Lo, Star-led chieftains!

This weekend has seen the start of my Christmas gigs with the Menai Bridge Brass Band for this year (the band actually started its season with another gig last week, but I wasn’t needed for that one).

Last night the senior band played for the RNLI Carol Service in Trearddur Bay, which has been an annual fixture on the band’s calendar for quite a few years (I gather), although this is the first time I’ve been able to make the gig — this is my third Christmas with the band but I had prior commitments for the past two years. As well as a handful of presentation items by the band, we played for about half of the carols. A pianist played for the others, which meant we got to sing along.

One of the interesting features of the evening was that when we sang O come, all ye faithful we did several verses that I haven’t sung for very many years. This carol is one of my favourites of the perennial classic carols that get dragged out every year (and, indeed, at almost every carol service or carol singing/playing gig that takes place through the season) but is usually only sung with 3 verses, or 4 on Christmas Day (or any other time that you feel like singing “Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning”, though it’s traditional to omit that verse on other days) and as far as I can make out these are the translations of the verses originally written in Latin (probably) by John Francis Wade in the mid 18th century.

There are, however, several other verses which sometimes get sung (though not usually in the musical circles in which I move). We did 3 of these, along with the 3 standard non-Christmas-Day verses, last night. My favourite of them is one which begins “Lo, star-led chieftains” and I like it especially for that very phrase, which has a nice ring to it.

In general, I think the standard 3 or 4 verses make the song just about the right length and they are definitely the 3 or 4 I’d choose out of the 7 or 8 available. Still, it’s nice sometimes to sing a few extra verses if only to introduce a bit of variation.

My Christmas carolling continued (albeit in instrumental-only mode) this morning, when I played with the intermediate band down in the centre of Menai Bridge (making it one of our most local gigs of the year). There were two senior band gigs going on simultaneously, one in Bangor and the other in Llangefni, but there were just about enough other musicians to cover those and I figured the intermediate band (with whom I play semi-regularly anyway) would probably most benefit from my help seeing as they have no other trombone players – apart from the conductor, who is generally busy conducting instead – and there are several other bass players in the senior band (it was nothing to do with the attraction of a gig within walking distance of home and the promise of mince pies!).

The band is actually having a relatively quiet Christmas season this year (probably just as well, as it’s been an epically busy year), although we will be out a handful more times over the next fortnight. I will probably only be taking part in a couple of these gigs — at the Farmers’ Market in Menai Bridge next Saturday with the senior band (another one of our annual fixtures; this one I’ve been able to attend every year since I joined the band) and at a nursing home on the outskirts of Bangor the following afternoon with the intermediate band.

On the problem of muscle memory

Muscle memory is generally a useful phenomenon, as it enables you to do things such as touch typing or playing a musical instrument with little or no conscious thought as to what your fingers (or other appendages, though at the moment I’m specifically thinking of digital muscle memories) are doing.

I’m not sure how much it’s actually the muscles themselves that get used to how they should be moving and how much it’s the brain subconsciously serving up the information as it’s required.  I suspect it’s probably largely the latter, but “muscle memory” is still a convenient name.

However it works, and whatever you call it, I maintain that most of the time it is very handy.  However, there are times when it can prove to be more of a hindrance.

Largely because I do quite a lot of typing in foreign languages that use diacritics (i.e. accent symbols), I regularly find myself having to reach for these characters.  In the old days, I used to have to remember or look up the ASCII codes for the characters I wanted (fortunately, back then it was mostly acute and sometimes grave or circumflex accents on vowels, and perhaps the occasional cedilla, for typing in French).

Both my home and office PCs have somewhat more sophisticated methods set up for accessing special characters.  Unfortunately they are slightly different, which is where the muscle memory can get in the way.

