Shabby treatment of musicians

This post follows on from my recent one on paying our musicians, which highlighted the uncomfortable fact that several well-known London venues – both public and private – expect musicians to perform for nothing – and yet either charge a fixed admission price or have a retiring collection, which the organisations keep for themselves.   I have just received a depressing account of an evening violin and piano recital, given in a Home Counties venue by two outstanding musicians of international calibre.  Although an admission fee was charged, the performers were paid precisely nothing.  They asked for their rail fares and they were grudgingly told that this would be transferred to them subsequently.  They found this to be very humiliating.

Even more depressing is their description of the concert itself.  The audience, numbering around 50, seemed totally passive and unenthusiastic.   The acoustics were very dry, and the piano was old, but what struck them most was the ‘very short clap we received’.  Afterwards, ‘nobody came to us after the concert.   We collected our stuff in our changing room and found the hall completely dark but the piano still opened with our scores on it’.   They were ‘quite shocked’ by the entire experience.

These two musicians have given the same recital at one of my venues to rapturous applause, and are very level-headed young people who are not prone to exaggeration.   Their treatment at this concert does seem rather shabby and deplorable.   I wonder whether this happens at other concert venues as well.  I suspect that it reflects the lowly status of musicians in the eyes of at least some sections of society.   It rather reminds me of Mozart having to eat with the servants before leaving Salzburg !   I would be very interested to hear ‘horror stories’ from other musicians who have suffered similar abusive experiences.   Let me know on .


The agonies of choosing a CD to play

Many readers will recall the excellent feature entitled ‘Too many records’ which used to feature in the much-lamented ‘International Record Review’ magazine.  I suspect the title strikes a chord with many of us.  I suppose I have about 2000 CDs and 1500 LPs, as well as about 300 opera and music DVDs.   This is a far cry from when I was a boy in the 1950’s, when I had about 20 precious LPs.   In those days I spent whole weeks playing them over and over again, until I could almost sing my way through the entire works.   The performances have lived with me ever since – Menuhin playing the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos, Milstein playing the Tchaikovsky, Gilels the Emperor, Solomon playing Beethoven 3 etc.

Fast forward to the present, and I have this huge over-accumulation of ‘canned’ music.  The chance of any single CD being played is infinitesimally small, and each new CD reduces it even further.   My LPs actually sound slightly better than the CDs, if one can ignore the clicks and plops and the suspicion of a slight ‘wobble’ from a warped disc, whether real or imagined. However the physical side of getting the record out of its sleeve and putting it on is a deterrent, so I rarely bother.   And when I decide to play a CD, I go to the shelves and try to select one of the 2000.   That’s when the problems start !   There is simply too much choice.

My CDs are arranged alphabetically – so do I go for some Bach, from the top shelf ?   If so what ?  And if a particular piece, which of the versions do I choose ? It reminds me of a child in a massive toy or sweet shop – there are so many ‘goodies’ that the act of choosing just one of them induces a sort of paralysis.   Or how about some Beethoven ?   How about say one of the symphonies ?   But I have about 6 sets – which shall I choose ?   How about Karajan – or Klemperer – or Haitink – or Colin Davis – or Barenboim – or Walter ?    (Obviously I will give period instrument performances a miss !)     And then which symphony shall I choose ?  Or how about a Beethoven piano sonata ?  But which particular sonata and which of my current 10 sets (ie 320 sonatas), will I listen to ?  Somehow the choice seems inordinately difficult and paralyzing – because of the over-abundance on offer !   After 5 minutes of this agonizing and painful indecision, verging on mental torture, I usually give up completely and see what’s on Radio 3 or Classic FM – or the telly !

