Saturday, 11 December 2010

A flute by any other name

The other day a young student told me she was going to write the word 'floboe' on her flute case. My puzzled expression elicited an explanation. "There aren't any oboes in the junior orchestra," she told me, "so some of the flutes play the oboe parts. So we call ourselves floboe players."

This put me in mind of a some-time pit band colleague (shows, not collieries) who is currently playing the clarinet parts of Beauty and the Beast on an alto flute. I wonder if she thinks of herself as a flarinettist?

I am reliably informed the 'flarinet' sounds beautiful and I have no reason to believe the floboe sounds any less so.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

December's Game of the Month

December's free music game has just been uploaded. Called Seven of Eight, it's one for the whole group or class. Versatile as they come, this exercise can be made simple enough for five year olds or sufficiently challenging to stretch accomplished adults. Go ahead and assimilate it.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Descant recorders - health scare

It's not often my friend Hugh and I meet young girls who tell us we're gorgeous. And if you saw us you would instantly know why. So when I went with Hugh and a couple of others to demonstrate musical instruments on a travellers' site last week I had a pleasant surprise. The boost to my self esteem was short lived, however, as the word used was actually 'gadjos' (pronounced gorgeous). Gadjo means non-gypsy, literally 'outsider'. I found the outsider tag mildly amusing as I live inside a house whereas travellers...

Anyway, when we arrived at a small Portakabin on the site we found a box of percussion had been provided by a school teacher. This contained no fewer than three descant recorders. Some twenty years ago I had the misfortune to teach recorder to a six-year-old boy who took great pleasure in pointing the thing in my face and blowing as loudly as he could for half an hour. This only lasted for two lessons. A third lesson and I'm sure I would have done something I would still be regretting at Her Majesty's pleasure.

My ears are less sensitive after two decades of teaching woodwind but a recorder in the wrong hands still feels like someone drawing on my eardrums with a marker pen. Following this workshop my ears rang the way they used to after a Hawkwind gig. You should know, if you don't already, that if you subject your ears to noise that leaves them ringing you have caused them permanent damage. So the moral is, never give a recorder to a child unless you really know what you expect him or her to do with it. Never casually include one, never mind three, in a box of percussion instruments. In fact, if I ruled the world I would place recorders in the same category as alcohol and cigarettes with hefty fines for anyone supplying them to minors.

Monday, 8 November 2010


It's always a pleasure to visit Cambridge, even on those occasions when, not expecting rain, I get soaked to the skin. I arrived in balmy temperatures and sat outside the rehearsal space with a cup of coffee. But when I left the Fitzwilliam just after lunch it was markedly cooler and the rain was just beginning. And by the time I got back to our rehearsal space I was wet through.

I was in the city to work on a performance project called 'Dreams of Kings and Heroes' that opens at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the end of the month. It is based on, and accompanies, the current Shahnameh exhibition. The Shahnameh tells the Persian story prior to the Arab invasion in the 7th Century AD. It's a heady, and often violent, blend of history, legend and myth is reminiscent of both the Old Testament and One Thousand and One Nights.

Friday was an opportunity to meet the rest of the team, see the exhibition for myself and play with some ideas. Now I'm immersing myself in Persian classical music, quarter tones and all, in the hope that some flavours will find their way into my own compositions. If experience is anything to go by, fifty minutes may not be long enough to accustom Western ears to quarter tones, even if there were to be music throughout the show. But I hope stop short of Disneyfication and strive to do justice to what looks like being a fabulous (literally, for once) son et lumière presentation.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Little Red Robin Hood

I have spent a fair amount of the last two weeks writing music and creating sound effects for Garlic Theatre's new show. I have composed most of the music for the previous four Garlic shows but Iklooshar, one half of the 'husband-and-wife' company, was keen to score this one by herself. My role has been to take up any slack and advise on technical matters and, in the event, very little of my work made it onto the final performance CD.

Little Red Robin Hood sees the merry band turning up to a performance of Robin Hood only to discover that there has been an administrative cock-up. In fact they must perform Little Red Riding Hood. Various shenanigans ensue as the scheming Sheriff of Nottingham, now recast as the Bid Bad Wolf, sees an opportunity to win Maid Marian for himself. Unknown to any of the group, the real Wolf has other ideas.

The play's dress rehearsal took place yesterday afternoon in front of an invited audience at Norwich Puppet Theatre. Having watched the various scenes being worked and re-worked over and over, I was looking forward to seeing the finished article without directorial interruptions. However, through some mis-communication between the director and me, I arrived an hour late and just as everyone was leaving.

