The Proms – London’s annual eight week festival of (mostly) classical music – is over for another year, despatched with the traditional Last Night pomp and circumstance and noisy flag-waving enthusiasm.

This year I attended more Proms than at any other time during my adulthood, and out of the 10 I attended, I reviewed 6 concerts. I also deliberately chose Proms outside my usual “comfort zone” of piano music and this gave me the opportunity to experience some truly wondrous orchestral music including Messiaen’s joyful and ecstatic Turangalila Symphonie, two Sibelius symphonies, an all-Brahms Prom (with the splendid Marin Alsop) and a superb Schubert C major Symphony with Bernard Haitink. As a pianist who (mostly) plays music conceived with orchestral textures in mind (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert), to see and hear live orchestral music was extremely instructive. Aside from that, the infectious atmosphere and good-humour of the Proms, and going with a companion or companions to each concert, undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment.

Every spring, when the Proms season is announced there is a chorus of disapproval about the programming – and this year was no different. In fact, if anything the anxious and dissenting voices were louder than usual because with the BBC Charter up for review, the BBC’s activities under extreme scrutiny by the Conservative government, and a general antipathy towards classical music, also on the part of this government, it seems that the Proms have to try harder than ever to justify their existence. As usual there were howls of complaint about the Proms being “too populist” or “gimmicky” (with concerts such as the Radio One Pete Tong “Ibiza” Prom or the Sherlock Prom), or not populist enough. Or too inclusive. Too much, or too little new music. Too little coverage on BBC television – and so on. The adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of time” is particularly apt for the Proms, but each season the Proms has a pretty good go at doing this – and usually gets it just about right, in my opinion. The Proms enjoy a pre-eminent position as a national treasure, and for every detractor there are hundreds of others vociferously standing up for them (myself included). That the Proms attract such noisy debate every year is surely a good thing, and a sign of their enduring importance in our national cultural landscape.

When the Proms were originally conceived, by Robert Newman (not Henry Wood as many people assume), the intention was to bring classical music to a wider audience by presenting “easy” pieces and gradually introducing more challenging repertoire. They were called “Promenade” concerts because a large part of the seating area at Queens Hall, their first home, had no seats and so patrons had to stand during performances. Patrons were also allowed to eat, drink and smoke in the auditorium, though were requested not to strike matches during the quiet passages. The first Promenade concert programmes were lengthy affairs, often lasting three hours and certainly challenged the audience with Beethoven and Wagner nights, and new works which were called “novelties”.

The spirit of the original Proms continues today, with modern and contemporary music and new commissions being presented alongside more familiar repertoire, and “themed” concerts: this year, for example, solo Bach in separate concerts featuring works for violin, cello and keyboard (Andras Schiff’s magical performance of the ‘Goldberg Variations’). There were “novelties” too, such as all five Prokofiev piano concertos in a single concert: for some this was too much Prokofiev in one night, or nothing more than an “ego trip” for conductor Valery Gergiev; but for others (myself included) it was an extraordinarily immersive experience, with fine pianism on display from Daniil Trifonov, his teacher Sergey Babayan, and Arcadi Volodos. As for the “gimmicks”, these were largely successful and very popular (and let’s just pause here to recall the fuss and eye-pulling that erupted the first year the John Wilson Orchestra performed at the Proms – and how they are now an integral part of the festival, ever popular and always attracting a full house).

Nowhere else can one enjoy such an international range of artists: leading orchestras, and celebrated conductors and artists from all around the world converge on the Proms between July and September, and this year there have been fine performances by established artists such as YoYo Ma, Andras Schiff, Bryn Terfel, Mitsuko Uchida and Daniel Barenboim, as well as the younger generation of performers, including Martin James Bartlett, Nicola Benedetti and Benjamin Grosvenor. In addition, in recent years there have been spin offs such as the excellent Chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall, and Proms in the Park, as well as pre-concert talks and lectures, and Proms Extra programmes on television.

