One of the ugliest words in the English language is Pedagogy. It sounds like a very unpleasant disease, and perhaps that is not inappropriate, as pedagogy kills creativity.
The word is as ugly as the concept. What is pedagogy? It is a misguided attempt to fix and quantify the art of teaching and guiding young musicians. Teaching is a creative process between two people, the teacher or mentor and the student, constantly changing, evolving, exploring, creating, experimenting. When we attempt to analyse it, fix it, pin it down with rules, fragment and quantify it, we kill it. We cannot pin down the butterfly without killing it.
Pedagogy can be defined as the method and practice of teaching. Chopin had something to say on the subject:
“People have tried out all kinds of methods of learning to play the piano, methods that are tedious and useless, and have nothing to do with the study of the instrument.”
Pedagogy feeds our illusion that by taking apart, analysing, compartmentalising the teaching of great teachers, we can learn from this study. But we are left, not with wisdom or understanding, but with fragments, bits of information, meaningless without context. We are in the world of the left hemisphere of our brains.
It was a revelation for me to attend, some years ago, lectures given by the eminent neuro-scientist, Dr. Ian McGilchrist, who is the leading authority on the hemispheres of the brain.
In his masterly book, The Master and the Emissary, McGilchrist has much to say that is revelatory to musicians.
People have long since held a very simplistic view of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. McGilchrist explains that the now outdated view of the left hemisphere as being concerned with language and reason, and the right hemisphere with imagination and feeling, is incorrect. Both hemispheres deal with everything. It is not a question of what they do, but how they do it.
The left hemisphere takes things out of context to examine the component parts, to analyse, abstract, compartmentalise. This is a necessary part of studying, to examine in detail, but if we lose touch with the context, as is increasingly the case in our modern world and systems of education, we are left with just pieces, bits which have no meaning without a context. It is the right hemisphere which provides the context, sees the broader picture, makes connections, and allows us to experience those dawning moments when knowledge becomes understanding.
One of my students, a few days ago, sent me an e-mail link to a wonderful film of great pianists of the past, “The Art of Piano.” It is an absolute treasure trove of astonishing and sublime playing, and it still seems amazing to me that all these wonderful performances should be now so readily available at the touch of my iPad screen.
It will seem unimaginable to young people today, but when I was a child, in the far-off fifties, the only access to recorded music was the occasional concert on the radio, (or wireless, as it was then called). I listened to these broadcasts avidly, thrilled by the performances I heard, and even cutting out photos and programme details, from the indispensable Radio Times, of my favourite artists, which I pasted into a treasured scrapbook. I never dreamt that, one day, I would meet some of these revered artists, and even perform works such as the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas with the legendary violinist, Nathan Milstein, who featured prominently in my scrapbook.
When my parents bought a gramophone, when I was about twelve years old, my excitement was immense. Records were expensive then, and most had to be specially ordered from the local record shop, after hours of careful scrutiny of the leaflets, regularly available at the shop, detailing the latest releases from recording companies such as HMV and Deutsche Grammophon. I was allowed one LP on my birthday and one at Christmas, supplemented with additional purchases made possible by a combination of pocket money and winnings from piano competitions. There was also the occasional foray into pop music with a 78 disc of the latest hit. To choose was agonisingly difficult, but made easier by the limited choice on offer.
It may seem to many of you reading this that mine was indeed a sadly deprived childhood. I know that it was the exact opposite, for I loved my few LPs with a passion I can still remember, and I can vividly recall the overwhelming experience of listening to my precious discs. It was magic.
