Tim Paxton (cello) with Simon Coverdale (piano) gave us a lunch time recital today - Beethoven's variations on "Bei Mannern" from Mozart's The Magic Flute plus a cello sonata by Shostakovich.
We also had a talk in advance and followed the score. This was really useful. I didn't know the music, and so it was great to talk it through and know what to watch for - interrupted cadences and appoggiaturas!! The Beethoven was beautiful.
Simon and Tim were great performers. Tricky stuff played with such skill and charisma. I loved the flourish at the end of one movement where Tim shot his bow straight up the air. Maybe I might try it!
I really enjoyed the introduction each of them did of the pieces. It added to the performance and painted a picture for us - particularly the Shostakovich piece. At one point, Tim described one the movements as a human heart bleeding in the desolate freezing snow! You can just imagine it!
The music depicted the hard times of a difficult political regime in the Soviet Union. It wasn't very accessible and I'm not completely sure if I liked it. Its hard core classical. But I can appreciate the skill and passion that it was performed with and it was interesting.
I'll listen to it again. But I like some of Shostakvich's music. He sounds an interesting man who had to walk a tighrope all his life - trying to please his political masters - while also being true to his feelings and the suffering of the people. He has written his memoirs, which sound an interesting read. It said that he always carried a toothbrush around with him in case the black cars came to arrest him and he was never heard of again!
Improvisation tomorrow. We will be filming country improvisation.
I have come across some great fiddlers while I've been doing my research on country music. I mentioned Kenny Baker in my previous blog about bluegrass music.
I have been listening to his playing today. Amazing. He was known for his long smooth bows.
He played with Bill Monroe's band for a while and became one of the most emulated country/blugrass fiddlers. He died last year aged 85. Here he is playing Jerusalem Ridge with Bill Munroe playing mandolin (in 1985). What a couple of legends.
" I think Bill Munroe's importance to American music is as important as someone like Robert Johnstone was to blues, or Louis Armstrong. He was so influential I think he's probably the only musician that had a whole style of music named after his band." Ricky Scaggs
There are lots of styles of country music. Its difficult to choose one but I've decided to research Bluegrass more. I like the instruments traditionally used in bluegrass - fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar. Violins often double stop with open strings to underpin the rythmn and harmony.
Unlike practically any other strain of american music, bluegrass can be traced - as the quote above says - to particular time and a particular group of men. Kentucky born mandolin player/bandleader Bill Munroe and a select handful of musicians he gathered in his band, The Bluegrass boys.
Monroe and his band transformed the traditional country string band music into something fresh and exciting and revolutionary. They did this by giving it a syncopated beat along with close, him pitched lead and harmony vocals on favourites like "Uncle Pen" and "Muleskinner Blues" .
Munro also elevated the mandolin from a accompaniment to fully fledged lead instrument and Earl Scruggs did the same for the five string banjo.
Here he is paying Uncle Penn above at age 82.
Their music - which they forged more than fifty years ago has endured and has regained popularity in recent decades. Film soundtracks such as the 2000 feature film "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" has helped.
It starred George Clooney and featured vintage bluegrass music in a quirky film. It also included contemporary new grass musicians like Alison Krauss. The soundtrack sold millions, won five grammy Awards and sparked another revival.
Bill Munroe's Bluegrass Boys deserve most of the credit for the bluegrass style. The line up during he late 1940s was Earl Scruggs on five string banjo and vocals, Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Cedric Rainwater and Bill Munroe himself on mandolin. To this day, the band's recordings are the bible for bluegrass.
In 1948, two of the Bluegrass boys left and set up their own band (Flatt and and Scruggs). Their band, Foggy Mountain Boys was influential too with the banjo playing lead. In 1955 they added resonator guitar to the line up. With the spread of bluegrass mountain radio, others began to be influenced too. In particular the Stanley bothers started covering some of Monroe's songs int heir own mountain style. They enjoyed great success. They also feature on the O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack.
Virginians, Jim and Jess McReynolds also became popular in the 1960s. They blended bluegrass with mainstream country and experimented with electric instruments. Also in the 1960 the Osbourne brothers from Kentucky became popular through country radio- which had often steered clear of bluegrass. They made this breakthrough by using distinctly unbluegrass instruments, like steel guitars, drums and pianos. Other ensembles such as Don Reno and Red Smiley and fiddler Kenny Baker would enrich and expand upon bluegrass tradition during the 1960s and 1970s.
