The Week, er, Behind

On Monday I posted about all I have to do this week.

Things are some things that didn’t get done. I still haven’t rescheduled my dental appointment, and there are a few other phonecalls that have piled up, which isn’t so good. I fought with the piece for the St Paul’s competition but still I don’t have a rough draft I’m happy with, so I’m having to consider whether I’ll submit anything at all. I didn’t get around to finding recordings for the choir at St Andrew’s to listen to, and I didn’t get to the recitals at Trinity that I wanted to attend.
There were some good things, though. The choir rehearsal at St Andrew’s yesterday evening went well despite my rather shallow preparation and only having two people there. It’s quite hard work to sing with so few people present and those who did turn up worked hard and did well.
Also yesterday I met with Rev Kathryn Robinson, the newly-appointed Performing Arts Adviser for the Barking Episcopal area. It was good to meet her and to talk about some of what I do, what’s going on at St Andrew’s, and some of the collaborations that might be possible.
The Brigantia Consort rehearsal on Thursday night felt efficient and useful, despite all of us being rather exhausted. We’ve managed to share out the writing of programme notes in a way that I think makes sense, we made some decisions about clothing (always difficult if you decide you don’t want to just wear black), we narrowed down some of the repertoire for the concert on 11th July and oh, yeah, we rehearsed some music. I don’t want to speak too soon — it definitely needs more work — but tuning between serpent and violin does seem to be improving.
At Quire on Wednesday night I did not completely disgrace myself at playing a rather tricky bassline on an instrument with a turning circle the size of an elephant, and as usual I enjoyed the rehearsal immensely.
Teaching on Monday and Tuesday went well. It was the first week of trying out some new timing for Tuesdays, which looks like it’s going to work a lot better for my students as well as meaning I get home a good 45 minutes earlier. Hooray! The long-term viability of making the journey from Leytonstone to North London two days a week has been weighing on me recently; the later nights on Tuesday definitely weren’t helping. I was still too tired to do as much psalmody-related reading as I would have liked, though.
Today has been a Day Off, except that writing this post probably counts as work, oops. Tomorrow will be mostly church and another attempt at some composing, and then a look at what lies ahead next week.

Brigantia Consort hath a website.

It’s very rudimentary, but Brigantia Consort now has a web presence. Yay!

Why the rush to get this done? Well, we’re busking tomorrow morning at Parliament Hill Farmers’ Market, weather permitting, to raise money for Shelter. While we’re there we’ll also hand out some flyers and maybe even sell tickets for our next concert:

With Merry Glee
An eclectic programme of psalmody,
folk music and improvisation
with an early music twist.
Anna Michel — violin
Jessie Holder — voice, recorder
Kathryn Rose — horn, serpent
Sunday, 11th July 7.30pm
St John on Bethnal Green
200 Cambridge Heath Road London E2 9PA
Tickets £5 (£4 conc.) available at the door
or contact
Pretty neat, eh? There’s a lot to do yet, of course. But the posters and tickets themselves have the address of the blog where we’re parking the website for now, so there had to be something up there, even if it’s rudimentary.
Meanwhile, I’ve not been posting here much, despite my best intentions. I think that after I stopped posting lots of degree-related things, I sort of “lost the voice” of this blog. I suspect the only way to develop it is going to be to post, though, and I make no guarantees about just how often I’ll manage that.


Good rehearsal today with the other members of the Brigantia Consort — we looked at some new repertoire, rehearsed stuff we’ve been working on for performance probably this summer, and did some improvisation.

