Today I sang in the Bromley Festival

I so wanted to join the estimated 100K people on the anti-Brexit march in London this morning. It looks as if it went well, and I hope it sent a message to the Prime Minister that, in fact, 65 million people do NOT agree with her that the UK’s brightest future lies outside the EU. The OH and many of my Twitter friends went on the march and I am proud and envious of them all. 

I also missed my Graduation Park Run with my Zeros to Heroes group this morning. That’s OK. I’ll plod around the 5K next week with 500 other people. Watch this space.

What was I doing that was so important? Well, dear reader, I was performing at the Bromley (Kent) Festival of Music and Speech. You’ll remember, perhaps, (how could you forget?) that I narrowly failed my ATCL singing diploma last year. I am not one for walking away from things so I’d like to do it again and I’ve been working on a new programme since last summer with the aim of entering some time later in the year. I don’t want to be too expansive on that because, hoping for encouragement, I feel I rather overshared on this last year. It’s so interesting to discover the people who absolutely hate that someone is doing something different and pushing themselves, even though it affects them in no way whatsoever.

I entered the festival to try and get used to singing solo in front of an audience with an unfamiliar adjudicator. I don’t much care for singing solo classical repertoire. I am a dance band singer, manquée: I’d have loved to be a latter-day Ella or Billie with a swing band.Genrally I much prefer the shared endeavour of choral singing. Nerves affect my performance quite badly: all the carefully thought-out breath marks and dynamics seem to go out of the window when you’re standing alone in front of an audience. I tend to panic and, thinking that I’ll run out of air, take silly extra breaths in the middle of phrases and upset the flow of the legato, or whatever. When this happens I berate myself internally and my fragile singing ego crumbles. I need to snap out of this. There’s more to singing than one might expect, you see.

Today I was entered in three classes: Lieder, French Song and Recital. All were open classes, which meant that professional singers could sweep up all of the awards so I wasn’t hopeful that I’d make much of a mark. Equally there was no external pressure to perform brilliantly: the only reason to be there was simply as an opportunity to sing in front of an audience. My plan was to ignore the competition and just go out and do my diva thing.

Of course, it didn’t quite go as planned. The Bromley Festival seems to be having a particularly slow year, with a catastrophically low number of entrants, some of whom failed to appear, with the result that I was the only entrant in two of my classes. Those of us who did turn up all seemed to be suffering from some lurgy or other so it was all pretty sub-optimal. So the cup and gold medal I won weren’t necessarily because of the merit of my L’invitation au voyage and Die junge Nonne

Adjudications pointed out errors in breath support and the bane of my life, the sharp note, were mentioned. I need to think more about my mid-range notes now, and make sure that my onsets are spot on rather than a millisecond late. It’s really difficult when you don’t have access to a regular accompanist because you’re relying on the official accompanist to adapt to your singing and, despite what they say, they don’t always do this. My accompanist went off like a speeding train for the introduction to my Walton song, and by the time I’d recovered, I’d tripped over a lot of the words, which was a pity as I love the song and I wanted to sing it really well. Having practised my soft but high entrance in the Arne song Oh Ravishing Delight all week, I went and sang it Fortissimo. All nerves, you see. Your technique and your control over things go out of the stained glass church wndow. 

There were two other participants in the the Recital class and in the end I was awarded joint second (by 1 mark only.) Imagine, though, my complete surprise when I received the Rose Bowl Trophy for best overall performance out of 5 classes. Was this for some gorgeous chanson, or for the fieidishly difficult Wapping Old Stairs? No. I won it for my performance of Seiber’s The Owl and The Pussycat, the only song that I hadn’t worried and fretted abou interminablyt. Ah well.

The Rose Cup has winners’ names on it going back to to 1929 and I think I’ll get it engraved with my name too. My maiden name. I prove points with every public action: we immigrants DO integrate and play a full part in our local community and this needs to be visible so that no-one can dispute it. 

