Or is he a very naughty boy?

I shall open with a confession, and I’m sorry if this shocks anyone: I have never seen The Life of Brian.  It is an area of our culture that I have acquired entirely by osmosis and a having seen a few clips – usually after alcohol has been taken.  There are other whole swathes of popular culture for which I can talk a good (or if not good, than usually sufficiently convincing) game but have never experienced directly – these may be revealed in later posts, or I may take some shameful secrets with me to the grave.

Talking of the grave, I like to think that I am raging against the dying of the light: quick before Chaos’ dread empire is restored and universal darkness buries all.   I like to think that my foolish attempts to become a multi-instrumentalist and gymnast (among other manifestations of the mid-life crisis) in my early fifties – despite little previous indication of any innate ability in either sphere – set me well ahead of the vast majority of my cohort.  Last night I had the great joy to meet someone who makes my raging look more like the work of a man only vaguely disappointed before the uncreating word.

Yester e’en, I took myself I took myself by Sprinter Express to Romsey to see a performance of Handel’s Messiah (hence the title) by the Hanover Band and Chorus, plus some rather fine soloists.  Arriving a little early (always safest when relying on public transport), I had time for a rather pleasant pint of Tessellate at the Tipsy Pig.

The gig was held in the impressive space of Romsey Abbey and described as The Messiah by Candlelight – and there were certainly lit candles present, but the vast majority of the light was powered electrically.  While I may quibble about the light and the lack of heating (the poor choir must have been frozen by the end of the gig), there was no room for complaint about the quality of the music.  The Hanover Band play on period instruments and play them with surpassing skill – and the soloists were excellent.  Sitting in the front row – my feet were in a position to trip the tenor on his way to perform each aria – the quality of the sound was excellent (it may have been good elsewhere, but I have no direct evidence for this).  It was great to be so close to the action for such an iconic choral work, it was particularly astonishing watching the bass (as I am one) singing The trumpet shall sound and his extraordinary breath control – I couldn’t even tell he needed to breathe (if I attempted that aria, people would know of my need to inhale from a couple of counties away!).  However, if there is one tune in the Messiah which really grabs at my very vitals, it must be the soprano aria I know that my redeemer liveth – somehow it always catches me by surprise (it’s right up there with Ruht wohl from the St John Passion for emotional punch).

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Marvel at the massed candles!

During the interval, while a chap raced to tune the harpsichord and I assume the choir tried to get warm, I was somewhat surprised to be recognised by one of the second violins.  Now, I have seen the Haonver Band once before but it was ~15 years ago and I was part of an anonymous crowd at the Wigmore Hall.  As it transpired, he had played at an Out-take Ensemble gig and remembered my skilled audience-work from there – truly I do need to permanently be on my best behaviour as I could be recognised anywhere!

I was sitting on the right-hand edge of the front row of the central nave and found myself chatting to the pair of ladies sitting next to me.  Somehow conversation turned to my attempts to play Valse Lente and Cruella de Vil on the piano and the joy that I find in the slow process of mastery.  Not only did one of my new companions (I shall call her J for the rest of this post) also love these pieces, but she could also recommend Joc cu bâtă by Bartók and the Bach A Minor Invention from the same book!  The three of us got on like a house on fire – including some mischievous football-related banter between J and the tenor – so well, in fact, that they offered me a lift home (saving a longish wait on the platform at Romsey station).  It was on this journey that I discovered just how extraordinary J was.

I would say that J was certainly well into her sixties and quite possibly beyond, but I already knew that she had cycled 20 miles that day.  As it transpired, this was very much one of her lesser feats.  In very recent years she has skydived, para-glided, climbed Kilimanjaro, Go(ne) Ape and abseiled off the Spinnaker Tower.  In her day-job, she is a piano teacher and is corrupting her young female charges in ways that frankly their parents probably don’t (initially) expect from a woman of her age.  She also makes my own recent bike accident and recovery look very tame.  Recently, she was rear-ended by a car at a roundabout and really quite seriously injured – quite the range of broken bones and lesser abrasions and contusions.  Lying on the ground she heard a woman screaming and wondered who it was, before realising she was the one making the noise.  Nevertheless, she refused an ambulance and instead insisted – very forcefully – on being taken to the crematorium.  Not to cut out the middleman, but because she was due to play the organ at a funeral – which she proceeded to do.  She has also continued working through Hepatitis B and her survival from this continues to amaze the medical profession. What a woman!  What a role model!  I shall have to seriously up my game…

There has been a recent “thing” on Twitter after someone asked users to “name a badder bitch than Taylor Swift”, probably rhetorically.  Historians (among others) led, on my feed at least by the lovely Greg Jenner, have been offering some stunning examples from the past.  I would definitely add J to the list – and to think, if I hadn’t gone out last night and chatted with complete strangers, I would never have known that such amazing folk live among us!

