Honey and lemon time

I seem to have a bit of an incipient cold at the moment.  It’s been hovering around for the best part of a week and so far hasn’t been any worse than a slightly blocked or slightly runny nose and a bit of a cough, so I’m hoping it will go away soon without getting any worse first.  Fortunately it didn’t severely impede my playing at yesterday’s brass band competition (we came 5th out of 9 in our section and were quite pleased with our performance, thanks for asking).

As a precaution, I’ve been making and drinking a few batches of my DIY honey and lemon mixture (essentially, half a lemon, a spoonful of honey and a bit of chopped ginger lobbed together in a saucepan with a pint or so of water and boiled/simmered for a few minutes) to soothe my throat and make me feel like I’m doing something pro-active against the cold, in the hope that I can persuade it not to get properly underway.

This also gives me an opportunity to dig out a poem I wrote about 7 years ago on another occasion when I had a cold, in November 2006.  That one was a lot worse than the one I’ve currently got, and I had lost my voice.   I’m fairly sure (although I can’t remember for certain) that I didn’t have the second half of the poem in mind when I wrote the first half.

Incidentally, if you’re of a sensitive disposition and are currently eating something you may want to finish your food and take a break before you read on (especially lines 3 and 4).

I have a cold.
I’m feeling pretty bad.
I feel like I’m slowly drowning
in a sea of my own snot and spit.
And if that sounds horrid, it is.
The back of my throat feels under attack
from a horde of tiny, malicious imps.
Arms and legs and head all ache.
Constant coughing gets me down.
Nostrils feel raw –
are those tissues or sandpaper?
To cap it all, I’ve lost my voice.
I can’t speak above a whisper
and, worse, I can’t sing.
Frustration, thy name is silence!

But wait a moment, whining one!
What gives you the right to moan?

Have you spent your whole life unable to see or to hear?
Are you missing your legs, never to walk again?
Is your voice gone for good, never to sing or talk again?
Does your whole family spend their life
labouring to provide food for the table?
Are you too stupid to see what I mean?

I have a cold.
Big deal.


Bootiful Music

Until yesterday, I had not been out of Wales yet this year (as far as I can remember).

Last night, however, I was in England for a gig and I will be there again tomorrow for a brass band competition.  I am temporarily back in Wales as I write this.

It’s not very often that I go to gigs in which I’m not playing, but last night was an exception.  One of my favourite bands, Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies, was playing at Moulton village hall in Cheshire.  This was the closest they were due to approach North Wales on their current UK tour, so I took the opportunity to go and see them.

I was introduced to this band about a year ago by my friend Jon, who had known Harry at university in Durham, about 10 or 12 years ago.   He lent me a copy of the band’s first album, Long Way to be Free, and I was so impressed by it that I soon bought a copy for myself.  I have learned one of the songs from it and have several more on my “songs to learn soon” list.

When Jon discovered, several months ago, that Harry and the band would be playing in Moulton (which is a couple of hours’ drive away from where we live but conveniently close to where another of Jon’s university friends, Dave, lives in Knutsford) and suggested that we go to see them I was very happy to agree to the suggestion.  Dave came to the gig with us and he and his wife, Lisa, kindly put us up over night.

The gig was every bit as good as I expected it to be and I also got a chance to meet and chat to Harry and Christophe, the only other member of the band who was present for this gig (they are often joined by other musicians for gigs and recordings).  In addition to having very impressive facial hair, they are both lovely guys and I’d love to have a chance to jam with them sometime.   Apart from ourselves, more or less everyone at the gig seemed to be residents of Moulton but they too seemed a nice, friendly bunch and one chap, Kev, was especially helpful when we discovered that Jon had accidentally left his headlights on and drained the car battery.

