How to make music and still be a child

This still from my Music Mania promo is a real photo of girls in the town where I was born. They already wear the weary of look of children forced to practise beyond the point of pleasure or even patience.

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Most children who have undergone Classical music training will remember the day when they reached this same level of “dedication” to music. My Grandmother, an accomplished pianist, associated making music with a much loved teacher and so her effort was associated with happiness.

I had teachers I could admire, but from the moment examinations started at age 8, there was always a level of terror in making music that proved counter-productive. Physically, the tension of the ordeal makes you perform badly on a wind instrument. There is also pressure that you, a child, should “do justice” to a great work of art by a famous composer, whose music you do not even like! Such suffering is real enough to a child.

It does not have to be so. I recently discovered a cassette from about the age of 12. I made it with my brothers on the occasion that we could not visit my Grandfather as planned. So we recorded him 2 hours of singing, playing and poetry. We performed as though for him and so we did it with abandon! Since we were recording straight onto a cassette player, there could be no editing and we had to include all our mistakes.

Here are a few highlights from my own contribution. They are not musically perfect, in any sense. And they reveal the limit of my repertoire at that time being exclusively Disney films. But as I relaxed into each song, I gained the confidence to pitch notes more accurately (as long as I could remember the words).

A 12 year old today will be recording songs for YouTube and trying to gain promotion. Never has childhood seemed shorter or less private. Mistakes that were once made in a school hall are now public for a world to mock.

In Music Mania: How the Victorians joined the cult of Classical Music and why England has never been the same since I looked at the emergence of the child star.

I am grateful that, as a 12 year old, I was not a success - that I could not answer my teacher’s ambitions to join the National Youth Orchestra or win prizes in the numerous competitions we entered. I would already have been late, compared to these Victorian prodigies. And there is a price to pay. In Music Mania I tell the history of Josef Hofmann who became a star at 6 and was “called” to America. After 52 appearances in 2 and 1/2 months he is reported to have said:

“It is too much for a little boy like me. I don’t want to play any more, and if Mr. Abbey [his manager] comes, tell him I am dead.”

Music Mania, p.141

Poor Josef was soon replaced in the public’s affections by his competitor, Otto Hefner. He was a success at 12 and enjoyed it so much that he quit as soon as he came of age at 18. He was dead by 30.

Looking back, I would rather know that I loved my late-Grandfather enough to try to please him with half a talent than have the world’s praise for playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto almost as well as Jack Brymer, at an eighth of his age!

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