“So spielt man keinen Mozart”. At the Music Conservatory of Berne, Professor Urs Peter Schneider wiped the sweat from his brow and took the steps that led from the podium to his dressing room backstage. He had just completed a flamboyant solo piano recital, the kind – both in length and complexity – that had originally been a cornerstone of expression for the likes of Liszt and Paganini. He switched on the kettle, readying his instant coffee as a form of habit. His choice of programme had been typically eclectic, ranging from Bach to Bartok, Schubert to Schneider.
Urs Peter, known to his students as U.P. is a key figure in Swiss composing history, and a gifted pianist to boot. I’ve had the good fortune (and sometimes, the trouble) of playing with him since the age of 19 when I began studies in Berne where he held a full professorship until his pension.
The door to U.P.’s dressing room opened and in came the director of the school. She exclaimed, “So spielt man keinen Mozart.” (“That’s not how one plays Mozart.”)
Looking up from his cup of coffee, entirely unimpressed, U.P. retorted, “Wie denn dann? Wie denn dann?” ("How then, how then?”) Speechless and irate, she turned on her heel and left, her lack of meaningful response as non-existent as the kindness and constructiveness of her critique.
Classical music professionals are not known for their softness. Scathing remarks, detached professionalism and blinkered expertise oftentimes lead to deeply unkind behaviour. Many of those active in classical music will admit that how people treat one another can be archaic in comparison to how other sectors engage with their colleagues. For example, in an orchestra, the musicians are lined up like soldiers, directed by a conductor who, if one is unlucky, will bark instruction, single people out and dress them down for their perceived lack of ability and all the while be admired in the press for their “commanding bravura”. Or alternatively, the conductor, if he is a man, might make sexist remarks, which, have only been a “thing” in the arts since the #MeToo movement. In an age of diversity and inclusion, female conductors often feel like they must “match” the males, concerned that their ability to show empathy will be seen as a weakness, and so they will follow a similar route of forcefulness in order to stand their ground.
But why all this aggression? What is the real reason for this critique of others? Is it so hard to deliver constructive criticism? Could it be that teachers feel intimated by good students, and that peers are jealous of one another? And is jealousy a consequence of one's own perceived insignificance?
Trying to keep calm, I trained my view on the bridge of my violin as I played a slow scale, doing my best to dive into the sound. There was rivalry in the room. In my periphery I heard a movement of Bach here, saw the frill of a dress there, caught a Paganini caprice that I had learned the year before and abandoned. I focused again on the contact point of bow and bridge and tried to blot out my surroundings and concentrate on feeling as nonchalant as possible. Everyone was in the same boat, but some were clearly lying back and going with the stream. We were in the final round of one of the Netherland’s best-known violin contests. I looked up from my bow and locked eyes with another participant. I volunteered a smile. The other participant, taken aback by this show of friendliness, reverted their eyes and turned away. Clearly, this was not a place for healthy competition.
A pianist entered the room. “Number 17 please!” My heart leapt – they had called my number. I grabbed my father’s handkerchief that I always have in a pocket when I perform and headed to the stage. The final notes of Wieniawski sounded. Scattered applause, some cries of, “Bravo!”
“Good luck,” whispered the pianist as we stepped from behind the curtains and into the spotlight. I tried to slow my breath.
As I started to play, I began to enjoy myself, and slowly but surely I entered a world of focus and equilibrium that I only find myself in when I play music. My 30-minute programme was over and slowly I opened my eyes. I looked over to the pianist – he was grinning ear to ear. I smiled back and thanked him.
We turned to face the audience. I noticed some people had stood up. Were they leaving? Again, that feeling of light nausea at the thought of such a form of rejection, such a reaction to my performance. I peered into the dark of the hall. No, they were standing and clapping! Joy and gratitude washed over me. We bowed and left the stage.
After some hours contestants were called in to speak with the jury. Rumours abounded as to what they were like, these celebrity musicians sitting at a desk with piles of notes in front of them. I entered a beautiful room and was beckoned over to sit. One famous violinist sat beside another, including my beloved teacher Herman Krebbers who was smiling at me. I took it as a good sign and eased somewhat.