The Proms also remain affordable – you can Promenade for a fiver – and the more relaxed atmosphere means that classical music “newbies” are more likely to sample the Proms rather than a concert in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall. When I attended the all-Brahms Proms with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Marin Alsop, I shared a box with a family who had never been to the Proms before – and they loved it: the special Proms atmosphere, the music, the whole experience.

We’re very lucky to have the Proms and we should celebrate rather than criticise them. Of course not every concert is going to appeal to everyone, but for every person who enjoyed the Sherlock Prom or the Ibiza Prom, I can guarantee that there are countless others who have enjoyed total immersion in Sibelius or Bach, Brahms or Bruckner. And if the more “populist” Proms encourage people to explore classical music, then the Proms are definitely doing it right. Of course there’s more the Proms could do – more coverage of women composers, for example – but one hopes that the organisers and concert planners learn from past seasons, while looking at what other artists and orchestras are doing in order to move the great behemoth of the Proms forward each year. And as of this year, the Proms has a new director, David Pickard (formerly of Glyndebourne). Described as down-to-earth, enthusiastic and deeply musical, it will be interesting to see what developments and innovations he brings to the concerts.

I for one am already looking forward to next year’s season with interest and excitement

Concert

noun

1. a public musical performance in which a number of singers or instrumentalists, or both, participate.

2. a public performance, usually by an individual singer, instrumentalist, or the like; recital:

As regular readers of this blog, and friends and colleagues will know, I go to a lot of concerts, at least one a week, and sometimes two or three. I also occasionally give my own concerts or perform in recitals organised by others.

Earlier this year, I took part in a concert for a medical charity. It was held at the intimate and convivial 1901 Arts Club close to London’s Waterloo station. I’ve performed there are couple of times, and it is also where the South London Concert Series events usually take place. On this occasion, the audience was almost entirely comprised of medics. Plied with champagne before the concert, when people came down to the music salon for the concert, one had the sense of them relaxing into their seats, happy to enjoy whatever we presented to them. The programme was varied with performances by a soprano, a violinist, piano solo and piano 4-hands, and included works by Debussy, Gershwin, Saint-Saens, Rachmaninov, Grainger and Ravel. During the interval and after the concert, members of the audience expressed their delight at the music making and congratulated us on our performances. Throughout the evening, there was a very palpable sense of a shared experience and that the audience had really enjoyed the evening’s entertainment.

Which set me thinking……. Are concerts purely for “entertainment” or do they serve another more serious or different purpose or purposes?

Of course, “entertainment” needn’t be something amusing or funny (though the word is more commonly associated with humour). Entertainment is a form of diversion, an agreeable occupation for the mind, or something affording pleasure. People (including me) gain enormous pleasure from live concerts, and for many concerts offer a wonderful escape from the humdrum, the every day and the mundane. Take this a step further, and for some a concert offers something more transcendent, a near-religious experience (even for the non-religious). A concert can take the listener on a journey outside themselves, it can uplift and even heal.

Since time immemorial, people have got together to make and share music. That sense of community, of belonging, of a shared experience remains very important today. There’s a feeling of collaboration between performer, music and audience which is infectious and absorbing: witness people at the Proms – you can see the sense of engagement and absorption in their faces as they listen to the music (and of course without an audience, a “concert” would cease to be).

Live music can be really really exciting: a live concert is a “one-off”, and that excitement, spontaneity and sense of risk is what makes concerts so compelling – and something one can never truly get from a recording. I love the sense of the music being created “in the moment” (of course, I understand that the performer has in fact spent many careful hours preparing the music). The composer Helmut Lachenmann says of concerts: “Some people go bungee-jumping or climb a mountain to have an existential experience – an adventure. People should have this same experience in the concert hall.” How performers create this sense of “adventure” is discussed later in this article.

