music, Uncategorized

Oppressive elitist music

The other day I was at home listening to, I think, Woman’s Hour on Radio 4.  They were talking about the very significant under-representation of people of black African-Caribbean origin and of other people of colour in what tends to be called classical music, although it includes music written right up to the present day.  Under-representation as performers, conductors and composers.  (They were not analysing audience figures and I have no idea if there is any analysis of ethnic diversity in audiences.)  This is a really interesting and important topic which deserves time and intelligent attention and which needs to be addressed strategically – perhaps by reinstating music as a key part of the national curriculum throughout everyone’s education rather than as something little kids and those who elect to do it for GCSE are exposed to.

Unfortunately one of the people they had discussing this topic was a guy who said that he thought people at classical concerts are constrained and oppressed by having to sit absolutely quietly through the music and only express appreciation in a false way by applauding at the end (he appeared to be implying that people were applauding out of relief that the music had ended).  His opinion was that this makes the music  very un-enjoyable.  His suggestion was that the audience should loosen up, feel free to jump up, to shout, to dance, to sing along, as they would (his example) in a hiphop concert.
The other thing he complained about was the oppressive nature of having to learn an instrument for so many years before becoming proficient; he appeared to think this was both morally wrong and cruel and unusual, and felt that people should be allowed to perform publicly early on in their learning cycle.

OK.  I declare an interest.  I learned the piano from the age of 7, studied music at school and university, taught piano for about 12 years when I was in my 20s and 30s, and am a very keen amateur classical soprano; my mother was a very fine amateur pianist till her hands packed up, my sister is an accomplished amateur flautist, one of my brothers is a tenor with a choir in York and from time to time with the choir in York Minster, his daughter was a chorister at York Minster for several years, and my grandmother was a professional singer, as is my daughter.    My daughter’s father is an exceptionally good piano teacher and a very fine musician.  My other two brothers are also extremely musical, though their tastes are more towards rock and folk.
I have therefore been exposed, as have all my family, to classical music throughout the whole of my life.  I’ve been attending concerts since I was a child.  I’ve played and sung in several, and have performed as a soloist in a few.

Wikipedia gives a good definition:
Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music, including both liturgical (religious) and secular music.”

It covers a range of music written over a period of well over 1000 years and incorporates early music  including the medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical and romantic periods  as well as 20th and 21st Century music.
It incorporates a staggering diversity of performance practice, instruments and instrumentation, tonalities, composition techniques and musical styles.  It incorporates music of astonishing complexity and music of the purest simplicity (think Gregorian chant).  It’s not something you learn to perform overnight, and also it isn’t something you learn to appreciate overnight, you need to be exposed to it repeatedly (as most people are to rock and pop music).  Although having said that, there are a lot of pieces of music I fell in love with passionately at first hearing as a small child – the first time I ever heard Swan Lake for instance, I was 7; it came as a bolt from the blue and I was completely bowled over and have loved it ever since.

I can’t begin to say how wrongheaded this man’s approach is!  What’s really interesting is that while – correctly, in my view – demanding that we put measures in place to increase diversity in access to classical music at performance level, he seeks to close down diversity in audience response to music.  He enjoys the vibe at a hiphop concert so wants to  introduce it to classical concerts, unaware that there is a whole vibe already going that he can participate in!  He doesn’t seem to understand that a different kind of music might evoke a different participatory response without mitigating audience enjoyment in the slightest.  I sing along at folk concerts when invited to join in the choruses by the performers, but NOT at  a Lieder recital……

When I go to a concert I LIKE sitting absolutely still and listening really carefully.  I DO NOT FEEL OPPRESSED!  In this I am the norm, not the exception.  Listening to complex music demands my attention and my concentration and gives me intense joy.
And if I were ever at a concert with a brilliant soloist, as it might be my daughter, singing, and some wazzock decided that leaping up and singing along would be a good thing, I think I would be sorely tempted to commit violence against the said individual.  In which sentiment, I am quite confident, I would be joined by the whole of the rest of the audience.
And as for not clapping till the end, I particularly love, at the end of a really exceptional performance, the long moments of silence after the end of the music, when the audience is still listening, before we erupt into a storm of applause.  The longer the silence,  with the music still echoing in our heads, the better the performance was.

As for the oppressive  nature of having to learn for so long, I wonder if this guy feels the same about the oppressive nature of a sitar player having to study for years and years?  or tennis players having to learn and practise and be coached for years and years and years until they get to Wimbledon?  or the oppressive nature of the study doctors have to do for years at school and at uni or med school and then for years longer in hospital before they can become a consultant?  However brilliant a natural musician you are, you have to put the time in to become outstanding!