By the 1960s Washington DC became the centre of bluegrass innovation. This was in partly because many musicians from Kentucky and Virginia had moved there in search of work. Young talented musicians were pushing the boundaries of traditional bluegrass using electrified instruments and eclectic styles. Bands like Seldom Scene and the Country Gentlemen emerged with more complicated lead instrumentals and smoother vocals. They were also beginning to sing songs written by the people like Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan and even Eric Clapton. Since the 1970s, bluegrass has enjoyed a huge revival with bands like Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, Larry Sparks, Del McCoury, IIIrd Time Out, Blue Highway, Claire Lynch and Rhonda Vincent.
Here is a video of the fantastically tented Nickel creek. They started out as a straight bluegrass band but are transcending that now.
And here is another great You tube link to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Bela Fleck is one of the most phenonomal banjo players around. He is also a great fiddler (listen to his recording of Down in the Swamp). His band has just got back together after a twenty year break and they are pushing the boundaries with their album "Rocket science". More on that in a further blog.
The recording below is from
I am under the weather a bit this week. I had the surreal experience of a cataract operation on Monday. No I am not that old - its been from a previous injury and retinal work. The wonder of medical science. Its truly amazing if scary. The interesting thing was listening to all the sounds while the operation was being done. There was actually electronic music (almost). What was making the sounds I don't know. Lasers or something? I wish I had recorded it. In fact I might ask them to one day and write a tune!.
Anyway I have my feet up this week recovering. But I have put the time to good use. I have at last edited the sound files I recorded of the Folk Band a couple of weeks ago and exported them back into MP3s. Here are the above tunes which I performed in January. Hope you like them.
Improvisation yesterday. I love it.
Playing country music in G pentatonic with a flat 5 too. Chords? Simple I, IV, V ( although in country the order of the chords is simetimes more mixed - rather than following the blues progression). Double stopping is a big feature in country fiddling.
Then played funk! THAT was good fun. The stress is on beat 1 and is 1/16th beats - fast and using modal approach eg D mixolydian and Dorian (with a flattened third and seventh , in other words).
I have been listening to a lot of country to soak in the style, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, The Dixie chicks, Hayseed Dixie, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Naturally I particularly like anything with fiddles in and country music has a lot of fiddle accompaniment and fiddle singing. Bluegrass in particular lends itself well to the fiddle.
Bluegrass instrurments often include, guitar, fiddle, banjo - all my favourites. I am thinking about buying a tenor banjo - such great instruments - and they can be tuned to fiddle an octave down. I don't think they would be difficult to learn to play for a fiddler. I am thinking of writing a country song for composition. But I like some the songs with minor chords. Witchata linesman, Landslide, Like a Rolling Stone - which I play it on guitar. I might write a song.using similar chords.
Here is a great Bela Fleck and the Flecktones with a great track Big Country with a range of instruments that are unusual for country - strays into other territory. Sounds like us on a Wednesday morning!
Went through to Celtic connections on Saturday. We saw the 10th anniversary concert of Le Vent du Nord. Great band. Its the first time I have seen them. They had invited a few guests including Breabach, Vasen and Dervish. The fiddler, Olivier Demers in Le Vent du Nord is quite amazing.
Fiddle singing is difficult to do. But Olivier Demers, the fiddler was not only fiddling and singing, but also doing the whole rythmn section - with has feet!
So he was tapping, fiddling and singing - all at the same time. What good coordination has he???? Unbelievable. It looked VERY hard work.
This performance was a once in lifetime complete with birthday cake and birthday song sung by the audience.
I wasn't the only one to think this was great.
The Scotsman said "Things were threatening to become quite tearful, in a totally joyful way, by the end of this unforgettable show. A marvellous mutual love-in was hosted by Québécois quartet Le Vent du Nord – in whose decade-long coming of age Celtic Connections has played a significant springboard role – with three other top acts from Sweden, Ireland and Scotland, and a near-sellout Saturday night crowd.
