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Category archive: Music

Monday July 07 2008

I have paid no attention to High School Musical, until now, when I realised that it would be worth linking to from here:

It’s the age of the audience you notice first, quickly followed by the punishing volume of noise the little blighters generate.

Disney’s High School Musical, first a low-budget TV movie and now a stage-show phenomenon, is a wholesome romantic comedy that tells the story of two teenagers in love in Albuquerque.

A British touring production has been doing boffo business around the regions since it opened in January, while this sister production has just opened in London for the summer holidays.

I was expecting an audience mostly of girls aged between ten and 14, and there were plenty of those around, but there were also hundreds of far younger children, from the age of four and up, many of them boys.

The only difference is that the chaps don’t tend to get dolled up in bright red cheerleaders’ costumes and wave pom-poms about like the girls.

“He loves it, he knows all the words of every song,” observed one doting mother of her tiny-tot son, and indeed he did: he happily belted his way through every number.

This venerable venue cannot have been the scene of so much audience-generated racket since the Beatles played here in the early Sixties.

I wouldn’t have a clue about how to go about proving such a proposition, but I can’t help feeling that the extraordinary enthusiasm for show-biz that seems to be sweeping the nation, but which I mean an apparent enthusiasm to be a celebrity-stroke-performer rather than just watch what celebrity-stroke-performers do their various things while getting on with real life, is somehow related to the shift away from such things as maths and science and engineering.  What will all these would-be performers end up doing?  They can’t all become performers.  Can they?

The thing is, shifts in popular culture often signal changes in the world which the more educated and official cultural commentators are unaware of, or prefer not to notice or think about.

One thought occurs to me, which is that show-biz is how the adults of the near future will keep children amused and out of mischief.  So maybe lots of these performers will become teachers, or child-minders.


One of the key figures in High School Musical seems to be the lady teacher, Ms. Darbus, who presides over everything, played in the London stage production by Leticia Dean (above), who used to be in Eastenders.  This is no out-of-touch old biddy.  This is someone you’d be glad to be.

And this, I think, is all part of the same story.

Graduation used to be a rite restricted to students leaving university, but these days schoolchildren are getting in on the fun - with American-style proms to mark the end of the exam season.

The stretch limousine pulls up and out steps a young couple: he, suave in a tuxedo; she, tanned and glamorous. They stop for a photograph then saunter past the doorman.

The scene might resemble a Hollywood film premiere but none of the guests is more than 16 and the event is a school leavers’ party in Canvey Island, Essex.

Good luck turning those girls into engineers.

Saturday June 14 2008

Undoubtedly the best educational snippet I have picked up on while in France, so far, is this video, of the teachers at the Sainte Therese Lycée in Quimper, miming away on YouTube to an ancient pop song.  This was done only days ago, and has already got huge publicity all over La France.  The media studies teacher put it together, apparently.

So, guess where I’m staying.  Quimper.  And guess where the daughter of my hosts (and my second goddaughter) goes to school.  Sainte Therese Lycée.  How cool is that? - as the boys at Kings Cross Supplementary would say.

Thursday May 08 2008

Earlier this evening I was watching a movie called I Want Candy, which is about a couple of aspiring movie makers who get their start by making a porno movie.  In it there was a scene where a lecturer was lecturing a quite large room full of aspiring movie makers, and I was trying to work out just what was so very, very depressing about it.  It absolutely wasn’t merely the teacher, even though he was indeed very depressingly and very well enacted, by McKenzie Crook.

Then I got it.  Teaching a large number of people how to do a job which only a tiny number of people ever get to actually do for real is an inherently absurd activity.  It just doesn’t make sense.  By far the more intelligent strategy for the teacher, if he actually wants to accomplish anything beyond collecting his pay check in exchange for damn all, is for him to start not by doing much in the way of actual teaching, but instead by searching through all the students in the room, and picking out the one or two who look like they are the least unlikely ones to actually make it to being real movie makers, and concentrate all his efforts on making these few even better.

The usual explanations given for why some things are taught in huge assemblages of students, while other things are taught by teachers on a one-to-one basis are that the nature of the skill requires this, or the student is paying for special attention, or the pupil gets special attention by threatening to wreck the classroom otherwise (whcih amounts to the same idea).  But I think another reason is that teaching someone to get ahead in a fiercely competitive trade or profession just doesn’t make sense any way except one-on-on, very intensely.

