I do some BARBERSHOP

May 20, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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Every now and then, it seems like someone is trying to tell you something. Ages ago, I went to a barbershop singing weekend at lovely Benslow Music, and came away besotted. But I was pregnant, and having small boys charging about turned out to be a lot more complicated than I was anticipating, and I never did anything about it.

Fast-forward ten years, and a series of almost-chance encounters leads me back. Sarah, my singing teacher, persuades me to go to the women’s singing group by telling me Liz, the leader, is a barbershop freak. I somehow inveigle myself into Liz’s quar-/quin-/sextet, the Remingtons, and spend a few weeks happily stumbling my way through Mr Sandman and Ain’t She Sweet? and feeling chuffed to have met this bunch of lovely people. And then one Wednesday, Liz takes me to a White Rosettes rehearsal.

The legendary White Rosettes. They’re the WINNINGEST chorus in British ladies’ barbershop. I mean, they win EVERYTHING. Here they are, winning in 2013:

Well. I’ve never been to any kind of practice and heard something that already sounded so perfect. Even the warmups seem impossibly complex and beautiful: cascading harmonies, perfect pitch shifts. The director gives out soft, rapid-fire points and tips and ideas and explanations. Everyone is alert. There’s no ‘Right, come on everybody, are we ready?’ Everyone just IS. They apply what Sally says immediately. There are words I don’t understand, explanations of how to produce a phrase or a sound. Everyone seems unfazed.

There’s something compelling about ladies’ barbershop. Not only is close-harmony singing the absolute BOMB, but there’s a place for everyone. From deep bass tones to stratospheric high notes, the whole range of women’s voices is there. Each barbershop part has its own special role. Leads carry the tune without overwhelming everyone else; they’re the hook that everything hangs on. Tenors soar above the lead, giving the mix that unmistakable barbershop ring. Baritones are the brains of the operation, weaving around the lead with mad intervals and counterintuitive harmonies. Basses are the corset of the barbershop sound, keeping everyone grounded and supported.

They’re working on a song with fiendish words, cross-cutting syncopated rhythms, tempo shifts from dead-slow to rattling-along and several changes of key. And did I mention the choreography? People strut and act, dance and merge in formation across the stage, like the Red Arrows, while staying pitch-perfect. Um. How do they do that?

And however impressive it looks on video, it’s phenomenal live. This clean sound. The perfect tuning. The ring. The harmonics. The buzzing in your ears. After the break, Sally introduces me, and the whole chorus turns to face me, sitting in my orange plastic seat, and sings to me. ‘You are welcome as the flowers in May…’ It’s like being the receiver in the middle of a satellite dish. The focused sound makes my heart try to leap out of my chest. Tears pour down my face.

white rosettes in rehearsal

The White Rosettes in rehearsal. This picture from Liz Garnett’s excellent blog, Helping You Harmonise (click to go there)

Afterwards, we hang around chatting while the trainees do their appraisals (singing songs they’ve been given to learn, to see if they’re ready to move on). Then Sally appears. ‘Come on, then, Alison.’ There’s something of the charismatic leader about Sally: if she’d said, ‘Right, take off all your clothes and jump into the lake,’ I’m pretty sure I would have done it. Thankfully, she is just auditioning me. Wait, what?

OK, I knew this was possible. I’d spent quite a lot of the rehearsal thinking, ‘Could I do this? I couldn’t do this. Damn, I really want to, though. But, argh. I’m not up to it.’

But there I was. OK, then. The audition’s simple: sing up the scale as far as you can, then down as far as you can. Sing Happy Birthday. That’s it. Sally: ‘Well, this is where I do my spiel about how we’re only looking for basses at the moment…’ Everyone laughs. She grins. ‘So, I’d like to welcome you to the White Rosettes as a bass.’

HOLY CRAP. I AM IN THE WHITE ROSETTES.

Sally compliments me on my resonance. I manage to squeak, ‘Thank you.’ I turn round and Liz engulfs me in a hug.

