So much for a quiet summer

August is usually one of the quieter months for me, as most of my regular activities take a summer break.  I love this opportunity to live life at a slightly more relaxed pace for a few weeks, especially as September (along with December) tends to be one of the busiest months.

This year, however, my August seems to be quite busy, especially in contrast to the last couple of months.  In particular, I have quite a few gigs – almost as many, in fact, as I’ve had so far this year.

On average, I probably have about two gigs a month, and that pretty much amounts to some months with no gigs at all and some with 3 or 4, but rarely more than 5.  This month I have a grand total of 9 gigs, with two (or three, depending how you count) different bands.

The August gigging calendar started last Saturday, playing bass (or tuba, as it’s known outside the brass band context) with the Menai Bridge Brass Band at the National Eisteddfod (a Welsh cultural phenomenon that you can google for yourself if you don’t already know about it).  This was a competition, with 5 bands competing in our section.  We came 3rd but, more importantly, we felt that we put in a very good performance.   The first two pieces (out of our programme of 5) were televised on S4C; we start about 39 minutes into the programme and the clip should be available to view until about the end of August.  I found it particularly interesting to watch that clip, as the pieces sound completely different when heard from outside the band than when you’re hearing them from in the middle of the action.

My second gig was on Sunday evening with the Rice Hooligan Orchestra – my “demented Western Swing” trio, with whom I play upright bass (we don’t currently have a website).  We were playing for a hog roast at the Marram Grass café in Newborough, one of our favourite venues and the site of most of our recent gigs.  We’ll be back there on Sunday 30th August (probably from about 7pm) so if you happen to be in the area you may like to drop in and see us; I’m not sure how much it costs to participate in the hog roast (as performers, we get it for free) but it’s excellent food to go with, hopefully, pretty good music.

This coming Saturday will be my busiest day musically, as I have two separate gigs.  In the morning I’ll be playing trombone with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Brass Band at an event in Pentraeth (I think it’s their village fair) and then in the afternoon I’ll be heading off to the Conwy valley to play for a wedding party with the Rice Hooligan Orchestra.  On Sunday afternoon, I’ll be out with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Band again, this time at a First World War memorial concert in Menai Bridge.

The rest of the month’s gigs are all with the Rice Hooligan Orchestra.  One of them is, like this Saturday’s wedding, a private party (towards the end of the month).  The others are both public gigs – one is at Y Fricsan in Cwm-y-Glo (near Llanberis) on Friday 14th and the other is at The George in Bethesda on Saturday 15th.  I’m not yet sure of the exact details of either gig but if you’re up for coming along to one of them, give me a shout and I’ll try to find out for you.

I’m anticipating that September will be a fairly busy month, as usual.  On the gig front, though, it’s likely to be considerably quieter than August; so far I don’t have any gigs lined up for September and I certainly don’t expect to get anywhere near 9 of them!


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.

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).

Powering Through

As I mentioned recently, the Menai Bridge Brass Band are celebrating our 120th anniversary this year and the highlight of our celebrations was a concert last Saturday night.

This turned out to be a memorable gig not just because everyone worked really hard and played very well, but because there was a power cut in the middle of the first half which spectacularly failed to stop us finishing the show.

Things started pretty well and, despite fairly horrible weather, we had a good turnout (I estimated that the hall – with a capacity of 400 people – was fairly well over three quarters full, although I’ve not heard an official figure for ticket sales).

The beginners’ band (with which I play trombone) went on stage first and performed three pieces, my favourite of which was an arrangement of the Andante from Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (the surprise being that this movement is played very quietly throughout except for one fortissimo – i.e. very loud – chord about 30 bars in). Interspersed with these pieces, and with the intermediate band set that made up the rest of the first half, were several videos (mostly about the history of the band).

The intermediate band (with which I also play trombone) were up next, and had a programme of five pieces to play. The third of these was the hymn tune “Nearer, my God, to thee”, which we played to accompany a (silent) video tribute to the half dozen or so members of the band who died fighting in the First World War. After this, we paused for a video greeting from a former band member who now plays with a band in Norway.

