And yet, there’s something lacking in their playing and I often wonder if the conservatory system is the way to go, especially for individual artists. I wonder if the competition circuit is the way to go for up-and-coming musicians because I fear that it breeds something into them … I think that when you are in an environment where you’re surrounded by other pianists, all playing the same repertoire, studying with the same teachers and working towards the same competition circuit, somehow, over a period of years, pianists tend to lose some of their individuality because they’re so influenced by their teachers, by the people they’ve had masterclasses with.
I wonder if there’s another way; maybe just to abandon the conservatory training altogether and to really go along your own path, looking for other fine musicians to work with who don’t necessarily have to be pianists, they can be singers or other instrumentalists. I wonder if one can focus on the performance side of things, perhaps not to worry so much about having lessons with particular teachers who might be able to write references and get you into competitions and just to avoid all of that!
Perhaps find a new path that allows a player to develop his or her own sound, own voice, even when they’re playing the music of the great composers of the past. It doesn’t mean that they have to compose themselves, especially if they haven’t been doing that from a young age.
I’m very aware that one hears many pianists who, if they were to abandon teachers and abandon the whole idea of competitions and exams and auditions, they would find their own voice perhaps more easily, and maybe at a younger age.
There is a tiny percentage of musicians out there who have something really special to say in the music that they’re playing and this makes me wonder about the system, and I wonder about the business as well. I don’t think the music business is all that interested in artists who offer something a little different, who walk in another direction. They’re more interested in the people who have won prizes, who studied with particular teachers, who have gone to particular conservatories and so on. The business is very afraid of taking risks with artists who are either older or playing repertoire that’s not 'out there', and you know, it takes a lot of guts to walk in a different direction to everybody else and I wish more musicians would do that actually.
Performers could be more interesting and probably more engaging for audiences, because I think that audiences notice and hear the same old repertoire, the same types of virtuoso pianism being churned out night after night, day after day and this concerns me. It’s almost as if we’re being pushed into thinking that there is only one way to do something, you know.
I think there are probably some very enlightened teachers who can develop enquiring minds and are willing to allow their students to develop in an original way, but in this country we’re so totally obsessed, and we always have been, with music exams and all these sorts of things, so it’s very much engrained in the culture of education in this country. Maybe the younger musicians do need to think outside the box and think about how they’re really going to nurture their audiences, and especially younger audiences. If that means going into and playing in all sorts of schools, going into different performance venues and really try and engage with the audience of the future.
Nothing changes overnight, but I think there’s a feeling that maybe the competition is not the way to go anymore, that people are jaded by it all, that there are so many hundreds of competitions worldwide that churn out prize winners.
I adjudicated for a competition at the end of last year and pianists from all the music colleges mostly left me cold. Something needs to be developed within these students because I think everybody has the potential, yet somehow the training, especially in the conservatory system, means musicians conform, they don’t think enough for themselves and perhaps are afraid to take the necessary risks.
Perhaps there are pianists like that, and there are those doing things their own way. One of them might be Benjamin Grosvenor, who I think is only in his early twenties. My advice would be to find the really wonderful mentor, a really wonderful human being who believes in you and somebody who’s willing to explore, experiment and develop something special. I think there are very few of those sorts of mentors around. If it means travelling to other parts of the world then artists have to do it. They shouldn’t necessarily think that London is the only place." (James Brawn)
Hear James Brawn perform 'Beethoven Odyssey' at Markson Pianos Concert Series
June 25th at 7pmSt Mary Magdalene Church
Munster Square, London NW1 3PL
Tickets on the door: £6 (Concessions £4)
James will be performing a selection of works from his odyssey of recording ALL the Beethoven piano sonatas. "A tremendous display of pianistic virtuosity with a powerful interpretation" - Evening Telegraph (UK)
Since his Mozart concerto debut in Australia aged 12, pianist James Brawn has forged his own musical path of discovery, from studies with great pianists who can trace their teachers' lineage back to Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Clara Schumann to concerts alongside great Australian pianists Roger Woodward, Rita Reichman, Ronald Farren- Price, Ian Munro and Michael Kieran Harvey.
Connect with James