I sit in shock all the way home. What have I done? A large glass of wine, and I’m starting to feel a bit less terrified. That night, I dream that I’m trying to leap aboard a speeding car. By the next morning, I’m grinning like an idiot. I’M IN THE WHITE ROSETTES. I spend the next two days learning When I Lift Up My Head. The 9yo interrupts me singing along with the CD: ‘That’s AMAZING.’ The boyf bounces in: ‘I was listening to you upstairs. You sound great!’

COME ON, WEDNESDAY. COME OOOON.

accidento’s Guide To Voting

May 6, 2015 at 4:29 pm | Posted in advice | 3 Comments
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Still agonising over your choice tomorrow? Help is at hand! Follow my simple voting guide and place your cross with confidence.

First question: Is your constituency a safe seat? (You can check here.) Yes? Congratulations! You’re one of the lucky ones – FREE to vote with your heart! Go, examine the manifestos in minute detail! Quiz your candidates mercilessly at the hustings!

Of course none of this will make a sod of difference because the outcome’s already certain, so (unless you happen to support the outgoing MP, in which case you have my permission to look slightly pleased with yourself) you might as well wrap your voting slip round a brick and chuck it through the UKIP candidate’s window. In fact, that’s probably a more effective gesture than using it to vote.

So, you’re in a marginal constituency? DAMN. This should be the sexy scenario, right? Every-body wants you! Every-body wants your love! Leafleters and canvassers are all OVER you. Lock up your baby in case someone tries to kiss it.

The SINGLE good thing about being in a marginal constituency is EDDIE ACTUAL IZZARD might show up.

Other than that, it’s rubbish. If you like the outgoing MP, you have to fret about all your neighbours suddenly deciding they’re going to vote for the Stop Costa Coffee Coming To Little-Itching-Under-The-Armpit party, letting the rival in by mistake. If you don’t like the outgoing MP, you have to vote tactically, which is like that time you were in the school play and you had to kiss Martin Notyourtype while your real love, David Blindtoyourcharms, flirted carelessly with the third years.

But! you cry. There are other options! I could spoil my ballot! Or maybe not vote at all!

Firstly, spoiling your ballot: No. No. Believe me, over-worked up-all-night vote-counters are NOT separating that pile of dog-eared scraps into ‘people who are definitely making a considered gesture about the inequity of the first-past-the-post voting system’ and ‘people who don’t understand that you only vote for one person’. Really. You’re wasting your time.

Secondly, not voting at all: They’re all the same, right? You can’t tell them apart! Except, well, you can. They may all be bastards, but there are degrees of bastardry. As Dave Walker points out in his cartoon, even if you don’t vote, plenty of people will, and you might not like their choices. And also, Emmeline Pankhurst.

dave walker cartoon

So, there you go. I suggest you hold your nose, vote, and then join the Electoral Reform Society. Or move to Scotland. The SNP have definitely pledged to get rid of midges and snow. Definitely.

I go to YORK for the Women and Cycling conference

May 2, 2015 at 7:19 pm | Posted in cycling | 7 Comments
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Women And Cycling 2015 attracted delegates from all over the place. Kersten England (Chief Exec of City of York Council) said the aims were to ‘share experiences of what’s working’ and ‘build a network of people who can make a difference across disciplines.’ We had short talks from six people in the field (which Carlton Reid summarises nicely), then a set of roundtable discussions*.

It did start off a bit gloomily. According to surveys, 75% of women want to do more exercise. What stops them? Well, Survey Woman doesn’t like the word ‘sport’, for a start. She doesn’t like competition, doesn’t have time to exercise, doesn’t feel facilities are designed for her. She fears being seen as sporty and ‘butch’, but she worries about being ‘rubbish’, too. She’s pretty risk-averse. She doesn’t like intimidating-looking bike shops, though you might entice her into places that are open and airy and don’t have much stock in them. She ‘thrives in a no-pressure environment’.

