Short Cuts

There is no such thing as a shortcut. Any journey can be made using a variety of routes but just as with the issue of procreation — where a random selection of gametes creates a unique person — the reality you arrive in via one route is not the same as if you had taken a different route. And as in the case of the person, it is hard to imagine things having been any other way. Thus, for example, learning fast and getting a good grade in a test is not a shortcut when compared with engaging with a subject in a leisurely fashion. The journeys are different and even if the same grade is achieved, the result is not the same. The person that you are is made of the journeys you have taken, there is no way to have arrived as this person except by precisely those journeys.

Bill Evans said in 1965:

“I hardly believe I’m as talented as some others. Someone with talent possesses a kind of facility and plays well as early as 16 or 17, much better than I could play myself at that age. I had to practice a lot and spend a lot of time searching and digging before I got anywhere. And because of that, I later became more aware of what I was doing. I wasn’t an imitation. I found myself with a synthesis of the playing of many musicians. From this something came out and I think it’s really mine.”

Any shortcut he might have attempted to take — to catch up with the talented kids — would have resulted in an alternative reality without Bill Evans as we know him.

There are no shortcuts, and no need to look for them.

Sing or Play

As a string player who works primarily in string groups, and who has happily spent decades of my musical life within that community, it might be assumed that I would advocate string teaching above all other musical instruction. However, when it comes to primary music education I feel that the emphasis should be on singing. Frequently – when tackling questions of musical phrasing or rhetoric, articulation or even intonation – I ask myself “how would you sing it?” Singing is arguably the fundamental music, to which all music refers and from which all musical adventures and adventurers might beneficially embark.

Violin teaching is much more fashionable; perhaps it is aspirational (the violin really is the top of the heap in the classical-music hierarchy). And I suspect that the materialistic disposition of our society leads us to value instrumental tuition over vocal because it employs sophisticated tools. I’m not arguing against instrumental tuition, but in favour of singing as the discipline to which children should first be introduced.

There are lots of well-documented rewards for schools where instruments are taught: increased discipline, self-confidence and general academic achievement. All of these are great of course; but it may be years before the average child can express themselves on a string instrument because the technique is very challenging. On the other hand, if young children are taught to sing, they can quickly attain a considerable level of musical facility, and can participate on a much higher plane. Having learned to sing – and to really engage with music – children who then learn instruments will find they are able to aim higher from the outset. And those who do not continue to sing nor subsequently take up instruments will have had a view of music from the inside that is much more intellectually and spiritually rewarding than had they spent a couple of years on the violin.

When we are built with such an extraordinary and versatile internal instrument, why favour a fiddly external alternative?

Philharmonic Tone Control

It can be beguiling to hear a beautiful voice, an immaculate delivery. So much so that the transmission can eclipse the content. Often the style-substance dichotomy is ill-balanced or simply unconsidered. Typical conservatoire training for string players emphasises the development of what has been termed the “philharmonic tone”. The production of a focused and projected sound, with a relentless sheen of robust vibrato, involves a myriad of physical components that can be taught effectively. And any school will typically focus its efforts on things that can be reliably imparted to students.

But years invested in this single facet of performance can result in neglect of the engagement with the real matter of music. Striving to achieve perfect delivery of every note (as if they were equally important) is an interesting exercise but if every note is a gem, where is the setting? As with spoken delivery, inflection and emphasis give meaning. In order to invest meaning in music you need to acknowledge that not all notes are important and furthermore to have developed the ability to make decisions on this hierarchy. And to have a strong sense of what the meaning is – of what you are trying to communicate – is a very subjective area and not easily taught.

However good the elocution, what really matters is having something to say.

Quite Interesting

I was watching Stephen Fry and his jolly chums on QI, enjoying all their whimsical banter, and once again it occurred to me that the best thing about the show (and other similar ones) was not the wittiness but the fact that it was spontaneous. Of course it’s all a bit silly, and a tightly scripted thing from any one of the panellists would in fact be a whole lot cleverer. But the show is tremendously popular, and understandably so. Maybe people really prefer daring (even if sloppy) to slick. How does that apply to music?

In his 1667 publication The Division-Viol (p.27) Christopher Simpson says

“True it is, that Invention is a gift of Nature, but much improved by Exercise and Practice. He that hath it not in so high a measure as to play ex tempore to a Ground [improvising], may, notwithstanding give both himself and hearers sufficient satisfaction in playing such Divisions [variations] as himself or others have made for that purpose; in the performance whereof he may deserve the Name of an excellent Artist; for here the excellency of the Hand may be shewed as well as in the Other, and the Musick perhaps better, though less to be admired, as being more studied.”

Which indicates that 350 years ago unpremeditated invention was more prized than intellectual offering even though the latter may produce better music! So our demised classical recording industry was really barking up the wrong tree in its obsession with clarity and perfection: all it achieved was sterility.

Simpson’s message is good: practice a lot, then make it up on the spot. That will grab them.