But all is not lost. It is playing at a local primary school on Tuesday morning so I can go an catch it then when it has 'bedded in' a little. And as it's just out along some country lanes I'm looking forward to getting there on my trusty bicycle.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


Firstly, apologies for the picture. I took it on a walk along Salisbury Crags one afternoon and the view looks more or less north-west towards Calton Hill and I'm looking into the light. And the picture isn't really 'tourist' Edinburgh. What you see in the foreground is the Scottish Parliament and it is the modern face of Scotland. It's a 'new-build' and was beset with problems, not least of which was the cost which soared from an original estimate of £40 million to a cool £440 million. Another time I might take a closer look. It lay outside the Festival bubble that I inhabited almost exclusively for the three weeks I spent in the city.

After an afternoon performance of The Chalk Giants in Norwich we dismantled the set and packed it into the back of the Puppet Theatre's long white van. Tim, the lighting engineer, and I drove through the night, arriving at dawn and managed a couple of hours' sleep before our technical rehearsal began at 9am. The rest of the company arrived by car an hour behind us.

The two technicians provided by the venue, and who alternated over the course of the next three weeks, had obviously been instructed to be strict with the visiting companies. Although we had negotiated an extended get-in, only 15 minutes was allowed in which to strike our set and vacate the auditorium. As we did this the next act had to get their set past us on the narrow stairs and onto the stage as our 15 minute get-out coincided with their 15 minute get-in. We were given a solemn warning that fines, at the rate of £10 for each minute would be meted out to companies that took longer than the time alotted to clear the stage.

We quickly established a highly efficient routine but there is no doubt that our elaborate set, including a fair amount of technical equipment, suffered as a result of the time constraints. However our technicians, John and Neil, thawed considerably over the course of the run, taking a keen interest and becoming very helpful. They also had the lighting cues, which Tim had given them before hopping on a flight back to Norwich, off pat from the outset. And we became so adept at striking the set that 15 minutes seemed overly generous.

Even so, I had little time to think about photography. But here's a rare shot of Steve setting up for Pinocchio. The toy theatre belongs to the Chalk Giants set and is there so we can pre-set the lights as that show played straight after.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

September's free music game

This one is called Biddly Biddly Bop and I got it from an actor friend called Lucy. I usually post a game at the beginning of each month but various factors contributed to a delay this time around. It's an excellent back-to-school activity or workshop icebreaker. Enjoy.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Good vibrations?

I played at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts earlier today, a building designed by Sir Norman Foster on the UEA campus to house the Sainsbury art collection. The jazz/klezmer trio of which I am a part is not especially loud but we do amplify ourselves. And I remember playing here in a nine-piece salsa band some years ago which certainly packed a punch.

It occurred to me that future generations may be shocked at the damage our noise has done to the molecular structures of the works on display, some of which are thousands of years old. I completed an archaeology degree at a time when the practice of leaving parts of a site untouched (so that scholars as yet unborn could one day apply techniques that would make ours appear crude by comparison) was still a recent development. It was symptomatic of a new humility in science: the idea that although we may be at the cutting edge of knowledge we may not yet be the finished article.

I love playing at SCVA but will do so henceforth with a slight feeling of unease. But I notice the venue never seems to hire any operatic sopranos so maybe they're way ahead of me on this. Should I ask to see their risk assessment paperwork or keep schtum and be grateful for the gig?

Monday, 2 August 2010

August's free music game

If you have yet to visit my website you may be unaware that there it hosts a number of music games that are free to use and require no special equipment, knowledge or training. And every month, in addition to that, I post a 'for one month only' game. This month's is a listening game. It is called Detective 2 and is a development of Detective which is on the free music games page.

And this may be the last post for a while as I'm off to the Edinburgh Fringe with The Chalk Giants (pictured) about which much has been written already. Enjoy your summer.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Chalk Giants

I must have spent the last four weeks or so on this show but it has been well worth it. It opened last Saturday but the four of us closest to it, meaning the two actors, the director and myself, have continued re-working it in the light of audience response. I was down at the theatre yesterday painting a screen to hide the projector from the auditorium, having my two-tiered work top measured for curtains and black felt table tops, and labelling cables and equipment to make the technical gear easier and quicker to set up. I also did some work on a puppet stand, hastily knocked up with hammer and pins in the lunch break immediately prior to the dress rehearsal, to make it more road-worthy.

The photo is back-stage at an early stage of development. We only use one overhead projector now but it is still a technically ambitious production combining live video feed, shadow play, animation, pre-recorded footage on DVD, live action and, of course, puppetry . And then there's live and pre-recorded music supplied by your humble scribe. We use tie-clip radio mics to allow the actors to be heard when they are behind the projection screens. They also allow me to put a 'giant' effect on voices as required. The scariness of this means the show has a '5 years and over' age rating.