My first LP was of the famous Tchaikovsky concerto played by Solomon, followed by Moiseiwitsch’s recording of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov, magisterial performances both. I never tired of listening to them over and over again. Having few recordings meant that one indeed heard them over and over again, absorbing fresh nuances and insights each time, so that the performances became almost a part of oneself. And my listening experience was expanded by the joy of being introduced to jazz by a group of older boys from my school, one of whom was the brother of one of my classmates. These boys had formed a jazz band, and, to my delight, I, being the only pianist around, was invited to join them. We gave some rather strange concerts. I remember starting one with a Bach Prelude and Fugue, followed by a jazzed up version of Bach by Alec Templeton called Bach Goes to Town, in which I was joined by clarinet and bass. Then the rest of the band joined in, and we swang into “Stompin’ at the Savoy”. Heady days! Of course, the boys had their own precious collections of jazz discs, and we spent many wonderful evenings in which I heard for the first time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong. I think my favourites at the time were the legendary Carnegie Hall concerts of the Benny Goodman orchestra, and the phenomenal pianist, Erroll Garner, in that wonderful live recording, “Concert by the Sea”, with his amazing left hand driving the music along in a totally unique fashion.
I, in my turn, had the joy of introducing my friends to classical music, which they took to with the same passion as jazz, a particular favourite being Holst’s Planets Suite.
This was my musical education, apart from my piano lessons, for music was not on the curriculum at my school. But we were given encouragement by the headmaster and staff, who seemed to take pleasure in our amateurish but enthusiastic performances! And I remain grateful to this day for my unorthodox ‘musical education’.
Allow time and space in your life for playfulness and creativity to flourish.
One of the most endearing qualities of my cat, Leo, is his playfulness, and it is here that he shows his natural creativity. He gambols, he leaps, he somersaults, he does bunny hops, rolls on his back, and shoots like a rocket through his favourite toy, a long tunnel originally designed for toddlers to crawl through! He is a vaudeville artist!
His range is great, and affords me much entertainment and amusement. It is a characteristic of the Cornish Rex breed to continue in playful behaviour well into old age, so I can look forward to years of fun and laughter.
I feel that there is something very important we can learn here from our feline friends. We are at our most creative when we are being playful, and the longer we can indulge in play, and enjoy a sense of the ridiculous, the more likely it is that we will stay in touch with our creativity throughout our lives.
Creativity and playfulness go together. Let us not forget that we ‘play’ the piano!
Jazz musicians enjoying a jamming session seem to be able to allow their instincts and their fingers the freedom to wander, spontaneously exploring new avenues and sounds, playfully improvising, with smiles breaking through as they happen on a magical phrase or harmony, which emerge as if by magic. Of course, this can only happen if the skills and deep knowledge of one’s subject are in place. Then the creative instinct draws on this treasure trove and plays with it. The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity.
Creativity and playfulness go hand in hand, and a wonderful example of this was the late, great comedian, Ken Dodd. But always underlying his exuberantly playful performances was a lifetime’s intensive study and mastery of his art.
The very different humour of the creators of Monty Python apparently emerged in free-flowing riotous rehearsals, where nothing was off limits. John Cleese, one of the brilliant team, observed: “The essence of creativity is not the possession of some special talent, it is much more the ability to play.”
“The creative mind plays with the object it loves.” Carl Jung.
“To myself I seem….like a boy playing on the sea-shore…. diverting himself and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Isaac Newton.
As the years go by, at a seemingly quickening pace, and, once again, Christmas approaches with a relentless inevitability, I find myself increasingly looking back to Christmases past. What an extraordinary variety of experiences they present! Sad times, happy times, fraught times, and, occasionally, magical times.
Adults like to state confidently that, “Of course, Christmas is for the children” and I suppose that the elusive magic is more likely to appear in one’s childhood.
I certainly remember, during my childhood in post-war Britain, the excitement and anticipation of unfamiliar treats at Christmas -time, all the more treasured in a world beset by rationing.
My stocking, in reality a pillow-case, always contained tangerines, still a a rare treat, a box of assorted liquorice goodies, a bar of chocolate, a colouring book with coloured pencils, a pack of coloured shapes, gummed so one could make pictures with them, and, most important of all, a jigsaw and an annual. (School Friend, Girls Crystal or the Beano.) These simple gifts kept me very happy throughout the festive day. Occasionally there was a special gift from my grandmother. I remember one in particular, a blue-eyed china doll, with blonde hair, blue bonnet and dress, and an angelic countenance. I never felt quite at ease with this image of perfection. I think I preferred my sister’s doll, which had black hair, was dressed in bright yellow, and had a malevolent gleam in her eye.
