Beyond Brilliant (or C is for Choir)

I jokingly said I’d write a poem about choir for today’s challenge. This is the first one I’ve ever written, so I know it’s not brilliant but it was hugely enjoyable to write. And as I’m sometimes a front row diva, I feel entitled to take the mick. After all, one should be able to laugh at oneself!

Big Gig 2016

Rock Chorus performing their Big Gig

Beyond Brilliant

Blue hoodies

and black shoes.

Men and women

singing away their blues.

 

Old and young,

the point is to have fun.

Haven’t sung since school?

Well, this choir’s for everyone.

 

Four sips in and another four out.

Swivel your hips

and shake away your doubts.

Lauren counts us in and off we go,

some voices high and others low.

 

We sing Madonna, Tom Petty

and some Coldplay too.

With forty songs under our belt,

there’s a lot for us to do.

 

But expect a lot of giggling

if you mention Toploader.

Oh the jokes made about that song

If only you knew!

 

Camaraderie and laughter

is really all we’re after.

You want us to sing in harmony?

Well, we can do that too!

 

Sometimes we sing to three men and a dog,

with the raining lashing down

it’s all part of the job!

Other times we have a Big Gig to get through

and that’s when you really see what we can do.

 

The rehearsal beforehand can be a bit of a fight,

with too many divas wanting the limelight.

What do you mean I can’t stand in the front row?

It’s my right to stand here. Didn’t you know!

 

But when the curtain goes up and the lights go down,

watch out folks. Rock Chorus is in town.

Twenty two songs sung with passion and feeling

If you’re really lucky we’ll throw in some tambourine-ing.

 

Blue hoodies

and black shoes.

Men and women

singing away their blues.

 

 

 

There was more to Ravel than Bolero

From 1994 to 2003 I played the cello for Windsor and Maidenhead Symphony Orchestra (WMSO). As with Rock Chorus, I’d initially gone along to meet people, because I didn’t know anyone when we moved down to Slough from Liverpool.

In 1998, my sister was living in London and wanted to do some orchestral playing, so I suggested she join me and play her violin in the WMSO. She did just that, coming down on the train every week for our rehearsals, before moving to live in France a couple of years later.

Most orchestras retire to the pub after rehearsing and we were no exception, patronising an ancient Tudor place, all low beams and rough wooden tables, tucked away down a narrow country lane. It was the antithesis of a chain pub and sold lovely beer.

One evening, my sister decided to come for a drink before catching the train home and I introduced her to a couple of people I vaguely knew who were our age, Andrew and Marcus. After some initial small talk, the conversation, as you might expect, turned to music and we all said how much we liked chamber music. Realising that there were two vioinists, a cellist and viola player seated round the table, the idea to form a quartet was born. We took it in turns to host our rehearsals once a week and cook dinner for the others, naturally providing some all important liquid refreshment too!

As with choir, those meetings became the highlight of my week, not least because at that time my husband’s job meant he constantly travelled around Europe and back and forth to New York, so I was on my own a lot with only the TV for company. Also, we were all in our late 20s and had that sparkle and zest for life that often only comes with youth and liked one another from the very first.

Andrew was a budding entrepreneur, running his own pharmaceutical consultancy, Marcus worked in IT, my sister flitted from job to job before deciding to become a TEFL teacher like me and undergo some training and I was working for a local language company teaching people business English and occasionally beginner-level Japanese.

Inevitably, with a mix of two men and two women, there was a great deal of harmless flirting and banter whenever we met but this made what could’ve been a rather serious session of music making, into one that was light-hearted and much more fun. It was always pleasure before rehearsing: eating, drinking and conversation first, then playing music.

In our quartet, there was no rivalry between the violin players, which is so common and often detrimental to group dynamics. They were equally as good technically and would swap between violin 1 and violin 2 as they felt like it. My sister and I being far more experienced at chamber music than the others, would lead the rehearsals at first, advising Andrew and Marcus of the techniques of playing in a small group; the most important being to watch and listen to one another. As time passed, we gelled into a proper group who could play reasonably well and were all firm friends.

So where does Ravel’s string quartet come into this? As so often with me, it was hearing music on the radio that triggered all these memories. A couple of weeks ago it was the Easter break and my whole family had congregated down in Pembroke Dock for a week’s holiday.

One morning, as I was washing up after breakfast the sound of a string quartet playing on the radio gradually penetrated my usual early morning thoughts of: “Which beach are we going to today?” and “Is there any more coffee?” I stood still listening, thinking: “What’s that music, it’s so familiar?”

I walked into the dining room where my sister was reading the newspaper.”Is that Ravel’s quartet they’re playing?” I asked her.

She listened for a moment, “I’m not sure” she said, “it’s been such a long time.”

