Musings on a forthcoming music exam

Indulge me for a little while please, dear reader. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “I indulge her every time I click on the link to this blog,” but this one is all about me and my innermost.

OK. Now that the rest have departed for more stimulating shores, let the three of us left examine my mental processes for these few weeks leading up to my ATCL Diploma on 6th December:

January 2015: “Woo! I’m actually doing my Diploma! How on earth did that transpire?”

All the time since: “I have to practise. An hour a day. But some days I am too busy/grumpy/sleepy/Doc/Bashful/preoccupied to practise or there are various men traipsing around my house who will think the worst of me when they hear operatic arias (that I’m learning for the first time ever) sung badly.”

The last three weeks: “OK. I have a date. It’s two weeks earlier than I’d thought but, hey, that means that my exam won’t be four days before Christmas. And it means two fewer weeks of having to dodge lurgies. But still hardly any time at all. And I’m rubbish. And I’m in India for a week. Still, I’d better get my head down and work hard and it might come good.”

Random cautions for the lead up to a singing exam:

  1. You are not Cecilia Bartoli/Kiri Te Kanewa. This should not bother you unduly. They have had years of practice and several teachers, coaches and repetiteurs (not to mention, shhh!, record producers and engineers to make sure their recording comes out right.)
  2. Conversely, do not expect the person to whose version of your songs you are listening always to sing the correct notes in the correct order. Or at the correct time. It is up to YOU to make sure you listen to a recording in the correct key, which might not necessarily be the correct key for a particular artist. They are famous and celebrated so they are allowed to change key. You are not.
  3. Also, it’s up to you to make sure you have read and understood the music since you do not have recourse to the services of a dedicated voice coach who will spend hours with you before you audition and before your performance to makes sure you get it right every time.
  4. Count. Count. COUNT, FFS!
  5. Since you will be expected to read the music, many of your early practice sessions should include picking out the tune laboriously on the piano. If you don’t read music, then tant pis madame.
  6. It’s always better to try and learn pieces off by heart than attempt to read the music on exam day. Trust me, if you’ve done enough practice, you will have learned the song and then you should be able to interpret it much better than if you’re struggling with a wobbly book on a music stand. (I will NEVER know why music is not routinely ring bound so it lies flat on a piano or music stand. Perhaps that would make it easier to copy.)
  7. Sort out your accompanist very soon, especially in the run up to Christmas as good ones get very booked up with concerts and, oh, exams. It is possibly that the person with whom you have done the run-throughs is busy on the damn Sunday morning when your exam is held. Always have a Plan B, C and D. Good musicians are at a premium.
  8. Do not be intimidated by the wonderful musicianship of a great accompanist. They are there to make you look good. They are waiting to take the lead from you, rather than vice versa.
  9. Make sure there are enough scores to go around in case an accompanist is ill, say, and you have to find another one at short notice. Make sure your computer has the correct drivers for your new printer.
  10. Do try and gain experience at performing solo in front of an audience. It is asking too much of yourself to go into a singing exam if you have never sung solo in public before. Nerves in front of an audience can cause your most rehearsed technique to fly out of the inevitably slightly open window that causes a draught.
  11. If, however, you don’t have access to numerous friends with a grand piano who can accompany you at the drop of  hat, or organise an informal recital, then this is probably not the best time to fret about it.
  12. Analyse how nerves affect you. If necessary have a stern word with yourself during your performance. “You bloody well need to pull yourself together, mate, because it’s too late to back out now.”
  13. Avoid viruses. They are EVERYWHERE but you still need to avoid them. Even in December.
  14. Do not undermine yourself by reminding yourself that ANYONE can enter for an exam, whether they are fantastic or their voice resembles water gurgling down a plug hole in Auckland. You would not be doing it if you were really not up to it and any teacher worth their salt would not recommend that you enter.
  15. It does NOT matter if you don’t get a Distinction.
  16. NEVER let anyone undermine your fragile self-belief by suggesting that a) your singing was “All right,” or that b) perhaps you might consider postponing your exam. You are FABULOUS and a DIVA at all times. You need to visualise yourself as such. Scarves and a haughty manner will help.
  17. It’s all about the words, stupid. Make sure you understand all of the lyrics to your songs, and a good approximation of the pronunciations. On the day you will be acting out the words to your songs. Be ready.
  18. Sort out what you’re going to wear a long time in advance and stick to that. Do not wear anything for the first time in a singing exam. Make sure you’re smart yet comfortable: catching your reflection and being shocked at the person staring back at you is going to cause distraction and frettage in your exam and we don’t want that.
  19. Do not be tempted to wear tight trousers to an exam or a rehearsal. They interfere with your breathing and thus with your performance.
  20. Switch off your inner saboteur chimp.

That’s about it.