Nor do I do believe there is such a thing as a truly “bad concert”, for we each take from the performance something personal and unique, and while I may not have enjoyed a certain performance, others have and who I am to tell them they are wrong? The meaning of music is different for each individual listener, and whether it merely “entertains” or offers something deeper, it is the way music “speaks” and communicates that makes it so magical. This sense of magic is heightened when one hears live music.

For musicians, concerts are in integral part of their raison d’etre and an opportunity for them to share their musical vision with the audience. (One pianist friend of mine describes giving concerts as “a compulsion and a rather beautiful narcotic”.) Music was written to be shared and the audience share their appreciation of what is coming from the performer, thus making a concert a collaborative experience. Performing should have less to do with ego and more the musician’s desire to share the music with others.

Bringing spontaneity to one’s performance can be tricky, especially if one is playing the same programme over a series of concerts. As the British pianist Stephen Hough put it in a programme about practising for the BBC, one needs to be a “perfectionist” in the practise room to allow one to be “bohemian” on stage. By which he means if one is very well-prepared, one has the confidence to “let go” when one performs. Often the best and most memorable performances are from performers who understand the balance between being perfectionist and bohemian. At other times, it is the sense of intense concentration and profound understanding and affinity with the music which can create a moving and memorable performance. I have occasionally been moved to tears on such occasions, crying quite spontaneously at the end of the piece (notably in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and a complete performance of the Vingt Regards. On both occasions, the pianist was Steven Osborne.)

On a more prosaic/commercial level, concerts can be used to promote a new CD or related material, or launch of a recording label or similar. And for composers, concerts provide a means of getting their music out there, heard, appreciated and reviewed.

Finally, the late great Claudio Arrau on the subject of concerts:

“I don’t know what will happen, but I trust it will be wonderful”

Acclaimed pianist and teacher Andrei Gavrilov has made the following statements about the current state of music education, as he perceives it. You may not agree with everything he says, but I feel he makes some valid points, which is why I am publishing his comments in full here:

Time has come to summarize my impressions about state of music education after four years of master classes all over the world. I had a great time with the international family of young musicians. We were progressing fast and productive when we were working together. Everywhere in the world I was working with talented guys, I had met the same (more or less) obstacles for their artistic development. What are those major mistakes?? What or who is producing the greatest damage to young souls? I will point it very briefly below:

  • Fake authorities, false “examples to follow”, established by music business (which only cares about money) – they are totally misleading, devastating for the young talents
  • No clear idea about the proper tasks of music making
  • No perception about goals and esthetics of Art in general, great lack of general knowledge
  • False view on the musician as a human being “cut off from the rest of the real world”
  • View on music as a separate world – perception of cheap amateurs and mediocre petite bourgeois
  • Lack of courage to take any risk
  • No knowledge and understanding of the total loneliness in serving the art, of the real artist’s path
  • No understanding that performer’s task is not a self-expression but transmission of other spirits
  • No knowledge about Christianity which is the basis of European-Russian culture, music in particular
  • No understanding of the need to study precisely all cultures and folks involved in creation of so called European music
  • No idea about the world of philosophy
  • No idea about different styles, characters of the compositions, national characters of composers, their consciousness, philosophical goals and ideas, religious consciousness and personalities
  • No knowledge about different epochs and the differences between them
  • No understanding in the need for actor-like ability to transform
  • Failure to understand the need for in-depth knowledge of related arts (painting, sculpture, theater, film, literature) etc.
  • Almost zero theoretical knowledge of the composer’s tools
  • No ability of theoretic analysis of any composition
  • No ability to analyze even a simple musical form of compositions – as a result nobody who could be able to touch a single serious composition without destroying it in all senses.

