A Welcome Diversion

By | October 5, 2013 at 3:22 pm | 12 comments | Germany October 2013, LSO On Tour | Tags: , ,

My wife used to be a midwife, a job description which when mentioned at parties usually provokes misty eyed looks, cute smiles and cooing followed by the retelling of countless birthing tales. The reality of the job however is very different from the image which most people carry with them; long hours, bad pay and the constant walk of the thin edge between life and death. It’s not what you might expect and it’s not for everyone. Similar preconceptions about the music business are prevalent. At an event last week, one of my colleagues encountered a variation on the, but what do you do during the day question. It went something like this.

“So do all of your concerts start at 7.30?”
“Yes. Yes they do.”
“Do you find it difficult to get here in time, you know, after you’ve finished work?”

It’s been on my mind recently since my eldest son, who has recently finished his GCSE exams was called into his head of 6th form for a meeting. It went something like this.

“Congratulations on your exam results! You must be very pleased. I’d like you to go to a meeting about applying for Oxbridge.”

“Oh. Really? I hadn’t been considering that.”

“Well you should. Your exam results are in the top 8% of GCSE results.”

“Yes but I really wanted to go to college not university.”

“What do you mean? What do you want to be when you’re older then?”

“I want to be a musician.”

“Oh I think you could set your sights a little higher than that don’t you?”

“My dad’s a musician actually.”

“Well it’s fine as a diversion but not a career…”

I await the next parents evening with interest.

Sitting on the stage in the Alte Oper in Frankfurt considering this career advice, I looked around at the massive auditorium, the beautiful architecture and tested the exceptionally clear acoustic. It’s a stunning venue in a country which takes its culture very seriously indeed. As Daniel Harding begins the rehearsal, the sound of Mussorgsky’s wildly untamed original version of Night on Bare Mountain shrieks into the hall and rebounds off the walls. I can’t help thinking that the head of 6th form should come and sit in my seat for a bit and reconsider his opinion. The version we are playing is not the familiar reinvention by Mussorsky’s teacher Rimsky Korsakov but his less modest/more Modest version. Although I was unsure at first, as the later version is such a perfectly formed piece, I’ve grown to enjoy this original version. The wild extremes with Sharon shrieking away 37 octaves higher than anyone else, the strings digging deep enough to break their bridges and the brass wailing like banshees, it becomes a more terrifying panorama with its ominous pauses and edge of the seat tempi. Unlike in RK’s version, there is no salvation from the toning church bell, there is no pastoral woodwind passage to calm everyone after the witches sabbath, we are left with the descent from the mountain and into hell. It reminds me very much of the atmosphere created by Berlioz in the fantastic symphony.

After something familiar viewed through a different prism we are onto well known warhorse territory with the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. If you heard Christian Tetzlaff’s astonishing performance in the Barbican the other night, there were times when he seemed to be continuing the mood from the overture. He played like a man possessed – and I mean that as a complement. Now, one of those beautiful things that I like so much about music comes into play. In Frankfurt, the soloist is Julia Fischer. Same orchestra, same conductor and importantly the same notes in the same order and yet…just how can it be so different? Julia was astonishing. I wouldn’t dare to venture if one soloist was better than the other, it’s not a competition and I’m no expert, but what they both brought to this most familiar of works was extraordinary. Fischer was an altogether cooler customer, but that isn’t to say she lacked passion, far from it. The sound of the second movement was gorgeous and as the woodwind section intertwined our melodies with hers, she arched her back and turned slightly to make eye contact. It makes all the difference to us. At the opening of the finale, she flew out of the blocks and never looked back and never put a foot wrong. Flowers from the hall and from someone in the front row were richly deserved and the guys on the front desk of violins who inherited them from her smiled like little schoolboys as they compared the different the bouquets and their different sizes. Boys will be boys. Her encore by that most underrated of composers, Hindemith, was a revelation. Stunning playing.

For me though, once again it was my colleagues who stole the show in a performance of the Firebird. There are too many individuals who take solo turns in this most pictorial of ballet scores to mention individually, but all of them would happily be able to stand at the front of the stage and keep up with the great soloists. Having played the piece many times with Valery, it was refreshing to find new colours and textures with Daniel conducting. As with Tetzlaff and Fischer, Harding and Gergiev use the same score but achieve remarkably different results. And no, I’m not going to tell you which I prefer. As an extra before we moved onto Bonn, Frankfurt clapped long enough for an encore and were rewarded with Khovanschina overture. It’s an exhuasting programme to play and to be honest after being assaulted by Mussorgsky and all for nearly two hours the last thing you feel like doing is floating out the slow sultry melodies from this piece. I didn’t have to as I was playing second piccolo in the Firebird so it was nice to sit back and listen to Chris Richards floating his melody out into the darkness of the hall. It’s so big, you really can’t see the back of the auditorium from the stage and it seems like a huge space to fill, but Chris manages to sound expansive and delicate at the same time. Absolutely beautiful. To reach the back, you need to set your sights very high indeed to provide a beautiful diversion for the audience. My colleagues do that in extraordinary ways day in, day out. I’m glad they didn’t listen to their teachers, and by the audience reaction, so was Frankfurt.


