How do musicians handle jealousy or are they just accustomed to vulnerability on stage?

This one’s a tough one demanding detail and taking in a few things I’ve been pondering over the past few days. 

The first bit you need to know is what went on yesterday morning. 

I was making my sandwiches for a day of filming. Mid way through mashing the hard-boiled eggs, I started thinking about a journalist who irritates the hell out of me. Nearly everything she says or does makes me annoyed. We’ve spent barely 30 seconds in one another’s company. I’m not especially proud of my feelings towards her. Truth is, the feelings I have about her are essentially a projection of my own insecurities – a reminder of all the things I know I can’t be in order to get to the top. Rather than being OK with that, my go to place (because we’re all wired to follow the path of least resistance) is to be irritated by her. At the risk of falling back on a phrase I actually despise, that’s my bad not hers.

I deployed a bit of rational thinking in the moment to get to me to ‘a better place’. I moved on to buttering the baps accordingly.

I then started thinking about the equivalent in the classical music world. What would it be like for a soloist to experience a similar emotional reaction, powered by similar thought process fuelled by a similar momentary lapse in self-belief. They must experience this, surely. They’re not super-human. They may risk sharing that with their peers or with journalists like me, but they must surely experience it even privately.

I know of musicians who do. People paralysed by their own self-criticism. It’s a difficult thing to observe in the moment. Why? Because for good or bad I do elevate musicians by virtue of them being on stage performing for me. And the reason it’s difficult is because I don’t want to reconcile the reality of the experience in the moment with what I perceive from my place in the auditorium. I want my musicians to be normal human beings, but I don’t want them to be that normal. 

Fran Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist writes about vulnerability from a performers perspective in this excellent blog post.

In the concert I filmed last night I saw the white heat of live performance, in the gloriously revealing acoustic of a school hall. It is in these surroundings where the elite accomplishment of the orchestra is laid bare, observed by an eager community audience for whom this concert performance is a genuinely heartfelt high point. A sense of occasion exuded. Those doing the work were only a handful of metres away. It was an electrifying experience.

From my position behind the camera, I was most aware of the cellos. There were three of them. Only three. But there was so much energy coming from them in even the overture that it sometimes felt like they were doing the work of a sixteen piece section. One player in particular – the number two – clearly demonstrated her unequivocal enthusiasm in the moment with appetite, grit, and joy, on both her face and the way her bow hit the string. It was a magical split-second thing to witness. I wish I had a longer lens to have captured it.

Thoughts have been swirling around today. And, following a recommendation from a friend earlier this week, I’ve re-watched Brene Brown’s captivating ‘Call to Courage’ – a powerful evocation advocating the need to be vulnerable. 

Reflecting on Brown’s call to arms for the second time this week, I wonder if I’ve arrived at a conclusion about musicians and their work. 

Yes, they are subject to the same thinking as the rest of us. They’re not wizards or magicians. Their achievements are not some kind of sleight of hand. Perhaps they are people – the ones who create electrifying moments – who know how to be vulnerable, people who thrive because they have learned how to utilise those insecurities. Perhaps they are individuals who learned long before the rest of how to be and how to benefit from being vulnerable. 

My feelings about that journalist are changing by the way. But you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a work in a progress. More on that story a little later. 

Saxophonist Rob Burton's programme for his 30 April concert in Southwark Cathedral 2019

Rob Burton at Southwark Cathedral

19-year-old saxophonist Rob Burton gave a recital at Southwark Cathedral this week. With BBC Young Musician 2018 behind how is life as a musician progressing?

A glance at Rob’s concert schedule suggests a long list of activities for the saxophonist/clarinettist/recorder player and for the quartet he’s a member of. That’s good to see. As someone I personally backed to lift the trophy in last year’s competition I was interested to see him play outside of the relatively controlled and presumably stressful TV experience.

He didn’t disappoint. As a clarinettist I marvelled at the finger technique (no key sounded, meaning there’s an impressive lightness of touch), feather-like articulation, and a laser-like attention to ornamentation.

But there was something about the effect his playing created which resonated a little deeper for me. In the Marcello oboe concerto arrangement there was a sense he was using the melody to create a dramatic space somewhere in the middle distance which we could all observe and reflect upon.

Obviously, I can’t speak for others. I can’t state that as fact. But that was the feeling in the moment, suggesting that Rob had achieved more than just delivery of notes or an interpretation, but made the otherwise boomy acoustics work for the sound the instrument he plays.

What particularly impressed me was his isolation. There is no unneccessary or distracting movement. No tension in the shoulders. All of the energy and attention is focussed on sound production.

Technically speaking, as someone who struggled with that when I was learning the clarinet, that’s the kind of thing that should really irritate me. But it doesn’t really.

It reminded me of my consultation with clarinettist Colin Bradbury hundreds of years ago and the teacher he recommended to me, both of whom in the space of a few lessons eradicated the tension in my body, improved my breath control and support and, as a result, transformed my playing.

And to my mind that really comes to the fore in the movements like the last in the Marcello where the melodic lines are nightmarish to someone who’s older, fatter and considerably more fearful.