The more I listened though, the more I was certain that it was Ravel because it’s the one quartet that we worked exceptionally hard at. I didn’t need to wait for the presenter’s announcement at the end of the piece to know.

Like many people, I had no idea that Ravel had written a string quartet. Most people only know his Bolero. Think of Sarajevo in 1984 and Torvill and Dean’s ice skating gold at the Winter Olympics. Yes, that piece, with the most boring cello part in the whole of existence!

Before our very first quartet rehearsal, I’d volunteered to go to Reading Library and get some music out, as none of us had any. Among the usual copies of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart was Ravel. Intrigued, I flicked through the different parts and noted that though technically a challenge in places it wasn’t impossible and all four parts had an equal share of the tune. I was sold and took the music out on loan and bought a recording of it too.

We weren’t at all sure of this piece after playing through the first movement during our rehearsal though; it was so different to the composers we were used to. But the lyrical nature of the music, with its theme that is repeated later in the the quartet had got under our skin and we all decided that it was worth learning properly. Over time, the very fact that it was so different to anything else in our repertoire added to its appeal and it became one of our favourites.

Our quartet playing was very largely for our own pleasure but we did play in public a few times. One time my dad got us a gig at a garden party. My parents were away for the weekend, so we drove over to their house in Kent and all stayed over, so we could socialise with one another properly. As we were providing background music, it was largely up to us what we played. We chose movements from various quartets and some arrangements of well-known classical pieces too, that Dad had lent me.

Towards the end of the gig, our chair legs sinking into the lawn and clothes pegs battling to hold the music on the stands due to the wind, we looked at one another and the unspoken message was, “enough of pleasing the guests who’re all drunk and not listening, lets play Ravel” and launched into the first movement. We did convert somebody else to our love of this quartet that afternoon though. As we finished there was some applause and a fellow musician came over to ask what we were playing. I showed him the music and he thanked me and told me we played it well.

My one great wish is to get back to quartet playing. It was never my intention to stop playing the cello but a series of injuries and becoming a mother put an end to it. I have started playing again but not regularly yet, it’s mainly to help my son with his violin practice. Once my fingers have re-learnt where the notes are and my ability to read ahead has improved along with my counting, I’ll be confident enough to organise a group to play with. And one day, you can be sure I’ll play Ravel again.

 

Dido & the Sad Tale of Peter’s Demise

It is a very long time since I’ve been able to listen to Dido’s “No Angel” album for one good reason: It reminds me of death. One death in particular, of a guy John worked with, that was particularly needless and shocking.

15 years ago, John came home from work and came to talk to me while I was washing the dishes in the kitchen. “What a strange day that was,” he said.

“Why?” I commented, putting the cup down I was cleaning, as he looked troubled.

“We had a phone call from the police at work to say that Peter* had been involved in a fatal traffic collision.”

“You mean he’s dead?” I said stupidly, not wanting to believe what I was hearing.

“Yes,” he replied. It turned out that Peter, driving too fast along the back roads to Egham, had overtaken a slow car on a bend and crashed his TVR straight into an unsuspecting lorry. The gearbox ended up in his chest and at 46 his life ended abruptly and violently, at far too young an age.

His sudden death hit me particularly hard because at 31, I’d never experienced the loss of someone I knew quite well and who I considered a contemporary. The strange thing was I didn’t even like him very much, as he was an awful womaniser and rude about John behind his back too. He would flirt outrageously with me whenever he saw me, whether John was in the room or not; a fact that the pair of us would frequently have a good laugh about in private. Of course I was flattered, for every woman, whether in a relationship or not, likes to know that she is attractive to the opposite sex but I never had any intention of reciprocating it.

The funeral was packed with friends and family, who like me, couldn’t believe that Peter had suddenly gone from their lives. His daughters, who were in their late teens, bravely gave a touching tribute to their father and his second wife, Katie* stumbled through the ceremony still in a state of shock. I felt desperately sorry for her but I had no idea what to say apart from the usual unhelpful platitudes.

As the congregation filed out of the ceremony, Dido’s beautiful song “All You Want” was played, chosen because it was the last thing Peter was listening to before he died; the CD still sitting in the stereo, while he lay in the morgue, cold and broken. For years afterwards I was haunted by that song and I would dissolve into tears whenever I heard it. Now finally, a decade and a half later, I can listen to it with equanimity and enjoy it how it was meant to be heard.

Katie and his daughters, wherever you are, I hope you got over Peter’s death and are living happy, fulfilled lives.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy

Music is Good for You!

Some friends of mine at choir were surprised to find out last week that I used to play for Kobe Symphony Orchestra nearly 20 years ago. So I’m hoping this post explains how that all came about.