At home I use Linux most of the time, and I have a Compose key (currently the right “Windows” key, which isn’t used for anything else by default on Linux) set up on my keyboard.  Pressing this key followed by a pair of other keys produces a character determined by the keys pressed (a so-called “compose key sequence”); e.g. “compose”  + ‘a’ + ‘`’ (that’s a backtick, which hangs out just to the left of the number 1 on a UK keyboard, in case you were wondering) produces ‘à’. Many of the compose key sequences, such as this one, are fairly intuitive and easy to remember (or, you can just make an educated guess and if it doesn’t produce the expected result, delete it and try it again or look it up).  This is a very straightforward way of making a lot of special characters available on a standard keyboard, and is my favourite solution to the problem.

At work, I use a Windows machine.  On it I have installed a handy little utility called To Bach, which is actually designed to facilitate typing in Welsh but allows typing of the accents found in Welsh (mostly circumflex accents (â) – called to bach (“little roof”) in Welsh, hence the name of the software – and, less often, acute (á) and grave (à) accents on all the vowels – that’s a, e, i, o, u, y and w in Welsh – as well as a diaeresis (ä), which as far as can remember only occurs on the letter i in Welsh but can actually be typed on any vowel with To Bach) as well as certain other special characters such as ç and ñ that don’t actually appear at all in Welsh. It is set up by default to use the right Alt key as the main trigger key. For circumflex accents (the most common by far in Welsh), you just hold down that key (and Shift if you want a capital letter) and type the vowel you want. For the others, you hold down the trigger key and then hit another key (e.g. ‘\’ to get a grave accent) before letting go of both and hitting the vowel key for which you want the accent.

Both methods are very straightforward but because they are different I often find myself reaching for the wrong key combination (e.g. “right Win” + ‘a’ + ‘`’ instead of “right Alt” + ‘\’ + ‘a’ if I want an ‘à’ at work).

The obvious solution, which I may get round to at least partially implementing at some time, would be to reconfigure my Linux compose key settings to match To Bach (as I don’t think it’s possible to edit the configuration of the latter). Alternatively, there are Compose key utilities available for Windows, which would also give me easy access to characters that aren’t currently available via To Bach (e.g. if I want an ‘å’ on Windows – not that I often do – I currently have to either fire up the handy (but not quite so handy as To Bach/Compose) Character Map utility or remember the Alt+134 combination, while on Linux I just have to hit “compose” + ‘o’ + ‘a’) so I could just install one of those and drop To Bach, although having used it for quite a few years I’d be sad to stop using it now.

A g-g-great way to remember

Earlier today, I was trying to remember the correct terminology for kinship terms, as I wanted to respond to a Facebook post that my cousin made about her new niece.   My cousin’s sister is obviously also my cousin but I wasn’t sure exactly what that would make the relationship between me and her daughter.

My guess/recollection was that we are (first) cousins once removed, and this turned out to be correct.  While checking it (on Wikipedia, of course) I discovered a good mnemonic for remembering or calculating the degree of cousinship between two individuals.  It only works in English, although it’s possible that similar tricks could be devised for some other languages.

All cousins, of any degree, have common ancestors once you go back enough generations.  First cousins are the children of siblings (the cousins I was referring to earlier are the daughters of my mum’s brother).  This means that they have at least one grandparent in common (the terminology gets even more confusing when you start to consider step-siblings etc., so I’ll ignore them for the rest of this post).  Second cousins are the children of first cousins (e.g. if I ever have children they will be second cousins of my cousin’s daughter, i.e. of my cousin once removed) and hence have a great-grandparent in common, and so on.

First, second, third, …., nth cousins are at an equal distance from the closest common ancestor.  For example, my grandmother is also the grandmother of my (first) cousin.   If the distances are unequal, you get a “removed” relationship, with the number of the removal  being the number of steps away from equality.  My aforementioned cousin once removed is the daughter of my first cousin.  Her great-grandmother is my grandmother.   Going in the other direction, my parents’ first cousins are also my cousins once removed (their grandparents are my great-grandparents).

