A conversation with Jon Jacob who blogs at Thoroughly Good

JJ: I read a few reviews this morning with star ratings. I’m reminded how they much they annoy me. I’m not entirely sure why they do. I was hoping our exchange might help me understand why a bit better.

Basically, I just think rating someone’s performance is a bit odd. Mean really. By stating how many stars you thought someone’s performance was you’re kind of elevating yourself – making out that your criteria for judging whether something is good or not is valuable.

What really irks is that so much marketing stuff makes use of these star ratings. Because when that happens that rating process is legitimised.

Do I need to lighten up? Am I missing something?

CEP: I have always been uncomfortable with the star rating system for reviews and was acutely aware of it when I wrote for an international concert listings and reviews site where star ratings were de rigueur. For me, when reviewing, it meant that I had to always been thinking “is this a …. star performance?” and the aforementioned site actually had guidelines for reviewers to help them decide whether the performance deserved five stars or fewer. Awarding three stars often felt quite mean-spirited to me – being in the middle of 1 and 5, 3 feels like you’re saying “it was ok”, when in fact it was quite obvious to me, being a musician myself, that the performer had clearly spent hours and hours preparing for the performance and was maybe just having an off day at the concert, for whatever reason (something I think many reviewers – and audiences – don’t appreciate: performers are human too and a disrupted journey to the venue, feeling under par and a whole host of other factors can affect one’s performance…..)

From the reader’s point of view, I think star ratings are very limiting, especially if they are published at the head of the review (as is common practice). The reader/potential audience may see a low star rating (and I think a lot of readers think 3 stars signals “mediocre”) and not bother to read on. There is, of course, a converse argument – that a one-star review might pique one’s interest to actually read the review and/or go and hear that performer out of curiosity.

As I think you know from my writing on this subject and our conversations, I do not think it is the reviewer’s role to “rate” the performance; nor do I think music performance can be rated via such a rudimentary metric as stars. We are not talking about hotel accommodation here where the criteria for star ratings are more easily comprehendable! I believe a music review should be a record of the event and as such serves to place the concert in context (for example, a composer anniversary or a premiere of a new work). I believe we still need to record the activities of performers/composers via intelligent, well-informed and well-written music criticism – in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Such writing prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and, I hope, encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity. Unfortunately, I feel the star rating system discourages all of this by putting an undue focus on “rating” the event rather than describing it and bringing it to life for those who weren’t there.

I agree with your comment about the value of star ratings for marketing purposes and this troubles me for the same reasons you express. And to describe someone as a “five star performer” seems to me be an anodyne and lazy way of presenting what might be a really exceptional artist. Sadly, in our feedback-driven culture, where undue emphasis is placed on customer reviews on sites like Amazon or TripAdvisor, I don’t think we can easily escape this…..

JJ: Your response reminds me of the challenge in art music at the moment. On the one hand we want more people to enjoy it. I want people to experience a similar thrill discovering personal insights about the art. Such insights can’t be documented as a criteria or expectation from listening. They are by definition personal and distinctive. A Haydn sonata’s impact on you will be different from the impact it has on me, for example.

How do we report on a performance authentically and respectfully without stating implicitly or explicitly that the performance should be performed one way or the other? And how do we style that reporting such that it advocates attentive or active listening rather than promoting an erroneous requirement of prior knowledge in the subject? It’s as though we need to promote listening, rather than the content.

In that way, I’m not entirely convinced that star ratings support that approach to documenting events or promoting active engagement in performance.

There’s a personal perspective too. What if the star ratings apply to a soloist rather than an ensemble? Does the person using the rating mechanism have a responsibility for the way the rating might be interpreted by a large audience (ie the rater’s intent maybe entirely different from the audience/reader interpretation)?

I also don’t get the point in rating a live performance which is by definition a one-off. Fine for opera because there’s a run of performances, but a one off concert seems a bit odd.

But still, I wonder whether there’s another perspective I’m missing.

CEP: I agree re. star ratings for opera (or theatre/film, for that matter) – stars are more relevant if there’s a run of performances.

I’d love to know how much store audiences/potential audiences really set by star ratings (maybe we should run a survey?!). Do people really select concerts by performers who’ve received favourably ratings on the basis of those ratings (I know I don’t), or are there wider criteria (such as reputation of performer, venue, programme etc – the last point being my usual criteria for selecting a concert)? Do they think “oh I’ll book to hear Trifonov because he always gets 5-stars”? Not sure…. and I think audiences are actually far more discerning than mainstream reviewers/promoters give them credit for.

Your response ties in with something else I am pondering – the apparent need to find “meaning” in everything, specifically in classical music as a way, perhaps, of validating it or making it relevant to people today. In an way, reviews are complicit in this by trying to express meaning (whether it is actually there or not in the music) to the reader. It seems we can’t simply report on the concert, describing the sounds the performer/s made, the quality of the performance, our personal response to it. Everything must be freighted with meaning or “relevance”. The music is not simply allowed to “be”, or be “entertainment” (in the best sense of that word)… But I digress slightly.

