Tuesday, 25 October 2011

More harp trios and the 'C' word

I met up with Robyn and Anne yesterday and after sharing the news about our latest pieces and individual progress we ran through Dancing Lambs. We played this in our earlier rehearsals, very slowly and badly, but we now feel it is making more sense and we were able to take it at quite a good speed. The second run-through was even better and we chose a couple of bits to work on. However when we checked with a metronome what the speed should be we lost a little of our enthusiasm as we are still too slow but then decided our lambs didn't have to be that energetic. We also have our Latin pieces and played through a couple of those. In deciding when our next rehearsal should be Robyn mentioned the 'C' word... Christmas! It is still October but thoughts are already turning to plans for December. Anne has a Christmas tunes for harp book so she showed us that. While Robyn tried one out myself and Anne messed around with the chords and developed our own accompaniments. Robyn was fascinated! She can hear chord changes but isn't yet able to identify which one is which whereas Anne and I with our teaching and piano playing experience find this sort of thing straight forward, especially if the tune is as familiar as Silent Night. It was great practise adding massive arpeggio figures and embellishments to Robyn's version of Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing and we had a lot of fun. Musicians do usually have to think about Christmas around the same time as when the adverts appear on the telly as we have to prepare pupils and ensembles for performances for the end of term. Some pupils really should start to learn their Christmas pieces in August but I draw the line at October half term. I don't think my Christmas cheer would last much longer!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Benslow Music Trust

My half term began with a trip to Benlow Music Trust, Hitchin as Caroline and I were running a woodwind ensemble course there. This was our ninth one and the 20 or so participants ranged from Benslow regulars who attend numerous courses throughout the year to those who are coming for the first time. They all share the same interest and all hope to improve their skills, make music, learn a trick or two and make a few friends. Several of my grade 1 sponsors were there as well as one of my sponsors and fellow grade-1-a-be, Pat, who is a flautist and passed her grade 1 on the trumpet during the grade-1-a-thon. Pat did admit to catching up with the blog from time to time so "Hello Pat!" if you are reading!
View from my room overlooking the main house. Not particularly musical but it's a lovely setting.
All players play in a large ensemble that Caroline conducts and I organise players into smaller groups where they play one to a part. I coach the small groups throughout the weekend and we finish with an informal performance on the Sunday afternoon. For some reason this year the players were very well matched and each of the groups that I formed seemed to gel very well. As well as the five large ensemble piece several groups got through two or three smaller pieces, not bad for less than three days of practise! We had a small but appreciative audience for our little performance, including one of my biggest fans Ziggy the dog!
Ziggy waits eagerly for the performance
This is what I hope to do on the harp if a course coincides with one of my free weekends and I asked the director of music Stephen Pettit if he had any plans to run a harp weekend. Benslow do already run an International Harp Summer School but he hadn't thought there would have been much of a market for a lower level course. I could tell my enthusiasm for such an event had caused a little light bulb in his head to come on, faintly at first, and he did hint that a small course could be organised to see what the initial reaction would be.

I had an email from one of the participants this morning who had a great time but was "still suffering (very badly) at stuffing up" during the performance. I didn't realise this at the time otherwise I would have given some words of comfort then but replied to say that on these courses we like to think of things as 'work in progress' rather that a polished performance. One of the problems these days is that most of the performances we hear, either in the concert hall or on the tv, radio or recordings, are top quality (if you don't include some of the reality shows!) and what we never see are the hours and hours of rehearsal time along with wrong notes, missed entries and squeaks that happen at all levels. The trick is to learn to keep going and look like you know what you are doing, something that some fo the more experienced players are already doing. I sent the player the first page from John Holt's 'Never Too Late' and had a reply shortly afterwards to say that they had laughed out loud on the train and felt a little better!

Friday, 14 October 2011

Changing a string

One of my C strings snapped earlier in the week. I hadn't noticed it going and just saw the string hanging off on Monday morning. I've not had to change one before as the last one that went was on the hired harp and that went the day before it was returned so it was replaced at Pilgrims. Rohan is happy to come out and replace them but she's busy and I'm busy so I thought the easiest thing would be for me to order my own and have a go. How hard can it be?! Well, firstly it's not a simple re-order like it might be on the violin or guitar as not only do you need to know which note you need, in my case 'C', you also need to know which octave it is. After checking my chart I knew it was the 2nd octave 'C' which is one of the top strings. While I was waiting for the new string I was a little limited with my practise as several pieces do need the C. I tried finding an alternative note but this was too hard and you realise just how quickly you learn the shapes and patterns within a piece. It is very off putting to have a string missing. I was able to practise Gavotte as this doesn't need a C and there were a few other folk tunes that I found I could manage. The string had arrived by the time I got in from work today so I set about attaching it to my harp.
Old string and new string
I did have instructions so used these to work out how to tie the knot but this was hard for more than one reason. The string is sent curled up as above so wouldn't straighten out easily. I did learn some knots while in the Girl Guides but wasn't very good and can't remember the names of them, let alone how to tie them. You have to tie the knot around the extra bit of gut that holds the end of the tring inside the harp. Here's my first attempt at a knot:
Comparing my knot with the suggested knot
Realising that the loop bit was the wrong side of the knot I had to start again. Then when I thought I'd got it right I put it through the hole in the soundboard but the larger bit fell out because the knot was not tight enough. I had to fish it out from inside the harp. Once that was finally in I had to work out which way round the string went through the tuning pin. Two possible ways and I got the wrong way first. I think it is done but took a few photos to send to Rohan so she can advise me.

