November 2010 Archives

Do, re, mi...


I have been in France for eight years now, working largely in Paris and living at the foot of the Mont Ventoux in Provence. I am surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and orchards, and am reminded daily of the beauty of nature and its relationship to man. In all seasons I see backs bending, fingers picking and trees being shaken or pruned, and from these actions come our daily bread (and, of course, wine). It is a natural and an organic life, full of respect for the life and the shape of things, and I feel absolutely at home in it. That is, until it comes to music. Musically I feel like an alien trying to talk a language in a one-syllabled universe, and in the last year I have been trying to figure out why.

For thirty-five years I was immersed in the Austro-Hungarian tradition of music. Music was taught to me as a language, one to be sung and spoken through the medium of horsehair, wood, gut and ivory. It was to be whispered or heralded. It was a serenade, a country dance or a political protest, and was constructed of questions and answers, secrets, sub-plots, yearning, surprise, fulfillment and revelation. Above all it was universal, a language that that not only cut across continents, through culture, race, and class, and touched something common to us all, but also something that had the power to heal divides between us. Indeed, until I moved to France I could not imagine music any other way.
Here, for example, is my teacher in Germany, Johannes Goritzki, approaching the Haydn D major concerto (I am seventeen):
“This is the Count singing his love song: ‘Ach, mich shlip ding traut war, becher stingt das pfiffer zartmust’.” Goritzki gets down on one knee and opens wide his arms whilst singing the second subject in a resonant tenor. Then he gets up and is himself again. “You must listen to Fischer Diskau if you listen to nothing else to understand how to speak music…. But perhaps the opera is in Italian?” Now he makes a twirl as if spinning himself in to the new sound world. “Did you know Haydn was a prolific composer of opera? Eight in German and fourteen in Italian? It’s up to you to decide. Anyway, so here comes the lovesick Italian girl! But of course, as opera will have it, she is love-sick not for the Count but for another….Aha!” He shuffles daintily to the corner of the room, twisting imaginary locks of hair, pouting, and singing the phrase transposed up an octave now and ornamented. “Lingere pronto tanto, devore straggazzate …’”…
And here I am in the Wigmore Hall watching the extraordinary ‘winged bowing’ of Steven Isserlis. I observe his arm at the tip of the bow at the top of a phrase as if it were at the top of a hill. I feel the ecstatic tension. Then I watch it fall back towards his torso as the music exhales and relaxes…. and I realize that for a string player the bow is the equivalent of the singer’s breath.
And, at the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove, listening to a class with the Hungarian violinist Sandor Végh and realizing that the fingers on the bow are equivalent to the lips, teeth and tongue. ‘Parlando!’ the Maestro practically screams whilst spit forms at the corners of the jelly lips that rest atop his several chins. (Thinking about it now, I’m not sure this guy would get a job at the Paris conservatoire..) ‘Make it SPEAK!’. Rather unkindly Végh likens the student’s sound to maccheroni’. ‘NAAAAAAAAAAA……. CUTTED!’ he says, implying that the student has no shape to their note, no beginning or end; that they just make a sound, which they cut when it is over, and then make another one. ‘NAAAAAAAAAAA……. CUTTED!’
Learning how to sing and, above all, to speak formed the basis of my musical education.

