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.
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.