I know I am very biased but I can't recommend the show strongly enough. We have three more Norwich shows before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe next week where we'll be playing at Zoo Roxy on Roxburgh Place at 11.40am each day from August 6th to 23rd. And if you're a real puppet junkie I'll be accompanying Pinocchio on my clarinet at 10.30am in the same venue on each of those days.

I haven't told you what the show is about. Well, think Jack and the Beanstalk meets Jack the Giant Slayer but from the giants' perspective. But that's only half the story...

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Road Movie

I'm currently collaborating on a new puppet show called The Chalk Giants. It's to to be premiered next weekend at Norwich Puppet Theatre where it will run for just over a week before we take it up to the Edinburgh Fringe early in August. Without giving too much away we are incorporating moving images taken at key points along the chalk escarpment that forms the geological divide between the south-east of England and the rest of the country. We began by filming on the beach at Hunstanton in Norfolk a week ago last Thursday. The chalk cliffs there have a spectacular pink seam running through them which caught the sun very well. In case you are wondering at the way the chalk has separated itself by colour I can tell you that it is down to human intervention. One Michael Joseph Kennedy, an Irish accented denizen of the town, has spent the last fifteen years shoring up the sea defences by piling rocks from the beach against the base of the cliff. The colour scheme is his doing.

It takes about 80 minutes to get to Hunstanton from Norwich, whichever route you take. However, this was nothing compared to the next day's odyssey.

I set off a little before 6am to collect Kevin the cameraman and off we drove to our first port of call. Sally, one half of Indefinite Articles, lives just outside Cambridge by Grantchester Meadows, immortalised in song by Pink Floyd. I couldn't resist a quick look and found it just as peaceful as the song suggests. At 7.30am I saw one jogger and no one else.

Next stop was Buckingham for breakfast and I took a picture of the famous gaol. And then on to do some filming at Uffington White Horse, south-west of Oxford. It was a bakingly hot day and we wore black for the shots but the location and the views it provided were worth the effort. There is are other white horses in England, made by cutting away the top soil to reveal the chalk beneath, but the one at Uffington, thought to be about 3,000 years old is both the oldest and finest. It is highly stylised, its lines full of movement.

Next we took what was to be a short detour for a drive by shot of Stonehenge. A wrong turn, a pause for lunch and one of those traffic jams on the A303 where people get out of their cars to stretch their legs meant it took somewhat longer than we had hoped. I was driving so no picture. However, the light was poor and the famous landmark was not looking its best. I remember going for picnics there as a child - free parking, hardly any visitors and the stones, the fallen ones at least, were great for climbing on. Now it resembles a military compound.

Finally we made it to our goal, the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset. Here we met up with Steve, the other half of Indefinite Articles, who had been in Stratford directing a puppet for the Royal Shakespeare Company's rehearsals of A Winter's Tale ("Exit, pursued by a bear...")

The Cerne Abbas giant may be a relative newcomer, the first historical reference dating from 1694 and no real evidence to demonstrate greater antiquity. One theory suggests it was carved to poke fun at Oliver Cromwell during the protectorate. He is very well endowed - a giant in every sense - and another theory explains this as being the result of a Victorian re-cuttting which accidentally (?!) extened his member by incorporating his navel.

We performed for several takes using the hillside on which it stands as a backdrop but didn't climb the hill to peer over the fence that guards it. Instead we retired to the Royal Oak in the village for a well earned pint of Badger and the best pub food I've eaten in years.

The drive back was not quite as long but it was 2.30am by the time I parked up back in Norwich. Still, it's great to get out and about from time to time. And now to work on the music for the show.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Day return

A quick trip down to London today to record Guyana born poet John Agard. He wrote poems and lyrics for a new puppet show called The Chalk Giants for which I'm making music. John has a wonderfully sonorous voice and it is hoped that we can use his readings of some of the words in the show.

I took the train to Liverpool Street and the tube to Embankment. Crossing the river I came across a steel pan player busking against the London skyline which seemed like a good omen. I met John by the Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall. The library is closed on Mondays but we were able to gain entrance in order to make use of the peace and quiet for the recording. He read three pieces he had written with a mythical flavour and inspired by tales of giants, giant-killings and ancient sites like the Cerne Abbas giant.

It's easy to forget in these situations that I'm supposed to be working; It's tempting just to immerse myself in the wonderful sound. All too quickly it was over and we went our separate ways, me to catch my train home and John to give a reading at the Purcell Room as part of the London Literature Festival.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Solstice celebrations

I have recently returned from a week of celebrations surrounding the summer solstice. We camp in circles, with about thirty people in each, around a central fire used for cooking and warmth in the evenings. Needless to say the weather can make or break this kind of activity and this year we were blessed with warmth and sunshine.

