Why I’ve shifted my perspective on the dumbing down argument
I’ve often railed against the misrepresentation of classical music wherever I’ve found it – on air or in print, the way classical music is categorised, or the way people emote about it.
My often ranty (some say curmudgeonly) responses have been rooted in a feeling of alienation, feelings driven by my assumption that those who seek to reach out to new audiences reject knowledge, experience or familiarity believing it to be anathema to the newcomer.
Apologists for art aren’t my bag: I want people to be moved, not just entertained.
Such a hardline stance is, I’m proud to annouce, changing.
One converastion online yesterday reminded me of this shift.
If you’re not already aware, a couple of people distributed a clip from a 50 minute documentary spotlighting Britten’s Young Person’s Guide – one a series of programmes as part of the BBC’s Our Classical Century season.
I’ve been critical of the OCC documentary series, though have enjoyed the one of spotlights fronted by Josie D’Arby and Katie Derham. Both docs have immersed the viewer in a familiar work, highlighting familiar melodic, harmonic and textural elements in a way that celebrates the documentary makers of the past and satisfies classical music obsessives like me.
Not everyone agrees. Those who tweeted in response to the clip online – an unfortunate exchange between presenter Katie Derham and a BBC NOW timpanist – saw the thread as opportunity to criticise and berate the presenter.
I didn’t like it. I responded with a defence. It was instinctive. It certainly wasn’t solicited. It saddened me a bit.
Full disclosure. I sometimes chat to The Derham at those events we’re both present. It’s always a pleasure. Katie is always warm. She talks about her love of music with genuine enthusiasm. That Katie re-learned playing the violin for a TV documentary and was game enough to have the BBC document her learning the basics of conducting for a TV programme (Maestro), makes me feel a bit jealous of her. I would have loved to have been her doing that.
And, if you’re looking for the crux of this post, I’d love to have her gig on In Tune.
There. I’ve said it.
That’s probably why I didn’t like the use of the unfortuante clip in question by a professional musician as a way of illustrating calls for classical music to be treated with deference on TV and radio.
There’s a lot of it about. Also, just to make this post even more confusing, I used to do it too.
What’s changed for me isn’t only the fact that I’ve exchanged words with the person in front of the camera, it’s that over the past few months I’ve finally arrived at the insight that not everybody engages with the music in the way that I do. And that whatever way you listen to classical music, that’s good enough.
That might be too much of a leap for a blog post. I should probably explain my thinking.
My shifted perspective is this. A publically funded broadcaster, by and large, isn’t interested in appealing to people who are familiar with, knowledgeable of, or experienced in any particular art from. People like me are members of the choir – what’s the point in preaching to them?
So if I watch something, be it on publically-funded or commercially-driven platforms, its probably by virtue of the time constraints and production values, not going to be something that is pitched at me. There are other people out there who might be interested in classical music who think or respond in a different way to me. And that’s OK.
Also, a production note you may not have considered. The fact we’re able to see that clip isn’t solely because the presenter asked the question. It’s also because the director and cameraman didn’t think to question whether it was worth shooting the sequence again. It might be because the director wasn’t paying attention. It might also be the producer didn’t feel they had the budget to accomodate shooting the sequence again. It will also be because whoever it was at the BBC who was responsibe for the broadcast, approved it and let it be broadcast.
To criticise the presenter (implicitly or explicitly) seems a bit shitty.
Because the thing is, I rather enjoyed the programme.
Reflections on how I make the content I make: seek out the detail in everything, be brave, and be curious
I recently gave a presentation to a group of business owners in nearby East Dulwich about my content production work.
It was an unexpectedly rich experience – one that required me to articulate what I’ve instinctively done for a long time. In this way the process legitimised my work as a content producer more than I anticipated I needed.
But the experience of giving the presentation also raised some questions (well, let’s be honest some doubts).
What’s the best way of helping people make content? Does it matter if my perspective appears different from what others say? How do you share the finer points of how you think and what you do, without giving away too much for free?
In the weeks that followed, I worked on a couple of content projects – both arts based. Both were videography projects. I used both of these experiences to build on the presentation I’d given the business owners.
What follows is an amalgamation of both the presentation and that subsequent thinking.
Content production is storytelling
If there’s no story, there’s no motivation to keep reading, watching or listening.
Story doesn’t necessarily mean fiction, or the answer to a question, or an illustrative example supporting a piece of advice.
Story means making sure that even the smallest element of your content has been included with intent.
Find the story in the moment
Sometimes you won’t know what those tiny ‘micro-stories’ are until you’re in the moment of creating.
