Non-Stick Penguins

I seem to have ended up in another new band!

More accurately speaking, a couple of friends and I now have a name to use when we perform together.  Instead of just being Jon, Rob and Magnus, we are the Non-Stick Penguins. So far our public playing has amounted to a handful of songs at an open-mic night last week, but there will doubtless be more.

I have known both Jon and Rob for quite a long time.  A couple of years ago, I started playing some guitar for Jon, who was writing and singing his own songs and needing someone to play them.  We did a few open-mic nights and informal gigs.  For the last few months we haven’t got round to making any music together but a few weeks ago we started again and this time it occurred to us to invite Rob, a mutual friend and fine guitarist, to join us.  Having Rob on guitar frees me up to play other instruments (so far mostly bass ukulele and violin) on the songs.

We have continued to play mostly Jon’s songs but for last week’s gig we also did a cover of the song Who’s going to lead the march upon the jailhouse by Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies.  It’s likely that we will do a few more covers (of songs by Harry and other people) in the future and we may even eventually do some of my songs, although I am not exactly a prolific (or especially talented) songwriter.

(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.

(Slightly Tarnished) Silver Strings – Part 2

Last week I wrote about some of the early history of my violin playing, finishing my account on the eve of my departure for university.  The time has now come to bring my account up to date.

Prior to going to university, my violin playing in public (apart from playing it in a church band — which I’ve continued to do, along with various other instruments, to this day) was mostly confined to classical music.  When I went to university, and subsequently, my musical horizons expanded significantly.

Actually, as an undergraduate (maths) student in Nottingham, I didn’t do very much violin playing at all (at least publicly).   The mainstay of my musical life in Nottingham was the unversity’s early music ensemble, in which I played (mostly tenor) recorder and (mostly bass) viol.  I also played bass guitar in several groups, including a band from the Christian Union that played for various jazz café events.

For most of the time the CU jazz café band remained nameless, but we did eventually get named The Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ (at my suggestion — partly because I was just getting back into Bagpuss at the time and mainly to avoid some even worse names that had been suggested); I think that was just in time for our final gig.  Most of the time I played bass in that band (having earlier learned to play the bass mostly by learning on the job in a jazz big band) but I did play violin for at least one or two gigs, when there was another bassist available and we were slightly short of horns (OK, so the violin is not usually considered part of the horn section, but you know what I mean).

While at university I also got hold of some books of folk tunes, foremost among them The Fiddler’s Fakebook (by David Brody, published by Oak), and started to get more into folk fiddling, although still only in the confines of my own home and only playing on my own or with members of my family.  Previously I had played some folk music with my Dad from some books he had, but the Fakebook definitely gave a big boost to my interest in this kind of music (or rather, these kinds, since it covered quite a few different folk styles).

When I moved to Bangor to do my PhD, I decided to approach the music department to find out if there were any early music opportunities, especially as I was keen to continue playing the viol and I didn’t have one of my own (I still don’t, though I’d still love to get one one day).  At the time there weren’t, but one of the members of the department, Stephen Rees, put me in touch with the local folk music scene (in particular, regular Welsh and Irish sessions taking place in local pubs), which gave me a start on playing folk music with other people and also on learning tunes by ear rather than reading them from books. I’m firmly convinced that this is the way forward for folk music, although books can be quite handy as backup sources / memory aids for tunes.

I regularly played, mostly fiddle (with a bit of tin whistle and occasional banjo or other things), in both the Irish and Welsh sessions for several years, although gradually I drifted out of the habit of going to them as I got busy with other things.  After about a year of going to the sessions, I was invited by a couple of guys I’d met there to join them for a practice in one of their houses and quickly discovered that they were recruiting a new fiddle player for their twmpath (aka barn dance or ceili(dh)) band, Defaid Du (Welsh for “black sheep” (pl.)).  We got on pretty well and I soon found myself a member of the band (also playing a bit of tin whistle and occasional banjo or other things).  My first gig with them was all the way over in Lincoln and, over the next 10 years or so we played many gigs (some excellent, some less so) in many places, mostly across North Wales but occasionally further afield.  Lincoln remained the furthest distance I travelled with that particular band, but we did also go down to Exeter one time and to the Gower Peninsula (near Swansea) a couple of times, as well as a handful of gigs in the English midlands.

