at all times remaining curious and open-minded – but this approach provides us with accountable pianistic tools (interpretative, technical, artistic, and psychological) and validation methods that put us on the path to mastery. From a practical perspective, such pianistic tools are a virtuous circle of intense self-evaluation, analysis, reflection and adjustment, and the ability to always see errors as pointers to improvement. It’s a kind of “apprenticeship of incremental gains” informed by continual reflection, adjustment and refinement.

Learn the piano in 6 weeks? Bah! It’s a lifetime’s work.


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My husband laughs at my love of The Joy of Painting with American painter Bob Ross, which is broadcast on BBC Four in the early evenings. The programmes were originally created and aired in the 1980s and early 90s, and they do look a little dated now (along with Bob’s permed hair!). Additionally, Bob’s paintings – rather cheesy landscapes and snowy scenes – are not the sort of art I’d hang on my walls, but that hardly matters in the context of this article.

PBS Remix-Happy Painter

Bob is clearly a highly skilled artist. He exudes a quiet self-assurance which comes from confidence in his own techniques, and he uses his materials with a remarkable yet modest dexterity. He knows exactly which brush or palette knife to use to create a specific effect – the silvery bark of a birch tree or reflections on water. Watching a painting emerge from Bob’s palette before your eyes is mesmerising and strangely calming, but that is not the primary reason why I am hooked on these programmes: I am fascinated by Bob’s technique.

Musicians, like artists, need well-developed, secure technique in order to navigate the score and create music. Technique should always serve the art, whether it is painting or performing music; one demonstrates how finely-honed one’s technique is when it is no longer visible – when one plays, or paints, in such a way that it appears fluent and effortless. Bob Ross has mastered his technique to such an extent that we almost forget there is any technique involved at all.

Technical skills like this require consistent nurturing, which is why regular practicing is so important. Mindless note-bashing achieves little; focused, deliberate, deep practice, on the other hand, fosters technical assuredness and artistic mastery.

Through a process of constant reflection and refining during practice, physical and creative obstacles are overcome and one has in place the firm foundations and confidence from which to develop greater artistry. Assured technique also gives us the tools to explore more complex repertoire, a greater sense of intuition when we practice and perform, and the ability to play with greater spontaneity and nuance. The control of nuance will determine the version the performer performs. Much of this nuance will be pre-planned, practiced, memorised and finessed to such a degree that it sounds totally spontaneous in performance, but the rest comes ‘in the moment’ of performance – a genuinely spontaneous, quasi-improvisatory response to interaction between performer and music, performer and audience, the responsiveness of the audience, the performer’s mood and sensibilities, the ambiance of the concert hall, the time of day….It is this kind of musical “sprezzatura” that creates those magical, “you had to be there” moments in live concerts. It cannot be planned in advance – and yet it comes from the performer’s meticulous preparation, their deep knowledge of the music, their technical facility and mastery of their art, and their experience.

No one wants to watch an artist labouring with their work – this is one of the reasons why The Joy of Painting is such a pleasure to watch because Bob makes it look so easy (and he never lets his ego get in the way of the creation of art). Watch a performer like Martha Argerich in performance (a pianist I’ve been lucky enough to hear live in concert on several occasions) and you will see this same effortlessness.

Guest post by Dr. Elizabeth Brooker

Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) is a widespread problem. It affects musicians of any age, instrument, level of expertise, professional and amateur musicians alike. It can be a crippling experience for anyone who suffers, turning a performance into a nightmare. Promising and talented musicians have given up the idea of professional careers because of MPA. In fact research has shown that over 60% of performing musicians are afflicted with this.

This phenomenon not only affects musicians but also individuals in other fields of performance. It’s a feeling of being ‘in the spotlight’ or ‘on show’ in what is deemed to be a threatening situation. Of course up to a point anxiety can be a good thing, it can focus the mind and enhance the performance; however when cognitive anxiety becomes uncontrollable (catastrophising, imagining the worst possible scenario) it can have devastating effects.

