Saturday, February 20, 2010

Educators' Apotheosis

This post of Greg Sandow's reinforces my notion that there's something out of balance in the music educator's world view. I'm going to paste in some snips that give an idea of what he's saying, but this really is one worth reading all the way through. He's talking about two performances had expected to enjoy.

. . . And the results were dismaying. What struck me first was the often perfect execution -- the fine detail, the glowing intonation, the precise ensemble. And I realized, as I listened, that execution ranks very high, among young musicians, as a goal in performance. It has to. Because without it, musicians can't make careers. . . 

. . . I've played, for instance, a Jussi Bjorling recital from the 1950s, released on a CD called Bjorling Rediscovered . . . When I play this, I hear Bjorling's excitement, and his authenticity. My students hear that, by their standards, he's not together with his accompanist. I, too, can hear that this is true, but it doesn't bother me. It bothers the students so much that they don't care about much else. . . 

. . . But what I heard Sunday night from the East Coast Chamber Orchestra was execution coming first, taken so much for granted that nobody, I'm sure, even realized that it came first. And then, as I heard things, expression got added afterward, conceptually, at least (I'm not saying that things happened literally in that order). . . 

. . .  As a result, all the pieces sounded the same. The tone didn't very, the color didn't vary. It was as if the musicians didn't know what the music really was for -- why it had been written, what it felt like to the composer, what it felt like to the composer's original audience, or what it should mean to us now. It was, in some way, only abstractly beautiful, and the emotions applied to it were, similarly, abstract. 


  1. One of the things I enjoy about amateur music (both listening and performing) is the higher degree of enthusiasm and (perversely) the lower technical standard!

    I found Simon Rattle completely inspiring that time I played under him. But a few months later he brought the Berlin Philharmonic over to London, playing the same piece he had rehearsed with us (Bruckner's 9th Symphony).

    And it was of course magnificent. Not a note out of place, gorgeous tone from the horns and Wagner Tubas. And it was slightly boring, because there didn't seem to be any tension in the performance. The orchestra is of course wonderful, but they were playing a piece they have no doubt done many times before, one of the centrepieces of the German symphonic repertoire, and I got the impression that this was just another routine working day for them, without even the advantage of being able to get home to their families after the concert that night. there was no sense of them being remotely stretched by it.

    With amateurs, they are usually playing pretty close to the edge of what they can achieve, and so they are never quite sure what is going to happen next. That excitement transmits itself to the audience.

    The audience can see that the players are really enjoying themselves, and the audience also has a vague awareness of the fact that it could all go horribly wrong at any moment. And occasionally it does, to the great embarrassment of the players. It is part of the charm of amateur music.

  2. Jonathan - Nicely said. Both Greg's post and your comment make me feel I'm not on a fool's errand trying to get more people playing music and for others to enjoy that playing. A lot can be felt and communicated without being note perfect.

    To me, this discussion resonates with what I was trying to say about tone. Directors/educators could at least mention things like this along with all the technique stuff. I think Greg's saying that all the technique stuff can suffocate what you call musicality.