Nothing was ever going to go far wrong, what with both the birthday and the mouth-watering line-up – completed by not one, but two string quartets, comprising the likes of Greg Lawson, Christine Hanson and Fiona Cuthill – but all concerned rose resoundingly to the occasion by evident dint of diligent preparation and rehearsal, which shone through in silky-smooth, sumptuously swinging ensemble interplay, delivering two hours of virtually non-stop musical highlights.In amongst a veritable feast of instrumental colours and textures, the rich and rare alignment of Väsen’s Olov Johansson, on nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed fiddle) and Mikael Marin on five-string viola, with Le Vent du Nord’s Nicolas Boulerice on hurdy-gurdy (ancient French keyed fiddle) was particularly revelatory – but no less so, once again, were the Canadians’ immaculately radiant, red-blooded four-part vocals, a sound as lusciously suave as it is resonantly earthy.
The set-list roamed seamlessly between material from each band’s repertoire, spanning and transcending traditions – not least in Boulerice’s breathtaking hurdy-gurdy solo, itself a mesh of the medieval with the futuristic – while vibrantly affirming each one’s uniqueness. An early contender for this year’s top Celtic Connections gig."
Nicolas Boulerice, one of the group played the hurry-gurdy. This seems to be making a come back as I have heard of a few folk players but its the first time I've seen t being played on stage.
Its an amazing sound.
I have been working hard on the material for our performances on this week. Lots more choir, folk and strings group.
Eddie McGuire (Whistlebinkie) came along and talked to us about John Cage, experimental artist, composer and also a poet. We are performed Scottish Circus on Wednesday - a 30 min piece composed by John Cage.
This piece was written in conjunction with the Whislebinkie's who were playing at the one of John Cage's art exhibitions at the Edinburgh Festival in 1984. John Cage felt that some experimental music with a Scottish twist would compliment his work. The score give instructions to the players - there is no notation and no staves.
Players are to play Scottish tunes that they know, starting at different times, moving between the audience, and stopping when they wish for rests. The music heard by the audience changes constantly - and will never be the same twice. Each performance depends on the players and instruments performing, as well as what they want to play - and when -on the day! It was a great experience. Our performance saw us mingling between the auditorium and the foyer in the Music Box.
The performance of 4 minutes 33 seconds was even more interesting. Three movements of silence - with the musicians posed and ready to play but not actually doing so. We performed it on the foyer which was very busy. It was hard to hold the position for so long - without making a sound. But the effect on the audience was stunning. The whole place fell silent spontaneously.
It seemed to have powerful effect on people. What were they feeling? Expectation? Annoyance? Potential? It certainly had an impact.
Eddie McGuire said that although some were sceptical - in all the playing Whistlebinkie's had done it was performing John Cage's pieces that had got them the most reaction including an appearance on TV news. Interesting. It has given me an idea for composition.
In the evening I was playing with the Folk Band. We played The Granton Fish Bowl, by Simon Thoumire and Hamnataing by Chris Stout, recorded by Fiddler's Bid. This is quite nice slow set with a relaxed feel. Next was three jigs, all great tunes, The Northern Highland dance, Mattie and Karine's (recorded by Lau) and the Roxburgh jig, written by Laurie Crump. It was really fast but good fun.
My daughter, Sam, came along to the performance to take some photos - including the one above. She is a guitarist and really enjoyed the bands.
The classical concert was on the 19th January - choir was the best we have ever done I think. The rehearsal of the strings group went quite well. The perfromance was good too.
Here is the link to a Youtube video of our performance of Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
I booked a day of workshops months ago. So its off to The Sage in Gateshead.
For the first workshop I played fiddle with Lori Watson.
She specialises in Border tunes and I learned a James Hogg tune called the Tussielaw Lines and another attributed to him - or possibly collected by him, Johnny Faa. Great tunes which have been recorded by Rule of Three.
James Hogg was a shepherd in Borders area. He taught himself to read music and play and became a writer, poet and musician. He is sometimes compared with Burns. Its interesting that in the borders there are a lot of fiddle tunes which have several lines of rhythmic fiddle accompaniment. This was because the fiddle was often the only instrument around. James Hogg's violin is in Edinburgh at the University's museum.
I then went to Bella Hardy's workshop on fiddle singing. She uses three techniques to sing with the fiddle. One is to play the tune, another is to chug/double stop, and the third is harmony. We had a go at this - its quite difficult. It takes a while to work out in your head.