Please feel free to join this debate by leaving your comments below

Much has been written about the young French pianist Lucas Debargue, a finalist in the 2015 edition of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. The concept of him being “self-taught” (until relatively recently) has been debated across a number of articles, together with his rather unusual technique (“Scales played with only the thumb and index finger and his pinkie sticking up as daintily as Hyacinth Bucket’s” – The Spectator, 18/7/15) and glorious sound. He’s not out of the traditional mold of the international competition winner (commences piano studies at a young age, undertakes rigorous study with a master teacher and progresses to the “Three C’s” of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto) – and he didn’t even wear a tie during the final! In an honest and touching interview with Ismene Brown of The Arts Desk, Debargue comes across as a sensitive and intellectual young man for whom music is profoundly important, not just in terms of beautiful sound, but also as a “a place to live in. It’s about real emotions, real sensations”.

Let’s just clear up a few inaccuracies. In ‘The Spectator’ article quoted above, he is described as “the man who came last”. He didn’t come last. He achieved what most can only dream of: he reached the final of the most prestigious piano competition in the world. That he did this following only four years professional study with a Russian master teacher (Rena Shereshevskaya) is remarkable. (And by the way, it doesn’t really matter that his scale fingering is unusual: there is no “one size fits all” fingering scheme, because hands and fingers come in different sizes.) Now everyone is asking what next for this extraordinary young man?

It is at this point that I start to worry for a talented and obviously sensitive young man like Lucas Debargue. He is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, young artist to be thrust into the limelight before he is ready. Unlike the other competition finalists, he has not undergone the long and rigorous traditional professional training which would prepare him for the concert platform: he still needs to hone his stagecraft and, more importantly, learn how to deal with the journalists, agents, promoters, and fans who besieged him as the competition progressed – and continue to. The classical music industry is not a particularly pleasant place, and the world of international pianism is highly competitive, almost ruthlessly so. At the big competitions, representatives from the big artist agencies are waiting to scoop up the winners and runners up, offering tempting contracts, a slew of international engagements, recording deals and more (look how much Martin James Bartlett, winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014, has done since his win, including several performances at the Proms, and he’s only just 19; he has, however, undergone a professional training in specialist music school and conservatoire). It’s true that success in an international competition can make an artist – but it can break one too. From the moment one chooses the life of the international concert pianist, one lives in the public eye: every performance and recording is held up for scrutiny, and one is under almost continual pressure to meet the expectations of agents, promoters, fickle audiences, critics and fans. The life of the concert pianist is tough, restrictive and lonely. In addition to the many hours of solitary practise, there is the traveling, nights spent in faceless hotels, fine historic cities viewed through a fog of fatigue, never having the option to be less than perfect, even if one is ill or tired, knowing that one is judged on one’s last performance (here I recall the unpleasant hoopla surrounding Ivo Pogorelich’s London concert in February). The pressure can be unbearable if one is not equipped to handle it. (Read Charles Beauclerk’s excellent and sympathetic biography of John Ogdon for some brutal insights into the life of the international concert pianist. For Ogdon, the piano was his saviour and his tormentor, and there is no question that the pressure of so much traveling to perform around the world contributed to his breakdown.)

Add to this that peculiarly British fascination with the maverick, the eccentric, the tortured genius with the unconventional “backstory”. We risk endangering Debargue further by holding him up as curiosity, instead of allowing him to develop and mature in his own time. There is something very authentic about his playing, his particular soundworld and his special and personal connection to the music which has clearly touched people.

Lucas Debargue plays Ravel – ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’

In his interview with Ismene Brown, Debargue talks of having few friends and little support from his family. His teacher was his mentor and supporter, encouraging him to take a tilt at the Tchaikovsky Competition and saying when he got through the first round “It doesn’t matter when you pass or not, it’s really good that you are here to play and I am grateful and proud of you.” He has yet to develop the necessarily resilience, thick skin and artistic temperament to survive the “wild west” of the international concert circuit, and I only hope that whoever he chooses to manage him, should he decide to go down that route, is sympathetic and puts his well-being before all else. Otherwise, I dread to think what might happen….

