Prepared to Listen

In my standard working week, I usually rehearse around 1000 children in choirs, most of which is done in primary schools with entire classes or year groups. It’s a privilege to work these kids and to be given the freedom to run these session how I see fit.

Whilst development of singing is a pretty major part of the work I do with these children, I’m just as concerned about these children leaving primary school with a culturally curious mind so they can feel able to pursue a passion that’s true to them. Consequently, I’ve been throwing a whole variety of different recordings at them since September, from Orlando de Lassus and Henry Purcell through to Tchaikovsky and Miles Davis. The reaction and enthusiasm has been varied, but of all the music I played, there was one piece of music that seem to really stand out as a favourite: John Cage’s Sonata No. 7 for Prepared Piano.

I’m not entirely sure exactly why this, of all the pieces I played, captured the imagination of the children, but I’ve never had so many of the class ask me what the piece was called. I’ve also never seen so many hands up asking to share their thoughts and opinions.

Will Self once said in an interview that he preferred debating with the young, because they’re not as entrenched in their views as his peers. Culturally I think we’re guilty of a similar attitude as we get older. When I was a teenager, I had no interest in classical music at all. I can remember periodically stumbling across Classic FM and thinking it was just the station that had violins playing. Over a period of time, I became culturally entrenched in an idea that this was all that classical music was. When I had that particular assumption challenged, it was quite a spectacular revelation. Whenever people talk about diversifying audiences in classical music, the same phrases get dragged out: we must ‘break down barriers’ and ‘challenge the stereotypes’ of ‘elitism’ and ‘high culture’. All this is a product of cultural entrenchment that we all experience.

This entrenchment is even more of a challenge for classical contemporary music. Last week, composer David Bruce posted a video about ‘The Unbearable Irrelevance of Contemporary Music’, most specifically the issue of it’s rather inward looking and largely academic community. I think he’s absolutely spot on in his analysis. Even within classical music circles, new music is seen as a niche. So much so, that many audiences still view the music of John Cage, who has been dead for a quarter of a century, as contemporary.

Seeing these children genuinely get excited about John Cage was life affirming. Children aren’t laden down with cultural assumptions. They just take this music at face value. Their perspective is a genuine asset and one we should foster. I think too often we get side tracked by explaining to people what a symphony is or why Beethoven’s music was so shocking in his day. Why not play something that is shocking today?

So if you’re an animateur, teacher or parent who cares about sharing classical music with your children, rather than playing Carnival of The Animals or Peter and Wolf, why not go for some John Cage instead?

All opinions expressed in this blog are entirely my own. Please leave comments below.