Of course, for children (and parents) Christmas also brought with it the annual ordeal of the school Nativity play. I was four or five years old when I was chosen to be an angel. Not a taxing role, not even a speaking part, I just had to stand there, and lift my wings. But, for some reason which I still cannot understand, I was filled with dread as the day approached. My mother had gone to a great deal of trouble to make me a floaty gown in cream muslin, with wings to match. I remember feeling incredibly embarrassed and full of shame for some unfathomable reason, and just stood there, wishing the earth would open up and swallow me. I suffered nightmares about it for a long time afterwards. This was my first appearance on a stage, and, considering that much of my professional life was to be spent performing in public, it was not an auspicious beginning.
I had a very different experience at a school carol concert two or three years later, when I was seven. I had volunteered to sing the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, and I diligently memorised all the verses, of which there are a considerable number. This time I was looking forward to a starring role, and felt very confident, knowing I was word-perfect. One of the teachers, a Mrs. Burcher, was to accompany me on the piano. I don’t think we rehearsed, otherwise she would have been prepared for what was to follow.
Off we went, and all went well. However, I was slightly puzzled to observe my pianist turning round to look at me expectantly after, I think, the third verse, with hands raised, obviously ready to plunge into the final triumphant chord. But I held my ground, and continued on into another verse, (and chorus, which I was generously repeating after each verse.) Again Mrs. Burcher swung round on her stool, more anxiously this time. But I had memorised all the verses, and was determined to see it through. I must admit, though, that even I was beginning to have doubts, sensing the increasing restlessness of the audience. By the end of the next verse (and chorus), my long-suffering pianist had become quite desperate. But the end was in sight, and we finished, with a sense of triumph (on my part), and huge relief on the part of Mrs Burcher. But, more importantly, I had learned one of the golden rules for any performer. Always leave your audience wanting more!
It is sadly true that Christmas, the season of peace and goodwill, is likely to generate more tension and stress than the rest of the year put together. And the weeks of preparation beforehand, now stretching into months, become ever more frantic, with so many of us determined to make this the most perfect Christmas ever, whatever the cost to our physical and mental wellbeing, not to mention our bank balances.
I blame Charles Dickens. Was it not he who, single-handed, created the fantasy of the perfect Christmas? Cosy family gatherings, Scrooge metamorphosing into the lovable philanthropist, goodwill to all men! His cry of “Would that Christmas lasted the whole year through!” had obviously not been thought through very carefully.
Can you imagine what that would mean? Crime rates would soar, domestic violence would erupt throughout the land, obesity would rise even more dramatically than at present, there would be an epidemic of divorce, and loneliness would spread inexorably through the population. Not to mention the explosion of debt!
I believe that the more desperately we strive to achieve the perfect Christmas, the more likely we are to fail. It is inevitable. We musicians know, from bitter experience, that, when we strive for perfection in our performing, we are doomed to failure. We hopefully learn the hard lesson that, while aiming for excellence is motivating and truly productive, striving for perfection is debilitating and counter-productive.
Claudio Arrau used to give his students the wise advice: “Prepare thoroughly, then let it go, and don’t worry!” Would that we could follow this sound advice when the first strains of Jingle bells assail our ears! If we can, we may make the wonderful discovery that we have allowed a glimpse of the magic of Christmas to creep in, taking us by surprise, when we least expect it. That is the way of magic.
I remember one memorable occasion, a few years ago, when I was performing in a Victorian Christmas celebration in words and music. When our little group of two actors and two musicians arrived at the festival venue, which was just outside Swansea, we found that, instead of the auditorium being set out in rows, it was filled with small round tables, on each of which sat a festive arrangement of leaves and berries, complete with candle.