As well as getting a chance to hear live versions of probably about 15 songs (selected from both their albums, as well as their newly released single – out on vinyl as well as an mp3 download!), including most of my favourites, it was good to hear the stories behind these songs (including, from the first album, Beard Snood, which was based on Christophe’s experiences working for a bakery which made him wear a hairnet over his beard, and La grietita – one of several songs in Spanish – which is about being a metaphorical crack in the wall of a darkened room, letting in a chink of light) and also to be able to watch Harry’s guitar playing and find out what chord shapes he was using (most of the songs were played with a capo and, in any case, I would probably need to sing them in a different key to accommodate my slightly lower vocal range, but it’s good to have a starting point for finding the chord voicings needed to recreate his sound).  I was also able to pick up a copy of their second album, The Bones on Black, which previously I’d only heard a couple of times when I borrowed Jon’s copy of the CD.

I would definitely recommend checking out Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies if you get a chance to see them live (their website, linked above, has a list of the dates on their current tour).  There are also, apparently, quite a few videos of them up on youtube, though I haven’t yet watched any of those.

As I mentioned, I’m heading back into England tomorrow for a brass band competition.  This is over in Buxton, where I will be playing (Bb bass) with the Menai Bridge Brass Band.  We will be playing the same test piece that we did at our last competition, the North Wales Rally in Llandudno last November – I managed to write about this without getting round to mentioning the title of the piece: Philip Sparke’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes from Saint-Saëns’ 3rd Symphony.  This is, in my opinion, an excellent piece and it is quite challenging for a band of our calibre, although I feel a lot more confident playing it now (with about 6 months’ more playing experience under my belt)  than I did last time (about a month after I’d restarted tuba playing after a long break, when I was not very experienced in the first place).

This competition should be quite fun and we are certainly hoping to give an excellent performance, regardless of where we come in our category (apparently there are due to be 9 section four bands competing, and it would be nice if we come in the top half, at least).  The only downside is that we are due to be on stage at 10am and we have a rehearsal room booked for 8:30am, to give us a half hour warm up and then plenty of time to get across to the competition venue (Buxton Opera House).  Consequently, our coach will be leaving Menai Bridge at 5:30am, which means I have to get up somewhat earlier in order to get down to the band room in time to meet it. 😦

On the fine art of wearing a kilt

This evening was the End of Season Dance for the Caernarvonshire and Anglesey Caledonian Society, so I dug my kilt out of the back of the wardrobe for the occasion (I was going to suggest that it was for a final Highland Fling, but that would be confusing Scottish Country Dancing, which we do, with Highland Dancing, which we don’t) and have been enjoying wearing it all evening.

As it happens, my friend Andy posted a question about kilts on his blog a couple of days ago.  I replied with a short comment, but I thought I would use this opportunity to set down at slightly greater length my thoughts about kilts and how to wear them.

I had long been fascinated by kilts and quite wanted to try out wearing one so, when I took up Scottish Country Dancing back in October 2004, I lost no time in buying myself a kilt and accessories on eBay.  At the time, I had no definite knowledge of any Scottish ancestry (although there were rumours of Scottish blood somewhere in my maternal line) and, since I’d heard that some people were  sensitive on the issue of people wearing clan tartans without any links to that clan, I decided to go for a safe option and pick something neutral.  I managed to find a nice Black Watch kilt bundled with a set of accessories (I think it included a belt, sporran and sgian dubh) for a reasonable price (somewhere around £50 as I recall).  I got a “highlander” shirt (i.e. one with a lace-up opening at the top of the front), a pair of kilt hose (aka long socks) and some sock flashes (little bits of tartan material – I went for Black Watch to match my kilt – attached to elastic/velcro bands that are used to hold the socks up) as well to complete the ensemble (along with some dancing shoes that I’d already bought, or my old school shoes for non-dancing occasions when a harder sole was required).

I quickly discovered that a kilt is much nicer for dancing in than trousers (at least for Scottish dancing), although I have tended to wear the kilt only for our special dance events (St Andrew’s Night and the End of Season Dance each year) rather than for regular dancing evenings.  I also wear it for Burns Night dinners and have occasionally worn it for other occasions, including one solo fiddle gig I had (although that was mainly because I went straight there from dancing on a night when I had been wearing the kilt anyway).  I am fortunate that my Caledonian Society, which organises the Burns Night I attend, is fairly laid back so I can get away without wearing the formal jacket etc. that are supposed to accompany a kilt on such occasions.  For the first year or two, I wore an ordinary black suit jacket and bow tie.  More recently, I’ve discovered that my highlander shirt is perfectly acceptable in this company.   I think it looks a lot better (certainly on me) than a formal jacket and (bow) tie anyway.