We recorded some of the rehearsal, and it was interesting to hear the results. Two things, to my mind, really stood out.
The first is that we do talk rather a lot between playing. Of course this is necessary to an extent and good conversations about the music now can make for much less work later on.
Some of the talking, I think, is because we don’t have fixed repertoire, very tight limits on rehearsal time or any concrete engagement to work toward. We have some idea where we’re going, but because there isn’t a huge amount of urgency in getting there we have the flexibility to take the time to discuss things properly. Another factor is that as our instrumentation is non-standard (various combinations of voice/recorder, violin/recorder, horn/serpent/voice) and our repertoire rather eclectic we do have to approach each work from a few different angles. Baroque bow or modern? Vibrato or not? Should that line be played on the recorder, or sung on a relevant syllable? Do we need to scratch this arrangement and write our own, or can we swap the voices around to make it work better? Are the instruments being faithful to the stresses of the language if there are words? That does take a lot of talking through!
It’s a great luxury to have rehearsals that are laid back enough that we can burst out laughing, explain things in detail or go off on the occasional tangent; on the whole I think we are reasonably focused. But listening to a recording, it’s amazing just how much chattering we do, and how little playing. Perhaps we would be better off making more notes and fewer words.
The second thing, and one we all noticed, is that the improvisation was superior to playing from sheet music in just about every way. It wasn’t just that we had warmed up by then; if anything I was getting tired, mentally if not physically, from lots and lots of C basso transposition. It is partly that improvising freely as we did today gives us the option to play to our strengths and avoid technically challenging passages. The biggest difference, though, is that without the dots in front of us we are forced to listen. Intonation and timing immediately improve, because we’re not worried about playing or singing a “wrong” note, but instead listening to one another and really playing together, really creating something that none of us could create on our own.
We are learning what we need to do to rehearse better. As far as focus and use of time are concerned, we’ve started jotting down a rehearsal plan at the beginning of every session. That sounds like an obvious thing, but most of my chamber rehearsals have had such a limited repertoire that the schedule would sort itself out quite simply, and most larger ensembles have been led and planned by someone other than me. In this group we do need to spend time surveying repertoire together, sight-reading together, and improvising. Each having more than one possible instrument, and having to adapt our repertoire accordingly, also requires a different sort of rehearsal than just going in and learning the music. There are also administrative tasks, and we’re still figuring out who is best in which role as far as paperwork is concerned. In order to keep track of all this I think the best thing is going to be to start a notebook, much as I have for each of my music students, and jot down not only a plan for each rehearsal but any comments on pieces and secretarial tasks.
The other thing I think will be useful is to start each rehearsal differently. Today we started by singing a piece we know reasonably well, then launched straight into sight-reading. It was useful, but given how much the improvisation changed our playing, I think it would be good to incorporate that into the beginning of the rehearsal. I know that with choirs and other larger ensembles, some sort of warm-up routine does seem to make a difference not only with the quality of each individual’s playing and singing but with people’s ability to listen to one another. It would make sense, then, rather than just doing our individual instrumental warm-ups (if any) and having a quick tune, to do some kind of communal warm-up. I think this will need to be fairly flexible but it would make sense for it to include some sort of improvisation.

Performance Collective Evening Concert

London Performance Collective
7.30pm Evening Concert
Tuesday 18th August

An Evening filled with music, wine and cake

* Rimsky-Korsakov – Flight of the Bumble Bee for bassoon and piano
* Otar Taktakishvili – Flute Sonata
* Handel – Sonata in G minor Op. 1 No. 6, violin and serpent
* Schumann – Fantasiestucke, Op. 12
* Beethoven – Trio – for flute, bassoon, and piano

Tickets: £10 (Conc. £6)

The Space (directions and map)

The London Performance Collective is a new ensemble which presents classical and modern music in new ways to help audiences to experience it afresh. We perform good music from all historical periods, but aim to present it in ways which open ears anew to its impact.

Results, moving on and settling in…

Where to start?

I got my degree. Specifically, I have been awarded a Bachelor of Music (Hons), Second Class Honours, Upper Division. In ordinary terms that’s known as a 2:1 in the British system.