When I was reviewing regularly, I would quite frequently receive comments from other people who had attended the same concerts and who might take issue with something I had said in a review. For example, I was accused of being “far too generous” to a very elderly pianist (now sadly no longer with us) because his Chopin performance was “riddled with errors and inconsistencies”, and why hadn’t I documented them? But I don’t believe it is my job as a reviewer to highlight a performer’s errors (unless they are really dreadful, in which case I simply wouldn’t write a review); nor do I think reviewers/critics should seek to tell the musicians how to do their jobs.

My personal “crusade” – and I think this is a sentiment we share – is to encourage people to enjoy classical music and to debunk this silly notion that one needs to be well-informed, knowledgeable or educated to a certain level in order to “appreciate” it. Unfortunately, some of the more high falutin or pretentious writing on classical music isn’t helping; but I also think people are becoming more suspicious of mainstream critics and reviewers and are turning instead to independent review sites/blogs where they can find longform/more considered writing which has a more personal/authentic voice to it.

JJ: We agree. For me I experience unfamiliar works, familiar ones, or new compositions as a journey of self-discovery. What or how the composer or performer does is of secondary importance to the effect their work is having on my emotions. That for me is the thrill of this art form. Being able to articulate when it works and when it doesn’t takes more than just a rating.

What I keep coming back to in our exchange here is the responsibility on the mediator – be it marketer, journalist, critic – to advocate the art form in a respectful way that pays deference not only to the effort involved in creating it, but also emphasises the listeners contribution to the end product.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at the best way of achieving that preferred mediation, but I’m working on it.

It’s been an interesting and busy year, marked in May by my move from London, my home for 30+ years, to a quiet corner of Dorset – the isle of Portland on the striking Jurassic Coast. Leaving London and its vibrant culture, not least a wealth of classical music which I have much enjoyed, might have felt like a huge wrench, but in fact I don’t miss the big city, and I am already discovering plenty of music here in Dorset.

In addition to allowing me to muse on things musical, the blog keeps me in touch with a large community of people, some of whom have become good friends in real life, and this has undoubtedly prevented me from feeling at all lonely or isolated here in Portland. In a way, I enjoy the best of several worlds: we live in a light-filled modern house, far bigger than anything we could have afforded in London, with views over Chesil Beach and the sea, and fantastic Turner-esque sunsets in the evening. My son lives in a flat in SW London, which means I can still visit to see friends and enjoy concerts and other cultural highlights, before retreatng once again to a place whose quiet and slower pace of life are very conducive to writing and piano practise.

People regularly ask me how I continue to produce so much “content” (an on-trend word for articles/writing). The truth is that I love music and I love writing about music and sharing my passion. Articles are inspired by encounters and conversations with other musicians and writers, concerts I’ve enjoyed, things I’ve heard on the radio, and much, much more….and while that inspiration remains, so the blog will continue (it will celebrate its 10th birthday in July 2020).

A big thank you to all my readers, followers, guest contributors and wonderful Meet the Artist interviewees, all of whom make the blog so interesting and varied.

Wishing you a very happy and music-filled 2019

The Music into Words event, which I chaired earlier this month, attempted to explore some of the ways in which we write about classical music today and provoked a lively discussion, both at the actual event and online. Several issues emerged relating specifically to blogs which have exercised my thoughts in the weeks since the event:

  1. Without an editor, how do you ensure that what you write is intelligent, well-written, factually accurate, and interesting to read?
  2. Who are you writing for?
  3. Why a blog?

In my experience, readers will return to those blogs which are consistently well-written, interesting, accurate and assiduously self-edited. (This is borne out by the number of regular commentators and subscribers to this blog: WordPress provides very useful stats and analytics allowing one to track such data.) I have come across some truly dire writing on the internet (and also in newspapers, journals and books), and also much that is extremely high-quality (by academics, journalists, bloggers, musicians….), and one can of course learn a great deal by looking at what others are doing, or not doing. In the era of the spelling and grammar checker, there really is no excuse for sloppy spelling; clichés or hackneyed expressions should also be avoided (my particular pet hate is “smorgasbord”….). I’m very fortunate that one of my blog subscribers, who also happens to be a good friend of mine, will pounce on any inaccuracies of spelling or grammar with the eagle eyes of a skilled editor. In terms of fact-checking, I make sure I do my homework: this applies to my concert reviews too. I try to write in an accessible, readable and intelligent style, and one of the nicest compliments I’ve been paid when I met one of my readers in real life was “you sound just the same in person as you do in your writing”.