After a few years, my kilt (which was somewhat lighter weight than a standard one) started to get a few moth holes (and perhaps just a little bit tight around the waist – although I could probably fit into it quite easily again now).  By this stage, I had discovered a probable ancestor (on my Mum’s side of the family) with the surname MacDonald.  Although she was born and raised in Kent, back in the early 19th Century, it seems highly likely that her forebears came from Scotland, so while I’m not absolutely sure I’m actually related to her I am quite happy to consider myself a member of the MacDonald clan (or at least sufficiently so to wear their tartan – or one of them, for there are many).  So I got myself a new and slightly better quality kilt (also on eBay) as well as a nicer kilt pin (i.e. one that didn’t look like an overgrown safety pin).  My new kilt is supposedly a MacDonald tartan, although it’s not one I’ve been able to find in any reference sources, so I’m not sure how reliably the shop identified it.  On the other hand, I like the pattern (it’s red superimposed on dark green and blue) and I think that most people are probably not that bothered about what tartan you wear anyway (and there are so many out there that you could probably just claim it was a rare variant).  As it happens, the new tartan is quite similar to the old one, with the addition of prominent red bits, so my Black Watch sock flashes go quite nicely with it.

I thought I had a picture of me wearing my kilt, but I couldn’t find one in my collection.  I’ll try to take a suitably-attired self-portrait sometime.  In the meantime, here’s a picture of me in my knitted tam-o-shanter instead (a few years ago when I had a bit more hair):

Self-Portrait with Tam

I’ve realised that this post has turned more into a history of my own personal kilt wearing than any kind of examination about how to wear one (beyond the question of what tartan you may or may not be entitled to wear).  Still, there is plenty of advice (much of it conflicting) available online with the aid of Mr Google, so rather than carry on at even greater length here, I’ll stop for now (not least because I’ve just noticed that it’s past midnight and I’m overdue turning into a pumpkin).

(Slightly Tarnished) Silver Strings – Part 3

A couple of weeks ago I started writing a (supposedly) concise history of my violin playing as a way of marking the 25th anniversary of my grade 1 exam, although I soon realised I had missed that actual milestone by a whole year.  I started playing the violin about a year and a half before I took the exam and I’ve continued playing it ever since so, with nearly 28 years of experience under my belt, it’s perhaps not surprising that even a fairly cursory account of it will take up a bit of space.

What started out as a single post quickly split into two parts and then became an entire trilogy.  Hopefully it won’t go the same way as certain other increasingly inaccurately named trilogies and I’ll actually get it finished this time.  Part 1 looked at highlights of my violin playing before I went to university and part 2 explored the non-classical playing I’ve done since then.  This time it’s the turn of  my post-university classical playing.

In fact, pretty much all the classical violin playing I’ve done (not counting stuff done at home for my own amusement and one short performance of Elgar’s Salut d’amour with a friend from church) has been in connection with university groups but, ironically, I didn’t join these until after I’d severed my formal ties with the university.

At one stage, sometime within my first year in Bangor, I formed a string quartet with three student friends from church.  I can’t remember now whether I was playing viola or second violin in that ensemble, but I think it was viola (this would have been just after I got myself a viola and I think that’s what prompted the quartet, as we had two other violinists in the church band and discovered that our bass player also played cello).  Sadly we only got round to having one practice before the year ended and the other three members of the group all graduated and left the area.

I went to a concert just before Christmas 2006 featuring the University of Wales Bangor (now known as Bangor University) Music Society (or MusSoc) Choir and Orchestra.  I was very impressed by the concert but slightly shocked that they had more flutes than violins in the orchestra.  Partly this was because they had a lot of flutes (about 14 as I recall — certainly a lot more than the usual 2 for an orchestra; this was largely due to their policy of allowing more-or-less anyone who wanted to to join, without auditioning for a set number of places) but also because the string section was quite thin on the ground.  I made this observation to a friend of mine who was in the orchestra and the next thing I knew I was invited to join it.  I did so and found myself a member of the first violin section (so, a bit of a promotion from my previous orchestra, although I was still mostly on the back row).