So please let’s allow him – and others like him – to develop at his own pace to emerge onto the international circuit, should he choose that path, when he is truly ready. To conclude this article, I think it is worth quoting a comment on Peter Donohoe’s piece for Slipped Disc about the competition (Peter was a juror this year):

Aside from all of this, what happens to each of these young artists remains to be seen. How will they carry on with their studies as musicians? Which repertoire will they cultivate? Will they develop chamber music careers, teaching, new works, recordings? This is what is most important as they begin to soul search and decipher how and what they will contribute to the world of music outside of the usual parameters. (Jeffrey Biegel)
Read Peter Donohoe’s thoughtful and intelligent article here

View clips of Lucas Debargue’s performances in the International Tchaikovsky Competition

A “self-taught” pianist (Lucas Debargue) who made it through to the final of this year’s prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition, has been exercising journalists, commentators and bloggers in the immediate aftermath of the competition. Debargue is unusual in the highly competitive and often cut-throat world of international pianism as he came relatively late to his craft: he started to play aged 11, gave up at 17 and worked in a Paris supermarket before he started again and played so brilliantly that he was put in touch with a hot-shot Russian teacher. He was praised by two of the judges on the panel, pianists Dmitri Bashkirov and Boris Berezovsky, was awarded the Moscow music critics’ prize, and was invited by Valery Gergiev, no less, to play in the winners’ gala recital in the presence of Vladimir Putin. In addition to much positing and pondering about the notion of a “self taught” pianist making it to the final of such a major competition (one which has launched the careers of many “greats” of the piano world today, including Peter Donohoe, one of this year’s judges, John Lill, Barry Douglas and Daniil Trifonov, to name but a few), there has also discussion about what constitutes a “proper” musical training. These days, most of us understand “musical training” as study at conservatoire, music college or a specialist music school. In the rarefied hot-house atmosphere of such institutions the talents of tomorrow are carefully nurtured, ready to launch into a professional career when they graduate, and the “three C’s” – Conservatoire, Concerto, Competition – are regarded by many as the holy grail of a musical training leading to assured success and a slew of international bookings. The notion of someone who is “self-taught” reaching these dizzying heights, specifically the final of the Tchaikovsky Competition, seems alien, and yet perhaps the best students are those who realise that studying extends beyond the confines of conservatoire, music college or private lessons with a teacher or mentor.

In fact, it is inaccurate to state that Debargue is “self-taught” (but of course the mainstream media have latched onto this and sensationalised it). In reality, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire (CNSMDP) from the age of 20, and is currently taking instruction at the Ecole Normale de Musique Alfred Cortot in Paris under Prof. Rena Shereshevskaya. In 2014 he won the 9th International Adilia Alieva Piano Competition in Gaillard (France). He is pursuing a “proper” musical training, albeit somewhat later than some of his contemporaries. As Jessica Duchen says in her intelligent article on this subject, it is “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…………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.”

To describe Debargue as “self-taught” devalues the amount of effort and hard work he has put in to get to where he is now. As a teacher myself, my aim is to encourage my students to become “self-teachers” – by which I mean to encourage them, through my guidance and support, to become independent learners, to explore, be curious, questioning, ambitious…… As one of my students said recently “I want to be able to open a book of music and play anything I want to”. My role, as teacher, is to equip him and my other students with the tools to do that. And as a mature student myself, I hope I can demonstrate to my students (and others) that one’s studies do not end when one has completed graded exams, for example, or left university; that learning is an ongoing process and one which can – and should – be undertaken independently.

Self-taught” is not the panacea you think – Jessica Duchen’s article

The self-taught French pianist who wowed the Tchaikovsky competition – article in The Spectator

This a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, sometimes more frequently than we should. Am I good enough to pass this exam? Good enough to compete in that festival? Play in that concert? To be a piano teacher?

Society sets targets for us which are ingrained from the moment we enter primary school. Will I make the grade? What if I get the answer wrong? From an early age we are programmed to measure ourselves and our progress against the expectations of others and unseen external forces.