Meanwhile, he also appears to think that it’s only at huge public concerts at the Albert Hall or whatever that people get to perform classical music and that nobody who isn’t already outstanding can get to perform anywhere.  Has he never heard of school choirs? youth choirs?  school orchestras?  youth orchestras?  Amateur choirs and amateur orchestras?  amateur operatic societies?  amateur chamber ensembles?  The Really Terrible Orchestra in Edinburgh?  (an idea of genius – people who hadn’t practised for years have got together to make music and give concerts and have been doing so for 20 years!)  The world is full of people making music.

Why are so few of them of black or Asian origin in our professional choirs and orchestras?  now that’s a good question.

Tell you what though, if he stood up and sang along and shouted and danced during a performance at a school concert or at an amateur choir, he’d get scragged just as much as if he did at the Proms.



The Prevent agenda and its discontents

As a teacher I have to be seen to be incorporating the government’s Prevent legislation when teaching and organising classes and part of this is promotion of British values:  democracy, the rule of law, tolerance for other beliefs and religions and the prevention of extremism.  To give the government its due, it includes anti-semitism, holocaust denial, far right groups, animal rights activists, homophobia and a range of other belief systems under extremism, and doesn’t explicitly mention Islamic extremism.  I agree with most of it.
Although animal rights activists?  Hunt sabs?  Ok yes, people who bomb the homes of scientists.
Actually that word Activist in the list; that really gives me pause.
One enormously important British value is precisely the protesting of injustice and the struggle for equality.  Activism is a part of this and a vital part.
Such activism has all too frequently been accompanied by violence against the protesters on the part of the government of the day.   (The Peasant’s Revolt, Tolpuddle, the Levellers, the Miner’s Strike, Votes for Women, Can’t Pay Won’t Pay, The Battle of the Beanfield…… to name but a few)
But since the Prevent legislation is being heavily promoted by the current government of the day, what account will they take of the role of real political activism and opposition, I wonder. Or what spin will they put on it?
If the rule of law is a British value and so is democracy, then what becomes of protest against unjust laws?  The right to protest peacefully, the right to disobey the law as a political protest; can these now be interpreted as extremist behaviour?
“We are a democracy, there was a general election; the government was lawfully and democratically elected. So you have no business disagreeing with them”.   ???
The obvious answer is, or should be, no, but I’m starting to think that the real answer will increasingly be yes.
I don’t know if you heard about the primary school age child so 10 or 11, presumably from an Islamic family, who was reported a couple of weeks ago to the Prevent authorities for writing about his house and misspelling terraced as terrorist.  (“I live in a terrorist house.”)  An easy mistake to make, when you think about it and a classic of its kind, normally the kind of mistake to be listed as a classroom howler.
The really frightening thing about this is that the teacher, rather than asking the child to explain exactly what he meant (and maybe draw a picture?), and clarifying that these were homophones  (at least in  the local accent) with different spellings and different meanings, went straight to the authorities.    The whole household then found itself under suspicion. That’s the level of anxiety now operating in the education system about the Prevent agenda and our duties to prevent terrorism.  Straws in the wind…
My response to being told I must promote British values is to have my hackles rise, yet I fervently believe in what I understand as real democracy, cooperative action for the common good, and the rights of ordinary people.  But I do wonder if that’s what the government actually has any interest in protecting.

a bunch of migrants…

Yup, that’s right.  My very first post is going to be about migrants.  And immigrants.
A topic I know really quite a lot about, because:

a) my mum was an immigrant – she was born in the USA, was a US citizen and though she grew up in the UK from the age of 5, she was sent back aged 16 in 1939, went to university there and returned on a migrant visa (or whatever they were called then) in 1946.  Her younger sister was also sent to the USA a bit later that year, and never returned to the UK to live, but stayed in her native country, the USA, for the rest of her life.

b) two of my brothers are emigrants from the UK, making them immigrants to other countries – one has lived and worked  in mainland Europe for the last 20 years or so, in Germany, then France and now Belgium.  The other lives in Uganda and works all over the place in Central Africa.

c) I’ve officially worked with migrants / immigrants since 2004, but had been involved with helping people in the local refugee communities since 1999.  Specifically, I’ve worked with asylum seekers, refused asylum seekers, unaccompanied asylum seeker children, people with refugee status, their spouses and family members.  Since 2006, when I became an ESOL teacher, I’ve also worked with other non-native speakers of English now resident in the UK but hailing from all over the world, particularly from both the Asian diaspora and the East European diaspora.  Including  (look away now, Islamophobes) Moslems.  Both Shiite and Sunni.  Oh, and Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Yezidis, Zoroastrians, not to mention Christians of every persuasion, including one or two with very dislikable ideas about how to treat people they don’t agree with.  And probably Animists and other religions I might never have heard of.  In fact, I’ve even worked with atheists – Islamic atheists, Buddhist atheists, Christian atheists…..