I was one of three official camp musicians and one of our roles was to play for the ceremony and celebrations on the night of the solstice itself. The other two musicians were essentially drummers. One of them plays guitar but an acoustic guitar doesn't really cut it for over a hundred happy people and amplified music is banned by the owners of the site. (Hooray!) So the line up was djembes (one occasionally doubling on cabassa) and, the perfect outdoor instrument, soprano saxophone.

The midsummer ceremony was a DIY event with no overt religious affiliation, pagan or otherwise - a humanist 'make of it what you will' affair. My drummer friends and I began at our circle and visited the other three circles in turn, pied-piping their occupants towards a double spiral maze. This had been laid out with cut hay and nightlights in paper bags. On arrival we continued to play as each person in turn entered the maze.

Entering the maze involved passing between two people who whispered complimentary things about you in both ears at once - a strange, and strangely uplifting, experience as what the conscious mind hears is fragments of all that is said. This took some time. No one had been primed as to what would happen and many took a while to realise that the two 'priests/priestesses' weren't trying to have a little dance with them or kiss them on the cheek. It's impossible to laugh and play the saxophone but I came close.

This went on for some time and my bottom lip was nearly jelly by the time I, and the remaining drummer (the other having become a whisperer), brought up the rear. Then it was party time and much dancing around the fire so more on the soprano to a djembe beat. I love playing outdoors in situations like this. I improvise everything in response to the occasion and what emerges is a blend of styles that have informed my musical being - lyrical British Isles folk, bluesy rock or jazz and middle eastern flavours. At its best it is as if I am 'channeling' the music from somewhere else. Midsummer magic!

A note on the structures. The henge was built about ten years ago and is made of bog oak from the Fens. Apparently the posts were all carefully positioned in accordance with astronomical data. More than that I'm afraid I don't know.

The building is based on an iron age roundhouse and was designed by a man who advises the UN on mud buildings. Before the current war in Afghanistan, John visited the country after an earthquake. By the simple act of changing the shape of the pans in which the mud bricks were made, he succeeded in making the buildings more resistant to collapse in future quakes. My own use of the building was to practise my clarinet so I can still strut my jazz and klezmer for the ongoing wedding season. The mud walls, wooden floor and pitched roof make for a very warm acoustic.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

July's free music game

As regular readers will be aware, a new free music game appears on my website each month. This month's game is called Pot Luck Orchestra and is a sonic exploration of found objects. Fun for all!

Meanwhile, I have been rather quiet lately, not because nothing is happening but because I have yet to get around to blogging about it. I shall rectify this situation in the next few days and share my tales of midsummer madness.

And what better time to plug my other blog which tells the unfolding story of jazz/klezmer outfit Eastern Straynotes ?

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Vuvuzela Phenomenon

You may have no interest in football but I would be surprised if word of the vuvuzela has not yet reached your ears. I switched on the radio shortly before the opening game of the World Cup in South Africa and thought I must be listening to a conversation about Formula One. The commentators and pundits were having to shout above the noise of what sounded like a racetrack in the background. It was the sound of many, many people blowing vuvuzelas inside a stadium.

I watched some of the opening match between the host country and Mexico and the noise sounded unbelievable. According to academics from Pretoria and Florida universities it peaked at 144.2 decibels during the game. (In the UK, workers must be provided with ear protection if they are subjected to noise levels above 85 decibels.)

If you get a chance, tune into what may be the host nation's final game at 14.00hrs GMT on Tuesday. It is like being inside a giant beehive - a most unusual sound. South Africa is the home of the vuvuzela and make the biggest noise, but tune in before their opponents score!

I picked up one myself which one of my daughters borrowed for tonight's bore-draw against Algeria. They are made of plastic and require a trumpet embouchure to play, although a trumpeter might scoff at the comparison. Mine is in patriotic red and white. A good choice of colour; if England gets knocked out my vuvuzela can be patriotically Danish or Swiss. And maybe even Japanese.

I don't see the vuvuzela catching on in the UK or indeed in many places outside its South African home, and sadly the bulk of those produced, although theoretically recyclable, are probably destined for landfill sites.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Claytime in York

I was up with the birds yesterday morning in order to pedal off to the station and catch a train for York. At short notice I had been asked to play for Claytime at the Theatre Royal. I love places that are visibly rich in history and York is right up there with the best. The theatre was opened in 1744, having been built on the site of the mediaeval St Leonard's Hospital, some of which was incorporated into what was then called The New Theatre. The atmosphere on the stage is awesome, in the true sense of the word and that was where the show took place. The curtains were drawn and the stage itself became the theatre.