You get more than you need for your string and I think you are supposed to cut the extra bit off but I've left it for now in case I've done anything wrong!
Last stage: attaching to the tuning pin
I've emailed Rohan some of the pictures and am nervously waiting for a reply.

In other harp news this week harpist Claire Jones performed on the Chris Evans Breakfast show in honour of the Welsh rugby team playing in the world cup semi-final tomorrow so after hearing some of her playing on the way to work I felt inspired to do a little more practise and to make the most of my harp before another string goes!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A viola and harp joke...

Of all the instruments in the orchestra the viola is the one that is made the most fun of. There is a good reason for this and that is that it has always been this way. Sitting on stage on Saturday ready to rehearse the Turnage Viola Concerto we realised everyone was there, the players, conductor, viola students in the auditorium and then someone noticed we were just missing the soloist. He'd been seen but hadn't appeared at the right time. While someone went off to fetch him soprano sax player John and I shared a few viola jokes most of which we had both heard before. Presently Lawrence appeared and we began rehearsing. We quickly realised this was no ordinary viola player and the intensity of sound produced was quite amazing. He knew the piece extremely well and was in control throughout. The rehearsal went well and I got most of my notes in the right place, or as many as I needed to without worrying about my fee. Rohan's little snippets on harp sounded good. Usually the harp or harps sit behind the second violins, not too far from the horns on the left if you are in the audience. The harpists face is hidden from the audience behind the soundboard of the harp. Because of the enormous range of percussion, and because she needed to be near the celeste and piano she was sitting on the right hand side behind the cellos. I asked her if this was normal and she said it occasionally happened but was rare. When I asked how much of a difference it made she said not much but she just has to remember to smile more because the audience can see her more clearly.

Rehearsal out of the way and then it was onto the performance. Despite my reluctance to engage with certain genres of modern music I enjoyed performing the Turnage more than I thought I would. I find when I play pieces that don't have much of a tune I listen to them as if they might have been written for film. That helps me get through it. As it was the writing for wind was interesting and when playing we were kept busy without it being too demanding. Lawrence was excellent and he is actually performing the concerto again with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 19 October at the Southbank.

As we were packing up John told me yet another viola joke and one that I'd not heard before:
Why are viola players jealous of harpists?
Because harpists only play pizzicato on open strings!

If you don't get it ask your teacher at your next viola lesson!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

How's the practise going...?

I find it difficult to say no to things, especially if there is a fee, or free food, or it will be an enjoyable experience. If it's all three then that's when I really appreciate my job! I have a few projects that I am working on at the moment including concerts for several of my ensembles, arranging music for some weekend woodwind courses and clarinet playdays. I've been on a team with my professional society organising some workshops (one of which is entitled 'Managing stress in the practice of music'. Very useful). As if this wasn't enough I have taken on a new sideline career as a journalist. I already write reviews of clarinet music which is great fun but I am working on a little article about a recent BBC project called Scrapheap Orchestra. There will be a documentary on BBC4 at some point soon but in short several leading instrument makers were asked to build instruments for members of the BBC Concert Orchestra for one of the Prom concerts. Fine, the makers thought, until they learned that everything had to be made of scrap and other people's rubbish. One of the woodwind makers lives in Cambridge so I went to interview him earlier in the week. I can't give too much away here but it is a fascinating story and to see a couple of the instruments close up was equally brilliant. One of the impressions I came away with was that we spend so long trying to perfect our first choice instrument, investing time and money to achieve perfect results, that when something unexpected happens we are reluctantly forced to adapt. Then we whinge about it! Scrapheap Orchestra challenges that idea, as well as challenging a whole lot more besides! However I have not quite settled into my new role yet. Ten minutes into my interview I realised I'd not turned my microphone on. I still have a lot to learn!

Of course you may be thinking these are really just excuses for not having done any harp practise recently, rather like my pupils who blame everything from a new puppy to their sister's broken finger for not having had the chance to get their instruments out in the week. Not so! I have been quietly plodding away on my grade 3 pieces and I have managed to work on the ensemble pieces that myself Robyn and Anne have been playing. Rohan gave me some exercises to help with the scale patterns in the Study and that has helped a little. The Grandjany Barcarolle has improved since the Music on the Close concert and I have relearned that last line as I had been playing it incorrectly. This will be ready for a recording soon. I have two other pieces that I am deciding between for my list A choice. I am gradually working through both and will decide by the end of October.

I have an orchestral concert this evening in Cambridge. The programme includes a piece by Mark-Antony Turnage called On Opened Ground and it is a viola concerto. It is difficult, not least because it is a viola concerto, and that includes the rests where I'm not playing as I have to count. I am on bass clarinet and have had to learn the very low notes that I don't usually have to worry about. Even as a clarinettist my little fingers are not used to this much activity. The only positive thing is that this is developing my low note skills, presumably for the next time I play some Turnage! Rohan is playing the harp part in this and I watched her in the rehearsal when I could afford to relax during my rests. Her part is also immensely difficult and her feet are getting plenty of exercise as the pedal changes are fast and furious. I may pull faces when I go wrong but Rohan does need to watch her language during the performance! Knowing that Rohan has considerable faith in my potential harping abilities I casually asked her if she thought I'd manage the harp part. The instant and firm "NO!" shocked me at first but then when I saw the part I was secretly glad I would probably not get asked to stand in if Rohan was suddenly indisposed to appear. I'll let you know how we both get on! I've just got time for a spot of my own harp practise before going out.