The French system of musical education uses the Sol Fege method. Unlike the Kodaly concept where (as Cyrilla Rowsell stresses in the summer edition of Arco magazine) you begin with the joy of music, learning about harmony, melody and modulation through sol fege with a moveable doh, paying attention to gesture and listening with your inner ear, the French system insists on something called ‘formation musicale’. This, as far as I can understand it, consists of the parrot-fashion learning of sol fge using, critically, a fixed doh. In other words, with sol being sol, whether it is the tonic or the dominant or the flattened sixth, nothing is learned about melody, harmony, modulation or intervals. The French system also insists that every child has twice the amount time dedicated to this ‘formation musicale’ than to his instrumental lessons. Agnes, for example, a keen cellist of nine in the ‘first cycle’ (the first four to five years of music training) has an hour of sol fege and half an hour of her cello lesson. James, a talented eleven year old clarinet player now in the ‘second cycle’, has 90 minutes of sol fege a week compared to 45 minutes of his clarinet lesson. This would all be very well if the child was being immersed in and learning to love music, but he is not. When you ask him to sing a melody, though he may sing the right notes, he is merely stringing numbers together. I will try and give an example:
Emilie was playing the Beethoven A major sonata. The opening of three questioning phrases, with its intervals reaching and falling, asking, trying to answer but instead asking again, and reiterating the question a third time but with more emphasis, was flat. It was what Vegh would have called ‘maccheroni sound’. I asked Emilie to sing the phrase.
‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ she sang, moving the pitch around. She breathed in random places and not once did she use her lips, teeth or tongue. I asked her to sing the phrase with free articulation, using any vowels or consonants that came naturally, as if she were scatting. This was what she sung:
‘La Re Fa Doh Mi Re Doh Re Si La Sol  Mi La Fa Re Mi Fa’ She may as well have sung A E F C E D C D B A G E A F D E F.  Or 6 3 4 1 3 2 1 2 7 6 5 6 2 7 4 5 6
In terms of articulation, in terms of language, Emilie was stuck between using the system she had learned at school and being dumb. Nothing else was imaginable or possible. No fantasy. No feeling. No connection to her inner hearing. I sang the three phrases to her, ending each instinctively on an ‘m’ to allow for the release before the next. It wasn’t exactly Ella Fitzgerald (though I do use the syllables rugga dung dung a lot, they didn’t seem appropriate here.) but I was using sounds that I felt corresponded to Beethoven’s music. Or at least Beethoven’s music as I heard it in my inner ear. Here’s what I sang:
‘La da dihm, lo de da do lada de dumm, la di la lo di dohmmmmmmmmmm’
(I guess you had to be there…)
Emilie looked at me as if I was a crazy woman with Tourettes syndrome who had just walked in off the street.
In Wikipedia Sol fege is defined as a ‘technique used for the teaching of sight singing’ and, with a fixed doh, it is exactly that.  An exercise. When taught with a moveable doh and as a cog in the wheel of a broader musical training such as in the Kodaly concept, it has a valuable place in any musical education, but this is sadly not the case in the French system. It is not the fault of sol fége that these children do not develop an inner hearing that is at the centre of music making, or a connection to the real language of music. It is my opinion that it is the fault of a system that thinks musical training begins and ends with the perfection of a sight-singing exercise.

 In his brave book, ‘On acheve bien les ecoliers?’ (They shoot children, don’t they’), Peter Gumbel talks about an evaluation system in France that actively discourages creativity and individuality. He says:
.”The”… “studies, conducted by the OECD and other respected institutions”..”show conclusively that French children overall are more anxious and intimidated in school than their peers in Europe or other developed countries. They're so terrified by the idea of making mistakes and being lambasted for them, that they'd rather keep their mouths shut than put their hands up”
When I read this sentence, my first thought is, how can anyone sing with his mouth shut? If a child is so worried about getting something wrong (and wrong means not what the teacher has decided is right) he will never risk making sound. If he is only listening for that which his teacher is dictating to him rather than what his inner ear dictates, he will never be able to make music. He will, most probably, grow up to be a young instrumentalist so in need of approval from the system that he will, rather than taking a year out and spreading his wings, stay in the very same system until he gets it ‘right’. (I know hardly any French musicians who have chosen to study abroad. Paris, not New York, Budapest, Salzburg or Vienna, is the be-all and end all.) And if that young musician does get it ‘right’ and becomes an adult musician, he will probably go on to teach in and therefore fortify the system that taught him.

    Today, having lived eight years in a country where, even with a Masters in music from New York (and, I admit, half a Doctorate. I was missing Europe so much I decided to come home!), I still have no right to teach in my local music school. This is because I do not have the French teaching diploma (the C.A) that shows I can teach the French system. Despite International and European initiatives to establish diploma equivalents and recognitions (the European Qualifications Framework give an equivalent if the degree is European, and the Centre International d’Etudes Pedagogiques, who say there is no legal equivalent to an American degree, can provide an ‘attestation de comparabilité’), schools and institutions here will not consider an application from someone without the French teaching diploma. Though frustrating, I can cope. With a bit of imagination I am finding ways to communicate what I have to offer (looking in to starting up a private chamber academy locally, for example, and teaching throughout the rest of Europe.) However, I would love to share with the young musicians around me some of the extraordinary experiences I have been so privileged to have over the last thirty years, and I have to admit that not being able to do so sometimes breaks my heart.
    I spoke to Peter Gumbel on the telephone, and things are, he says, looking up. Since his book came out, he has been contacted for advice from all political parties and those involved in education on all levels. He says more and more people in French universities are going abroad to study. I can only hope they come back and are encouraged, in amongst these beautiful vineyards, olive groves and orchards, to share the International language of music, and that Steven Isserlis, even though he is not French, gets some concerts nearby so I can get another glimpse of that to-die-for breathing bow arm.

