Dear Readers, A holiday break. Goodwill towards everyone for the next two weeks. Phew! It will make a change. Will I manage? We`ll see.   Thank you for following me this year. Please join me again next year. In the meantime, if you have a chance to do something generous, disintersted and kind, I hope that someone will do the same for you. HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Warsaw years: educational reform


Music can and does cross cultural and national boundaries. It can be a great ambassador for a country. Yet, I don’t feel that any of the musical activities that take place in Warsaw are any more than an aping of the would be colonial powers. Looking elsewhere in Poland, Krakow `s festival is dominated by the Italians, the celebrated Wratislava Cantans by the English. There is no concerted effort to improve the lot of musicians in Poland nor to create an industry nor to give music to the people. 

It is a good thing that British, French, German and Chinese orchestras and musicians come to play at our festivals, even if at our expense, in order to promote goodwill and trade. My one previso is that these visiting musicians are the best, which I challenge they are.  Neither must it mean that there is no money left to build infrastructure in our society, in our schools! Nothing can justify the denial of the basic infrastructure, infrastructure that would liberate the imagination of the population and be wealth creating for the whole country.


The way this country is at the moment for young people is disgraceful and the ceiling of expectation is depressingly low. The education system does not stimulate the imagination nor does it instil the basics of a civil and successful society. It relies on exam results to evaluate, quantify and qualify its young. Neither does it say to young people, “Fly, the world is your oyster”. If you don’t think you can fly at 18 when will you?  So with out self confidence and imagination what hope is there for the future?

Recent reviews conducted by the Financial Times and elsewhere have shown that the higher education system is failing both its students and the business community eager to employ dynamic young people. The fault lies with people of my generation who have pretty much betrayed the young through complacency and cowardice. The Rector of the Lodz Music University told me how singing professors try to prevent their students accepting ERASMUS grants to study abroad: they might be damaged.  We agreed that they would be damaged if they stayed. Apparently there is only one singing department worse than Lodz and that is Warsaw!

And speaking of ERASMUS.  This summer I was asked to re-write the Erasmus brochure of the Warsaw Business School SGH. I prepared half before I decided that I could not be a part of fraud. The life style it described for foreign students was, to say the least, misleading. I returned the text much to the anger and dis-belief of the authorities. However, recently, my actions were entirely vindicated. In a café I overheard a conversation with 10 Erasmus students from different countries. They were joking about the impossible difficulty of completing the basic application form. The on-line document does not contain all the information required by the admissions office. Go to the office and the staff seems unwilling and unable to help. Kafkaesque? More like Slawomir Mrozek.

And what happens to the people who fail to shine in the all powerful and excluding examination system that dominates educational thinking?  What alternatives are there for people who are not academic? Surely some 60% of the population must fall into this category to some extent. I can’t understand the logic of consigning all the people who are no good at exams to the rubbish heap. The educational system based on the narrowing exam system has created a fantastic problem in society, wasteful and ultimately self destructive. I don’t want to rearrange the rooms. I want to rebuild the house.

Can music solve all the problems? Of course not. But countries that have music and performance arts in the school curriculum are more successful, more creative and better equipped to survive the change in the balance of economic and political power that is coming. But, unless a country has an overwhelmingly efficient manufacturing base or dynamic creative industries it will not survive. Where is the business plan for Poland?  Who is thinking of anything other than copying the old European model that is already beleaguered and redundant? Why isn’t the education system adapting?

As I write, Japan has published its military strategy for the next ten years. It is planning to defend itself from possible, even probable Chinese aggression as a result of the huge expansion of the Chinese military machine and the changing balance of power in Asia. But China is not simply using military means to expand its influence and coerce its business partners. It is using soft tools. Instead of relieving the poverty of its own people it is using its huge capital reserves to buy other nations` industries and prestigious trademarks. It is set on a course of conquest and control.


Poland is playing China’s game. Gaining the attention of the Chinese must be very flattering and seductive for our cultural bosses. The Pendereckis have been well established in China for years and have, no doubt, done some good. However, would that they had put their undoubted energies to improving Poland, to overcome their prejudices and admit that everyone has a right to music in every school. It means getting your hands dirty and not worrying too much if your hair looks untidy in public. It means dealing with people whose talents have yet to be discovered.  Festivals are the icing on the cake. In Poland, there is no cake, only icing.