  1. Paul Davies (1 year ago)

    Devastated that I missed last Thursday’s concert at the Barbican. Seems to have been entrancing and lucky old Frankfurt gets the same programme!

    Missed your conribution last week with Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, but Adam, Siobhan and Sharon covered superbly for you :-)

    Keep well – and thank you everyone. PD

  2. K Ellis (1 year ago)

    Great Blog! Unfortunately it rings too true. Both my son and his flat mate had the same experience( different schools, different parts of the country). In my sons case the advice was from Head of Music. Fortunately they were brave enough to ignore the advice & are both now 4th year music college students being taught by LSO players and loving it. Great shame that music college is seen as inferior to a university degree.

    • Gareth Davies (1 year ago)

      Thanks!I’m not sure that music college is seen as inferior to music college. I maybe should have been clearer. The teacher was suggesting that he could do better than studying music, not just studying it at university!Best of luck to your son!

      • Gail Ford (1 year ago)

        When I was at school & it was careers advice time, they looked at me and said, “Well you;re ok, you’ll be doing your music” – it sounded as if I’d caught a nasty diseas they just didn’t want to know about.
        And, just as I thought I’d gotten used to the “and what do you do in the daytime” questions, my husband came home seething on my behalf, as a new colleague had responded to his explanation that I was a musician with “Oh, that’s nice, at least it gets her out of the house”.

        Does anybody else get annoyed when, having replied to the “And what do you do?” question with “I’m a musician”, the next question ALWAYS is “what do you teach?”. Sometimes I have to restrain myself from screaming “I DON’T TEACH, I PLAY, DAMMIT”.

        Oh dear…….

  3. Paul Davies (1 year ago)

    A more considered response to your blog, Gareth . . . . . partly engendered by your remarks about your wife’s profession and also about the school response to your eldest son’s aspirations – as we sit at home waiting for our first grandchild to arrive (who, following typical Davies tradition, is late!).

    I think that there is a general perception (if indeed, the population in general do think about these things) that you sit around at home, do a bit of practice, catch the train in to London, play a 2 ½ concert and go home again – and you only do this on 2 days a week – and sometimes you get to fly off to all sorts of exotic places and do the same relaxed thing there for a week or so.

    People do not seem to understand or appreciate the amount of study, private practice, section and tutti rehearsal, performance, recording, travelling, waiting etc. that professional musicians endure through their lives. I should imagine that it is a relatively short career as I would think that people in their 50’s and early 60’s would be thinking “Boy, that’s enough – I can’t keep up with all of this and remain on top of my technique and concentration”. I know that in my career my ability (or desire) to concentrate on the challenges and deal with the constant travel, certainly waned in my 60’s to such an extent that work became a chore rather than a pleasure – and the results that I produced were not as good as they had been when I was in my 50’s.

    The fascinating thing is that many of you combine this with a teaching career as well (I know that you are a Professor at the RCM – and looking through the list of players it appears that about 50% of the Principals and Sub-Principals do similar work). That must be yet another strain trying to juggle teaching commitments with orchestral / solo commitments! I found it difficult enough juggling career, home life and social life!

    That brings me onto a third area – home life: in your book you have given us some idea of the difficulties that are faced and I’ll just say that I really admire you and your families for the sacrifices that you make.

    Regarding the Head of 6th Form’s attitude to your son’s ambition, perhaps this is a failing of “modern life” and expectations? It certainly is a failing of our education system which seems to concentrate on getting results at all costs and to heck with producing a “rounded experience”. However, if I had had such a discussion with the Careers Master at my school (a West Wales Grammar School in the early 1960’s) I feel certain that I would have been met with blank stares and the same lack of encouragement based on ignorance. And this was despite my having achieved leadership of the County Youth Orchestra and membership of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales (accomplishments which were obviously of little account at the school). Never mind – I did my engineering degree and still retain the ability to be fascinated, deeply moved, frustrated and comforted by music and musicians.

