We all have favourite performers, orchestras, venues, recordings and memorable concert experiences. Some works have special resonances and associations which connect us with experiences from our childhood, teenhood, early adulthood and beyond, or are potent reminders of a particular event, person or occasion. Sometimes a few bars of a certain piece can take me back to a particular time and place in my life and trigger a very distinct ‘Proustian rush’. There are recordings we return to again and again, performances we would revisit every night if we could, or pieces that we would happily have playing on a continuous loop.
‘Music Notes’ is a new occasional series, mostly comprised of guest posts, in which contributors discuss favourite or significant concerts, performances, artists, recordings or musical experiences. More ‘Private Passions’ than ‘Desert Island Discs’, the series is an opportunity for people to share their love of music and attempt to explain why certain pieces, places and artists have such distinct resonances and associations for them.
Guest contributions are now invited. The brief is wide – write about what you care about, what you love; nor is the remit strictly classical music. If you would like to submit an article, please use the Contact page to get in touch.
The series will begin with my own musings on a particular recording of Schubert piano music…..Read more here
In a recent article in The New Statesman, Andrew Mellor whinged about racism, elitism, snobbery and exclusivity amongst classical music audiences. The basis of his argument seemed to be largely founded on the number of adverts for private schools in the BBC Proms programme. Myself, and quite a few other concert-going colleagues, Twitterati, music journalists and classical music fans have felt compelled to refute Mr Mellor’s anxieties by pointing out all the very good things about going to classical music concerts, operas and ballet.
Jessica Duchen has written an excellent article How to Be A Nice Audience, with her top 10 tips on “best practice” for audiences. Like me, she feels if Mr Mellor would stop feeling quite so paranoid about everyone around him at the Wigmore Hall or the Royal Opera House, he might enjoy himself more.
Sure, classical music concerts have their own ‘audience etiquette’, but so do rock concerts, jazz and folk gigs, poetry readings, stand-up comedy, theatre, fringe festivals et al. And if Mr Mellor wants snobbery and elitism, he should try attending the private view at a Mayfair art gallery (I know, I’ve done it!). Classical music has its own etiquette largely to ensure that most of us, including the musicians who have worked hard for weeks and months to present the music to us, have a good time.
One thing Mr Mellor seems to have overlooked, either intentionally or unintentionally, is that without the audience – snobby, elitist, elderly, racist or just there to have a great night out – there would be no concerts at all.
So let’s stop feeling paranoid about who’s sitting beside/behind/in front of us in the stalls, or who might be eyeballing us in the bar during the interval, and simply sit back and enjoy a few hours of quality music.
Here’s another article on this subject by a fellow blogger who tweets as @OperaCreep.
This time last year I wrote a piece for this blog arguing for a change of venue for the Proms, London’s two-month summer classical music festival. We’re a fortnight into the current season, and I have already attended two Prom concerts, courtesy of Bachtrack. One was at Cadogan Hall, a lovely venue just off Sloane Square, with comfy seats, a great view of the stage wherever you sit, a fine acoustic (it’s a converted church), and a champagne bar. Here I heard the young harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani give an exquisite and at times idiosyncratic performance of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations (read my review for Bachtrack here). And then, last Friday, I attended the Proms ‘proper’, if you will, for a lively evening of Franco-Hispanic music by Debussy, Ravel and de Falla: from Bach’s Baroque world in microcosm to a sweeping panorama of Spain evoked in lively and atmospheric orchestral music.
As a child and teenager, I used to go to the Proms every year with my parents, who would pour over the programme as soon as it was published (this, of course, many years pre-internet, and the Proms booklet would be for sale in WH Smith). There wasn’t such competition for tickets then, although tickets for the First and Last nights were allocated by ballot. I heard a wide variety of music, and sometimes we would sit in the choir stalls behind the stage, affording one a wonderful view of the orchestra at work. About 10 years ago, I heard Lang Lang, playing Tchaikovsky, before he shot to superstar status, and before that Evgeny Kissin. The last time I was at the Proms, before last Friday, we sat high up in the vertiginous upper circle, where we sweltered, and from where Stephen Hough, the soloist, was but a speck on the stage, and Rach Three was rather lost in the vastness of the Albert Hall. In the interval we drank warm white wine out of plastic glasses and had to sit on the stairs near the ladies’ loo. Not especially enjoyable. The whole experience was rather tiring, fraught and effortful. After that, I decided I would avoid the Proms.
