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On receipt of an OBE for services to psychology and music

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Fri, January 26, 2018 05:50:54
On 29th December 2017 it was made public that I had been awarded an OBE in the UK New Year's Honours List for services to Psychology and Music (see On 23rd January 2018 Nicholas Kenyon (old friend and Director of the Barbican Arts Centre) and Lynne Williams (Principal of Guildhall School of Music & Drama), hosted a reception in my honour, attended by colleagues, friends, and family. These are the remarks I made in thanks.

Can I thank you all for coming, and thank Nick Kenyon and Lynne Williams for co-organising this lovely and unexpected event. It’s great to see so many people here from different areas of my life. I’ve also been touched by sincere apologies from a number of well-wishers who are too far away from London to join an event such as this.

There’s a somewhat fuzzy protocol about what prior honours or achievements are allowed to stand after one’s name alongside a national honour. One thing is completely clear. Fellowship of our national academies survives comparison with any other honour. That is why I now proudly carry 6 letters after my name, FBA, OBE.

My OBE citation is for services to psychology and music. Similarly, and in expression of its own interdisciplinary ethos, the British Academy admitted me to membership of two of its sections, Psychology and Music.

In another similarity, both announcements came as complete - and indeed overwhelming - surprises.

However, there were differences too. In the case of the British Academy I knew exactly who had put my name forward - the 40 or so existing Fellows of the psychology section, with support from Music Fellows. I also knew exactly what achievements had prompted the election, since at a splendid inauguration ceremony a formal citation was read out, a citation I will always treasure.

In the case of the OBE, my nominators are unknown to me. What precisely they wrote to the honours committee will also remain a secret. But I am very indebted to these secret admirers who laboured on my behalf. Having been part of the nominating group for other recipients, I know that this is not a trivial job.

The absence of a detailed citation leaves a space for well-wishers to fill, and I have had so many touching messages from individuals as well as organisations. What has struck me forcibly about the messages from my professional world is that my fellow psychologists see this honour as upholding and and validating the wider enterprise of academic psychology, as well as my specialist sub-discipline, music psychology.

For all its popularity, psychology remains a curiously unselfconfident and peripherhal discipline within the academy. Only introduced into our universities on any scale in the 1960s, it has struggled to attain the solid self-assurance of, say, physics, or history. And Psychology of Music is even more peripheral! The vast majority of psychology departments contain no music psychology specialists, and the topic barely figures in major psychology textbooks.

Where music psychology has fallen on hugely fertile and welcoming ground has been within the discipline of music itself. Almost every music undergraduate in Britain these days has read some music psychology; and I remain astonished at the extent to which bits of my own books and papers are quoted back at me by the musicians I meet. Conservatoires around the world have started hiring music psychology specialists, and have increasingly placed psychology at the centre of their research strategy.

Many of you will know that recent world events have pulled me into new fields of endeavour, trying to grapple with the huge human cost that military adventures around the world have created. These new concerns led me to say goodbye to Keele University, who had given me, and music psychology, incredible sustained support over more than three decades. I returned to London to become more fully engaged in the task of speaking truth to power.

At that point I could well have left psychology and music completely behind were it not for the inspired and persuasive intervention of a few key individuals connected to Guildhall School. They completely understood and accepted that the majority of my intellectual and emotional energies were elsewhere, but found a way to make an offer I could not refuse, a fractional research post with almost none of the burdensome teaching and administration that weighs so heavily on career academics.

And so, this last decade has allowed me a new lease of life, bringing my intellectual concerns to bear on the dreams, preoccupations and dilemmas of the professional musician, whether at the height of an international career, or puzzling out what such a musical career should or could mean in the 21st Century. I remain incredibly grateful to Lynne’s predecessor Barry Ife, and Helena Gaunt, my constant champion and support within the institution, for offering me this unique home, with all its creativity and potential - drawing also on its close reciprocal relationship with the Barbican, Europe’s largest and most diverse arts centre.

Just at this moment, as Nicholas and Lynne know, I find myself at the centre of a new collaboration between the two institutions, a jointly funded and supervised doctoral studentship on the changing role of arts centres against the backdrop of current social and political dynamics. This is a new and exciting area of endeavor for me, and illustrates something about the environment in which I have found myself, always inviting, even pushing, people such as me to go beyond our comfort zones into new territories.

An event like this is not just about the professional world, but also about the network of family and friends without which no professional achievement would be possible or meaningful. There are people in the room tonight who have known and loved me since long before I did anything that attracted public attention, not least my dear sisters Clare and Ann. Thankyou all for the essential friendship and nurturing support you all bring. It is an additional delight that Ann is now a colleague as well as a sister, heading up activity here at Guildhall in the related field of Music Therapy.

As many of you know, there is one person who would have been utterly delighted and proud to have been here, had she not suddenly died literally days before the announcement was made public. Our mother Mary, who turned 90 last year, shares this honour in a very real way. As all good parents do, she (and our late father Mietek) held out for their children the confidence that they could succeed in whatever they chose to do, and supplied the practical day in day out support which laid the foundations of later success.

So in raising a glass to this honour, do also raise a glass to her memory

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Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Mon, January 30, 2017 14:53:20

John Sloboda

Independent researcher


In the words of it’s co-founder Scott Heiferman “is about the simple idea of using the Internet to get people off the Internet” (Heiferman, 2009). Has it succeeded in that, and if so, what makes it a success, particularly in the context of attendance at cultural events?’s website describes itself as follows:

“Meetup brings people together in thousands of cities to do more of what they want to do in life. It is organized around one simple idea: when we get together and do the things that matter to us, we’re at our best. And that’s what Meetup does. It brings people together to do, explore, teach and learn the things that help them come alive.”

I came across in 2008 when I mentioned to a colleague that I had recently moved to London and was seeking means of connecting up with people who had similar cultural interests to me. He told me he had found it useful when he had also recently arrived in a city, knowing few people there. I very much like going to cultural events, such as concerts, theatre, or film. Although I have attended such events alone, I have found it much more rewarding when I go with one or more people. Talking with fellow attenders both before and after the event, usually over a drink or a meal, is part of what makes a cultural outing fully satisfying to me.

As a single person newly arrived in London I did not have a ready-made set of potential companions for cultural outings, partly because I wanted to try new things which were outslde the taste boundaries of existing friends and family. provided me with an entry point into the vast cultural offerings that a city like London provides, by putting me in touch with organised groups that focus around particular topics or interests. Over the 8 years that I have been a meetup member I have sampled the offerings of around a dozen different meetup groups, and have organised a few events myself within one of them.

Almost every meetup meeting I have attended has been positive. Even when the cultural event itself turned out to be disappointing, the conversation with fellow attenders has rescued the evening. Finding out about their reactions and tastes has always been interesting, and bumping into someone again at a different event (as often happens) allows cordial acquaintance to develop, and mutual non-threatening and non-exclusive interest in each other.

At the same time as I was discovering and enjoying meetup, I was working as a research psychologist on a set of projects concerned with audiences for classical music. Classical musicians depend on live audiences to sustain them professionally. Despite the fact that the number and quality of musicians entering the profession has never been higher, classical organisations and venues struggle to fill their seats. The last quarter century has seen a steady decline in the number of people attending classical concerts in cities such as London, at the same time as other visitor art forms (such as musical theatre or art galleries) are thriving (Sloboda and Ford, 2012).

There are many factors that can help explain the decline in classical concert attendance, but one which several observers have noticed is that, compared to many other kinds of cultural event, classical concert-going is not very sociable. There’s a kind of stiffness and formality about traditional concert going culture, where talking, movement, and almost any kind of sound making, is frowned upon (Dobson 2010).