It is said that a small amount of anxiety focuses the mind, but a large amount paralyses it. The mind affects the body, and a whole raft of unwanted physiological and somatic symptoms can occur when performance anxiety sets in, such as palpitations, heart racing, sweating, shaking/trembling, loss of focus and a feeling of being out of control. I know from first-hand experience what performance anxiety is like as in the past I could feel physically sick before a piano performance; and over the years of teaching both piano and singing have noticed how some of my students have also suffered from anxiety in performance.

A large amount of research over the last 40 years has focused on MPA, yet the problem still exists. Therefore you may wonder why MPA is still so prevalent! I believe that the reason for this is that the majority of investigative research has looked at the effectiveness of interventions that focus on the conscious mind. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the main therapy in vogue at the present time. I would argue that the nature of this therapy, which focuses only on the conscious mind, does not get to the root cause of the problem only dealing with the presenting or surface issues.

I qualified as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist (CH) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) practitioner several years before my PhD research and adopted these therapies in my private practice. I noticed how beneficial these were for the rapid and long-lasting treatment of anxiety. Both therapies have the potential to reduce anxiety quickly and effectively and this is sustainable over time. The protocols and procedures are designed to desensitise and reprocess dysfunctional cognitions, emotions, and memories linked to past and present negative experiences: the underlying unconscious processes that an individual may not actually be aware of that can be maintaining the problem.

CH changes the memory and meaning of distressing events by reducing the perception of threat, and also the somatic symptoms of anxiety associated with the event (threat). Hypnosis dates back over 200 years as an area of scientific research and clinical practice and is used to bring about positive change in a wide variety of psychological conditions. EMDR used initially in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder has expanded widely over the last ten years now treating a wide range of pathological conditions, including anxiety disorders and associative problems. It has also been used for enhancement of performance in the arts.

Having noted these positive effects in private practice I wanted to test the therapies from a scientific standpoint. My thesis therefore focused on cognitive anxiety (specifically relating to pianists) and the role of the unconscious mind in maintaining and exacerbating the problem of MPA. It is the first clinical outcome study to compare two psychotherapies, CH and EMDR, for the reduction of MPA. Investigating the efficacy of these therapies therefore became the primary focus of my research.

The procedure and method of my research into MPA is given in brief below.

Pilot Study

The therapies were tested initially in a pilot study of six Grade 8 pianists from the University of Leeds and Leeds College of Music. All were suffering from MPA to a lesser or greater extent. Baseline measures of state and trait anxiety were first taken. State anxiety is the anxiety that someone can experience when performing (it has been described by one of my students as ‘feeling like a rabbit when caught in headlights’) and trait anxiety is an individual’s generic level of anxiety. The cognitive, physiological and behavioural aspects of anxiety were also tested before and after application of the therapies. Students played the same Bach Prelude and Fugue in two small concert performances. After the first performance participants were randomly assigned to either a therapy or control group. In the period between the concerts the therapy groups received 2 one-hour sessions of either CH or EMDR.

The results of the pilot study showed a significant decrease in state anxiety at the second performance post-therapy in both the CH and EMDR groups but not in the control group.

Main Study

Having tested the effects of the therapies in a pilot study I then continued the research with a much larger sample of 46 advanced pianists. (Students were from the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield and Leeds College of Music). The main study basically followed the same procedures as the pilot study but with participants choosing their own repertoire. In this study self-report questionnaires were also completed by the students prior to each performance. These gave personal insights into thoughts and feelings experienced in both performances and showed that cognitive perception of performance relates directly to the physiological symptoms experienced, and to the performance outcome.

The results of the main study demonstrated that after only two therapy sessions there was a substantial decrease in state anxiety in both therapy groups, but not in the control group. This resulted in fewer physiological symptoms and greater enhancement of performance in the therapy groups. Also the general level of anxiety (the trait level) decreased substantially below baseline levels in the EMDR group.