Music has always been part of my life and until it was absent for several years, I had no idea just how important it was for me. If I was a religious person, I would say it was part of my soul but I’m not, so let’s just say that it is vital to who I am as a person. I love music of all kinds and when I perform, I can feel real joy and get a thrill from it too. A rather inadequate explanation, I think, but I find it’s hard to put into words.

So why, I hear you ask, do I love it so much? Well let me try and explain. You see, I come from a very musical family; everyone plays something or sings and I have been immersed in music my whole life. My love for it comes from my father. A keen amateur musician, he is still as active as ever on the local music scene, although he is nearly 70.

As far back as I can remember, there was always classical music playing in our house if Dad was home. Symphonies, quartets, songs, Gilbert and Sullivan and serious opera would all come blasting out of Dad’s trusty record player at full volume; so I was absorbing and learning about music all the time, without really realizing it.

A child of the 70s, a time when we didn’t have lots of toys and electronic entertainment, my sister and I made up a lot of our games. If it was raining, one of our favourite occupations was to raid the dressing up box, put on a costume and then play records of musicals like South Pacific and sing and dance around to them. We would also listen to Mum’s Beatles records and sing along to them too. I was taken to watch Dad playing in his orchestral concerts too, from a very young age.

When I was 7, I started learning the piano and a year later the cello. I was destined to play that cello! Dad had bought it for Mum, hoping that she would learn and join him in making music but she wasn’t very interested. So as the daughter who had the bigger hands, the cello was mine and my younger sister learnt the violin instead. It was Dad who decided what we were going to play and him who took us to our lessons and made sure we practiced. If that sounds rather authoritarian in today’s child-centered culture, I can honestly say that it did neither of us any harm whatsoever and we are both very grateful to him today for making us stick at it. Of course we moaned about practising but every child does, once the novelty has worn off and you realize that it’s going to be years until you are any good!

I was fortunate where I grew up to have a strong local music society for children (MYMS), which met at one of the senior schools every week. Children from all over the local area came to join in the music making and there were lots of different groups to cater for them.

I joined the junior orchestra when I was 10 and progressed to the senior group not long after. I went to MYMS for the next 8 years until I finished school and went off to university. As a child who hated P.E. and wasn’t therefore part of a team and who was bullied at school, music became a refuge for me. I liked being with other people who enjoyed playing too and it was fun to be part of a group and socialise with friends. Not only did we give regular concerts but we also had the opportunity to go on tour. I have very fond memories of my trips to Germany and Sweden; we had a great deal of fun staying with our host families!

At 13 I moved to a girl’s grammar school and that’s when I really became heavily involved in music. I joined the school orchestra and choir and after a couple of years, joined the chamber orchestra and choir as my playing improved. So just about every lunchtime, I was playing or singing in some group and then there were cello and piano lessons during and after school and MYMS.

What kept me doing all of this, apart from my father? The music teacher at the grammar school, Mr B. After nearly 30 years, I only have a vague recollection of most of my teachers but not him. His passion and enthusiasm for music shone through everything he did and he was a great teacher. As a school orchestra we played pieces which I now realize are pretty difficult, like Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” but under his teaching, we not only managed them but played them with panache.

He also inspired true devotion from the students. Whenever he took to the stage before a concert, he would receive a huge round of applause and foot stamping from the orchestra, never mind the audience! Under his direction the school also produced some fantastic musicals like “The Boyfriend” (with boys drafted in from the boy’s grammar!). I still have the rave review from the local paper, which said that the production was as good as any professional one. A proud moment!

Sadly, Mr B. left after I did my O levels and music at the school was never the same again. The orchestra were given pieces that were far too easy for them and we quickly became bored; although being good girls, we still turned up! Spending so much time with the same people, both at school and at MYMS, and sharing so many formative experiences has made me some life long friends, some of whom no doubt, are reading my blog.

Music making was not just confined to school; plenty of it went on at home too! I have spent hours and hours playing simple Mozart and Haydn trios with my Dad and sister, progressing on to playing harder quartets when we were older and we could get another violin player to come round. If I wasn’t playing chamber music I would be listening to it; Dad was often inviting people round to play in the evenings or at weekends and the music could not only be heard in the house but halfway down the street as well! I have also played in countless amateur chamber concerts with family and friends over the years.

A great deal of music making went on with the wider family too when I was growing up. Whereas most families will get together, have a meal and chat. In mine, once the eating was done, out came the stringed instruments and the question became “What to play?”. The answer is quartets, quintets, octets even. Sometimes friends of the family who played wind instruments or the piano joined us too, widening the repertoire. On one famous occasion we had enough musical people in the extended family to put on a production of the Messiah in the village hall, conducted by my Dad. As you can see, we’re an unusual family!