Concert promoters and artists are increasingly aware that the traditional concert environment may be an inhibitor to attendance, and have been exploring a range of innovations to make concerts more informal and relaxed, and to draw audiences into deeper and more active engagement with the musicians (Sloboda, 2013)

In my explorations of the concert scene I’ve not encountered significant attempts to enhance an event through improving the relationships that audience members might have to one another. My experience with meetup tells me that this is a fertile arena for development.

These two factors, my personal experience with meetup in London, and my professional interest in audiences for classical music (also focused mainly on London), motivated me to propose and carry out a small research study to better understand the experience of meetup participants attending cultural events in London. In particular, I wanted to understand what it is about well-run meetup groups that makes them so successful, what are the problems that organisers face, and how they craft elegant solutions to them.


My first step was to contact three organisers/leaders of established and successful London meetup groups in different domain of culture, each with at least 1000 members. I chose these from the meetup groups I had actively participated in myself, and therefore had established prior cordial personal contact. The group leaders all agreed to meet me (and one another) for a 90 minute group interview in July 2016, where they responded in conversation to a pre-agreed set of questions that tapped their experience and insight as meetup organisers.

Informed by this meeting, and some follow-up email correspondence, I drafted a questionnaire to be sent to the members of these three meetup groups. This questionnaire contained a mixture of quantitative/categorical questions along with more open-ended qualitative questions where respondents could write in their own words. I adhere to the British Psychological Society’s Code of Conduct for Research Ethics, . As recommended by the guidelines, prior to release I consulted an experienced research colleague about the ethical issues that might arise in the research, and made some amendments to the draft in the light of advice received, both from the colleague, and from the three meetup organisers consulted.

During September - November 2016 the three organisers used the interface to email all their members, inviting participation in the research, and providing them with a link to a website where they could complete the questionnaire online in confidence and, if so chosen, anonymously. I used the SurveyMonkey software, which has an excellent track record in relation to privacy and security of data

Responses were downloaded from the software in early December 2016 for analysis.


1 The questionnaire respondents

The invitation to complete the questionnaire was mailed to some 12,000 individuals, being the combined registered members of the three meetup groups whose leaders I met (with respectively 7000, 3000 and 2000 members - rounded to the nearest 1000). 80 responses were received, which represents a 0.66% response rate. It was noticeable that the majority of responses were completed within 24 hours of the invitation being sent, suggesting that recipients either responded as soon as they read the email or not at all.

The age spread of respondents was broad, but there were few respondents under 25 or over 65. There was no noticeable “peak” in any particular age band. Genders were equally represented (48% female, 52% male). Two-thirds of respondents identified as single (including divorced). 58% had British nationality, with the great majority of the remainder (31%) having nationality of a European Union member country other than Britain. 85% of respondents had lived in London for at least 3 years at time of responding.

Respondents covered a broad range of experience with 23% had been a meetup member for 5 or more years. 63% had been involved for between 1 and 5 years. 14% had joined meetup within the last year.

42% of respondents were members of between one and five groups, with 27% reporting membership of more than ten groups. The majority (63%) had attended a few of their meetup groups in the last year. Only 11% had attended most or all of their groups recently. 47% had organised/hosted at least one event within a meetup group of which they were a member.

These data paint the picture of a typical responder being a single British citizen in the middle years of life, having lived in London for some years, and being an occasional attender and hoster at several meetup groups.

a. How and why responders joined meetup

An early question was “Why did you join meetup in the first place?”. Responses clustered in five broad categories. The most frequent (46%) was to socialise, meet like minded people, make new friends.

e.g. “Thought I'd have an interesting time and meet people that I would enjoy talking to and being with and maybe make some good friends.” (M 26-35)

The next category was to pursue a specific activity in the company of others (24%):

e.g. “Because I wanted to see more jazz gigs and didn't want to go on my own”. (F 46-55)

Next came changed circumstances of some sort (15%), including recently having moved to London, but also changes in personal life:

e.g. No family in the UK, came out of a relationship and friends' and my interests diverged. (F 36-45)

Next came recommendation from friend or colleague (10%).

e.g. “I used to go to things on my own, and randomly got chatting to a stranger at one of them. I was telling someone at work how nice that was, and she recommended Meetup to me” (F 36-45)

Finally, a few (6%) joined for professional reasons, or in order to organise or promote an activity.

E.g. To improve the attendance to the gigs I organise. (F 46-55)

It is clear from these responses that many meetup members see the meeting activity, whether cultural or otherwise, as an effective means to an end, the end being expanding their social network, in some cases precipitated by a change in circumstance, such as a move, or a relationship finishing. A sizeable minority had very specific activities in mind, but even then some respondents expanded beyond the activity that originally brought them to meetup.

(b) How responders experienced meetup

One question asked respondents to rate their recent meetup experience on a four point scale. (not at all, partly, mainly, wholly positive). 41% chose “wholly positive”, and 48% chose “mainly positive”. These are therefore mainly respondents who have enjoyed being in meetup.

This positivity was reflected in future intentions. 97.5% of the respondents intended to go to future meetups in the next year, with 57% saying they would go to a lot.

Their perceptions of meetup were explored in more detail through three open-ended questions. First they were asked what things made a recent meetup a positive experience. Responses fell into three main categories, the people, the activity, and the organisation of the event. Several respondents mentioned more than one of these in their answer.

e.g. “People from different backgrounds, very different things you can do, someone else organises for me and I only have to show up, I would never have known about half of these things or done them on my own. In summary, it's like having a huge circle of friends but without the drama.” (F 36-45)

When people were focused on in the answer some respondents concentrated on the atmosphere or quality of behaviour at the event itself

“Friendly people at the meet who talked to others, whether they knew them or not.” (F 36-45)

Others mentioned the longer-term consequences

e.g. “Made some great friends, through one of whom I had some life-changing experiences.” (M 26-35)

When the activity was focused on, this almost always implicated the organiser, in that it was the choice of event that made the difference:

e.g. “The activity itself - it delivered what I had hoped it would deliver in terms of content.” (F 46-55)

The link between activity and organiser was often made explicit within the same comment:

e.g. “good choice of outing/ culture- good facilitator/host who is friendly and makes others feel welcome” (F 66-75)

What is also very clear is that, for many respondents, the communal nature of the activity is key - being able to enjoy not only the cultural offering, but other people’s reactions to it and characteristics they bring to the event.

e.g. “As well as the event itself being interesting, it was perfectly organised, and we had the most terrific time in the pub afterwards, with great conversation”. (F 36-45)

When the organisation/organiser was mentioned, this tended to reflect either the competence and efficiency of the arrangements, or the personal qualities that the organiser/host bought to the meetup:

e.g. “Friendly hosts who made sure the members knew the exact details of where to meet, provided their telephone number in case of problems, and greeted members, introducing them to other members.” (F 36-45)

The second open-ended question asked respondents to mention some of the things which had made a recent meetup not so positive.

A few did not respond, or were explicit that they could not identify problems

e.g. This has never happened always been a positive experience with much joy” (M 36-45)

“all the meetups I attended were positive” (F 36-45)

Poor organisation of the event was identified as a frequent cause of problems, which again highlights the central importance of the event organiser to success.