Remarks were made about my choice of pieces and where I could stand to improve. If there were compliments passed, I immediately forgot them. There was one woman in the jury. My gaze passed to her and I smiled. “Gwendolyn…” she began. “What are you wearing?”
I wondered whether I had understood correctly.
“What are you wearing? You can’t wear that on stage. It’s either a dress or maybe long trousers, but a two piece?” I was struggling to comprehend. “And has anyone ever told you that you walk awkwardly?” A blanket of silence, a bit like when snow begins to fall, descended on the room. Bewildered, I looked around at six men and wondered whether anyone would say anything. She continued. “Well…” Now she laughed. “It looks like a duck when you walk. You look like a duck. But don’t worry, you don’t sound like one. You sound a bit male actually. When you play, you sound a bit masculine, you should consider a more feminine approach to performance. Certainly to how you dress and walk, goodness me…” Her voice tailed off as if she couldn’t believe that she was now sat in a room with six men and a drake.
I left the room, my face smarting and red, ashamed and belittled and wondering why no one had interrupted her. With embarrassment I told my parents what had been said. It took a lot of energy to stop my mum going into the jury’s room and giving them a piece of her mind.
I was 12.
I was awarded the second prize.
I also won an increased ability to guard myself against the next person’s unconstructive criticism, learning to not disclose too much of myself in order to not get hurt.
At school in most countries in Europe we are still taught by way of monologues. We are instructed how to do things, as opposed to why we do things. We are taught to copy well. This leads to absolutism in how we perceive and respond to the world because, after all, we were taught, “I have to do things this way”.
If only we took more time to consider why we react to certain situations, in particular when we are one of the experts in the room, we might gain insight into how to be kinder not only to others, but to ourselves. Some of the most legendary musicians have known this. My father spent thirty years as concertmaster of the Amsterdam Philharmonic (now the NedPhO) working with some of the most renowned conductors and soloists of his time. He has many stories to tell. It always strikes me that the more legendary the musicians were, the kinder they were. David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin, Henryk Szeryng – they were continually careful about what they said, and they did their utmost to make others feel good. I imagine that they had come to a simple conclusion: if your next sentence spoken to someone else doesn’t serve to make for a better world, then leave it.
Of course, there is a need for quality testing and naturally we need to move within parameters that allow for the development and continuation of highly skilled musicians. But do you want to castrate artistic license in the name of quality?
From what source does our criticism of ourselves and others stem?
“Frankly, your playing sounds terrible.” We were in Prussia Cove in Cornwall, where in the 1970s violinist Sándor Végh had felt so inspired by the surroundings that he helped set up annual masterclasses. Not so enamored with his environment right now was the pianist and pedagogue whose masterclass we were listening to. A seasoned professional, the pianist was unconditionally invested in his art form and deeply admired by his audiences. For the sake of this story, let’s call him Franz.
A group of young chamber musicians were playing Schubert. To my ears, the way they were playing sounded quite pleasant, but the pianist continued to chastise them, pointing out what he considered their failure to properly read the score or understand the meaning of dynamics and keys in Schubert.
As he continued to admonish them for their shortcomings, the young musicians tried to decode what it was he expected to hear them play, and a sense of discomfort steadily rose amongst the auditors in room. “No! Not like that! Don’t you hear that the key change must lead to a sense of servitude to the pianissimo dynamic? And what fingering are you playing?” he asked the young pianist. The lesson continued in a similar fashion for an hour. I had the impression that the level of ability of the young musicians crumbled in front of us as the exasperation of the pianist continued. Speaking with him after the ordeal, he fretted and wrung his hands. “Young people!” he exclaimed, “Why can’t they just read the score?” When I asked him whether he thought the sense of servitude was written in the score, he shot me a look of contempt. I could tell that in his mind, he was pushing me to the ranks of the stupid and the lazy as he threw a, If you would all just take the time to study more diligently, and READ THE SCORE, I wouldn’t have to lose my patience!
I wondered where he expected a 19-year-old to have the knowledge to know where to look, which books to study in order to understand Schubert’s music better. I wondered what it was in the score that he felt the young musicians had overlooked – regardless of his dogged mention of it, I didn’t think I was the only one who didn’t understand what he meant, and judging by the performance of the musicians, they didn’t get it either.