Musings on a forthcoming music exam


Imagine, dear reader, me rolling around on the floor of my boudoir like a chipolata on a grill. I have jet lag and I can barely keep my eyelids aloft, let alone anything else.

I don’t think it’s ever hit me this hard before. Those extra two days of my India trip were enough to reset my body clock this time around whereas my normal four day visits don’t give my brain any time to stop and realise what’s going on.

I woke at 3.30 this morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. Combine this with energy-sapping cold weather (though not, thankfully, inside anymore) and a Monday fast day and you find a blogger whose brain has well and truly ground to a halt.

I’m off to bed hoping all the time that inspiration strikes me tomorrow.

Night night.



Sweet spot

I am jet lagged this evening and nodding off as I type.

It is more than 10 degrees colder here today than it was last Sunday, when I left London basking in a balmy 15C. Still, the kitchen feels warm and draught-free and the underfloor heating in particular makes sure that our kitchen’s always at a comfortable temperature.

Here, someone has found the warm spot on the floor:


Sweet spot


Hey! I’m back from India!

The world has changed since last week’s terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Paris, Bamako. Security has evidently been enhanced in line with the world’s jitters. Not everywhere, though. At the airside shopping mall at CS airport in Mumbai I noticed a door to a staff-only service corridor had been left open and I found dark thoughts crossing my mind about how anyone with malevolent intent might be able to access a secure zone.

The boarding gate at Dubai airport this afternoon had not one passport check but three separate teams of people checking, and someone was having his hand luggage searched and scanned in full view of everyone waiting at the gate to board the aeroplane. You do find yourself thinking, “Surely the IS wouldn’t bomb an Emirates plane?” I guess no-one is safe from their basilisk gaze.

Our aircraft was delayed on the ground for almost two hours while two passengers were “taken ill,” and eventually taken off the plane with two others. The Cabin Crew were charmingly at pains to point out that this was A Good Thing: it was better than having to be diverted in mid air to, I don’t know, Tehran? Kirkuk? Van? I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist but, given the heightened security situation, I wondered whether these passengers were actually taken ill or, rather, had been removed because of false papers or because security checks had named them as a potential threat.

Then, of course, there was as further delay as all remaining passengers had to verify their hand luggage. Perhaps they took this time to search for any suspicious objects. And so it carries on when we can no longer trust the intentions of people around us.

And another thought popped into my head: this is just like the readjustment required when suddenly you find that you can no longer trust someone who was hitherto part of your life. They know so much about you: your likes and dislikes; your movements; your interests; your Achilles Heel. It’s stretching a point here, and possibly in a way that lacks taste, but sometimes people whom you thought were your friends can suddenly start acting in an inexplicably spiteful or destructive way. These friendship terrorists must also be kicked off the plane to limit their sabotage.


Maharashtra snippets of the day


Visiting my mum

For those who follow her progress, I can report that my mum seems to be well and thriving in her home in India. Although I had to explain who I was the first time we went to see her yesterday, she’s recognised me each time subsequently. I don’t think one could say that for Winky, though, but perhaps my cousin does not have such a distinct imprint on what’s left of my mum’s fragile memory.

This is how we communicate with my mum, who no longer wants to wear her hearing aids:

We take a pad and write simple sentences in English. Nothing too long-winded or complex: no dependent clauses. She can then read them and respond. Whenever she repeats the question we can point to interactions from previous pages. Of course this communication method is only going to last as long as she can read English. I suppose the next step is sign language or simply being present with nice open, empathetic face or to sit and hold her hand, though she’s never been keen on any sort of physical contact.
Luckily I am finally managing to practise my singing. It’s and a half weeks, now, to my diploma exam and, not gonna lie, I’m fretting about it. I started practising as soon as we arrived her yesterday and, half way through Le Manoir de Rosemonde, I received a phone call from reception asking me very politely to please turn the volume of the TV or music down. I suppose that’s quite flattering in a way. Today I went to practise in the gym, which is otherwise only rarely used, I’d guess.

I’m unaccountably sleepy this evening so I’ll post this post and wish you goodnight.

Visiting my mum

A tour of the Sula Winery

Nashik has become the home of Indian wine, and Sula is its most famous and high-end brand. It’s intrigued me since I first tasted a glass of unexpectedly bone dry Sula Sauvignon last year that it is produced so near to the marital home of my (now late) Aunt. When my cousin Winky asked to come and visit India and my mum, that she is so immersed in the world of wine through her vintner husband (I’m sorry. That makes her sound like a chicken casserole) seemed like an opportunity to embrace.

Today, then, we visited the Sula winery for a tour and tasting. Set up by an Indian graduate of Stanford University, it’s run along Californian winery lines.