Claytime, by Indefinite Articles, is one of my all time favourite children's shows, truly interactive and perfect for its target audience of 3 - 6 year olds. I have only played for it on two previous occasions, the most recent being in Kings Lynn early last year but a quick talk-through before the show brought it all back to me. What I find hardest is remembering I'm supposed to be working. Steve and Sally are such accomplished performers that the temptation just to sit back and enjoy the show is almost too much to resist.

The show is in three parts, the first being negotiations between the two characters over the possession of clay and the things that can be done with it. The characters reflect the ages and concerns of their audience and the children become very involved in boundaries, transgressions, repercussions and moral justice.

In the second part, characters and a story are elicited from the children with Sally modelling the protagonists as Steve works the audience. This is then told using the models. Cue the 'end' and bows. But then each child, and usually parents/teachers too, is given a lump of clay to play with. The resulting models are gathered together and photographed with the resulting image going on the theatre or school's website for parents/teachers to download.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

How architecture informs composition

I have just watched an illustrated lecture by David Byrne, he of Talking Heads fame, entitled How architecture helped music evolve. It lasts a mere 16 minutes but seems much shorter. It's a very good introduction to the relationship between composers and the venues for which they wrote. The presenter infuses it with his own perspective and inimitable style. Recommended!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Health and Safety

A friend of mine who teaches music to young adults gives a lecture on safety once a year as part of the course. He stresses the importance of having the electrician's sticker (pictured) on each piece of kit. The week following one of these lectures a student came in with a sheet of the labels, carefully recreated in Photoshop and printed onto sticky paper. These he was gaily distributing these to his classmates. While his ingenuity is admirable I suspect he may have rather missed the point. (I should stress that all Eastern Straynotes stickers are genuine and up to date.)

My own belief is that the UK's attitude to health and safety, largely driven by a blame culture and an increasingly litigious population, is stifling. This is especially so with regard to children who seem destined to suffocate in cotton wool.

However, I must admit that life as a performing musician is far safer than it once was. On-stage electrocutions are now extremely rare. This is partly because of more reliable equipment designed with better safety features, and partly due to regular safety checks. The band I play in has all it's electrical equipment checked by a qualified electrician once a year. This was initially because some venues insist on seeing the paperwork but now, for my own peace of mind, I wouldn't be without it.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Carrot and stick

I have a young student who had narrowly missed out on taking her grade 1 exam with her previous tutor about 18 months ago. Between then and becoming my student last autumn she had drifted, making little progress with a flute that was in need of some attention.

We started looking at the grade material again but I quickly realised she was bored with it, having studied for an exam that never materialised. She needed a new challenge and, having made some great strides (including prevailing upon her parents to get her flute sorted out), I felt she was ready to take grade 2.

That was some time before Easter and the exam has been booked (July) and paid for. Since then, however, she has done almost nothing. The effect of this is to go into reverse; the pieces she could play some weeks ago are now too difficult. Because she doesn't practise, her tone has suffered and she spends the first ten minutes of a lesson looking into the instrument (for blockages!) and adjusting the footjoint in the hope that her flute is somehow to blame.

There was an article on BBC radio this morning about the psychology of household waste collection. It turns out it is more effective to reward people for the amount they recycle rather than charge them for the quantities they send to landfill sites. Any psychology student could tell you that encouragement is more effective than punishment. Buoyed by this fact I gave her all the praise and flattery I could think of. I finished by telling her how much better her tone sounded at the end of the lesson than it had at the beginning. I may have exaggerated the improvement but there's nothing like practice if you wish to improve and she had, after all, just spent half an hour playing the thing.

After she'd gone I congratulated myself on avoiding dire warnings of impending failure if she didn't put in some work. Hopefully she is sufficiently astute not to assume from my positive demeanour that she will walk grade 2. So, carrot and more carrot for my students. The stick, should it be needed, will be wielded by the exam result when it arrives during the summer break.

Sunday, 6 June 2010


You learn something new every day. Last night I was working with a drummer who introduced me to the concept of 'piggybacking'. To save bringing an extra stand, and indeed to save space on a crowded stage, two cymbals share the same stand. The second cymbal is mounted upside down above the first, the two being separated by a couple of felt washers. It goes without saying that the smaller one goes on top.