About halfway through our programme, after a particularly poignant reading from the actors, my flautist fellow-musician and I began to play, very softly, that most beautiful of carols, It came upon the Midnight Clear. Almost immediately we were joined by wonderful Welsh voices, singing quietly in the flickering candle-light, with exquisite and harmonious descant. As the music faded away, there was a hushed silence. Then we performers on stage, actors and musicians, stood and applauded our audience! We had, indeed, experienced magic.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – William Shakespeare.
I feel I have to disagree with William Shakespeare.
If the flower in question had been named differently, if the flower had remained the same beautiful flower we know, but had been given the name of carnation, would it have inspired poets and lovers through the centuries? I think not. The poetic muse would not have been aroused, I fear. A carnation by any other name does not do it for me, and would Robert Burns have been inspired to declare, “My Love is like a Red, Red Carnation?” Again, no. For names are of great importance, and each has its own resonance.
I was reminded of this a few days ago, when, in the course of conversation with a dear friend, he confessed that he had always hated his name. Although I have known him for thirty years, we had never discussed this subject before, although he now made it clear how strongly he felt about it. He told me that his mother had apparently chosen two possible names for him, but her choices were overridden by a ferocious grandmother and assorted aunts. Either of his mother’s chosen names would have suited him admirably, and he expressed great regret at what had happened. I asked him why he had not changed his name, but it had apparently never occurred to him.
It was outside his sphere of experience, and he was interested to know that, in the 1970’s, a number of my friends had changed their names by deed poll, according to the practice of Numerology, rather fashionable at the time. It was believed that, by changing your name, you would fulfil your destiny. I was not convinced by this, and, in any case, was quite happy with my name. I felt comfortable with it.
I have also been fortunate to have been given two delightful nicknames. You will all be familiar with La from my introductory blog. The other is a name I acquired early in my career, when I was resident pianist for the cello master classes in the early years of the International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove. There, during one particular year’s festival, the resident cello Maestro bestowed upon me the lovely name of Blossom, which I am still called to this day by friends and colleagues from that time. I am specially honoured to share this name with the bewitching and sassy jazz singer/pianist, Blossom Dearie, who I saw perform on one legendary occasion, in 1966, at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club.
My given name of Christine lends itself to some variations, including Chrissie, Christina, even Maria Christina, incorporating my middle of Mary, when I played for a Spanish dance company. All of these I was happy with, and enjoyed the different identities I seemed to acquire with each one. But one diminutive I have always hated! How I wince when someone has the nerve to address me as Chris! It is not that I do not like the name. I do, for others, but it feels completely wrong for me. I am not a Chris!
Two of my students remember an occasion, forgotten by me, but recollected by them with great glee. They tell of when an arrogant student came to play, with his violinist, in my ensemble class at Trinity College of Music in the mid-eighties. A regular group of students attended my weekly class, but others would drop in from time to time to perform with a singer or instrumentalist. This student was new to the class, and was working on the Cesar Franck sonata for violin and piano. He was talented, but the playing was apparently messy and ill-prepared. However, he showed no humility or respect, and argued with every suggestion I made. The other students watched with mounting apprehension as the atmosphere rapidly deteriorated. And then, to their horror, he addressed me as Chris!! Everyone froze, and the class held its collective breath, waiting for the inevitable explosion. It came………….The student, whose name I have thankfully forgotten, slunk out of the hall, never to be seen again!
People often ask me how Leo acquired his name. That’s easy to answer. Being a pedigree cat, he came to us already possessed of a lengthy and very impressive name, (complete with Russian birth certificate, and up-to date passport!) Nevertheless there is a curious tale to tell.
Having taken the decision to purchase a cat, I had decided to use money from a legacy left to me by my dear friend Charles, who had passed away a few months earlier. This seemed appropriate, as Charles had been a great cat-lover. I knew he would have approved. My husband and I mused that it would have been a lovely gesture to name the cat after Charles, but apart from the fact that Leo already possessed a fine name, and, at three years old, would not take kindly to it being changed, my husband gently pointed out the indisputable fact that Charles was not exactly a suitable name for a cat. However, a few days later, I awakened one morning with the dawning realisation that Charles had, in fact, bestowed a name from beyond the grave. For my friend had been born in August, under the sign of Leo. He so clearly exhibited all the characteristics of this sign, being truly the king of the jungle, that when he was being particularly bossy and arrogant, I would tease him by calling him a typical Leo!