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Afternoon delight

It clearly wasn’t sensible to entitle this post “Morning delight” as, at my age, the delights of the morning can be divided into two broad camps.  Firstly, there is the delight of having awoken in this world once more, rather than the next (or not at all).  Secondly, comes the thrill of discovering that nothing new has dropped off, started hurting or stopped working since entering the land of Nod.  It is also in this introductory salvo that I should make explicit that I shall be interpreting the word “afternoon” rather broadly as the half of each day that lies after noon, incorporating periods that (less maverick) others might prefer to call the evening or even the start of the night.

David Attenborough and his team have been delighting residents of these isles with a series of films prying into the private lives of the wild denizens of our oceans.  I don’t like getting water up my nose and lack the patience or budget to tackle a subject of this nature and scope, so the post-lunch delights explored in this post will be much closer to home and more personal.  As usual, we will mostly be prying into the private life of a single denizen of the land, who but rarely dips so much as a toe into the ocean.  I don’t necessarily expect it to become fodder for nationwide water-cooler conversation but I like to think that in the same way that Mr A has become synonymous with documenting the natural world, so have I become the greatest documentarian of my own life.  While I am happy leaving posterity to decide who has made the greater contribution to human culture, let’s just say that I’m not getting my hopes up…

If I’m honest, this post largely exists to discuss the extraordinary delights offered by the Out-take Ensemble‘s gig on Monday evening.  However, while this will provide the majority of the thematic material for the piece, other secondary themes may intrude and there will be a coda covering events which took place a few hours later in the self-same space.

The Out-take Ensemble specialise in staging (a word I use deliberately) experimental music.  This tends to be very recently composed, fits into no obvious established genre and often has strong visual and text-based elements.  As with A Thousand Words with which this has some parallels, I fear this is going to push my descriptive powers well beyond their limits.

The evening’s first piece was composed in response to the first ever Out-take Ensemble gig – which took place only a few months ago – and incorporated live sounds recorded from the bar after that gig.  It’s name suggests it forms the first part of a trilogy, so I look forward to even deeper recursion in future parts.  In addition to recorded sounds, the piece used accordion, drum-kit, treble recorder, violin and electric guitar.  In common with all the pieces, it was fascinating both musically and intellectually and was full of the unexpected and sharp, swift moments of delight.  Again, in common with the other pieces, it induced in this listener enormous joy.  Indeed, I think for the whole evening my facial expressions transitioned between concentration, bafflement and joy: which is the sign that the brain lurking behind the face is having a very good time.

I think the second piece was the most intellectually complex as it involved the use of the display of coloured flash cards, a form of one-armed semaphore and some fragmentary phrases as well as electric guitar, treble recorder, violin, melodica and Ableton Push (producing a range of curious sounds of its own).  I think it was somewhat based around chord theory and at least some of the colours and semaphore related to notes or whole chords that were also played.  I would need to see/hear the piece several more times to understand its underpinings properly (or at all) – but it was so much fun engaging on many levels with the piece and I, coincidentally, learned several new guitar chords.

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More than one way to make a chord!

Other pieces moved even further into performance, treading on the toes of theatre at times.  There was a glorious piece by Matthew Shlomowitz involving the Ableton Push, a tuba, a pair of headphones and a ball of scrunched up paper.  I am pleased to say that I correctly guessed that the ball of paper would end up in the tuba before the piece was over, but it also contained a lot of gestural elements – verging on physical theatre – and a list of northern cities.  This is described as an open score piece – so I believe the performers may have had significant freedom on the instrumentation and how it was performed.  Silent Doom Disco by Ben Jameson (also star of last week’s Playlist gig) demonstrated that experimental music does not have to include music (at least as far as the audience is concerned), or any sound at all, for a surprisingly long time – a degree of dead-air that would make even Shaun Keaveny blanche.  I believe the three headphone-wearing performers could hear music, or at least instructions, which controlled(?) their (at times frenetic) dance moves.  Eventually, some – gradually growing – music is heard by the audience which may (or may not) have related to that heard by the dancers.