Friday, 4 June 2010

The False Economy

What a wonderful thing, advice. Especially those maxims and catch phrases that roll so easily off the tongue. One of my favouites is 'stick to what you're good at' but I can never follow it myself because I am naturally curious and 'a student of life'. In particular, my aversion to DIY (an acronym for Don't Involve Yourself) is tempered by the satisfaction derived from completing a project. And I learn new skills, even if lack of further practice means I don't retain them.

Last November the work on my new studio took another step towards completion. I had ordered some aircrete blocks called 'Toplite' which weigh in at about eight kilos and can be cut up with a panel saw. I had discussed, at length, the relative merits of various blocks with the supplier and there must have been some confusion as to the final choice. What arrived were the same size of block but called 'Topcrete'. These are more dense and so better for sound isolation. But they are harder to work with. Each block weighs 27 kilos and requires an angle grinder to cut to size. I don't have an angle grinder but, as luck would have it, Simon had a solution.

Simon had come to build the wall and, to save time and money, I would cut blocks as required and operate the cement mixer. And Simon it was who taught me the knack of chopping up dense concrete blocks with a lump hammer and a bolster chisel. Six months later and I still have tennis elbow - not the kind of condition clarinet players dream of but at least I'm still playing. And this student of life has learned he is neither indestructible nor in possession of a builder's forearm. Next time I want to make myself useful to a bricklayer I'll just make the tea.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A new month, a new game

This month's free music game is for any number of people and is suitable for a wide age range, from about 6yrs to adult. It is particularly good for waking up your group's powers of concentration and getting brain and body working together. If you have a regular group, or are a classroom teacher, and can keep returning to the game, you will notice steady improvement over time. Once children, in particular, know the format it can be used to good effect in odd moments of 'spare' time.

Target is a counting exercise. The object is to place a sound , be it a handclap, word or note, in a specified place in in a bar. In my experience musicians don't generally count in the literal sense of the word. It's more a case of feeling or knowing. If I were to show you three apples or four pencils you wouldn't need to count them to tell me how many were there. You would just 'know'. We don't usually count numbers of five or less because we can tell the quantity at a glance.

Musicians, who don't usually deal in numbers bigger than four, begin by counting but soon learn to feel when a certain number of beats or bars has passed. The counting becomes internalised and subconscious. This game will help speed that process for beginners. It will also improve the rhythm and timing skills of experienced players.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Karaoke nation

Some months ago my car radio, intermittent for some time, stopped working altogether. I could get a static laden AM signal but no FM. I don't drive a lot and didn't especially miss it but a couple of weeks ago I discovered the aerial was missing. Replacing it was simple and now I can listen to clear a clear AM signal and a slightly crackly FM.

Music in the car is frustrating unless I know it well. I drive a Peugeot, not a Rolls Royce, and the lower frequencies are lost in engine noise and tyre rumble so I have to fill in the bass lines myself. For this reason I listen to talk radio in preference and if I'm driving to a 9 o'clock start this means the news. I oscillate between Radio Brain - serious items about the economy, a dying eco-system and politicians on the make - and Radio Bloke - sport and stories about celebrities I've barely heard of.

I have long felt that our obsession, in the UK at least, with 'celebrities' does nothing for our economic plight. Reality TV ( Big Brother being a prime example) and karaoke programmes, like the recent 'search' for a Dorothy to be the star of a West End staging of The Wizard of Oz, give hope to a whole generation of people whose sole game plan is to become famous and then rich off the back of that fame. Why bother working hard at school when, with a little make-up and the talent you know you have in spades, you can sing your way to success. And if you can't sing, well, just being witty and pretty ought to be enough. Let sociologists worry about the devaluation of celebrity status that comes with there being so many celebs.

Wednesday saw the end of a project in a seaside primary school that has gone on for some months. The sun shone and the outdoor play was, somewhat against the odds it must be admitted, a great success withessed by many smiling parents whose behaviour was a credit to their offspring. Afterwards there was to be a steel band from a local high school. Instead we were treated to a small group of girls taking it in turns to sing along to a backing track.

Now there is nothing wrong in that. They had lovely voices and it was very good of them to come and enhance the event. But this isn't an extra-curricular activity. They do this as part of a course of study.

I used to think it was just the high school where I teach woodwind that took performing arts just a little too seriously but it seems to be endemic. You can't really blame the TV companies. Programmes about plumbing and engineering that appeal to the young? The X-Factory? Charisma transplants for nerdy inventors? My glove is on the floor if anyone would like to pick it up.

But perhaps I'm just failing to adapt to changing times and a day will come when we are all celebrated, as Andy Warhol predicted. Still, I can't help wondering who will be left to build, manufacture, repair or even grow anything. Will anyone still know how?

