I love the way Debussy’s Clair de Lune has an effortless natural flow. It’s a challenging piece as it needs to be expressive but exaggeration spoils its authentic felling of wistful longing. This famous masterpiece remains forever fresh and disarmingly beautiful.
When people feel that their musical taste is superior to others’ they are obviously committing a sin of arrogance. It’s fine to be an enthusiastic champion of our beloved genres and artists and to appreciate all their amazing qualities, and equally, there is no sin in saying that certain music is just not your cup of tea, but clearly it is highly offensive to disregard or insult music that others love. Yet this bad behaviour is very common.
We musicians are keenly aware that inevitably some people will not like our music very much. We must accept that simple truth calmly. However, it is very hard to accept people disregarding or disrespecting our work – a painful and all too common experience. One might think that it is just ignorance which lies at the basis of their failure to respect or show interest in our musical endeavours but arrogance and jealousy are also likely culprits. Of course, many of my friends do ask me about how my work creating and teaching music is going. They do this in exactly the same way they would show interest in the work and career of any friend, whatever their chosen field. But often such common friendliness is not extended to musicians. Given that our careers are so much more than just a job but something that we pour our hearts and souls into, it feels like extremely unfriendly behaviour when someone shows no interest in our current projects. Even when I am bold enough to volunteer information, many people tend to respond in a perfunctory way or even just stare blankly back. Why on earth would otherwise caring people be so cruel?
Music used to be something we all did together using a very different awareness of how it functions. We all had a powerful, almost intuitive sense of how rhythmic and tonal patterns are formed and work together to create complex, extended musical structure. The loss of these skills through the tragic demise of folk music in human civilisation leaves a painful social scar. A culture in which an arbitrary selection of musicians are placed on very tall, wobbly pedestals without any clear, objective measure of their deserving generates an undercurrent of resentment and scorn. People are all forced to be nothing more than grateful audience members, listening and admiring passively. Yet they still sense their potential for active participation in music-making. Sadly, the way amateur musicians usually make music is either an act of blind karaoke or by coldly decoding the dots. These approaches are nothing more than mimicry or playing by numbers and only reinforce the unhealthy passive relationship to music. Therefore, the need to have a strong opinion about music, often to the point of offensive chauvinism, is arguably quite understandable for many people.
As unforgivably opinionated and arrogant as music shaming is, it is really just a symptom of a deep cultural deprivation which leaves individuals feeling musically disempowered. It is merely their vain attempt to claw back some of their sense of musical autonomy. My hope is that by propagating training for fluent musicianship skills on the keyboard, more people will feel empowered musically and that a myriad forms of music in all its dazzling diversity and richness may be created and enjoyed by more and more people.
Music is a kind of language and just like verbal language, it inevitably has mannerism. Different periods of history and different social circumstances demand different manners. This is equally true of music. Different genres of music have different manners. Classical, jazz and pop styles all have their own mannerism. Listen to a recording from fifty years ago and you will hear different musical mannerism – many aspects of which are common to all genres.
So we cannot avoid manners as if they were something bad and they certainly have their place in helping music be accessible. But it is important to acknowledge that there is something rather objective or even superficial about mannerism in music.
When a musician feels the music deeply, this is a subjective response and the expressive dynamics that stem from this deep feeling are not dictated by the requirements of the genre or the expressive conventions of the time. This means that authentic expression is a very different thing from manners. It has an inherent depth or power that transcends mannerism completely.
Expression is not an alternative to manners – we use both – but we have to acknowledge that authentic feeling carries far more truth and profundity.
Spontaneous vs. contrived interpretation
When there is no gap between the way musicians feel the music and the way they play or sing it, then we, as listeners, feel the authentic expression. The dynamics used by the musician to generate that expressive quality in the playing is not premeditated but spontaneous and natural.
Manners too can emerge naturally from a kind of social intelligence around the musical setting or use. Manners exist on a kind of spectrum from very blunt, even punk style at one end through to highly conventional, even polite at the other. Of course it is not quite as simple as this: for example, it may be entirely conventional to deliver music of a certain genre in an over-the-top, punk manner.
When expression and manners are used spontaneously rather than in a worked-out, contrived way, there is greater power and immediacy to a performance. Of course, it is perfectly possible that power and immediacy could be considered tasteless in a certain genre of very refined music.
Challenging cultural norms and championing authenticity and spontaneity
As a musician, I see my role as being one that challenges the status quo. Music has limitless depth and serves an important function in helping us deal with the human condition. Life can seem cruel, absurd and very confusing when we try to figure it out using reasoning and logic. But when we frame reality in a musical context, give it rhythm and harmony, then the ebb and flow of the story of life produces pathos, joy, melancholy, exhilaration and all kinds of deep feeling states that heal and unite us in our quest for greater things.
So music can be as nutritious and necessary for thriving as food. And I feel it is therefore very important to try and resist the pull of conventional manners and contrived interpretation in favour of authentic and spontaneous expression in order to ensure that my music contains as much unprocessed, wholesome goodness as possible! This is why I love to make spontaneous improvisation the bedrock of my musical practice.