Is there a word for that?
This week, I’ve mostly been thinking about talking. In part, this has been selfish thinking – finding the necessary language and expression of ideas and opinions for reviewing, as discussed in last week’s post, in advance of a very jolly recording session with Andrew McGregor for this week’s CD Review. But it’s not been just about me. I’ve also been helping others to think about what it is to speak in public, and what it means for us to have a voice in music.
Musicians are doers. They create: compose, improvise, elaborate, ornament, realise, articulate, shape, sounds. That is their life, their world, their passion. Hours and days, weeks and years, enable practice and build experience, and allow them to hone these skills. They are also thinkers. They must consider what comes next, and what came before, and how to get inside or connect with a tremendous range of repertoire from a span of centuries that would leave the hardiest time-traveller reeling. They think, they experiment and develop, they make music. Emotional, physical and intellectual alchemy at its finest.
But we do not, alas, live in an environment where this is enough. Not only must they take such time and pains and though to perfect their musicianship; they must also, increasingly, justify themselves in words. They must stand before their audience and introduce repertoire, explain programming decisions, describe the mechanisms of unusual instruments or the absent context of an operatic excerpt. When they achieve national or international recognition, they will probably also have to deal with interviews, reviews and perhaps even the request that they stand as some kind of representative or patron of a musical charity or scheme. More performing, you might say – but of a rather different hue. And usually a side of their work that falls well beyond the bounds of their training.
And actually, it isn’t just professional musicians who require a vocabulary of their most beloved art form. What about the music-lover, the person who perhaps sings in a local choir, or is a faithful attendee of concerts at their nearest church, or tunes into Radio 3 every morning and evening to listen and discover? How do they communicate their thoughts and feelings about this rich, magical new world to others? Words, words, words. Hamlet was on to something.
These words are crucial. They are crucial for an enormous variety of reasons. For the music lover, they allow a sense of shared community, an opportunity to discuss and learn, debate and assess. To communicate what music means to them, even if they are only receivers, rather than producers, of sounds themselves. As their understanding of composers’ lives and musical constructs increases, so does their ability to articulate their preferences and problems. How to describe what makes you uncomfortable about The Magic Flute? Or what moves you at the climax of Also sprach Zarathrustra? And how to communicate, that first, nervous time you dare to go backstage and thank a performer who has moved you to the very depths of your being, why it has been such a heart-stopping experience for you? Most of us are reluctant to put ourselves in situations of great vulnerability unless we are armed with something. Words are a good start. And yes, the first few times I was brave enough to join the queue to the Wigmore Hall green room, I would shuffle forwards and plan what to say before I got to the front. It didn’t stop me being a stumbling emotional wreck when I got there – but it helped.
Words are crucial, too, for the people actually on the concert platform. I was privileged, last weekend, to work with students from the Royal College of Music in a day of workshops and discussions about stage presence, led by violinist and RCM Junior Fellow Joo Yeon Sir. My job was to get them talking: looking at their audience, taking a deep breath, reading a passage from a book or simply introducing themselves. It is an entirely different, and often far more unnerving, experience from standing up to make music. And like making music, it takes planning, care, practice and bravery. What do you say to your audience, what words should you chose and why? It was humbling to talk to those who were clearly petrified, yet courageous enough to have a go; and heart-warming to be able to give the very simple gift of confessing that yes, we really do all get nervous, and it’s ok to admit it.
There is, finally, one other very important group, beyond the established music lover and the aspiring professional musician, for whom words are crucial. These are schoolchildren and university students. Humanities subjects at school and university level give us all the tools for real discussion – something that is crucial to our understanding of the world, politics, social structures, art, science and each other. Which is why I found myself shaking my head in sadness at Nicky Morgan’s recent pronouncement that STEM subjects are all that really matter. Of course science and technology is crucial. But it would be nice, would it not, to also have the tools to not only enjoy and explore culture, but also communicate our discoveries and passions to others?
If I can give the people I teach nothing else, I hope that I can give them a sense that talking about things – all things – is important. And negotiating the deep and murky waters of unknown vocabulary is exciting and rewarding; it is worth taking the time to seek out the right word and speak, it in the satisfied knowledge that we have found a way to make ourselves understood. Talking is how we build relationships, and discussions, and culture. We all have a voice. And recent experience suggests to me that there is no better use for it than speaking out with all the power, beauty and enthusiasm you have about the things that you love the most.