The tireless music

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This hasn’t been a spectacular year for me, in musical terms. I’ve sung very little that I hadn’t sung before. I’m only a few pages further forward in the Adult Piano Method. I haven’t touched the cello. All the same, I feel as if I’m in a different place, that I’m a better musician, than I was twelve months ago. And I think that that’s largely been down to the simple act of showing up and singing. Consolidation. Every time I sing the Duruflé Requiem, I get better at it. The bits that freaked me out last year are less forbidding this year; the bits I learned in Guildford are old friends. Every time I sing anything, I get better at it, and better at singing.

‘Tireless music’ feels more true than it would have done a year ago. I haven’t had to flake out on choir once this autumn, which is a vast improvement. Eating on the train home before choir practice has really helped. Great Northern trains have not helped so much, but I’ve never been more than a quarter of an hour late.

What else?

  • I replaced a broken cello string and tuned the cello. Haven’t played it yet, but having it playable is a step in the right direction.
  • I led what they call a rousing chorus of Goodnight Irene at a… wake? memorial? celebration? A party, anyway.
  • I had a go with an otamatone, which is a delightfully silly instrument. I have this idea that long acquaintance with a fretless stringed instrument ought to make it fairly easy to get fairly good fairly quickly… I like the theory.

Next year I’d like to develop a reliable top F. I can get a top F at home with the piano; I’d like to get sufficiently comfortable with it that I can also summon it in company, in a cold church. I’d like to sing more appalling Victorian slush (I non-ironically love The Lost Chord, OK?) and get good at it.

I’d like to replace the cello spike. (The current one is too short, and has been since I was fifteen or so.) I’d also like to get to the end of the first volume of the piano tutor.

So much for what I’d like to do. Now for the doing of it. Just keep showing up.

 

The title is from ‘Saint Paul‘, a long poem by Frederick H. W. Myers. Some other verses from that poem make up ‘Hark, what a sound, and too divine for hearing’, which is possibly my favourite Advent hymn. Here‘s the tune played by brass band.

December Reflections 13: soundtrack of 2016

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These were the last three CDs I bought. They’re part of the soundtrack of 2016, but not all of it. Abba, Taylor Swift, Billy Joel… I saw Billy Joel live this year, a Christmas present from my middle brother, and a fantastic night. (It clashed with the Last Night of the Proms. Billy Joel played Rule Britannia, whence he found his way to Ode to Joy and finally into My Life. It was epic.)

What’s missing? Things I’ve sung, for a start. With work choir, Take That’s Shine; Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine; David Bowie’s Life on Mars?; a song called Together we are strong by our conductor.The biggest audience of my life was at national delegate conference in June. I have no way of knowing numbers, but it would have been somewhere between five hundred and fifteen hundred. A lot of people, anyway.

For church choir, Elgar’s Ave Maris Stella; Rubbra’s Missa Sant’ Dominici; Poulenc’s Quem vidistis pastores; Howells’ Magnificat in G (we haven’t got to the Nunc Dimittis yet)… the most difficult ones turn out to be the most memorable, though I would be hard put to it to hum some of them. My one solo this year was in the quartet in Stanford’s Te Deum in B flat.

I was aiming to find a reliable top F and top G this year, but haven’t managed that. That’s a goal for 2017. I continue to try to teach myself the piano. Drink to me only with thine eyes and The Rose of Tralee have been much heard around these parts, very slowly and with some swearing.

As always, I get to know music best from the inside; if I can play something, if I can sing it, I can appreciate it, far more easily than if I just listen.

Art, time and change

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Tomorrow evening my church choir will be singing Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. It’s an oddly appropriate choice for Remembrance Sunday, and it feels even more so given recent events: it was commissioned by the Vichy government in 1941, but Duruflé only finished it in 1947, after the war was over and the world was picking up the pieces.

Part of that, I suspect, is because Duruflé had a tendency to drag his feet on things he didn’t want to do. Only one of his works, the Notre Père, is not based on Gregorian chant, and that is because he only finished it after his wife had started writing it for him, having been requested repeatedly to set the Lord’s Prayer in the vernacular.

