Pearls of wisdom

As we move into competition and festival season, a steady stream of young performers are bravely taking to stages around the world.

There’s something about following the journeys of these young artists that we can’t get enough of. Perhaps it’s their pyrotechnical unpredictability, or our desperate willing them to go further, or just the excitement of watching promising talents transform into mature, assured performers in front of our eyes.

The Carl Nielsen Competition 2019 flute finalists ©  Knud Erik Jørgensen
The Carl Nielsen Competition 2019 flute finalists ©  Knud Erik Jørgensen

Recently, we’ve been mulling over the idea that the music we create is ultimately a self-portrait. In our technological age, where the cameras never stop rolling on our frenetic lives, the guidance of teachers and idols help anchor us, and shape how we approach our art. Sometimes the tips and tricks that work for other people don’t work for us, sometimes criticism stings, and sometimes we don’t want or care to listen. But sometimes we’ll come across a pearl of wisdom that illuminates the world in a light we haven’t seen it before. And then we really do listen. And it feels right. And that’s wonderful.

Here at we want to share some of that wonder with you. So we’ve dived into our documentary archives, our master class treasure trove and the bottomless internet to find you some glittering pearls…

Work hard, play hard

“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed . . . equally well.” —J S Bach

J S Bach in 1746, portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann
J S Bach in 1746, portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach was a serial practiser. He was also a serial composer; from cantatas to canons to Christmas oratorios, he has over a thousand surviving compositions to his name. Bach was in equally high demand as a music teacher. He would drill his pupils in fiendishly complex piano studies that he composed himself. He put clear emphasis on disciplined practice. But then again, he also told us that:

“It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” …we must be missing a trick.

“One must practise slowly, then more slowly, and finally slowly.”—Camille Saint-Saëns

Saint-Saëns draws a fine line between wit and pedantry. But he has a point. A point he would have hammered home to his students at the at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris. It takes a lot of time and attention to detail to perfect a piece. And even then it’s likely not perfect.

“The composer is speaking to you.” —Steven Isserlis

Steven Isserlis is a notoriously hard task-master, and he’s got a great deal of wisdom and experience to back himself up. The more time spent poring over the intricacies of a score, the more intimate your dialogue with the composer becomes. And if after working at a piece it still doesn’t speak to you, he seems to say, there’s no harm in putting it aside and coming back to it later. After all, if you don’t truly understand and inhabit the composer’s idiom, how can you hope to communicate it to an audience?

“If I miss a day of practice, I know it. If I miss two days, my manager knows it. If I miss three days, my audience knows it.”—André Previn

Everyone loves a triptych, especially when it’s delivered with a wicked sense of humor. Practise or else. Prévin was certainly witty but he was also deeply committed to his music and to working hard in the present to achieve what he wanted from the future. But of course it’s not always about the hard graft…

Be spontaneous

“You must have spontaneity and too much study destroys that.” —Jacqueline du Pré

Hard work shouldn’t be underestimated. But neither should rest, says Jacqueline du Pré in an interview for with Gramophone magazine in 1969. She was no believer in excessive practice and preferred to leave her cello in its case between concerts. The rest allowed her to arrive fresh and buoyed up for the next performance!

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” —Leonard Bernstein

Some artists might recoil at such recklessness—but they would probably be in the minority. There is never really enough time for anything in life. Least for over-preparation. The emotion needs to be real and visceral, not carefully cultivated in advance. When Bernstein takes to the stage, the music blazes with raw energy, urgency, and purest intention.

Leonard Bernstein photographed by Jack Mitchell
Leonard Bernstein photographed by Jack Mitchell

In fact, Bernstein had so many words of wisdom that he took to TV to share them with the world. In 1962, Bernstein became the face of the CBS’s televised Young People’s Concerts. He conducted a total of 53 special “educational” performances, all of which were telecast to over 40 countries. Episodes such as What Does Music Mean?, Humor in Music and A Tribute to Teachers inspired generations of musicians and music-lovers.

