Music’s beauty is in the ear of the beholder – not in the sex appeal of the musician

The selling point for classical music performers should be their talent, not their looks or youthfulness

Classical music performers such as Alison Balsom are under pressure to stand out through their looks rather than their playing

Classical music performers such as Alison Balsom are under pressure to stand out through their looks rather than their playing Photo: Rex Features

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By Tasmin Little

8:07PM BST 11 Jun 2013

The fabulous Dame Jenni Murray of Woman’s Hour has been lamenting the fact that female classical musicians are under pressure to look glamorous and to “go along with the idea that sex sells”. In my experience, there is, sadly, much truth in what she says. During my 25-year career in the profession, I have noticed an increasing emphasis on appearance, as the “twin-set and pearls” style of evening wear has been replaced by designer couture gowns, and youth and beauty are perceived as almost equal to talent.

If music is about communication and expression, why does the appearance of a performer matter at all? The answer is that it used not to. When you look at old record covers, some of the photographs of female artists are distinctly unflattering by today’s standards. And yet it made no difference to their popularity at the time, as the most important consideration was their interpretation.

Nowadays, things are very different. So why has the classical music industry begun to feel the need to compensate for something, as though the product is no longer good enough or special enough in itself?

One reason why the emphasis gradually changed is the repeated criticism levelled at the classical music industry that it is “fusty” and that performers are “out of touch”. The implication is that classical musicians are playing old music by dead composers who have little relevance to today’s society, that we ourselves are rooted firmly in the past, and that this is reflected in the outdated way that we dress. So, in an effort to get more “with it”, traditional gowns have been replaced by modish outfits and hair gel.

Another reason for the pressure to make the packaging sexy is that performers are competing in an ever more crowded market. The industry is more international than ever, and the internet has allowed great choice and freedom in the way that the consumer buys and enjoys music. So a performer feels more of a need to stand out from the crowd, to find his or her “unique selling point”.

But music is not a cosmetic. The emphasis should be on the aural, not the visual, and, if we place it on the latter, we are in danger of losing the essence of what music really is.

Dame Jenni is right to imply that there is more pressure on women than men. But the pressure is increasing on them, also. Smouldering expressions in publicity shots, machismo and even gyrations on stage are becoming more common.

Only one aspect of the profession has remained firmly immune to the lure of promoting a youthful image, and that is the role of conductor. Actually, the older you are as a conductor, the more you are perceived to have attained great musicianship and gravitas. Your work is thought to be more “meaningful”. Thus far, this has been a very male-dominated area of the profession, with very few young or female maestri. However, things are changing, and time will tell whether future female conductors will feel the need to market themselves as glamorous.

The show-business pressure on performers is something that clearly worries Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, too: the soprano spoke recently of the dangers of singers imagining that there was an ­ X Factor route to overnight success.

Similarly, learning a musical instrument to a high standard takes years: there are no shortcuts. I began the violin at the age of seven, and it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I was good enough to perform in public. It also takes time to learn the art of expression in performance. To bring meaning to music, you have to have lived with that music, know it inside out, even to have lived enough life yourself, otherwise it is as unsatisfying as turning over the exciting front cover of a new book only to find there is no content.

The fact is that there is no universal marketing package for music, nor a magic formula to achieve success. Each piece and performance is unique — neither can be summed up by a vision in a dress or a smouldering hunk on the cover of a disc. To try to do so diminishes us all.

The “unique selling point” of a true musician, skinny or fat, tall or short, glamorous or less so, is the ability to connect, to inspire and to move an individual beyond the realms of their ordinary life.

I have a very optimistic view of the future of classical music. I believe there will always be a discerning audience who wish to hear quality music. And if a gifted performer happens to look wonderful too, there is nothing wrong with that. My only fear is that if glossy packaging is increasingly emphasised over content, there is a real danger that some extraordinary talents who do not conform to this image will fall by the wayside.

Tasmin Little OBE is a solo concert violinist


Don’t Listen to the Music!

At this point in my career, I see music differently than 30 years ago. I view the listening of music more of a very personal experience. In fact, I don’t want my audience to listen to the music. To me that’s too passive and only half the story. What is behind the music? Which events in the composer’s life are reflected in his or her compositions. We need to dig deeper into the music.