Monday, 24 May 2010

Songwriting with young children - part two

In the post before last I talked about writing songs with children that are to be played by children. In this instance the children are aged between 7 and 11 years old. The words were extracted from the children by a writer, of poetry rather than songs, as part of a project aimed at improving literacy. It was my task to set this words to music with the undertaking that I should not alter the words of the children. My first attempt, Anansi Likes a Challenge, is appended to the previous post. While I was pleased to have squeezed in all the words, I was concerned that it would not be an easy song for a vocalist to deliver. This has proved to be the case as, in the interests of fairness, and of not overburdening young minds with too many lines to learn, the part of Anansi is played by no fewer than five children, four of whom sing the song in unison.

Many subsequent lyrics arrived in blank verse with lines of irregular length and no implied pulse. Some I sent back to the overworked playwright and others I tampered with myself, not just to make them role off the tongue but to make them easier to remember. (I don't know about you, gentle reader, but I like my singers to have the words in their heads rather than on pieces of paper.) I did, however, try to remain true to the ideas and images produced by the children.

In rehearsal the biggest challenge was moving from one section to another. As the show is to be performed outside, and because the school has several large xylophones and glockenspiels, I opted for mallet percussion as the mainstay of the accompaniment. The orchestra has, for the most part, got the hang of changing from the verse pattern to the chorus pattern and back. However, they are still getting used to following the singer if s/he changes too early or too late. What they can't cope with is a singer who is lacks any rhythmic sensibility and is blissfully unaware of the pulse followed by the band. And, as do I, they struggle to follow a singer they can't hear.

Below are two songs I demo'd up for the show. Mr Lonely will be sung by two children, as the character who plays its singer feels the need for some support. Potion Hunters' Song is sung by most of the children in Year 3 (aged 7 and 8) and uses just three notes, two of which are C, throughout the piece.

&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_3">lt</span>;a <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_4">href</span>="">Mr Lonely by Jonathan Lambert&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_5">lt</span>;/a>
&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_6">lt</span>;a <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_7">href</span>="">Potion Hunters' Song by Jonathan Lambert&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_8">lt</span>;/a>

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Another singular venue

It's not every day I'm asked to play in a 14th century vaulted stone crypt. Every so often I play in the a bar called Jurnets, situated in the cellar beneath Jurnets House in King Street in mediaevel Norwich. Last Friday I did this in my role as clarinetist in Eastern Straynotes and actually remembered to take my camera along.

The place was 'themed' before the theme-ing of pubs became big business and has a few bits of old agricultural ironware hanging from the walls, a heavy, metal door that looks like it belongs inside a submarine, and some stuffed animals in glass-fronted boxes. There are also some light fittings, visible in one of the pictures, that I'm sure mediaeval folk would have admired. They are made of some thin metal plate and pot-rivetted together but to the casual eye they look the part. To be honest, the building itself has so much character that all attempts to add it to it are superfluous.

I'm not sure who the band in the picture is. I arrived while they were playing and only had time for a quick 'hello' while they left the stage and the Straynotes set up. Foolishly I didn't ask anyone to get a photo of our set. Maybe next time.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Songwriting with young children - part one

A project is nearing completion and that ending is being marked by an outdoor performance by the whole school next week. A play of epic proportions has been written, the content based on ideas extracted from the children, and it features no less than eight songs. The children wrote the songs too. That is to say, they wrote the words with the music being supplied by yours truly.

Two weeks ago we were learning which children preferred to be actors, which stage hands and which musicians. The main parts were assigned according to talent, the level of which was determined in brief, group auditions, but anyone who wants to be an actor will act. Similarly, anyone who wants to be a musician will be a musician. (If only life were like that: I've always had a yen to be an astronaut...)

The mainstay of the band will be the Year 6 kids who will accompany six of the songs. Prior to taking ten of them off to a mobile to play music I had spent a total of thirty minutes with each of the two classes. I didn't get much of an impression of their ability in that time. Games to develop a sense of pulse, such as passing a sound around, weren't very successful owing to the wide range of ability. The real indicator was the state of the music cupboard when I first arrived at the school. An archaeology degree comes in handy now and then and to my trained eye the various strata of dust, PE kit, books and an enormous TV on a trolley that I found in the music cupboard presented a story that didn't include much music-making.

My work is more process-orientated than goal-driven. I have nothing against running, for instance, but most people find it easier once they have learned to walk. Ideally I would have liked to spend some time of rhythm and pulse with these kids before getting them playing sequences of notes on tuned percussion. I would also have liked time to explain why there is a long D bar and a short D bar on a xylophone and what flats and sharps are.