So, yes, could do better but all in all not bad for a first effort at a signing festival. I have a way to go until I can stir people like the Von Trapp Family singers, though. 

Nonauguration day

Remember this picture? The Reverend Jesse Jackson moved to tears of joy on that November morning in 2008 when Barack Obama became President Elect of the USA? What an era of hope and joy and pride the picture conveyed! What we have today is the opposite feeling and I’m shedding tears as I write this.

I am doing my best to ignore the vile, disgusting cesspool, the tangerine manbaby who has come to power in the USA. I simply cannot believe that he has replaced Barack Obama, whose extreme grace and dignity and statesmanship I have always admired. He and Michelle would certainly be guests at my fantasy dinner party. I suppose that is a subject for another blog post.

Trump’s election brought with it so much disillusion. I had thought that we had got over our atavistic human discrimination and lying and name-calling tendencies. I thought we had grown up, left all that behind. The painful aftermath of the Brexit vote and the subsequent election of this grossièreté has made me despair. We haven’t moved past disgustingness, have we? 

I’d normally watch the presidential inauguration but I’m boycotting it today and doing other things instead. For me it’s a normal day, nothing special:

After seeing Eliza off to school; feeding the dogs; doing the dishwasher; putting a wash on, I started the day with some admin. Here I’ve organised the accompanist’s music for my festival debut in March. I’m singing five songs, in three categories. They’re all open classes, which means that professionals can enter as well as amateurs but that sort of takes the pressure off me in a way. I’m not competing with anyone, not even myself, as we’ve seen, tht is the road to Hell. I just want to take advantage of an opportunity to perform these songs in public.

Raffles was being particularly clingy this morning. I was struck by this. He does like to cuddle up on the sofa in the evenings but he’s never normally as needy as this. Perhaps he does care about our emotional needs after all. 

Next on the agenda this morning was a 9.30 Zeros to Heroes homework run in Norman Park. 34 of us turned up for the run, which was far easier today than the one on Wednesday, even though today was the coldest it’s been. When I turned up at the start it was still -2C!

We’re only on Week 3 of the course so it’s not actually that strenuous at the moment but still fun in a group. Again, it’s not competitive and I’m happy to stay in the middle of the group but today I was passing people instead of being passed so there is hope for me. One more homework this week and I’ll be a quarter of the way through the course.

 

 

 

Next stop, after taking my music to the Post Office, was the garage. It’s MOT day for my 9 year old car, which has developed an ominous rattle in the last couple of days. I asked the mechanics to check this: it’s not good news. Some exhaust bracket has broken on my car’s undercarriage probably through going too fast over uneven road conditions. Hm. It’s going to cost but the person responsible takes the consequences, I suppose.

Lazy Raffles

It was a pleasure to walk the dogs on this crispy, sunny morning, once I’d actually rounded up Raffles and got out of the door. There seemed to be a lot more birds around today: a woodpecker yammered a tree and a denuded, sculptural oak on the golf course hosted some of our bright green ring-necked parakeets. Further along the golf course I spied a flock of ground feeding birds that looked like thrushes. There must have been at least 25 of them, pecking their way between the fallen leaves but they were frightened by Raffles before I got a chance to identify them. Not for the first time this week, I wished I’d had a camera with telephoto lens.They looked like thrushes but I didn’t think they flew around in gangs like this. They were too big to be long tailed tits.  Does anyone know what they might be?

I find myself rather concerned at Oscar’s behaviour at the moment, though. He keeps picking up and eating n’importe-quoi like tissues that have been dropped by revolting littering humans – when you have a dog you realise how filthy humans can be. He’s never behaved like this before. I wonder whether he’s regressing into a second childhood.

Home, then, to a hot shower; a muffin and cheese for lunch; some more admin; a missed call from a gardener supposed to come and pick up the keys. When Eliza arrived home she told me about her plans for the autumn House Music competition which were, to my mind, utter genius. Something as clever as what she’s planning would never have entered my mind but she first has to persuade enough people to buy into her plan and that’s not always easy with sixth formers’ egos as they are. 