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An unusual take on Chekhov’s gun…

For the first time, at least in my experience, the audience were solely responsible for performing a piece: For Cage99 by Nomi Epstein.  This involved both quiet reading and singing and proved surprisingly musical – a member of the ensemble merely signalled when we should start and when the piece was over.

I shall spare you further ineffective description, but suffice it so say that future gigs by the Out-take Ensemble are on my must-do list – and I’ve started looking for other experimental music gigs to attend.  I rather fear they are few and far between as the audience for such exotica is limited, probably mostly to practitioners (and me).  However, I reckon lots of people would enjoy it – as long as they bring with them any last embers of childlike wonder they have managed to keep glowing into adulthood (or are still children).  Actually, I reckon children would love it and I’m quite tempted to try and stage an experimental music gig for such an audience: it would be a very different way into music for young people and, perhaps, more fun than more traditional approaches.

Through careful husbandry (ironic given how unlikely I am to ever become a husband), I have managed to keep a sizeable blaze of childhood wonder going, despite my proximity to the grave.  This burst forth as delight again at the piano the following day.  Discovering something new at the keyboard, however badly I am able to execute it, brings so much delight into my life.  This delight often, especially when socially acceptable, causes me to break out into laughter.  In fact, this is not just true at the piano and, as I have learned, is a reaction I share with my piano teacher.  When it happened on Tuesday, I came within a hair’s breadth of bashing my head into the piano lid for the second week running: joy has not normally been kept confined without good reason, she is a health and safety nightmare!  As well as more gloriously knotty pieces of jazz chordage and syncopated phrasing courtesy of Cruella de Vil (I’m starting to forgive her some of her canine foibles which, let’s face it, were a long time ago) this delight was also linked to the piano’s pedals.  I discovered that you can quite legally use more than one pedal! At the same time!  I had previously been treating them like flippers in pinball: for which a wise man (probably not called Tommy) once taught me the principle that ‘two flippers = no flippers’.

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Charley the Cat says… always practice safe piano.

Amusingly, in Book 2 of their Piano Lessons, Waterman and Harewood are very strict about the pedal and tell their young pupils (and their not so young) that ‘the foot should never the pedal‘.  I must admit I have not followed this commandment, as being somewhat impractical. For a start, I am far from convinced that FlyBe will allow my piano onto the Dash-8 tomorrow, even if I show them these clearly worded instructions.  In fact, even writing this post I have allowed my foot to stray from the pedal…  This same book also contains a Handel Sarabande which returned to my repertoire after it managed to charm my piano teacher.  Delightfully, as I made a complete hash of playing this I found – partway through my recital (and rarely has a term been used more loosely) – that I was using the pedal.  This piece has no markings to use the pedal and I had never used the pedal when playing it the past, it somehow happened on its own.

I think I may be becoming musical by osmosis – and I like it!  My first experimental concerto must now be a very real possibility…

Expect the unexpected…

I have it on no less an authority than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that the advice given in the title is (a) glib and (b) a contradiction in terms.  I fear it will be difficult to speak to (a) without risk of appearing glib myself, however, I feel on safer ground with (b).  It is quite possible – and probably wise – to expect that something unexpected will occur without needing to have any idea what this might be or when it might happen.

Being single, my life is very self-directed – if we ignore the demands of work – and yet is full of unexpected moments (and even longer events).  I suspect the incidence of the unexpected has risen since I started to spend ever more time away from the orderly tedium of my home life – all this interaction with other people and the world at large must be having an effect.  This post started as an idea earlier in the week following a couple of encounters with the unexpected, but I fear may rather have grown over the following days.  I shall try and manage its length by sticking to short vignettes (and relying on the power of the image) from my week, but my logorrhoea may get the better of my good(ish) intentions.

