May 2012

Classical music: it is NOT the trademark of culture.

May 31, 2012 03:22

Our fellow member, Ronald Mutchnik, recently started a discussion in response to an article on Huffington Post. In it, the writer was discussing/bemoaning how the classical music has practically turned into North Korea, in which the protocols are so strict that music is not as enjoyable. He writes:

Although I loved the music I heard that evening, I was struck at the time by how matter-of-factly my guide dismissed my observation that concerts might not be easy to figure out for a first-timer. And he took it for granted that I would find the impressive edifice and music itself a satisfactory recompense for my troubles. And he might have been right, I suppose, had I at least been allowed to authentically enjoy the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a dance or a hip-hop concert -- if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn't contain the joy building up inside myself. What would that have been like?

But this was classical music. And there are a great many "clap here, not there" cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied -- as I believe are many classical concert goers -- by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star field were about to be swallowed by a black hole.

Now, I've been on both ends, as a performer looking across those "thousand dead looking eyes" and being one of the "thousand dead looking eyes". The truth is, what this writer is saying is half-truth, and half-inaccurate.

For one thing, any genre with long history already has established protocol. You do not scream in a ballet performance, for instance. You clap when the ballerina does the 32 fouettes or jetes around the stage, but that's about it. Similarly, if you shrieked "WOOHOO" in an opera performance, you'd be momentarily kicked out. It's called tradition. And for a scene newcomer, it is confusing and oppressive. But just as one would not eat a French 5 course meal without proper silverware, you don't clap in between movements.

Another thing is, the audience expects this oppression. People have a tendency to slap on the tag "culture" as soon as they hear classical arts. Breakdancing is ghetto but ballet is classy. Rock concert is common and even crass but classical concert is posh. While we performers don't regard it as such, others do, and that's undeniable.

The reason why we don't regard it in any special manner is because we are immersed in it. You walk through a conservatory, or any music department, and you'd see people with cellos on their backs, voices drifting from the windows, someone struggling through Scriabin (and cursing), Italian streaming through the doors and the teacher yelling "TEMPO!". You kick out the opera singer from a practice room without much deference, pointing out that you're a violinist and you need the room, the singers can sing outside (or maybe that's just me). Music is music, period.

But for others? How many times have I heard people hastily say, "Ah, I always wanted to go to the opera, I just didn't have time to..." when I casually mention that I saw the Aida performance last Friday, and Radames wasn't that good in his Celeste Aida? It's almost like it's a status symbol. I don't hear "Ah, I always wanted to go to a rap concert, but I just didn't have time to...". It's almost as if they immediately place me in the "upper class" section of the social strata, and feel the need to match up. "My daughter plays the violin!" is a brag-worthy mention. "My daughter plays the drums!" evidently is not.

Personally, I hate it when people clap in between movements. The music is not over. The story is not yet fully told, and people clap as if it is, and then my concentration is smashed away and I'm pulled back into this world. Do you clap or hoot when Queen is performing Bohemian Rhapsody? No! When the concentration is broken, you have to start from base one again and build up to the height you were at before. This is MUCH harder to do than the first time because you're already tired. When you're concentrating so much that you even forget where you are and then people clap in between movements and your concentration is broken, you have to get back into that mindless state much more quickly when you're already getting tired. NOT a fun thing to do.

The basis of the concert protocol hasn't changed much, folks. DON'T break the musician's concentration by noise. Appreciate loudly when it's appropriate.

FYI, Yes has produced a few tracks that are in movement form. The fans are NOT clapping in between movements. And people stand up and clap crazily in classical performances too.

9 replies


Piano quartet. It's a rock band with two vocals.

May 22, 2012 15:20

I'm in Paris.

With three other guys.

In a cramped apartment (which houses yet another male).

In summer.

I'm not sure what exactly I did to deserve this punishment, but if karma's a b!tch, then I must have done something dreadful. Like, kill a baby then eat it in a stew.

I'm here because of a quartet crash camp hosted by one of my former professors, who is a sort of a pedagogue (or so I hear... who knows what the truth is. All I know is that she's a mean ol' lady who makes the piano lesson look like a walk in the park. Good grief). The pianist is a 24 year old British male who can't play French music even if his life depended on it. The violist is a 5'2" Asian whose hands were clearly not meant for a viola. The cellist is a German 6'4" who probably should have been in a rock band.

We arrived a few days ago, and ever since then, it's been: Music Theory from 9 to 12, lunch, Music History from 1 to 2, then private lessons with various teachers from 2 to [insert time here]. As none of us are professionals, pro wannabes or anything, this took its toll on us. A lot.

