My last address to the pupils of the Menuhin School as Director of Music, March 2020
For my last morning assembly at The Yehudi Menuhin School I chose to be a bit controversial and wrote a Eulogy of Solitude.
Re-reading it today, and thinking about what I told them then, right at the beginning of the first lockdown, the message still applies to all of us: the great quest is the quest that goes inwards. I thought I should share it again in social media (a bit of a contradiction, I know!).
And after some lovely encouragementfrom generous souls, I post it here so that it can be read and shared more widely.
Morning Assembly Address / Yehudi Menuhin School (25/03/2020)
For a few days now, like most of you, I have been living with my parents. I had to self-isolate to protect them and so I have been spending most of my time locked up in my old study. This situation has brought memories of the many days spent in a similar level of isolation and reclusion when I was your age, way before the advent of the internet, doing my homework, practicing my violin and listening to music, but also reading, reading, and reading.
At that time, before I decided to study music as my main career or indeed had any urge to be a composer, my creative output was writing. I wrote short stories, poetry and short literary essays. Those were very happy times, when the weekends would just fly past, while completely absorbed in another novel, writing or listening to a new CD ‘in loop’, only stopping for food, or sleep. So it wasn’t long before I have found myself, much like 25 years ago, drifting into erratic thinking, aimless elucubrations and then wanting to enjoy the quiet pleasure of crafting it all into some form of a text:
A Eulogy of Solitude
Everybody these days is talking about keeping connected. The internet has brought your teachers and your classrooms into your houses, and social media seems the perfect way of remaining in touch with the groups and communities you feel part of. Initiatives by conservatoires, orchestras and chamber groups are showing a great deal of creativity and a wish to keep reaching audiences through streaming, remote collaborations and home performances. Nobody wants to let this crisis affect their lives and these huge number of stimuli – together with an amount of blog articles and resources that nobody could get through in a lifetime – are being thrown into the internet and at us at great speed and in inordinate quantities.
But even before this health emergency forced us to physical isolation and media overload, we already lived in a world in which we had got used to this hyper-connectivity. We all look at the screens of our computers, iPads, and mobile phones to stay in touch with what we want and with whom we want, all the time. It almost seems as if we are constantly trying to substitute the reality that surrounds us with a world of our choice.
These days it has become even clearer that social media initiatives and ideas quickly reverberate online, illuminating the lives of millions; but also that they often generate trends, with endless imitations and inevitable standardisation, like images in a hall of mirrors. Can all that media content help us in becoming a genuinely individual artist? Everybody seems to be applying the same formulas, the same formats, filters, and business talking points.
We have talked about Jung over the last few years. He talks about our ‘shadow’ being really important. What he is saying in his own way is that one should never forget the dark side of the Moon, which is often half of the planet –if not more! At this moment, the spotlight and all the eyes are fixed on the internet, on connectivity, on social media, on not losing out. So maybe there is some wisdom in – while keeping up with the times –also diverting our gaze for a while to that place where nobody is looking, to whatever ‘the dark side of the Moon’ might be right now – we don’t want to miss half of our planet!
Let’s turn to solitude. Musicians are immensely lucky because the practice of a musical instrument –it still being a craft you need to develop on your own – offers an experience of solitude; and the contact with the instrument cannot happen through anybody or anything else: studying the violin, the piano or the cello is a completely individual journey of discovery, without any intermediaries. You make discoveries with the guidance of your teacher, but the experience of those findings and your learning is always solitary and individual.
Someone like Bach, Vivaldi or Beethoven lived mostly un-mediated experiences. They heard the music they performed or heard others perform, they knew the work of a few other performers and composers and had a relatively modest library. Their experiences were mostly –here is the key – direct, personal and un-mediated. Upon receipt of a new score, they didn’t read 150 reviews online before even opening the first page, they probably just read through it and studied it and played it, and transcribed it, or wrote a set of variations on it, and then made their own mind up. They still managed to produce music that speaks to us and moves us today.
In the next weeks and months, allow yourselves some time to experience solitude and unmediated, purely personal experiences and reflections:
Create the space to speculate, to grapple on your own with some of the great questions of life, art and music; with repertoire or recordings;
If they are difficult questions, do not run away from them, struggle;
Find your answers: good or bad, it doesn’t matter;
Realise that for some questions maybe there are no answers, or at least not-definitive but ever-evolving answers;
keep mulling them over.
Reject all answers; find meaning instead.
The whole world of experience is there, right in your room, for you to discover it by yourself. Education can only build on genuine experience.
In the middle of all of this disruption, we are lucky: for a brief moment, the water in the lake has stopped moving and it is offering us one clear reflection. Don’t look into your phone and into the hall of mirrors too much. In solitude, try to look into the stillness of the water and discover who you really are.
Maybe once this is all over you will have something truly individual and genuine to say as a musician, and you will find it easier to be kind to others, and to yourself.
Ⓒ Òscar Colomina i Bosch