A strange coincidence, or a happy synchronicity? I like to think it was the latter. Thank you, dear Charles.
As we are rapidly approaching the festive season, it seems appropriate to add the following true account of one memorable Christmas Nativity play.
Joseph and Mary had reached the stable, and were awaiting the birth of their child. “What shall we call the baby, Mary?“ asked Joseph. Mary was silent. Joseph tried again. “What shall we call the baby?“ he repeated, more insistently this time. Again, no answer came. Mary had succumbed to the dreaded scourge of stage-fright. Her mind was a complete blank. In theatrical parlance, she had dried!
Now desperate, and realising something was seriously wrong, Joseph, rapidly approaching breaking point, yelled at the terrified Mary. “What shall we call the baby?” Mary turned her face to him as the light finally dawned. She beamed, as she joyfully and triumphantly exclaimed, “Colin!”
Joseph looked at her in utter disbelief and horror.
“Colin?” he shrieked. “Colin Christ?”
I first discovered, over 20 years ago, the wonderful world of Pleats Please by Issey Miyake, at my favourite clothes shop, The Changing Room, in St. Christopher’s Place.
I was looking for something to wear for a wedding, and was recommended to try on a silver grey Pleats Please outfit, by the Japanese designer, Issey Miyake. That was the beginning of my relationship with these fascinating and addictive clothes. It was a tentative beginning, everything about these garments felt so different from anything I had worn before. I was a little nervous, but made my purchase, and wore it for the wedding, feeling a little self-conscious among all the other more traditionally attired guests. The Pleats then hung in my wardrobe for several months, though I would take them out occasionally, fascinated, but not sure I would have the courage to wear them again. After a few months, however, I was tempted to buy a couple of simple tops, and even a pair of trousers, all in this wonderfully lightweight silky pleated material. I was hooked!
These clothes, while always moving with the body, nevertheless seem to possess a life of their own. I think, on reflection, that, unconsciously, I was responding intuitively to a fluidity of movement which I was always seeking in my piano playing. There was nothing fixed or restricted, everything was movement.
As the years went by, under the expert guidance of Chris and Maria in The Changing Room, I amassed quite a collection of Miyake. I became something of a collector. It was my one big extravagance.
And then, shortly after my 60th birthday, my life changed dramatically, when I lost most of my sight, due to haemorrhages behind the retinas of both eyes. I was now living in a monochrome world, it was like seeing everything through a thick fog. The only colour which penetrated this distorted grey and shadowy world was red. Some other colours I could ‘see’ closeup, but in a kind of haze.
However, I soon made the joyous discovery that I could still experience the vivid intensity of my Miyake Pleats Please clothes, albeit at close range. A special joy came from my collection of multi-coloured scarves, each vibrating in a wonderful and quirky combination of shades, and I found myself gazing down when wearing one, and drinking in the colours. As I was being starved of colour now in my everyday life, I was indeed drinking it in, as one gulps down water gratefully when one is thirsty. It must be something to do with the texture of the fabrics and the unique process of producing the colours that makes this possible. I don’t know, but how wonderful it is to be able to still experience colour in my life. I appreciate so deeply what an energising and life-enhancing force it is.
So this is why I say, from my heart, Thank you Issey Miyake.
“Colour is a power that influences the soul”
Postscript. I visited The Changing Room to cheer myself up soon after my sight loss, and, having chosen a top, with the expert help of Maria, I then drew out a jacket and said to her, “I think these work well together.” Maria looked at me in astonishment and said: “ How did you do that? Most of my customers could not have known to put those two colours together.” I had done it without thinking, and I realised at that moment that I was somehow sensing the vibrations of the colours, and putting them together as one puts notes together to make harmonies. I had discovered synethsesia! I felt wonderful, and newly empowered, as I walked out of the shop with my precious purchases.
