Back to Bach

Yesterday I went to the Early Music Festival in Greenwich.

It was a little strange being in the area again. Attending a concert in St Alfege church as a member of the public was a little odd but not hugely so, despite the fact that the last time I was there was for my final recital. It was good to hear the Trinity recorders play as I’ve been doing some playing with recorders myself recently after almost no contact with them for decades.

Stranger was going to the Old Royal Naval College Chapel and hearing Susan Sheppard play the first two Bach ‘cello suites.

The Chapel, especially in my final year at Trinity, was somewhere I went to collect my thoughts, to sit in silence and regain some calm when the bustle and noise of a music college all got a bit much for me. I went just to sit and think at least as often as I attended concerts there, probably more. If the weather was good and I had time I’d go to the park, but if I only had a few minutes and it was pouring with rain I went to the Chapel.

The repertoire was even more significant, though. In autumn 2007 I returned to my studies after taking time out for injury and illness. It was still a bit touch and go whether I’d be able to continue. Playing for very long was painful and I knew it would take time and patience to regain my former endurance. For most of the autumn it was all I could do to keep up with various ensemble performances and I really wasn’t keeping up with any personal practising.

Early in 2008 I realised that I needed to find a way to relate to the instrument again, to play music I love for the sake of playing it. It wasn’t a very conscious process at the time, but somehow I fell into playing Bach again: the third ‘cello suite, and the second and first which I had studied before. For around three months I played little else, or that’s how I remember it now. I would turn up, do a warm-up, play some Bach. Here was something that would challenge me musically as well as technically, something that I could come back to day after day after day. Here was the spiritual sustenance I needed to learn, again and yet for the first time, to do the work of making music. My long-suffering teacher didn’t scold me when I turned up lesson after lesson with yet more music written for an instrument neither of us play. He waited until I was ready to learn new repertoire, and in the meantime we worked on Bach. It worked. 

That isn’t the only time I’ve used Bach to get myself playing. When I was busking on the London Underground I also used to play Bach, and in some ways it was that, rather than the prospect of people literally throwing money at me, which got me out of the house on sluggish days. But that wasn’t as profound as the transformation in 2008, not as necessary. 

I’ve been struggling to practise the horn a little, lately; it seems I’m awfully busy, and much of my work right now is on other instruments. Yet lack of time alone doesn’t explain it. Surely it was sensible to have a brief rest from horn playing after the end of my degree, but surely it is time to get past that, to move on, to keep playing. Something feels not quite right, something I know I need to play through rather than avoid, but which also makes me reluctant to start playing.

The recital in the Chapel yesterday, the juxtaposition of that repertoire and that space, reminded me that the Bach suites, for me, will always be partly about healing. 

I think I know what I need to do differently.

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.

Exam Countdown Time

Only ten sleeps until my Performance Assessment. Only one weekend between me and it.

The weighting is 50% on one solo piece, to be performed from memory, and 50% on everything else (technical exercises, orchestral extracts, sightreading and transposition). In addition there is a Pass/Fail Technical Portfolio which must be handed in: this will include details, analysis and evaluation of what I’ve been working on this year.

I’m in pretty good shape with the solo piece. I’ll be playing the first movement of Strauss 1. I need to find some more testosterone from somewhere, but the technical and musical challenges of the work are not overwhelming. My memory is absolutely fine, as it always has been; I’m very lucky to be a quick-study as far as memorisation is concerned. I have a rehearsal with the pianist this afternoon, and I don’t anticipate problems.

Orchestral extracts are less secure. I do have a plan for studying these, and I’ll spend most of this Friday’s horn lesson on them.

Sight-reading and transposition are fair to middling; my sight-reading on the horn has always been strong, and my transposition at sight is adequate for most orchestral work, but I remember well my second-year technical exam where the sightreading and transposition piece was seriously challenging atonal music, which I couldn’t have sung, let alone played accurately. There’s no promise the same won’t happen again, and I’d like to have more skill in this area than I currently do.

While I can bootstrap the orchestral extracts to an extent, the technical exercises and sightreading are simply not the sort of thing where cramming will work. At this point, I’m better off focusing on general playing skills than trying to worry about whether my B Major scale is perfect at a given speed. Ten days is long enough that doing a bit of sight-reading each day, a bit of transposition each day, and some serious work on the scales will help, but only after I’ve laid good groundwork with an excellent warm-up and a thorough work-out. If I do those things, then the technical exercises required by the assessment board will be representative of my general skill, which is how things should be. If I don’t, then no amount of work on specific scales or arpeggios between now and the exam will mask the deficiencies in my playing.

With this in mind, today’s horn lesson consisted almost entirely of going through the Singer book, discussing and choosing exercises for me to work on. Most of them are things we’ve discussed previously, they can seem a bit dry, and writing them out seems ridiculous given the simplicity and repetition of them… but having the book, having a structure on the page to follow instead of remembering what to do ‘in my head’, has already made a difference. I don’t know why it’s easier to play repeated long notes, gradually rising chromatically, when they’re written out on the page than when I’m just reminding myself to play long tone exercises, but it is. Scales I don’t tend to find I need written out (it isn’t as if I don’t know what the notes are), but I’ve always found it easier to practise them systematically when I have some sort of checklist in front of me. I suppose it just makes it easier to divide things into chunks in my head, to convince myself to do just to the end of the page before I have a break. My dependence on a written structure is something I’d do well to remember, though, and apply in all of my learning.

Is it any wonder I don’t post much?

I’ve not been posting so much this past week; between having a cold, finishing up the last bits of moving house and trying to keep up with paperwork I’ve been short on computer time.

