I was invited to visit Guildhall, and was greatly impressed by three things:
The only other music school I know of that requires improvisation, for classical students, is DePauw University, in Indiana. If there are others please let me know!
The school has a research department, which works on important questions, among them:
- What makes orchestral musicians happy with their work?
- What actually goes on at music schools, and what are they really for?
I’ve never heard of any school that does this kind of research. If there is one, again — please tell me!
I was invited to watch some improvisation classes, and was fascinated by what I saw. I’ll learn more about the program, and then offer further comments, but — with the understanding that this is simply what I saw, and not the entire program — here’s what struck me.
Seemed to me that holding the instrument actually got in the way of this musician’s listening! I asked him if that might be the case. And he said it was. That when he held his viola, he expected to be reading music from his music stand. Listening, evidently, became a separate activity, as he more or less unconsciously encountered music. (This conclusion, I should stress, is mine. I don’t know whether he’d agree.)
Then I watched a string quartet, which had just learned the finale of the Brahms C minor quartet. They played it with a lot of vigor, but not (to my ear) with much sense of what was happening — what the separate moments were, how the moments fit together, where the piece was going.
David asked them to sing the piece, instead of playing it. Or rather for the musicians to intone — act out — their parts together. Now the piece began to change. They began to play what was happening in it. David also asked them, in places, to find the main notes in their phrases — the notes that outlined the meaning and direction of the phrase — and play only them.
Doing both these things transformed the piece. Now the musicians really played it. Of course, other teachers may work in similar ways. Though maybe not so often, given David’s busy schedule, visiting other music schools, including some in the US. Once more, I’d love to hear of other teachers who do this kind of work.
It all made me wonder how we’ve gotten to a place — in classical music — where listening seems separate from playing from notation. And where accomplished students can learn a piece without (my judgment; not necessarily David’s, or the students’) quite knowing how it goes. I think what we might be facing here is a tradition — classical music — which students approach from the outside, as something foreign to them. Somehow I don’t think that kids in bands have to stop to figure out the main notes in the riffs they’re playing.
Which isn’t, I should quickly say, a criticism of Guildhall. It’s a problem with classical music as a whole today — a kind of stagnation, really — which Guildhall is trying to address. (Though once again I’ll say that this is my interpretation, not necessarily shared by anyone at Guildhall.)