You’ve got to admire the long term planning and marketing strategy and tactics of the Sula brand:

  • Take advantage of the rising numbers of possibly overseas-educated, well-travelled, middle class young people with relatively high incomes and increasingly cosmopolitan and international focus.
  • Build a trendy brand image for a product almost unknown in India.
  • Capitalise the taboo around alcohol, especially for women drinkers, and exploit the latent, yet hugely controlled, aspirational rebellion of these young people with high disposable incomes. You’re selling them a lifestyle product of which their parents disapprove with the help of modern, fresh branding.
  • Run gigs for rising music artists that attract said rich, rebellious young people.
  • Import a French chef and expose these people to modern European food in both a full restaurant setting and a wine bar on a balcony overlooking a vineyard. Here you can have cheese on toast with an Asian twist or properly-cooked European food.
  • Set your price point at an aspirational premium level, yet make it (just about) affordable for those who want to buy into this premium lifestyle.
  • Build boutique accommodation that can be accessed only by the select few. (It’s booked for months, years to come.)
  • Provide a boutique health spa for beauty treatments using by-products of said winery such as its grapeseed oil in your pampering products.
  • Educate the market on the health benefits of wine…
  • Sell witty, branded merchandise only available from the winery.
  • Gradually educate the Indian palate away from sugary, syrupy wines and towards a more sophisticated and mature Western wine palate.
  • Export your Western-style wines to Europe. Enter competitions and win favourable mentions in the western wine press that you can use for your promotion in the home market.
  • Then, when the Indian palate matures to accept dryer wines, and you’re the leading aspirational provider, clean up.


Well thought through.

You can already buy Sula Sauvignon in Marks and Spencer in the UK. I think it’s reassuringly expensive and not promoted as a cheap New World wine. It’s probably not the best white wine you’ve ever tasted but, for India, it’s nothing short of miraculous.

A tour of the Sula Winery

Ûbercool in Nashik


I woke up in the middle of the night panicking about my singing diploma and its proximity in the middle of the night. Dan, if you’re reading this please get in touch on the number I gave you. Also that, having set up Winky’s blog for her, I was the sole Administrator and she could not access it. Having spent the morning driving here to Nashik, we spent the afternoon remedying that and redoing her WordPress blog several times because of the intermittent wifi and the limitations of the app on an iPad. It made me thankful for my laptop.

Interesting facts about Nashik:

  1. Nashik is the 16th fastest growing city in the world with a population of about 1.5million.
  2. The sex ratio for children is  865 girls per 1,000 boys.
  3. On the Godavari River, Nashik is one of four cities that hosts the great gathering of Kumbh Mela every 12 years. If you’ve read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, you’ll recognise this from there. Wikipedia goes on to say that visitor numbers for the Kumbh Mela are estimated at around 100 million but I find this figure rather dubious.
  4. Famous people born in Nashik include revolutionaries, freedom fighters and creative icons. Here, you can read all about Nashik yourself.

Why are we here? Mainly because it is the home of the Sula Vineyard, which makes eminently drinkable wines. I was taken by suprise by a Sula Sauvignon last year and was keen to find out more about wine growing in Maharashtra. My cousin’s husband is an eminent vintner so she’s most curious too. Sula is home to a boutique spa hotel which is, unfortunately, permanently booked and therefore unavailable to the likes of us.

We went for a wine tasting tour this evening to be told that we’d just missed the last tasting. We’ll go again tomorrow but in the meantime sampled a glass of rather desultory fizz that didn’t. Perhaps it had been open a while. We had dinner in a deserted restaurant. My exquisite prawn ravioli in curry jus starter was followed by an overly large and therefore guilt-inducingly unfinishable  risotto, which spoiled the effect a little.

Sula is a hip place, hosting regular cool music happenings including the annual  SulaFest . Its distinct clientele tribe of rich, middle class trendies stands out completely from the rest of India and would probably be unrecognisable to most Indians outside the big cities.

We’re also here because we have rellies just up the road though, at this juncture, it looks like we’re going to find it difficult to hook up in the time we have allocated to us before going off to see my mum tomorrow.


Ûbercool in Nashik



And so came it to pass that, in the bar of Mumbai’s Leela hotel, daily journal in hand and maps at the ready, Winky became a blogger.

So came it also to pass that a shopping expedition in Fabindia was duly ventured upon, kurtas and tunics verily were they purchased and also therewith a beautiful evening dress in the finest of brocades from the mystic Orient.

And yea did continue the search for a long, long-sleeved black gown without pomp or ornamentation in this domain that tradeth alas in precisely the opposite.

And MsAlliance did the day survey and thus did declare: “‘Tis good.”


A trip with my cousin 

A quick one tonight because I’m actually sitting on the (delayed) plane.
This time I’m off to India with my cousin Vivien (known in the family as Winky.) She was talking about blogging her trip so we might get her started on WordPress when we reach our destination. A compare and contrast exercise with this blog might be interesting.
Winky’s company will be lovely but I’m wondering just how long she’ll be able to tolerate me and how soon it will be before my genteel veneer cracks…

A trip with my cousin