During the interval of a gig…

…watching (but not listening to) a very low budget promo by Lost or Stolen for their upcoming single release.  The live video had something in the nature of a shrine about it, with tealights surrounding a plectrum raised upon a dais made of a pencil eraser.  From time to time, divine revelation would enter the frame in the form of words written on post-it notes – very much the clay tablets of today’s busy deity!  I was expecting some sort of blood sacrifice to propitiate the holy plectrum, with the precious fluid being absorbed by the eraser but, sadly(?), they stopped short of this level of commitment.

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An historic re-enactment!

During my piano lesson…

…lying underneath the grand piano while it was played by my teacher.  It was certainly a new experience, but I’m finding it hard to put the insights I gained into words.  It was, I suppose, a logical(?) continuation of the tour of the grand piano I’d enjoyed at my previous lesson – and my first hands-on experience with a grand piano.  I have now used all the pedals in purposive manner – and realised late last night that my own piano-substitute has a sustenuto pedal (which I shall be attempting to use later).

…smashing my head, with some force, into the lid of the same grand piano.  I had to say Messrs Kawai and Sons need to rethink the design of their pianos – the lid, which is black against a black background – projects some significant distance out from the rest of the case when the keyboard is in use.  A chap innocently laughing it some pianistic solecism just committed could (and did) easily injure himself!  My piano teacher found himself in the difficult-to-pull-off superposition of laughter and concern: I feel he acquitted himself well given the challenges of macroscopic existence.

At Playlist in the Butcher’s Hook…

…the glorious conjunction of diverse but wonderful music was entirely expected.  The unethereal vocals of Stanlæy accompanied by two fae from the Winter Court, extraordinary guitar sounds from Ben Jameson and the first public performance by Somerset folk-collective Zaffir were a reminder of why Playlist is one of the cultural jewels of the city.  My unexpected discovery was the existence of microtones in the amazing new piece composed by Ben and commissioned by Playlist.  I have tried re-creating these on my acoustic guitar at home, but I may need to get some more tips from Ben for better results.

…the delicious Cambrian Root by Vibrant Forest: a salt liquorice porter.  So many of my loves brought together in one tiny space!

Strolling home from the Butcher’s Hook…

…talking to a friend on my phone (I know, shockingly used to speak to another human!) to discover that he had found wholly unanticipated love.  The heavy irony of finding, halfway through our conversation about love, that as I strolled twixt the Aldi car park and an industrial diary (well, I don’t reckon it had ever seen a cow) I was unwittingly in the (or of one of the) city’s red-light district(s).  So little do I know of gland games, that it was only when the third young (from my perspective) lady said hello and then went slightly further in her salutation did the penny finally drop.  Until that point, I had merely thought that people were slightly friendlier than usual and that the lateness of the hour (and our friend Johnny Ethanol) had helped ease their traditional British reserve.  Is it any wonder I remain single when even those with a financial incentive in raising my interest in matters of the loins struggle so badly to achieve their goal?

At the launch party of the new NST City theatre…

…being asked if I had a job other than writing my cultural blog.  This left me somewhat taken aback, as I hadn’t realised this was a cultural blog (unless the culture in question be me).  I was also pleasantly surprised that someone though this farrago might be sufficient to finance my continued existence.  I fear it is far too short on insight and far too long on weak jokes, niche references and attempts to demonstrate my (largely illusory) erudition.

…chatting with a chap in want of silver hair.  I offered him mine (I have an ever increasing abundance), but in a major failure of the supposed perfection of markets this transaction was impossible to carry through despite two willing parties.

…chatting about going vegan not for the sake of the planet or the animals, but as an economic choice to reduce costs.  A fine idea – very much in line with the teachings of Katherine Whitehorn in my youth – but I felt slightly weakened by the need to buy almond milk at much greater cost that its dairy equivalent.

…finding myself thinking, while in the stunning new theatre, that it didn’t feel like I was in Southampton: and then worrying why.  Even my photo of the entrance has an air of unreality about it.  I feel my thought was not disloyal to my adopted city but a reflection of the fact that I’m used to the city’s older and/or re-purposed venues, few of them much younger than me.  There look to be exciting times ahead: I hope their insanely(?) ambitious plans to strengthen and develop a sustainable cultural scene in Southampton, across the full range of culture, bear a bumper harvest of fruit.  Roll on (or up/down) the nano winches!