It was hard not to feel that Survey Woman needed a bit of a pep talk. Come on, love! It’s not that bad! I did wonder whether a) we were fighting a losing battle, if women really ARE that pathetic and b) whether all the women at the conference weren’t actually women at all. They didn’t look like a bunch of crazy cycling-nut population outliers; there were women who evidently cared what they looked like, women who wouldn’t necessarily dominate a conversation, women who probably felt a bit worried about stuff sometimes, maybe even women who didn’t know one end of a crank extractor from the other. But they were out there, getting on with it, with passion and intelligence and commitment and humour. I felt a bit like Graham from Twenty Twelve: ‘If you ask the wrong people the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers.’ Survey Woman, having resigned herself to her sofa-bound fate, probably didn’t have much idea what might work for her. These people, however, had a lot of answers, and a lot of new questions, too.

150 delegates at Women and Cycling Conference

150 delegates at Women and Cycling conference, 30 April 2015. Picture by Carlton Reid.

Some of the answers were relatively simple: organise events, lead rides, reorganise your shop or website, train your staff. Other answers needed more than just the hard work of individuals: build high-quality infrastructure that allows people to cycle safely with children, encourage more women into the cycle trade, tackle the culture that puts teenage girls off cycling. But the point is, there were ideas. So many ideas. I particularly loved how the roundtables – simply groups of people sitting round discussing a theme – meshed research with the knowledge of those who worked or volunteered in the area and the experiences of non-experts. In contrast to other conferences I’ve been to, there was no floor-hogging by people going, ‘Well, the research says…’ or ‘My many years of experience indicate…’; all ideas and viewpoints were fed into the discussions.

Earlier, someone had tweeted grumpily along the lines of ‘How to get women into cycling? That’ll be a short conference. Infrastructure.’ While there’s obvious truth to this – in particular the need for high-quality infrastructure to allow children to cycle safely in cities – different stories emerged from different places. One council simply got rid of its car park (apart from the disabled spaces) and installed a bike park instead. Elsewhere, a critical mass was needed in order to argue for infrastructure changes where the purse-strings are held by people who see bicycles as a distraction. Differences in types of trips made by women and men were fascinating; the challenge is not just to design safe infrastructure, but to create spaces in which people can ‘trip-chain’ (e.g. come home from work, pick up the shopping, collect the kids from school, all in the same trip). Unexpected reasons emerged for stopping cycling; teenage girls gave up cycling to school, not just for the stereotypical reasons of helmet hair and looking daft, but also because the walk or bus ride to and from school is an essential part of their social life.

We chatted about the continuing difficulties getting women into the bike industry, as customers, bike shop staff, or working for bike-related companies. Chris Garrison tells her Trek dealers that the best way to make women feel welcome is to have women on the staff; if they can’t get women to apply, she suggests asking customers if they’d like a few hours in the shop, emphasising that tech skills can be taught if needed. Isla Rowntree, founder of children’s bike company Islabikes, said for some positions she has no applications from women at all (despite posts not requiring any technical knowledge). So the bike industry still has an image problem, though Melissa Henry from Sustrans said women are better-represented in jobs that emphasise people skills, like marketing and communications. We talked about the dreaded ‘women’s corner’ in bike shops, and the way tabs on some websites read Road, MTB, Urban, Women. Some participants relished ‘women-only’ events and provision, though Sustrans’ Sheridan Piggott said York Bike Belles had welcomed the few men who enquired about joining in their ‘no-pressure’ rides. Bernie Cullen, who was one of the founders of York Cycleworks all-women co-op in the 1980s**, said women-only spaces are needed for ‘counter-cultural’ activities (e.g. learning how to use tools).

women and cycling conference logo

Click here for the full programme

Delegates commented on how great it was to see an entirely-female panel of speakers, and to be largely among women in the discussions. (There were a few chaps about: I greeted Phil from VeloVixen with ‘Hallo, token man!’) I wasn’t too conscious of the female dominance, but someone who’d been to a lot of transport conferences found it ‘refreshing’. (And I did get on the train afterwards and think, ‘Ooh, look at all the MEN. Weird.’)

