Marilyn’s Musings August 2017

The Art of Genius

Words like ‘brilliant’, ‘fantastic’, ‘superb’, are frequently used when someone has performed a piece of music, produced a work of visual art, or done a piece of regular homework. Such adjectives are applied as forms of encouragement, whether what has been displayed is any good or not. It is right for teachers, family and friends to encourage people of all ages in any wholesome activity, but trendy, colourful words do lose their meaning when applied indiscriminately. They encourage a swell headedness and a tendency to over reach oneself.

Such verbal flourishes may have arisen during the heady 1960’s, when our and other countries had picked themselves up from the ravages of the Second World War, and a new, heady, alternative, colourful rock n’ roll world was appearing in wake of austerity and too much misplaced discipline. One can think of a jack-in-a-box springing up suddenly from a hidden position, either scaring folks or raising a smile or even laughter, definitely a letting go.

Older school teachers were definitely old school, they seemed stern, critical and a bit frightening. Younger ones seemed more enthusiastic and friendly. This was refreshing, and I certainly felt encouraged by a newly qualified, keen music teacher and dispirited by an older modern languages teacher whose manner seemed unapproachable and unhelpful. Putting students down was how some teachers taught, whereas others encouraged curiosity and were just plain nice. The result of too much criticism is a dislike of the subject matter, whereas the opposite will instil a love of it, even though the talent for it might be lacking.

The playwright, Arnold Wesker, who died recently, was quoted as saying ‘it doesn’t matter which family you were born into, or which school or university you attended. What matters is the work you do’. One of my grandparents put it a different way, ‘the art of genius is the art of taking pains’, in other words, taking the trouble to pay attention to detail and to keep on taking the trouble to get whatever it is you are doing right. This underlines the difference between learning and practising thoroughly. It is not enough to merely learn it; or to say ‘that’ll do’. Neither is it good to punch above one’s weight, however much one wants to play the big French toccatas, the big Bach Preludes and Fugues, or much of Messaien, for example. Over reaching will be frustrating and not do the composer justice. Audiences are savvy. Whether they play that music or not, listeners can often tell when something is wrong, as the rhythm may not be tight, and some of the notes splashed. Far better to keep within one’s technical means, work hard at every detail repeatedly and give the audience the pleasure of a good job done well. That is what Arnold Wesker meant by ‘what matters is the work you do’.

In music, this means more than playing through the notes a few times and hope that it sounds alright. One of my cranky school teachers complained that I was not self-critical enough. At 16 years of age, I didn’t know what that meant, and took it to mean that I personally was hopeless, when in fact my approach to it was not quite right. Perhaps if trouble has been taken to explain how to be objective about one’s work that would have helped. One was left feeling downhearted, with no understanding of how to pick up the pieces and put them back together again. It is a matter of showing a student of any age how to assess what s/he has done, how to evaluate a piece of learning, a performance, with kindness. Electronic organs with recording facilities are excellent for learning purposes. Like cameras, they do not lie, and once a student has heard where the weaknesses are, it should be relatively straightforward to put things right. Then, the matter of proper practice, backed up by constant listening to one’s work can take place.

At the RCO Conferment of Diplomas Ceremony on 11 March 2017, the President, Philip Moore, quoted words from an early recipient of the ACO as it was before the Royal Charter was granted. Candidates then and now trip up over the tests of sight-reading, score reading, transposition, improvisation. Words written in the war years had plenty relevance to today’s successful candidates. The writer had described how gruelling the preparation to acquire the skills had been, but how grateful he was when they had been acquired and the diploma gained. Skills gained are there for life, the gateway to successful music making in different areas. One is reminded of Mozart’s Magic Flute in which Tamino has to undergo a number of ordeals before he gains what he seeks, Pamina. Organists face different ordeals, but the idea of something to be endured and sweated over laboriously before the desired result comes forth, is what counts.

When that comes, beautiful words like ‘fantastic’ and ‘brilliant’ can be applied, but not when the result is not quite so well prepared. Praising good effort and trying however, is important, as is the result. As long as the student knows what the teacher is aiming to convey, progress should follow.

At a recent performance by a group of young beginner musicians, there was an atmosphere of anticipatory excitement on the part of parents and friends. Nervous smiles were visible on the faces of the new performers as they entered the hall together. Each pupil had been coached in how to announce his/ her pieces slowly and audibly, and how to take the bow after playing what had been carefully learned. Everyone did well, including the ones who made the odd slip, or error of timing. What was good was encouraging applause for everyone, not over the top, and kind comments afterwards. The degree of realism about individual achievements was good to see. Each one will have felt the agony of ‘will I ever give this right’ and the moments of nervousness before it was his/ her turn to play, but after the concern came the joy when all turned out well.

Marilyn Harper