Saturday, 7 May 2011

Student attitudes at the London College of Music

I've been asked to play a concert with the LCM (London College of Music) Community Sinfonia, performing Shostakovich 5th Symphony at St Barnabas Church in Ealing on May 11th.

On Saturday, there was a day of rehearsals at LCM for the concert. And I was quite frankly appalled at the attitude of many of the LCM students to the rehearsal.

About half the strings didn't turn up at all. I learned that about 8 or so students had originally said they would take part, but had simply not arrived for the rehearsal, with no reason given. The conductor had smoke coming out of his ears, he was so angry about this! And he had every right to be.

The rehearsal was supposed to start at 10am. I arrived with 10 minutes to spare, and found that there were only 3 or 4 people in the rehearsal hall. Various people rolled up over the next half an hour, and we finally got started about 10.20. More students quite casually strolled in even later, not apparently concerned about the fact that they were seriously late. One wind player didn't arrive until the afternoon rehearsal at 2pm, he apparently had had a party the previous night and had overslept. By not being there, you impede the conductor's ability to sort out balance and timing, and to ensure that instructions about beats and tempi need be given out only once. You waste other people's time by not being there when you should.

There was a lunch break from 1pm to 2pm. I was ready in my seat at 2pm, but again, many people were missing. The leader of the orchestra didn't return from lunch until 2.10, and three of the four flutes appeared at 2.15. While exceptional traffic or transport problems can make you unavoidably late for the start of a rehearsal (though you should always allow enough time for all but the most exceptional of conditions), nothing justifies you being late back after a break.

Then there was the attitude to rehearsals. It was quite clear that since the previous rehearsal 10 days before, few of the students had made any serious attempt to practice their parts. And I suspect even fewer had attempted to listen to a recording of the piece to find out how it went. This meant that they frequently got lost and couldn't find their way back again.

Shostakovich 5 is not a simple piece of music. It has complex rhythms and harmonies, and abrupt changes of speed. In the first movement, there are places where the tempo suddenly doubles or halves. Even when the conductor explained exactly how he was going to handle one of these transitions, still it almost always happened that somebody had not listened or understood, and carried on at the old speed. Also on many occasions, players just put their heads down and concentrated solely on playing the notes, giving no regard to whether they were going at the same speed as the conductor's beat. Sometimes there were three tempi going on at the same time. However many or few notes you play, you must go at the same speed as the conductor. Any note played at the wrong time is a wrong note!

Not knowing your part, when you've had ample opportunity to practice, is just not acceptable. As a new young musician starting out in the profession, you will need to be able to compete with people who have performed a piece 20 times, and play it as well as them. Shostakovich 5 is one of the standards of the orchestral repertoire, and this is an ideal opportunity to get to know it when there is no serious pressure. As a student, you should be lapping up every single opportunity to play every piece of the standard reportoire you can get your hands on, so that you don't have to sight-read it professionally. Even though I'm only an amateur, I have played Shostakovich 5 before, more than once, so I do know how it goes. But even so, I had a listen to a recording to remind me about it, since it is a few years since I last played it. It is a courtesy to the conductor and the other players to be as ready as you can be.

If you are a music student wanting to take up music as a career, your task at present is to learn how to be a professional musician. That involves doing more than practicing concertos. Many student musicians (especially violinists and pianists) imagine that they are going to become international soloists, and so will spend their whole careers playing the Tchaikovsky or Sibelius concertos. Phooey. There are about 30 international soloists on the violin in the whole world. There are more violinists than that in any major orchestra. If you are going to make it at all in professional classical music, you are almost certainly going to be in an orchestra. So you must take orchestral technique and rehearsal etiquette seriously. Otherwise, you will wreck your career before it has even begun.

Now, I'm just a former music student who chose not to go into the profession. I only play as an amateur. But even so, I have some tiny influence: for the amateur orchestras I play for, I help with fixing extras, and I keep a list of names and phone numbers for the purpose. Nothing about Saturday's rehearsal has given me any reason at all to get out my diary and take the names of any of the students. For the most part, I simply couldn't trust most of the students present both to turn up and to play, even to the standard necessary to manage an amateur concert on one rehearsal.

Now, suppose I had instead been an amateur player who, instead of leaving the music profession altogether, had gone into music administration, and was involved in fixing extras for one of the major London orchestras. It isn't uncommon after all for those in music administration to have studied music and to have kept it up in an amateur way after they gave up the idea of a professional playing career. If I were in that position, I would have quite likely taken an even dimmer view of proceedings than I actually did, and I might well have decided to made a note of names for the purpose of making sure that they didn't ever play with the orchestra I worked for. Those students' professional careers would have been seriously damaged even before they left college. Such a waste of so much time spent studying, all gone because of a failure to do something as simple as get back from lunch on time.

As a musician, whether you are professional, amateur or student, you are on show all the time you have your instrument with you. In performance and even in rehearsal, you never know who will hear you and see you. So you need to try and make a good impression at every opportunity.

There are far, far more students graduating from the music colleges than can possibly be accommodated by the music profession. Many years ago, I calculated that on the horn, there were probably 10 times more students graduating than there was space for in professional orchestras in Britain. That ratio will vary a bit from one instrument to the next, but it serves to indicate how cutthroat the competition is.

That means that orchestras and other employers need very little excuse to decide against employing somebody. Even outstanding musicians won't get employed if they can't be bothered to turn up on time and prepare their music.

Saturday's rehearsal at the London College of Music was a perfect example of how not to approach the music profession. If any students who were or should have been at Saturday's rehearsal read this, then I have to say that you need to either change your attitude or abandon any idea of playing music professionally, because you just won't make it if you carry on as you are, no matter how well you think you can play concertos. In fact, if you can't be bothered to turn up on time, you won't make it in any profession, never mind one as competitive as music.


  1. What an amazing story. "What on earth are they thinking?" kept running through my mind as I read it. Sort of galling that folks with access to the wonderful culture of music making over there you've posted on from time to time are simply throwing away such a wonderful opportunity in such an ill mannered way. To use a phrase from my childhood, to say you're going to participate and then barely go through the motions, if you show up at all, is "rude, crude, and unattractive". I sure hope this turns out to be an isolated incident.

  2. I have witnessed conservatory students who've shown up to rehearsal without scores, not learned parts, not learned SOLO parts, missed deadlines for memorization, and turned down solos being assigned without auditions. Most of these students have talent, but they fail to recognize that having talent is a very small--albeit essential--part of being professional musician.

  3. Sir-I realize that this post was some time ago, but perhaps it will be of interest that the director of the Albuquerque Youth Symphony, Mr. Gabriel Gordon, insists that the students be in their chairs, music out, instrument tuned, and ready to play 10 minutes prior to the scheduled start of rehearsal. Being "on time" also means returning promptly from break. I hope that the few among them who go on to conservatory remember these lessons. I know I am happy that my child is being held to this standard of behavior.
    Thank you.