The last workshop was with Calum MacCrimmon - the Breabach piper and whistler. His workshop was on Scottish session tunes which was great too. Breabach are playing everywhere at the moment since Meg Henderson joined them. Fantastic band.
All of the workshops were enjoyable. The standard was very high with most participants playing with bands, or on the folk degree course in Newcastle which was good.
Newcaste is easy to reach by train and its worth keeping an eye on. I booked another workshop in February for my daughter and I - ukelele! Looking forward to that.
Ever felt stressed or overwhelmed? Too much to do too little time? How should you plan your time and development?
I have had a career involving the scariest time management. I have been in tears because I knew that I simply could not be in two places at once i.e at an important meeting while I should be collecting my children from nursery on the other side of town. Sometimes its unavoidable but I can tell you - its not a good place to be.
Being a full time musician brings additional challenges. So how do you plan and manage time? There are some key principles that you need to work at.
To manage your time better you need to understand your habits by monitoring how you use time. That will let you know when you are being productive and when you are wasting time. I used a Google calendar to do this - colour coding things like practice time, being my children's taxi, household things, travel, college, going out, work and other commitments. Its helpful to check what spare time might be available.
Prioritise. Work out what has to be done first. And I extend this to my whole life - not just my music or work. Most of us have commitments - for example family commitments or whatever. Where do these sit in your list of priotities. It will be different for different people and sometimes sacrifices have to be made. Set objectives (preferably SMART - i.e. specific, measurable, achievable or attainable - but stretching, relevant and timed.) Keep these under review.
Many appraisal systems are founded on these principles. Objectives are set, at least annually, using these criteria. But I have never yet seen objectives the same at the end of the year as at the beginning. New unforeseen things crash in and others go on the back burner. Its a dynamic picture
The new year is a good time to reflect (more on this in a future
Who is the task for? In my last job I would always do things for Ministers before doing things for my boss and doing things for HR would be last on my list (sorry) - it just wasn't important in the whole cut and thrust of policy work. So work out which of your tasks are important taking this into account.
What is it for? In college, it might be more important to
make sure you plan work to get through your assessment before something else that could be put off a couple off weeks without dire consequences?
As a working musician it will be important to do the work that brings enables you to pay the rent and earn your living.
Know your deadlines and plan. Order the tasks. Different people plan in different ways so find a way that works for you. Personally I can't abide lists on bits of paper. I use an electronic "to do list" - a simple and effective (and free!)technique. Set electronic reminders if necessary. There are absolutely loads of planning tools available on the web. As I said above plan in practice time, family time, the time at College and so on.
Don't just leave the tasks until the day before they are due.
You must look at them and plan what it takes to achieve them. Sometimes this can result in a whole series of subtasks that need to be planned in before you can complete the principle task. For example, to get that DFM, there are a lot of subtasks - blogs, technical playing, performances, composition - all to be to different timescales.
There is nothing more annoying than discovering at the last minute that you can't finish because of some piece of information or other work that needs done first - and you don't have enough time to do it. Its really project management and depending on the complexity, there is project management software (e.g. some of which are free) which you can use. But be warned. There are people spend much too long planning and kid themselves they are working hard and progressing when in actual fact they never start the task or leave it too late!.
Cut your cloth. Consider what the essentials of the task are. If you have an exam coming up - what do you already know - and where are you weak points. What are you likely to be asked? Concentrate on the weak points that you are likely to be asked first. Its like doing a risk assessment.
My point here is to spend only the time you need to. There is a trade off. You will get most of the basics in about the first 20-50% of the time most people spend on an issue. The other 50% is often spent fiddling and fretting for not much more gain. That's fine if you have the time and you are a perfectionist. But if not - cut your cloth and move on.
Remember the longer term tasks.
The danger of being focussed on first tasks first is the tendency to put longer term tasks on the back burner - until its too late or you can't do a decent job. Longer term tasks - eg that Grade 8 or whatever - can be so daunting that you keep putting off getting down to work convincing yourself you still have plenty time. Hmm.