I had a celebratory recital on 10th July. I’m listening to a recording now, to try and make a CD to hand on to someone who couldn’t be there. It’s interesting… a note in the Mozart that I had pegged as ‘always a bit sharp’ is flat in both the exam and the recital. Clearly I should have recorded more of my practising for troubleshooting purposes. Overall, the recital went well and I think I played better than in the exam, so I’m very glad I did it. Also, there’s little better than playing with friends and family for a large group of my friends and family.

I’ve also moved house. No more shall I wander along the Roman Road, at least not in order to get the bus to take me to Trinity in the mornings. The new house has a music room, which means I don’t actually need to leave to practise. I don’t need to book a room, either. This is most excellent. The house even came with a piano, which, although in need of some work, allows me to put off the expensive decision on buying one for myself, at least for a few more years.

So, I’ve been doing some practising, some small bits of composing, and rather a lot of packing and unpacking. In an unprecedented fit of being rather more organised than usual, most of my existing teaching schedule for the autumn is sorted out. I do need to find more students locally, but I also know it will take time to build up a class in this area.

The next few weeks bring a performance on 18th August (I’ll play serpent and Anna will play violin), a trip to deepest darkest Somerset to unwind for a few days, and rather a lot of unpacking. I also need to start doing some arranging and transcription of popular works for horn, violin and ‘cello, as it looks like a group of us are doing some of that. I also want to get going again on putting together a horn and organ concert, but I may need to wait a little longer and get some job applications out of the way, first. A website wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

In future summers I hope I’ll be able to have a longer rest in August, but as so much is in transition and there are so many new starts, this one is turning out to be mostly one where I keep my head down.

How about you?

The week ahead, the year ahead.

It’s Monday, just barely. I’ve had a good couple of days of teaching, and got back to Trinity for the first time in 2009 today.

I have a lunchtime recital to play in next Wednesday, so most of my practising goals this week are related to making sure I’m in good form for that. This means lots of long, gentle warm-ups, lots of mental study of the pieces I’ll be playing and lots of playing through the pieces in their entirety, both to cement my memory and to keep my endurance up. This latter is quite important as I had a few days off playing last week.

The lunchtime recital on 14th January will be at St John on Bethnal Green, 200 Cambridge Heath Road. Repertoire will be:

Dunhill: Cornucopia – Six Miniatures (horn and piano)
Butler: Hunding (unaccompanied horn)
Debussy: two of the Preludes for piano
Beethoven: Sonata Op. 17 (horn and piano)

I also need to get some programme notes sorted out, and make a poster to put up!

Most of tomorrow will be spent in sectional rehearsals for Wind Orchestra (which always reminds me of my teacher in Lethbridge, Dr Tom Staples, saying, “It’s a band, folks!”). This band is playing some of the usual Ralph Vaughan-Williams but also Messiaen and some other challenging works.

Other projects I’ll be working on this week include some last bits of planning and publicity for my Year 4 Project (I’m still waiting on date confirmation so not announcing anything just yet!), and writing a cadenza for the Gliere concerto which I’ll be playing in the Soloists Competition on 25th January. And I want to get things sorted out for teaching a horn scales class again: we had one session last term and it went well, but I can’t cover twelve keys (and their relative minors) in two hours and also teach thoroughly, so these need to happen on a weekly basis if they’re going to be of any use to anyone.

I’ve also been offered a serpent. No, not the infamous reptile that once got Eve into a spot of trouble, but the musical instrument. I have been singing with the London Gallery Quire for most of the last term and enjoyed it heartily; now it seems I will be their serpentist. More on this after I actually meet the instrument in question on Wednesday night! I have wanted a serpent for some time, you might even say I have been tempted by them, but before Sunday afternoon I did not get a chance to play one. Now I’ve played one for probably the better part of 45 minutes.

So, that’s the week ahead. I believe it’s also traditional, with the new cycle of the arbitrary Gregorian calendar we use to mark time in the West, to think and write of the year ahead.