But what do I mean by music education? I mean pro-active class music starting with imaginative singing, acting, storytelling and movement. I mean having teachers who are trained, skilled and inspired musicians and communicators. I mean moving away from an academic approach, a passive participation. I mean making music instead of  a study of the history of music. I mean concerts and performances in schools. I mean celebrating the achievements of the community and of the individual. I do not mean, in the first instance, making a child study an instrument that he or she has never been inspired by. I don’t mean hours of painful practice just to satisfy an exam requirement. I do not mean hours of solitary confinement of either pleasure or pain with an instrument. I mean putting music at the heart of the community. The school.


Poland needs an effective champion of educational reform. Everything needs to change including the status of teachers. Teachers are amongst the lowest paid members of the community. Pay equals status.  That tells you a lot about expectations.


My expectations are very simple. I expect the people with knowledge, influence and money to build infrastructure, to make sure things are getting better at home before they head off abroad. The Romans, in their early days, never thought about being empire builders. They though about building a strong economy with the things they needed which, to their surprise, they soon discovered other people wanted buy. Then they became expansionist. The British invented the Industrial Revolution but within 80 years were preferring to buy from Germany.  Why? There is a lesson for us in Poland.

Warsaw years: more Beethoven

Whether Napoleon’s occupation of Warsaw got the people onto the streets in protest I doubt. In 1806, he was still regarded as a hero by the Poles. They had yet to learn that he was an opportunist exploiting their willingness to take up arms against the Russians in return for his empty promises of freedom. In any case, Poles do not seem to be a demonstrative people in general. The scenes of the workers` strikes and  protests in the 1950`s to1980s and the thought that a mere ship builder could stride the world stage and embody not only the nation but half a continent’s aspirations for freedom, seem to me to be unimaginable in contemporary Poland. My father even remembers the palac of a cousin being sacked by discontented farm workers and peasants in the 1920s. Nowadays Poles seem to have lost whatever enthusiasm they had to show their grievances in public. Perhaps the memory of awful retribution, generations of young men trudging  to exile in Siberia and a general disappointment with the new democracy have destroyed the belief that some things are worth fighting for, that some things can be changed if you care enough to act, even if that means sacrifice, hardship and isolation.


Regarding general education, it is almost as if the older generations simply do not care about the inheritance they are going to leave their children. It is proof enough to look at the way children are prepared for the world of higher education and work. There is little or no careers advice for the under 18 year olds. Yet, surely this is the age when advice is needed most of all. I cannot understand how parents can feel satisfied with the system. Why aren’t they mobilised?  Why aren’t middle aged parents of 17 year olds able to suggest any other path than the path they trod themselves? Why, if a girl wants to study dance must she be forced into studying the law simply because her father can see no value in dance?


The education system remains unreformed. Ministers talk about investing in “human capital” is if they have a new plan. But they don’t. And here is where the leaders of the music business are most culpable.


As I have written before, none of the Warsaw based state funded musical institutions or festivals have pro-active education policies. These they should have and they must have. As Adam Zamoyski wrote to me:


I do so agree with you about Polish youth –
there seems to be no culture of singing in the country, which is bad for
their health as well as the country’s cultural well-being.


Singing, acting, dancing and playing musical instruments matter for everyone. They are vital to a child’s development. So why is there no music in Polish schools? I believe it is because music has been ghettoised by those in power and for whom it is very convenient to maintain the status quo. The “experts” and bosses constitute a self serving clique. I have tried to talk to them, to open their eyes to a wider horizon, to convince them of the  relevance of music in society but they are only prepared to pay lip service to the idea. I suppose they fear losing money and influence.


Some, who are in a position to act, clearly don’t even understand why music should be in every school and not simply preserved in the specialist music schools. Under Secretary Smolen at the Ministry of Culture insisted that the two systems run in parallel: music schools and ordinary schools, with no convergence. This is absolute nonsense. But, it is clear to see where the advice is coming from. The “experts” and the interested parties. The same old names.  This is why earlier this year I finally lost patience with Elzbieta Penderecka, the most vulnerable of the bosses, and her unpopular and pretentious Beethoven Festival.


Irina, Princess Wittgenstein-Sayn-Berleberg accused me of being ungentlemanly in my response to the Beethoven Festival and Mrs. Penderecka. She is certainly someone to take notice of and whom I respect. She is the source of many charitable actions in Poland and is a key figure in building bridges between Germany and Poland.