The easiest way to deal with this is to be honest with yourself about which tasks seem too big to contemplate starting and then break them down into a first small step. Then a second and so on. So - imagine eating an elephant. It just too big to know where to start. However, you can eat it if you break it down into bit size chunks - elephant hamburgers!. Apply that principle to your large task. And be pleased with taking your small steps towards the goal.
For music practice, keeping a practice schedule could be helpful. I try to set myself practice targets.
There are also helpful websites on how to practice productively.
Don't take on other peoples burdens.
Don't get tied up doing things that should really be someone else's job. You would be surprised how difficult it is to avoid other peoples work. We naturally all want to help. There's a slim line between this and being seen as difficult and obstructive or not a team worker - so think about this too.
Educate yourself about time management techniques and tools that are right for you.
Its an interesting fact that out of any workforce there are about five percent that are mentally unstable (but probably undiagnosed) to the point that they should consider treatment. Now look around your colleagues. If there are twenty of you that means in all likelihood one of you is in trouble. Stress is a killer.
Each person is different and coping strategies/time management strategies for each individual need to be tailored. For example I find orchestral playing hard with all the classical techniques - having come upthrough an aural traditional route. My coping strategy is to plan in some time to listen to recordings and follow the music. I slow them, if necessary, to understand how the parts fit together. I think this is a much quicker process - for me - than simply trying to sight read the music without knowing the piece. Audacity is a wonderful thing for me. My sight reading gradually improves too.
My daughter is dyslexic. She has to plan time management techniques around learning to touch type because it takes too long to write. There are free training programmes on the web for this sort of thing. In my last job, I had to read a ton of papers all the time so I learned to speed read. Now all I need to do is transfer this to reading music!
I mentioned project management earlier. There are all sorts of complicated Project management techniques to help depending on the complexity of the task. I am actually a trained PRINCE 2 project manager. Its too complicated for everyday life as a musician but some of the ideas are helpful. For example I find the idea of tolerances, and resource planning helpful, as well as some of the principles which you should follow if you really know your goal is unachievable.
In playing music, the tolerances will be pretty small - one wrong note is too many. But there is more leeway in some of the written assessments. A pass is a pass, as they say.
Resources usually means people, money, equipment e.g. IT etc. So if you are about to record, you might need session musicians, money to pay them, the recording studio, rehearsal time etc and access to the equipment to record. Plan these in if they give you the advantage in time you are seeking.
I bought Sibelius because its just such a hassle not having it. I am not sure its saving me time at the moment but hopefully it will pay off as I learn and it gives me higher quality output than not having it.
If all else fails - and you know you don't have the resources (time, people, money) , you can seek to negotiate to either get more of these or to change the output of the "project". Could you get deadlines extended? Or could you agree to reduce the spec of the project. So if that performance can't be put off and you know its unachievable - perhaps you shorten the set, play easier pieces or whatever.
The last thing is to relax. People often feel they are the only ones not coping as well as they might be. But I can tell you that you are not alone. If you are finding life difficult - the likelihood is that others are too. It can often help to talk about it - two heads can be better than one. Put it into perspective. Whatever the problem - its only small part of your life.
If you get seriously stressed - and I have seen this time and again in work - colleagues crash out - it can have devastating consequences. It happens in the music like any other work. You need to take action. At the end of the day your health and happiness comes first. Sometimes all that is required is a way to take the pressure off for a few weeks.
But if you time manage well you are unlikely to get to this in the first place, you will feel more in control and able to achieve your full potential. We know that makes sense don't we?
First week back after the break. I have been doing a lot of playing. Strings group isplaying Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on Greensleeves. Everyone knows the tune. Its quite difficult to play on the violin as it has four flats - F minor. It also has tremelo and pizzicato.
We also played Corelli's Concerto XII Adagio, Sarabanda and Giga- which are lovely. We will be playing Telemann's Chaconne on Friday - again in F minor with some tricky bits on the violin. Its a pretty piece though.
I am enjoying playing classical music far more than I though I would. Folk band is quite intense with five tunes and specific bowing all needing to be learned in very short order. We have had two rehearsals so far and they have involved sight reading at speed. The tunes are good fun and all involve different prescribed bowing. But its a good learning exercise and works better! Its a challenge.
Its good to be forced to try to do something differently.
Choir has also been more challenging and the pace is faster this block. We are singing Ezekiel and The Nightingale..