At a Film Week showing of short films…

…being surprised by the nature of the Jane Austen lecture theatre: not a hint of wood panelling or even one over-stuffed leather armchair.  Very much a modern university lecture theatre: so, much like a cinema, but with more USB charging points and less comfortable seats.  It also lay, rather unexpectedly, in a basement below a spaceship which had become inexplicably trapped in an atrium (or was the atrium built around it?).

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No sign of the extra-terrestrial Postman Pat (or any black and white companion)

…finding myself enjoying a piece by Skepta (it arose in my favourite of the short films).  I suspect I may not be his primary target audience, more some unanticipated bycatch: he should probably throw me back to avoid harming the wider ecosystem.

I feel this conceit could be re-used in future to link other disparate observations which the author is too lazy, or unskilled, to draw together into a coherent whole.  I think the only lesson we might take from these 1300 odd words is that if you go out and also talk to people, unplanned things happen – and many of these are delightful!

123

Sorry spreadsheet fans, but this will not be about Lotus 123 – a tool which played such a major role in my early working life.  I still remember those heady days of the mid 80s with an original (monochrome) IBM PC: loading MS-DOS from 5.25″ floppies before I could load 123 from another floppy disk and then finally start work.  There was more time for contemplation of the human condition in those days, while you waited for stuff to happen…

No, this post will be about my latest, waltz-based obsession (a mere couple of centuries after a similar craze swept through Europe) – so should should have been reading the title with the stress on the 1 (an effect I was unable to accomplish with WordPress).

Until recently, I don’t think I have ever believed I am possessed of any particular musical ability.  I have recognised that I can, through diligent application, achieve a basic level of competence and occasional even move beyond ‘banging the f**king notes’ to achieving something almost musical.  These rare moments of ‘flow’ – in the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a name which, for some reason, I struggle to remember) – have been particularly precious as a result.  This is broadly the same view I have on my skill with other languages: I don’t have any particular gift in this area, but am willing to put in some effort to try to slightly subvert the all-too-accurate stereotype of the Anglophone abroad.

However, recently I have began to accept that I may have some musical ability.  I think this blog has already laid the groundwork for the fact that I am not tone deaf and that, despite my protestations, I do have some rudimentary sense of rhythm (though a forthcoming post on dance will place an upper bound on that particular skill!).  This week has been more of shock to my long-established self-image.

As previously noted, I had piano lessons for a period in the mid 90s and I have the belief that at my peak I was a weak Grade 4 practical pianist with little or no theory.  Given my rather desultory approach to practice in the couple of decades which have allegedly passed since the mid 90s (for my money, the jury is firmly out on that much time have elapsed) I assumed my ability would have deteriorated.  It was a bit of a surprise when my new piano teacher suggested that in his opinion I was playing somewhere around the Grade 6 level: even more of a surprise given that, while my playing in front of an audience has definitely improved, he has not seen anything like the best of my abilities in action.  He seemed insistent and so acquired, on my behalf, the ABRSM Grade 6 Piano Exam Pieces book for 2017 and 2018.  I believe, on one metric, this is the most expensive book I own at just over 80p per page – however, it is worth every penny!

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I could almost be looking in a mirror!

My current obsession is piece B:2 the Valse Lente by Oskar Merikanto: a Finn I had never heard of until Wednesday.  It is such a divine piece of music, that while we are only on day 3 of my time with it and it is Grade 6, my playing of it brings tears of joy to my eyes (which frankly disrupts my ability to sight-read).  My right foot even seems to (somehow) naturally make use of the pedal: without the usual panic and mental collapse that adding the use of my foot (to the two hands already committed to the musical project) traditionally engenders. Some of the chords are so heart-achingly beautiful and the way the music moves so glorious that I am constantly amazed that I am allowed to play it.  Sometimes life delivers experiences literally beyond one’s wildest dreams: though this may be more of an indictment on the quality of my dreams (or ability to later recall them) than anything to do with the quality of my performance.

Also in the same book, with which I have had a brief dalliance, when I could tear myself away from the Valse Lente, is Cruella De Vil (from the Disney version of 101 Dalmations) which has the wonderful instruction that it should be played “with swagger”.  Swagger is a little way off, but I’m convinced it lies within my grasp!