Halfway through this video the power cut out. This brought an end to the video, of course, and plunged the hall into near-darkness, illuminated only by a handful of battery-powered emergency lights. Our chairman, Brian (who was the MC for the event), did a fine job of ad-libbing while the various members of our technical crew ran around trying to locate fuseboxes etc. It fairly soon became apparent that the problem was caused by a general power cut in the area rather than a blown fuse in the building.

The next piece on the programme was a trumpet solo with piano accompaniment from our guest soloist, Gwyn Owen (a former principal cornet player of our band). This went ahead with a battery powered music stand light to illuminate Gwyn’s music and a handful of band members with torches to provide light for the pianist.

At this point it was decided to go straight to the interval while we waited to see whether the power would come back on and to consider our options in case it didn’t. Members of the band who happened to have torches (on their phones or otherwise) were dispatched to provide as much light as possible for those in the audience who wanted to go out into the lobby for refreshments, although many people opted to remain in their seats.

After a shortish interval and still no sign of returning electricity it was decided to carry on with the concert by torchlight, with members of the senior band holding torches for the intermediate band to be able to see our music to play our penultimate piece and then a short break while the bands swapped over for a slightly abridged senior band programme with the intermediate band members (at least the ones not also in the senior band) and a few other volunteers holding lights for us.

We dropped the final piece from the intermediate band set and about 3 or 4 of the 10 or so pieces that the senior band were due to play. There was just enough time in the changeover for those of us who were playing with both junior and senior bands to change our uniforms (from the polo shirts of the juniors to the white shirts, black bow ties and blue jackets of the seniors – fortunately it was the same trousers etc. for both bands) and for me to swap instruments to the Bb bass (aka tuba) that I play in the senior band.

The bits of the senior band set that remained in the programme included the three pieces I mentioned in my last post (selections from Vivat Regina by William Mathias, Belinda – the only surviving composition by our band’s first conductor, George William Senogles, and Pont Menai – newly composed for us by local composer Owain Llwyd and receiving its world premiere concert performance), as well as three of the five movements from the Narnia Suite that we recently performed at the national finals and two more solos by Gwyn Owen (accompanied this time by the full band). We finished, quite appropriately I thought, with a march entitled Death or Glory, conducted by our former conductor Dennis Williams (who was instrumental in getting the band up and running again after a slump in the 1960s and 70s) and with several former members of the band joining in.

At the end of the concert, band members once again used our various torches to provide light for members of the audience to safely leave the auditorium. It was too dark to be able to pack away all the equipment, as the power still hadn’t returned, so most of it had to be left for those who were able to get back the following day to help clear up.

In the space of over 20 years of gigging (I’ve lost count of how many actual gigs that is, though it’s certainly in the hundreds), I think this was the fourth time I’ve had a power cut in the middle of a gig. Fortunately on the two occasions when I was playing with amplified bands the power came back on fairly quickly and on the other two occasions (including this one) we were all using acoustic instruments and were able to continue with non-mains-powered sources of illumination so I’ve never yet had the disappointment of a gig being cancelled because the lights went out.

At the end of the day, the power cut last Saturday night only served to ensure that our 120th Anniversary Concert is one that we will remember for a very long time.


Two organisations I belong to are are celebrating significant anniversaries this year, although in one case we’re running a bit late.

I have been a member of the Caernarvonshire and Anglesey Caledonian Society for almost 10 years (and the chairman for about 6 years).  Until very recently we thought that this year was our 60th anniversary, although a bit of research by one of our members has now shown us that the society was actually formed in 1953 (i.e. 61 years ago), so we’ve missed the boat slightly – although arguably a 61st anniversary should be even more cause to celebrate than a 60th!

