all i really need to know i learned at the music festival*

When I was a young piano student, spring was always Music Festival time. “Everything memorized by Christmas” was the rule; then the subsequent three months were a crescendo of practising, extra lessons, and anxiety. Students, teachers, parents were all involved, to the extent that ‘life after the Festival’ sometimes seemed to be a mirage.

One of the greatest humiliations you could suffer was to be ‘pulled’ from your Festival class by your teacher, for lack of preparation — or, as in the case of a fellow student of mine, because you went skiing the weekend before the Festival, instead of staying home to practise. Even the threat of being ‘pulled’ was enough to inspire renewed commitment in those last stages of polishing your pieces. Competition was intense. My piano teacher took tranquilizers before heading off to listen to the Festival classes. On the way to the Festival, one parent — trying to relieve the tension, of course — wondered whether they could arrange to break another kid’s fingers. Everyone laughed.

But it was also the era of the great adjudicators: true piano pedagogues such as Phyllis Schuldt, Sandra Munn, Boris Roubakine, and especially Robin Wood. It would be standing room only when Dr. Wood got up to adjudicate.

Fortunately, music festivals in recent years have begun to downplay the stress-making aspects. We refer to players as ‘performers,’ rather than ‘contestants.’ The adjudicator doesn’t ring a bell when it’s time for you to start playing. Marks are not usually announced any more, and class placings have become gold and silver instead of first and second. We want to honour excellence while still recognizing everyone’s personal achievements — and that’s a good thing.

Last fall, I was delighted to be asked to adjudicate — remotely, of course — the British Columbia Registered Music Teachers’ annual competition. Aside from the utter enjoyment of hearing such fine playing, the result of much dedicated teaching and learning, it gave me an opportunity to think again of my philosophy of piano-playing, and of competitions. Here’s some of what I wrote:

I want to congratulate, first, all of the performers. You were each worthy to be chosen by your local BCRMTA chapter, and all of you gave performances that impressed me with your technical skill and preparation, and moved me with your musical interpretations. I was impressed, too, by the quality of the videos you submitted. Knowing how to use technology to capture your performances has always been important, but now more than ever. I also congratulate your teachers, for the hours of expert guidance and never-ending encouragement they give to you; as well as your families, your friends — all those who help you find the time to practise, and who support you when you need it most.

I was glad to see, reading your biographies, that many of you have a wide range of activities beyond playing the piano. We pianists can be a solitary lot, if we’re not careful, and you are all doing well in making sure that, although piano is an important part of your lives, it’s not the only important thing. Several of you are finding creative ways to share your music with others, and to explore interests beyond music, too. Bravo for your imagination, your energy and your enthusiasm.

The results of a competition are always just a snapshot of one moment in your musical careers. In any contest, if you don’t win the award you were trying for, know that there are always more opportunities, should you choose to take them. And of course, in the long run, it is the joy that music brings to ourselves and others which is most important, not whether we have won first place.

Thanks again for including me in your music-making. Most of all, I hope that I am able to hear you in person sometime.”

Dr. Jamie Syer – Bergen, Alberta
*with apologies to Robert Fulghum

words about music

Maybe we musicians are just too particular, but have you noticed, as I have, that even the best writers of fiction have trouble creating believable prose about music and musicians? Especially about classical musicians? Perhaps because we have our own ‘lingo’ which is easy to get just a little bit wrong. Or maybe it’s because the world of the classical musician is difficult to translate, by someone who’s not part of it.

Fortunately, there are some notable exceptions. One of the best writers about music (and musicians) is the Canadian author Robertson Davies. In his professional life he was deeply involved in the world of music (he wrote an opera libretto, among other musical projects); and when music is a big part of his novels, he makes things utterly believable. The two outstanding examples are A Mixture of Frailties and The Lyre of Orpheus.

Vikram Seth gets a B+ from me for An Equal Music. He produces a compelling description of the life of a professional violinist; though I find the premise of a pianist losing her hearing but still able to successfully perform Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet a little sketchy.

If you want to combine a fascinating musical story and outstanding historical fiction, you can’t do better than Music & Silence by Rose Tremain.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann contains a wonderful passage where the character of Wendell Kretschmar gives an inspired lecture on Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111. I confess to having been inspired by this fictional creation to improve my own lectures! And E. M. Forster’s description in Howard’s End of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony stays in your mind for a long time: “the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end…”

Among more recent authors to have successfully tackled the “music and musicians” quandary , I must commend Erin Frances Fisher: a pianist herself, a former student of mine and then a colleague at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Read “Da Capo al Fine” in her remarkable 2018 collection That Tiny Life — and then read all her other stories, too.

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