The best concert violin students have individual teachers.  The best aspiring athletes have individual coaches.  It’s not the nature of the skill that demands this.  It is the ruthlessly competitive nature of the field that the pupils aspire to enter.  The best violin teachers don’t teach vast throngs of violinists.  They teach a very select few, and lavish tremendously detailed attention on these few.

If someone is teaching a highly competitive trade to a large throng, the chances are that neither he nor his pupils are very good.  If the teacher was any good, he’d pick a few potential winners.  If a pupil was any good, he’d find a better teacher.

If there was a large demand for people who could play the violin really, really well, on a scale approaching the demand for people who are merely literate and numerate, then violin playing would be taught in large classes, just like literacy and numeracy.

In the past, when the demand for literacy and numeracy was not nearly so great, these things were also taught one-to-one.

This has been a thinking-aloud posting, and it may not be right.

Tuesday May 06 2008

Libby Purves in today’s Times:

One unalloyed good that new Labour promoted is music in schools: slowly it is creeping back to prominence, and the Music Manifesto includes a demand that children should sing for at least five minutes a day. So far, so good. But in a classic example of meddling overmanagement, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, announced last year a “national songbook” of 30 songs that every 11-year-old should know. This prissy, prescriptive idea has just been abandoned because nobody could agree on which 30. Instead, the Sing Up website has a hundred, ranging from Clementine to Polish skipping tunes, and puts new ones up weekly. It still hasn’t nerved itself to include Land of Hope and Glory, but it’s doing fine.

Yet Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, instead of tossing his hat in the air and singing “Let my people go!”, proved that he is well in training to be a modern minister (aka an annoying, bossy pest) by criticising the decision to abandon the compulsory 30-song list. “This Government,” he thundered, “is so paralysed by political correctness and terminally afflicted by dithering that it cannot even decide on a simple thing like the songs children should learn.”

I am sorry to hear a Cameroonian so infected with new-Labouritis. Michael, man, chill! It is not the role of ministers to prescribe which songs children sing. Insist they sing something, provide an online facility to help timid teachers, pop in the multiculti stuff - fine. But a compulsory list of songs to be learnt by 11? Mad micromanagement: bossy, borderline fascist. ...

Guy Herbert of Samizdata is also appalled, both by the government’s micromanagement and by Gove’s attitude.

Herbert goes on to quote various other gruesome stuff from www.curriculumonline.gov.uk.

Friday May 02 2008

Violins and Starships Lynn links to this excellent piece by a double bass teacher.  It starts by being about how long lessons should be, but he tangents off into a discussion of his whole approach to teaching.

With one-on-one music teaching the consent principle applies from both directions, or it damn well should.  If Jason Heath can’t be doing with a particular pupil (who, for instance, refuses to practice) then they’re out.  If a pupil can’t take the nagging and the tyranny, they can leave.  Excellent.  But he can be a little more interesting than that.  He can be a “musical guide”:

imageI realize that a particular student loves music and loves playing the instrument, but through lack of motivation or lack of available time, simply doesn’t progress. With these students, however, I see a genuine love for music and a person who will be likely to listen to music, play in an amateur orchestra, attend concerts, and enroll their children in musical programs in a decade or two. Over time I’ve learned to spot these kind of students, and with them, I teach them about music, with the double bass as a sonic conduit. I’d love it if they started practicing (and many do end up working hard at it), but I see a genuine interest in this art form, and I teach them about the fundamentals of music and give them some elementary training on the instrument.

Anticipating complaints from fellow professionals about that approach, Heath continues:

Look - we’re not all destined to become concert musicians. In fact, we don’t want everyone and their dog to be a concert musician. But what we do need are lovers of music, future patrons and enthusiasts. And if that “nice bass teacher” that a non-practicing student had back in high school helped to nurture that love, then I feel like I did a good job, “standards” or no.

Amen.  One of the most important functions of a teacher, currently rather neglected by the politicians, is to teach people how to enjoy life more than they might otherwise, by instilling not just careers and career-skills but hobbies and hobby-enthusiasms.  To put it another way, education means learning how to spend money, and not just how to make it.  And when you consider how cheap potent music is these days, teaching someone to enjoy music is teaching them how to get a lot more pleasure from not that much more money.

Saturday March 29 2008


The fusty old professorcrank passes on his trade secrets to his favoured students. His folly? Scarcity = value. Back then, maybe. Not now. The real truth about his ‘secret method’ of creating extra resonance for the staccato on an upbow when playing at a moderate to fast speed (or whatever)? Noone knows about it, so noone gives a damn.

