Stephen Hough explains his philosophy of life, and offers some advice to music students
I sometimes ask young students if they compose and they look at me with astonishment, but it’s a skill you can learn, and I encourage them to try. You might not be great, but everyone who can play a fugue from a score can write a fugue. Writing music is a wonderful release of ideas and it can make you think about the composers you’re playing in a different way. A lot of it is about overcoming the obstacles to confidence. The more you do something the easier it becomes.
I worry that young people have an idea of success that focuses on the wrong things. It starts at music college, where they’re already concerned about getting a manager and concerts. There’s no time for them to make mistakes, but that is so important. In order to make any contribution that has lasting value you have to experiment and take risks. Once you’re out on stage in the middle of a career you can’t do that as much.
Sometimes when a 16-year-old wins a competition, their teacher has gone over and over the music with them, forming a perfect, plastic performance. They might win the competition, but they are not being given time to develop their own personality. This is something I learnt from my teacher, Gordon Green: when we discussed competitions he said, ‘Forget about them. I’m interested in how you’re going to play in ten years’ time. You need to develop, mature, read and listen.’ It was such valuable advice. Some players in their mid-20s think they haven’t got much time before they are too old to enter competitions, but they should feel, ‘I’ve got 15 years and I want to learn all the Bach preludes and fugues.’ Don’t feel that you’ve reached the end of the road when you’re barely 20.
Classical music is not always something you understand instantly. To make great risotto you can’t just pour boiling water on rice. It has to marinate for the flavours to sink in. We need to make sure that we keep two things in mind. One is that classical music must be as accessible as possible for everyone, regardless of income or social background. On the other hand, I don’t think we should be selling it as being easy – ‘This won’t hurt you; you won’t be bored.’ Actually, you might be bored or uninterested the first time you hear something, because it takes time to expand your understanding, to develop your ear. But that’s what makes classical music so wonderful, because then it lasts your whole life. You can come back to great music again and again, and it becomes part of you and enriches you.
No one is still alive from when Beethoven’s symphonies were first performed, but they are still totally fresh. Perhaps there are different ways to present concerts. The two-hour format with 20-minute intermission is not the only way. We should consider the time at which we have concerts, how long they are, what the surroundings are like. Can we make a more interesting evening? Concerts take place too close to when most working people need to eat or be with their families. What about an hour-long concert, maybe starting at 7, after which people can go home?
We have to address how people pay for content, particularly recordings. Is it fair that you can go online and for no money get an article that was the fruit of two months of someone’s journalistic work? It’s lovely to hear something on Spotify and not pay a penny, but there were piano tuners, engineers, janitors involved in that recording. Everyone who made that record possible deserves to be paid. It’s not fair that we expect artists to give everything away and I hope at some point there will be a simple system of payment (it might only be 5 pence a click) by which we can give back what we’re taking.
If I had a motto it might be: ‘Everything matters; nothing matters’. There’s a chapter about this in my latest book, Rough Ideas. We should take care in whatever we do. Every encounter with every human being is important and can create good or bad vibrations. A check-out person goes home to their family in either a good or bad mood and that can affect their children, which can affect other children at school etc. But in the end, nothing matters. We can get worked up about a phrase in a piece, but in 500 years’ time it’s not going to matter if I put that crescendo in my Beethoven sonata a bar too early. If we can keep these two ideas in balance I think we have a chance to be mentally healthy and joyful.