Perhaps empathy can be best understood by sitting in a busy restaurant, and observing other diners in this social environment. Notice how people vary in their ability to communicate with their companions. Some show a warmth and ease with each other, others may exhibit difficulty in conversing, and there may even be a coldness, with no sense of connection at all. Silence between a couple can be uncomfortable, even frosty, or it can be a comfortable and relaxed quiet atmosphere between friends or lovers at ease with one another. It is easy to see whether there is empathy present, or not. The body language, posture and voices tell us clearly all we need to know.
Recent research has shown a steep decline in empathy, coinciding with the increasing use of social media for so much of our communication. There is a huge difference between communicating with someone face to face or posting on-line. When we consider the astonishing fact that 55% of the impact of a communication is created through eye contact and body language, and 35% through the voice (tone, speed, volume), and only 10% of meaning is conveyed through the actual words used, we can begin to realise how impoverished are our communications on social media. Added to which, we experience in face to face contact the element of touch, which may be just a hand-shake, or the warmth of a hug, or perhaps a reassuring touch of the hand or arm, and also that indefinable but often important element we describe as personal chemistry.
If our communication skills are to develop, or at least remain effective, they need to be practised, and if we are doing most of our communicating on-line, this is not happening. Eminent neuro-scientists are telling us that the internet is changing our brains, and we can actually view brain scans which show this to be the case. One striking and alarming feature is the shrinking in children’s brains of the part of the brain concerned with empathy.
Furthermore, when we are lacking in communication skills and the ability to feel empathy, we will experience discomfort and stress when we have to communicate face-to-face, or even to speak on the telephone. Unsurprisingly, we will want to return as soon as possible to the comfort zone of the one dimensional world of social media.
So perhaps we should be considering whether the obsessive use of this form of interacting with others could explain the lack of interest or desire to make music with others, for empathy is a vital component in this very special kind of music-making.
I remember, many years ago, the Director of the National Youth Orchestra saying to me that, for him, the most thrilling experience during the week of rehearsals before a performance, was the moment, on the second or third day, when this huge group of young musicians, gathered together from all over the country and unknown to each other before the course began, suddenly became an orchestra, playing as one wonderful entity. That is true empathy, experienced at a deep and profound level, and one which we musicians are privileged to be able to experience when we make music with others. It is truly life-enhancing.
Last night I was listening to an audio book, a novel by a favourite author, when I was struck by a felicitous turn of phrase.
Two acquaintances had met after a piano recital, and were walking home together:
“What did you think of the performance?” asked one.
After a pause came the reply.
“Perhaps it was.. a little….functional?…..”
The very sound of the word itself perfectly expresses its meaning. And perhaps, sadly, the word perfectly describes many of the performances we hear today.
Indeed, how can it be otherwise, when we live in a society which is obsessed with “ticking boxes” and values consistency, predictability, and accuracy above creativity, mystery and imagination. We are overwhelmed by endless streams of data, and dominated by a bureaucracy seemingly out of control, where everything has to be measured, fragmented, quantified, and objectified, when even student performances are judged according to rigid criteria, and marked by ticking boxes? We seek more and more information, while not allowing time and experience for connections to be made between the “pieces” of information. It is the connecting that leads to knowledge, or beyond knowledge to wisdom, and to authentic performing.
Writing this started me thinking of magical performances I had been fortunate enough to hear in the past, and which are etched in my memory for all time. I made a list, and here are just a few.
Claudio Arrau playing Brahms 2nd piano concerto at the Royal Albert Hall in the early 1960’s. It was one of those occasions when time seems to stand still. I was right at the top of the auditorium, sitting on a newspaper on the floor, (no seats up in the gods!) but the sound seemed to resonate through the entire space, rising up from the ground through the piano, the pianist , the orchestra and the entire audience, so that we were all bound together in overwhelming, surging waves of sound.
Sviatoslav Richter at the Royal Festival Hall , giving a towering performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, an experience which left the audience in a state of shock. One felt one had been staring into the abyss!