The degree of the relationship from which the removal is calculated is based on the nearer of the two distances to nearest common ancestor.   My cousin’s father is also one step away from me in proximity to my grandmother (his mother) but he is my uncle (and I’m his nephew – these terms don’t have the same symmetry as the cousin relationships, at least in English) rather than my cousin once removed.

To make things even more confusing, the term ‘cousin’ on its own can refer specifically to first cousins or more generally to cousins of any degree, including removed ones, or even people who are not actually strictly related at all.  Incidentally, I also figured it was easiest to refer to all relatives (including long-dead ones) in the present tense, since from a family tree point of view the relationships still stand (my great-grandfather is still my great-grandfather even though he died long before I was born).

The deliciously simple trick, as explained in the Wikipedia article on cousins (at least at the time of writing), is for working out the degree of “equal level” cousins.  All you do is work out the closest common ancestor (e.g. great-grandmother) and then count the number of ‘g’s (in this example, it’s two – giving second cousins).  For “unequal level” cousins, you start with the closer of the two distances to common ancestor (equivalent to the lower number of ‘g’s in the name) to get the degree, and then count the extra steps required on the other side to get the removal.

To return to the original example of me and my (first cousin’s daughter), our common ancestor is my grandmother and her great-grandmother (we also have a (great)-grandfather in common, but one is enough for the calculation); there is one ‘g’ in “grandmother”, so we’re looking at a first-cousin relationship; there’s one extra step of removal on her side, so she is my first cousin once removed (and as the terminology of cousin relationships is symmetrical, I’m her first cousin once removed too).

This post started out with the intention of being a short note, mostly for my own future reference, but seems to be turning into a full-scale treatise on the subject of kinship terms.  Rather than go on any longer I’ll leave you to read the above-linked Wikipedia article on cousins if you want to know more about the subject (in particular, check out the groovy diamond-shaped Cannon Law Relationship Chart near the bottom of the page).

Not what I thought it was

The renaissance of my interest in ballet has, while not quite keeping pace with that of opera, at least continued up to now and shows no sign of abating.  I suspect that, having discovered an appreciation of both of these art forms I’ll continue to enjoy them for the rest of my life (although perhaps not always amongst my main active interests).

A few months ago I got hold of a CD of music by French composer Léo Delibes.  He was most notable as a composer of ballets, operas and other works for the stage and this CD contained ballet suites from Sylvia and Coppélia, a couple of arias (one of them the famous “Flower duet”) from his most popular opera, Lakmé, and a subset of a set of dance airs entitled Le Roi s’amuse.  It also contained a suprise…

When I came to play the CD I instantly recognised one of the pieces from Sylvia – a number entitled Pizzicati (it seems to be referred to sometimes as Pizzicato but as far as I can gather, the plural form is correct).  The basic tune, at least, is one with which I’ve been familiar from early childhood and I think is one that gets used quite often for adverts and suchlike.

The surprise was that I was sure that this piece was part of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and, if asked, would probably have guessed it was either the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy or (more likely) Danse des Mirlitons, despite having played both of those a few years ago in a performance of the Nutcracker Suite and therefore, in theory, knowing fairly well how they go.

I was intending to write about this when I first discovered the identity of the mystery piece, but didn’t get round to it.  I was reminded of my intention while listening to the Sylvia suite again this morning.

[Incidentally, for anyone who’s paying attention to the categorisation of posts on this blog, I’m aware that this one is really more music-related than dancing-related but I thought that the latter category was feeling a bit neglected.]

Working back to happiness

Tonight I shall be playing a gig with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Brass Band.

Unfortunately I only found out yesterday that I would be playing this gig, and only got the music for one of the pieces to look at today. So I have just been doing some fairly intensive practice.