The cheery old professor is generous with his knowledge, and feeds ideas to anyone who will take them. He always raises the bar for himself; he has to keep looking for something new to pass on, even though he’s in his eighties. His abundant approach echoes ideaviruses through the generations that follow him. People become inspired.

I tried to add some profound comments to that about how Open Source started as an academic thing, and how Open Source versus Proprietary is a culture war between academics and tradesmen.  But the trouble is, as the above quote illustrates, academics come in many shapes and varieties, and it got too complicated.

Thursday March 27 2008

Some words of wisdom from Greg Sandow, in a email he sent to the dean of a major music school:

Students should be trained in entrepreneurship, or at least should have the opportunity to be trained. Classical musicians will, increasingly, be finding new career paths, and students should prepare themselves.

Music history needs to be rethought. Students now are taught (as I was [and I suspect many of my blog readers were] the history of music as if it was essentially the history of composition. That fits the standard emphasis on masterworks, and on the musician’s expected role as the servant of the composer. But this doesn’t entirely fit historical reality, and also doesn’t help prepare students for the contemporary world. I’d like much more emphasis on entrepreneurship in the past (it certainly existed), on the role of the audience, and on the role of performing musicians.

Students should be encouraged to find their own musical paths. In classical music, students typically learn the repertoire for their instrument. “I’m a clarinetist, so I’ll play the clarinet repertoire.” In other musical genres, a musician will far more likely say, “I play the clarinet. What music do I want to play on my clarinet?” Yo-Yo Ma is an outstanding example of a current classical music star who takes this not very classical approach. I’d like to see students take it, too, looking into their hearts to find out what kind of music is important to them, and then finding ways to make that music (or, more likely, all those many kinds of musics) part of their professional lives. (And of course I strongly believe that all students should compose. If that’s not going to be a requirement, it should at least be strongly encouraged.)

The entrepreneurship thing is especially interesting.  But, can it be taught?

Thursday February 14 2008

imageIn the latest (March 2008) issue of the Gramophone, Jonas Kaufmann, who is arguably the finest tenor Germany has produced in the past half-century, talks about a crisis in his singing career, and how an American teacher living in Germany enabled him to surmount it.

A year after graduating I found that I had no clue how to sing. I was very close to quitting altogether, so insecure was I about everything I was doing onstage. The voice constantly felt as though it could go at any moment. And that, eventually, is exactly what happened. Twice. Onstage, while singing in Parsifal. The conductor looked at me, I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

This is a regular nightmare for opera singers, but here I was living it. To my great fortune there was an American bass in this show who said, “You need a better teacher”. I was sceptical, and retorted that a doctor was what I needed. But eventually I took his advice and hunted for a vocal coach who could show me the right path. That’s when I met Michael Rhodes, and that first meeting changed my life.

A friend took me along to see this Brooklyn-born man living in the German town of Trier. This was 13 years ago, and although he was already in his 70s he was full of energy and power.

After we had been introduced, he got down to business. “Sing ah, ah, ah” he demanded. I obliged. “Interesting,” he said, “now sing ee, ee, ee.” I did as he asked, and he said, “Absolutely wrong”. I was stunned. “What are you talking about?”

I asked, baffled. “Your ee is much too slim and broad, you use your mouth in the wrong way and your entire sound is unnatural for you.” It was the first time that somebody had dipped their hand into that wound, but he was right. German tenors are expected to sound light and bright, with little vibrato, a typical Peter Schreier sound. I also expected this, and was manipulating my voice to sound like this. It sort of worked, but the sound was unhealthy and I would finish each performance exhausted.

In that session, Rhodes told me to open my mouth and let my own sound out. It took a while for me, and for other people, to trust this dark, heavy sound I was now making. But, whereas my voice had previously given out sometimes even before I had finished a lesson, on this occasion I sang for him for two and a half hours. I could have continued singing for hours more.

Suddenly it was so easy to sing! And by learning that new way of singing I became more and more relaxed in my voice and in myself. And I always had Rhodes as my indefatigable guide. If ever I couldn’t reach a note, he – a septuagenarian baritone – would sing a soft high B and taunt me. He challenged me, he taught me, he kept me in singing.

See and hear Kaufmann singing Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio here.

The teacher who saved Jonas Kaufmann’s voice
A boy learns music by picking CDs at random
Musical compulsion
Pinchas Zukerman - long distance violin teacher
Leonard Bernstein - “television’s star teacher”