So what is an immigrant?
It is a yes/no definition – live here, born here, not an immigrant; live here, not born here, an immigrant. Unless and until you gain citizenship of the country you now live in, at which point you legally cease to be an immigrant.  But the perception of the media appears to be that you never stop being an immigrant.  So my mum, resident in the UK from the ages of 5 -16 and 22 – 93 should by Daily Mail / Sun standards be considered an immigrant to this very day.
Oh, hang on.  She’s white.  She went to university.  Aah, I’ll think about that again, shall I?

I very recently had a long conversation with a friend from what was at the time a country in the Eastern bloc, who came to the UK way back when with her husband, whom she’d met and married in her country of origin.  They lived in the UK for several decades but then moved south from the UK to another West European country.  Where he very sadly died.
She vehemently and insistently denied having ever been an immigrant in her life.
She said she wasn’t an immigrant to the UK because she’d come to the UK with her husband, and she hadn’t intended to invade (sic).  And she wasn’t an immigrant to her current country because they’d applied for leave to remain.
She also told me my mum wasn’t an immigrant because she had family in the UK.  And my brothers weren’t because they had jobs in the countries they went to.
I tried really hard to explain that if you live in a country but weren’t born there, you are, by definition, an immigrant till you get citizenship.  So she’d been an immigrant.  I had a very hard job convincing her that the definition of the word immigrant does not carry any a-priori negative connotations relating to the abuse of hospitality, invasion, benefit fraud and theft.  In fact, I’m not at all sure I’ve managed it.

So her indignant response encapsulated very neatly indeed just how successful the rebranding of the words immigrant and migrant by the rightwing media has been.  Her English is fine, if occasionally eccentric; it’s her uncritical assumption that right wing media headlines are telling it like it is that is the problem.  In which, goodness knows, she really is far from alone.    It further demonstrates how seductive the rhetoric is.

The infamous and disgusting ‘bunch of migrants’ quote perpetrated by David Cameron on Holocaust Remembrance Day made me shudder with horror.  My mum was at school with a number of young boys and girls from Germany and Austria.  Jews, the lot of them.  They were the lucky ones – possibly some of them came over on the Kindertransport but I suspect they were from families who saw what was coming early enough to get their children out even if they couldn’t escape themselves.   But all the Western European countries were heaving with Jewish people desperate to get out of the German sphere of influence and get to the UK, the USA, Canada, South America, Africa, Palestine – anywhere out of mainland Europe.  And not just Jewish people.. Socialists, homosexuals, disabled people.   Ring any bells?
And the UK government then, as now, allowed a few in and refused the huge majority with contempt and dislike – Jews were very unpopular as a group….   What would David Cameron have called them? Exactly the same, I strongly suspect, except back then Jewish would have been the pejorative adjective rather than Moslem.  That particular  undeserving bunch of migrants – who really were in enormous numbers – went to the gas chambers.  Our current bunch of migrants – well, we don’t know how many have been killed already but the numbers are definitely starting to be comparable, and we are doing now what we did then.

We really are in a situation very strongly reminiscent of the early 1930s. We are invited to panic at a perceived “invasion”.  It starts with the systematic denigration of one group of perceived outsiders.  and then it spreads, and deepens, and worsens.  Meanwhile people will run for their lives, because that’s what you do when you have no hope of surviving where you live.

This massive diaspora is not happening in a vacuum.  We and our government(s) are complicit up to our necks in the killing fields that the Middle East has become, and in the ongoing desperately dangerous situation in Afghanistan.  Yet we have leaders who express pity for distant refugees but nothing but contempt for refugees closer to home.

Jordan is currently hosting 9 refugees for every 10 native Jordanians.  And it is happy to continue offering an open door and hospitality providing Europe will support it adequately with this insanely enormous task.  Its population is 6.459 million, so it is hosting, give or take, 5,813,100 extra people.  Its population has doubled.  Its doors are still open.  But there are vast numbers still needing help and succour and, yes, asylum (a word that means ‘a place of safety’ and Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey and Greece can’t do it all.
We in the UK, meanwhile, are offering a paltry 5000 places a year and Cameron has the gall to congratulate himself on this. And feel able to call desperate refugees “a bunch of migrants”.