Then finish off the ironing, make supper, try and do a singing practice and finally, later on, check-in online for my flight to India on Sunday.

 

Today I have not tweeted anything. Those who know me must realise what a remarkable act of self-restraint this is. I am not watching or listening to the news: I do not want that tangerine kleptocrat to derive any ratings figures from me. I’ve favourited and retweeted a few interesting articles, though, but it’s a day to get on with life. The kakistocracy might have commenced over on the other side of the Atlantic but we can resist by being ourselves and living our lives and loving the things we do. Small acts of defiance await in the next four years. They might be private acts but they are still defiance. I will try and defend grace and humility and dignity. I shall let hope prevail over debauchery. 

I found this song this morning, a setting of my favourite Maya Angelou poem. It is things like this that will get us through.

15 Divas and a Professor of Piano

Benslow Music

I spent a week at Benslow Music last month with Sarah Leonard‘s annual Vocal Summer School. It’s a popular and oversubscribed course. All of the other course participants had been before and had got to know each other well; I was the only new member. For me it was a chance to perform in public some of the pieces I intend to sing when I next have a crack at the ATCL Performance Diploma to gain more experience performing in front of an audience. As a choral singer I’ve done this many times before, of course, but solo singing is a whole different deal and nerves can do terrible things to your breath and voice control. If I’m honest, it was also a chance to escape some ensuing turmoil at home for a few days and just concentrate on doing what I love without interruption.

There were fourteen participants including one brave divo, and we all had to bring a song to perform on each of the four days.  We’d take turns to perform our song, accompanied by fantastic and accomplished piano professor Stephen Gutman  – never underestimate the value of a supportive accompanist – and then Sarah, who is also my regular singing teacher, would gently take us through feedback and possible improvements to technique or aspects of our performance.

On the final day we put together a little concert, commencing with a choral canon and finishing with a chorus from The Gondoliers. Concentrating so hard for the full day, we were wiped out with exhaustion by the end of our last session each day, at 9pm, but we also had the privilege of attending a couple of stunning concerts.

There were no televisions in bedrooms and the wifi was patchy to say the least, and it’s probably fair to say that Hitchin, while perfectly pleasant, is not really a shopping hotspot. So there were were, with our music and some practice rooms and a few ten-minute rehearsal slots with our pianist. Walk through the centre, and you could hear flute trills and runs and mezzo soprano scales and sirening floating across the campus from all directions.

The thing about singing is that it’s all-encompassing. The singing ego is fragile and there is always the fear of not pulling off a good performance, which can feed on itself if you’re not careful. I’ms sure that this is one of the factors that caused me to fail my diploma the first time. Your diet, your level of exercise, whether you’ve slept all have an impact on the breath, the posture and, ultimately the sound you make.

Unfortunately the Benslow week was at the height of my allergy peak this year and I slept appallingly for a couple of the nights there, waking up at 3am sneezing my head off with such a blocked nose that I couldn’t get back to sleep for several hours. So one night I made the mistake of taking an additional anti-histamine. I’d swapped with someone who was attending to personal issues elsewhere, to sing  Chausson’s Le Colibri at 9.15 the next morning. The song is tricky not least because it is nominally in 5/4 time and, for some reason, my brain was so out of it die to the drugs that I was unable to count the 5 beats in each bar so I kept not coming in or coming in too early. Sarah was sympathetic but I was so embarrassed that I still haven’t revisited the song, nearly a month later.

The only way to perform a song properly is if, having mastered all the technicalities of breathing, phrasing, language and diction, one tells the story, losing oneself in the character. So for these four days we chose to be someone else. In this way recent widows; those with lung disease; those with terminally ill partners; those recovering from horrific car crashes; those facing other life turmoil could choose to be a young nun facing her initiation into a convent; several 16 year old girls begging their fathers to let them marry their unsuitable boyfriend; one of the slaves in Showboat; Gretchen at her spinning wheel exploding from lust; a mother trying to distract her starving child; a drop of melting water in a frozen Swedish landscape.

