No one remembers why they called it the 'Concert'. Already in my heady student days, the Brockwood Concert was an established and much talked about event. It was in a Brockwood Concert, one cold December night, that I made my humble beginnings on the world stage, nervously uttering a few forgettable lines in my freshly broken, French-accented voice.After that, life was simply never the same.
Equivalent to an old style Broadway Revue or an evening of cabaret, the Concert was, just as it is today, a flexible performance format in which a variety of acts, with no obvious link between them, were gathered together. The aim was simply to celebrate the end of term, or year, and to showcase some hard-worked-at—or, in some cases, hardly-worked-at—musical numbers, or to put on a short play or a humorous skit whose sole purpose was to poke healthy fun at the Brockwood ethos in general, and at the staff members in particular. Not much of a concert, in the traditional sense.
And yet, truly, 'concert' is a perfect word for Brockwood. For, aside from its specific reference to a musical form, the word originally means tying together, harmonizing, bringing matters of contention into agreement. And this, in every sense, is what a Brockwood Concert does. At a practical level, it is creating order out of chaos, putting on a coherent show by connecting what is disparate, and celebrating harmony through music, dance or theatre. And at a deep level, it is learning to work and be together; it is uniting the talents, energies and dedication of many to find their natural place within a harmonious whole; it is overcoming difficulties and challenges together. It is, simply, the joy and learning that comes with and through a communal task.
Thus while practically we work together for a specific goal, we find that, deeply, the specific goal works for us. The final performance becomes in fact a centre of energy around which that certain unique togetherness can occur, and from which everyone works according to their own interests, talents, dedication, or simple wish to learn.
The importance of such an event, then, is not the performing at the end, though that of course has its relevance. The importance is the togetherness and unique intelligence that the building process brings along with itself. It is, in truth, concertare, a coming together in harmony that generates wholeness.
As many will know, performing is but a small part of what putting on a show involves. The very first step resides in finding, among the student population of Brockwood, a 'producer'. Some might argue that basking in this glamorous appellation is in fact the only advantage that this unhappy soul will get to enjoy. The producer is a modern-day factotum: organizing workers, chairing meetings, craftily negotiating with school directors, fixing, unfixing, lending a hand in every department from performance to costume making, running after people, calming people, motivating people, simply finding people—and, of course, making hundreds of cups of tea a day. As the performance approaches, the producer develops a distinctly haggard, ready-to-spontaneously-combust look, and everyone knows to leave him/her alone.
Brockwood Concerts always begin from nothing, or rather, from an austere, octagonal Assembly Hall, which was certainly never built with anything remotely theatrical in mind. No structure for lights, no appropriate seating, no backstage or useful doorways, and certainly no acoustics! Transforming this stern meeting room into a fully functional theatre means, quite simply, making the impossible possible. And this is where the students are in their element. For, during the three weeks that lead up to the show, they will be hard at work building complex seating structures, setting up lights, defying the laws of gravity and the gremlins that play havoc amidst the Brockwood electrics, assembling elaborate sound systems with limited equipment, and inventing costumes and make-up, always on a tight budget. This whole affair, it is worth stressing, is entirely organized and brilliantly executed by students. And this is where those among them who enjoy building, fixing and making thrive: their participation in the project is simply invaluable. Remarkably, too, they go about their business spontaneously, with no need for reminders, pressure or motivation from others.
Variations on a theme
So much for the building process … What about the performance itself? Well, a 'typical' Brockwood Concert may begin, for example, with a sober Bach piece forthe violin or a melancholy Debussy piano adagio, to then follow into a couple of soulfully delivered jazz standards, some four-part harmony music of all ages, performed by a mixed choir of staff and students—also of all ages, and suddenly to fire up with some fiendish Irish fiddles, breathe out into an Indian rag, and rise to a final crescendo with a raucous, old rock'n'roll favourite arranged for voices, strings and wind instruments.