There also continues to be progress with the guitar.  I have had to acquire a new tutor, as my old teacher has fled to the Midlands to pursue his musical dreams – which are more extensive than just being spared my ham-fisted attempts on the guitar (or so I like to imagine!).  Whilst attempting a little finger-picking pattern yesterday, we discovered that I could actually inject a little swing into my performance!  (I think we should subtitle this post ‘swagger and swing’).  I even showed a little promise on the subject of knowing when to change chord when accompanying a melody.

I have found myself wondering about this mid-life musical flowering and what might be its cause.  Malcolm Gladwell had made a reasonable living from the idea that 10,000 hours of practice at a skill will deliver mastery: though I vaguely recall this derives from an original study of rather a modest number of Japanese viola players and so may not generalise quite as far as its penetration of the popular zeitgeist would suggest.  I am thinking of writing my own book about the importance of letting any skill lie fallow for a good couple of decades as the key to mastery.  The importance of benign neglect and procrastination I think is under-recognised in today’s always-on, instant-gratification society!

Being more serious, I think having two instruments on the go (three if we count the recorder) may help as insights gained on one feed into the other.  Acquiring a little musical theory has also been helpful as it has provided a framework into which new knowledge can fit.  But, I suspect the sheer amount of time I have spent at gigs across a huge range of genres watching, listening to and even talking with musicians may have provided the largest fillip to my musical abilities.

The way things are going, there is a growing risk that 2017 may see me compelled to play an instrument in public in front of an audience that are not actively engaged in teaching me at the time!  I think a paying audience remains a long way off, so I shan’t be giving up the day job just yet…

Momma didn’t raise no fool

Despite the title, this will be about the author – though, as will become clear, any lack of foolishness only applies to a very limited arena.

When I was a wee lad, of only some 5 or 6 summers, my parents sent me to have piano lessons with one Mrs Heath – who at the time seemed an unbelievably elderly crone and I now hope was not in her forties (I’m fairly sure she was actually old).  This did not take and I swiftly gave up the piano for many years.

In the mid 1990s, I returned to the piano having watched the film Groundhog Day and been inspired by Bill Murray’s fictional progress with the instrument.  I took regular lessons and even practiced between them on somewhat regular basis.  I have some reason to believe that I reached the dizzy heights of a poor Grade 4 (without any theory) at this time.  However, I then moved and a 200+ mile commute for piano lessons seemed impractical.  It was clearly time to find a new piano teacher!

At this stage, some time passed.  A mere two decades or so seem to have elapsed.  In this hiatus between teachers, I will admit that my application to regular practice has been less than exemplary and I would have to further own that my skills have at best stagnated – and, if I’m honest, deteriorated.   However, I think even my harshest critic would struggle to claim that, like a fool, I had rushed into selecting a new master to take me as his disciple.

As those unfortunate enough to have befriended me on Facebook – or, worse, had my friendship thrust upon them – will know, this past Tuesday I finally had my first piano lesson of the bright new/only mildly tarnished millennium. Many lessons were learned!  Some of which I will share with you gentle readers…

To avoid annoying the neighbours (and more publicly embarrassing myself) with the relative poor and repetitive nature of my piano practice, I have for many years listened to my piano playing only through headphones.  The instrument sounds rather different when its vibrations are allowed to interact with a whole room before hitting my ears.  I say this not to excuse my performance, merely as an interesting side note.

It has also been many years since I have had an audience for my piano playing.  It would appear that, much like events in the quantum domain, my piano playing is affected by the presence of an observer.  Were I to know the precise location of any finger, I would have absolutely no idea as to which note it should have been playing and vice versa: curse you Heisenberg!  There was also a small issue of my left-hand, in particular, coming down with a nasty case of the hippy hippy shake – to the extent that my teacher inquired whether this was a pre-existing condition.  Luckily, that evening I bumped into a friend who is also learning the piano later in life and who suffers from exactly the same symptoms – in her case, her teacher thought she had Parkinson’s – so I am not alone.  I do not have this problem with the guitar – perhaps because from the start I have played it to a small audience (my guitar teacher) – so I have some hope that I can recover from this nasty attack of shy competence.

