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Professor John Wallace CBE, President

John Wallace's address to St Mary's Music School, Leap Year Assembly
29 February 2016

What is the point of music?

This instrument is a kangling. It's a human thigh bone turned into a trumpet. Tibetan Buddhists use this instrument to communicate with the souls of their dead ancestors. There is the belief that sounds on certain symbolic instruments like thigh bone trumpets can communicate through space and time. And with the discovery that Einstein was right in his theory of relativity about  gravitational waves the other week, and that space and time may turn out to be as elastic as he supposed, who is to say that their belief system is as crazy as it may sound to you on this grey Monday morning? 

When I say what is the point of music, as an audience member or listener, it does not need to have a point. It can just exist, in itself, as a beautiful, unseeable, untouchable transitory experience that touches our emotions and intellect in equal or unequal amounts. It can be 100% emotional/100% intellectual or 50/50 (or everything in between) or vary from individual to individual. What is amazing is that it is different for each and every one of us, and we all need to develop courage and confidence in our own response to music. It's a very private and personal thing, and I find it difficult to talk about it to you because I feel music very deeply to the core of my being, as I'm sure you all do - it is one of the most powerful experiences that I continue to have daily - it can make me horribly sad and bring back all the misery that I have experienced in my life - all the stuff I don't want to talk about to anybody - or it can make me incredibly joyful and positive and give me the feeling that we human beings are in control of our own destinies and that anything is possible. 

But, when I say what is the point of music to a performer, the point of music is to communicate this complex emotional and intellectual turmoil that goes on in each and every one of us, and in every composer who has ever written a note, and make of it coherent musical arguments and points in order that the listener has the opportunity to enter this emotional and intellectual plane for his or herself. As a performer you provide the vessel through which the music passes. A bit of you rubs off in the interpretation - this is inevitable and to be desired - but your ego may take over and may get in the way of the performance of the music - you have to keep it in balance - and learn to convert the nervous adrenalin which courses through your veins about not wanting to make an idiot of yourself in public into a controlled energy starburst which elevates your performance to heights you cannot achieve in the practice room. 

A performer needs an audience. An audience needs performers. Feed off your audience. And let your audience feed off you. This needs a very generous nature. You must be prepared to give all of yourself in a very reasoned, rational, objective way which allows each audience member to have his or her own experience of the music. 

This is a lifetimes work for all of us. You are just at the start of this journey. I've been on it for 60 years. It requires all the techniques of playing our instruments, forensic investigation of the mysteries of our own repertoire and also all of the emotional maturity and intellectual focus that we can bring to our own self understanding of what the piece of music is all about - the better to communicate it. 

You are the future 

Most of you will see the 22nd century. Longevity being as it is, most of you will become centenarians. Think forward 100 years. What will the world be like? Think back 100 years. 1916. The First World War. The Battle of the Somme. If you're 16 or over you would have been there. The horrible horrible 20th Century. A century of death and destruction. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and so on and so on. The boundless creativity of humanity being cancelled out by the dark destructive forces inside of all of us. 

You are the future. Don't let it be like the past. You have everything going for you. You can all do your bit to make the world a better place through the power of your music making, and its capacity to heal and to bring people together in harmony. Think Edward Said, Daniel Barenboim and the East-West Divan Orchestra. Think the World Orchestra for Peace. Think of the Edinburgh Festival - set up in 1948 as one of the healing agents of a war torn Europe through the power of its common culture. Edinburgh, the wonderful Festival City, home of the fabulous St Mary's Music School, and capital of the small and beautiful country of Scotland.  When you are all 100, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and all the composers yet to come will not have lost their power to express humanity in all its glory. You will have ensured that they are just as powerful messengers about everything that is good about humanity in 2116. 

There is a lot to do 

In 2005 I visited Syria. In 2008 I visited Libya. Two fantastic countries with limitless potential. Now they have fallen apart. Islam is tearing itself to pieces, and we are not helping. We have been in a global financial crisis since 2008 and the way these things work historically, they tend to go in long cycles, and from the evidence of previous economic downturns from the 15th century on, it is likely that some sort of stability will return around 2022/2023. That's what Anton Muscatelli, Principal of Glasgow University said back in 2007/8 and he's one of the few economists around who have said it as it really is. So that is good news for you lot here. By the time most of you are joining the world of work, the whole global FINANCIAL situation will be in a better place, integrity will have been reinstated in all our financial institutions, and it will be up to you to ensure that it stays that way, and that your world as it progresses into this young century of ours - the 21st - prospers and advances, lifting ever more people out of poverty. 

You are all incredibly gifted - you have to go out there and make a positive contribution

Learn from my generation's mistakes. Positively and constructively build a better world order together with your phenomenally talented and energetic age group. There are about 3 billion people of your age group throughout the world. If you don't do it, who will? Don't hang back. In a process-driven world which tends towards the unfeeling, the machine-like response, the robotic reaction, what you will do through your music is to put the humanity back into humankind. The world needs you. 

The best of luck and I have every confidence that you will all do your bit to make the world a better place. Up in the ritual, the mystery and the beauty of this ancient tradition we have become part of. And I’m going to call that spirituality The Privilege of Choristership. That is what we are here tonight to celebrate and to preserve for the future, ‘throughout all generations’.

John Wallace, President

Professor John Wallace CBE, President