Rob Burton plays at Buckingham Palace on 22 May, and has solo recitals throughout the year in addition to appearances with the Kavinsky Trio, Kumori Quartet and Lambeth Wind Orchestra.

John Bridcut’s Dame Janet Baker documentary

Full disclosure: I’m a John Bridcut fanboy. I admire the documentary maker’s interviewing technique (the way he asks short questions and then holds the space for the respondent to think before speaking) and his resolute unapologetic approach to telling the story of classical music master practitioners.

The recent Dame Janet Baker documentary is a prime example. In the 90 minute exploration of the mezzo’s life, work and early retirement, Baker reflects on formative childhood events and key points in her career via a series of honest and sometimes challenging pieces to camera that do much to present the classical music in a much-needed authentic light.

Within the first ten minutes she articulates the experience of live performance so succinctly that one wonders why, given that classical music is in the ascendancy, no one else is saying the same thing to sell the genre. Answer: Baker and Bridcut May get it and are clearly unapologetic about it, but the industry as a whole is still cautious about scaring newcomers away. In this way, the Baker documentary reveals the distance we have to go to before classical music is written about authentically in the mainstream (where it needs to be).

That resistance or nervousness was what I thought was behind not making a big deal about the doc in the run-up to broadcast. Compared to the largely disappointing ‘Our Classical Century’, Bridcut’s work documents Baker’s life and represents classical music and opera with integrity. Perhaps not flagging Bridcut’s documentary was a way of not drawing attention to how OCC could be seen as lacking editorially.

But having watched to the end of the documentary I’m wondering whether there might have been another reason. Avoiding spoilers is key here if you’ve not seen it, but given the programme’s deeply touching conclusion I now wonder to heavily publicise such an emotional story might have invited criticisms of crass insensitivity.

Whatever the reason, if you’ve not seen it then consider this the pre-publicity for your viewing. Watch it. It will make you cry.

Making a new friend at the Opera Awards 2019

I didn’t stay for all of the Opera Awards at Sadlers Wells tonight.

The cold I caught from my ageing mother before Easter has turned into what feels like a lingering chest infection. That always freaks me out. I want a cold to be over. And for that reason I needed to be sensible. I need to rest because next week is a bit full on for me. Anyway, it’s on the radio in a week’s time and judging by the many cameras dotted around the place, I imagine I’ll be able to watch somewhere too. I said as much to the PR people who invited me (everything except the radio and video bI t), as I was putting down my finished glass of wine.

But what I did see of the awards and what I experienced was enough for me to write what follows. Authoritatively.

Opera people bring an entirely different energy to proceedings. There’s schuzz, swish and perfume to give things a bit of a lift. The smell of the brochure adds to the heady mix. There’s a sense of occasion. The theatrical lighting – even at awards – gives things an edge and gets everyone on their toes.

And I find that – a comparative operatic outsider – rather welcoming. Opera is an undiscovered land, full of wonder and brimming with unanswered questions. Another room in a big rambling house I haven’t really spent any significant time in yet.

But I also saw power articulated in ritualistic introductions, deference and weak handshakes. Not amongst those who create the core product – the opera – but those who create content about it. I am one of those people – a content producer – but it was amongst others like me I felt most at sea.

That’s a personal reflection – a statement of my own insecurities I suppose, something I have no problem sharing publically. Why not share?

In a split second I saw what it all is, and what I’m not. What I’ll never be. And I’m OK with that too.

Because my eye’s on something and people and things that are far far more captivating: opera.

I think I’ve discovered a new pal.

Thoroughly Good Podcast Episode 37: Adam Szabo from Manchester Collective

Every episode in this podcast series is an experience. A snapshot in time. And in that moment, a reflection of both my curiosity and ignorance, and importantly the willingness of the contributor or contributors to meet that curiosity and fill in the void.

When I listen to the recorded conversations back my thinking develops. In that way, the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast is one long sector-wide learning opportunity for me. The fact that other people enjoying listening back to it too is an unintended and serendipitous boon.

It’s a reflection of where my listening state is. I don’t really care if I know something or if I don’t. In some respects I’d prefer it to be completely unfamiliar. I’m interested in discovering how someone else’s art, their viewpoint, or their process helps develop mine. I want things to have impact on me. And when they do, I want to reflect on why.

What emerges from all of these conversations is that I’m increasingly fascinated by what connects audience member to performer, what role and responsibilities each brings the listening experience to create the art that moves us. And, when we’ve ascertained that, how we going about marketing that very experience in a way that’s authentic, respectful, and celebratory.

This conversation with Manchester Collective Managing Director Adam Szabo nudges me a little bit closer to that goal.

I first met Adam at a Kings Place concert (gig event experience – I’m not sure what to call it) where the music was varied, the volume was loud, and the impact was considerable. It brought me closer to the fundamental principle of what we’re dealing with here: sounds impact humans; the impact they have is what is important.

Adam and I met for a brief coffee in a noisy bookshop somewhere in Soho a few weeks later. After which we sat down for a podcast recording. This time with a bottle of wine. Red, of course.

Listen to the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast on Audioboom, Spotify or iTunes.