Take an event I was filming last weekend about women composers hearing their works performed for the first time in front of a cohort of artistic directors, mentors and other creatives.
I was fiddling around with the zoom lens and the focus ring as I was preparing my close up on one of the composers. The focus momentarily caught the corner of a piece of manuscript the performer was singing from, before eventually falling on the subject of the shot – the composer. This changed the shot dramatically for me – opening up a new opportunity to transition to the composer’s reaction the moment the singing had stopped.
I don’t expect someone watching that sequence to tell themselves ‘that was the story’.
Instead, I want them to respond to the intimacy of the moment framed in a tight shot with a shifting depth of field.
Also .. find the story in the edit
This stems from video editing, but can just as easily apply to text, audio, or imagery.
I find deliberately capturing only pre-planned sequences or audio, a surefire way of ending up with insufficient material – I will never end up with sufficient content to fill in the gaps or illustrate my story.
So, approach the capture phase committed to 8-10 shots, reflections, angles or perspectives (regardless of the content format). Then maintain an open mind and let your curiosity drive you.
Like the coaching process, some captures will trigger different perspectives in the moment. In this way, I’m referring back to the point about finding the story in the moment. By doing that – or being open to doing it – you’ll have more possibilities to discover a different story in the edit.
That’s what happened when I visited the Bussey Building in Peckham (podcast above) to interview two creatives about a new opera there. The building was such an invigorating space to be in when I was there, that capturing the experience of being present in it was a no brainer.
When I then heard the ambience and the implicit angle in the interviews, and reflected on my own experience being present at the first playthrough a new work, the structure of the story immediately became obvious.
When it comes to editing that material together, reviewing it amounts to a reflecting back experience. This in itself will trigger other thoughts which help drive a narrative arc invariably different from the one you started out on.
Seek out the detail
From time to time, I’ll look over my own work to see how I respond to it. Sometimes I’ll do that with the sound turned off.
Or, in the case of a podcast, I’ll upload it to YouTube and watch the subtitles back instead of listening to the audio.
The video for Nepali Children’s Trust (above) made a couple of years back is a case in point. It’s the looks on the kids faces which uplift me whenever I watch this film back. This is the detail which transports me back to the most challenging work I’ve ever done.
Seeking out and documenting detail is crucial to storytelling.
Bake something of you in everything you make
Whatever the outcome of your project, from Instagram post or story, Tweet, vlog or podcast, make sure you’re able to identify what the element is that speaks to you personally on a one-to-one basis.
What is the creative element that is most aligned to your personal and professional values?
Don’t be ruled by statistics
It’s easy to assume that a blog post with only a few views is something which wasn’t worth the time or effort.
Measuring success by statistics invariably triggers negative thinking and stops you from creating at all. I regard high traffic as the equivalent an unexpected win on the Lottery. Make the motivation about creativity first.
Over time, you’ll streamline your content creation process, meaning any low-traffic won’t impact on your bottom line. Along the path of streamlining, you’ll find your voice, find your angle, and discover your audience.
Discover your audience don’t perceive it
This one is a bit controversial. Some people won’t agree. It’s probably an extension of my own personality.
My view is that if I try and perceive who my ideal audience is, I end up communicating in an inauthentic way.
If I start by communicating in an authentic way (ie aligned to my own values) then those who resonate with that will connect with me and, over time, I’ll discover who those people are.
That’s where this video of BBC staff paying homage to Roy Castle’s record-breaking tap-dancing sequence for children’s TV stems from.
I wanted to make this because it was something really important to me personally (the final shot of this film is where my first proper BBC job was offered to me – the location really resonated for me). I didn’t start from the perspective of wanting to make this for a perceived audience. To date, this is my most successful piece of authored video content.
That approach does mean ignoring most of the quick-fix one-size-fits-all content solutions which are shared on digital platforms. So you’ll need to be resolute if you adopt this strategy.
Don’t expect quick wins
Writing takes time. No one has ever said that writing is a quick process.
Video editing takes a long time. That we’re able to take photos quickly and easily on our phone, sharing an image that has impact and cut-through is a quick and easy process.
So, the greater the impact sought, the greater the investment needed.
Building audiences takes time too.
It is a phenomenally noisy world out there. Digital as a content portal is a time suck for users: video demands more of the senses than audio does; text insists on 100% attention. Your content will need to be re-purposed (not just pointed to) across multiple platforms.
This one definitely comes from my personality so may not be an easy hat to wear for others.
Story comes from conflict. Where there’s conflict there’s the potential for resolution. If there’s story, people will unwittingly stick with that story even if they don’t realise they’re doing so.