So today, working on Faure's Piano Quartet No 1, here is what happened:

Cello: Hey piano, can you slow down a bit there? I have a massive shift.
Piano: I can't. That'll slow everything down.
Cello: Then pick up after I'm done.
Piano: Can't do that either. I can't suddenly speed up.
Cello: Goodness sakes, this isn't about you!
Viola: Er, guys...
Piano: This is where all the tension builds! I'm not going to compromise musicality for your lack of technique. You can practise. I can't slow down.
Viola: Guys, please...
Cello: Oh, just because you can play anything doesn't mean you can sneeze on others! You're such a snob! It's always "I can play this, I can play that". Well, here's a news, pal! This is teamwork! So slow down when I say so!
(three turn to me): Hey, violin? Who's in the right?
Me: Er... can we just skip this part and ask the instructor tomorrow?
[taken verbatim from recording]

Piano quartet is possibly more difficult than a string quartet, mainly because a piano's an independent player. We have a violin (generally going me, me, it's all about me! Look at me! Don't look at the cello [slap]), viola (I'm the glue that holds this together. Without me thou cannot exist. Muwahahahaha!), cello (Oh yeah, violin? Wanna bring it on? Well I HAVE A LARGER INSTRUMENT SO IN YOUR FACE!). Now, with a string quartet, there's another, less pushy violin going "hey guys, can we listen to the viola for a second? And me? We're gluing you two together". But without the 2nd violin and a piano going "I'm a free spirit, tralalala", it turns into chaos without a very precise balance. Not to mention a piano's larger than the cello, viola and a violin put together.

We went back to the apartment with piano and cello not talking. I now have to go record Bruch's quartet, 3rd movement so I can send it across the pond, then I have to mix the tracks I received from my other quartet, overlay it, then send it out so we can analyse it. The piano's playing Diablo 3 like it's the apocalypse, and the cello has gone out.

I think 3/4 of quartet practice is just building rapport.

1 reply


Do you have fun when you perform?

May 10, 2012 01:24

I don't.

Actually, I sometimes get sick. Not "egad, not again" sickness, more like "my hands are clammy, I'm sweating, I feel nauseous and my hand's shaking, I need an aspirin and I might be getting stomach flu" kind of sickness. It's called stage fright. It is no longer on the level of "this sucks", it's on the level of "oh god this is terrifying". It's not fun at all. I have "fun" playing video games. I do not have "fun" performing on stage.

I thought, when I was little, that it'd get easier as time went by. It didn't. The more I sought to produce something better, the more I had something that I needed to tell, the stage fright got progressively worse. The more I had practised, the more I had banking on 40 minutes of a performance. The worse the fright got. I'd overtense myself, missing that balance point when you're just concentrated and nervous enough to let loose your inner hound and let the sound rage throughout the hall. And then come back depressed. Sometimes in tears.

As I grew up, I began going backstage. I've met quite a lot of major violinists at one point; Perlman, Batiashvili, Mutter, Bell, Fischer, Chung, Chang, Kremer... all those who had faced a symphony centre full of audience, their entire attention focused on them for a good 30 minutes. They always see my dog-eared, beaten-up, scribbled and bleeding graphite music, smile, and sign it (then they all proceed to praise my hands, but I digress). They notice my callused hands, the left hand finger curved, nails shorn to the quick. My right thumb is severely callused from the bow. They know that I am one of them, a fellow violinist, albeit a young one that might never reach their calibre. Their stances relax.

Every single time, I ask: "do you ever get stage fright?"

9 out of 10: "every time."

So why do I go on stage? The thirty seconds before walking out is inner, personal hell that I have to battle and overcome every time I give a performance. The performance time is a blur, each second slowed to an hour. Then the music ends, and I hear thunderous applause. I smile. I bow. And when the thunder stops, I retreat, sigh, and let go, turning into a deflated balloon. I've given everything, and there's nothing left.

I think there are few reasons that I can identify for musicians to go onto the stage, despite all the hell. As Linkin Park's vocalist said, "we have something that we need to tell". And then, there's that triumphant victory when you finish the last note, hear the last note die, and there's a thunderous applause. The feeling that for that brief moment, the entire audience and you were in the same world, the world you created. For thirty seconds of victory, I spend hours each day trying to decipher what the composer wanted to say through me, what I want to say through my violin. To perfect that technique so I don't have to worry about it on stage.

Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry said that going on stage is like doing a drug (and considering just how much drug he's done, I'm sure he knows all about it); that it's an addiction, that you suffer through so much for that short period of euphoria. If so, I'm so addicted I probably need to go to rehab. I see myself in the spotlight, applause filling my ears, and I pick up my instrument again, go back to the thirds that keep getting out of tune.

Is performing "fun" for you?

6 replies


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