“e.g. It's a little while ago, but I had arranged to join a Meetup group at an event. I wasn't familiar with the venue, and didn't know anyone I'd be meeting. We were to meet after the event, but I ended up waiting in the wrong place. I didn't have anyone's contact details, so left a message on the event page to say I couldn't see anyone. I never got a response. When someone subsequently remarked on the event page that he couldn't find them either, and I agreed, the organiser left quite a curt message to say that she'd posted the details for meeting. Turned out they hadn't even ended up in the pub they'd meant to go to, because it was too crowded, so they chose another. How anyone was supposed to find them then is a mystery.. some organisers just don't care, and I don't know why they bother.” (F 36-45).

“An organiser who is not clear about what will happen or doesn’t make the effort to get people involved. Badly prepared organiser ( e.g. I was on a hike where the organiser didn't know the route and also wouldn’t listen to people who did)” (F 46-55)

Organiser motives (or perceived motives) are also important. There is a particular dislike of organisers who are using meetup to further their professional careers or make money:

E.g. “You rarely see the same people twice made worse by the constantly 'churning' population in London.This is common throughout Meetup. Meetup is also used extensively by people trying to run quasi-commercial activities or promoting themselves. These people really have no interest in the social side of meetup - you are just another body to them and meetup is their main marketing channel.” (M age not given)

The behaviour of other attenders at a meetup was also a focus of dissatisfaction, usually as a result of lack of courtesy or consideration:

E.g. “Groups that tend to be a bit over-dominating (dare I say it the Guardian reading / anti-Tory / anti-Brexit / angry types!) and force their view on the rest (such as talk about their political views throughout a lovely walk).” (M 36-45)

“I have sometimes found meetups to trigger my social anxiety. I have felt excluded from cliques, and this made me feel unwanted and left early.” (M 26-35)

In the context of a broad level of satisfaction with meetup, the problems identified can be classified as incidental to meetup as a concept, rather than due to an inherent flaw in the concept or the way it is able to be executed. These problems are thus generally resolvable by means other than leaving meetup altogether - for instance by avoiding certain groups, certain organisers etc. Thus, to a certain extent, these issues should be self correcting. Poorly run groups, and ill-equipped organisers, will not be able to attract and retain a viable membership. Well-run groups should thrive.

(c) What advice would respondents give organisers

Accordingly, the third question asked of respondents was: “If you were able to offer one piece of general advice to a Meetup organiser, or to the Meetup organisation as a whole, what would it be?”.

Several respondents said they couldn’t think of any advice they’d like to give, and that organisers were doing a good job. Quite a number of responses reinforced the necessity of event organisers being efficient and informative, and ensuring that attenders were able to engage with each other, particularly after the event, if the event itself required minimal interaction.

Many of the comments focused on the issue of “rules and restrictions”. They highlight the balancing act that a good organiser needs to execute. On the one hand, these are social events, where people want to relax and have a fun time. That suggests informality. On the other hand, they need to be efficiently organised, clear, safe, and respectful of all. That suggests a certain formality.

These two opposite directions are sometimes included in the same comment, which reflects an appreciation of this tension:

“Don't try to organise to hard. Every Meeting has its own dynamic so, wherever possible allow that to flow. I think it's more positive and participants will feel ownership. However don't be afraid to intervene if the meeting is dragging or there are people who seem to be feeling excluded ie those who are on their own. It is always a good idea to have a fallback strategy so that when people leave they feel as if they have got something out of the event, otherwise you may well not see them again. “ (M 66-75)

Specific actions or attributes of the meeting organiser in making a meetup a success runs through almost all the comments”

“The organizer needs to have a photograph on their profile. They need to be at the event slightly earlier than anyone else and have a sign. If they don't like that, perhaps send a post saying what they are wearing” (F 56-65)

“Although they are largely volunteers organisers need to have a genuine interest in people having a good time and the event being well run.” (F 46-55)

2. The Meetup Organisers

There is a lot that goes into making a successful meetup group. Accordingly the characteristics and skills of a meetup organiser are key. My conversations with the three group organisers revealed a shared understanding that a successful meetup leader needs to in many respects be a “benign dictator” with very clear rules and expectations both for the attenders at events, and also for the people who organise individual meetings (in those cases where the group is too large for the overall organiser to be at every event him or herself.

Individual meeting organisers tend to be drawn from the more enthusiastic and committed meetup members who return to many events, get to know each other as friends, and thus form a “core” membership. What seems critical is that this group of individual meeting organisers (which can be as large as 50 or 60 in the more successful groups) operate according to a consistent standard, which is laid down by the meetup leader - in some cases as a clear and strict set of guidelines for how to advertise and run an event.

Not everyone responds positively to the particular set of rules that a given meetup group operates under. One of the group organisers said

“I encourage people with different ideas to start their own meetups. Some people are super-friendly but really want to do something else. You need to say “this is the way it is going to be”.”

Organisers sometimes need to stand their ground on issues of principle.

One organiser said “we are a closed group, I accept every new member. Members have to provide a clear face picture - this is necessary to be able to recommend. Some people object, and I have had a lot of trolling for this. We are not an anonymous group - you have to see other people’s pictures.”

Such holding the ground is particularly important where individual attenders engage in behaviour which upsets or threatens other attenders.

One organiser noted that ““Pick-up artists” exploit meetup groups to pick up women. I wrote about it and then they disappeared. You have to put something on the forum to show that you will not tolerate it. Because lots of new members join every year, you have to keep writing again. It was a shock that went round the club, I had to ask organisers to look out for it.”

Despite the problems that meetup organisers need to solve, successful organisers appear to really enjoy the role of organiser, and gain significant personal fulfilment. One organiser said:

“It changed my life. I met like-minded people and formed friendships. I sometimes feel like royalty - meeting group members on train platforms - getting credit for the work - it’s very satisyfing. As a result of my strong links with like minded people my quality of life has improved.”

Another said “I wanted to create a meetup that I’d like to go to. If it works for me it will probably work for other people. It gives me a lot back: three or four of my closest friends were met through Meetup, as well as a lot of casual acquaintances. It filled a gap for me. I am not great at talking to people casually.

These comments suggest that meetup works best when the organiser gets from his or her group the same kind of social and personal benefits as the people who come into their group. I did not meet any organisers who run their meetup groups to further their professional or business interests. Although there is nothing about meetup which stops such groups existing, the people in my sample strongly disapproved of groups set up for the professional or financial benefit of the organiser, and were much more in favour of an egalitarian regime where everyone from the leader down to the newest member gets the same thing out of a meetup, which is cordial and welcoming human contact in the context of going together to an interesting activity.

As one organiser said,”London can be a very lonely place. I’ve heard many people say “what did we do before meetup?”!

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS is a platform that allows many thousands of people in localities to connect with each other and the activities that they enjoy, in a non-threatening and open face-to-face context.

My investigation of a sample of London meetups, their organisers and their attenders, shows that when people are introduced to each other at an event by someone who takes the role of “introducer”, they typically get into productive and rewarding conversations which can enhance their enjoyment of the evening as a minimum, and at a maximum lead to longlasting, even life-changing, friendships.

Contemporary commentators such as Robert Puttnam (2000) have noted with alarm how modern life is associated with a rapid decline in social capital as time-honoured means of bringing people together in communities collapse.

Loneliness and social isolation can intensified by the internet and home-based media, such that people don’t anymore know others in the streets and neighbourhoods around them, nor do they have the skills and means to reach out to them. Mega-cities like London intensify these problems, and not only for new arrivals. Changes such as the breakup of a relationship or the death of a partner can suddenly thrust well-established residents into social isolation.