The Proms have not always been resident at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert series was pioneered by a Mr Robert Newman, and its first home was the Queen’s Hall. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”. After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.
What is so wonderful about the Proms is that the original spirit in which they were conceived continues today. Even as we approached the hall last Friday (I went with a friend who had never been to a Prom before), there was a buzz of excited expectancy amongst the people milling around the hall, queuing to “promenade” (pay a fiver and stand in the arena, or up in the gods), or for returns at the box office. It was a fine summer evening, the Albert Memorial gleamed in the setting sun, the park was still full of people enjoying the last warmth of the day, lovers strolling hand in hand, children running across the grass, a patient queue at the bus stop.
After picking up the tickets at the Press Office, we had a drink in the bar near door 9 and at the appointed hour drifted into the hall where we had excellent seats in the circle. Inside, the hall vibrated with the hum of 5000 people in that special state of eager expectation a few minutes ahead of the start of a concert. The orchestra were taking their places, the ‘prommers’ claiming their ‘pitch’ in the arena. Above the stage, a plush red and gold velvet swag proclaimed that these were the ‘BBC Proms’. Then the formalities began, first with the arrival of the assistant leader of the orchestra, then the leader, and finally the ‘master of ceremonies’, conductor Juanjo Mena (who takes over as principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in September). With the raise of his baton, the evening’s entertainment was underway.
I am well aware of the limitations of the Albert Hall as a music venue: small scale, chamber and solo recitals are often lost in its vast space, and its dodgy acoustic can give the sense that the music is being heard from a next door room. Even the full-size orchestra last Friday struggled at times to be heard, especially in the quieter passages of the opening piece (Debussy’s ‘Gigues’ from his Images for orchestra), but at other times, the woodwind and brass sections (who were particularly fine throughout the concert) sang through perfectly, clear, bright, melodious and mellow, while the strings were silky and translucent.
“Where are they off to?” my friend asked after the applause for Ravel’s wonderful Rhapsodie Espagnole and the orchestra started to drift off the stage. I pointed out it was the interval and therefore time for another glass of perfectly chilled rosé in the bar. Nick expressed his delight at being there, spoke intelligently about what he had heard and what we would hear in the second half. He seemed intrigued by the idea that I could have come to any Prom I care to, courtesy of Bachtrack. Around us people chatted and laughed; the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. Afterwards, walking back to the tube station along the tunnel at South Ken, we overhead other people’s responses to what they had heard (always useful grist to the reviewer’s mill!). We talked all the way home on the train and agreed that we’d had a great night out.
And this, to me, is what the Proms is all about. Too often people are put off attending classical music because they perceive it as stuffy, elitist and populated by (largely) snooty octogenarians who demand hushed reverence. The Wigmore audience is perhaps the very worst example of this, although it doesn’t bother me any more, and without those people the Wigmore probably wouldn’t exist. But at the Proms, everyone is welcome. In recent years, the programmes have definitely become more “populist”, with themed concerts such as a Dr Who Prom, and, this year, a Human Planet prom and forthcoming Horrible Histories and Spaghetti Western proms. Music snobs and critics may throw their hands up at this, but I think these concerts are a great way of introducing classical music to people who may have no previous knowledge or experience of it. The atmosphere inside the Albert Hall is very friendly and good-natured, with its special Prom traditions: the Prommers always yell “heave-ho!” as the piano lid is raised, for example. And if people applaud during movements, so what? To me, it’s a spontaneous, instant response to something they have enjoyed, and should not be sneered at as ignorance of “concert etiquette”. (The habit of not applauding between movements had not existed before the twentieth century.) So, hip hip hooray for the Proms and all they stand for, and long may they continue. You can be guaranteed a huge variety of music, from new commissions to old favourites, works on a vast scale (Havergal Brian’s monumental Gothic Symphony), to intimate chamber music and solo miniatures.
I am back at the Proms towards the end of August for a late-night recital of Liszt, including the beautiful Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, performed by Marc-André Hamelin. I am not sure how Liszt’s solo piano works will fare in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, but I have little doubt that this is the kind of venue, and concert experience, of which Liszt himself would have thoroughly approved.