Despite the prolonged car crash – as I perceived it – that characterised my performance during my first lesson, my teacher was surprisingly positive about my skills.  I think at one stage he accused me of demonstrating some musicality – or at the very least following the marked phrasing and dynamics.  This may, of course, by a cunning teacher’s trick to boost a pupil’s self-worth and if so, it has worked like a charm.

It was, frankly, amazing how much I learned in the course of this first 21st century lesson.  A lot of bad, or at best marginal behaviour, can become ingrained over two decades.  As can a worrying degree of blindness: I discovered the importance of the note D to a piece I have been playing – on and off – for 22 years.  Suddenly, the chords make so much more sense – rather than just being random jumps of the left-hand across the keyboard.  In recent blog-related news Hanon is out!  My route to the world of the virtuous pianist will not involve his sixty exercises – yay!  In their place come interesting new scale-based exercise that my fingers are itching to get to grips with (gratification has been delayed by travelling for work and the absence of a practice piano for guests at the Premier Inn).  I even have a couple of pieces to prepare for my next lesson: an actual, externally-set objective!  In bad news for my neighbours, I have decided to start practicing without headphones.  I feel this ups the ante for my concentration and may help with the audience issue: summary eviction will be small price to pay!

So, let’s raise a toast to old dogs revisiting old tricks and then (whisper it quietly) learning new ones!

Board hubris

Robert Browning places the phrase that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” into the mouth of the Italian Renaissance Painter Andrea del Sarto.  Today, I have twice attempted to follow this indirect imperative from Victorian poetry: my primary go-to (or go-sub) resource for advice!

I have for some time possessed a copy of Hanan’s The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises, a book I clearly acquired under false pretenses as I have never exceeded a rather poor Grade 4 standard at the piano.  As part of an attempt to reduce procrastination in at least a few areas of my life, I have decided I had better start making some progress or my death may pre-date my becoming a virtuouso pianist.

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Soon(ish) this will rightfully be mine!

Prior to today, I had never moved beyond exercise 2.  However, over the weekend I had played exercises 1 and 2 twice, back-to-back on both days.  I won’t say that my performance was entirely error-free, nor that the playing proceeded in line with any constant metronome mark (well, not unless some gravitational waves of unprecedented magnitude passed through my flat) .  It certainly wasn’t achieved without a fair degree of pain from my hands and forearms – but it was achieved!  So, bolstered with this modest degree of “success”, this morning I turned the page to exercise 3.  This starts by telling me that I should be aiming to play exercises 3 to 5 without a break – and not just once, but three or four times.  Each of the exercises contains basically the same number of notes, so this is three-fold increase in the physical endeavour required: I fear there is a whole world of pain to come!

Still, I am determined (at the moment) and a one-off attempt at exercise 3 wasn’t too tricky: so there is hope.  Virtuosity may be within my grasp before whatever replaces the telegram arrives from who (or what) ever replaces the Queen.

In a further attempt to move my piano playing up a level (or, at a minimum, reduce its rate of descent) I am also trying to spend less time watching my fingers and more time looking at the music.  This has the advantage that when something goes wrong I know where I am, the downside is that my fingers don’t always go where I intend.  However, on balance it has worked much better than expected: my fingers generally seem to know more about playing the piano than any higher level executive function available in my brain.

Buoyed by the vaguely success-related feelings arising from moving on with Hanon, I decided to tackle some new exercises on my guitar.  Workouts 1 to 4 were going alright, so I tried workout 5.  This went very well, and hubris may have got the better of me.  In my o’erweening arrogance, I turned to workout 6.  This requires each of my first three fingers (index, middle and ring) to reside on adjacent frets.  My little finger starts on the fret next to its ring brother, but is then expected to move another fret closer to the body of the guitar whilst all its friends remain where they were.  This is clearly physically impossible for any, except (perhaps) a few freaks of nature!  Or I would think that if I hadn’t seen a large number of apparently normal people doing it.  Given these sightings were at gigs, my sample may have been somewhat self-selecting but I think I am forced to conclude that this sort of stretch is possible for a baseline human: just not (current) me.   Somehow, I have to discover the secret to cutting the apron-strings that tie my little finger to my ring finger – Hanon is helping them act independently, but a different sort of independence seems to be needed for the fretboard of my guitar.