This research highlighted a number of important issues. The findings suggest that CH and EMDR have an important contribution to make to our understanding and treatment of MPA and the role of the unconscious mind. It demonstrated the effectiveness of the therapies in both significantly reducing MPA and enhancing performance outcome after only two therapy sessions. There is also evidence that EMDR decreases an individual’s trait level of anxiety, which can be interpreted as a change in personality. Given the importance of these results it is suggested that clinical studies now be conducted comparing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with CH and EMDR. The effectiveness of each therapy can be assessed as well as the number of sessions required to bring about a beneficial result. Research has shown that CBT often requires 10 or more sessions, with sometimes little positive change as the outcome. Furthermore a comparison of the cost-effectiveness of CH and EMDR with CBT should be undertaken given the beneficial effects of CH and EMDR after only two sessions.

For those interested in looking at my research in greater depth I give a list of my publications below:

Brooker, E. (2015). Music performance anxiety: An investigation into the efficacy of cognitive hypnotherapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing when applied to Grade 8 pianists. Doctoral dissertation eThesis, University of Leeds. Retrieved from http://ethesis,whiterose.ac.uk/12130.

Brooker, E. (2018). Music performance anxiety: A clinical outcome study into the effects of cognitive hypnotherapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing in advanced pianists. Psychology of Music, 46(1, 107-124).

Brooker, E. (2019). Transforming Performance Anxiety Treatment Using Cognitive Hypnotherapy and EMDR. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-138-61493-2 (hbk) ISBN: 978-0-367-60676-3 (pbk, 2020).

Brooker, E. (2019). Cognitive hypnotherapy and EMDR. The longitudinal effects on trait anxiety and music performance in advanced pianists. Advances in Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2019; 5(4); acam.000616.

Brooker, E. (2020). Cognitive Hypnotherapy. In C. Mordeniz (Ed.), Hypnotherapy and Hypnosis (pp.103-117). IntechOpen: London, UK. http://.doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.83045.

Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth


I’m writing this piece on the birth date of my favourite composer, Schubert. Here’s to you, Franz. Has Schubert always been my favourite composer? No, not at all. I first got seriously into classical music through choral works, so from the outset Byrd and Pärt were vying for my affections. I found opera through Adams, Strauss and Wagner. When I realised that art song was the area of classical music that probably spoke to me the most, Schubert – perhaps inevitably – stole my heart. And once that led me onto his works for piano, that was it.

For now. He may no longer be with us, but that’s no excuse for getting complacent.

In a few weeks’ time, if the stars and technology allow, I’m due to take part in a podcast which usually focuses more on rock music. From listening to previous episodes, I know that the presenters – in the twin spirits of mischief and genuine enquiry – always ask guests to name the ‘greatest album ever made’. It’s a brilliantly, deliberately impossible question – the answer almost incidental, the interest lying in the reasons the guests give, the agony in making the choice and … crucially, their insistence on mentioning a few ‘runners-up’ as well. The other contenders, the ‘bubbling unders’… every bit as important a part of the story as the ‘winner’. I’m already having exquisite nightmares about it.

Lately I’ve been wondering why we choose to rank artistic endeavours in this way. There is clearly something innately competitive about we humans, presumably going back to our primitive hunting eras, but these days we have sport and business to take care of that impulse. You’d think we would keep the arts to one side as a refuge from all that. Especially since so many competitions in the industry – from Eurovision to the Oscars – are undertaken with the appropriate ironic self-awareness. The key word there is ‘industry’, I suppose: I can forgive a great deal of awards ceremonies and magazine polls if they provide the opportunity to raise the profile or – in other, less coy, words – generate more sales for musicians I admire.

This is something we try to do at ArtMuseLondon, of course. I chose my 20 ‘favourite discs’ from last year a few weeks ago, on this site. (And I’d done similar on my personal blog in previous years too.) It was difficult enough just choosing the 20 titles as a group, and I abandoned any idea of ranking them in a league table from top to bottom, more or less at the outset of the process. Instead, all 20 of them hold ‘first equal’, if you like, and I listed them alphabetically.

Why fall at the final hurdle? One answer is another question: well, what was I doing it for? I accept that the number of choices has to be finite, or the article would soon become a book. But after fixing that number – 20 – there is no sense to me that those titles are in competition. I wholeheartedly recommend them all, and want the artists who made them to reach more listeners, to do well. I hope people will identify from my descriptions what they might like, or better still, try out something that sounds completely new.

