Public ownership of the (professional, classically trained) musician

Unlike many other career paths that require considerable skill, gained through training and experience, the successful practice of music is almost unanimously considered to stem from a divinely-bestowed talent; one that, in equally biblical terms, must therefore be shared, whenever and wherever, without due compensation. It also follows that a change in career focus is a crime against humanity. This blog entry presents a number of scenarios, very loosely based on real events (my own as well as those of colleagues and friends), followed by brutally honest responses that were never given.


[at a family event]

Go and play something on the piano! Play [insert name of 1950s crooner hit].

I don’t know it.

It goes like this: hmm hmm hmm [hums tune]. Ok, now play it.


[pianist plays something she knows; everyone starts talking; pianist stops playing]

Keep going!

[everyone starts talking again; pianists stops playing]

No, keep going!

I don’t know anything else.

[pianist rummages through piano stool, looking for something resembling a score]

You don’t need that! Aunty Pam from Carnarvon’s son can play ANYTHING by ear and he hasn’t had one lesson! He plays five different instruments, including panpipes, in the band for ‘Margate’s Got Talent’ – you should do something like that.


Reading fluently from sheet music took years of lessons and devoted practise. It is a necessary requirement for studying classical music, and doesn’t make you a lesser musician than those who only play by ear. One instrument can take a lifetime to master. Talent shows make me not want to live.


[Ring ring, ring ring; singer picks up phone]

Hello, this is so-and-so from [insert name of mediocre restaurant].

We provide opportunities for musicians to perform in our restaurant on Sunday afternoons. We can only pay you petrol money, but you can get a free meal, and will get lots of exposure.


Last year I won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. If I need more exposure I will take up a Sunday afternoon shift at Hooters. Also, can you ask your chef to come and cook at my dinner party? I can only pay petrol money, but he can get a copy of my latest album and will get lots of exposure.


[mother phones prospective teacher]

Hi! My uber-talented daughter needs to take music theory lessons. Can you take her? How much do you charge?

R 350 an hour.

Oh, that’s very expensive! Can you make it R 250?


Well then we’ll just have to go elsewhere.


My four years of undergraduate training cost as much as a medical degree. Your daughter’s synchronized dolphin-jumping lessons cost R 700 an hour. I have a waiting list. Also, perhaps you should find a teacher worthy of her exceptional talent.


[conversation with long-lost family friend]

So what are you doing these days?

I’m about to finish my PhD. I just accepted an appointment at a university.

Oh, what will you teach there?

Music theory.

Oh, so not French Horn?



[family friend tilts head and presses lips together as though to sympathize with a disappointment]


My career as a French Horn player ended before I got my first degree, around the time I became immune to the cardiac medicine I had to take in order to sustain it. Even before that I started becoming more interested in composition and music theory. It suits my personality better. It’s not a failure and I’m not sad about it.


[musician lies open-mouthed on dentail hygienist’s chair]

Oh, have you heard of that little girl from Belgium, Amoeba Katzenellenbogen, the singer? Yes? No?

Kgggggggh [saliva sucking device in action].

She’s only just teethed, yet she has the voice of an adult. Isn’t that unbelievable?


She sings ‘Nessun Dorma’, ‘O mio babbino caro’ and ‘Sempre libera’ to sell-out crowds all over the world.



[Nunc est Bibendum]

nar musikant.


hearing the cheesy in a new light

Some people hate it, but I love the long dialogue-free scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey (1968). For one of these scenes he used Johann Strauss II’s overplayed, sweeter-than-syrup Blue Danube waltz (1866). When I hear it I can’t help but think of a bunch of geriatric tourists concluding their trip of the European capitals at an André Rieu Concert in Antwerp. (It is a well-known fact that Kubrick used existing music without permission in the film soundtrack – most notably works by Ligeti. In this case the piece is in the public domain and therefore free to use by anyone, although the recording that he used may not have been).

Removed from its original Viennese ballroom context, the viewers/listeners are forced to reconsider the music, to ‘re-hear’ it. How so? We are faced with a type of incongruence: the music doesn’t seem to fit the scene in terms of our expectations. Space is a place for the ominous soundtracks associated with alien invasions! (And later, the ‘epic’ nature of Star Trek and Star Wars-like soundtracks.) In my view Strauss’s music serves to highlight the gentle dance between the rotation of the earth, the rotation of the space station, and the movement of the space shuttle. At the same time it makes us acutely aware of the fragility of the carefully choreographed ballet – it can derail at any moment: the Pan Am stewardess’s anti-gravity shoes almost make her lose her balance for just a moment, the stray pen is caught just in time before the forces of nature let it float away, and the space shuttle has to navigate its docking very carefully. The music does not acknowledge the silent battle between the possibilities of modern technology and the strength of nature, which, as I suggested before, makes us very aware of it.