Meetup is a tool for increasing relevant social contacts which is completely open as regards the type of activity around which people coalesce. It thus means that the range of meetup groups is only limited by the imagination and energy of those setting up groups.

The successful groups are the ones where the ground rules are clear, people are made to feel welcome, and the organiser has no “axe to grind” beyond enhancing their own enjoyment of an event through making it better for others too.

This has implications for how providers of cultural experiences such as classical concerts make use of the meetup experience. If your main aim in bringing people together is to enhance your business and your income stream, then you may experience suspicion and resistance. The most authentic leaders of groups of cultural attenders are the consumers of the product rather than the providers. The key question for classical concert organisers is thus whether they can encourage and support such “group facilitators from the audience” without making them seen as primarily “ticket agents” devoted to increasing the revenue of the commercial organisation putting on the event - but rather being experienced as social entrepreneurs acting primarily in the interests of the other audience members they recruit.


Dobson, M.C. (2010). New audiences for classical music: The experiences of non‐attenders at live orchestral concerts. Journal of New Music Research, Special Issue: Understanding Audience Experience, 39(2), 111-­124. Heiferman, S. (2009). The Pursuit of Community. The New York Times. (accessed on 30 Dec 2016)

Robert Puttnam (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon & Schuster)

Sloboda, J.A. (2013) Musicians and their live audiences: dilemmas and opportunities. Understanding Audiences Working Paper 3, Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

Sloboda, J.A. & Ford, B. (2012) What classical musicians can learn from other arts about building audiences. Understanding Audiences Working Paper 2, Guildhall School of Music & Drama.



GOING TO THINGS TOGETHER MAKES EVENTS BETTER, MAKES LIVES BETTER – NEW RESEARCH ON MEETUP.COM is an international social application that puts people with common interests in touch with one another so that they can attend events together and socialise around the event.

A recent detailed survey conducted by psychologist John Sloboda, completed by meetup members living and working in London, confirms the high value that going together to cultural events (such as concerts, talks, films) brings to many people.

The survey shows that many people see going together to a cultural event as an effective means to an end, the end being expanding their social network, in some cases precipitated by a change in circumstance, such as a move, or a relationship finishing.

But joint attendance also enhances enjoyment of the cultural event itself, providing opportunities to share experience and reactions with a congenial group of people, and informing people about events that they might not otherwise have heard about.

The survey shows that the most valued meetups are those organised carefully and sensitively, with organisers who take pains to make everyone feel welcome, and who have provided clear advance information about where and how people can connect with the other members of the group. The best organisers are volunteers who have a genuine interest in people (including themselves) having a good time and in ensuring that everything runs smoothly. Meetups organised for personal profit or professional gain are less appreciated.

Many meetup attenders belong to several different meetup groups, attend meetups regularly, and gain high satisfaction from doing so.

The findings suggest that self-organising groups of “cultural consumers” are a force for social and cultural good, particularly in big cities, where loneliness and alienation are common experiences. Meetup usually improves the going out experience, and can be socially transformative for some of its members. The lessons of meetup deserve to be more widely shared and used in the cultural sector.

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Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Sun, September 25, 2016 11:44:45

Yesterday I had the privilege to take part as a singer in the London premiere of Andrew Wilson-Dickson’s multi-faith oratorio “Karuna”. This was its second performance. The first performance was in 2014 at the Royal Welsh School of Music & Drama in Cardiff, conducted by the composer. This time, the Welsh Camerata, who played at its first performance, was joined by the London-based Choir of the 21st Century, with which I sing, and was conducted by its musical director, Howard Williams, at the church of St John’s Waterloo, a regular “fringe” venue for classical music in London. The composer is a gifted musician and brings a truly individual voice. The performance was of a high standard, with some moments of pure magic.

The work was commissioned by the Welsh Camerata to celebrate their 10th anniversary, which also fell at the time of the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War I. Yesterday’s performance was made possible by a private bequest (and the donation of time and effort by the entirely amateur choir).

A useful review of the first performance tells us:

’At around 80 minutes long, the work is an ardent and sometimes fierce call for compassion – the broad meaning of the Sanskrit title – in a world rife with injustice and atrocities of all kinds. Wilson-Dickson explores the nature of compassion as a simple, human response to others’ adversity, but also draws on the word’s Buddhist sense as a rigorous path of non-selfish devotion to the alleviation of suffering in all its forms. He dedicated the world premiere to those working in charities, hospitals, foodbanks and battlefronts everywhere without whom, and without ‘those who are moved to gestures of compassion, there would indeed be no hope. The piece bears an affinity in both sentiment and structure with Britten’s War Requiem and especially Tippett’s oratorios, A Child of our Time and The Mask of Time; landmarks of a British pacifist musical tradition, if you will, to which Wilson-Dickson has now added his own, impassioned voice’”

The texts set include those which describe, sometimes in graphic and brutal terms, the experiences of refugees the world over during the past century. And the call is, in the words of one of the texts:

“To widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, the whole of nature in its beauty” (Albert Einstein, letter of February 1950 to a friend who lost his son to polio)

The topic of the texts could not be of more contemporary social relevance, and the call could not be more pressing and timely.

I was moved by being part of this performance, and the aesthetic and emotional impact of both words and music was strong. But as a social activist, and someone particularly interested in how the arts, including music, can be a resource for social change, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied, and asking questions.

Was the aim of the composer, and the promoters of the work and its performances, to contribute to social change? Or was the social element secondary to the musical? And in either case how is it that the performances of a musical composition can or might be explicitly and strategically designed to maximise the likely contribution to social change?

These questions have been central in my mind for some years, as I have observed a plethora of musical initiatives which have explicitly been portrayed by their progenitors as a direct response to a social problem (such as war) and a contribution to the solution of that problem. Passionate and devoted musicians have gone all over the world, including into some of the most dangerous parts of it, in order to do music for or with affected populations. Musicians are supported by governments and social agencies to go into prisons, hospitals, elderly care homes, areas of social deprivation, and many other contexts, to bring music and musical activities to positively impact on the condition of the people they interact with. They have a strong belief that through music, social ills can be addressed, healing encouraged, and hope engendered.

Worthy aims indeed! But when professing such aims, it makes it very important to be critically observant of the conditions under which such interventions bring measurable benefits, and those in which they don’t. It cannot be assumed that passion and devotion, coupled with a high degree of musical skill, will necessarily bring change, just because the musicians concerned want it to, as Arild Bergh and myself have argued in a review article (see:

In a recent commentary in the Oxford Handbook for Social Justice in Music Education(1), I challenged musicians in this field to be clear about their priorities. If their priority is social change, then I argued that they need to assess whether musical activity is the best means to promote that change - and if it is not (which in many cases it may not be), gracefully withdraw and leave the field to others with better tools.

To put it another way, musicians, like anyone else must avoid the false logic of:

Something must be done

This is something

Therefore we must do this

This is the flawed premise of so much misguided activity on the international stage!

As a response to growing international interest in, and financial investment in music projects as a tool for social change, a new international research initiative has recently been founded centred at the University of Ghent in Belgium. This initiative is the “Centre for Social Impact of Music Making (SIMM), and I am very pleased to be involved with it, both personally, but also through the Guildhall School of Music & Drama where I work. The SIMM Centre is precisely concerned with building up the critical scholarly evidence base for effective musical interventions - and I look forwards to it shedding powerful light on these debates.

At the Guildhall School I also work on issues concerned with classical music and its contemporary audiences. In this context I have had many interesting and impassioned discussions with both composers of contemporary classical music, and people who go to their concerts. Attracting audiences to contemporary music is a very live issue, as well as the larger question of how new compositions gain impact within the broader society.