A Prelude and 5 Rhythms

’So, I’ll pick Phillie up in an hour and a half then?’ said Philippa’s mum.

‘An hour will be fine’ I said.

Philippa slid into my living room and noiselessly unlatched her cello case.

‘I’ll do my best' her mum continued, 'but they are so slow at Waitrose. And next week I will have to rearrange as I have to pick up Max from tennis at the same time and Peter will be in New York.’

‘Perhaps Philippa could take the bus?’ I said.’The number seven stops right outside the house.’

‘No, I don’t think so. You know, she hasn’t been very confident since her sister…well, you know about that. No, it’s best if I drive her.’

Before I closed the door on her mother, Philippa started to play the Gigue of Bach’s first Suite. When I got settled in my chair by about the sixth bar, I asked myself the usual questions: What did I see. What did I hear? And, above all, what did I feel? I saw a girl playing as if with borrowed arms and, rather than a sweaty, heavy peasant dance, I heard the sound of someone skating over ice. I felt somewhat anxious. While I watched and listened I wondered two things: Whose desire was driving Philippa, as it it didn’t seem to be her own, and what was beneath the ice?
I don’t know what it is about nail varnish on bitten nails, but it was when I was looking at Philippa’s bow hand that I remembered what my teacher, Timothy Eddy, said to me a decade previously: ‘Something inside you has to move before you can move to play’, and it was then that I knew how I was going to approach the lesson.
When Philippa finished and we had talked through a few technical details, I asked her if she would be willing to sit with me and her cello in silence.
‘I don’t want you to play a note’ I said, ‘until, or indeed unless, you feel moved to do so. Until you genuinely feel the desire to express something. This might mean spending our hour together in silence, but that that is fine with me if it is fine with you…?’
Philippa nodded her assent. She laid her bow across the grey cotton of her school skirt. Her bare arms, slightly pimpled at the top, hung by her sides, and on the ends of them her hands seemed empty without a cello or a bow to clutch. At first her gaze flitted back and forth from me and the floor, then up and down her fingerboard, and then came to rest, I believe, on a bowl of apples on the table behind me. The silence began to feel comfortable, and the strange thing was that in it I began to have more of a sense of Philippa that when she was playing the cello. In it I thought I could sense things. Anger. Grief possibly. But at least I could sense something. We continued to sit in stillness. I heard Edith in the flat above shuffling across her living room floor, probably, though it was only four o’clock, to the drinks cabinet. A bird sang and a motorbike started up. If we listened hard enough to the quiet, I thought, we might be able to hear the sea rolling in the distance. I looked over at Philippa and saw a tear pooling in the corner of her eye. It spilled over and ran down her cheek.

‘There is no desire’ she said as more tears came, and in that moment I think we both felt the beginning of something move inside her that might, one day, move her to play.

Philippa did not come for a cello lesson the next week, but the week after that she took the number seven bus and rang my bell. She was ready, she said, to play the whole Bach suite through. She climbed the stairs, walked in to my living room, unpacked her cello and started to play, and as she did a curious thing occurred. Wherever she was in the Suite, whether it was in the Courante, the Minuets or the Sarabande, Philippa kept slipping back in to the Allemande. As I witnessed this ‘memory lapse’ time and time again, I thought that perhaps the Allemande represented Philippa’s personality. The person she presented to the world. The good Philippa, the pretty Philippa, the graceful Philippa, the Philippa that did not cry when her sister died but kept on dancing with borrowed arms. And I realized how powerful it could be for her to embody the other four dance characters: The joker, the peasant, the innocent child, the old wise man…..