However, by her own admittance, she does not understand music. She attends a great many concerts, far more than I do, and even plays a sort of “lady in waiting” to Mrs. Penderecka as she hovers at concert hall entrances to greet her great and good customers. But I suggest that Irina’s good intentions are greatly misplaced.


The Beethoven Festival does not serve the city of Warsaw or its people. There is no great mission. The festival simply provides a platform for Mrs Penderecka and her self- promotion. In her own mind, and in that of the politicians she influences, including it would seem the not very musically orientated Minister of Culture, Mrs. Penderecka may well be a noble embodiment of music. If her festival had any sort of educational programme that was inclusive, that was aimed at enfranchising the musically disenfranchised then she might attain that nobility; she could even bring as many German or Chinese bands as she liked. But it does not. The festival is simply an instrument to promote the Pendereckis with the endorsement of the Minister of Culture. The festival purports to be promoting Poland’s image abroad. The image of Poland needs to be promoted firstly at home. Instead of festivals we need infrastructure, education for the young, work for Polish musicians.


To get this message through, we took to the streets. The timing for protests against the Beethoven Festival was perfect. The day before the Festival began Roman Pawlowski published his article in Gazeta Wyborcza. We prepared a flyer commending people for attending live music but asked why music should only be for the minority. By a minority I mean the 3% of the Polish population that attends classical concerts.

Distributing the flyers outside the Filharmonia and the Opera, the main venues of the festival, it soon became clear that very many people agreed with us.



Warsaw years: Beethoven Festival

  A few years ago I received a phone call from Elzbieta Penderecka asking me to visit her at her office. By coincidence the Beethoven Festival office was only one floor below the offices of Andre Renard, the shirt maker who first invited me to Poland in 1998 and whose shirts I had such success selling in London. If Mrs. P needed to talk to me I must be on the right track. I hoped she would not bring up the subject of  the interview for Opera Now she arranged for me with her husband a few months before. It was rejected by the publisher. This should not reflect on Mr. Penderecki: I think I sent it unfinished. I just lost interest. Not very professional.


Mrs. Penderecka looked very upset. Where can I find money for my piano competition? I had no idea. If I knew, I would get it for my foundation. However, I was not unsympathetic. The piano festival has logic, unlike the Beethoven Festival which, to my mind, is little more than a plug for German culture and German musicians at the Poles` expense. Living in Poland, I simply cannot get away from my deep suspicion and dislike of Germans. Growing up in England in the 50 and 60s many of the people I knew had fought at least one world war against the Germans. My mother’s mother had lost a brother and a father. Two of her boys had had terrible wars in Hitler’s war with the 8th Army and Bomber Squadron. Many of my mother’s friends were ex-servicemen who had no love for the Germans. One had been a prisoner in the notorious Colditz prison: actually, he respected the Germans as fair, the Italians he regarded as contemptuous and cruel.   I have never heard any of my Polish relations express a view on contemporary Germany, though my father’s stories about the war in Poland and his time in a prison camp near Krakow give a clear picture of his feelings towards them during the war.


The one contrary voice in childhood was my step-father’s. He was a non-combatant, excluded on health grounds. Though a highly intelligent man he was unstable. As a result, he was posted to the Home Guard and the civilian defence of his native Lincolnshire. Luckily for them they never fired a shot: the Germans never got wind of the excellent potatoes which grow in those flat fertile lands and which fed the armies of two world wars and made the farmers rich.  No doubt, they had enough potatoes of their own.

Whilst a student at Cambridge in the mid 30s, my step-father’s father had taken him on a tour Europe. Firstly, they had gone to Germany where my step-father had been completely won over by the road building ability and zeal of the Nazi industrial machine. Then they went on to Moscow. I never heard him speak fondly of his time in Russia but Hitler made a great impression on him. Once, at lunch when I was about nine, I remember a discussion taking place between my step-father and his cousin Tommy Brooke-Smith, the famous ace and test pilot who was the first man to fly successfully the Harrier Jump Jet which 40 years on, as I write, is being withdrawn from service in the RAF.  At some point I said, “Kill all the Germans”. My step-father exploded with rage. Uncle Tommy, who had fought the Germans, came to my rescue.  I think I was merely parroting my mother’s family’s view but he cared.