But part of it is the simple fact that art takes time. To create, to perform, to consume art, absorbs our attention for long enough to give us a new perspective. The six years that it took Duruflé to write the Requiem, the forty minutes that it takes to sing or to listen to it – that time makes space for things to change, for us to change.

For a couple of years I had a habit of picking up The Count of Monte Cristo in about October, when the days were getting shorter and my mood was getting lower. It’s about 1100 pages long; by the time I got to the end, something would have shifted.

One of the greatest gifts of art is the way that it takes us out of what we think is our own timeline; shows us – sometimes quite literally – the bigger picture; allows us to step back from the overwhelming emotion. Sometimes that feels like a betrayal: how can we possibly feel any less angry, any less hurt, any less scared, than we do at the moment? Surely this devastating news deserves nothing less than everything we have?

The last news story that made me cry was the murder of Jo Cox MP, just before the referendum in which the UK voted to leave the European Union. After that, nothing has really surprised me. Disappointed me, yes, but not surprised me.

The one before that was the General Synod decision in 2012, the one that voted against the appointment of women bishops. That was a November vote, too.

From where I am now, I am thinking, gosh, was that all I had to cry about in 2012? But it only seems trivial now because I know what happened next. When I’d cried about it, I wrote a blog post. Having written the blog post, I found that I was still hurt and angry, still feeling rejected because of a fundamental part of my own identity, and the only thing I could think of to do with that was write fiction.

Lydia choked, rolled onto her side, and sat up. ‘I never realised,’ she said wonderingly, ‘how much it was going to hurt. It goes right into the heart. They don’t want me. They were OK with the person they thought I was, so long as she stayed in her place, and was happy to teach the approved version of events and not rock the boat, but they don’t want the person I really am. I always knew, in theory, that I was only there on sufferance, that as soon as anyone worked out who I really was I’d be out on my ear, but it didn’t hit me until today how terrible it was, when you understand the reality that nobody wants you.’

That was where I began with the final draft. It went on from there: a year of writing; a year of editing; a year of becoming brave enough to put it out under my own name. I burned up the anger that had first fuelled it; I put it all into the text.

By the time I published Speak Its Name on 2 February 2016, six women had been consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. While I was writing, things had changed.

I’m not saying that things will magically become better if we can only wait it out. For some people it is, indeed, already too late. I am not saying that art can fix everything. There are some things that are just wrong. Nevertheless, it is the best tool that I have to make something good, something useful, perhaps even something beautiful, out of emotions that, left unchecked or harnessed for ill, will destroy the world.

Reverb day 8: strivings and blessings

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The Chapel, Little London: an unexpected blessing thoroughly deserved

While alchemy is the active process of creating something of value, serendipity is the passive path to finding an unexpected treasure.

Looking back through 2015, what did you diligently try to create?

What great thing did you just happen to find?

I am usually very wary of the ‘pulled myself up by my bootstraps’ school of thought. I know damn well that I’m very fortunate, very blessed, that good things are showered upon me a long way out of proportion to my own deserving or hard work.

Having said that, I do feel that I’ve put a lot of work in this year, and I can trace most of the things with which I’m most pleased back to months or years of sustained effort. Everything I talked about yesterday, for a start. And plenty of more tangible achievements, too. For example: in September I wandered into a charity shop in Bury St Edmunds and bought a copy of Michael Aaron’s Adult Piano Course. I’m up to page 36 now, and can play Drink to me only with thine eyes more or less accurately; I’m getting on far better with teaching myself than I’d have believed possible. And that’s partly because of hard work between September and here, and partly because of hard work going back to when I was 8 and started cello lessons.

And having said that, I can think of at least a few wonderful things that just happened. Discovering Rhiannon Giddens at Cambridge Folk Festival. An experience that I can perhaps best describe by saying that it was like finding out that a friend was a long-lost brother. There are the things I found by keeping my eyes open: the swing in the giant birdcage outside King’s Cross station, the swan giving her cygnets a ride down the Cam on her back. As recently as yesterday, walking home along the river bank, seeing a succession of anglers with their rods and their boxes and there, between two of them, a heron, watching and waiting for the fish, closer than I’d ever seen one before.