Recently, I sat through a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. How can such an iconic piece not be engaging, thrilling, emotional? But it wasn’t. There was something missing. In fact, the first composition on the program, Schoenberg’s 9 minute A Survivor From Warsaw was more startling. The piece connected with all of us-we actively lived the dark side of humanity-the shadow of mankind. So why wasn’t there any light with the Beethoven? The conductor with the orchestra did not connect the dots…they left us hanging, as we were hoping for a most uplifting thrill ride. It never happened.

It is that communication- the triad-conductor, orchestra, audience which is so vital. We are all in this together. Not to be led like sheep and told what to feel but to stop listening and bathe in the light individually. That’s chemistry. It doesn’t happen often enough but when it does-it’s the best feeling, the best accomplishment. Don’t just listen to the music but “be present” with the music, the composer, the orchestra, and the conductor. It’s a journey we take together but we experience it individually.

9 questions with Spanish music book author: Barry Kolman

January 20, 20154:16 PM MST

Barry Kolman, renowned conductor, author of ” The Language of Music Revealed: A Real Easy Way for Anyone to Learn to Read and Write Music ” and ” El Lenguaje De La Música: Al Descubierto ” answers 9 questions about the inspiration behind his writing and he discusses his passion for music.

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

Since the age of six I have always been involved with music. In Elementary school as well as high school, I performed in orchestras, bands, and small ensembles. Even before I was able to play an instrument, I would listen to recordings all the time when I was a kid. I think it was my mother who first thought I had to musical talent when she observed that every time I heard a song, I would keep time with the music with my foot as early as five years old. For almost 60 years, music has been an indelible part of who I am. When I was 12 years old I had an idea for a short story/book. My father encouraged me to write it showing me that there is really nothing a person can’t do if you put your mind to it. He sent the manuscript over to Random House and after about 6 to 9 months I received my first rejection letter. I was pretty impressed by the whole process. From that moment on I have been fooling around with writing short stories and hoping one of these days my work would be published.

2. What was the inspiration behind your writing and was there a life changing event?

My inspiration for writing my first published book came about by my teaching a course in music fundamentals to non music majors. This was my first exposure to academic nonfiction book. I was so fed up with the lack of interesting music theory books out there, that I decided to sit down one summer and just write my own. All I wanted to do is to make this class interesting and informative to a group of students who were taking the course just to receive three credits. Definitely a tough crowd. I was committing to make this class more than an academic requirement with this book.

3. What was your greatest challenge writing this book?

I remember sitting in my office with approximately 35 different music fundamentals books strewn all over the floor. How would I make this book any different than these 35 authors? They always tell you to write what you know and coming from Brooklyn,( New York I guess what I know the best was a touch of sarcasm and humor. So I had to balance the two. To write an academic book that could be used in or outside the classroom about a subject that can be drier than sandpaper and to incorporate some humor, some graphics, and an interesting way to keep the reader turning pages was indeed a challenge.

4. Tell us the kind of research involved in writing this book.

Much of the research was taken from my 25+ years experience of teaching music and from interviewing my students to receive some feedback about what would make for a more interesting music fundamentals book. I certainly didn’t want to make the same mistakes those previous 35 authors made. I created an outline to make sure that while I was trying to make this humorous, I also wanted to make certain I covered all the necessary topics to make this a complete book on the introductory level.

5. From your experience what is the best method of marketing your book to date?

For an unknown author, marketing is very important in order to get your book out there. I learned quickly that publishing companies rarely assist in marketing a book unless you’re a well-known author. Though I had some help from PR firms, I found self marketing to be the most effective, either through social media, Amazon, sending out review copies, and requiring students to buy it as part of your class. I also made several presentations around the country, specially when the book came out in it’s Spanish translation. Local bookstores in my area also carry copies of both editions. Effective marketing is really up to your own creativity in getting your book known to your target audience. That is also important, to know your target audience.

6. Do you have another job besides writing?

My day job has been teaching at the local university and guest conductor orchestras around the world.

7. Where are you born and where do you now live?

I am a proud native New Yorker born in Brooklyn and I now live somewhere in rural Virginia.

8. What’s the most important message readers will get from reading your book?

The subtitle of the book is: A Real Easy Way To Read And Write Music. That’s the most important message of this book. Learning to read and write music should not be a mystery and it should be fun. And anybody, even those with a tin ear, can learn to write music easily. For all those amateur piano players, guitar players, and fiddle players who can’t read music, this is the book for you.