It was around that time that it occurred to me that the Bach Suite, with its introduction and five dance movements, was a perfect vehicle for what Gabrielle Roth calls the 5 Rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Lyrical, Chaos and Stillness, and it was then that I started working with the dancer, Sophia Ferman.

Sophia and I worked on two Suites, the first in G major in a programme based on lullabies, and the second in D minor in a programme based on grief and healing. As I played and she improvised, we explored the fundamental human rhythms expressed through Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuets and Gigue. How close were these baroque movements to a contemporary dancer’s ‘Flowing, Staccato, Stillness, Lyrical and Chaos’ we asked ourselves? How did one ‘rhythm’ transform naturally into the next, Flowing into Staccato, Chaos into Stillness? Like grief arising out of anger, peace out of confusion.  It was an exhilarating and moving experience ‘being danced’ by Sophia, as if she were making visible the part of me that was moved to move to play.

As I write now, I remember a particular performance of the second Suite. It was shortly after the September 11th attacks. We were aware that a large part of the world was in a state of shock and grief, and we wanted, however small our offering, to offer up something healing. However, in the sublime Sarabande, the still climax of the work, the most potentially healing moment, Sophie’s improvised dance went ballistic. While I played the simple broken chords with which Pablo Casals started every day as a form of meditation, Sophia was making fast, jagged movements, covering the dance space with ripping and racing. Her honest response to what she heard (for that is what it always is when Sophia dances) was confusing to me at the time and I was even a little resentful. Now I think of it, however, nine years later, I wonder whether, in the stillness of the Sarabande, just as I heard Philippa’s feelings in her silence, Sophia heard the noise of the anger and grief I was feeling at the loss of our child. A personal loss dwarfed at the time by a loss that was almost global, but nevertheless a profound one.

Homage to Sandor Vegh


Thirty or so young musicians are curled up on velvet love-seats and scabby leather armchairs. Some clutch at tea and scones with gobs of cornish cream, and others at an early-bird half of ‘scrumpy’, the local cider. The remains of the log fire from last night's quartet-reading session relax in the oversized grate. Out of the lead paneled triple window, beyond trestle tables covered with remains of pasties and salad, beyond the abandoned croquet game on the tufty grass rolls the sea, its rhythmic crash against the cliffs constantly reinforcing what the maestro is saying.

We are in the Great Room at Porth-en-Alls at the International Musician’s Seminar, and in front of us is Sandor Vegh, the larger than life Hungarian musician. He has lain down his violin. With one hand and he is making as if to pull something very long out of his mouth and with the other he is making scissor movements, as if he is cutting the long thing that is coming out of his mouth. From his gut we hear a semi disgusted sound ‘Naaaaaaaa’ punctuated, each time he makes the scissor movement, by the word ‘Cutted!’ . Suddenly he stops, swings round on his chair (his belly and several chins seemingly a split second behind the rest of him) and cries:

‘Why you make macaroni sound?Naaaaaaaa… Cutted! Naaaaaaaaa…. Cutted!’

The student lets her violin hang from its scroll hooked in her sweating fingers and looks at Vegh. For those of us who have been here fifteen years on the trot, of course, the little piece of theatre is a welcome reminder of the curved nature of things, whether they be notes, waves, phrases, pasties, forearms, chins or purfling. However, for those for whom this is the first encounter with the great man who played with Casals and was friends with Bartok, there is a little more explaining to do.

Mr Vegh juts a fat first finger at the window and says: ‘Look ze waves! Avery sing in nature is caaaaarved!’

On that day, and on many days before it and still to come, from that grand oak chair in the Great Room looking out to sea, Mr Vegh taught me possibly the greatest lesson I ever learned. That nothing - no note, no phrase, no symphony, no movement, no preparation, no vibration - is made from straight lines. Meanwhile I have often wondered if, in his lifetime, not that it is very important, he gleaned any more information about pasta shapes. I still wonder, when he said macaroni (the curviest type of pasta available) did the Maestro in fact mean spaghetti, which is long and straight? Or, even better, flat sheets of hard edged lasagne that could well describe some sounds I have heard? Or perhaps Mr Vegh was simply incapable of contemplating anything straight in the universe. I shall never know.

(Sandor Vegh 1912-1997)