To weave this unlikely musical patchwork together, the production team will need to come up with a 'theme'. This will be a surreal story or narrative, which might situate the acts, for example, in a timeless, imaginary cabaret; among the neighbours of a street that never existed; following the strange adventures of a poet with writer's block, or a street sweeper with magical powers. In this way, the Concert is tied together by actors, dancers and narrators who poetically weave the acts into one whole story, with wit, humour and imagination.
Then there are the rehearsals. Working pieces up to performance standards inevitably brings its own set of challenges and difficulties for the students. This, it should be said, will not necessarily be a 'rags-to-riches' story. Sometimes skilled performers will find themselves frozen, unable to play another note. The journey for them is to get back to the joy and simplicity of the music and letting the music itself speak. Others find they like the idea of acting, singing or dance, but the realization of it throws them a demand they find hard to respond to. Here again, the looming of the impending performance demands dedication and responsibility. And, of course, there are those with avocation for the performing arts, who know all about the difficulties and pangs of growth that these bring about, and who willingly throw themselves into working on challenging pieces. Thus, each performer finds that the Concert asks of them, individually, that they embark on a journey of learning harmony and bringing order from the conflict within themselves.
But here one might ask, what role do the performing arts really play in a student's whole education? It is sometimes suggested that performing is, fundamentally, a self-centred pursuit, and that the performing arts create an environment where people's egos are over-celebrated, usually with little reason. This sort of critique may be culturally relevant, but it covers up the question too hastily. Suggesting that certain activities, as opposed to others, lead to more or less ego-centrism in fact amounts to making an inner condition dependent on outer factors.
It seems more helpful, rather, to see performance as the celebratory act of a craft: a craft that needs love, patience, attention and dedication to thrive. Though performing is an important part of a musician's life, great musicians become great through their dedicated love of and attention to music itself, not merely because they crave the buzz of performing or showing off. Performance is a part of this craft; indeed, it is a rare moment in which such dedication and attention can be joyfully shared. As for being self-centred, most performers know, whether consciously or instinctively, that great performance occurs when one is simply not in the way of the art. To be consumed by a need for validation is counter-productive to the simple giving that constitutes any true performance. To perform, despite appearances, actually demands an attention and care that must go beyond one's self, because it heeds and takes it cues from what is beyond one's self.
Great performances happen when there is a quality in the room which involves all present, where audience and performers alike actively listen, receive and give. This, I believe—rather than the celebration of 'talent' and 'genius'—has always been the true meaning of universal performing expressions such as music or theatre. To quote Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about this, it is in fact a 'holding the mirror up to Nature': words which, to me, truly belong to the spirit of Brockwood.
Finally, one might ask, what does the Concert bring to the school? For it is true that the Concert fits awkwardly in a curriculum, disrupts the end of an academic term and demands inconvenient changes to the school's day-to-day schedule. And yet, in its own way, it creates a special quality, a sense of finality and celebration to the school's year, and it does so by emphasizing qualities which truly belong to the Brockwood spirit: creativity, dedication and working together. We often ask, here at Brockwood, the question of what it means to live together. While there is always space for inquiry in a reflective context, we would do well, I think, to take note of the moments in which such togetherness does in fact occur—in the case of the Concerts, spontaneously, with joy and dedication, and not necessarily through the dilemmas of discussion. The quality of such a lived and shared event escapes words and definitions; this is precisely its uniqueness and strength.
This event, then, is much more than a performance or talent show. It is a mirror: it asks the question of our response to the whole, of what it means to be a part of the whole, to care for it and be responsible for it, each in our own way. It is also a nucleus: it gathers our energies and makes sense of our work and dedication within a larger context. It is, finally, a gift: there are no exam grades, no diplomas or rewards other than the joy of having aimed high and offered our work with honesty and joy.
And on the night, after the nerves, the laughs, the applause, and the bows, performers and audience alike leave, having, knowingly or not, participated in a little piece of togetherness.