And me? I got to perform the Habanera from Carmen in public for the first time. I hope it won’t be the last time and, like all of my songs, it is a work-in-progress. It’s something I’ve always wanted to perform even though my natural voice falls well above the lusty, throaty mezzo-soprano tessitura. I’d never even sung this to my teacher before so it didn’t go especially well the first time but I eventually agreed to perform it in the end-of-course concert. Fastening my shawl around my hips in a predatory manner, I assumed the position of the sexually-aggressive and untameable gypsy, all swagger and sneer. It was quite an act and, whilst perhaps not a completely accurate performance, served to show me in an entirely different light from the impression I’d made during the previous days. I’ll work on the Habanera: it was a lot of fun being Carmen.

Would I go again? Well, most people do. Some make a Benslow week their main holiday and some go to three or four courses every year. I’d like to go again, yes, but I’d also like to try the Singing With A Big Band course. Maybe I’d better not tell my teacher that, though.

 

 

 

 

The astounding Ms Ruby Turner

Off we went, then, to Ronnie Scott’s on Monday night, to see Ruby Turner perform. I’ve liked her for years but I’ve only seen her perform with Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, whom I adore. (In fact I often play my Jools playlist on the gym treadmill.)

Ruby Turner is astounding in the amount of effort she puts into her performance. Soul music is not really my thing but she blew everyone away with the complete dedication of all her mental and physical faculties to her performance.

I felt, though, that she was let down a little by the sound desk technicians: maybe I’m getting old but there was really no need for such over-amplification is such an intimate venue. Goodness, I bet Ruby could have blown our heads off without any artificial amplification at all. I also thought that the use of the echo effect was extraneous. Yes, it can sound quite nice, and it’s often used to cover up lack of technical prowess and dodgy tuning in less able singers. For me, though, the echo gilded the lily: there was just no need. In fact, in my opinion, Ms Turner’s outstanding abilities came over better in the quieter, calmer parts of her songs.

All of the above would, however, have been lost to the annoying couple sitting next to me, who were obviously not there to listen to the music. Well, maybe that was a little harsh on the young man, late twenties, early thirties or so, who was trying to pay attention. Every time he focused his gaze on the stage, though, his undoubtedly attractive female companion would distract him with her chatter or her long legs or a mixture of the two.

When you buy tickets at Ronnie Scott’s they specifically request that patrons keep conversation to a minimum during the acts. They reiterate this with signs all over the club. In fact it’s a grim indictment on the state of modern manners that this reminder is needed at all: if you’re too crass to shut up and listen to some of the greatest musicians in the world, then why bother coming to see them? Live performances of anything are increasingly plagued by boorish idiots who seem to think that the rules of common decency and civility don’t apply to them. Ugh.

This little performance of the progressively-inebriated amorous couple irritated me and all the people around them. People were giving them looks and loud Shhhh! and I at one stage very politely asked them to keep the noise down. They both apologised – loud and long, which made things worse. In my mind I was saying “Look, we’ve come to hear a music performance. If this is a sort of drunken foreplay for you, perhaps go and finish the job elsewhere.” But I am too polite to say that.

At one point the woman staggered off to the loos, I assume, and her beau left shortly afterwards clutching a packet of cigarettes. She left her handbag on the velvet banquette and I later found his keys right next to my handbag, where he’d been fumbling. It’s possibly an over-reaction, but dark thoughts of possible terrorist or other criminal activity fleetingly crossed my mind.

Anyway, they both returned after a while, those lovely-doves, and resumed their consumption of two whole bottles of claret. Or more. And no food. On a Monday night. They were still there when we left. I hope they had huge hangovers the following morning.

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