As it happens, I wrote on my (old) blog about my joining the orchestra, so I know both when it happened (12th January 2007 for my first rehearsal) and what we played for our next concert (my first with them): Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture, Schubert’s 8th Symphony (or at least the two movements of it that he actually completed) and his Ave Maria (with a soprano (?) soloist — a lovely girl called Sophie who also played in the second violin section), as well as Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (with another lovely girl, Pippa, as the violin soloist) and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (a joint piece with the choir, conducted by my good friend Graeme).  According to a later post on the same blog, the concert itself was on Saturday 21st April 2007 and went pretty well.

Unfortunately, my patchy blogging lets me down as a historical source after that point and I have to rely on my memory for the rest of my brief career with the MusSoc orchestra (incidentally, I think the official spelling may have been “Musoc” or “MuSoc”, but in any case it was universally pronounced as “muzz-sock”, so I think my spelling is better).  I can remember having a break for  a while, possibly just one term or maybe a year or two, but I can’t remember if it was immediately after the first concert or a bit later.

Amongst the other pieces we worked on in my time with the orchestra, the ones I particularly remember include Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture (which I think is what enticed me back after my break, since Beethoven is one of my favourite composers and I was eager to play one of his pieces – it also happened that the conductor was another good friend of mine, called Mark); Vivaldi’s Gloria (another joint piece with the choir); Vaughan-Williams’ Folk Song Suite and his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (the latter in one of our Christmas concerts, unsurprisingly; that was yet another joint piece with the choir); Korngold’s Theme and Variations (my first introduction to the work of this particular composer; bits of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (I don’t think we did the whole lot) and Khachaturian’s Masquerade.  We also did a suite of music from the film Pirates of the Caribbean, that I remember being much better music than I expected (I also remember the entire percussion section putting on bandannas and eyepatches, to the surprise of the conductor and the great amusement of everyone, when we performed the piece in an end-of-year gala concert).  Finally, I remember doing one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (No. 5 from the Op. 72 set, I think it was) as a test piece for auditioning new conductors.  That turned out, unusually, to be a piece of music that I enjoy listening to much more than trying to play since it sounds great (when played well) but is, to use a technical term, a bit of a bugger to play.

In addition to playing with MusSoc, I had one other orchestral experience (so far) in (fairly) recent years.  I was invited to take part in a spoken (as opposed to fully-acted) production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Mendelssohn’s incidental music that took place in Bangor Cathedral a few years ago, as I happened to know the conductor (a lad called Chris, who had conducted a choir that I once joined for a Christmas carol service — singing bass with a heavy cold) and he was short of violinists.  I forget when this was but it was a few years ago (probably around 2009 or 2010).  Last year, I took part (singing bass again) in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe, for which my friend Graeme (the conductor of the Chichester Psalms mentioned above) ended up being the accompanist.  He pointed out to me at the time that certain parts of the Iolanthe music (especially the entrance of the fairies at the start of Act I) are a clever pastiche/parody of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, but it was only the other day, when I listened to the Mendelssohn again for the first time since I played it, that I realised how right he was (and, on reflection, how much the story of Iolanthe borrows from that of Shakespeare too, although it is principally a satire on the British peerage).

It’s been a few years now since I last played any classical music in a group.  I don’t have any immediate plans for further forays in this direction but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in future.

On a roll

This is my fifteenth consecutive day with at least one blog post (actually my sixteenth post in this time span, since there was one day I posted twice).  This represents a new record for this particular blog and, as far as I can remember, for all my blogs, since I’ve generally been a fairly sporadic blogger.

I’ve just about managed to keep up with at least one post per month since I started this blog last January (or the January before last, depending on how you count), which is an improvement on my old blogs, but I think my previous longest run has been only about 10 consecutive posts.

I wonder how long it will last?  Probably not very long, although there will probably be at least one or two more posts before this run reaches its end and I’ve got a few ideas for things I want to write about soon.


I came across a new word, or at least one I don’t recall having encountered before, this morning: lollygag.