Last night’s concert highlighted some of these issues. The audience was modest in size, almost entirely white, and middle class, predominantly middle aged (as were the performers). Many (if not most) of the people there were friends and relatives of the composer and the performers, and no doubt already highly in tune with the sentiments expressed in the libretto. Indeed, some performers, including myself, were drawn to take part because of our sympathy with those sentiments. No recording exists of the work. Prospects for its further performance (given its difficulty and the cost of putting it on) are small. Prospects for its ability to reach constituencies whose “hearts and minds” might need changing, are vanishingly small. And, even if, magically, one could find an audience of “the resistent” and persuade them into the concert hall - would the conditions for substantial “change of heart” be met by a spirited performance of this particular work? It’s hard to be certain.

Of course composers and musicians are free to draw inspiration for their work from any source, musical or non-musical. But in doing so, it is very important not to make claims, or allow claims to be made on their behalf, that in drawing on such sources their work thereby becomes an instrument for the change that they hope for. The attendant publicity (including the programme note) was careful not to claim too much for the music. And yet, simply placing the social phenomenon of the refugee crisis at the centre of the discourse makes it hard to avoid drawing the implication that an effect on that crisis was hoped for, even intended.

Have newly commissioned compositions had social impact on a large scale? Yes - sometimes. I am old enough to recall the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in 1963. This was commissioned for the re-opening of the new Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt on the rubble of the former building destroyed by Geman bombs in the 2nd World War. Britten was, at that stage in his career, effectively the “national composer” of the UK, with a stellar international reputation, despite (or perhaps partly because of) his publicly avowed pacifism. The premiere was an act of national reconciliation, which involved senior figures of the UK and German Governments. It had a huge amount of national press and media coverage. The work quickly received performances all over the world, and a landmark recording was quickly made which rapidly became a treasured possession of millions. As a teenager at the height of the Cold War, this piece beamed into my suburban living room a vision quite different to the prevalent political discourse. The work has remained a staple of the performance repertoire to this day, and continues to unite audiences all over the world in the painful contemplation of the horrors of war.

Recordings matter (so that large numbers of those not present in the room can experience a work). High profile cultural and political contexts for new work (such as a major national architectural or reconstruction project) matter, to inject a sense of broader relevance. Today, media, especially social media, matter. And of course, particularly in a contemporary multi-ethnic context, far from the Britain of 1963, location and audience constitution matter intensely. Karuna may well have the musical and textual power to have influence. But without co-ordinated strategic attention to all these features, by people focused not only on the artistic impact, but on the social and political impact, then worthy projects like Karuna remain destined to inhabit the fringes of our national life. That’s a shame, but it is the present reality.

What to do about it? I have no detailed answers. But I am very interested in the conversation continuing.


(1) Sloboda, J. A. (2015) Can music teaching be a powerful tool for social justice? In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, and P. Woodford (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp 539-547.

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London Friends of Music Fund - Events for Spring and Summer 2015

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Fri, March 06, 2015 06:07:57

Greetings to Music Fund friends and supporters, old and new!

We’re delighted to announce several exciting events in the UK to build support and contribute to the work of Music Fund. There are two special fund-raising concerts:

* A Chamber Concert by the Conchord Ensemble. Friday 17th April
* A Choral Concert by the City Chamber Choir. Tuesday 12th May

See below for full details. Please come and bring your friends and family. We look forward to seeing you there!

We are also very pleased to inform you about two other forthcoming events.

* a BBC TV documentary on the work of Music Fund in Gaza (on air from 26 March) including a special story about a piano…..BBC plans a broadcast on BBC World, also to be shown on the BBC News Channel in the UK, a radio documentary for BBC World Service (on 26 March), and an online feature on the BBC website as from 27 March. We will try to give more detail in due course.

* a Musical Instrument “Amnesty” at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Saturday 6th June. Do check if you are harbouring an unused musical instrument - jazz or classical! .This will be a first collection of musical instruments for Music Fund in the UK. (More details in due course). Note that Ronnie Scott’s is also planning to give jazz and improvisation workshops for Music Fund, starting in Ramallah in August.

Keep in touch with Music Fund on
Email us at the London Group .
Tell your friends and help to grow the number of UK supporters of Music Fund.


Chamber Concert by the London Conchord Ensemble. Friday 17th April, 2015. 22 Mansfield Street, London W1G 9NR. £25 including drinks and canapes.

We are delighted that Elisabeth and Bob Boas will devote one in their celebrated series of charity concerts to Music Fund. Artists all give their services free of charge. These concerts, held in their splendid Marylebone home, supplemented by food and drink, and surrounded by beautiful art, keep alive a vibrant tradition of informal salon music by showcasing the best of chamber music talent on the London scene.

7.00 pm Welcome drinks
7.30 pm Concert
Duruflé - Prelude, Recitative and Variations, for flute, viola & piano, Op. 3
Loeffler - Rhapsody for Oboe, Viola and Piano
Faure - Piano Quartet
9.00 pm Drinks and canapés after the concert, and an opportunity to mingle with the performers

Julian Milford (piano), Emily Pailthorpe (oboe), Daniel Pailthorpe (flute), Daniel Rowland (violin), Rachel Roberts (viola), Thomas Carroll (cello).

Recognised as a leading chamber ensemble, Conchord was founded by principal players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Opera House and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and has won over audiences with its fresh, communicative style. It has recently celebrated its 10th Anniversary. See

It is essential to book in advance by email to mentioning that you come recommended via “Friends of Music Fund”. If you do not have email then phone 020 7436 0344 or write to 22 Mansfield Street, London W1G 9NR


Choral concert by the City Chamber Choir and City String Ensemble. St Paul’s Church Covent Garden (The Actors’ Church), Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ED. Tuesday 12th May 2015, 7.30 pm. £15

Handel - Dixit Dominus. Cantata for choir, soloists and chamber orchestra.
Handel - Nisi Dominus. Cantata for choir soloists and chamber orchestra.
Handel - Concerto Grosso Op 6 no 7

Conductor: Stephen Jones. Katherine Boyce, Rosemary Zolynski (Sopranos), Tim Morgan (counter-tenor), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Nick Morton (bass).

An evening of master works from the beginning and end of Handel’s extraordinary career. The City Chamber Choir was founded in 1987 by its musical director Stephen Jones. Performing to professional standards, this amateur unpaid choir has won many accolades for its music-making, including reaching the semi-finals of the Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition. A recent review in the Church Times said: “A whole evening of unaccompanied music of considerable complexity was delivered with panache and elegance.”

50% of the proceeds from all tickets prepaid through the following web link will go to Music Fund.
Tickets bought on the door will NOT benefit Music Fund. However, there will be a retiring collection totally in aid of Music Fund. The concert will also be an opportunity to meet Music Fund founder Lukas Pairon. Wine and soft drinks are on sale in the interval.


About Music Fund and the London Friends Group

Music Fund ( ) supports young musicians and music schools in impoverished countries and areas of conflict, believing music can enrich lives and contribute to the cultural development of local communities. Music Fund collects musical instruments in Europe, repairing and then delivering them to music schools in countries such as Mozambique, DRC, Morocco, Palestine and Haiti. It trains local musicians in instrument repair and maintenance. In UNWRA schools in Gaza, it also supports a role for music in general education.

Music Fund is based in Brussels with a London Group of Friends and many partners across Europe.