I’ve never felt like I wanted to go round an entire conference hall, shaking each individual’s hand and talking to them excitedly about what they were doing and what they had found out and what their ideas were. Not until this one. I left wondering all sorts of things, which I might have been able to find answers to if I’d only I’d had the whole weekend. Next year…

* I asked twitter which sessions I should go to, and got nothing approaching a consensus. In the end I opted for Cycling and teenage girls, The bike business: the role women could play, Cities fit for children and Cycling for everyone. So my observations are based on going to these roundtables, plus conversations I had with random people who weren’t quick enough to get away.

** Me: I used to take my bike to Cycleworks in the 80s! Her: I probably served you!

I take the boiz to the OPERA and NOTHING BAD HAPPENS

April 27, 2015 at 11:09 am | Posted in music, reviews, theatre | Leave a comment
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In between building Lego spaceships and using unlucky shrubs as goalposts and designing underground lairs to live in when they’re grown up, the boiz have been vaguely intrigued by my Damascene conversion to opera. They peer over my shoulder, going ‘Is that Iestyn Davies AGAIN?’, and hum Handel/Thunderbirds mashups while eating their tea. I came out of Rinaldo last year thinking the 9yo would have loved it, so I got all excited when I spotted Swanhunter – a short opera by Jonathan Dove, written with younger audiences in mind, brought to The Lowry* by Opera North in collaboration with The Wrong Crowd.

WP_005070

Palpable tension in the air as we wait for tea to arrive

In proper opera-going fashion, we got dolled up and headed for Pizza Express. Me: ‘That’s the bar where the bouncer gave James Laing the side eye.’ Boiz: ‘Yes mummy. Can we have ice cream?’

Suddenly it was five to seven. A last-minute dash got us to our seats in the lovely, intimate Quays Theatre; row J gave us a brilliant view. The 6yo sat on my rolled-up coat. ‘When’s it going to staaaaart?’ ‘Soon.’

Swanhunter opens with the cast swapping stories around the campfire. The opera is based on a Finnish legend: Lemminkäinen travels to the frozen North in search of a wife, where the Mistress of the North sets him three perilous tasks involving mythical beasts before she’ll allow him to see the girl of his dreams. This is a tale of love, bravery, foolhardiness, death, resurrection and the magical power of song; pretty spot-on for an opera.

It’s a small-but-perfectly-formed production: six cast members, a variety of clever props, and a kooky little folk-meets-classical band including a squeezebox, a harp and a French horn. Marvellously, the music wasn’t at all dumbed down for kids, apart from in the shorter running time. It was a proper opera. Dove writes amazingly for voices, teasing everything out of the singers’ vocal and emotional ranges; the Swan’s stunt aria knocked all our socks off, and there was so much to love in both solo and ensemble writing, brought to life through some terrific singing and playing. (We particularly liked how the Mistress of the North had her own theme, a bit like a character from Bod.) Despite it being all modern and everything, I was relieved to see a few operatic rules being adhered to. The hero was a tenor, his mother a contralto, the baddie a bass. There was no cross-dressing this time, sadly (though I can imagine a reprise with a countertenor as the Mistress of the North, in her Brighton Rock wig). I could say to the boiz with honesty at the end, ‘The operas I go to are just like that. Just bigger. And longer.’

Rachael Canning Puppets for Swanhunter , Lighthouse Poole 21-04-2015We go to the odd kids’ play, and I tend to avoid puppetry, finding much of it uninteresting compared to real people doing actual acting (though this may have its roots in my pathological childhood fear of the Muppets. I’m fine nowadays. Really.). But the puppet animals stole this show. The Mistress of the North’s dogs, scenting something suspicious from the South; the Devil’s Elk, all red leather antlers and torchlit eyes; the huge Devil’s Horse, pawing the ground and rearing, but eating out of Lemminkäinen’s hand by the end.