About 15 years ago I invited an old friend with whom I had played in teenage rock bands to an ICO concert. He endured it and although he admired the technique on display, he mainly wondered afterwards what we young people were doing playing all this dead ancient music! I could hardly comprehend the question – most of the tunes we used to play together were based on well-worn chord sequences and modes, even if we were “writing our own material”. I think his reaction was, like many people, to the complexity rather than to the age of the idiom. His preference would have been for visceral impact, which is to a degree inversely proportional to sophistication.

I never made a distinction between music of then or now, alive or dead, even rock or classical. In fact, I have always regarded Music as one big entity with infinite internal connections, somewhat like the brain. What appear to be new ideas (young music) usually turn out to have been done before, if you care to look. The optimal kind of music-making involves connections that span time in a multi-directional way: the participants are not just looking back (to the score) but rather interacting with past and future Music. Trad players call it a session which is the same word as séance, an apt comparison.

Heavy Metal Parenting

I was friends with a kid who left me for heavy metal: he moved house and found that in his new neighbourhood the thing to do was to commit to a teen code. He appeared to have had his identity suddenly replaced and we no longer had anything in common. I slightly envied him the certainty of his new highly-decorated self, but I suspected that such easily-found conviction would have its drawbacks. And it was indeed traumatic for him to abandon the metal when he grew out of it a few years later. (He had a transitional affair with some pop-rock band while on the rebound.) Making up your own mind – slowly – costs you a lot of thought but pays off in the end for all the dead-ends you don’t have to back out of, and the time invested in finding out who you are rather than trying to be somebody.

When our kids were born I had no intention of signing them up to any religion, for the same reason. And in general I have encouraged them to make up their own minds on things. It’s a slightly controversial parenting tactic, because certainty is comfortable, and children need to be made comfortable; telling a kid a lot of black-and-white stuff makes it easier for them to make sense of the world. But I think my irritating anti-dogmatic attitude provides some continuity in itself, and the boys are good independent thinkers. Then again, maybe a ready-made identity with a prescribed attitude to everything is exactly what they crave, and in time heavy metal will steal my kids too…

Notes vs Music

We were beginning a recording of works by a lesser-known English Baroque composer, with little time and a lot of concerti grossi ahead of us. There was (as is too often the case, especially in the UK) not enough time to actually rehearse and record the music so we had to look only at a few representative parts and then just play the stuff. The engineer would tell us which bits he probably couldn’t fix in the editing suite and we would get a second pass at those. With a familiar composer, you can guess what is coming up to a certain degree, knowing their language. This music however was full of charming but unexpected eccentricities. Our inspired director advised us to

“play the music and get the notes right by accident!”

An incredibly useful and succinct point, and one that I have beneficially borne in mind ever since. The music is the important bit, not to be confused with the notes which are mere detail. The more technically demanding the notes, the less attention a player can find themselves devoting to the bigger picture unless they are vigilant. As an esteemed colleague is fond of saying, in a phrase which appears comicly self-effacing but is actually  quite profound:

“the notes are just a guide”

Thorium Power

According to an article in the Telegraph today, the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics have 140 PhD scientists working full-time on an alternative to uranium for nuclear reactors (and that number will be increased to 750 in 2 years). Thorium was thoroughly investigated for this purpose in the US in the 1960s but uranium was favoured partly because it offered weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product.

The thorium reactor requires constant neutron bombardment: unlike uranium, there is no chain reaction. If you switch it off, it stops instantly, and it can’t melt down. Furthermore, the toxic residue is minimal and it can even “burn” old uranium residue, thereby cleaning up the mess left by the current nuclear power technology.

China’s motives are of course selfish (like any nation): they do not have enough power for their vast upwardly-mobile population, nor nearly enough uranium to fuel the nuclear plants that might deliver that power. But they have plenty of thorium (enough, they say, for 20,000 years). The technology that they are developing could benefit all of us in terms of fossil-fuel dependence, global warming, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.


One of my teachers played with a big London orchestra, and was familiar with many very famous conductors. He found them tiresome on the whole. Ideally he liked minimal rehearsal, since the orchestra knew how to operate and certainly knew how to play all the core repertoire that it was fond of; excess rehearsal time was just an opportunity for the maestro to indulge himself. But the real showboating carry-on was of course reserved for the concert, and he suggested an ingenious solution to this: they should build a screen around the back of the conductor so that he can’t be seen by the audience. Then his gestures would be likely to be of some use to the players, rather than crowd-pleasing shapes.

I often find when attending concerts that I close my eyes to escape distracting physicality, of players as well as conductors. Music is by definition an aural experience, but is it odd to travel to a live event and not to take in the visuals? I guess it depends what you’re after. The attention that you can give to a performance is certainly increased by being in a concert hall, eyes open or shut. It’s interesting to see musicians, but how they appear is not relevant to the sound. A performer can look as beautiful as they sound, but most likely there is a discrepancy between the two aspects and the better they sound the less likely they are to match that visually. And often it is not deliberate maestro-style theatricality but just superfluous physical gestures and incidental face-pulling that one could do without.

When the music is really really good, the best setup might be for the band to be in a pit, with the audience facing an empty stage !?