Music Fund’s London group was inaugurated in late 2013 with a launch meeting at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It is building active partnerships with other organisations, including the Angel Orchestra, the string auction house Amati, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, and El Sistema UK. It has an active steering group,involving both musicians and professionals from a range of walks of life, who are always looking for new enthusiastic and energetic people to join them. The group’s current chair John Sloboda ( would be delighted to hear from you if you are interested in helping the group practically.

To be kept in touch more generally with the activities and events of the London Group, please email and check out the facebook page at .

Donations to Music Fund may be made at any time by bank transfer to “Friends of Music Fund (London)” Triodos Bank, account number 20488459, sort code 16 58 10

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The Peckham Multi-story car park project: a new model for classical music audience engagement

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Sun, July 27, 2014 11:38:52

Last night I attended a brilliant performance of Shostakovich’s cello concerto played on the upper floors of the main car-park in Peckham town centre, South London. Matthew Barley was the soloist, and the conductor Christopher Stark drew passionate and committed playing from his young professional players.

Putting on classical music in unconventional venues is not a new idea. My first experience of this was 15 years ago, when Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company started staging major operas in disused factories, redundant aircraft hangers and the like. It was a revelation, not least because the audience became participants in the drama, moving around the set, and adopting semi-theatricalised roles at different points. I still vividly recall the revelatory impact of these productions.

Since then, taking classical music to buildings not customarily used for this purpose, has become commonplace, and – in the eyes of some – almost a cliché.

As in any other area of artistic endeavour, non-traditional venue work can be good, mediocre or bad. There is still much to discover about how “going outside the concert hall” can encourage or facilitate new and productive forms of audience engagement. The work only becomes clichéd when it unthinkingly repeats a formula without care and attention to the artistic and contextual opportunities that a specific combination of work, artist, place, and audience afford.

On those grounds, the Multi-Story project, conceived and directed by Composer Kate Whitley and conductor Christopher Stark, must be recognised as a very significant contribution to this field.

Before identifying the really innovative elements which justify this judgment, I’ll just mention some features which, while important elements in the overall experience, are more standard in this emerging field.

There is a set of choices that concert promoters can make which are more likely to attract a predominantly young audience. I would estimate that the average age of last night’s 1000-strong sell-out audience was no more than 30. As someone over 60, I was in a tiny minority.

Peckham is fast becoming a trendy mecca for the social and professional life of the culture-rich but money-poor under-30s, with some of the edgy vibrancy that characterized Shoreditch and Hackney before gentrification took hold. A whole range of cultural and artistic enterprises are springing up in the disused factories and warehouses, not least the now iconic Bussey Building which faces the Peckham Car Park across the railway lines. These rails carry the newly-enhanced circular Overground Line which allows experience-seekers from all around London’s inner suburbs to disgorge from its sleek air-conditioned carriages in their thousands into Rye Lane. Multi-story is less than a 5 minute walk from Peckham Rye Station – a very important consideration for the traveler to this hitherto “out of the way” and “exotic” (even threatening) location.

Almost every warehouse and alley nearby now seems to have a pop up (often outdoor) bar, packed to the gills with a young white middle-class constituency for whom alcohol seems to be the stimulus to and accompaniment for the kind of animated but relaxed conversation that has long characterized gatherings of young adults in the bars and cafes of Paris, Berlin, and Milan – and very far from the more aggressive and carnal encounters that alcohol tends to be associated with in town centres around the UK. [An analysis of how this influx is affecting or impacting on the predominantly black indigenous population of the area, while important, is beyond my scope. These locals were not in evidence at the concert!].

In other words, Multi-Story is tapping into exactly the same young educated and eclectic demographic that already flocks to such offerings as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s (OAE) “Night Shift”.

And Multi-Story replicates some of the tried and tested features of the OAE experience. People are free to wander in and out of the space, check their mobiles, talk quietly to their neighbours, buy alcohol (from bars that stay open doing business throughout the performance). There are no reserved seats, and people sit or stand where they choose. So far, so standard.

What Multi-Story brings, which is new (at least to me), is an educational element that is fun, interactive, and very appropriately enhancing to the performance itself.

For around 40 minutes before the main performance began, groups of the players spread themselves over 5 or 6 different locations, and each offered a mini-tutorial on some element of the music, its performance, and its social and historical background. Each tutorial lasted about 5 minutes, and was repeated at regular intervals, so you could pick up four or five of them in the time available.

Each tutorial was a semi-scripted opportunity for audience engagement, entirely choreographed and delivered by the players themselves, each of whom stepped forward and engagingly spoke, played, invited questions, and – in one case – invited audience members to come forward and conduct them for a minute or so.

In this way there was no “invited expert” pontificating on the music, but a narrative which was woven out of the perceptions and enthusiasms of all of the 70 or so young performers. By the end of the tutorial period, I felt I knew, and had connected to, more than half of the orchestra as individuals, and had learned quite a lot I didn’t know about the music, about Shostakovich, and about the Stalinist context in Soviet Russia in which he had to work.

I took the opportunity to speak to one of the groups of performers, inbetween two repeats of their “show”. I learned that all the performers were either conservatoire students, or recent graduates from them. They told me that they had been given a broad area around which to devise their tutorial, but had then been given an hour during rehearsals to go away together and work out the precise script, and who would do what.

This worked brilliantly well, so that by the time we all assembled in one part of the venue for the actual performance, we all had key themes and moments buzzing round our heads, and so the sense was of meeting fully a person to whom we had already been briefly introduced.

It would be really great to be able to find out a bit more about the experience of this young audience, and how, and to what extent, their engagement with the players last night might have helped create lasting and committed enthusiasm for classical music in all its various presentations both live and recorded. How many of last night’s audience will be hunting out performances of this piece on Spotify or Youtube? How many will hunt out other performances by Matthew Barley, or by these players? What would make them more likely to do this? These and other related questions are the ones that the classical music profession needs urgent answers to. Building committed younger audiences for classical music is the only way to ensure its future survival. And for that we need a deeper and fuller understanding of what motivates these young adults, and what works to secure their lasting commitment (both in time and money) to the art form.

That’s one of the reasons why I am delighted that the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (where I work) has invested in a long-term programme of experimentation and investigation on the very issue of “Understanding Audiences”, in collaboration with a number of forward thinking artistic and academic partners. Visiting Peckham last night has reminded me again of why this work matters!

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Simon Bolivar Choir at the RFH: Redeemed at the Last Moment

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Sun, April 06, 2014 15:28:27

Is it a good concert experience when the event really only catches alight in the encores? That was exactly my experience at London’s Royal Festival Hall last night when the Simon Bolivar National Youth Choir gave a concert as part of two concurrent festivals, the “Pull Out the Stops” festival celebrating the restoration of the hall’s magnificent 8,000 pipe organ, and the “Chorus” festival “celebrating the power of singing together” and involving participatory workshops running over a week.

The conjunction of these two festivals could possible explain a rather unusual, even bizarre, piece of programme planning which involved no less than three full settings of the Roman Catholic Mass sung consecutively, each for full choir and organ accompaniment. The rarely heard Requiem Mass setting by Venezualen composer Juan Batista Plaza was followed by settings of the Missa Brevis by Britten and Kodaly, with Mendelssohn’s “O for the Wings of a Dove” based on Psalm 55 thrown in for good measure.