I had the privilege of hearing Yehudi Menuhin at his best, in the early sixties, when he gave a special concert of unaccompanied Bach, in aid of a charity. (I forget which one.) The concert, at the Royal Festival Hall, began at midnight, and all the lights in the Hall were dimmed. It was an amazing and magical atmosphere, and the playing was inspired.
The legendary jazz pianist, Bill Evans, playing at Ronnie Scott’s Club in the mid- 60’s. I heard this great artist play on a number of occasions at the club, but one evening stands out in my memory, when Evans played with the most exquisite sounds and colours imaginable, especially in his beautiful pianissimo range. He was a strange and introverted man, and on this occasion rushed off the stage almost before the last notes had died away, never to return. He just vanished into the night!
At the same venue I can visualise, as clearly as if it were yesterday, the distinctive figure of another jazz great, Thelonius Monk, in the familiar hat and sunglasses which he always wore, playing,in a truly unique style, his classic number, “Round Midnight”. Magic, indeed!
Another great occasion was nearly a disaster for me. Artur Rubinstein came to play at the Royal Academy of Music, when I was a student there. My mother had come up to London for this special occasion, and we were sitting on the stage, behind the piano, just a few feet away from the great pianist. The playing was enthralling, so much so that I stopped breathing! My mother, sensing that I was about to faint, showed great presence of mind, whipped her smelling salts out of her bag, and thrust them under my nose. This had the desired effect, disaster was averted, and I continued to enjoy the recital, but remembering to breathe!
(Rubinstein playing Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor, Op.59, No.1)
I wonder what happened to smelling salts? My mother never travelled without hers, and I remember them being used on a number of occasions.
I am amazed to discover how many memorable performances I heard, and, talking to others of a certain age, I find that they too can recall many wondrous musical experiences. Are there fewer possibilities today of magic in the concert hall? I believe it may be so.
Laughter is the best medicine, they say, and how true this is.
I bought my cat, Leo, for my husband, in November 2014, when he was suffering increasingly poor health as his life drew to its close.
When shown photos of several Cornish Rex cats for sale on-line, it was love at first sight when Ian spotted Leo. “That’s the one”, I remember him saying. He knew immediately that Leo was the chosen one, and thus an extraordinary relationship was born, which transformed the last six months of Ian’s life.
My dear husband enjoyed an outstanding career as a sound editor in feature films, working on 84 films, including The Mission, The Rocky Horror Show, Donnie Brascoe and Notting Hill, and winning a BAFTA award for The Killing Fields. He had the most extraordinary, quirky sense of humour, adored silent films, and loved the zany humour of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. I often felt that life with Ian was like living in a Marx Brothers comedy.
I think this humour was one of the most important features of the relationship between Ian and Leo. Leo is the funniest animal I have ever known, and Ian would just throw back his head and roar with laughter at his absurd antics.
I find that laughter is one of the most valuable tools in learning. It touches our deeper selves, and opens us up in a way that facilitates the absorption of knowledge at a deep level. I specially warm to composers who are possessed of a great sense of humour.
Claude Debussy is a superb example, as I happily discovered when compiling a script on his life and music for actors Robert Powell and Liza Goddard, with music played by flautist Clive Conway and myself.
Humour features throughout, even in the midst of tragedy and hardship. It is through his humour, as well as, of course, his sublime music, that the extraordinary character of Debussy springs to life for us today, a hundred years after his death.
Here is an example. When describing a society lady who insisted on singing his songs, Debussy remarked:
“She sounds like a locomotive in distress, but her buttered scones are marvellous.”
Here is Debussy describing the great pianist, Alfred Cortot, conducting Wagner’s opera, Parsifal:
“He has a lock of hair which moves in sympathy with the music. See how it droops, weary and sad, in the soft passages. Then, see it rear itself proudly for the music’s martial strains. At such moments, M. Cortot lunges at the orchestra, pointing his stick menacingly like the bandilleros when they want to irritate the bull. But the players are as cool as Eskimos — they’ve been through much worse than this. Then the conductor leans affectionately towards the first violins, whispering intimate secrets into their ears. Next he turns on the trombones and galvanises them with a gesture which seems to say “Come on, boys, put some punch into it! See if you can’t manage to be trombones sent from heaven!”