Apart from the great deal of pleasure I got from playing and hanging out with the other members of the band (to say nothing of the beer), one of the things I particularly valued about being a twmpath musician was the opportunity to travel to all kinds of obscure bits of North Wales (and, as mentioned, beyond) that I probably would otherwise never have seen.  Quite often, whether I’m travelling to or through, or just talking about, a place in North Wales (or sometimes beyond), I find myself saying “I played a gig there once…”.  Sadly Defaid Du came to an end a couple of years ago when our guitarist/gig-organiser/bloke-with-PA moved to the south of England.  We did, however, have a reunion gig the other week (for the wedding of a daughter of one of my bandmates) and we have another one coming up next month (for the wedding of the daughter of a friend of the band).  It’s been great to play again together, although it has made me realise how much I miss playing twmpathau.

I have occasionally moonlighted with other local twmpath bands (especially the ever-wonderful Aderyn Prin) when their own fiddler (or on one occasion their guitarist — although I played fiddle and their fiddler played guitar, as I knew the tunes better than the chords) has been absent, and doubtless I shall continue to do so. I’ve also played a few solo gigs of folk fiddle music, including one memorable one (for me, at least) when I stood playing Welsh folk tunes for an hour or so outside the Welsh Assembly Government’s tent (at their request) at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen.

Most of my other public music-making in recent years, apart from a couple more forays into the world of classical music (about which more later), has been on other instruments — mostly basses of various descriptions. However, I have played a bit of jazz violin at jazz cafés hosted by my church (as with the Nottingham CU ones, I usually played bass for these events, but there was at least one when I could find another bass player but was short of horns). One of the other members of my new jazz band is also a bassist (as well as a trumpeter), so at some point I may get to play a bit of fiddle with the Jazz Knights if James would like to play bass.

Once again, this account of my fiddle playing seems to be growing somewhat larger than intended, so I’ll postpone the account of my classical playing in the post-university years to another post. It should only take one more post to finish bringing the narrative up to date, although I hope that I have several more posts worth of violin playing (in all kind of styles) to look forward to in the future.

(Slightly Tarnished) Silver Strings

Unless I am much mistaken, today is the 26th anniversary of me taking my violin grade 1 exam (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) [I had thought it was the 25th anniversary, but then I realised that 10th April 1987, which I’m fairly sure was the big day, was actually 26 years ago, not 25].  This was the only practical music exam I ever took (unless you count the performance part of GCSE music, which I suppose should really count), although I did start working towards my grade 3 and grade 5 violin exams on several occasions and did take theory grade 5, largely in preparation for doing the higher grade violin exams.

Although I haven’t got a huge collection of certificates to say that I can play, I do have quite a bit of experience and I have gained a lot of pleasure (and hopefully given some pleasure and not too much pain to other people) through playing music over the years.

As a way of celebrating this auspicious anniversary, today I have mostly been listening to violin music that I have played (albeit not recordings of my own performances), in roughly chronological order of when I first approached them.

First up on the playlist was Vivaldi’s Violin concerto opus 3, no. 6 (RV358) in A minor.  The first movement of this was my solo piece for my GCSE music performance exam and I think I also played it once in a school concert. As far as I can remember, I’ve never performed the other two movements, although I have played them all many times and I still like to dig the piece out and play it from time to time.  One day I’d love to play it with piano accompaniment again (as it appears in the edition I have), or perhaps even with a full string orchestra (as it was written).