9. How does your book target the Spanish Community?

I was really appalled to find out that there are very few adult books written in Spanish. Even in Spain, most of the books that are published are for very young children. In the field of music, there’s practically nothing written in Spanish. I was very pleased that this book is available in a Spanish translation and it is being sold all over the world. I hope this is just the beginning and I will see other authors writing nonfiction academic books in Spanish. Sadly, this is a woefully underserved audience. The Spanish translation of my book is selling on Amazon.

Ask Barry Kolman questions by visiting his website:

Clarinets, Classrooms, and Conducting: A Conversation with Barry Kolman

Feature Article by Alan Swanson


Buy The Language of Music Revealed: A Real Easy Way for Anyone to Learn to Read and Write Music From Amazon
The Language of Music Revealed: A Real Easy Way for Anyone to Learn to Read and Write Music

Buy El Lenguaje De La Música: Al Descubierto From Amazon
El Lenguaje De La Música: Al Descubierto

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Unlike many who are interviewed in these pages, the conductor Barry Kolman does not claim to come from a long line of musicians. His sister once brought home a violin from school and after a few minutes of scratches and screeches, his father said to her, “Either the violin goes or you go.” Fortunately, it was the violin that went, ending his sister’s brief musical career. Despite this unpromising introduction to the art of making music, keeping time to the music on the record player became an automatic response.

Kolman continues,

I started playing the clarinet in elementary school and found a group of kids like myself who would get together on the weekends and play any type of music we could find. In high school, we formed a “bar mitzvah” band and played out of “fake books” as well as making our own arrangements. We played a bunch of gigs and even had an audition with an agent who booked bands for the Catskills resorts in upstate New York.

I always loved music. But it was when I was introduced to my first real professional star musician, David Weber, principal clarinetist with the New York City Ballet, that I decided that music was going to be my career. That was the easy part. Now to convince my father that I wanted to be a musician, that was the hard part. Dad was a businessman and he had his plans for me: major in math and go into business with him. It took me a year of being a Math/Computer Science major to finally get the nerve to break the bad news; I wanted to go to music school.

It was the first Thanksgiving of my first year in college. I came home with my elephant bell bottoms and shoulder-length hair (after all it was the 1960s) and sat down in the living room. I just blurted it out, “I’m thinking of joining the Peace Corps after college.” Where did that come from? My father stared at me with his steely eyes and then I confessed my secret love for music. He said nothing; I only heard the crash of massive disappointment. Other than that, it was the loudest silence I have ever experienced. It was not until I earned my doctorate that I felt my father was convinced I could make a living as a musician. My mother has told me in recent years that, in fact, my father was extremely proud of his son all along.

Kolman earned his first degree, in music education, from the Crane School of Music at SUNY in Potsdam, New York. After a stint teaching in public schools, he did a master’s degree in performance at Illinois State and took his doctorate in conducting from the University of Northern Colorado, where he was awarded the Graduate Dean’s Citation for Excellence and where he graduated with High Honors. He has also taken part in master classes by Zubin Mehta and Frederick Fennell. The road from studying music to performing it, however, was not so direct, as it happened.

What I wanted to do as a musician changed often, from symphony orchestra clarinet player to high school band director to college professor to symphony orchestra conductor. I never quite found that hook I was looking for until the conducting bug hit me. I did take a host of clarinet auditions. At one audition, very anonymously and behind a screen, I played the opening bars of the Mozart Concerto, the staple of all auditions. Suddenly a small little head popped out from behind the screen and said to the others, “No, it’s not him.” This was my first foray in the politics of auditioning. I didn’t stay long enough to find out who the “audition board” really wanted. It was then I thought it was time to rethink this option.

Yet, in spite of rationality and reality, I continued to audition. There was an audition for the New Orleans Philharmonic for second clarinet. We all (by then we all knew each other; the same bunch of sad sacks going from audition to audition and all ending up eventually at the airport bar) dragged ourselves to the City Center for the beheading. Our guide at the door led the way.

As I was walking, it was hard not to notice that there were tigers, lions, and elephants in cages. “Is this where the losers end up?” Answer: The circus was in town, and we were the clowns! Finally to the second floor, and the guide disappeared. Where to warm up, where to go? I had about six different types of clarinets with me. I ended up warming up in the ladies room. I knew this was going to end badly. It did! Yes, definitely time to rethink this option! By the way, this vacancy in New Orleans occurred because the present second clarinetist was too ill to play anymore. After he saw that about 300 players were after his job, a miracle occurred! He got better and the search was called off.