I don’t think I am alone in having these problems.   Some people transfer all their CDs to a hard disk, but that doesn’t solve the problem of having to choose something to play, and which performance.   Those who use Spotify or other streaming service will have a similar problem.   I heard a neat solution described on the radio years ago by the late Norman Del Mar, the well-known conductor.  He stated (as I recall) that he had numbered all his recordings, and had devised some method of producing a random order of numbers.  Then he forced himself to stick to this order of CDs (or LPs) to be played.   I think I will have to survive long enough to receive the Queen’s telegram to achieve this with my current collection !  An alternative, which most readers will choose, is to surrender oneself to the choices of radio presenters – and be either irritated or pleasantly surprised, either by the pieces or the performers they choose.  And so my CDs will remain unplayed, on the shelf.

So the chances of any CDs being actually played is very small.   Paradoxically this doesn’t stop me reading all the CD magazines (particularly Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine) from cover to cover, and salivating over the prospect of buying yet more CDs, particularly those tempting box sets of great performers from years ago, now available at bargain basement prices.   I realize that much of the pleasure derived from buying them is the guilty thrill of the purchase, rather than actually listening to the CDs, which isn’t really feasible with all those recordings.  I don’t usually tell my wife.  So it is a sort of shopping addiction, but I suppose as secret vices go, it’s less harmful than most !   The only problem is putting up more and more shelves to house them, plus the guilt in knowing that they will, in all probability, never be played.   I would be interested to see if others suffer from the same sort of paradoxical paralysis, induced by having – literally – ‘too many records’ and too much choice.


Problems of perfect pitch

I have perfect pitch.  It isn’t as accurate as it was when I was younger, but it is still very important when listening to music.  The key of a piece is a vital part of its overall character – rather like the colours in a painting.   C major sounds totally different from B major, and A major from A flat major, and so on.   The slightly sharpened pitch used in Berlin recordings (A=444 rather than A=440) doesn’t disturb me – it’s close enough to be in the ‘right key’.   So all the major masterpieces I learned to love as a child are for ever associated with particular keys.   The Matthew Passion has to start in that plangent key of E minor and end in C minor, and the 5th Brandenburg has to be in that bright key of D major.   Perfect pitch does have some benefits.  It is very useful in singing at sight.  It is also useful in spotting music that has been transposed for a specific reason, such as lowering the pitch by a semitone at the end of Act 1 in Boheme or ‘Di Quella Pira’ in Trovatore, so that the tenor can reach his supposed top ‘C’ – when in fact it is a top ‘B’ !   That strikes me as cheating, but never mind…

So for the first 30-40 years of my life, I knew that D major was D major – end of story.   All was well until the ‘period performance’ movement came along and starting playing everything down a semitone.   So the Matthew Passion now starts in E flat minor and ends in B minor, and the 5th Brandenburg is in D flat major.   The Magic Flute overture is in D rather than E flat.  More recently, the Dunedin concert has recorded the Brandenburgs effectively a whole tone lower, so that the 6th Brandenburg is in A flat (to my ears) rather than B flat.    I know that there is a solid theoretical basis for this.  It may well be historically correct, and I don’t doubt the integrity or the motives of the musicians who believe in this approach.   But for my part, my ears and brain can’t ‘relearn’ the piece in the ‘wrong key’ – whatever the justification.   It sounds totally bizarre, is intensely irritating and ruins my listening experience.   So I now find that perfect pitch has become a real nuisance, and prevents me from enjoying most modern performances of Bach and other baroque composers, as well as period performances of Mozart etc.   This is easily solved by sticking to Bach recordings dating from the mid 1980’s and earlier.   It’s Easter this weekend, so I will be listening again to the Matthew Passion – in Karl Richter’s 1979 recording, rather than anything more recent.

So that’s my particular problem. It obviously doesn’t bother musicians working within the period instrument movement.  If I were younger, I suppose I would have grown up with much more flexibility to different pitches.  But I don’t think I can ‘unlearn’ it now.   Fortunately, as a pianist and organist, the instruments I play in are definitely at A=440, and this precludes any ‘strange’ pitches being introduced in our concerts.  And I don’t purchase or listen to CDs by any period performers – full stop.  But I can’t control the offerings on Radio 3 or Classic FM  !   I would be interested to know whether anyone else suffers problems.