    Please excuse my rants and ravings, but I sincerely hope that your son will be allowed to take a career path that gives him fulfilment throughout life – and thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  4. Paul Davies (1 year ago)

    Re: earlier comment. . . . Grandson arrived at any 02:00 this am :-)

  5. Hugh Evans (1 year ago)

    Of course music college is no less demanding than University, and life as a musician is rather more demanding than most jobs,but I do have two comments, which might be relevant to your son. (1) When I was at Cambridge there were many fine musicians (Simon Channing and Graham Waterhouse spring to mind) and who spent huge amounts of their time playing (if you study an arts subject you can get away with remarkably little work). They mostly went to music college after University. They learned a lot of repertoire in university orchestras, and had a degree to fall back on, which may have been useful as (2) there are huge numbers of very good players (esp flautists) who don’t find employment as musicians. Maybe this route is no longer available?

    • Gareth Davies (1 year ago)

      That pathway is still available. In fact Simon Channing is now head of wind at the Royal College where I teach! The only difference now is that you study for a degree in music at music college now too.

  6. S.V. Millwood (1 year ago)

    Speaking as a Cambridge alumnus who read music (and who is now studying for a postgraduate degree at the Guildhall), I would just like to clarify that a career in music and a degree from an élite university are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Of course, the music curriculum at a university differs from that at a conservatoire, but I think that the variety of music degrees on offer in this country is a good thing: one size does not fit all (and we should beware simplistic assertions of one being “better” than another)!

    As for secondary schools, it is worth remembering that their priority is *not* to help their pupils achieve their ambitions; rather, it is to flatter their own vanity with high rankings in the league tables and with high numbers proceeding to élite universities. This can sometimes manifest itself in unexpected ways (although the head of sixth-form described by Mr Davies sounds like the more predictable type), depending on the prejudices of the teachers charged with a pastoral/advisory role in respect of sixth-formers.

    • Gareth Davies (1 year ago)

      I don’t think that I implied that a university degree and a career in music were mutually exclusive, they certainly are not. To be honest, if you want to play in the LSO, the standard of playing an musicianship will always rank above where you studied. In fact in the woodwind alone we have graduates from most of the music colleges, Oxford, Cambridge and other universities. You may be interested to know that two of the degrees from those elite universities were in anthropology and Chemistry. Make of that what you will…

      I cannot agree with your blanket portrayal of secondary schools priorities however. My quip about my sons head of sixth form is one teacher. The rest of the teachers there could not be more supportive. I’m afraid that my experience of teaching in secondary schools (and I speak as a former secondary school teacher) is very different, thank goodness.

  7. Andrej (1 year ago)

    I have to say that as a school teacher of some 10 or more years standing, over half of which has been in state sector grammar schools I’m disgusted that such careers advice should have been given to your son. I have to say through my experience I’ve never 6th form tutored nor been involved in careers advice to 6th formers, however I personally think this is really bad. Yes there will no doubt be an element of massaging the school’s own figures. It has to be said that I know of several people now performing as professional musicians who did gain a degree from Oxford first, and it is a valid route, and it is nice to know that someone considers your son academically able enough to apply to Oxbridge. And such great GCSE grades is to be highly praised. It also does provide a nice back-up, though I also know people who have been to music college and have still not gained a seat in a professional orchestra and are now following a different career path. So the big question is – does it really matter? In the long run, probably not. The career advice I always give is ensure you fulfil your potential in whatever interests you the most. However I’d love to be a fly-on-the-wall when Gareth goes to Parents Evening and gives this Head of 6th Form a “piece of his mind”!

  8. Annie (1 year ago)

    When choosing my A-level subjects all I knew was that I ultimately wanted to study music. My school music teacher, flute teacher and piano teachers were all very supportive of this. The school careers advisor, however, was not. She kept telling me that with my A-level choices I could go on to study law. It seems that many people who do ‘proper’ degrees see an arts degree as worthless – it’s not gong to pay the bills. I was somewhat surprised to attend an open day at a university music department (which will remain nameless) and have the lecturers tell us how good their course was, but that after we’d finished we could convert our music degrees to law or business!

    I did my BMus. I’m not working specifically in the music business now, but I do bits here and there and do have a private teaching business which is going really well. While I don’t earn millions from music, I certainly don’t regret doing that degree. I’m glad I stuck to my guns. A friend of mine was put off doing a music degree as people tried with me. Despite that she’s now an amazing music specialist in a primary school. Every child there enjoys music lessons. It is possible to be successful with an arts degree. Children need to be encouraged.


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