Most of the pieces are ones I’ve played plenty of times before, so they shouldn’t cause me any great trouble. The highlight of the set, though, will be the world’s second ever complete live performance of The Great War Suite by Hannah Retallick (our conductor). The first perfomance took place at the North Wales Rally last week and, since that was a youth band competition with an upper age limit of around 20 for the performers, I was unable to take part (I was playing with our senior band in their section of the competition, which didn’t have age restrictions; I was also able to watch the intermediate band performance, so at least I have an idea of what the music sounds like).

The suite is based on a number of tunes from the First World War and was written to commemorate the centenary of the start of the war. We played the first movement of it in our Anniversary Concert at the start of November, so I have played that movement. I also played an early draft of the third (and final) movement in a rehearsal a couple of months ago, but it has been extensively rewritten since then (and now includes a fairly prominent trombone/horn section solo) and I haven’t played the second movement at all until today.

The first two movements present no particularly great problems but the third is a bit tricky, so I concentrated most of my practice time on that (being aware of the need to balance doing sufficient practice to get a handle on the music and avoiding doing too much and wearing out my lip before the performance). In particular I’ve been concentrating on the 8 or so bars of the trombone / horn solo, since there will apparently only be two of us in that section tonight and I won’t be able to hide behind the rest of the band for it).

In order to nail this solo, or at least pin it down, I’ve employed a combination of tricks such as the standard ones of breaking it down into small chunks and repeating it (both in chunks and in toto) ad nauseam, at various speeds up to and including the 132 bpm indicated on the score (the movement is quite fast, which is one of the reasons why it’s a bit harder than the others; hopefully Hannah won’t take it significantly faster than it’s marked as I can still barely play it at that speed!). I also tried an idea I customised from a language-learning tip I read about the other day.

The tip was originally aimed at learning long, complicated words or phrases. You break your target word / phrase up into smaller chunks and learn it bit by bit, starting with one chunk and adding more until you can say the whole thing. That much is a fairly obvious approach to the problem. The twist is to start with the end of the word and work backwards. The idea behind this is essentially that each time you add a bit to the word, you start with the unfamiliar bit and get it out of the way, allowing your brain to coast along more or less on autopilot with the rest of the word. Allegedly (and plausibly, IMHO) this is more efficient and effective strategy than starting with the “easy” bit that you’ve already learned and taking a run up to the more difficult end.

I’ve not yet tried applying this idea to language learning but it occurred to me that a similar trick might work for music. So, I broke my 8 bar phrase up and tackled it one bar at a time, starting with the last bar. After playing that a few times (until I could play it fairly comfortably), I added the penultimate bar and repeated the two bars a handful of times, before trying it with the antepentultimate bar added, then the preantepenultimate, the propreantepenultimate and so on (I hope you get the idea, because Wiktionary doesn’t list anything beyond “last but four” :-) )  Occasionally, when I hit a particularly tricky bar, I’d repeat that on its own a few times before prepending it to the growing phrase.

Before I tried this I had made several attempts to play through the phrase from the beginning but hadn’t managed to get very far with it.  I found that this approach worked quite well in enabling me to play it much more competently and confidently.  I’m still not sure that I’ll be able to play this solo as well as I’d like tonight, but I’ve got a much better chance of getting it more or less right than I had before.

Incidentally, this afternoon’s practice session has also reminded me of the importance of practising scales and arpeggios, even in keys that you often don’t play in.  There is one bar in the third movement (which is in C) that is effectively an A major arpeggio (actually, A dominant seventh, as it starts with a G) and would be much easier for me to play if I’d practised that key a bit more (we don’t often get pieces in A, at least not in the junior band music), especially when it comes to finding the right slide position for low C#.  Quite a lot of the other passages would also be a lot easier if I wasn’t having to think quite so consciously about where to locate the notes or how to run between them.

PS in case you’re wondering, this whole post wasn’t just an excuse to use the word “propreantepenultimate” – in fact, I didn’t even know that the word existed until I went to Wiktionary to look up the spelling of “antepenultimate” (and I didn’t know I’d be using that word, or even plain old boring “penultimate” until I was half-way through writing that paragraph).