Music making carried on all the time, whether I was at school or not. All of my summer holidays were spent at my parent’s holiday home in France (see my blog about St. Sauveur). Such is my father’s passion for music, that our instruments were taken out along with the suitcases and he would always find people to play music with. The locals enjoyed our music too and would come and listen to us play regularly, sipping aperitifs provided by Mum.

My sister and I would attend residential music courses in the holidays too, along with many of our friends. It was an invaluable experience. A week of intensive playing improved our skills no end and gave us the opportunity to play pieces that we might not otherwise have done. Also, it’s fun to spend the week away from home with your mates, listen to pop music, play rowdy games of cards, sneak out at night and drink illegal alcohol; an essential part of growing up, I would say!

What about pop music then? Although it was rarely played in the house until my sister and I became teenagers, because Dad’s love is classical through and through, we absorbed it from other sources. Hearing it at other people’s house, on the radio, at parties, on the television, at school. We always watched “Top of Pops” with Mum too, so I know all the classic 70s and 80s bands and as I’ve grown up have developed my own taste in music. As I sit here writing this blog, I have been listening to Michael Jackson, Keane and Dido.

Music making has also been a big part of my adult life. There wasn’t a lot at university, I’ll admit. I tried the university orchestra and hated it. As I wasn’t a music student, the other players were very unfriendly and wouldn’t include me in their social life or even talk to me much. Also, I didn’t like the conductor or his compositions that he made us play, so I quickly left.

To be honest, I realize now that I also wanted to try different things. I’d grown up in a small village and led a very sheltered life. My sister and I never went anywhere with friends or did the things other teenagers do; there just wasn’t the chance. Suddenly, I was living in a big city with endless experiences on offer. Life became about clubbing on the weekend and filling in the gaps in my musical education; it became about having boyfriends and getting drunk; it became about living away from home and managing my own money, learning to cook, staying in bed until lunchtime if I wanted to, dealing with relationship breakups, falling out with friends and making new ones, learning how to study on my own and pass exams. In other words, real life.

Once I was married and we had moved to a town where we didn’t know anyone, I joined the local amateur orchestra in order to meet some people. I had barely settled in though, when my husband was given the chance to work in Japan for 2 years and we decided to go.

Quite by coincidence, a friend of Dad’s, also a musician, had emigrated to Japan a few years before (he had a Japanese wife, who wanted to go back and live in her country) and he lived in Kobe.  Introductions are everything in Japanese culture and Dad’s friend happened to know someone who played in Kobe Symphony Orchestra and so he came along to a rehearsal with me and introduced us.

Playing in an orchestra in a foreign country, where I could barely speak a word of the language at first was hard but I enjoyed it nevertheless. What saved me was my desk partner who spoke really good English. He would patiently translate what the conductor was saying and the German that the instructions were written in (yes, German not Italian, as they usually are!) and made a real effort to include me in the social life of the orchestra. He sadly died of cancer in 2001 and was missed by everyone.

We worked hard in the orchestra; rehearsals were much longer than I was used to, with barely a 10 minute break in the middle but we played hard too, always going out for a drink after and socializing. I made some good friends who helped me to feel more at home, in what was a very different place. On a visit to Japan this Easter, I met up with one of these friends and we reminisced about old times and my desk partner, who is still fondly remembered after 13 years.

Returning to live in this country, I rejoined the local orchestra and stayed with them until a persistent shoulder injury led me to reluctantly give up playing. Then I had two children and moved house as well and before I knew it, 7 years had passed and I hadn’t picked up my cello once.

I had been aware that there were some choirs in Milton Keynes for some time but it took a while before I plucked up the courage to go to one just over a year ago. After all, I hadn’t sung since school and even then I didn’t do it seriously.

I’m not talking classical singing though, this is something completely different! We rock along to more contemporary songs; three-part arrangements of Living in a Prayer and Locked out of Heaven, with “moves” thrown in as an added bonus. Instead of playing in traditional concert halls, gigs are more likely to be outside at local music festivals. And it is FUN! Like my former music teacher, the choir leader loves music and is an enthusiastic and talented teacher. Knowing just how far you can push people to get the best out of them but not take it too far is an art she has perfected. She is also very knowledgeable about singing and helps us with style and technique, as well as having a fantastic voice of her own. A funny lady as well, we spend a lot of time laughing at her one-liners in between singing; which helps us to relax and bond with one another. It goes without saying that I have got many friends in the choir and it is also a chance to do something just for myself. As a busy mother, opportunities like that are few and far between!

I am so glad that I joined and found my music again. I didn’t know how much I missed it, until I realized one day that choir night had become the highlight of my week. The point about music, I think, is that you can enjoy it on any level; you don’t have to be an expert. Choir is a great example of this. Not many of us can read music and there are probably even fewer who have had such an extensive musical experience as me but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Enthusiasm and enjoyment of what we are doing is just as important. Our recent sell out concert proves that!