This question seems particularly pertinent as I help prepare another crop of students for their piano exams. The question was, in fact, put to me last week by a student of another teacher (Clarinet) who came to me for some extra aural training ahead of his Grade 5 exam next week. I found myself quoting from the ABRSM website when I said “Aural tests help to train your musical ear, and to help you make an important link between listening to music and playing music”.
I think most of us who took music exams as children would agree that, along with sight-reading, the aural tests were the most dreaded element of the graded music exam. I can still remember being “trained” by my music teacher at school, Mr Weaver, and, in my nervousness, finding it almost impossible to sing a simple major third or fifth. (I was also tested for perfect pitch when I was about 12, in front of the entire class, which was excruciating and cringe-makingly awful.) One of my students, Laurie, absolutely refuses to sing for me and so when we come to the part of the test, where he is required to sing an echo, we mime (or I sing it for him), on the strict understanding that he will sing at his exam!
Joking apart, as well as forming an integral part of the graded music exams, training the musical ear is a crucial process for the developing musician. Intelligent and informed listening lies at the heart of good music making, whether listening to others, or to oneself, and is fundamental to music training, especially for performance. The key aspects from the Prep or Initial stage are:
Identifying and clapping a pulse
Clapping a rhythm
Singing and echo or pitching notes in a sequence
Identifying simple features in an extract of music – e.g. detached or smooth playing, loud or soft
As one proceeds through the graded exams, additional skills are tested
Identifying a rhythmic or pitch change in an extract of music
Identifying features such as staccato, legato, dynamic, tempo or key changes
Singing and identifying intervals
Learning to appreciate music from different periods – e.g. Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Jazz
What bothered me while working with the other teacher’s student last week was that the child had no idea why he was required to take an aural test, hence my explanation about training the musical ear. Being able to identify a pulse is crucially important, for any musician, and those of us who have played in ensembles or orchestras can surely still remember the player/s who could not keep time. I regularly do pulse and rhythm exercises with my teacher, and anyone who has learnt ‘Bah-Ba-Doo-Bah’ (John Kember, ABRSM Grade 2 syllabus) with me this term has had to do a lot of clapping and counting to master the syncopation in this piece.
Singing is also incredibly useful as a musician, and I often sing (not especially well!) to demonstrate a line of melody or the shape of a phrase. So much music follows a “singing line”, and singing a phrase rather than playing it demonstrates “natural shaping” which comes from the innate rise and fall of the human voice. It’s a pity that so many students are reluctant to sing because I think if they were more prepared to try it, they would find phrasing music so much easier.
When I worked with the clarinet student last week, I was astonished at his lack of knowledge of music history and the distinct periods in classical music. He did not even realise that the piece he played for me was jazz! He came armed with a book on how to improve your aural, and, flicking through it, it fell open on a page about the main periods of classical music. Each one – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – had four bullet points identifying the key features. When I played an extract of a Gershwin Prelude (No 2 – the middle section) he reeled off the salient features of Baroque music – and my heart sank.
If one doesn’t develop an appreciation and understanding of different kinds of music – and not just ‘classical’ music, but jazz, rock, pop, world, ambient, electronic etc – how can one properly understand how to interpret and play a piece properly? One of the first things I do when looking at a new piece with a student is set the music in context. When we study Bach, we look at the kinds of keyboard instruments he was writing for (I have pictures loaded onto my iPad) and listen to Bach played on the harpsichord or organ. While working on a simplified version of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ with a student recently, I played both the sung version and the quintet to him. Result: the next week he was beginning to play the piece with clearer phrasing and a nice sense of the “song line”.
I was very fortunate when I was growing up: my parents were keen concert-goers and LP buyers, and of course there was live music in the house because my father played in both a wind ensemble and an orchestra. From a very early age, I went to concerts, and my tastes and knowledge developed quickly. Listening and playing were normal activities for me – and remain so today. But many children who are learning instruments now are doing just that – learning the instrument, without being taught an appreciation of music. Perhaps their parents are not interested in music, or the school is not encouraging an appreciation? I admit I’m on something of a mission to encourage my students to both play well and to love music: if just one or two of them remember what they did with me as students when they are browsing iTunes or similar when they’re older, and they download some Beethoven piano sonatas, or one of Schubert’s String Quartets, then I can consider my job well done.
So, there is a lot of point to aural – and it is important for us, as teachers, to explain WHY!
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