Bernstein also made his mark as an educator with Omnibus, a television series show designed to improve Americans’ cultural knowledge. The show won seven Emmys and quickly drew a cult following, and the best news is that the whole Omnibus series is on! We’re big fans.

“Review what you’ve done last time and go in a more conscious way about what you can do now.” —Tabea Zimmermann

Tamara uses the masterclass setting to remind her pupils to be the musicians they have become, not the ones they were when they first picked up a piece. There’s no sense in being precious about how we might have done things before—being spontaneous and seeing a piece with new eyes and ears and technique will open up new artistic avenues!

“The emotional and the intellectual should be in balance and the instinctive in music should dominate at 60% over 40%.” —Sir Andràs Schiff

The audience doesn’t want a characterless analysis of the music—they want to be swept off their feet. Sir Andràs Schiff talks about a kind of controlled letting go. Risk-taking is an important part of any performance, and it takes a great deal of courage to leave anything to chance. But perhaps that’s what makes for the best performances.

“All is compromise; caution and refinement are everywhere. Everything has to ‘make a good impression’—whether or not it is any good: the impression is the main thing.” Arnold Schoenberg

"Skandalkonzert" cariacature, 6 April 1913, Die Zeit.
“Skandalkonzert” cariacature, 6 April 1913, Die Zeit.

Many people would disagree with Schoenberg, on a lot of things in fact. But he had a method to his madness. He seems to be saying that if you’re going to be bad, be bad on your own terms. If you’re going to make an impression, then make an impression on your own terms. If you’re going to pander to expectations, forget it. Compulsion is key.

Honesty is the best policy

“Play it how you would sing it.” Andras Keller

Singing is perhaps most honest expression of emotion and the most direct means of human connection. But why should playing an instrument be any different? Keller tells us to trust our creative empathy, and to trust the intuitive musical cadence of the human voice—do this before long the instrument will be singing too.

“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets.” —Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven seems to be saying that music-making shouldn’t be a simple cycle of repetition. It should be a constant enquiry—into the life of the music and the life of the artist. As you change, your relationship with the music will change. But these “secrets” will likely only relinquish themselves with honest questions…

“Did you believe what you did?” —Joyce DiDonato

Joyce is both a wonderful performer and a fantastic teacher. But what strikes us most is her generosity and honesty—she never fakes it. Joyce’s singing is a shimmering extension of herself. Above all, she wants the young artists to be honest with their audience and with themselves. She makes a strong point: any young artist will probably play hundreds of roles in their musical careers, but the most important role they’ll ever play is themself.

Joyce DiDonato’s vocal masterclasses are veritably bejeweled with pearls of wisdom—and you’re in luck because she’s giving three more this weekend! We can’t WAIT.

“Your music can never be more, or less, than you are as a human being.” —Nadia Boulanger

Nadia Boulanger was perhaps one of the most important musical pedagogues of the modern era. Amongst her pupils were Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Daniel Barenboim, John Eliot Gardiner, Philip Glass, and many more! Writing for the BBC, Clemency Burton-Hill suggests she might even be the greatest music teacher of all time.

The 27-time grammy award winner Quincy Jones, another hall of fame student, recalls how she told him: “Quincy, your music can never be more, or less, than you are as a human being. Unless you have the life experience and have something to say that you’ve lived, you have nothing to contribute at all…”

Quite a hard-hitting pearl this one. Boulanger knew that there was a difference between moving an audience to applause and really moving them. The latter requires a great deal of trust and vulnerability. Fail to be honest and you leave your audience cold.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) on board a transatlantic steamer in 1937
Igor Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger on board a transatlantic steamer in 1937.

That’s it for pearls of wisdom for nowbut there’s PLENTY more where they came from! Look no further than Joyce DiDonato’s upcoming masterclasses, a classic Bernstein documentary on the joy of teaching, or why not plumb the depths of our archives for hidden treasures? Get stuck in!

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