For the first of our interviews in the ‘Music and Muses’ series, English concert pianist and pedagogue Philip Fowke tells us about his love of teaching amateur musicians, his hate of the competition circuit and what excites him about contemporary music.
How do you find talking about music?
I’m not comfortable with talking about music because it’s a very subjective thing; it’s a deeply personal thing. I’m more comfortable in helping people express their musical ideas and to release any things that they want to share in the music, their perceptions of music, with ease, with comfort, with confidence. I tend to talk about music in the room that I’m teaching and not outside. In a way, people who know me well know that I’m a musician by profession – I’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of success, especially in the playing field – but it’s not my chief area of interest.
Why did you choose to specialise specifically in music as a profession?
I started learning the piano very young because my elder sister, Alison, did. The piano came into the house and I was fascinated by this thing and starting playing it immediately, picking out tunes, and was clearly quite precociously gifted at it, I have to say looking back. And it went on – I went through school and played the piano and went through the grades, but I was very fortunate, terribly fortunate, and right from the word ‘go’ in my kindergarten had a very good teacher – Miss France, bless her. I had a little audition when I was about six years old with Marjorie Withers, who studied at the Royal Academy back in the 1920s, and she said yes, she would like to have me, and she was a fantastic teacher. She was ahead of the game in as much as she encouraged improvisation and didn’t mind me playing syncopational jazz, and she was all for it provided I did my scales and went through the grades. As I see looking back, it was understood that I was going to be a pianist. The only person who didn’t understand it was me.
You’ve mentioned the influence of teachers obviously being a big thing for you, and I know you do a lot of teaching yourself. How important do you think a teacher is in forming an artist, and what things are there that someone can only learn intuitively by themselves?
I think a good teacher is immensely important in the formation of anybody. I had the good fortune, after Marjorie Withers and boarding school, of getting a scholarship to go to the Royal Academy of Music and study with Gordon Green, a legendary teacher. And he used to say ‘there’s no such thing as a good teacher; there’s only such a thing as a good student’, and I remember not agreeing with him then, but it was an interesting concept. I’ve always had an interest in amateurs, and in people more, let us say, more modestly talented. I’m less interested in people who are just talented and can do it and teachers who just twiddle the knobs – for a gifted teacher, or a teacher who’s interested in helping to create a young musician, that’s not the issue. The issue is to release what innate ability’s there, no matter what grade or ability or level it is. Talent will out; talent will take care of itself. I think if you’re talented, by and large, it will happen, and you can get the best from even bad teachers, but a great teacher will help even the moderately gifted to achieve great things.
Do you have any views on the direction that contemporary music is going in at the moment?
I’ve noticed that there’s been a tremendous reaction against this arid atonality of the post-war period, the sixties and seventies perhaps in particular. But with the eighties and nineties, the latter part of the last century, there’s been a more rear-guard action to more tuneful music, which I’m delighted about, and the sort of ‘plinkety-plonk’ era has abated to some degree. And I’ve played ‘plinkety-plonk’ quite a bit, but… What I would say is that if you do struggle with the ‘plinkety-plonk’ – I shouldn’t say ‘plinkety-plonk’: ghastly noises really, hideous noises – it does teach you to look at scores in great detail and in a way that you wouldn’t ordinarily. The great thing about contemporary music is that you’re turned in on your own resources. I think it’s terribly important to do a substantial piece, like it or loathe it, and really use all your musical resources, and those who have resources will play their Chopin Nocturnes even better, and those who don’t, shouldn’t be in the music profession.
What do you think is the difference between music for performance and music for study, and how should we approach those differently? Or is there a difference?