This is a group of 100 magnificent full-throated voices, yet I got the experience of struggle, as if they were trying to inhabit an ill-fitting suit. Part of it might simply have been under-rehearsal. The choir is on a UK tour with a punishing schedule, and involving other concerts which don’t include these particular works. There were a few ragged moments in the ensemble, and signs of vocal exhaustion, particularly from some of the soloists drawn from within the choir. Part of it also might have been the Royal Festival Hall’s notoriously punishing and clinical acoustic. I have sung on that stage several times and it is – to say the least - a challenging vocal experience. The hall offers no warmth or resonance to a singer at all, and one can feel exposed, unsupported, and “out on a limb”. In that context the frequent application by the choir’s director of a detached “portamento” approach, which in a more generous acoustic might have come across as highlighting the articulation and the line, came across as ugly and unmusical.

But deeper than these specifics was a strong sense I got that much of this music was simply not “in the bones” of these singers, that they were struggling to inhabit a musical world which was not familiar to them and didn’t allow them to shine. There was a huge amount of tension manifest, which resulted in a stiff and unyielding effect, both aurally and visually. Director Lourdes Sanchez seemed ill-at-ease and offered very few expressive cues for her singers, concentrating on large and somewhat inflexible beats, as if she was worried that without this the performance would go adrift. This reflected itself in the singers’ demeanour. Many of them simply looked (and sounded) worried for much of the time.

Thank goodness that the sympathetic audience gave enough support to encourage four short encores – which I didn’t recognize but seemed drawn more from an Latin American folk ambience. For me, the real concert began then. It was as if shackles had dropped, and everyone became themselves. The organ was switched off, a female choir member stepped from the ranks, sat down on a stool, and played a guitar accompaniment with direct effectiveness. Sheet music was set aside and the pieces were sung from memory. Choir members smiled – made eye contact with the audience and each other, and began to fully inhabit their bodies. For the last two numbers Ms Sanchez stopped conducting, joined the front row of the sopranos, and sang along with them, looking happy and relaxed. Ensemble difficulties melted away (even in complex poly-rhythmic sections sung without a conductor), and voices became mellifluous and seductive. The audience responded in kind, with whoops and cheers, and people getting up out of their seats, and in those last 20 minutes the hall “rocked”. That was - at last - live choral music making at its best.

This choir is one of the many manifestations of the vast El Sistema empire that has received huge international attention and support for its groundbreaking work with the disadvantaged youth of Venezuala, now being replicated in “franchised” projects around the world. This choir is the pinnacle of a complex multi-levelled pyramid of local youth choirs around the country, with last night’s choristers having been selected as being the best of the best, city by city, and having being supported into burgeoning careers as young music professionals. What El Sistema has achieved in transforming the lives of thousands of young people is uncontestable. However, whatever the personal background, and however deep the early disadvantage, when a choir of experienced young adult performers (and I estimated ages being from 18 to late 30s) show up on the stage of London’s premier symphony hall to perform pieces from the mainstream European classical repertoire, they have to be judged by what they bring on the day – and judged in comparison with who else might have been heard on that very stage performing those very works.

It’s pretty hard to bring something special or distinctive to either Britten or Mendelssohn choral music in a country and continent that majors on both. The performances we heard last night were competent but unremarkable. Many British and European choirs could have done as well or better. What could not have been approached by most English choirs, however, was the spirit of solidarity, warmth, even passion, which shone out from this choir when allowed, finally, to be itself in the music which it has taken to its collective heart.

London’s South Bank shares with El Sistema many characteristics. They are both huge state-invested juggernauts, with an incredibly complex mix of public and private stakeholders, patrons, and multi-dimensional economic, political and artistic priorities and expectations. They are both no doubt hugely over-committed and over-invested. The sheer variety of events and initiatives that involve the South Bank, even in a single month, is dizzying and overwhelming. And lots of what they try is innovative, experimental, out-on-a-limb, magnificent. And bravo to them for that. Any adventurous and experimental organisation will have successes and failures, a mixture of the fabulous and the unmemorable. Ditto for El Sistema.

But it is still sad to see a situation which apparently sets up a world-class choir to be less than world-class by shoehorning it into the demands of programming priorities which seemed more to do with allowing the hall to show off its undoubtedly magnificent organ rather than being designed to reflect the nature of this remarkable choir, or reflect the interests and expectations of those who booked to attend, drawn mainly I would imagine – as I was - by the allure and reputation of the Simon Bolivar brand, as exemplified through the stunning and world-class achievements of the Orchestra of the same name under its director Gustavo Dudamel. I had no idea, until I showed up in the room, that there was even going to be organ music at this event.

It was also – to me - a rather sad visual symbol of the cultural contradictions inherent in this concert that the choristers were wearing clothes that represent the most conservative and establishment-oriented portion of the performing arts world: dress suits and white bow ties for the men, black ballroom gowns for the women. This is garb that many contemporary choirs (particularly youth choirs) are finding elegant ways to evolve from or leave behind. It just doesn’t make sense for a choir from a country with its own rich and vibrant culture of dress and body language to attempt, unsuccessfully, to adopt a “frozen in time” European stage persona whose heyday was half a century or more ago. Such decisions become more and more culturally and artistically problematic as the years pass.

I love the European classical music tradition and want it to survive and flourish. But this will only happen when musicians from the contemporary cultures that interact with it are encouraged and enabled to approach it from a secure and authentic grounding in their own artistic and cultural heritage which breathes new and authentic life into it. Sadly, this choir somehow left its musical soul at the door last night, whether at the behest of South Bank artistic management, internal politics within El Sistema, or both. It isn’t easy to know how to be culturally authentic in an age of globalization and post-colonialism. But there is one sure barometer of success, and that is audience reaction and engagement. During the pre-announced programme the character of the audience could be described as polite, cool, and a little "absent". During the un-announced post-concert, we became as involved, engaged, and “fully present” as the singers finally did.

By the simple expedient of changing the frame, the same people in the same room created two very different events; the first being ordinary and the second being remarkable. What an object lesson that is for all of us who think and care about making live music as good as it can be !

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60 years of Spode Music Week – a hidden gem of English Catholic life

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Thu, December 05, 2013 21:11:16

August 2013 saw the 60th Spode Music Week take place, including special celebrations for its Diamond anniversary. Most English Catholics know nothing of this unsung success story. The week has never sought wide publicity, but has just got on quietly with the business of enriching all who have come into its orbit, over more than two generations. It is fitting in its anniversary year that the spotlight falls briefly on it so that those interested can get a sense of who is involved, what happens there, and what the importance of this for the wider church might be.

[Note: an updated and slightly edited version of this article was published in the July 11th 2014 edition of The Catholic Herald, on page 8, under the title "English Catholicism's secret musical treasure"]

In August 2013 around 80 people, mainly lay, ranging in age from 1 to 85, gathered in the Worcestershire countryside for a week of intensive music making, much to a very high standard, with the Catholic liturgy at its heart, but with much secular music in the mix.

Every day of the week, a full sung mass was celebrated, and compline was sung: to different settings almost every day. This anniversary year was particularly graced by two new commissions, an 8-part setting of the Mass by the composer Matthew Martin, and a setting of Panis Angelicus for children’s choir by the composer Alexander L’Estrange.

On the secular side, among other offerings the week saw a spirited staged performance of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (in honour of his centenary), a Prokofiev Symphony, and a medley of light classics including the celebrated Knightsbridge March by Eric Coates, in an arrangement by one of the many talented younger musicians that give their time and energies to the week.

And on top of all this came the multitude of informal and out-of-hours opportunities for chamber music of all sorts, amounting in total to what a former course chaplain, Fr Chris McCurry, once described as “an orgy of music making”, one further enriched by food, wine, and friendship!