Of course, in my reasoning I am not being entirely consistent. I am greatly enamoured of Italians, though their behaviour in the war was little to be proud of until they began to put up resistance to the Germans and the brutish regime of Il Duce. But, somehow, when you see a group of Italian tourists you don’t get the feeling that they are thinking, “Once this was all ours or nearly ours” as I am afraid I do when I see Germans walking the streets of Warsaw or Rome.


To help to put my feelings as an Englishman before a Pole in context, I heard Norman Stone, the British historian, describe on the radio a meeting he had with Mrs Thatcher when Chancellor Kohl was proposing German unification. Mrs. Thatcher was unconvinced by the argument that post-War West Germany was, thanks to the Marshal Plan, a model Anglo-Saxon state, totally different from the pre-War  country. In her mind, and that of most of her generation whose father’s and brothers had memories of active service against the Germans, Germany united was a threat to European stability and peace.

Apparently, Mrs. Thatcher remained unmoved until someone came up with this metaphor. Imagine seven cities like Liverpool, which in the 1980s was a no-go area, wrapped up like presents and delivered to Bonn with labels saying “From Russia with Love”. Imagine the cost and the headache. It was only then that Mrs. Thatcher changed her view. But, within a week she had changed it back again.


Such was the thinking I grew up with. And such is my prejudice as an Englishman. As an Englishman of part Polish descent living in Warsaw surrounded by empty spaces, ruin and decay, I am reminded of the war everyday, of beauty lost, of missing people, people and their culture. That multi-culture which made Warsaw such a vibrant place before the War will never be restored. So much of the Jewish Diaspora with roots in Poland cannot forget what happened to them here, nor should they.  Few would dream of returning.


Thus, how strange that Warsaw should be the home of a Beethoven Festival that seems to do little more than export Polish money and promote a degree of  “cultural” snobbery that most people find offensive. It certainly does little to promote music with the wider population. On the other hand, Beethoven was a monument to the freedom of the human soul, that is once Napoleon had shocked him to his senses by his bombing of Vienna.  Then, on 15th December 1806, Napoleon occupied Warsaw.


Warsaw Years: Dance United

  March 2010 brought a surprise. TEDx was being launched in Poland with a meeting at Warsaw University. I don’t have a working television nor do I watch much on the internet apart from excerpts from The Munsters. I had no idea what TED was or is.  I was invited to speak and had to propose a subject. Obviously my topic would be about music, music education and the role of music in a developing society such as Poland.


I think it is fairly pointless to try to argue for high culture, especially for music, where the system has effectively destroyed the public perception of what music is. Having relegated music to the domain of specialist music schools and having almost excluded it from ordinary schools, music has become an exclusive activity available only to the motivated child or the offspring of pushy parents. There is some snob value attached to having your child enrolled in a music school. But the 350 music schools that proliferate in Poland produce very little. One outstanding string quartet, a couple of pianists, no decent orchestra, some singers and some not very good conductors. Children do not learn to play together so muci making becomes a solitary pasttime.


How much better it would be to have music in every school: not just instrumental music but as part of performance arts. How else does a child develop a real and sustainable interest except through peer group or parental influence? In a school where music is available for everyone then latent talent can be attracted far more easily. This was the theme I took for my TEDx talk and the enthusiasm of the audience led me to think that here was an issue that people understood and wanted to hear more of.


However, music is simply not an issue for the Polish press and media. However hard I have tried to promote the idea of music as an educational tool with the weekly magazines or the dailies, I get nowhere apart from a polite hearing. The one success I have had was in March with the highly respected theatre critic and cultural commentator Roman Pawlowski. We met in a café, I ranted for an hour and he published a full page article describing a project we are trying to launch in Lodz with Dance United and my thoughts on the Polish education system. http://wyborcza.pl/1,76842,7685301,Rapujmy_Chopina.html


 The Dance United project is, as I write, close to realisation. Fingers crossed, that is. How did it come about?


One Sunday morning three years ago I was sitting in my pew in the Anglican Church in Krakowskie Przedmiescie. Behind me was a middle aged couple who were new to the church. After the service we met over coffee. The woman was Polish, the man English. Both lived in London and had come to church to organise a blessing for their marriage which was to take place in Warsaw. It emerged that Andrew Coggins was the brains behind the amazing dance project that I heard about the previous year when I went to London with Pawel to meet the education department of the London Symphony Orchestra.  The method is simple. The team of dance teachers and a musical director move into a place: a major capital, a prison, a village in the African desert and through dance transform the people’s perceptions of themselves. Hundreds of people can be involved in the project which runs for a month. I read about the transforming qualities of the project when it was run with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle. Just what Poland needs.