I’m finding teaching in a sense more difficult than I ever have – I’m finding it problematic now because I find students are so ambitious and all they can think of is the performance, not the study. They think of the prize, not the work; they think of the exam result and not the graft. Now, this is a tremendous generalisation – I’ve had the most wonderful exceptions – but overall, this is what I perceive. I think I’ve been deeply influenced by Gordon Green, who I always remember saying to me on one memorable occasion, ‘dear boy, you must understand that I’m not concerned how you play today, but I do care about how you play in ten years’ time’. And I don’t see the evidence of that in much teaching today: I see microwave teaching, the instant result, put it in the oven for two minutes, finish performance, go and get your prize, now let’s do the next thing. This is not the way to mature things; this is not the way wine matures, and I say to my students, ‘please don’t perform at me. Lessons are… it’s not an audition, it is not a Radio 3 studio. This is a workshop: we’ve got our boiler suits, our oily rags. We’re learning how to learn. We’re learning how this piece was conceived, put together, and we’re going to reassemble it.’ The trouble about that is people want to perform it, but I think the real learning is not necessarily in the performing process. I think people always think of the performance more than the study.
When it comes to performance and competing…
I know that you have a somewhat… tentative relationship with competitions and you’re not a big fan of them.
Can I ask you, do you think competition is ever useful in music, and if not, why so?
I feel bound to say that, in my deepest heart, I think that I do parody my own prejudices. I think competition does have its place, but I think that is has become a parody of its own. I think there are too many competitions – they’re in competition with themselves – and you get this whole competition circuit, competition repertoire… The Young Musician of the Year¸ which is a competition I abhor, is certainly televised and it’s now become like a sort of horse race: you have commentators… I sometimes joke to students here, ‘They’re coming up to the coda now! They’re coming up to the double octaves! Are they going to make it? No, they’ve taken a wrong turning and played an F# – how do they get out of that and forget?’ You know, it is as absurd as that – it’s become like horse-racing. And I feel this is all wrong, and the public see performance in a competitive light. Today, there is no time for vulnerability, and it’s often the vulnerable players who have the most to say. So in that sense I think competitions are iniquitous. But when you get to things like festivals for children and that kind of thing, I’m much more comfortable with that. That’s fine – it’s the international jamboree circus that I object to very, very strongly.
Hear an audio clip of Philip’s view on competitions:
Do you find it less offensive when this ‘jamboree’ is aimed at older, more mature artists? Is it the damage to young musicians that you find particularly…
Enormous damage, and if not damage, pressure. And it’s a lost cause in a way… I just don’t know what to say. Except this: that my love for amateurs, just to see the smile on somebody’s face when they’re playing a well-known Chopin Prelude or Nocturne, and suddenly, they’ve been doing it for thirty years and they haven’t got it right, give them a fingering, just a few little tricks, a few little exercises and they do it. The smile on their faces: that’s what matters. I think that is so important. And the future of music, I think, lies in the amateur arena. We’ve become so over-professionalised. It’s all hyped up to a grotesque degree now: people are over-taught; people are made to play better than they ought. People come to college and they can’t even read music. You ask them to improvise, and they look at you in horror. And I think, these people: should they be professional musicians or should they be accountants and bankers? I leave the question hovering uneasily in the air.
When it comes to performance for you, what’s more important: being true to your vision of the music or entertaining an audience?
I’ve always taken the view that any form of performing is also a form of entertainment, but I think it’s people’s perception of the word ‘entertainment’, and also the word ‘fun’… I mean, ‘You’re not really supposed to enjoy yourself, are you? Is it supposed to be fun? This is great art.’ I have no time for that, absolutely no time for that, and I love to see people leave a concert hall or come up to you afterwards with smiles and joy, they’ve had an enormously enjoyable evening, and that matters to me more than anything.
Hear an audio clip of Philip’s view on fun in Classical music:
At what point for you does music become sound?
I think the greatest music is silence, and it’s at a real premium these days, to hear silence. Now here we are sitting outside: I can hear various noises, but I can hear the pattering of the rain on this umbrella – that’s music. When I walked to the station through the woods this morning, hearing the birds and the wind in the fallen leaves – that’s music. And I think that the birds and the leaves and the wind have it, and music is really only a rather pale imitation of the ultimate music which is silence.
So to finish, what is the best performance you’ve ever listened to?
Oh, I always… one can’t… I mean, what a question. It’s like… you’re asking me is an apple better than an orange, and I like both. I could never say. I can remember specific performances, but I couldn’t comfortably answer that question.
For more information on Philip Fowke, visit his website at www.philipfowke.co.uk.