Every time I take the train between New York and Philadelphia, I am reminded of my earliest days of train travel. First I was at the Menuhin School in the UK, travelling from Cobham to Wimbledon to play for my teacher, David Takeno. Later I travelled from Philadelphia to New York to play for Michael Tree when he didn’t have time in his schedule to visit the Curtis Institute, where I was a student.


My train time became sacred thinking time as I played a game with myself — am I going to face forward or backwards? I never knew and was delighted in the mystery revealing itself as the train departed.

Forward and backward is exactly what we do in life and in music. Young people have the privilege of extraordinary excitement, keeping their dreams alive as they embrace an unknown journey ahead of them.

Older people have the privilege of experience: the wisdom not to repeat mistakes and live a life that is more intentional and conscious. Each day, we are our youngest selves as well as our oldest selves. This is such a good reminder for all of us, gifted as we are with this one life.

The advent of digital media is a huge game-changer in the last half-century. Just 40 years ago CDs were all the rage: we ditched those bulky LPs and moved on to small jewel cases in their elegance, reading the little insert front to back with so much more information. Collecting LPs was fun but collecting CDs became fashionable, even decorational for proud showcasing of one’s personal audio library.

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How convenient was it to be able to play a tiny disc with superb speakers which produced such a gleaming sound, so rounded and enhanced — and flawless, of course? Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the physical object disappeared entirely as it morphed into a digital link to be downloaded. It was simply magic! Nothing physical was needed ever again!

With only the thin intervening membrane of a pair of headphones, one received the perfect idea of a sound — its scratches taken out, every timing and breath manipulated into something of a fantasy. Pitches were manufactured to reflect machine-like accuracy, recording engineers trumped the performers in the choices they made. Mistakes?? Never! Who makes mistakes?

The act of producing sound on a classical instrument is a physical one. In learning to 'sing' like a human voice, we need to in fact breathe and project like great singers. The intensity of exerting our physical energy to give birth to the notes requires engaging the core deeply before that precise instant of contact with keyboard, with strings, with reeds.

Listening to an old recording of Pablo Casals playing with Rudolf Serkin, one could almost be watching a tennis match when every serve starts with an 'AH' — one hears Casals singing, breathing, moaning, sliding, left fingers with so much diction and clarity, bow arm with so much nuancing and constant shifting of colors. It is an athletic event.

As technology photoshops our sound, gradually sweat and blood have been erased in the quest for an ideal — a perfectly blank sound that seems effortless. Too often I come across young string players who are afraid to make a 'bad' sound or a 'scratchy' sound. The perception of the sound in our headphones has become the bar by which we judge our own sound.

By that yardstick, the 'listening distance' has become just a few inches. In contrast, a seasoned performer accepts that their voice needs to carry and communicate to the last person in the concert hall. Whether that means the moan, the scratch, the vocal utterance, who knows? The distinction between playing for the mics and playing for a live audience has become blurry, hard to see.

This blurriness continues as virtual reality is now cemented into our megaverse. Our ideal sound now centres on perfection as a tangible goal to aim for, while younger musicians are impressively gaining in the ability to master their instruments and a general efficiency in obtaining information.

Einstein once said, 'Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried.' If we don’t honour the true joy of exploring and experimenting with ideas, then this creative journey seems to be wasted on us. Perfection as a 'goal' seems to suggest an end point, neither interesting nor relevant. Fear of making a mistake, fear of expressing true opinions, fear of missing a slide: the sound then becomes predictable, safe, pleasant, wallpaper — instantly forgettable.

The possibilities of expressing yearning and struggle by choosing to play on one string is daring, exciting and terrifying. It requires courage, resilience and a sense of fun and adventure. Choosing the same route each time isn’t wrong, but is it not missing the point? As my inspiration guru David Takeno reminds us, 'Fingering is the spelling of the soul.'

In a world where our judgment is fixated on the finished product, an outcome, I find it urgent that we refocus the attention back to the inside. Anything true and beautiful stems from the inside out, not the other way around. Nadia Boulanger says, 'The conditions of everything we do must be choice, love, passion.'

Today when a young musician is learning a new piece of music, it is almost an automatic action for her to immediately search on YouTube for not one but 20-plus recordings that are available at her fingertips. It is such speedy generic learning, at the expense of neglecting our own musical instincts and intellect.

What if the learning started from a broader place of listening to other compositions the composer has written, as many as possible, to grasp the sense of their style and character, perhaps along the way exploring at leisure the historic context of this composer’s life? Make a point to NOT listen to the piece you intend to learn. Give yourself the rare pleasure of discovering it for the first time, AUTHENTICALLY.

Then the act of playing is not reproducing but rather creating from a genuine place with a unique point of view, putting the whole composition into context. In this way, delaying a certain kind of gratification, listening to oneself is magnified, crystallised, enhanced.

I always hope that when a musician is trained and taught to listen to everything, that includes .... EVERYTHING: silence, rests and critical timing of the moment. In the achingly powerful Sarabande from Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite, we find a prime example of 'less is more'. Bach forges impossible connections with almost nothing, alluding to dissonance, chord progressions, a whole story that threatens to evaporate into thin air.

Foreshadowing the climactic moment in the St Matthew Passion — the death of Christ — it is a dominant-tonic gesture offered by one lonely cello. All is stripped away and we are left with a core of truth. It is naked, vulnerable and utterly without embellishment. The 'complete' listening this requires is both full and empty at the same time; it is 'heart listening'.

No one better exemplifies 'listening with your heart' than Beethoven. The inability to hear made his way of listening profoundly powerful, truthful and uncompromising. Making sense of the world required complete emotional involvement, a response to the whole journey of life. His output was a necessary step in his connection with the universe and his seeking to be healed.

Now the wheel of technology is revolving once more, heralding the dawn of truly powerful artificial intelligence. There is a feverish conversation in the arts community: to what extent will live performing (or creating) human effort become replaceable?

With orchestral sound samples at our fingertips now — will we never hear a full orchestra playing their hearts out in a great film score, as in days of old? Is it not the magic of human creative power that a great live orchestra might linger just a second longer at the moment of ecstasy and drama, or can AI learn this too?

I struggle to imagine that AI will ever approach the ingenuity of a human child, the most creative animal on the planet, as he takes his surroundings with no pre-conceived ideas, and makes sense out of it in ways that are not taught. The curveball that stumps AI — for now — is, for a young child, just a starting point for a new solution.

I have a hope that we can steer our young musicians away from the education of 'eyes and brains', and back to 'ears and hearts'. Paying attention to how we pay attention: this is the basis of genuine creativity, whether we are interpreting a score or using social media. We must embrace the arduous journey of an artistic life in which we learn, feel, listen with our hearts, celebrate the unknown, and then share that beauty.

Of course the life train only goes in one direction, even if I manage to fool myself sometimes. Even so, LPs are once more fashionable, with all their scratches, hisses, breaths and dictions intimately felt. They invite acceptance of all our flaws, not as criticism but rather as an understanding of what it means to be human. Today on my train, I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar boathouse on the Schuylkill River, its bright red perfectly set off by the serene calmness of its blues. It brought a rush of unexpected joy to me just before arriving into Philadelphia, ready for a day of teaching.



Photo: Raymond Huang