I’ve just come out of an information session with representatives of Impromptu Publishing, who publish Muso magazine. They will have a stall in the UNPLUGGED section of the forthcoming London International Music Show, and they wanted students to help out. There are two positions and six or seven of us turned up, and I figure as I can’t do the Sunday due to teaching I’m unlikely to get hired, but it’s a useful networking opportunity in any case. I might get some flyering work out of it, for example.

I hadn’t previously been aware of the Muso website. It looks to be a reasonable resource. They have a sheet music shop which stocks scores from several different publishers, a small forum, and you can set up a profile and add media and so on. I think it could be interesting but will have to wait and see whether they have caught the true spirit of user-created content as described in Gin, Television and Social Surplus. So far? It’s too small for me to tell, not that I claim to be some oracle of Whether Things Work Online.

Enough, enough links. What have I actually been up to?

Tuesday was busy: practising, Sinfonia rehearsal, lesson with Mark Bassey, Sinfonia rehearsal, trio rehearsal minus the pianist, which ended up being very short (because really? There’s not much you can do with the Brahms horn trio without the piano there). By then I was feeling all lurgified again.

Wednesday was also busy, I got myself up and out early enough for a brief walk around the park, then it was practising followed by two meetings (one with my personal tutor, Douglas Finch, another Canadian in London, and one with the head of Student Services here at Trinity), class, and horn class. Except about a half hour before the start of horn class, my energy levels took a very swift dive, so I went home early and went to bed. Ugh. I do feel better for the extra sleep, but it’s a shame to miss horn class with so few left in the year.

Today has been good so far. Again with the park, which was a cacophony of birdsong this morning. A short bit of practising, just a warm-up really, then up the hill to BlackDeath Blackheath for orchestra rehearsal, back down again for the information/recruitment session, and in a few minutes I’m off to vote in the mayoral elections. Silly me managed to lose my voting card but happily you can just turn up anyway; the system is rather open to fraud but I guess at least it gets people voting.

This evening there is the concert all these Sinfonia rehearsals have been held in preparation for: Biber, Vaughan Willians, Mozart and Schubert. The concert is in the Great Hall of Blackheath Halls, starts at 7.30pm and costs £10 (conc. £7).

No rest for the wicked, though, or even for the mildly impish such as myself. Tomorrow Symphony Orchestra rehearsals start for the TCM Soloists’ Competition Final.

Back to work

Friday was indeed a lovely rest day. I sat around and ate too much toast and read some of a rather grim book by Ayn Rand.

Classes have re-started; this is the last stretch before exams. It’s good to be back, but I’m already very busy.

Yesterday I didn’t get much practise in at all, partly because of leaving home a bit late and partly because of problems on the Docklands Light Railway. I walked from Poplar to Greenwich, which took about an hour and left me too late to really do much before my first class. I did an hour later in the day, but it’s never quite the same.

The class was quite straightforward, it’s part of a series of classes dealing with the details of our Year 4 projects. I think I know now what I’ll be doing for mine: watch this space for details!

This morning I did get a good solid two hours of practising in before a rehearsal. I’d thought today would be very busy, with rehearsals morning and afternoon and then the Brahms trio rehearsal at 6pm, but it turns out I wasn’t needed for the afternoon rehearsal. This gives me a chance to catch up on some paperwork. I never seem to run out of paperwork. If I could afford a competent personal assistant I’d jump at the chance to have one, as paperwork isn’t really something that I’m terribly fond of.

Teaching on Sunday and on Monday went well, I was in a great mood and I think my rest on Friday really helped. I’ve acquired an extra two hours of teaching per week, which is good news for financial reasons. The new students seem enthusiastic and capable, so there’s nothing left for it now but to teach them and see what happens.

Practising was unpleasant this morning. I’ve had three days in a row of not playing, and things never sound or feel quite right after that. It went reasonably well, though, so I think I’ll be on track again by tomorrow.

The reason for my non-practising yesterday is that I was attending a seminar presented by Open Rights Group, Creative Business in the Digital Era. The curriculum and various other useful information is all available under Creative Commons licence from the CBDE wiki, and participation is encouraged, so please do add your tuppence worth.

Last night I wrote up some of my impressions of the seminar in a fairly loose and unstructured manner, but I won’t be posting that today as I’ve left the laptop at home.

Classes are officially over until 14th April! Most of this week my focus is on getting my last Arranging assignment finished, and some chamber music rehearsals. I’m also looking at moving house again, sadly. Various things have not been going well, and I need to either move now while I don’t have classes or wait until after exams.

The past few weeks have been a well-deserved rest from just about everything. I’ve been visiting family in Canada, and I’ve made the most of the opportunity to really have a good rest. It’s been wonderful in many ways. I did some playing in church on Christmas Eve but haven’t really picked up my horn since, which is maybe not so good.

The few weeks before that were extremely busy and stressful, with moving house and lots of rehearsals happening at the same time. I do still need to deal with some of the aftermath of that when I return home. Among other things, I got a new horn stick support, which is working better for me than the old one was.

I’ve made good progress on my Arrangement assignment, I think I’m about a third of the way done now. Two or three more good, solid afternoons of work before classes start should see it in pretty good shape.

Once I’m back in London I’m going to challenge myself to update this blog every day until the first of March. The idea is that as it’s a music blog I’m not going to want to update it if I haven’t practised or made some progress on musical projects, so by forcing myself to update every day I’ll also encourage myself to stay focused on the things I need to do to improve my musicianship and succeed in my studies.

I think the most difficult day to deal with will be Sundays; I usually teach piano all day on Sunday and don’t practise horn at all. I think I probably need to do more mouthpiece work on Sundays and make sure I take some written work with me to look over on the train. Another option would be to spend some time on Sundays getting my website up and running.