Notions of Notation

Roger Doyle

Notions of Notation

On the imperialist attitude taken by many classical musicians to music that is not notated.

Appearing in the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s concert schedule brochure for the 2001-2002 season is a short introduction written by the principal conductor Gerhard Markson: ‘Anthropology tells us that the human being (homo erectus sapiens) has existed for about 2,500,000 years. However, the first printed musical activity in Europe was registered only in the second half of the seventh century. That means that for about 2,498,650 years mankind had to live without music.’

We know of Greek musical drama and modal music, the Roman Empire had its own musics, and all European countries had their ancient singing (our sean-nós included). It is obvious that there was music everywhere, so it must be said that Maestro Markson’s statement is analogous to suggesting that people never spoke before the printing press was invented.

The crux of the matter here is the imperialist attitude taken by many classical musicians to music that is not notated — music made by the ‘natives’.

I really do not wish to take cheap shots here at professional classical musicians, who enrich our musical life enormously, but I would like to look at educational issues involved in a classical music training and how they are inferior in some instances to the learning of music that is not written down.

Apart from the obvious development of repertoire and technique, one of the main aims of a classical music training is to make strong the muscle of sight-reading. This is a wonderful ability that must be worked at continuously, and the long-term benefit is that you can learn and play new pieces quickly. The downside is that the talented students spend ten years or so doing the exams and come out the other end not being able to play a note unless the music is put in front of them.

This is the equivalent of calligraphists transcribing ancient manuscripts not being able to compose a letter to their friends, or (to return to the printing press analogy) of a tribe of people who are mute and cannot speak, except when they read.

Worse still, most of them end up like beached whales with the music draining out of them, as their main music muscle atrophies through lack of use.

In my head is an image of a magnificent landscape, full of snow-capped mountains and wondrous sights from horizon to horizon filled with musicians composing and improvising together, surprising each other as they lead and follow, discovering complex rhythms and harmonies by experimentation, and listening intently as they inhale the air and pass through the landscape.

Along come a group of classical musicians keeping to themselves — bent over, reading the dots in the middle of the road, navigating their way through the scene without noticing it. They have missed most of what’s going on.

I had a classical piano training at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (the ‘here are the classics — learn them’ approach), and I know for a fact that the idea is more to produce conveyer-belt sight-readers than to produce rounded musicians.

Later I taught piano for three years and incorporated the things I had missed in my classes — all my students did ear training way beyond the requirements for exams, learnt how to improvise, compose, choose pieces they’d like to learn and listened to new music recordings. I even composed Six Pieces for Pupils who Don’t Like Exams for piano (1973/74).

A few years ago I met my former piano teacher by chance at a concert. We hadn’t met for thirty-five years. I told her that I had become a composer and she said that she had heard that, but was it the Beethoven or the Brahms I couldn’t get right.

It was quite a put-down, and it made it completely clear to me where her priorities lay. As though to say ‘it wasn’t all wasted’ I sent her a CD of piano music I composed and played for the Gate Theatre production of Salome last year.

Everyone knows people who say ‘If only I’d kept up the piano’ and the regret and guilt they may feel. They shouldn’t feel so bad. They were let down by a tunnel-visioned educational system not interested in nurturing the acorn seed of music in them.

The Latin root of the word education is educo — to lead out.

Plans for a proposed Irish Academy for the Performing Arts seem to be shrouded in secrecy (as I read with interest in JMI Vol. 1 No.5), but what an opportunity here to right some of the wrongs in the education of young musicians, to bring out the music in them so that it grows and stays with them forever.

Published on 1 September 2001

Roger Doyle is a Dublin-based Irish composer working in electronic music.

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