Between rock and a hard piece

Will Upton discusses the similarities between sport and music.

Drugs are used in professional music. Of course some of them, notably alcohol and recreational drugs, are responsible for interminable improvised solos. Miles Davis getting into a lift and mistaking it for his Ferrari is a metaphor for wasted talent on many levels. The use of beta-blockers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs is well known in orchestral players, and if they produce improved performance we should probably not be too concerned.

As an avid fan of cycling, the recent revelations about doping were about as little a surprise to me as the ‘long awaited’ media exposure of the Classic (sic) Brit Awards as a sham. What does need to be said is that it doesn’t matter that they are a sham. Just as the pop charts have long been consigned to the whims of 14-year-old girls, so we should abandon the classical charts to fans of 50 Shades of Grey, Britain’s Got Talent, John Williams soundtracks, and readers of the Daily Mail. Similarly, fans of cycling should probably move on from the Tour de France and simply enjoy their own drug free, recreational version of the sport.

The simultaneous arrival of these exposés did prompt me to think about some of the similarities between sport and music, and that perhaps the classical music equivalent of doping is having a ruthless agent and a TV friendly face. Short skirts have also furthered the career of a well-known string quartet who can frequently be seen waving skeletal electric violins, swathed in dry ice; not all promotion of classical music is good promotion – Gareth Malone take note. I may have an axe to grind here. I was told early in my playing career (I was a late starter at nine years old) that to master an instrument or a sport requires 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 21.

The danger of this two-tier approach is that it encourages self-righteous fans of serious classical music to think that commercialisation is limited only to its vacuous, light music, doppelganger. With its timeless façade, classical music is ever so good at concealing the extent to which it is increasingly prey to exterior motives, the cult of celebrity, and the quest for the next big thing. Increasingly, I would urge listeners to ask what money is underwriting the activities that do come to prominence, and what interests are tied up with their funding. Perhaps ultimately, all that matters is the music, and without the industry performers would never get through to us – what if Brian Epstein hadn’t bought thousands of copies of the Beatles first single?

Most performers don’t reach the pinnacle of their art until middle age, by which time most athletes are consigned to the commentary box. My experience of great virtuoso players of all ages, and I have been lucky enough to interview many of them, is that they practice as diligently as Oxford students are expected to study – using the maxim, ‘If I miss one day’s practice I know it, if I miss two days the orchestra knows, if I miss three the audience knows.’


Will’s Weekly Recommendation

Whether last week’s recommendation, Mysteries of the Macabre, is music or theatre of the absurd doesn’t matter, but the Beckettian undertones are clear for all to see. It is rare for anything in art these days to shock or titillate, or to be witty and ironic, so the fact that Ligeti’s work continues to achieve all of these, over 30 years since it was written, is remarkable.

This week I urge you to listen to Toru Takemitsu’s Garden Rain for brass ensemble, available on YouTube and Spotify.