The year ahead… well, the first half of it is a matter of trying to get this degree finished without too many catastrophes. The second half of it will be the transition from being a good-for-nothing student with hardly any free time to being a good-for-nothing musician with a bit more free time. I think they call it a “portfolio career” these days. For me, that means more teaching, hopefully some of it in schools and some of it privately, and trying to keep some performance (particularly chamber music) going, perhaps with organisations like Live Music Now. It means I’ll have time to learn things as and when I’m interested in learning them and have the spare brain cycles, rather than keeping to a set syllabus: I’m very, very glad I ended up at Trinity but I am looking forward to the freedom of dipping into one thing or another at my leisure and pleasure! I’ll also be moving house at some point this summer. I cannot keep a serpent and three horns in this flat indefinitely, and I want somewhere that I’ll be able to start teaching from home, and preferably a garden too. But really, for now, it’s a focus on academic work from now until around June, and after that I’ll relax, take some deep breaths, and see what happens.

Charterhouse International Music Festival

Since 22nd July I’ve been at the Charterhouse International Music Festival. I’ve been having quite a wonderful time!

The weather has been excellent so far, if perhaps a little warm for playing. Last night brought thunderstorms and today has been far more comfortable.

I’m enjoying lots of playing, and catching up on some much-needed sleep. The horn teacher has some useful things to say and I’m learning a fair amount from him and the other instructors, but I must also note that much of the benefit of being here is simply not having to deal with all the ordinary day-to-day chores for a while: the only transport to think about is a 15-minute walk across the grounds, and meals are all provided with no preparation or washing-up to do.

I am thinking a bit about how I might take some of the benefits of a situation like this and create a similar environment when I get back to London, if not while I’m at Trinity (as I seem to have managed to find a structure that roughly works) then certainly afterward. A period of intensive study for a few weeks every term might be do-able without letting too much of the life-maintenance stuff slide, if I prepare carefully beforehand.

It is quite a busy schedule, with a masterclass, three rehearsals and three concerts per day. So far the horn masterclasses have been with Michael Thompson, who I’d not met before getting here. Tomorrow he isn’t going to be here, so we get Anthony Halstead instead.

Lots of playing! On the 23rd I played the Hindemith wind quintet, on the 24th I played the Reinecke trio (op. 188) for horn, oboe and piano. Today I played two movements of the Jenner trio for clarinet, horn and piano in the lunchtime concert, and the Ligeti Six Bagatelles in the evening concert. Tomorrow I’m due to play the Hindemith E-flat althorn sonata on the tenor cor in the 6pm concert and the Dvorak Serenade in the evening concert, but I’m also hoping to play some transcribed Brahms lieder in the masterclass; another student here helped me with some translations, since I only had the German with me.

Concert attendance is perhaps a bit sparse, but with three concerts a day this is understandable. Much as I’d like to attend all three concerts, I can’t quite handle that and the rehearsing, so I settle for one or two.

I’ve been keeping a paper diary of specific thoughts on masterclasses, rehearsals and practise sessions and I’m finding it quite useful, but it runs to 23 pages so I’m not going to type it all in here. I do think I’m going to start keeping a similar logbook (with perhaps a bit more structure), because running through these things at the end of each day is a very good way to remind myself of the important points and also helps me plan the next day better. I’m not sure whether I’ll do that in digital or deadtree format. Digital has a lot going for it in terms of ease of entry, but a paper diary can be carried with me and updated anywhere I happen to be, which could be good. I can see myself filling in details while I’m commuting home in the evening, for example, and that’s much harder to do on a computer (I don’t have a laptop cheap enough that I’m willing to use it on public transport).

Right, at the moment there is a queue for the computers so I’m going to go fill in aforementioned diary with today’s events, then go and get some sleep. If I’m feeling particularly energetic I might try to get out to a field and watch some of the Perseid meteor shower, but I can probably catch more of that next week in Somerset.