How black is my Friday?

This morning, I discovered that there are two different days that are both referred to as Black Friday.

Up until now, I’ve always understood Black Friday to be the last Friday before Christmas (or possibly before Christmas Eve), which is the traditional night for office Christmas parties and hence a particularly busy night for pubs, clubs, restaurants and the emergency services. This indeed appears to be the more traditional British English usage of the term. According to Wikipedia, the day is known in South Yorkshire as Mad Friday. Interestingly this is also a direct translation of the name used for the same night in Welsh – Nos Wener Wallgo. As a consequence, I often tend to think of it as Mad Friday myself (since I first learnt about the concept in Welsh rather than English) and I have been known to confuse people by calling it Mad Friday when I’m speaking English.

It turns out that in the United States they mean something quite different by the term Black Friday. Over there, it refers to the day after Thanksgiving Day (itself the fourth Thursday in November), which is taken as the beginning of the Christmas Shopping season and, in recent years, has become a popular day for shops to offer promotional sales (with extended opening hours). According to an article on the UK edition of the Huffington Post this morning, this idea has now spread to our shores, although we still don’t celebrate Thanksgiving itself. I can’t say I’ve noticed it at all (except on Amazon, who have been having a Black Friday promotion – I didn’t pay much attention to the advance advertising and assumed they were getting ready for 19th December), but it’s possible it just hasn’t reached North Wales yet.

Actually, there is also a third (though technically, this usage predates the other two) Black Friday – the name has sometimes been used as a synonym for Good Friday, i.e. the Friday before Easter, which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus (Easter itself, if you didn’t know, celebrates his resurrection; it’s not just an excuse to eat too much chocolate). I was vaguely aware of this usage although I don’t think it’s very common these days. Probably just as well, as it’s confusing enough having two different days with the same name.

Reduce me to a muzak fate

I love Christmas.

As well as the day itself, with all its traditions and trimmings, I mostly enjoy the build-up over the weeks beforehand, including several opportunities to freeze various appendages off while playing carols with the Menai Bridge Brass Band outside supermarkets (especially fun as a tuba player because you get to hug a large amount of very cold metal, which also happens to be a very effective collecting device for rain and snow).

One thing I don’t enjoy so much is the festive muzak they insist on playing inside the supermarkets at least a month in advance.

Actually, today (which is only one month until Christmas Eve) was the first day I noticed and was irritated by the sonic backdrop to my shopping, which seems a bit later than usual.  Only one more month to put up with it…

Fortunately, I happened to pass the beer aisle and noticed a festive brew called “Bah Humbug” (an offering from the Wychwood Brewery, whose beers I generally enjoy greatly) on special offer, so I decided that a bottle of this would provide suitable compensation for having to endure the annoying tunes.  (NB in case you were wondering, I did actually buy the beer – it didn’t even cross my mind to do otherwise and I don’t think I’d have been able to convince the store detective that they owed me a bottle in return for subjecting me to such musical torture!)

I suppose, ironically, this means that the muzak was effective, if only minimally so, in encouraging me to purchase Christmas-related products (which, presumably, is the reason they choose to inflict it on us – I hope they are not just sadists).  I’d probably better not buy a bottle of beer every time I go shopping over the next month, as it wouldn’t be good for my wallet, my waistline or my liver.  As a one-off, though, I thought it was a pretty good excuse. :)

Thinking about all this reminded me of a line from a Queen song, which I remembered as “reduce me to a muzak fate” and thought came from the song Death on two legs (on the Night at the Opera album).  Checking up by listening to a handful of tracks from my collection of early Queen albums, backed up with a swift bit of googling for the lyrics, I discovered that it’s actually from Flick of the Wrist (on Sheer Heart Attack, so I was only out by one album) and the line is actually “reduce you to a muzak fake machine”.  Still, I decided to keep my slightly mangled version of the line as the title for this post.