Sometimes the story may not be one you’d not normally tell. If you experience a sense of resistance thinking about whether to tell that story or not, then my advice would be to go ahead and tell it. You’ll end up with something distinctive, touching and impactful as a result.
If there’s no resistance, ie there’s nothing to implicitly or explicitly rail against, then there’s no conflict, there’s no motivation, and there’s no resolution.
If you’ve got a content production project you’d like to collaborate on please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Podcast 32 spotlights a new release on Signum Classics entitled ‘If’.
It’s the latest release by consort of violsFretwork, and celebrates the 75th birthday of composer Michael Nyman pairing a collection of contemporary works arranged for the consort with music by Henry Purcell.
Not heard of it before? Unsure of Setubal’s location? You’re not alone. That doesn’t really matter. Setubal is in Portugal. And given that the nine-year-old music festival brings international musicians and young people from the locality in community-focussed music-making, it’s perhaps not surprising it’s not on the radar of most classical music-related festival goers.
Artistic Director Ian Ritchie began his introduction in the EU Commission in London just as Geoffrey Cox stood up in nearby Parliament to offer his views on the ‘Joint Instrument’.
There was an irony to proceedings.
An invited crowd convened at Europe House – the EU’s London HQ in St Johns Smith Square – to hear British arts administrator Ian Ritchie introduce this year’s festival (23-27 May 2019). His presentation deftly illustrated how differently one European nation regards the value of music education, and the way in which participation can promote wellbeing in the community.
At the same time just 5 minutes walk away, enraged red-faced Leavers were screaming at similarly bedraggled-looking Remainers, one side demanding an immediate withdrawal from Europe, whilst the opposing side could be heard singing ‘Shove Brexit, shove it up your arse’ to the tune of ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’.
What makes Setubal’s offer compelling is the way events – a mixture of low-price and free admission – are built as active experiences for audience and participants alike.
The four-days of events bring international musicians, young Portuguese professionals, and composers together designed to inspire around 1500 young people in the Setubal area. Community ensembles and local schoolchildren participate in song-writing projects, drumming parades, and site-specific performances.
It’s difficult not to feel uplifted by the idea of professionals and young people sitting side-by-side in creative endeavours intended ostensibly for the community. A sort of four-day youth orchestra infused festival of musical loveliness that leads on social inclusion and celebrates music’s power in our everyday lives.
And at its heart, a two-day symposium exploring music, mental health and wellbeing featuring contributions from industry leaders, thinkers and influencers.
An altogether rich and authentic event in an unexpected location.
At least that’s my impression. That’s my hope. Because, as I mentioned to an education person during my third modest glass of red (at lunchtime), I can’t think of any funded arts festival in the UK that is built first around community engagement.
Earlier this week I wrote about the criteria for writing up a press release. See here for a recap. Note: I’ve added additional criteria since the publication of that post.
Consequently it is incumbent on me to blog about very exciting news. Leeds Piano Competition winner Eric Lu who blew me away with his semi-final performance you may recall (see below if you don’t), is performing at LSO St Lukes in The London on 4th April.
And, in the interests of emphasising that I do consider the world outside of London, he’s also performing at The Venue, Leeds College of Music on 30th March. Both concerts are at 7.30pm.
I’m advised that the programme is:
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K.511 Brahms – 6 Klavierstücke, Op.118 Chopin – Ballade No.4, Op.52 Handel – Chaconne in G major, HWV 435 Chopin – Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35
I don’t normally get excited about artists; I’m usually more driven by programmes. But the prospect of hearing Lu again is the exception.
It’s a test. Did I imagine what I heard that night in Leeds? Did I just let emotion run away with me? Was I in fact drunk?
As it happens, I wasn’t drunk that night at the Piano Competition, nor at the competition final a few days later. But there’s still a level of interest around whether Lu’s playing can transport me in the way it did in September last year. There’s also the question of what impact the competition had on his playing. Will I detect something different given that the competition is no longer present in the mind of artist or audience? Or will there be greater pressure on the part of the artist to prove their win?
Questions, questions, questions.
Oh. And I should add. There are other concerts that form part of the Leeds Piano Festival 2019 – Steven Osborne in a programme of Beethoven on 3rd (Leeds) and 5th (London), Barry Douglas playing Tchaikovsky, Schubert and Rachmaninov on 5th (Leeds) and 6th (London). And on 1, 2, and 4th April Aliya Alsafa, Jasper Heymann and Shuheng Zhang (the Young Scholars in the Lang Land International Music Foundation) also make their Leeds Piano Festival appearance.