Chamber music

Saturday’s concert went well, I thought. The audience was quite small, mostly due rather rainy and unfriendly weather in the morning.

Playing in that particular space was interesting: I found the piano very loud and could hardly hear Anna on the violin but apparently three feet away the balance was good. I think we played reasonably well: not everything was technically perfect, but that isn’t a realistic expectation at this point. Not everything was musically perfect either, but there were definitely some good moments. The audience was appreciative and this is always a welcome thing.

So far this week has been going a bit slowly. I had quite a tiring week last week: in addition to preparing for Saturday’s performance I was dealing with broken glasses, a broken horn (nothing major: the pinky hook came unsoldered), and feeling generally quite tired. I managed to pick up a cold from somewhere and it has gone straight to my ears of all places so I’m not feeling amazing.

That said, I’ve been getting some good work done. Monday was understandably slow and I really had to push myself to get out of the flat in the morning at all, but the teaching component of it went well and by the end of the day I was feeling much better. Coming home to find out some of the repertoire I’m being asked to play at Charterhouse was certainly a highlight.

Tuesday I managed my distractabrain a bit better: I got somewhat ambushed by piano parts for various bits of chamber music, but this is no bad thing as having a high level of familiarity with these is only ever going to be an advantage. In total I practised for six hours. I also took various parts out of the library and attended a concert at the Old Royal Naval College Chapel in the evening.

Repertoire! I had just started to get to a point where I was feeling a bit stuck, a bit aimless in my practising… I really needed either a lesson (next one is scheduled for 18th July so still a little way off) or some intermediate goals to work on. There’s nothing like being told, “Hey, come play this in two weeks” to get things started. It looks like the programme will be as follows:

23rd July
Hindemith Kleine Kammermusik for wind quintet
Mozart Quintet for Piano and Winds
24th July
Reinecke Trio for piano, oboe and horn in A minor, opus 188
29th July
Ligeti Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet

The Hindemith I don’t know well but I do have a recording of it; I’ve played the Mozart before though it was a few years ago. I know neither of those will be problematic, and roughly how much work I’ll have to put in. I’ve actually been working on the Reinecke this year anyway, though in the end we didn’t get past the first rehearsal due to schedule conflicts.

The Ligeti was an unknown to me, before yesterday. I was worried at first, because I don’t always “get” Ligeti: some of what he writes I find deeply moving and beautiful, and some of it I guess I’m just not ready for yet. I’m not guaranteed, as I am with Bach or Mozart or Brahms, an instant idea of what to do with the music. Oh, Bach and Brahms and Mozart all require study for me to perform them effectively and really understand them, but I have a good grounding in the harmonic language used, so I always know where to start. Some more modern works simply leave me baffled.

This is actually quite important. For me, performance (and teaching to an extent but that’s a different discussion) isn’t about technical prowess so much as communicating to other people my ideas of what is good about a work. It’s a sort of show-and-tell, where I have an opportunity to get up and, through playing, say,

“Listen to this! Isn’t that bit neat? Isn’t it amazing how sad these sounds can make you feel? Isn’t the rhythm there fascinating, aren’t those harmonies beautiful? Shiny! I love it! I hope you do, too!”

That’s an amazing gift, a wonderful opportunity, and I can’t do it if I don’t love or at least like the piece I’m playing. I will never be able to use technical accomplishment to dazzle a listener into loving a piece of music, and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. That doesn’t mean that the technical aspect of musicianship isn’t important: to communicate my ideas clearly requires physical preparation, to be fluent in the language of music requires a high level of proficiency and further refinements in that are always going to be possible. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, though, understanding and liking the music and being in a frame of mind to pass that on are absolutely essential.

I was pleased, then, to discover that the Ligeti Bagatelles are an instant match. Why did I not know of these before? They are gorgeous: playful lyrical by turns, rhythmical without detracting from some truly beautiful harmonies. It will be an honour to perform them, and I hope I can do them justice.