Phones in concerts

The Slovakian violist Lukas Kmit made what must be the best response I’ve ever encountered to a phone ringing during a concert: he improvised a little fantasy on the famous Nokia ringtone (which of course comes from Bach).

Forgetting to silence one’s phone during a concert is thoughtless, but I expect having it catch you unawares by ringing loudly is utterly mortifying for most people. I’ve seen all manner of responses from performers in the fifteen or so years that mobile phones have gone from common to ubiquitous. Some enraged musicians have stalked off the stage, some have stopped playing and made an angry remark, and some have just pulled irritated faces. I like Kmit’s response because it doesn’t punish all the people in the audience who did silence their phones (and unwrap their throat lozenges, and go bright purple in the face stifling their tickly coughs), and yet it sends a message that the person playing on the stage isn’t impervious to background noises and that a little courtesy is appreciated, thanks very much.

And yet, in some cultures, it apparently isn’t considered rude to take phone calls in concerts (or perhaps it isn’t widely known that most Western classical musicians prefer to play without audible distractions). I played some concerts in China a few years ago where phones went off almost incessantly. The first time this happened, I felt a bit sad, thinking perhaps people didn’t like the concert. But afterwards, I had audience members approaching me backstage with tears in their eyes saying how much they’d enjoyed it. Maybe you can treasure the experience of a concert without necessarily having to listen to it in hallowed silence?

Then again, from my perspective as the person on stage, it’s a lot easier to concentrate when there’s silence. But since it probably isn’t realistic to expect absolute silence all the time, Kmit reminds us to have a sense of humour.

Selling the music major

A Washington Post reader writes to the advice columnist Carolyn Hax about her college-age son, who wants to be a music major but lacks talent. Should she continue financially supporting her son, even though she believes he has no hope of a performing career?

It’s that time of year again when American universities are holding auditions, and our campus is full of nervous high school seniors and their parents. The families are auditioning us just as much as we’re auditioning the students. As a professor, part of my job is recruitment, so I can hardly tell these people that music is a hard, hard profession and that if I’d known how hard it would be to claw my way into a job (and by extension, the American middle classes) I might very well have considered medical or law school. This forces me to ask myself whether we are disingenuous and self-serving to try to convince young people to aim for the almost impossible goal of a career in music. Are we filling their   impressionable heads with dreams and hopes that will most likely be dashed?

Then again, parents have almost certainly thought of all these things, and they hardly need me to tell Jordan or Madison that music is hard. And it is, after all, my job to explain the benefits of the music major. So what do I say when parents ask me to explain why I think they should let their children study music?

First, I say that no study in any field is ever a waste of time. Music is a particularly demanding one in that it requires a tremendous time commitment and unusually disciplined study habits that will stand a person in good stead for a career, whether that career is in music or in something tangentially related or even completely unrelated.

Secondly, I say that everyone who comes through our doors has a very good reason for being there, whether it’s dreams of stardom or some personal reason that we don’t always know. Who are we to dismiss their interests?

Thirdly, I say that music study can lead to careers that the student may not have considered or even heard of. That’s what we’re supposed to do as professors: to open doors, increase options, and create possibilities. There’s no sense going into a field that bores them or that they hate. That’s why they should do what interests them, even if the parents’ highest hope is that the high-pressure nature of formal music study will get these peculiar notions out of their system.

1980 vs. Stradivari

A recent study by an  acoustics physicist from France’s National Center for Scientific Research has revealed that even a group professional violinists couldn’t, for the most part, tell the difference between modern violins and ones made by old Italian masters.

This information is pretty surprising, although I have my doubts about the way the study was conducted. (For example, the researches asked the violinists to rate the violins’ “projection,” which isn’t an easy thing to do when you lack the perspective of someone standing some distance away from you.) Even taking into account this peculiar requirement, I had trouble understanding how they couldn’t tell the difference.

You can hear the instruments online here at the NPR website. To me, it seems inconceivable not to pick up on the tremendous sweetness of tone that the Stradivari possesses, as opposed to the brasher, more forceful tone of the modern instrument.

The players, it must be pointed out, did have to wear welder’s goggles for the study, and the researchers disguised the distinctive scents of the instruments. But even so, the quality of an old Italian master is unmistakable. I haven’t had the privilege of owning a really good cello in my career, though I’ve been lucky to borrow several wonderful modern instruments. But having had the chance to play a Strad when I had a job at the instrument collections at the Royal Academy of Music during my student days, and having more recently tried some old Italian instruments at various dealers around the United States, I find it impossible that someone couldn’t tell a priceless old instrument from a modern one. I played a Grancino last year, and it didn’t just have an incredibly, gorgeously sweet tone, it made me play better. Even after I’d (reluctantly) given it back to the dealer, my fingers seemed to remember how it felt to play it, and my playing on my own cello actually improved. Now that’s the mark of a great instrument.