I’ve mentioned the Caledonian Society on several previous occasions (most recently here) on this blog but, in case you haven’t read those posts or have forgotten, here’s an executive summary of what we’re all about.  The group exists to promote Scottish culture and provide a meeting place for people of Scottish origin or with interest in Scotland.  For much longer than I’ve been on the scene, our main activity has been Scottish Country Dancing (not to be confused with Highland Dancing – an entirely different wee beastie), which we generally do in Bangor on Thursday nights between September and April (dr0p me a line if you want to know more).  Apart from that, our only other regular event these days is an annual Burns Night dinner (incidentally, at this year’s event, I performed a couple of Burns’ songs (on the ukulele), one of which was the song I’d quoted in my speech a couple of years ago).  I gather there used to be a wider range of activies in years gone by.

Apparently the dance classes started a few years after the society was formed (in about 1958 if my memory serves me), so we haven’t actually missed the 60th anniversary of dancing.  That’s just as well, as we’ve been working on a lovely dance called the Anniversary Reel and it will be good to get another excuse to dance it (not that we particularly need an excuse!).

The other group I’m in that’s celebrating a significant birthday this year is even older – in fact twice as old.  The Menai Bridge Brass Band started playing in 1894.  We have several things in the pipeline to celebrate our anniversary.  Perhaps the biggest one is a CD recording project, which we are aiming to complete in May.  The band is currently trying to raise money to pay for this and if you’d like to help you’re very welcome to do so. 🙂

We’re also hoping to hold at least one big concert some time this year (although the exact timing depends on things like whether we do sufficiently well in the regional band competition this weekend to get through to the national final later in the year) and possibly a series of open-air concerts in Menai Bridge during the summer, as the band used to do regularly in its early years (usually performing at least 8 complete concerts per season without ever playing the same piece twice).

Success and a splendid simile

Today I want to provide a couple of quick updates on my last two posts.

On Saturday I went to compete at the National Eisteddfod with the Menai Bridge Brass Band.  We came third in our section, out of a total of 7 bands.  This is the third competition I’ve taken part in with the band and the first of them in which we’ve reached the prize positions; it’s a good feeling.

We were indeed televised, although apparently they only showed two of the five pieces we played.  I saw a few clips on a TV monitor while I was at the Eisteddfod – I don’t think they were broadcasting live since they recorded a staged scene of the band preparing to go on stage (with me sitting at the end of the row, with instructions to look “super serious”) after we’d actually finished playing!

The other update is on my Doctor Who reading project.  Last week I mentioned that I’d reached the story with one of my favourite lines (in the TV version, unfortunately missed out in the novelisation).  I’ve now got a couple of books further on and come to what must be one of my favourite opening sentences of any Doctor Who book (or any book, for that matter):

It moved through the silent blackness of deep space like a jellyfish through the depths of the sea.

That is the start of The Claws of Axos novelisation by Terrance Dicks.  Almost certainly the most prolific of all the Doctor Who novelists (as well as the script editor on the TV series for more-or-less the entire Pertwee era), his prose is generally always at least competent and often excellent.   This is one of his rare third Doctor novels that doesn’t describe the Doctor as having a “young-old face”, although he provides a variation on the theme by saying that “the deeply lined face was curiously youthful”.

TV Stars!

Tomorrow morning I will be getting up at an unpleasantly early hour (sometime before 6am) in order to travel to the National Eisteddfod, where I will be competing with the Menai Bridge Brass Band.  The Eisteddfod this year is taking place in Denbigh.

I gather we’re due to be playing fairly early (probably around 10am) and the event will be getting filmed and broadcast, presumably on S4C (the Welsh TV channel).  I’m not sure whether it’s a live broadcast, but I expect it might be.

Having had a quick look at the S4C website, it doesn’t look like their programs are available to view online so, since I don’t have a TV and would in any case be out at the Eisteddfod at the time (assuming it’s a live broadcast), I’m unlikely to get to see myself on TV this time round.  That’s probably a good thing.  Still, if you happen to have access to S4C and have nothing better to do on Saturday morning you might like to tune in.

This will be, if I remember correctly, my third visit to the National Eisteddfod.  I first went to it when it came to Bangor in 2005 and my next visit was to Bala in 2009.  The Eisteddfod (which is an annual event) alternates between North and South Wales so, if I keep with the current pattern, I should next be due to visit it when it returns to North Wales the time after next, in 2017.