Be sure to watch 2001: A space odyssey if you haven’t yet, and listen for extracts from Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Don’t even try to find a ‘standard’ interpretation of the film’s ending; there isn’t one. And don’t expect Star Wars.










why children shouldn’t have to ‘learn lessons’ from the arts

Whilst driving I often listen to the news on South Africa’s national Afrikaans radio service. On some days this is preceded (or followed – I can’t remember) by a children’s programme. The most annoying thing about these programmes is that there’s always a lesson to be learned: don’t do this, don’t do that, this is good for you, this is bad for you. It’s unfortunately also the case with a large amount of children’s and youth literature. Whatever happened to writers of these books/stories just letting their minds go wild, indulging in flights of fantasy? In my ‘not educated in the field of educational psychology’ opinion, a lack of moral lessons is more likely to inspire them to be creative.

This brings me to today’s video. It’s a cartoon aired in the late 1970s on the long-running American children’s series, Sesame Street. The score is by American ‘minimalist’ composer, Philip Glass (b. 1937), who is known by the general population for his scores for films such as The Truman Show and The Hours. I’m pretty sure the cartoon’s presentation of geometric shapes is not meant to be a lesson in mathematics – it’s more likely meant to be purely abstract. Glass’s repetitive music lends to it a creepy quality that supports my interpretation. And thankfully we don’t have to learn a lesson from the voice part.

in defence of beauty

I only recently found out about the existence of the twenty-nine year old Russian soprano, Aida Garifullina. Now let’s face it – videos on youtube of classical singers performing inspire the most comments from a peanut gallery of viewers who have yet to take a singing lesson or set foot on a stage. They all long for the days when good singers were still alive (apparently there will never be one again). The worst of all is this: some of Ms Garifullina’s videos have inspired a plethora of misogynistic (= strongly prejudiced against women) comments that come down to ‘she’s only a pretty face and therefore has no talent’. (One often sees this in the world of academia as well – if you blow-dry your hair and put on make-up you can’t possibly be a good professor.) Ms Garifullina has put in the years of hard training and devotion. She is not a bimbo with a vibrato, discovered by the likes of Russia’s got Talent, receiving accolades based on sympathy for a having a deceased pet or family member. She was the 2013 winner of the prestigious Operalia competition and is an ensemble member of the Vienna State Opera. Her rendition of Musetta’s aria from Puccini’s La Bohéme is by far my favourite.

when no one tells you about something

neon-open-sign-1404389631jnSI’ve created this blog to share with music students things that I’ve read, things that I’ve listened to, and things that I’ve thought about. There is simply not enough time during classes for university lecturers to be able to share everything that they want to share. There is no such thing as a ‘standard set of topics to cover’. It used to be so – in the olden days it was considered appropriate to teach a range of music history and music theory courses focused solely on western art music, moving through the time periods from the Renaissance to the 20th century and beyond. The study of indigenous African music or pop music, to name just two examples, was considered something ‘different’, something ‘extra’ that you can study after you’ve covered the so-called ‘basics’. This is fortunately not the case anymore, but with all thing being equal it’s just not possible to cover everything. Information can be found anywhere at the click of a button. Classes are there to focus on selected topics, and to use these topics to teach students how to use information, be it in the technical sense or the critical.

I really don’t like the title ‘professor’ because it implies that you are a ‘spreader of wisdom and knowledge’. I would much prefer to be called a ‘knowledge consultant’. Specialist medical doctors in the UK are called consultants, and in the case of some specialities assume the title Mr or Ms, rather than Dr  – other than being the epitome of ‘cool’, it implies a kind of brotherhood/sisterhood and humbleness. Any good professor should be able to use the term ‘I don’t know’ when they don’t know something.

All of this being said (and before I get more off-track) there are many things that you won’t come across if no one tells you about it. And that is what this blog is for. Read what I have to say, leave comments, and feel free to share things with me that I can go and read about, listen to, or think about. I aim to keep to the use of language in this blog as jargon-free and as simple as possible so that it doesn’t read like an academic text.

By the way, ‘Kit’ is short for ‘Chris’ and ‘screen’ simply refers to, well, a computer screen. I now declare this blog open for business.