|Five Easy Pieces
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
11 November 2006
I recently filled my pockets with pens, pencils,
pencil-sharpener and eraser, went back to school and sat an
exam: grade five in music theory. The reason for taking grade
five theory is that you need it in order to take any practical
exam above that level. The reason for an adult taking, say,
a piano exam at any grade is more difficult to explain. Some
friends think it just exhibits a taste for humiliation, but
there are always others who see the point.
It seems to me that the world is well stocked
with people who would like to turn the clock back and resume
an abandoned musical education. What holds us all back? I wish
I had never given up the piano in favour of the clarinet, or
the clarinet in favour of the recorder, and at various points
in adult life I have gone back to music lessons in order to
remedy this mistake. But then something has happened, and the
impetus has been lost.
In my experience, though, each of these attempts
has left its residue. One may seem to go back to square one,
but square one revisited is a different place from square one
on first acquaintance. The first thing you find, as an adult
student (assuming you have a good teacher, a matter in which
I have always been lucky), is that the very first thing you
do is deeply interesting.
That is, the very first thing you do is try
to play a note well, and this business of trying to play a note
well is what is going to absorb your attention forever after.
You do not begin by learning how to play a piece badly, and
later, at an advanced stage, become inducted in the method of
playing it well. You start with your ulterior purpose in plain
view. In this sense, you are treated as an adult.
Which is most important: what horrifies the
adult student is the prospect of a second childhood at the keyboard
(Mrs Curwen's Pianoforte Method, and the immortal music of Joan
Last and Adam Carse). The faintest hint of condescension in
music makes it intolerable to the adult: anything with English
nursery rhymes, anything programmatic (that is, descriptive
pieces with titles like "Going Up the Stairs" or "Putting
Teddy to Sleep") is repulsive. And it would continue to
be repulsive even if the titles were chosen some-how to reflect
the ups and downs of adult life: "Taking Crystal Meth",
"Putting Your Back Out", "Stepping in Something
Nasty" would be, once the novelty had worn off, just as
bad, viewed as elementary piano pieces. They would share the
same mimetic quality, the same sense that the abstract pill
of music has to be sugared for the beginner.
That is what is so good about Bartok as an
elementary composer. I have often heard people say that the
first two books of "Mikrokosmos" are a bore to listen
to, and maybe they are. But they are never a bore to play. They
are like a serious invitation to self-discipline. You can bring
as much ambition to them as you please, in the matter of producing
a beautiful sound by striking a series of notes.
What is always hard to find, in the lower-to-middle
reaches of the learner's repertoire, is good music by the great
composers. This will sound presumptuous and ungrateful, but
there is something discouraging about the little pieces Mozart
wrote in his childhood, or that Bach wrote at what he considered
an elementary level. One almost wants to beg off: don't put
Beethoven in front of me until you really mean it.
Perhaps in this one sense the difference between
an adult and a child as a learner works to the adult's advantage.
Scales and exercises seem less boring to the adult, since they
are not palming anything off on us, by way of mediocre art.
Hanon's exercises - with their preposterous claim in the foreword
that, if you will only play all these exercises every day, all
your problems as a player will disappear - are still just exercises
and they exhaust the fingers in novel, exhilarating ways. You
can feel you've put some work in. Czerny's "School of Velocity"
is anyway a great title, a great concept. We are all knocking
on the door of the School of Velocity.
Somewhere around grades five and six, as defined
by the Associated Boards, the Early to Romantic repertoire begins
to offer the kind of pieces we would like, as adults, to spend
time on. These are the A-list (Early) and B-list (Classical
to Romantic) pieces, of which you have to learn one each in
every grade. The C-list pieces are the weakness in the system:
the 20th century is full of stinkers, and one is tearfully grateful
to composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev who have spared
a thought for our modest requirements.
Of course you may say that there is a conflict
between the serious intention to play music - that is to be
inducted into an art - and the submission to an essentially
arbitrary authority, the Associated Boards. But I am working
on the hypothesis that there is a congruence between what you
have to do as a student and what any performer has to do - to
reach a standard in playing for someone else. A trap lies in
that expression "I am learning to play for my own pleasure."
It permits us never to finish anything we do. We move on from
piece to piece, and then we find ourselves going around in circles.
Actually taking a grade exam is, indeed, a
submission to authority. One can say: this authority is, yes,
arbitrary, and their grades have nothing to do with musical
merit, but they are testing something; and by preparing to meet
this series of arbitrary tests I am hoping to escape from the
trap of circularity. My intention as an amateur is of course
only to play for self and perhaps friends, but for the moment
I need these periodic, terrifying encounters with an examiner,
just as I need lessons. I need to break my own glass ceiling.
Anyway, it's not going to go on for ever. There
are only eight of these grades. By contrast, what can go on
for ever is the inability to play a decent piece of music. One
is already stuck in the world of Joan Last and Adam Carse and
Mrs Curwen. There is a world to aim for, and another world to