And the obedient trombones conscientiously start swallowing madly down their tubes.
Towards the end of his life, beset by financial difficulties, Debussy was forced to continue touring, even when ill, but, despite his suffering, his sense of humour did not desert him.
He wrote to his wife:
“Vienna is a raddled old city where one suffers an excess of Brahms and Puccini. As for Budapest, the river Danube refuses to be as blue as a certain waltz maintains it is. The Hungarians are all liars, but charming! But I brought back some marvellous chocolates……..”
There is a saying: “Curiosity killed the cat”, and doubtless there is some truth in this, as cats are excessively curious creatures. Certainly, when Leo’s curiosity led him to unfasten the latch of a window on the second floor, and to creep through on to a narrow ledge, from where he was unable to make his return, there seemed to be some truth in this saying. Fortunately he was rescued, and survived to explore another day.
But we humans can learn from our feline friends.
For curiosity is one of the most valuable and glorious gifts that we possess. It leads us to explore, experiment, and make new discoveries. That is how we learn.
Sadly, I do find an increasing lack of curiosity in many young people nowadays. And it is not surprising. They spend so much time being crammed with information, with no time or encouragement to absorb and digest this in any meaningful way, so that the facts cannot become assimilated, connected, contextualised and understood at a deeper level. Curiosity and creativity become stifled. I can give many examples, but here is just one.
During a piano lesson, in which the student was working on a Beethoven sonata, I asked him which of the symphonies of Beethoven he was familiar with, or had at least heard. He looked blank at my question, so I tried again. This time he did manage to reply. “ oh, well we did the 9th for A-level”. I think the reavealing word here is “did.” I am afraid I saw red. I told him to forget all that rubbish, and to go and explore the symphonies for the sheer pleasure of doing so. How can listening to great music be reduced to a chore? The problem is that our education system is so obsessed with measuring, quantifying, assessing and analysing everything, not to mention the dreaded “ticking boxes,”that we lose sight of the context, the whole picture, and thus any deeper knowledge. Unless we restore the context or bigger picture we are left with pieces of information that do not connect or mean anything.
Perhaps nothing changes much over time. One hundred and fifty years ago Charles Dickens was preoccupied with the increasing dominance of fact over fancy in the education of the young.( Fancy being his own word for imagination.) In his novel, Hard Times, Dickens depicts a terrifying system of education as practised by the fearsome headmaster, Thomas Gradgrind.
“Now, what I want is facts. Teach the boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. Stick to the facts.”
He swept his eyes over the little children, whom he regarded as vessels waiting to be filled with Imperial gallons of facts, poured into them until they were full to the brim.
“Blitzer, what’s your definition of a horse? “
“Please, sir, quadruped, 40 teeth, namely 24 grinders, 4 eye-teeth, and 12 incisors. Sheds coat in the Spring, and in marshy country sheds hooves as well. Hooves hard, but requiring to be shod with iron, and age known by marks in mouth.” There was much more on the subject from Blitzer.
“Now”, said Mr Gradgrind, “you all know what a horse is.”
In this world, there was no room for art, imagination or anything creative. When Mr Gradgrind overhears his daughter, Louisa, say to her brother, “Tom, I wonder…….”
Mr Gradgrind interrupts sternly with the words, “Louisa, never wonder.”
Hard Times was based on Dickens’ own experience of his schooldays.
“It’s a miracle that curiosity ever survives formal education” – Albert Einstein
On a happier note, it is a little-known fact that Charles Dickens was a great cat-lover. He once asked, “what greater gift is there than the love of a cat?” When a favourite cat, Bob, died in 1852, Dickens had one of its paws stuffed, and used it as a letter-opener. How bizarre is that?
I have absolutely no intention of having Leo stuffed!