What is the secret of Spode Music Week’s success, and what can Catholics learn from this?

The week was in fact the brainchild of the late Conrad Pepler, OP, much loved Warden of Spode House, a Dominican Conference and Retreat Centre in the grounds of Hawkesyard Priory, Staffordshire, sadly long since closed. His behind the scenes manifold self-effacing acts of nurturing, praying for (and probably subsidizing) the week over nearly 30 years up until his retirement in 1981 has proved one of the spiritual wellsprings of the week.

Pepler’s simple but brilliant idea was a daily format which, with one or two minor adjustments, survives today. Rehearsals after breakfast, a mid morning lecture by an invited guest, sung mass at noon, further late afternoon rehearsals, a concert after dinner, and sung compline to end the formal proceedings. Surrounding these daily fixed points an atmosphere has been established which is incredibly informal – more like an extended and somewhat chaotic (but warmhearted) family than a more traditional residential course.

This durable but flexible format has been filled with whatever music has enthused and inspired the dedicated and talented musicians that have led the week’s activities at its different stages. Longest serving musical director (1972-96) was the composer and pianist, the late Robert Sherlaw Johnson. Other distinguished musicians who have had long associations with week include the conductor and harpsichordist the late George Malcolm, CBE, who attended the very first week and was the course’s principal conductor for many years; the opera singer Jeremy White, who has served as Chair of the organizing committee since 1997; the conductor and singer Philip Duffy (former Master of Music at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral); organist and choral director David Bevan; and the early music specialist Dr Mary Remnant, who currently serves as one of three patrons of the week, together with Sir Nicholas Kenyon CBE, Director of the Barbican Arts Centre, and myself.

By the time that the closure of Spode House was rather suddenly announced in 1987, there was such a commitment to the week and to each other from the many attenders who came back year after year, bringing first their friends, their spouses and children, and even – latterly - their grandchildren, that there could be no thought of the course folding (or even changing its name!). Its members decided to seek a new home, committed if necessary to a peripatetic existence to ensure the survival of the course. The course is in fact now in its sixth location, a remarkable testament to the durability and sheer commitment of its members as successive venues have fallen by the wayside.

Whilst the week has always retained (indeed insisted on) a distinctive Catholic focus, one of its significant strengths has been its ability to provide a broad welcome to all who share a love of and commitment to music in the classical tradition, whether in or out of church. Several of the most loyal and longstanding members of the week are not Catholics, and its attenders also include Catholics of many different shades. They are all embraced under the benign attention of one or more course chaplains (who apart from their pastoral and liturgical duties, contribute fully to the week as singers and players).

The current chaplain is Monsignor Philip Whitmore, newly appointed Rector of the English College in Rome. He is assisted by Fr. Robert Verrill OP, who keeps alive a welcome connection to the week’s Dominican roots. The ’grandfather’ of the week is Fr. Michael Durand, currently a priest at Westminster Cathedral, who also participates in the chaplaincy team. He attended the very first week as a young man, and has been to most of the weeks since. But while the chaplains offer sterling and loyal support, the overall musical leadership, administration, and stewardship of the week is very much in lay hands. In fact, without the week-in-week-out quiet labour of a small, dedicated and largely unsung committee, the week would never have flourished as it has, let alone stayed solvent (without a penny of external subsidy).

Attendance is open to all. No formal level of musical involvement or qualification is needed, beyond a commitment to upholding the ethos of the course. There is a particular welcome for families with children, and an enduring and much loved feature of the week has been the provision of opportunities for the young and very young to play and sing together. Even finance need not be a problem, as course fees are extremely modest, and there are some special funds to support those in most need. In these respects the week serves a very different but complementary function to the excellent annual summer school of the Society of St Gregory, which is very much designed to professionally support the work of those who have official positions as liturgical or musical animateurs within parishes. Spode Music Week is simply about performing and listening to the best music that those assembled can make, in and for itself, to the greater glory of God. What happens outside the week as a result is up to the participants.

Bookings for the course each year fill up very quickly as enthusiastic repeat customers bag their places, but there are always sufficient newcomers in every year to avoid the week becoming cliqueish. There is a website ( where details about past and future courses may be found, as well as contact details. In recent years, communications have been enlivened by an ever more active Facebook page where course members share memories, photographs, and video or audio clips of treasured past moments, as well as plans and hopes for the future.

Catholics in England and Wales should be rightly proud of this unique lay-led treasure in their midst. It is a musical and friendship community rooted in the church, sustained by prayer and liturgy, but with open doors, keeping faith with a considerable number of people (including a large number of younger adults) for whom this may be the main, or even the only truly meaningful, manifestation of the Catholic Church that they experience. Long may it continue to serve the church and the wider world as it has done so fully and roundly in the last 60 years.

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A great orchestra fails to convince

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Mon, March 25, 2013 22:04:02


24th March 2013

I have the privilege of living a few miles from the Barbican, home to the London Symphony Orchestra, which has the reputation of being Britain’s finest orchestra, and I also have the privilege of being able to afford a £25 or more ticket to such events on a relatively frequent basis.

Last night’s performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto by the Russian violinist Nicolai Znaider was immaculate, not only for his virtuosity and sweetness of tone, but for some well-judged chamber-music-like orchestral playing, particularly from the wind section, with the opening oboe solo of the 2nd movement being played by Fabien Thouand with exquisite sensitivity, supported faultlessly by his fellow players.

This was playing of utmost professionalism. And yet……

Why did I go away feeling unsatisfied?

The LSO is a Rolls-Royce of an orchestra. It purrs luxuriously and effortlessly through the most demanding of repertoire, making it sound oh-so-easy. It smooths all the rough edges away and burnishes its playing with a glossy and immaculate sheen.

But glossy and immaculate somehow does not meet, or even honestly represent, the power of art music to touch and provide a real encounter, whether intimate or unsettling. It is all too self-confident, pre-packaged, settled, even complacent. It felt to me as though the orchestra had come to some kind of unspoken compact with its audience not to surprise or disturb, but to provide a familiar and comforting spectacle, where we could marvel at the virtuosity of this very familiar music without getting too involved, before consigning the event to memory as a “nice evening out”, similar to, and soon merging in the memory with many similar events over the years.

I compare this, to me, rather sterile experience, with something utterly wonderful (and free) that I attended a few days earlier. Colleagues at the Guildhall, Armin Zanner and Dinah Stabb had the beautiful and original idea of re-creating (in music, drama, and wine) a party held by the singer Jane Manning for the Austrian Composer Ernst Krenek on a visit to London in 1970 (see ). It was held in the drawing room of the Austrian Cultural Foundation, and was laid out in salon format, with tables for the audience of 50 or so. An actor spoke some of Krenek’s actual words, a scholar of Krenek explained some of the background to his work and philosophy, and Jane Manning (and some others who had attended that party) reminisced on what Krenek was like, and how he behaved at that party, and what their reaction to him was. The young singers sat among the audience, talked to them, and then, suddenly one of them would stand up and start to sing. Every audience member was welcomed personally by one or more of the cast, invited to drink wine, and was drawn deeply into the event, physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally. Everyone was involved, engaged, and at the end came out bonded and uplifted, and having got to know excellent music that many of us had never heard before. There was absolutely no compromise on musical standards – which were impeccable. But huge value was added by the passionate engagement and commitment of every single participant. This, for me, is the classical music event of the future. I will remember and savour it for a long time. Alongside it, sadly, the kind of audience experience that the LSO offered last night on the Barbican stage seemed thin, faded and one-dimensional.

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