MUSIC AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR EXERCISE, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 24th January 1959

It is not generally realized how physically taxing are the demands of musical performance. In certain duller colleges where the fellows prefer the greater proportion of students to be scientists but choose them for athletic promise (with a result in both fields as undistinguished as their taste for architecture), a man who confesses so much as a temptation (let alone a desire) to practise some form of music-making rather than a so-called athletic sport, is stamped as a long-haired eccentric, and if not made to feel a pariah, is certainly denied amenities comparable to those lavished on the various forms of organized barbarism favoured by the lowest common factor of his college.

Surely a reform is to be hoped for. Who does not nowadays know that “taking exercise” is by no means a royal road to good health when the exercise is (as is usual) taken in violent and sporadic spasms? One is reminded of those happy “christians” who practise their faith only on Sundays for fifty minutes at a time. And we are aware that physical exercise which schoolmasters extol as a bromide does in fact excite those appetites they hope to lull—gluttony and lust. Were this not so, I fancy we should feel less cautious about admitting women to bump suppers.

Nor are we deceived by the legend that the playing of “games” induces a “team spirit”; for rather it perpetuates that fear of individuality which is the malaise of our time. If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then certainly the playing fields there and all over England have lost us the British Empire. It is nothing to do with the bull-dog spirit when a man does an energetic act not for the pure joy of skill and control, but out of a hankering for the approbation of his confreres or a fear of their disdain. The practice of athletics in teams inculcates quite demonstrably a cowardly preference for drab uniformity, the apotheosis of the faint-heart, and is the opposite of what is implied by the word Education.

But the practice of music exceeds in physical benefits all common athletics, and surpasses even Ballet, for which such a soul-destroying training is necessary.

It is all very well to leap about on a field after a ball, or to stand stock still for two hours in front of a wicket (in what is, I believe, called a “defensive stand”). These things require but a rudimentary skill. We buy and sell our professional athletes and our stadiums and concourses are not devoid of intrigue and corruption; and this is a pointer to the true evaluation of sport by the public.

But there is little rivalry between cities or counties for the acquisition of flautists. It could not be countenanced, any more than bidding for bishops. For the occupation of flute-playing (like being a bishop, only in another way) occupies the whole man. A considerable mobilization of force and poise, of alertness and taste must be summoned for the demurest toot.

And consider how exacting it is to sit absolutely still and quiet in some limbs, at the same time performing a piano concerto with others. The spinal control, the supreme tension coupled with repose, the allocation of energy only to the parts that need it, and the mental effort of controlling all these nuances with a critical watchfulness, ever changing with the changing context. A masterpiece of cybernetic synthesis. Why, even Yoga is pale by comparison.

But ask a hockey player (as he hurtles gauchely into the tackle) to modify his flight, to swing with perhaps a divine hesitation, to put an elegance into his footfall, and to remember the formula for calculating the behaviour of a flying spheroid, all at once. Has he the control? Can he do it? Pooh! He is but a galloping robot, armed with a cudgel.

Yet, a physical and mental control of this kind is but a tithe of what is expected of the musician during a musical performance, whether pianist, instrumentalist, or vocalist. And though it may be said that the miles walked by an organist during the pedal part of a Trio-Sonata often outweigh the musical content of his rendering, and though there are grounds for believing that singers on the whole are a race of anthropoid apes which have not yet acquired the trait of keeping their mouths shut, still the act of organ-playing and the act of singing, if properly practised, are no less exacting than other forms of music.

Is it too much to hope that College Councils will see the light, so that eventually music will supersede our present barbarous and insufficient athletics, and in the end the boat-race be happily replaced by a double-concerto?

Peter Tranchell