Which leads me onto “Who are you writing for?”. Initially, I didn’t really think I was writing for anyone but myself when I started this blog in 2010. I was playing the piano seriously again, having returned to the instrument after an absence of c15 years, and I wanted some way to record my thoughts and feelings about the music I was playing and hearing in concerts. Rather than keep an old-fashioned journal, I decided to write a blog (having had a modest degree of success with a food blog called Demon Cook), but I didn’t really expect anyone to take much notice of it. I suppose the unusual title helped (and by the way, I initially thought of calling this blog The Naked Pianist (à la Jamie’s Oliver’s Naked Chef) until my husband pointed out that this might attract “the wrong kind of reader”!), plus my interest in social media and a growing network of like-minded people (including a number of other bloggers and online reviewers), and gradually the number of daily visitors and subscribers crept up. When I was invited to review for Bachtrack.com (the owner of the site had read and liked my blog), I felt my writing finally had some currency beyond the confines of this site, and I have subsequently gone on to write guest blogs for a number of other classical music sites, including HelloStage, InterludeHK, Music Haven and The Sampler, the blog of Soundandmusic.org.

Subconsciously, I am probably writing for someone like me, someone who enjoys classical music, likes going to concerts and reading about them, maybe plays the piano too, who ponders the day-to-day practicalities of being a musician, amateur or professional (practising, repertoire, continuing study, teaching etc), as well as the more esoteric aspects of the musician’s life (motivation, performance anxiety, impostor syndrome, avoiding injury). Judging by the comments and messages I receive in response to my articles, it is clear my readership is now pretty wide, and international.

One thing I’ve never done via this blog, or indeed anywhere else, is set myself up as some kind of “expert”. People do come to me for advice about piano playing, careers in music, piano teaching and more, and I try to respond to such enquiries with honesty and courtesy. It is gratifying to be respected for what one does, but I believe a degree of a humility is crucial too (there are quite enough egos at large in the musical profession!). I enjoy the conversations that emerge from comments on articles here, I have made friends via this blog and I find the community of like-minded people which blogging creates very stimulating. To explore this further, I canvassed the opinion of a number of other bloggers who write on music and culture, and with whom I interact on a regular basis:

It started as a kind of “cultural diary” – a channel for me to enthuse about music I loved (plus some art and photography) and hopefully ‘share the love’.

First, I enjoy writing, and get special satisfaction in expressing my thoughts and ideas as eloquently as I can. Secondly, the idea that there are complete strangers out there reading what I’ve written flatters my vanity. Finally, there are so many ignoramuses on the net, spouting rubbish on matters they don’t understand, I saw no reason not to join them.

It’s cheaper than therapy

I think my single overriding reason is a desire to entertain.

The world of blogging is a curious one, and one which has grown hugely in the last ten years or so, to the extent that blogging now makes a significant contribution to writing and journalism. Many organisations, including mainstream newspapers, have blogs on their sites, often written by well-regarded journalists and commentators. (At the Music into Words event, one of the panelists, Imogen Tilden, classical music editor of The Guardian, acknowledged the important role of bloggers who “fill the gaps” in covering concerts and events her team of reviewers do not have the time or resources to cover, and who offer alternative opinions.)  The difference for the majority of bloggers is that we are independent – and the freedom to write what we like is very potent. Some people may regard bloggers as “privileged”, and are perhaps envious of the freedom we enjoy – freedom to write what we like without the pressure of conforming to editorial house style or deadlines, freedom to go to as many concerts, operas, plays or exhibitions as we like. I do regard myself as fortunate to be able to do this, but I also have a day job (two in fact), as do most of my blogging colleagues, and I don’t think blogging should necessarily be regarded as some kind of self-indulgent literary onanism or dilettantism.

From a more pragmatic point of view, a blog can be a useful tool to:

  1. Offer an overview of who you are – an extended CV, if you will
  2. Provide samples of your writing
  3. Connect with new people
  4. Organise your messy thoughts into coherent ones
  5. Create your own PR machine
  6. Stand out – according to the “1 per cent rule”, only 1 percent of Internet users actively create new content, while the other 99 percent just view it. Blogging separates from the 99 percent of people who don’t blog. Standing out is essential in an increasingly competitive world, whatever your profession or role
  7. Improve your writing skills – like piano playing, writing improves with practise
  8. Give yourself some headspace. The person who described blogging as “cheaper than therapy” makes a useful point – that writing can be therapeutic, regardless of the subject under discussion

So, if you’ve got something to say, maybe now is the time for you to consider writing a blog?

For more on the practicalities of writing a blog see Presentation for BASCA on Classical Music Blogging

blog

I was delighted to have an opportunity to talk about my experiences as a classical music blogger and the importance of creating a distinctive online presence at an event organised by BASCA (British Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors). The other speaker was Angharad Cooper of SoundAndMusic.org, who introduced the British Music Collection (about which more in a later post).

My talk covered a number of key areas of being a blogger, including choosing the right platform on which to host one’s blog, creating an eye-catching and engaging design, how to increase the readership and how my role as a classical music blogger has impacted on my career.

The presentations were followed by drinks and socialising, and I enjoyed the opportunity to connect with new people in the music community, including a number of exciting young composers.

You can view my presentation here (PowerPoint file)

Please feel free to contact me if you would like me give this presentation at an event.

A Musician in the Blogosphere – guest article for HelloStage