Sometimes it’s been a combination of the two: an exquisite confection of a blessing on top of the cake of effort. I’m thinking now of the first day of my birthday walk. I’d gone nineteen miles, crossed the county boundary from Berkshire into Hampshire. My rucksack wasn’t quite adjusted properly, and my knee was protesting ever louder, and I got lost in the world’s most confusing field, and… I’m going to write all this up properly, but let me just say for the moment that it was not a good day.

I was hot, cross, exhausted and in pain by the time I reached my accommodation for the night, The Chapel at Little London. I can’t begin to put into words the welcome I received there. I knew that my hostess was going to cook me a meal; I didn’t realise that it would be three delicious courses. I can’t explain to someone who hasn’t done a long distance walk how wonderful it is to have somebody take your clothes away and wash them for you. I needn’t, perhaps, say how very comforting is a capacious sofa and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or how blissful it is to lay down one’s exhausted body between cool white sheets.

And this, perhaps, typifies all the treasure of 2015: I’d walked nineteen miles, and I deserved that stay; but I know all the same that I was so very fortunate for it to have happened to me the way it did. Things can be even better than we imagine.

August Moon day 10: dum diddle dee, dum diddle dee

I love the power of music to lift the spirits. I head to the stereo and put on an entire Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Or I would, if the CD player on my stereo still worked. The radio is a crackly mess, and overall the thing is now reduced to a tape player, and I don’t possess any tapes.

But that’s by the by. Gilbert and Sullivan, now. Iolanthe, for preference. The trio in Act II that is all proverbs and little twiddly flourishes, and its reprise in the finale that’s all puns. Even the introduction (dum-diddle-dee, dum-diddle-dee, dum pum pum dum pum pum) makes me smile.

In fact, it tends to be tiny little phrases that get me. That triumphant galumph down the scale in I feel fine (‘she’s tell-ing all the world’), or the sequence of two-steps-forward-one-step-back fourths in O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (‘lift up… thy voice… with strength…’). I will take a whole song to my heart for the sake of a couple of bars. And why not, when they hold such joy within them?

August Moon day 6: just a song…

There is something about twilight that makes me feel nostalgic.

Perhaps it’s those old parlour songs. Just a song at twilight/When the lights are low/And the flickering shadows/softly come and go… Perversely, it reminds me of a childhood joke book. What’s a clown’s favourite song? Jester song at twilight… Or In the gloaming, oh, my darling, when the lights are dim and low… We sang that one in my very first church choir, when I was eight or nine, far too young to be singing will you think of me and love me/as you did once long ago? I enjoyed it, all the same. I’ve always liked melodrama, and a comfortable, melancholy nostalgia. There’s no real regret to it; it’s a musical convention that goes along with the apassionata and the con molto sentimento. Loves are always lost, the singer is always mourning the days gone by. Even the Lost Chord flooded the crimson twilight. The Victorians loved the twilight, and I have an unashamed fondness for the Victorians.

Perhaps it’s Anne of Green Gables. Nobody wrote twilight like L. M. Montgomery, and that’s part of my dreamy, romantic adolescence. Perhaps it’s simply that twilight was my own time. School done, supper done, and just enough time before bed to go and hide in the garden and enjoy the cool. Perhaps twilight has been nostalgic ever since God went walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Perhaps twilight has always told us of what we’ve lost, and has always reassured us that we are, none the less, safe without it. Night is falling, but you see the stars, and the lights in the windows?

This is the right time of year to enjoy twilight. It’s still warm enough to sit outside as darkness falls, and darkness falls early enough to want to sit out there in the deepening blue, looking for the first star and the delicate nail-clipping moon. A week from now, my in-laws will be lighting the candles on the balcony and we’ll be sitting out and quietly catching up with the family news – and the news of the town, because they’ve lived in the same place for long enough that my husband will have been at school with the person who was on the tills at Tesco today, who said had we heard that…? (I always feel slightly envious of that. It’s a long, long time since I saw any of my first choir.) And old stories will be told, and new ones. It is good to be together when night falls.

