Richard Mor­ri­son

Carv­ing out a ca­reer in mu­sic in­volves a lot more than tal­ent and tech­nique

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - Richard Mor­ri­son is chief mu­sic critic and a colum­nist of The Times

Is tal­ent enough to suc­ceed in a mu­si­cal ca­reer?

Should a teach­ing in­sti­tu­tion wise up its stu­dents for the world as it is – in­equities, im­per­fec­tions and all? Or should it en­cour­age them to re­ject the short­com­ings of the in­dus­try they hope to en­ter? To me, those are the ques­tions prompted by the ex­tra­or­di­nary incident that ended with the Royal Academy of Mu­sic pay­ing £186,181 in com­pen­sa­tion for the wrong­ful dis­missal of one of its teach­ers, Francesca Car­pos-young.

In the RAM’S eyes, Car­pos-young’s of­fence (for which she was dis­missed) was to have cir­cu­lated a doc­u­ment to

800 stu­dents sug­gest­ing ways in which they could cultivate a ‘good rep­u­ta­tion’ in the pro­fes­sion. In her rather clum­sily phrased notes, she re­flected on the nick­names in use among mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing ‘pond life’ (string play­ers in gen­eral) and ‘gy­pos’ (vi­o­lin­ists).

It was this last la­bel, par­tic­u­larly, that sparked the furore. For cen­turies, ‘gypsy vi­olin­ist’ might have been a fa­mil­iar phrase, but these days ‘gypo’ is seen as a racist slur on Ro­mani peo­ple. Car­posy­oung wasn’t en­dors­ing the term, merely not­ing it. But that and other la­bels and gen­er­al­i­sa­tions to which she re­ferred (such as the in­junc­tion that ‘what’s on tour stays on tour’) in­censed the RAM’S stu­dents union. It fired off a let­ter to the Academy’s man­age­ment ac­cus­ing her of – deep breath – ‘vi­o­lat­ing the Academy’s Equal­ity and Di­ver­sity Pol­icy by en­cour­ag­ing the de­vel­op­ment of a toxic ed­u­ca­tional and work­ing en­vi­ron­ment in which mu­si­cians are com­plicit in the ha­rass­ment of and dis­crim­i­na­tion against col­leagues on the ba­sis of race, eth­nic­ity, gen­der, age and phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance’.

Hmm. An over-sen­si­tive over­re­ac­tion, typ­i­cal of the ‘snowflake’

gen­er­a­tion? Clearly the judge chair­ing the em­ploy­ment tri­bunal thought so. She said that Car­pos-young’s words ‘were ironic in tone, in­tended to con­vey the real world in which in­stru­men­tal­ists and singers would have to find work, and how to be­have to get on in the pre­car­i­ous world of ses­sional book­ing’.

Well, I agree that the RAM was in­sanely hasty in sid­ing with the stu­dents and sack­ing Car­pos-young with­out time for re­flec­tion. But I have more sym­pa­thy for the protest­ing stu­dents than the judge did. ‘Ironic in tone’ though Car­pos-young’s re­marks were in­tended to be, they seemed to sug­gest that mu­si­cians en­ter­ing the pro­fes­sion should ac­cept every du­bi­ous bit of ban­ter or con­duct. That’s wrong. There must be lim­its, es­pe­cially given the arts world’s re­cent abuse scan­dals.

That said, even the protest­ing stu­dents ad­mit­ted that Car­pos-young’s ob­ser­va­tions were ‘likely an ac­cu­rate por­trayal of be­hav­iours that will help ad­vance one’s ca­reer’. And that brings me back to my first ques­tion. Isn’t it a con­ser­va­toire’s job to con­vey pre­cisely that ‘ac­cu­rate por­trayal’ to its stu­dents?

Of course, when those be­hav­iours are based on sex­ist or racist prej­u­dices, or on be­ing def­er­en­tial to out­moded hi­er­ar­chies, stu­dents should be en­cour­aged to ques­tion and re­ject them. But it’s surely best that they are ac­quainted in ad­vance with what might con­front them in the work­place. Fore­warned is fore­armed.

Be­sides, hav­ing read Car­pos-young’s sprawl­ing ob­ser­va­tions, I find my­self agree­ing with their fun­da­men­tal thrust – that sus­tain­ing a ca­reer in mu­sic is about more than just tal­ent. In such an in­se­cure pro­fes­sion, where peo­ple are work­ing closely and in­tensely with each other, it’s also about main­tain­ing high lev­els of em­pa­thy, so­cia­bil­ity, tact, charm, cour­tesy, flex­i­bil­ity, prag­ma­tism, sto­icism, hu­mour and (I hate the phrase, but it’s here to stay) ‘net­work­ing skills’. It’s also about punc­tu­al­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity and pre­sen­ta­tion. And it’s about know­ing how to deal with jeal­ousy, crit­i­cism and the ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion built into the mu­sic busi­ness, while re­tain­ing your grace, ci­vil­ity and de­cency.

I once asked a vet­eran LSO mem­ber why, hav­ing per­formed just once with a highly rated but dic­ta­to­rial Ger­man con­duc­tor, the play­ers de­cided never to work with him again. ‘It doesn’t mat­ter how tal­ented he is,’ the player said. ‘Mu­sic should al­ways be made in a pleas­ant and en­cour­ag­ing at­mos­phere.’

That’s the nub of the mat­ter. For every job in mu­sic, there are 10, 20, even 100 well-qual­i­fied con­tenders. With such an ex­cess of tal­ent, the op­por­tu­ni­ties will in­evitably go to fine mu­si­cians who are also per­son­able and co-op­er­a­tive, rather than dif­fi­cult and dis­rup­tive. That’s the essence of what Car­pos-young was try­ing to con­vey, and stu­dents would be well ad­vised to heed it. Af­ter all, you won’t re­form a pro­fes­sion if you can’t get into it in the first place.

Op­por­tu­ni­ties will go to fine mu­si­cians who are also per­son­able and co-op­er­a­tive

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