Father and son - two different generations but similar ideas?
Father (Charles Medlam, 70) and son (Lukas Medlam, 34) – professional classical musicians from two different generations. Besides their mother tongue English, they also fluently speak German and just for fun with one another - French. Lukas is currently working as a violinist at “Classical Ensemble Vienna” in Vienna were we sat for a chat at his apartment together with his visiting dad - a cellist and founder of the unique “London Baroque Players Ensemble”. We discuss parenting, music careers and life.
What connects them with Lithuania? Once, while working on a cruise ship as musicians, Lukas and Charles came to Klaipėda on a ship.
Lukas, after studying at the Purcell music school and a little bit at the Royal College of Music, you have decided to make a dramatic change and went to study physics which is quite unusual for a child who comes from a musical family. Maybe it was a protest against your parents?
Lukas: I understand that some children do things as a way of rebelling against what their parents expect of them, but that wasn’t in any way the motivation of my choice to do physics. The motivations were as follows: the need to equip myself with a degree which would more or less have guaranteed career prospects afterwards. The idea of being a freelance musician scared me a little bit because of the lack of certainty in that particular path and the inability that one has to make any kind of forward strategy. Looking back, perhaps, that was a bit foolish, because there is no career in which you have this sort of stability I was striving for, but you could say that a degree in physics opens many more doors to a slightly more stable career than music.
Charles: My recollection is that in your opinion, the first year of the course at the Royal College of Music as a violinist was so boring and there was no challenge for you at all. There was no way that you were going to use your brain in any way except in writing some useless essays which were pitched on the level of other people like Spanish or Koreans or other nationalities and I am not saying this to disparage them. It is totally understandable that those students would not be able to write English essays in an intelligent way at the start of their studies. The necessity to use your brain was also part of your decision.
What was your opinion about this decision which Lukas made and did you wish that your children would become musicians?
Charles: We thought that our job as parents was to open as many doors as possible and see which one they would walk through. In the end, both of our children walked through the door marked music and they seem to be doing all right. But at the age we are talking about (18) you would be a stupid parent if you tried to control your children. It cannot be done. With this kind of behavior you would only create conflict.
What do you think about those parents who push their children in their teenage years to do certain activities? In our case music, for example?
Lukas: It depends how far they are pushing.
Charles: Well, you always said that we were pushing too little.
Lukas: Well, probably, if you had pushed me too hard then I would have said ‘why did you push me that hard’. (Laughing) I guess you can’t win… But in general, I think parents should be sensitive and should observe very carefully their children and how they react to this pushing. If you are a parent you just can’t decide on how many hours your child MUST practice every day. Otherwise it is an Asian mentality.
Charles: But you have to say that with what you might call difficult instruments (piano, violin, cello) if you don’t do a lot of practice before you’re 16 than you have no chance at becoming a useful professional. It’s just because the level is now so high and as Lukas just pointed out – oriental parenting style does not always include childhood. They just push push push. But there is also another aspect, that if you are a professional musician you know what is necessary to do. You know that if you don’t practice your violin three hours every day in your teens, you know that there is no chance. It’s not like with oboe, for example, where you can start quite late. You cannot be fifteen and say “I want to be an international soloist” before you have done those hours.
Lukas: It is much safer as a parent to give your child a well-balanced range of skills while still being relatively pushy in the musical direction. Being a soloist internationally isn’t necessarily a thing that will make anybody very happy.
Charles: I can think of one international soloist I know very well and this individual was pushed and pushed and pushed and at the age of about 25 she wondered who she was. Was she just this circus dog to be trained to play Brahms’s violin concerto and had been forbidden from having a childhood, or to play piano, or to read a book, or to go out and play. So she had a little bit of a crisis, but she handled it very beautifully and now she says “Okay, that happened to me when I was a child and now I am in the position where I can play concertos with major symphony orchestras. So I forgive my parents for being too pushy, but know I am the person I think I want to be because I have all these tools”
Monika: Yes, I think too that life is about compromises. You have to give something in order to have something.
Charles: Yes, but also parents are very imperfect. Parents can only do that they can do and one parent will be very determined and the other will be less determined. You can’t control as a parent how much you will push your child. It is just who you are, which is difficult to change even if you wanted to.
Lukas, you play at the Classical Viennese Ensemble. The concerts are happening three times a week every week of every month. They are very well attended despite of the season. Do you think this kind of concert platform could work in other European city or it’s just that Vienna is very special?
Lukas: I think that there is no other city in the word (maybe London) that has the same market for listeners that want to hear classical music. As a tourist, for example, coming from all around the world you can expect to hear shorter concert programmes with more popular but serious classical music pieces. It is also the one-hour length that attracts listeners because they don’t necessarily want to go out of their attention span very often.