It also avoids the futile gesture of pitting different genres against each other. Even if you could say that the solo classical piano CD in your left hand is ‘better’ than the African jazz one in your right – what would be the point? Especially if you’re talking to someone who mostly listens to heavy metal.

But this preoccupation with whether A is ‘better’ than B is all-pervasive. It would be easy to make huge – and I mean huge – generalisations about where these attitudes really lie. Is it just ‘blokes’? There’s no point pretending that ‘mansplainers’, who make decrees about what it is and isn’t ok to like, don’t exist: of course they do. Is it just ‘geeks’? Most of us who are into any kind of current, creative endeavour will have encountered ‘fandom’, and seen how easily that can become gatekeeping, let alone something even more toxic.

But really, it’s in all of us. We’re a race of judges: you only have to look at the dominance of reality TV and the overwhelming number of shows that force an element of competition into anything. Singing. Dancing. Cakes. Pottery. Sewing. Grooming pets. For pity’s sake. Why do we do this to ourselves?

Some friends of mine offered some valuable thoughts on our rank impulses, if you will. One suggested that it is actually about our own parameters more than anything – it gives us a sense of order, helps us clarify our thinking and to some extent define ourselves: these are my likes and dislikes. Another speculated that it assists our search for validation, that we are looking for ways to reinforce our own opinions, whether in agreement or opposition to what we read.

I think these ideas are almost certainly both true: they may be coming from different angles but they highlight the fact that it’s all about us. Articles featuring lists or charts, or programmes with judging panels do so well, because we all want to see if we agree or disagree. It’s not about the people on stage, it’s about the argument we’re having in the bar. Those being listed or judged almost become bystanders in the process.

There is real harm lurking in this. Star ratings give me the chills, for a start. Why provide a review and then add an instant visual summary that, if anything, will save some the ‘bother’ of reading further? They are just bait, particularly for one-star ambulance-chasers. Ranking also links into that inescapable topic of ‘elitism’ that tends to haunt classical music. It isn’t just about numbers. Take, for example, that dreaded term ‘reference recording’ – that is, a version of a classical work that stands as a benchmark, on a pedestal until a better version knocks it off. It may have had its roots in practicality – people couldn’t go out and buy every recording of a work, so which should they choose? – but with streaming services there’s no longer any need for that. We can try before we buy.

It isn’t too much to suggest that this is also relevant to another hot topic: kindness. One thing that broadly sets classical music apart from most other genres is that, by and large, lots of different people record versions of many of the same pieces. This is an open invitation to compare and contrast: but is it necessary? Do we need to tell an enthusiastic performer that their version may be returned to occasionally but that it’s only around sixth in the pantheon? It might as well be Blur vs Oasis, for all that it helps. Many people who find classical music after following other genres are focused on artists, rather than composers, or musical forms. They need freedom to explore and settle on their own favourites, not follow someone else’s prescription. I’m encouraged by the increasing currency the term ‘album’ seems to be finding in classical music, rather than ‘recording’: to find musicians you admire who follow their own instincts, select a range of repertoire and take you on that journey with them is a great thing.

I’ve come to believe that to truly, successfully place the artists back in the spotlight, we need to take the ranking out of it and consign league tables and ‘best ever’ charts to the bin. My end-of-year round-up, I sincerely hope, is just that: 20 discs I think you should hear. No ‘number 1’, offering an excuse to disregard the other 19. No ‘number 20’ which, on some kind of mystically malicious scale, is measurably worse than the 19 above it. We, the writers, step back, and let the musicians find their own space.


Adrian Ainsworth is, by day, a copywriter specialising in plain language communications about finance and benefits. However, he spends the rest of the time consuming as much music, live or recorded, as possible – then writing about it, often on Specs, his slightly erratic ‘cultural diary’ containing thought pieces, performance and exhibition write-ups, playlists, and even a spot of light photography. He has a particular interest in art song and opera… and a general interest in everything else. Adrian is a reviewer for ArtMuseLondon and a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Twitter @Adrian_Specs