Judging Dogs – a musical perspective

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Jazz is musical composition in real time – Simon Purcell, Head of Jazz at Trinity College of Music

I am writing this week’s column in south east France on my annual visit to the French Jazz School in Chomarac. This is my twelfth consecutive year and it is the point at which everything (other than Speakers’ Corner) takes a back seat and I concentrate entirely on music. It is always an amazing learning experience: the course is run by an educational philosopher (now retired) and drummer, Clive Fenner and the tutors are three extraordinary musicians: Lianne Carol is a singer and pianist – the only person ever to have won two BBC jazz awards in a single year; Simon Purcell, head of jazz at Trinity College of Music; Julian Siegal, a fantasic saxophonist who you can hear around the country regularly at jazz festivals and clubs and, finally, the bass player, Loz Garett who you can listen to at any of Jamie Cullum’s concerts and gigs as he is part of his regular line-up. All are fully engaged in music professionally and the fact they give up time every year to help a bunch of amateurs improve their jazz and performance skills says a great deal about them: they love jazz and want to share their enthusiasm and expertise.

Today I took part in a workshop which spent three hours studying just one song. What makes it special? Why does it have such an emotional impact? What do musicians and vocalists actually do with their rhythms, timings, variations from the theme to establish what is called the ‘feel’ of a song. In short : why it is so good on every level.

Body and Soul was written in England in 1930 by Johnny Green as a dance band number for Gertrude Lawrence. The original recording is in strict tempo and although the key and chord changes shine through, it sounds little different to hundreds of tunes which were played in dance halls around the country at the time. The first lyrics were considered too risqué for the radio but they were re-written and Louis Armstrong heard the song and recorded it, giving it its first outing with a ‘jazz’ feel. Since then is has been recorded many hundreds of times and many think of it as the archetypal jazz ballad even though it was written relatively late in the development of the form – and by a British composer.

My favourite version is by Sarah Vaughan, my joint nomination with Anita O’Day, as the greatest vocal exponents of jazz in the Twentieth Century, but we studied a version by Coleman Hawkins which is lyrical, almost vocal in its interpretation.

A simple statement with profound implications

During the session Simon Purcell made what, for me was a fascinating comment. He said: ‘Jazz is musical composition in real time’. It was a simple statement but it has encouraged me to think about ‘activity’ from a different angle. Classical musicians work from a score – they certainly ‘interpret’ the music but that interpretation is restricted: confined within the bounds of the score and the way in which the conductor wants it to be played. The great jazz orchestras were slightly different in that the music was interpreted and arranged but spaces were included to allow the individual musicians to create their own solos. That is what gave them their distinctive ‘feel’. (Bach did the same in some of his piano pieces, incidentally, but in jazz orchestras such solos are an integral part of the performance.) But small groups of musicians with their own ideas have always been the foundation of jazz. Band leaders from Kid Ory to Charlie Parker to Jools Holland have brought together musicians who had their own ideas but could improvise within a close knit group to create new sounds – turning jazz from a music for funerals and dancing to an art form in its own right.

Inevitably, more advanced musicians left the mainstreams behind just as Piccaso in art, James Joyce and Virginia Woolfe in literature and Schoenberg in classical music left most of us behind as they moved into areas we could not appreciate. Standing on the shoulders of giants is all very well but if the summit is above the clouds those on ground level are left bewildered.

It is generally considered that to be entirely competent in any art form you need around 10,000 hours ‘directed practice’. Yes that’s 10,000 hours! I am learning to play the piano and so far have clocked about 400 hours so I have a very long way to go. But if you are a dog judge with thirty years experience you might well have spent several thousand hours judging dogs, going to seminars, discussing construction and watching others judge. Those who have much less experience perhaps do not appreciate this level of understanding and expertise if their dog has not been placed or a dog of which they do not approve is highly placed. Someone who has focused on their own breed, for however long, will inevitably have a relatively narrow focus. They have attended their own breed’s seminars and fulfilled the Kennel Club’s requirements before judging their breed but their discussions have been almost entirely about the minutiae of their own breed and they have perhaps taken very little else into account.

Of course, someone can practise playing the piano for 10,000 hours and not be competent but something is likely to have ‘stuck’ over the years so when I hear that the Kennel Club is receiving an increasing number of complaints about the quality of judges decisions I feel it might be time to step back for a moment and look at the whole picture.

Judges training in the UK is still very basic

Firstly, judges training in the UK is still very basic. If an inexperienced judge makes a mistake (and it is all too easy as I know from personal experience) and you are unhappy with the outcome, you should put their inexperience down to experience – your experience. Judges need to be given time and space to learn their craft and they will never make any progress if exhibitors are constantly running them down. Experienced judges make mistakes too. I have lost count of the times this week when one of the amazingly competent musicians here has left a performance bemoaning that they missed a cue, hit a wrong chord or lost time. The last time I saw Sinatra perform he began a song and after a few bars stopped and said, ‘Sorry about that, we need to start again’. He then turned to the orchestra and ticked them off, saying, ‘Fellas, we all need to start at the same time’. They roared because he was the one who had come in late.

At the same time, most experienced performers (and judges, too of course) usually get it right and have good reasons for the way in which they perform in the concert hall or the ring and perhaps we should be prepared to give that idea some thought before we rush and grumble to our friends, to our breed club or to the kennel Club.

But to return to the point about jazz being ‘musical composition in real time’, had you ever thought that this is what is happening in the ring at dog shows in every country and throughout the world? Every decision made by a judge has an effect on the perception of exhibitors. They may be so disgusted that they withdraw from showing so a good dog might be lost to the gene pool. Another might select a dog as a stud on the basis of the award given by a judge they particularly respect. A third might see their breed from a new perspective and change their view so that their decisions are altered over many years. Look back at your own experience – you will find many examples if you have been thinking about dogs and the future of your breed.

Had you realised that judging dogs is such an awesome responsibility. We have a duty to take it very seriously.

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