My epiphany happened during one orchestra rehearsal at the time I was doing my master’s in performance. We all were in our places, waiting impatiently for our tardy conductor. After about 15 minutes, students were starting to pack up to leave. As a grad student with a false sense of clout, I stood up and said, “Nobody leaves. We ARE rehearsing!” “But we have no conductor,” whined most of the players already half out the door. “I’ll conduct!” Geesh, what have I done … conduct what? I did some conducting as a public school teacher but never with a full symphony orchestra. As if I knew what I was doing or going to do, I proceeded to the podium with a certain air of arrogance (more like extreme fear). I grabbed a first violin part (no score was available), raised my arms, and magically, they all raised their instruments. WOW! Absolute power DOES indeed corrupt absolutely! With renewed confidence, I threw them the most vigorous of downbeats and Beethoven and I had a thrill ride. I stopped; they stopped. I would make a comment; they would take a pencil and write it down!

And then, I felt responsible for these musicians. What I told them couldn’t be from a capricious wise-guy; it had to be right and to make sense. It was at that moment I fell in love with music again, but this time it was different from listening to those old 78-rpm recordings. That little conducting exercise taught me how little I really knew and how much I needed to know. It taught me that I indeed have an opinion about music that other musicians respected. It was the beginning of a long journey of learning not just about music but about people.

Thank goodness for all those undergraduate conducting courses I took. After I graduated from Crane with a degree in Music Education, I was armed to teach public school. I taught for a while in New York at a middle school. I had terrific kids. We put on some wonderful concerts and my students and their parents really loved it all. Though I did move on, I never did forget about my music education roots.

Music teachers today have it tough. There has always been competition with sports and clubs and even among music ensembles for student participants. But today, schedules are “blocked” and budgets are cut; though we rarely see athletic budgets cut. With all these obstacles, there is still music in our schools, and I am very thankful because it was a lifesaver for my daughter.

My daughter has autism and my wife, a Jungian therapist, and I were trying to figure out something that would give her some solace after being bullied in school. In an article, I tell how I taught my daughter the clarinet and how it changed her life and mine (Watch out, bullies: She’s got the band behind her: I always knew music was powerful, but after working with her, I was awestruck. She was proud to be a member of a select group of students; her world changed because of music. As a musician you often get lost in your own little world, whether you are a pianist, conductor, or composer. But to witness such a profound change in someone you love pushes you out of that cubicle and confirms that what you are doing is a good thing, and that you can change people’s lives with this intangible thing we call music.

From such a special experience, it would seem that teaching and learning are central to how you think about making music.

My classroom is and will always be the orchestra. And guest conducting throughout the world, under many unusual conditions, meeting people from diverse countries, and recording CDs under a time limit; all those were my teachers. All the master classes I took and all the instructions that were given do not prepare you for the outside world.

For you, it seems, much of the “outside world” has meant conducting abroad. What is that like?

I have been lucky enough to conduct in Russia and Eastern Europe, with a few stints in Western Europe. I guess I was drawn to that part of the world because of my ancestry; my family may have been from Russia and Hungary. I do remember one orchestra in Yekaterinburg, Russia; the coldest place I have ever visited, and I’ve lived in Minnesota! As cold as it was outside, the warmth of the musicians showed me was incredible. After a long rehearsal in a room that had more than enough heat, I was literally dripping wet. I muttered to myself, in English, “Boy, I can really go for a beer now.” The next morning, a full case of Russian beer was on my podium. I looked up and there was a smiling percussionist nodding to me. He came up to me and tried so hard in English to invite me to his brother’s birthday party that evening, after the concert.

We played the same concert out of town to a packed house. Our encore was Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, piccolos standing, brass blasting; the musicians loved it. It was my final night and I was invited to say a few words. My translator was nearby. I stood up and looked at all these overworked, barely paid, musicians. “We in the United States, we have everything. We have more than we need. But all of you have even more; something that we Americans sometimes lack. You have heart. You have so little, but you have given me so much.” I couldn’t finish. The women of the orchestra already had their tissues out and those big burly Russian men were quickly flicking away their tears. It was one experience I will always remember clearly.