The next piece I listened to this morning was Dvořák’s Sonatina op. 100 in G (for violin and piano), which was, I think, the next piece I studied in violin lessons after the Vivaldi concerto.  My biggest solo public performance to date was when I played the final movement of this piece in front of an audience of (IIRC) about 1000 people at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford.  That performance wasn’t helped when, a few bars into the piece, my accompanist stopped,  announced that his page turner had failed to turn up and waited for someone to step in to fulfil that vital role.  I was a  bit miffed, not least because I had to turn my own pages anyway (although to be fair, I only had one page turn with a fairly conveniently located multi-bar rest, compared to the pianist’s many page turns in mid-flow). Were the same thing to happen today I’d probably keep the audience entertained with a selection of jaunty jigs or something but, at the time, I didn’t think of that (and I’m not sure I knew any jigs then anyway) so I just stood like a lemon on the stage for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only  a minute or two.  By the time we restarted the piece I was so nervous that I was painfully aware of an unscheduled tremolando in my bowing, although I gather it wasn’t too obvious to most of the audience (and at least I managed to avoid dropping the bow altogether).

The final major piece I studied in my violin lessons, although I don’t think I ever publicly performed any of it, was Bach’s Violin concerto in E, BWV1042, which was my first introduction to playing Bach (apart from one small keyboard minuet) and probably what got me hooked on listening to him too.  I’ve subsequently spent quite a lot of time on his cello suites, mostly in an arrangement for viola though I’ve also played some of them on violin, and I have a sheet music copy of his solo violin sonatas and partitas too, which represent a considerable challenge to my violin playing abilities (but also a lot of fun and some moments of sublime ecstasy).  As with the Vivaldi and Dvořák pieces, I still like to dig the Bach violin concerto out and give it a bash from time to time.

Speaking of challenging music, I also have a copy of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin, Op. 1, which is probably one of the hardest violin works out there.  My final violin teacher had a copy and played several of them for me, which inspired me (in a moment of what I can only describe as either blind optimism or pure wishful thinking) to get my own copy.  I can just about manage a few of the simpler passages, including bits of Caprice no. 5 (my personal favourite, not least because a guitar version – or at least something very similar sounding – was featured in the epic guitar duel at the end of the film Crossroads) and the theme and the first couple of variations from no. 24 (the famous one, also well-known as the theme from the South Bank Show, which happens to be another of my favourites, mainly because I can actually play some of it) but I don’t hold any serious hope of ever actually being able to play them properly.

During my sixth form years, I joined my first proper orchestra (which is not to denigrate my school orchestra, which was pretty good in its own fairly limited way): The Crockenhill String Orchestra.  I was one of the back row second violins in this august ensemble.  I can no longer remember precise details of most of what we played but the one that sticks most vividly in my mind is Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K525.  I remember this mainly due to a concert in a church in, I think, Farningham on a dark and stormy night when we were hit by a power cut just as we approached the end of the first movement; this plunged us into total darkness (apart from occasional flashes of lightning) and caused about half of the orchestra to grind to a halt while the rest of us valiantly struggled on to finish the movement from memory. After this, there was a short pause while we dug out candles to illuminate the rest of the concert. I remember thinking, as we played the remaining movements of the Mozart, how well the music seemed to fit with the setting of a candle-lit stone building (which my imagination transformed from a small church into a vast gothic castle) with a storm raging outside.  I also remember playing Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, which I think I remember just because I particularly liked some of the tunes in it rather than for any notable performance-related incidents.  On the other hand, I do recall one particular tuning-related fail (in a piece I can’t remember, though I’ve a feeling it was a (piano?) concerto with a guest soloist, performed somewhere up in London) when, shifting down to first position from on high (yes, even second violinists sometimes have to play up the neck!), my thumb accidentally caught the tuning peg of my G string and knocked it completely out of tune.

Since my potted history of my violin playing is turning out to take  a rather larger pot than anticipated (this already being my longest blog post to date, as far as I can remember, and me not yet having started on my university years, let alone what came after), I’ve decided to split it across several posts.  The next installment should follow fairly shortly.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering how I did in the exam, I passed with distinction (just about) – gaining 131 out of 150 marks, just one more than the minimum required for a distinction.  As it happens, I also blogged (a day late) about the 20th anniversary of this exam, 6 years ago (obviously!).  I also blogged some of my thoughts about Bach’s music (specifically the solo violin/cello stuff that I’ve played) on that blog.