We took off the bars we didn't need in any particular song which made playing them much easier. The children liked to arrange the bars in the order in which they were to be played, rather than the more conventional system of low notes to the left, higher notes to the right. Replacing the bars was more problematic and I hope I will find a solution before Friday's dress rehearsal. The alternative would have been to play every piece in the same key but I rejected this idea as both dull and a singer's nightmare.

The first song I set to music was to be sung by the character Anansi, the spider man of West African folklore. Below is a demo version I made to play to the children. It was the first one I did and I was quite proud of getting all the words in, one way or another. The chord sequence is derivative but suits it well. But when it came to rehearse it we all ended up playing the root of each chord and the drummers beat out the melody rather than providing a structure.

In part two I'll show how I trimmed my sails in order to create music that can be both easily sung and easily played.

&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_4">lt</span>;a <span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_5">href</span>=""><span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_6">Anansi</span> Likes A Challenge by The Miracle Men&<span class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_7">lt</span>;/a>

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Norwich Puppet Theatre

One of my favourite places is Norwich Puppet Theatre and I am fortunate in that my work takes me there from time to time. Not so frequently that I ever take it for granted but sufficiently often for me to feel at home. The age of the building alone, some seven hundred years or more, gives it a special atmosphere but the fact that it is a veritable museum of puppets of all kinds makes it a wonderful place to spend some time.

My previous visit was at the end of March as part of Eastern Straynotes when the band was the musical element of a burlesque cabaret evening. The flamboyant, and sometimes bizarre, dress of the patrons vied for attention with the puppets looking down from above. But today it was all about the puppets themselves.

Firstly there was a meeting about the formation of a loose group of artists from different disciplines with an interest in puppets and the venue. This took place in the Octagon, a new extension added to the mediaeval building which echoes the octagonal section of the old church's tower. And the rest of the day was spent working on Garlic Theatre's new show, Little Red Robin Hood.

There are two performance spaces at the theatre. The main auditorium, which comprises the nave of the old church, is steeply raked and seats 185. It is narrow, having been built before our forebears acquired the knack of supporting a wide roof without the it pushing over the supporting walls. The smaller, but much more modern, Octagon Studio is an even more intimate venue with a 50 seat capacity. If I can remember I check out which room the company is using before I go down. The first time I rehearsed there was back in 2002 with Baobab Theatre. It was January, we were working in the unheated main auditorium and I froze. The Octagon is always lovely and warm but, even in July, I always bring along winter woollies if I'm to be in the auditorium. Still, one must occasionally suffer for one's art and it is a small price to pay for working in such a splendid environment.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The breaking of taboos

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival is here again. Every spring the denizens of this city get a taste of cosmopolitan culture and last night I went to see Les Ballets C. de la B. for a little contemporary dance. The company hails from Belgium and is famous in the contemporary dance world. But I confess I knew nothing about them before I went, it being my partner's suggestion.

The show begins tamely enough with a man walking onto the stage from the auditorium and, back to the audience, stripping to his underpants before wrapping himself in a blanket. Presently all nine dancers do the same. Now I don't think Norwich has ever staged 'Hair' but, even at the Theatre Royal, dancing in your underwear, as long as it's 'art', will not get you arrested.

What I do find slightly shocking is the treatment of microphones. These are frequently dropped or dragged along the ground, while a cavernous reverb is applied to the sound. It is very effective (no pun intended) but hey, I've seen plenty of mics dropped in my time. So now I am still enjoying the dance/theatre but part of me is wondering what mics they use, how much they cost and how many shows an individual mic can handle.

The show continues, perhaps it's 90 minutes long, and towards the end I see a man standing, back to the audience, making noises into a microphone while he flexes his back muscles in a manner reminiscent of of the movie 'Altered States'. But, I wonder, how is he holding the mic? Both his hands are balled into fists and he has no lapels or tie, being stripped to his trunks. And then, just as the truth dawns on me, he turns around and I realise I was right (as I hope were you). He has the thing inside his mouth while he makes the most bizarre, primordial animal noises.

And then another dancer climbs up his back and squats on his shoulders as if she is riding this strange beast, like in 'Avatar'. Now my head is reeling with this strange image along with the fact that this is no radio mic. It's attached to a cable which must plug into a mixer which in turn is plugged into the mains. And while I'm absorbing the health-and-safety ramifications the rider takes the mic from his mouth and she puts it in her own. The sounds she makes are just as strange but that's by they are eclipsed by what I just saw.

The rest of the show is excellent, full of the humour, pathos and sheer intensity of what has gone before but now I'm wondering if I have lived too long in the sticks. Was that objectively shocking (whatever that means) or am I just too prudish and provincial? Worse, is my own mic technique just too passé and should I go for retraining?