Building and retaining audiences – the use of a questionnaire

All classical music promoters will be aware how difficult it is to  maintain and grow an audience.  One can never relax.  To quote from an earlier post, the problem is that of audience retention – persuading them to come again to another concert. In practice, this means that each concert has to be perceived as sufficiently enjoyable to encourage the potential audience member to come along, even if this means coping with heavy traffic on a cold, dark, wet night in the winter, rather than staying at home by the fire, watching the television. It is a tough challenge !

The most important factor will usually be the programme on offer, as discussed in my previous post.  But there are many others as well.   It is the total package – both musical and social – which will determine whether an audience member will return.   I am increasingly persuaded by the theory of ‘marginal gains’, derived from Sir Dave Brailsford and the British Cycling Team, whereby the accumulation of various small improvements makes a marked cumulative difference   .

One invaluable way of assessing the whole ‘concert experience’ is to administer a questionnaire focussing on each aspect of the evening in turn.  Here is a questionnaire which we have administered to our audience.  A summary of their responses can be seen here

St Mary’s Perivale Questionnaire Survey October 2015

  1. What do you like about our concerts
  1. What do you NOT like about our concerts ?
  1. How can we improve ?

Choice of musicians ….(more or less solo piano / piano trios / string quartets  / wind / vocal etc ??)

Choice of music ….(more or less modern / early music / any particular composers)

Practical organisation of concerts ….(Preference for Wednesday / Sat evenings / Sunday afternoons / frequency – what else?) (Seating ? / temperature ?)

Social aspects of concerts ….(Socializing at the end of concerts ? What else ?)

  1. WHAT ELSE influences your decision to attend a concert ?(Cold / wet weather ?    Football on the telly !?  Traffic ? Transport problems ? Need of a lift home ? What else ??)
  1. PUBLICITY : Any thoughts on how can we raise our profile ?(Weekly emails / leaflets / website / social media / other ?)
  1. If you could plan your perfect ‘dream concert’ at our venue, what would it comprise ?
  1. Any other comments or suggestions not covered by the above?

This questionnaire would be suitable for any concert organization – or any church or other voluntary organization as well – and is much better than the clumsy on-line questionnaires which ask ‘How do you rate our concerts ?’ etc.  Free text enables people to express themselves more accurately and fully, and works much better in practice.  The crucial  question is number 2. What do you NOT like about our concerts ?  This open question immediately draws attention to principle negative aspect, as perceived by an audience member, and focusses on what needs to be corrected.     I suspect that many organizations are rather afraid of this sort of honest feedback, since one is vulnerable to the occasional ‘brickbat.   However, I would strongly recommend it.  The answers are always unpredictable, surprising, and beneficial.

So reverting to the ‘Marginal Gains’ philosophy, our questionnaire has encouraged us to have more singers and wind instruments, to ask the musicians to talk more about their pieces, to relax our policy on admitting late-comers, to lower the audience lights during a concert, to create more room for socializing at the end of the concert, to buy better quality crisps and wine, and to embrace social media – hence this post !   These are all very marginal gains, but in summation they may make a difference.   Furthermore, the administration of a questionnaire has a direct effect on audience numbers, since the process of asking ‘What else influences your decision to attend a concert’ inevitably makes a person more likely to attend the next one !   Please feel free to use this outline questionnaire, suitably modified to meet your requirements in your own organization.   I would be happy to advise further if needed.

Occasional problems in fixing concerts

This post concerns the various problems which I have encountered in fixing over a 1000 concerts over the past decade, in the hope that they may be of interest to other concert organizers, and perhaps to musicians, in helping them understand the situation from a concert organizer’s viewpoint.  A detailed archive of these concerts is available on  .

Fixing concert dates : This is usually the easy part, because most of our musicians are very keen to play at my venues.   They have usually played here before, know the set-up, and are happy to return.   A few have developing careers and can command larger fees elsewhere, and may gracefully decline – which is absolutely fine.   Most still return to try out repertoire before big ‘dates’ in Central London etc.  I also receive requests from several hundred other musicians for concerts each year, and I have write back to most to say that I simply can’t accommodate them.    I always send a personalised letter to them, expressing my sincere apologies and best wishes, and it is usually well-received, although occasionally embittered respondents will bombard me with sour follow-up emails.