The Oxford Dictionary of English on my Kindle, where I first found the word, says that it is an informal North American verb meaning “to spend time aimlessly; idle”.  There were two example sentences given: “She goes to Arizona every January to lollygag in the sun” and “We’re lollygagging along”.  The word is claimed to date from the mid 19th century and be of unknown origin.

According to Wiktionary (see the link above), the word occurs in (presumably informal) US English, and means “to dawdle; to be lazy or idle; to avoid necessary work or effort.”  This seems a slightly more negative definition than the ODE one.

Wiktionary didn’t give any example sentences using lollygag as a verb, although there are translations into a few other languages, such as paresser in French, trödeln or schlampen in German and бездельничать (or byezdyelnichat for a very rough transliteration) in Russian; none of those are words I’ve previously encountered either, although I have spoken and read considerably less of any of those languages than English.

I did a quick Google search to see if I could find some examples in the wild.  Most of the hits I got were definitions or explanations of the term, but I did manage eventually to find some sentences using the word.  Probably my favourite was from a New York Times article:

The first time I saw a tarantula lollygagging on the front porch…

Lollygag can, apparently, also be used as a noun, meaning “silliness, nonsense”.  Wiktionary did give an example sentence for this one:

He likes to do his car up with blacked-out windows, and all that lollygag.

The only translation given for the noun version was the French absurdité, which I’m sure I have seen (and possibly used) before.

I can’t think of a particularly good Welsh translation for lollygag as a verb, but the noun use is fairly similar to the Welsh word lol, which roughly means “nonsense” (as in “Paid â siarad lol” – “Don’t talk nonsense”).  It’s tempting to think that there may be an etymological connection between lol and lollygag but I think it’s more likely that it’s just a coincidence.

My first millenium

Today is a significant day for my last.fm listening stats, as I have finally reached 1000 plays for one of the artists in my library.

Unsurprisingly the holder of this distinction is none other than Johann Sebastian “Mighty” Bach (to borrow the epithet bestowed on him by Organ Morgan in Under Milk Wood).  Although the last.fm stats don’t represent the entirety of my music listening history (I listened to plenty of music before last.fm came into existence and quite a lot of my listening is still offline and therefore unscrobbled), I think in this case it’s probably reasonably accurate since Bach is my favourite classical (or, if you want to be pedantic, baroque) composer and some of his music is my favourite music in any genre, therefore I do listen to a lot of Bach.

Bach has been in first place on my last.fm chart for quite a long time, and is likely to remain there for quite some time.  The number two spot, equally long-lasting in both directions, is held by Ludwig van Beethoven, my other favourite classical (or romantic, for the pedants) composer.  It probably won’t be very too long before he also reaches 1000 plays in my library.

The third place is perhaps slightly more surprising as it is held by Laïs, described on last.fm as a Flemish folk group although I wouldn’t describe their sound as particularly straight folk music.  I’m not sure exactly how I would describe it (folk-pop is a possibility, although I don’t think that does it justice) but it’s a sound I like very much, particularly in their earlier albums.  Laïs itself is an all-female a cappella trio, although they are accompanied by a band on most of their tracks.

Coming in fourth place is Jethro Tull, with Norwegian Hardanger fiddle player Annbjørg Lien in fifth place.  Perhaps it’s slightly surprising that the first jazz artist doesn’t appear until sixth place on my list, but less surprising that it’s Thelonious Monk who takes this place, as he’s definitely my favourite jazz cat and I have several of his albums (with plenty more available to listen to on Spotify).

The next appearance of a classical composer is Johannes Brahms, currently in 11th place.  Going by the thumbnail photo of him that is currently adorning the library icon (and has been for quite a while, although they do sometimes change), he would definitely head my chart of most impressive beards to be seen on last.fm

Of course, the last.fm library charts only indicate how many plays of tracks by a given artist have been scrobbled (i.e. recorded to the last.fm database) and not even how many times I’ve actually listened to each artist, let alone how highly I value their music.  Still, if I could pick one musician from all of history to have a jam with, I couldn’t think of any better choice than J. S. Bach.