As pianists we tend to spend a lot of time alone, with just the instrument and (mostly) dead composers for companions. Practising and studying alone, it is easy to start questioning our abilities: a bad practise session can leave one wondering “can I actually play the piano?” In addition to our own self-doubt, the opinions of others, in particular teachers and mentors, can have a marked effect on our self-esteem which may colour the way we approach our music making. In extreme cases, when one is subjected to very negative feedback about one’s abilities, this can lead to stress which manifests itself in both emotional and physical symptoms such as depression, tendonitis and focal dystonia. Even in less extreme instances, negative comments about our playing can affect our day-day-to relationship with the piano and lead us to question our abilities.

Learning confidence and to be trusting of one’s musical self is an important aspect of one’s development as a musician. I see this in my students, most of whom are now teenagers who are beginning to make important decisions about future study and even post-school careers. Very used to being spoonfed and “nudged” into the “right” direction by teachers and parents, they are less certain when asked to make decisions about their music. They want reassurance that they are playing in the “right” way, that they are “good enough” to pass their next grade exam. They want to know how their peers are progressing, who has passed this or that exam and with what mark. A Merit? A Distinction? They talk about others being “better” than them, when I hasten to point out that a student who is working towards Grade 7 or 8 is not “better”, simply more “advanced”. Their anxieties cause them to lose sight of what I consider to be the most important aspect of music making: communication.

I share many of my students’ anxieties; and many of my own issues stem from unhelpful comments by teachers at school and beyond, and feeling disadvantaged by the fact that I did not study music at university or conservatoire. Add to that, a long absence from the piano post-university when I was occupied with other things: career and family.

When I returned to the piano in my late 30s, I did so with a vengeance, soaking up repertoire, concerts, recordings, films and books on the subject. I even befriended a few professional pianists. And this is where the trouble started. I began to compare myself to these people, to measure my own reasonably competent efforts at the piano against these people who had the training, the mindset, and that special je ne sais quoi which set them apart from the rest of us. I wanted to attempt the same repertoire, walk across the concert platform with the same special brand of sangfroid – and play beautifully. Just like they did. I assumed these people were unassailable, that they never suffered from self-doubt, nor ever asked “am I good enough”?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from these people and the music they make. Indeed, inspiration is a wondrous resource, which drives us to explore, create and achieve. But by constantly measuring myself against the achievements of others, I found I was continually frustrated by my own progress, or lack thereof, and regularly wondered if I was indeed “good enough”.

Recently, however, I’ve reached a state of acceptance. I’ve found other ways of connecting with professional musicians, mostly obviously through this blog, and I’ve stopped wishing I could do what they do. Because I am doing what they do, in my own way – through the concert series and group for adult amateur pianists which I co-organise with a colleague. I’ve performed in concerts, organised and promoted concerts. I make and share music in a way which suits me and my capabilities, and I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from doing so.

How to feel you are good enough……

  • Don’t constantly compare yourself to others
  • Don’t deify the composers, professional musicians or the music
  • Don’t set yourself unrealistic targets – this can lead to over-practising, stress, tension and physical injury
  • Choose repertoire which you enjoy playing, not because someone said “you should learn this!”
  • Don’t blindly follow the advice of teachers, colleagues or friends. Be questioning and inquisitive. One person’s method may not suit you.
  • Enjoy and appreciate the positive endorsements of teachers, colleagues and friends
  • Cut yourself some slack: you don’t have to practise every day, you don’t have to use Hanon exercises just because Joe Bloggs next door does.
  • People are not necessarily “better”,  just “more advanced”
  • Remember that even top flight professional artists suffer from anxiety and stress. They are just better at dealing with it!
  • Enjoy your music. Play, listen, go to concerts, share music with friends.

Further reading and resources

On Jealousy and True Belonging

Beyond Stage Fright – top professional musicians and teachers talk about how they cope with performance anxiety and stress

Music From the Inside Out (Charlotte Tomlinson) Not just for professional  musicians, this book is applicable to anyone who suffers from the issues explored in this article. Charlotte’s clearsighted and down-to-earth approach equips you with the tools to unlock what is holding you back.