2 The fabulous status quo

The drivers that make modern performance so effective, and the problems they bring.


Western classical music can—usually does—feel wonderful. Musicologists don’t often say that—we’re usually too busy being ironic, judiciously distanced, or just shy of being in love with this music[1]—but I think most people who work with it in any way do so, or began to do so, because it rewards them spiritually in ways that few experiences can equal. That it does so is thanks, in large part, to performers who, with astonishing reliability and skill, make inspiring and moving musical experiences starting from composers’ scores.

To love these experiences in the first place, however, does require a certain degree of privilege. One has to feel that it is ‘for people like me’, and a great many people don’t feel that. It excludes all too easily, for reasons that Christopher Small set out eloquently in one of the most salutary books on WCM (not WAM, other musics are also art), his 1998 Musicking.[2] It’s not just that it happens in concert halls where middle-class people who can afford expensive tickets sit politely in silence for long periods of time, sometimes hours without moving or making a sound, while other middle-class people, in Edwardian costume, play expensive instruments brilliantly yet with as little movement or apparent emotional reaction as possible. (There’s a stiff-upper-lipness about all that, a compulsory interiority, that is class-acquired.) On a deeper mental level, the kinds of prolonged intellectual and emotional journeys on which a listener allows themselves to be taken are themselves made possible through the education, experience and leisure that a background steeped in particular kinds of cultural and financial capital facilitates. WCM takes for granted ways of recognising, identifying with and responding to culture which can’t be acquired in an instant, or at first exposure. To have the space to follow, one has to feel comfortable, entitled, and to an extent experienced. By experienced I do not mean educated in WCM. That’s not necessary, and we’ll look at the myth that it is later. But it does require exposure through repeated experiences of listening to such music, so that it becomes habitual and one starts to find ways of listening that allow one to make one’s own sense of it at the same time as feeling that one belongs with it. The rituals that Small describes so vividly only make this harder. Widening the franchise for access to WCM is one of the potential benefits of the changes I’ll be arguing for in this book.

When one has this financial, cultural and social access to WCM it’s easy to feel that the experience of hearing this music can be remarkably powerful. It’s customary to attribute this to those exceptional musicians we call ‘the great composers’: men (mostly, until very recently) with a particular skill at imagining wonderful music and writing down enough of what they imagined to enable a skilled performer to make that into sound that everybody else can hear and enjoy. We usually regard these sounds as the composers’, and pay them and their heirs accordingly. But I and colleagues have argued, since around the turn of the century, that to see the composer as the only begetter is a mistake, a product of a far-reaching misunderstanding of what WCM is and does. Our case has been that much of this communicative work is done by performers, who turn notes into sound with skill and expressive power that they alone provide and without which the notes are of limited interest. We’ll look over the evidence for this in Chapters 3–6 below. Whether or not one agrees, there is little room for dispute about the level of skill shown by professional performers at the moment. And it’s this that I really wish to emphasise in this chapter, not least because much of the rest of this book will ask challenging questions about the necessity for this particular approach to making music. But I hope never to lose sight of the extraordinary level of achievement that performers display every time they prepare, play or sing one of these scores.

Making music for a living, as we shall hear in Chapter 14, can be dispiriting, even damaging, psychologically as well as physically; but at its most rewarding, with the chance to choose what one plays, enough time to learn a score and to shape a performance, a comfortable environment and a responsive audience (and not all, perhaps none of these may be available), the experience of making music at a high level can also be deeply rewarding. In the best conditions one can enjoy the pleasure of mastering the notes together with experiencing the powerful feelings generated by the music one is creating with them. Add to this the intellectual fascination, felt simultaneously, of the structure and the historical and social context we believe is inscribed in it, associated by us with the sounds we make from it—all this from a repertoire that is interestingly varied because composition changes over time. In an ideal environment the physical, the intellectual and the emotional are all fully engaged, with music using more areas of the brain than almost anything else humans do.[3] The ability to play very well, and to concentrate as a listener (and, unless on auto-pilot, the performer is the closest listener), generates enormous pleasure and satisfaction, a sense that this is the way music should ideally be. This is particularly intense at the moment because from a technical perspective—meaning the ability to get around any number of notes elegantly at any speed—musicianship is so good, perhaps better than it has ever been. As Lisa McCormick has said, ‘technical perfection has become so common that it is no longer considered a remarkable achievement.’[4]

What is it that makes performance so good at the moment? One key factor has been recording, which for a century has insisted on increasingly exact performances of scores (fearful that listeners would think anything else was a mistake) and at the same time has increased competition between performers, since each recorded version can be immediately compared with every other. (We shall look at the kinds of criticism this leads to in Chapter 9.) Similarly the business of music, of which recording is a major part, has become increasingly internationalised and thus homogenised. Competitions—in which, notoriously, the least controversial performance can often win[5]—are only the most obvious manifestation of this: it’s felt also in the appearance of the same roster of artists wherever WCM is presented, a tendency to specialise in repertoire, widespread agreement on how each score should be performed which minimises the need for rehearsal and the payment of musicians that rehearsal entails. And so on. Recording and internationalisation cause each generation of performers to become even better than the last at producing exciting performances of the same realisations of the same scores. Characteristics of modern performance style therefore include reliability, blend, and synchronisation that nevertheless allows considerable expressivity because change (rubato, loudness) is agreed and precisely timed and graded, allowing ensembles to behave as one player, to the extent that orchestras (Spira Mirabilis, St Paul Chamber Orchestra, outstanding examples) can now operate highly effectively with no conductor.