Next door, pianist György Sebők was teaching a different work by the very same Schubert.
The musicians performing for him seemed in awe of “The Trout”, a piano quintet both revered and feared by performers – there are so many outstanding recordings of the work that a person might find it hard to step out from under the long shadow that these recordings cast.
Unlike his colleague, Sebők, didn’t bother with comments about technique. On reflection, he didn’t even talk much about music. Instead, he reached for metaphors, anecdotes, fragments of related and unrelated art, stories drawn from nature, and rhetorical questions.
He referred to the text of the Lied that permeates the fourth movement. “How does that trout feel if it is caught? What emotions does the observer have?”
When the young pianist playing the piece stumbled across a particularly tricky passage, Sebők referred to the trout, flitting in between plants in the water and asked if the pianist could imagine the flash of light on its scales during the tricky passage. The pianist smiled, tried again, and leapt through the passage as if it had never been a problem. At another point in the music, the strings created a dynamic landscape that appeared too exaggerated to Sebők’s ears. Quoting Proust he stated, “In life you can be one of three things. You can be genuine, you can be sincere, and you can tell the truth.” Suddenly the penny dropped – the way the musicians read the score from that point on seemed transformed.
Later in the week at Prussia Cove, the faculty took to the stage. We sat in a local school auditorium where two basketball hoops on either end of the hall barely distracted from the sharp fluorescent tube lighting. A grand piano gave off a dull hue in the middle of the hall, straddling the stripes on the floor that signified the nature of the sports played in it. The legs of the piano stood outside the lines like the appearance of a toddler’s first colouring book. Despite its large size, the piano looked utterly lost and out of place.
I think I’ve rarely experienced a concert in a space that not only felt devoid of atmosphere, but where the space seemed to be actively working toward making everyone feel miserable.
Franz was seated a couple of rows up, grumbling under his breath that this hall was impossible, no one could play here and that he certainly hoped his concert wouldn’t be there.
The sound of a soft shuffle announced Sebők as he walked across the laminated floor wearing a simple evening suit. He bowed, and then sat down without much to-do and waited for Ralph Kirshbaum to finish tuning his cello. The first notes of Beethoven’s cello sonata number 3 in A major resounded around the hall. Within moments we were all transported. I don’t recall a concert that moved me as deeply before or since.
Some years ago I boarded a plane from Zurich to Budapest with my long-time friend and piano duo partner Simon. Simon is anything but a wallflower, and so our journey was spent laughing, and enjoying ourselves. As we waited for our luggage at the carousel, a young American man approached us to inquire about the way into the heart of Budapest. He had overheard some of our conversation and realised that I knew my way around my mother’s home town. Unsure as to what kind of person the American was, I immediately lowered the volume on my sense of fun, withdrew my smile, and in curt tones explained which way to go. Having performed a basic duty towards a stranger, I turned back to the carousel pretending to be engrossed in the study of which suitcase on it might be mine.
Outside the airport, on this spring day bursting with light, Simon and I were scouting a taxi having returned to our playful commentary of the world around us as we amused one another with, frankly, silly conversation.
We spotted the American again. He was having a discussion with a youth hostel representative, discussing the tarif for a room. Simon walked over to him, and with a loud laugh exclaimed, “Ha! That’s just opposite where we will stay!” I nudged Simon – was he mad, informing this utter stranger of this information? Where should this lead? The two men fell into conversation, and I noticed that the American had a good sense of humour – I found myself breaking that firm upper lip of mine into a shadow of a smile.
The American’s name was Tim and within a short space of time during that sojourn in Budapest we all became friends. In fact, I found Tim to be one of the most interesting people I had met in a long time, with a vast knowledge of literature and graphic design, two things that greatly interest me too.
Just before we parted ways, Simon and I headed back to Switzerland and Tim going onward with his journey through other parts of Europe, he suggested something that led to a seismic shift in my way of moving through life. He said: “Gwendolyn – would you perhaps consider being more open?”
Would I consider what?! I first thought indignantly, steeling myself against criticism, letting down the shutters on any vulnerability. Then I realised: my apprehension, my ignorance of my own peripheral awareness was a result of a self-protection mechanism honed through years of criticism that was not only hurtful, but ultimately, useless.