Obtaining the programme :   When a concert date is finalized, I then ask what the musician(s) will be playing, and (if appropriate) who their accompanist or duo partner will be.   Then the problems start !  Sometimes it takes three (or more) nagging emails to elicit this information, with the initial ones ignored, or given ‘stalling’ answers.   It seems strange that some musicians agonize for months over what to play, after being very keen for the concert date in the first place.

Obtaining a biog : Most musicians have a website, from which a biog can be readily obtained.  Otherwise a biog is requested by email.    All biogs are stored on one very large Word file and can be re-cycled at future concerts, but may need to be updated. These are invariably too long, and need to be drastically reduced and tightened, with all the usual superfluous prose eliminated !   Biogs will be the subject of future post.

Changing the programme : This happens far too frequently – in fact it has occurred in 4 concerts at St Mary’s Perivale within the past month.   Occasionally this is because of a forthcoming competition, and the need to consolidate ‘old’ repertoire again.  Another common scenario arises when a pianist playing with another instrumentalist has to cancel, and the replacement pianist hasn’t time to master the original programme.   However, the usual explanation is that the musicians haven’t mastered their proposed programme in time, and are falling back on old, familiar repertoire.     This is perhaps understandable, but it is irritating and unprofessional to be informed of this a week or less before the concert, when it has been widely advertised, and it is difficult to print the programme again.  In practice, the change of programme often results in an improved standard of performance of more familiar repertoire, but it is still to be avoided.

Cancellations : Some cancellations are inevitable. They fall into distinct patterns.  Firstly, musicians may cancel 2-6 months before because they have been offered another more prestigious concert, or perhaps an orchestral tour.  Musicians are always informed that this is perfectly acceptable, provide plenty of notice is given.  It is clearly understood that they need to look after their careers and their income.   There are many other musicians who can fill any gaps, and I am always delighted when the careers of our most successful musicians ‘take off’, with a profusion of concerts elsewhere.

Secondly,  there is sometimes a problem with ensembles booking concerts 6-9 months ahead, and then disbanding or re-grouping.   This happens remarkably frequently, and it seems that the ‘life expectancy’ of piano trios and string quartets (in particular) is remarkably short, at least when playing with the same personnel.   Many of the myriad of ensembles who have performed at St Mary’s Perivale or St Barnabas, listed on  no longer exist.  This can be due to the members of an ensemble falling out with each other, or perhaps a relationship between two of the players breaking down, or one member obtaining an orchestral post away from London, or a post-graduate scholarship to study in Europe.  Sometimes ensembles are named after one particular member, and then have to change their name when that person leaves. These changes are to be expected with groups of musicians aged in their twenties and early thirties, and might perhaps form the basis of a ‘soap opera’, reminiscent of Amazon Prime’s ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ but set in London rather than New York !   Again, I never mind provided sufficient notice is given.

Thirdly, we have occasionally had problems with musicians pulling out of concerts shortly before the date.  This is obviously very stressful, since it is impossible to prevent an audience arriving for a concert.   I have only been let down on the actual day on two occasions (out of over 1000 concerts) and on both have given an impromptu piano recital.   Cancellations in the days leading up to a concert may happen, particularly with singers. I usually get an email about 3-4 days before the concert, saying that they ‘think they might be developing a cold’ and think it ‘safer’ to cancel.   I have started to ask them whether, if instead of St Mary’s Perivale, it was their big debut performance at the Royal Opera House, would they still be cancelling ?   I do think that some singers cancel too readily.  It would be interesting to know how often this happens at song recitals and opera performances elsewhere.

I should emphasize that all the above problems are the exception rather than the rule, and most concerts are organized without any problems, and most musicians are entirely reliable, helpful and charming.    Problems only arise because a small minority are rather disorganized, rather than intentionally difficult. It would be interesting to see whether any of the above remarks ‘ring true’ with other concert organizers.