So yes, standards are astonishingly high, but behind idealistic talk of artistry musicians must always strive, in the ruthless neo-liberalism that the music business so efficiently performs, to out-play their rivals in fluency, reliability, punctuality, collegiality, health, good looks, and musical affect, while being careful not to change the agreed character or meanings of a score.[6] Being able to play anything perfectly, fluently and safely within current performance style is simply a necessary starting-point before artistic virtuosity comes into play. And so the modern musician is required to be both human and superhuman, expressive and brilliant, moving and thrilling; no longer one at the expense of the other, but both on every occasion, if they are to rise above the graduate average and attract attention. How much stress does this induce? How many are made ill? How many drop out? Is virtuosity simply the market doing its ruthless business, selecting the strongest and weeding out difference, the absence of which only makes the task of differentiating oneself harder? Does the push-pull of virtuosity and conformity do more harm than it’s artistically worth? Does anyone care, as long as it’s financially productive for those who pay the bills? Is it reasonable to demand that performers feed our need to be astonished and at the same time persuade us that they are bringing us closer to the composer? Or does this simply intensify the cognitive dissonance which, as we shall see, lies at the heart of the classical music business, setting up an impossible conflict between an artistic belief system and a free-market economy? Whatever else it may be, modern musicianship involves political and ethical issues to which we shall need to return repeatedly as different aspects of the business bring us back to them.

Classical music, then, is bedevilled in training and practice by problems of conformity: conformity to the imagined wishes of the dead composer; conformity to current norms and to the need, if one wishes to be employable, to sound the values of the musical state more thrillingly and more persuasively than one’s competitors. With this impossible demand come stress and other kinds of performance-related ill-health. The culprits are the belief-system and the financial model. Of these two, the belief-system is the easier to address. We need to do this. We owe it to performers to think about their lives, not just as professionals but also as children. What is the point of spending eighteen to twenty of the most difficult years of anyone’s life learning to make performances that have already been made over and over before you? For the sake of children’s health and mental wellbeing, quite apart from all the other considerations, it’s imperative that we turn the education of classical musicians into something collaborative and creative, so that we can turn concert life into something less competitive, less predictable and less routine.

None of this is meant as a call for less brilliant performance, or not unless there are remarkable compensations in other musical respects. But a case may be made—and I’ll try to make it—for performances that use the technical superabundance of current classical performers to more varied and imaginative musical ends. The past century has seen the consolidation and teaching of a way of playing notes that produces these pleasures reliably and repeatedly. But what else might it do? It’s easy to see such a question as poised at the top of a steep slippery slope. When performance is this good it’s easily mistaken for being ideal, the pinnacle of centuries of development. And it’s easy to assume that this is how the scores need to go, because nothing else, we feel, could possibly be as good. And it is magnificent, let’s be clear about that. Many buts will follow: nothing I say, however, is intended to exclude what we do now. And yet, there is a danger that such competence and unanimity (in ensemble and in belief) is taken as an absolute, as outside time, as permanently ideal. And the better it is, the more easily it’s mistaken for that, and seen as the only option; and the more institutionalised it becomes, the more enshrined in teaching and assessment, the more legislated for and the more policed, the harder it is to envisage alternatives, and the harder it becomes to escape such policing and self-policing in order to explore alternatives.

New ways of reading these scores are possible, and the purpose of this book is to show what some might be like, and why we would all benefit from being able to go in search of them.


Continue to Chapter 3: ‘Performance style changes over time’

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[1]William Cheng makes exactly this point in Loving Music Till It Hurts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 30.

[2] Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. 1st ed. (Middletown CT: Wesleyan). See also Bull, Anna. 2018. Class, Gender, and the “Imagined Futures” of Young Classical Musicians. In Dromey, Chris, and Julia Haferkorn. 2018. The Classical Music Industry (New York: Routledge), 79–95

[3] Koelsch, Stefan. 2012. Brain & Music (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell), x.

[4] McCormick, Lisa. 2015. Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music (Cambridge University Press), 175.

[5] Ibid., 96. McCormick, Lisa. 2009. Higher, Faster, Louder: Representations of the International Music Competition. Cultural Sociology 3(1), 5–30, at 13­–14.

[6] These next two paragraphs appeared first in Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2018. The Danger of Virtuosity. Musicae Scientiae 24 (4), 558-61 at 560. They are reused here with some small changes.

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