Twilight, and evening bell, and after that the dark…

Expanding the Comfort Zone

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of expanding one’s comfort zone from within, as opposed to stepping out of it (useful posts here from Havi Brooks and Jem Bloomfield), in the context of singing – purely because I spend a lot of my spare time doing it.

I estimated a couple of months ago that I’ve averaged two hours of choral singing a week over the past decade. There have, of course, been lighter patches (2007, of which I spent a third in Spain and Germany not singing much at all, and my second and third years at university, when I decided that the need of the serving team was greater than the need of the chapel choir), but they are balanced out by the five years I spent in the choir at Holy Trinity, Guildford. During term time we did two services every Sunday, with a half hour or forty-five minute rehearsal before each one, and an hour’s practice every Thursday. As a result I know a lot of the standard church music repertoire inside out and back to front: if we assume that each piece was sung twice a year, once during a morning service and once at an evensong, then I’ve performed most of them ten times.

I was not at all confident when I joined. All my life I’ve been close to people who have more singing experience than I do and, while they have been nothing but supportive, I’ve always been able to see that their sightreading was better than mine, that they were more confident than I was, that they could hold a line against all comers and I couldn’t. Fortunately, when I joined Holy Trinity, there were plenty of other altos to follow.

I’ve joined two new choirs over the past year, and I’m still singing less than I was at Holy Trinity. They have both proved the expansion of my comfort zone, in very different ways.

The first one was one of the several choirs that run out of my parish church. The workload is considerably less: we sing one, maybe two, services every month, with an hour’s rehearsal beforehand, and a rehearsal on the preceding Friday. This is very much flying by the seat of the pants: a lot of sightreading, and no guarantee that there’ll be anyone else on your part to prop you up.

And that doesn’t scare me any more. Once upon a time I would have been too terrified even to consider joining this choir, but my comfort zone has expanded to encompass this method too.

Granted, some of this is stuff I already know from Holy Trinity. On Easter Sunday I was the only alto at evensong. That was fine: we did Blessed be the God and Father, which I have sung every Easter since 2008. On the other hand, I was the only alto at the previous evensong, and I was sightreading an anthem… I can’t remember what it was, only that I’d never seen it before in my life, and that the alto line contained several top Gs. The very first piece that I did with the new choir was Herbert Howells’ Requiem; that, thank goodness, had rather more rehearsal time dedicated to it.

The other choir is pretty much the complete opposite. In this choir, ten weeks to learn three pieces is presented as a frighteningly tight timescale. This is the workplace choir, set up by the social club and the excellent Workplace Choir Company. Its basic assumption is that nobody has sung anything since they were at school, when they were probably told by a teacher that they couldn’t. This seemed to be about right at my workplace. There was a question early on: who was in a choir already? I was one of perhaps three people who raised their hands. Three out of sixty, and the only one in the first altos.

There was the solo. (But I’ve done solos before, in front of people who would know exactly where I’d gone wrong.) There was the fact that I was doing the solo with a microphone. (That was new territory.) There was the responsibility. At one point the Director of the Executive Office told me, ‘You’re our leader’. I’m not even sure that she was joking. (I have never before in my life been the most experienced member of a large choir.) There was the assuring of everybody that everything was going to be fine.

And somehow I was able to meet it all with a general attitude of ‘Bring it on!’ Solo? Bring it on! Microphone? Bring it on! Teaching a tricky snippet to the rest of my section without reference to a piano? Bring it on! It’s being filmed? Wait, what? Er, bring it on! Thank you, comfort zone, expanding yourself while I wasn’t even looking.

I managed to appear calm through the performance, although it wasn’t until last week, when the high-quality video was made available, that I was able to see whether or not I’d cocked it up. I never know how a solo has gone after the event. I’d like to think that’s because I’m so absorbed in the music that I’ve no space left in my head to remember it, but it’s happened before when I’ve lost a bar in the middle of it.

Anyway, it turns out it wasn’t too bad, all things considered. Here’s the result. I’m the tallest soloist, in the green shirt, singing the alto part in the second verse. Me and my expanded comfort zone.