Everyone always recalls such powerful experiences, of course, but you also call the orchestra a “classroom.” Does that mean for you, as well as for the players?

Certainly! Maybe it started to make sense when I conducted two performances of Carmina Burana; packed houses both nights, score memorized, 350-plus people onstage in front of me, and about 650 behind me. But it felt like we were all taking part in the performance in one capacity or another. We were all active performers, even the audience. It was an exceptional experience that made all the sacrifices I had made to become a musician so worthwhile.

I also spent some weeks in Changsha in China. It was an odd experience. Everyone was very polite. I have one important rule when I travel to a foreign country; don’t forget that you’re a guest in someone else’s house; always be polite, learn how to say “thank you,” “good morning,” “please,” and, most importantly, “break!” In China, as long as the conversation didn’t go onto the political, you were fine. Every night during my stay, I was invited to the home of a musician for dinner. The family invariably had at least one child who played piano or violin, so I was treated to a musical performance with each dinner. The freshly-cooked, homemade food was delicious, right from the market outside.

We were to perform Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The concert hall was packed with over 1,000 people. There were many photos with the local officials, and then the concert. As we rounded the turn of last movement of Beethoven’s incredible Finale, pounding out C-Major chord after C-Major chord, suddenly, about 30 seconds or so from the end … the lights went out. But did we stop? No way! The orchestra continued in pitch blackness to the final cadence. The audience leapt to its feet, and we were all heroes.

It is now, at this point, after conducting so many concerts and so many pieces, including some works that I have conducted dozens of time, I finally get it. I finally really understand the music. I understand why Beethoven wrote that particular symphony; why that theme is heard at that particular time; why that emotion is created at that moment. It’s like taking apart a car for the first time. Sure, one rides in a car for decades, but have you ever taken one apart? Now when I conduct Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, I hear, perhaps I even feel, the composer speaking to me through his music. Conducting is a more powerful experience, a more powerful learning experience as you get older.

You have conducted around the world and have led the Shenandoah Symphony for 25 years; what’s on your list of things to do?

What’s on my bucket list? Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Tosca, Mahler’s Second, teach graduate conducting students … and, most importantly, to conduct in my hometown of New York City for my Mom to see.

THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC REVEALED: A Real Easy Way for Anyone to Learn to Read and Write Music. By Barry A. Kolman. Boca Raton: Universal Publishers, 2012. 291 pp. Paperback. $49.95

EL LENGUAJE DE LA MUSICA, AL DESCUBIERTO: Un Método Tan Fácil Que Cualquier Persona Es Capaz De Aprender A Leer Y Escribir Música. By Barry Araújo Kolman. Trans. by Maria Eugenia Melerio. Editorial Seleer, 2013, 294 pp. Paperback: $21.95

STEINER Treasure of Sierra Madre: Suite. The Charge of the Light Brigade: Suite • Barry Kolman, cond; Slovak St PO • CENTAUR 2367 (66:01)

This article originally appeared in Issue 37:4 (Mar/Apr 2014) of Fanfare Magazine.

El Lenguaje De La Música: Al Descubierto: A Winner!

I am thrilled that my book, El Lenguaje De La Música: Al Descubierto, was chosen as a winner of the 2014 International Latino Book Award.

According to the ILBA website: “Formers winners included Belinda Acosta, Roldofo Acuña, Alma Flor Ada, Isabel Allende, Rudolfo Anaya, Mary J. Andrade, Ron Arias, José Antonio Buciaga, Denise Chavéz, Paulo Coelho, Dr. Camilo Cruz, Gabriel García Márquez, Reyna Grande, Oscar Hijuelos, Edna Iturralde, Mario Vargas Llosa, Josefina López, Pablo Neruda, Ana Nogales, Jose-Luis Orozco, Luis Rodriguez, Alisa Valdes, and Victor Villaseñor.

Winners also come from other professions including entertainers like Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, and Cheech Marin; sports notables Oscar de la Hoya and Jorge Posada; media figures like Martín Llorens, Jorge Ramos, Teresa Rodriguez, and Ray Suarez; public servant Henry Cisneros; and Chefs like Paulina Abascal, Jose Garces, and Daisy Martinez.”

I’m honored and humbled to be in the company of such great authors. A triumph in the cause of “inclusion”. Nobody should ever feel unwanted or left out. There is enough room at the table for everyone.

Cracking the Note

Cracking the Note

Book Lecture and Presentation at UIC