In order to test the water, I arranged meetings with TVP executives and even went as far as Nowa Huta and Mittal Steel. Not a spark of interest. I even talked to a Minister of Culture about it. “Yes, I can support that” and I never heard from him again!

Then, one day in Lodz a couple of years ago, I was having lunch with a young music student, Mateusz Cieslak, who, with his brother, had helped me record my first children’s musical in Poland. Casually, Mateusz said he had seen this amazing dance group on the internet. He dreamed of being able to do something like it in Lodz. The group? Dance United. We got Andrew on the phone. Since then he has twice visited Lodz.


Mateusz has almost set aside his own musical ambitions to pursue this noble cause of bringing a new and life transforming experience to the people of his adopted city.  To most visitors` eyes and in the eyes of the people who live there, Lodz is a ruin, a wreck of a once splendid 19th century industrial complex that was the richest town  in the Russian Empire. What made it rich was the long gone cloth industry. The city was known as the Manchester of the continent. Whilst Lodz has nothing to compare with the great public buildings of Manchester, the factory sites are impressive. One, the largest, has been converted into an open-air shopping mall. It is a way of saving the buildings but has diminished the rest of the town by killing the old shopping areas and, in particular, the main high street. Yet despite the dog shit on the pavements, the alcoholics on every street corner and the terrible decay of so many of its buildings behind sometimes freshly painted façades, under the grime of poverty there is the ever seductive hint of a magnificent past: Jewish, German, Russian and Polish, a microcosm of a multi racial society that brought wealth and culture to a rather flat and uninteresting part of the world. This diversity is now, like the trade that supported, a memory. However, if the people can be given a sense of their inherent value then perhaps not only will the façades  be cleaned, the buildings behind them renovated and the streets cleaned up but a new  reality may be brought to the city. This is the hope of Dance United.


Warsaw years: Chopin dies

  To all intents and purposes that was the end of the Chopin Project. I wrote to a number of companies. A consulting firm got quite excited and strung us along for six months. The idea was this. The firm was established twenty years ago in Poland. It is part of a multinational brand founded in England but now mainly American. It wanted to raise its Polish profile and the Chopin seemed like an excellent way of being seen to do some good and do some marketing as a “Polish” firm. By association with Chopin they would be buying into Polish culture. We would involve 24 schools across the country. The local offices of the firm would manage the schools. Above all, they would encourage their clients to offer work experience to the children involved in the project, children who had learnt the value of working together and sharing ideas as a result of being involved in the project. 


An overriding shortcoming of the Polish education system is that children do not get any careers advice before they make their decisions about higher education or jobs. This means that most children never make a decision but just drift into whatever their parents want them to do or what is available. My hope was that once firms realised that there are advantages in having young people in their firms, if only for a week, they would then take an interest in the schools and see the value of investing in developing music theatre in schools for the long term. This seemed like a brilliant win win situation for everyone.


The big problem with Social Corporate Responsibility in Poland is that the idea of doing good and marketing has not been separated. The corporations want to be seen to be doing good but at the minimum of cost. As the headmaster of one of the foreign schools said to me when we met at a SCR event, “A lot of fish being given out here but no one is learning to fish”

 I wont even begin to explain the difficulties of trying to work with corporate people for someone who has very little experience of them or their system. Anyone who has any experience of living with an alcoholic will recognise something of what we went through. Endless meetings at which the goal posts seemed to have moved every time. You adjust. Or rather, I adjusted because I grew up with an alcoholic. I can constantly adapt to a changing situation though usually at some point my patience runs out, all hell lets lose and we end the worst of friends, which is exactly what happened.


I should have recognised the signs early on but I lived in the hope that something would be achieved.  An HR specialist to whom I described my experience expressed no surprise. This is the way corporates work. They ask for ideas which they embrace with enormous enthusiasm.  Then after long and tedious meetings they gradually destroy the idea and you are left exhausted and humiliated. Importantly for them, nothing changes even though they have given the impression of a willingness to listen and act. What a way to live!