Instruments of emotion
A series on a music school raises more questions than it answers, says Bernard Adams Take some talented students and some eccentric but charismatic teachers, mix them together in the competitive atmosphere of the country's largest music school and you have a sure-fire recipe for documentaries.
Chetham's has 250 pupils who study the usual subjects as well as their instruments. Out of this rich educational stew the director, Tamsin Day-Lewis, has picked two students and two teachers as the main focal points in her four half-hour films.
The first in the series, Learning with Mr Li, features Wen Zhou Li, a violinist who has been brought in to raise standards. He wants young British violinists to be able to express more emotion in their playing: "I'm asking them to open their hearts to me," he says.
Some do, some don't. He tries to persuade Maria to "feel" rather than "imitate" in her playing. In the end she feels too pressurised, gives up and returns to normal school. But Mr Li wins most hearts and does manage to get his pupils to play uninhibitedly in the auditions at the end of the film.
The second film, A Singer's Life, features a young Albanian, Teuta Koco, whose striking looks, intelligence and musical talent take your breath away. She had only just forsaken the violin to concentrate exclusively on singing, but already has astonishing expressiveness in her voice and looks completely at home on the stage.
Nevertheless, life is complicated. When she sings an aria about "a lost lover", she says she is really singing to her father. Their relationship has been tempestuous since he gave up his job as a conductor in Albania and the family came to England to be with her while she attends Chetham's. She now has the added pressure of seeing herself as "an investment that should pay off". It surely will.
The third film looks at a splendid and unlikely piano teacher. Forget Miss Prim and welcome Nigel Pitceathley, former bodybuilder and possessor of the widest shoulders in the piano-teaching business. He coaxes, bullies and cajoles confidence into his pupils, mixing humour, confidence-building and rigour in nicely calculated proportions.
Film four, Believing in Yourself, focuses on Jeremy Carnewell, who is in his third, and final, year. He came as a cellist but has now become passionate about conducting - not an easy discipline to follow at Chetham's, which doesn't teach it. He has trouble getting the music he needs and the staff aren't all that supportive. At last, he gets access to an orchestra to rehearse Elgar's Sospin, which he does with creditable confidence.
The films mostly provide an absorbing account of how musical skills are learned. What they don't do is tell us much about Chetham's as a school. The questions multiplied as I watched. How is the school managed? What levels do the students reach in their other studies? And do those other studies ever conflict with the music? How much are the fees, and who pays for them? How many of the students make it as professional musicians?
Ms Day-Lewis might well say that a documentary should concentrate on individual dramas and human interaction. But just one film, giving a fuller picture of the school, would have been much more satisfying.