Should I be seeking some sort of finger yoga or Pilates for my left hand?  For not only do I have to move my little finger into position once, but I then have to allow my other fingers to join it and then cruelly leave it divorced from its fellows once more – and then repeat this process multiple times.  Once again, I see pain on the horizon – and before then a lot of experimentation with my phalanges to try and achieve the position even once and with the other hand (and possible some gaffer tape) helping!  Still I like to think that what I lack in other personality traits, I make up for in bloody-mindedness so I shall keep going.  How could I not?  Hanging out with young musicians I know just how profitable a career in music can be!

And as the Minute Waltz fades away…

Rafał Blechacz moves on to play Chopin’s Op. 64 No. 2 waltz in C# minor (the Minute Waltz being No. 1 in Db) – which is so much better than Nicholas Parson’s dulcet tones introducing us to the panel.  Young Master Blechacz started to learn the piano at the same age as me, and is a lot younger, but he must have stuck at it rather better as his fingers performed acrobatics across the keyboard that I can barely imagine, let alone hope to accomplish.  Still, I bet he is far less au fait with the power stations of Europe than I, so it’s very much swings and roundabouts.

I have been listening to Just a Minute for longer than I can remember, though I am actually marginally older than the series.  I still find much to enjoy in the series – Ian Messiter’s game is a work of genius – but I feel this enjoyment takes place in spite of the venerable Mr Parsons (91!).  I am trying to remember if it was ever thus, or if I used to enjoy Nick’s interjections when I was a lad (and he was already older than I am now), but I can’t.  As an adult, I do enjoy the revolving of panel members and substantially greater representation of the stronger sex – whereas as a child I suspect I enjoyed the consistency of Freud, Jones, Nimmo and Williams.

I think Jack Dee on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue may have hammered the final nail in the coffin of Mr. P’s contribution to the show, the parody is so accurate it now dominates the original.  Then again, it will still feel like a missing tooth should Nick ever leave the show.  During the credits of ISIHAC, I still expect to hear Wille Rushton’s name after Tim Brooke-Taylor’s, despite the fact that he went to his eternal reward in 1996 and I think I have now heard more editions of the show without him than with (but the Willie Rushton years were the formative ones for me).

As the above might suggest, I am a great lover of radio comedy – it always seems to work better than its televisual cousin.  My latest love is for the Elis James and John Robins show on XFM – I listen via podcast which saves time and removes the adverts (which for me make commercial radio unlistenable in its live form).  I have enjoyed both individually as stand-ups, having seen John rather more often than Elis, but as a double-act they are absolutely hysterical.  If I still drove (well, more than annually), their podcast would be on the banned list – with only ISIHAC (under Humph’s chairmanship) for company – as being too dangerous to listen to while in control of a motor vehicle.  At times they have literally caused me to cry with laughter, so they are now only listened to at home.  The show was funny from day one, but seems to be becoming stronger each week – though that may be partly because I now know them (and their strange obsessions – in Elis these seem part of a well-rounded personality, in John part of a pathology) better.  If ever I am feeling blue (in private and when not operating heavy machinery), it is to EJ&JR that I now turn.

Laughter in public spaces is oddly frowned upon in this country.  A few years back I was reading a rather amusing book (I no longer remember which) on the Victoria line in London and laughing, as required – at some stage I looked up to find the entire of the rest of the carriage were staring at me.  For the avoidance of doubt, this was not supportive staring (if such a thing exists) but more fear that I might next run amok with an axe (or similar).  I also seem to recall as a teenager laughing at a book whilst waiting to be seen at Maidstone eye hospital – and once again, my mirth being frowned upon.  Given how depressing this world can often be, I think a little more public laughter would be a good thing – and despite the continuing disapproval, I still try and do my part.

Perhaps to close I should explain why this post exists at all.  Last night, at Turner Sims, I did see Mr B play the whole of Chopin’s Op. 64 – and so my tiny mind started a-whirling.  I was also served by one of the bar staff who had recognised me (and eventually I, him) when we bumped into each other at the Art House on Saturday night.  Does this make me an alcoholic?  Increasing numbers of bar staff on the University of Southampton site now recognise me by sight (even out of context)?  Am I drinking too much?  Or am I just more memorable than I think?   Maybe it is just my age, being in possession of neither a Student nor a Senior Railcard probably does help mark me out from the crowd!