Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Transforming the Landscape through Music Creation and Performance

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Transforming the Landscape through Music Creation and Performance

Article excerpt

Let me first say that I'd like to pay respect to the traditional custodians of this land upon which we stand.

In about 2008, I was interviewed by my local rag, the Sydney Morning Herald. It was the usual gamut of questions--about my childhood, my studies, my prizes, my approach to performing and even my family. The journalist started off innocently enough but I smelt a rat when she started asking really pointed questions. She wanted a sound byte from me and I had learned from bitter experience as a young man not to give it to anybody, especially journos. However, journos do have a way of preying on the intrinsic human need to be understood--a byproduct of narcissism, which most pianists possess in spades. No names mentioned.

So I was in a bad mood. The journo asked the following question: 'How do you feel that you are different from your contemporaries?' I responded with a firecracker: "most classical pianists couldn't improvise a fart in a Hungarian wedding." Not only did that get published, but it also became the headline. To this day, I have never quite lived that experience down. People still come up to me today and ask me what I meant by it.

What did I mean by it? Well, I was being entirely truthful. Under pressure, the truth comes flowing. I felt that what I said about improvisation not only applied to the arts but to humans generally --our capacity for originality and innovation in the classical piano world had somehow been eroded over recent decades and replaced by a kind of conformity, a conservatism, a timidity that is enormously deleterious to the artistic process itself. And for me, the artistic process is inherently progressive. Key to this progressivism is the act and art of improvisation. The ability to improvise is integral to the future of classical music. And classical pianists are still not putting improvisation over other areas, such as rote learning, technique, and memory. All of these facets, however, are positively impacted by improvisation.

Much has been written, studied, analysed and theorised about improvisation--probably by many sitting in this conference. However, in many ways, we veteran classical performers are behind the eight ball compared to everyday students who are versed in Kodaly. We've been swallowed up so much by the idea of doing music, that we have lost the meaning of being music--music as life force, as a conduit for healing, and as a way of bringing cultures together, not further apart.

Just to digress for a minute: about two weeks ago, the ASME conference organisers contacted my manager, Jackie, and asked her to ask me for an abstract for this speech. I had to first log onto Wikipedia to find out what the word 'abstract' meant. Once I had cleared that up, I was faced with another problem.

To be honest, I regularly grow weary of classical music performers speaking on the important topic of music education. It invariably goes like this:

1. We have trained our whole lives

2. We are effectively athletes, just on a smaller muscle group

3. We don't get sponsorship like Ian Thorpe

4. The general public doesn't like us anymore

5. Music education not being a compulsory part of every school curriculum is the culprit

6. Please give us money

I didn't want to go down this path, because there are greater experts than I on the topic of the sad intersection of culture and public policy. Additionally, I didn't want to fall into the trap of coming across as a classical musician immersed in his own cultural echo chamber, deriding society for not appreciating him enough.

So I got thinking.

And I came to improvisation. And Hungarian Weddings. With lots of farts.

Let me just rattle off a few big names for you: Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Hummel, Bach (of course), Handel, Clementi, Scarlatti, and Weber --all great improvisers. And I'm not talking about the blues, of course, but rather extemporization --the idea of composition being a living, breathing, dynamic process. …

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