Mr. Charles, you established the famous London Baroque players ensemble back in the late 20th century. How did you cope with the pressure of success? When one reaches that level there many factors that make it hard: travel, performing under pressure, tiredness. Things, we often do not consider as young musicians who want to reach the top level. Can we handle that success?
Charles:I think you either have that bug or you don’t. You as a pianist, what do you do if you have international success? You practice lots and lots, memorize lots of music then you go somewhere and perform all alone. Then after the concert you are again all alone, so it’s not a very attractive proposition except if you are obsessed that it is what you have to do. That makes you wake up in the morning.
What was your inspiration for establishing the London Baroque players ensemble?
It was the love for music. We came across this new way of playing old music which we thought was as close to how they might have done it in old times. At least it was on the right terms of reference with the right instruments and we informed ourselves as much as we could.
So it was passion…
Yes, passion and we were lucky. It was just about the time when this music started to be played in this way. In fact there were only two small ensembles, quite a few very successful chamber orchestras. But as far as very small groups, there were only us in London and another group in Cologne – “Musica Antigua Koln”. They were doing the same things as we did but in a more extreme way. It was always said that we were “the sensible English ones” and the Germans were a bit more exotic.
Do you think then that music is the ultimate goal and nothing else matters?
I think if you’ve got to do it – you’ve got to do it. We were lucky that half of the ensemble was me and Ingrid (wife). That also has its personal difficulties. She was incredibly dominant which was fine, and we had to learn that that was the way it was. I concentrated my efforts on management work, such as finding concerts. Ingrid was the artistic director and I was the person who facilitated concerts by making contacts and kept agents happy. We were lucky from many points of view. Of course, for the other people in the ensemble it was good income because we had around 60 to 80 concerts a year and recordings, so it was enough to live on. But when offering that to someone we had to say “you do all our concerts, or you do none of them” because that was the only way for it to work.
Musicians’ lives are often seen as a bohemian love story between themselves and their instruments. Moreover, quite often this profession is not considered a real job. But could we rhetorically think that the classical music world is like a certain type of business? Or none of the economy rules apply here?
Charles: It’s a little unique as it is both – a creative activity and economic activity and if you can somehow marry the two, if you can find what you want to do and find the way of making people pay for it.
Lukas: It is another misconception, because it is really to a large extent not about creativity. There are so many days in my career, when I spend hours on the laptop writing emails or dealing with administration, and perhaps only half an hour doing some scales. Or there are days when I have to travel or do something that doesn’t involve my instrument at all (laughing). Of course, there are parts of this career which are exclusively about creativity but most of it is not.
Charles:It is absolutely impossible for someone who is not musician to understand what our lives are like. It’s a bit like being an ambassador. Do we know what an ambassador does? What do diplomats do? You can’t possibly imagine unless you are one or you are very close to those people.
But I like Lukas, I resent it all the time. My ensemble doesn’t play anymore but for 40 years I resented that I couldn’t practice, or learn new repertoire because I had to do this work, which no one else could do. It’s true that I could have employed a manager to do it, in fact we did have managers, but then the manager would say “oh, you speak French, why don’t you ring there…” so in the end I did it myself. So I was working a desk job as well as trying to be a musician. If you are famous soloist, you have so much money that you have people to do this for you.
Both of you are from two different generations. What skills, do you think, do musicians need today to succeed in music?
Lukas: You need much more than just to be able to play an instrument properly, nowadays especially. Today you need to speak languages, know how to sell yourself, you need to market yourself, to present. It is a very important point. If you want to get somewhere in the classical music world you need people to respect you and that means speaking well in many languages.
Charles: I think it was very similar a generation ago. It is just different as we didn’t have Facebook. The first concert tour that London Baroque ensemble did in USA was in 1985 and we got our schedule by boat because it was the only way. We didn’t have fax. I think it was the same, just with different equipment. We would have done Facebook if it had existed, so I don’t think things have changed that much. Lukas’ generation are all conscious that they need these skills. In my generation, people who didn’t have those skills didn’t really do very well. Now it’s obvious what is necessary.
Another interesting thing is that when some cellist or violinist made his debut in 1975, he would come on stage with his serious face, play Bach or Beethoven, but now if you want to make contact with your audience you are expected to talk to people to introduce your music, to say why you feel that this is a wonderful piece that you are itching to share. That is the new communication. Maybe two generations back it was serious and in the tailcoat and I think that is very different now that we have to be ambassadors for our music. We have to learn to speak well about it.