It was pacy and witty and dark and scary and moving and surprising. The 6yo sat there for an hour with his mouth open. (Boyf: ‘I’ve never seen him sit still for that long.’) There were some jolly small people in the audience (one mother had brought a booster seat for her daughter to sit on), but I didn’t hear a squeak from anyone the whole way through.

When the lights went up, the 9yo stretched and said, ‘Well… That was long.’ But on the way out he was talking excitedly about the singing and the way the music made the dogs bark and how Lemminkäinen was his favourite. Me, to the 6yo: ‘What was YOUR favourite bit?’ Him: ‘I just liked it all.’

Nobody wanted to go and hang around the stage door, despite me insisting that it wasn’t a proper trip to the opera unless you did a bit of fangirling. But I cheered up when the 9yo put his hand in mine. ‘I’d like to go to the opera again.’ Job done.

* More Local Opera Locally

Swanhunter’s tour continues to Alnwick, Hexham, Canterbury and Harrogate.

I spot a gap in the market and launch my own cycling magazine

April 1, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Posted in cycling | 1 Comment
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Screenshot (96)

I go to a MASTERCLASS

March 20, 2015 at 11:05 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 2 Comments
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Ha! No, not to participate. My singing progress over the last few months may have been METEORIC [cough] but, sadly, I still don’t warrant the attention of Sarah Connolly and Julius Drake.

Peak eclipse selfie

Peak eclipse selfie

Going along to watch them coaching people who DO know what they’re doing, though, was VERY appealing. I saw Sarah in the Barbican’s Poppea last year and was instantly smitten with her voice and her terrific stage presence. She was lovely in person – gracious and funny – and I was intrigued to see how she’d work with student singers. Plus, a bit of a jolly to Manchester on a Friday morning? What’s not to like?

Excitement only mounted further on the train, where we crafted pinhole cameras from business cards and projected the eclipsing sun onto the carpet. COSMIC. (This was only slightly dampened by a conversation about exactly how old we were all going to be for the next one in 2026.)

A trot down Oxford Road noting what has survived the twelve years since I worked at the University (On the Eighth Day), what is sadly no more (Amigos) and what is moribund (the Cornerhouse and the pub where I used to go salsa-ing), delivered us to the Royal Northern College of Music. I love the RNCM: you can sit in the café playing Trombone? Or Uzi? while gifted types waft around buying coffees for their ‘cellos. It feels like there’ll be a sudden blast of music and everyone will leap onto the tables and break into Hot Lunch.*

I, for one, welcome our robot overlords

We took our seats in the cosy concert hall. The audience was small but keen. Everyone moved down a bit, so Sarah didn’t have to shout. The masterclass participants were four student mezzo-sopranos and their accompanists. One by one, they sang a song (or songs) they’d chosen, then had around twenty minutes of detailed critique.

Gosh, this was fascinating. I mean, really. Sarah and Julius quickly homed in on improvements for each musician. Everyone came out of the experience sounding different. The singers (and pianists) had very different qualities, but themes emerged. Do exactly what the composer’s written on the music. Keep to the tempo. (Sarah [pointing at score]: What was going on here? Singer: Um. I was fiddling around with it. Sarah [with a smile]: DON’T.) The music is moving along, even if it’s slow; work out where it’s going, and make sure you are heading there. Don’t predict the song’s ideas for the audience; present it in such a way that they work them out for themselves.

There were some surprisingly simple adjustments. Pianists, make sure you can see the singer. Singers, stand with your feet far enough apart to form a steady base. There was a lot of emphasis on posture and good physical support for singing, and even on facial expression – one singer was told to ‘smell the roses’ for the high notes, to make them gleam.

Some points were very subtle, like the difference in feel between 6/4 and 6/8 time, and how the pianist can ‘allow herself some space’ while still keeping to the tempo. There was a lot of fine-tuning of French and German pronunciation (Sarah: Whose recording have you been listening to? Singer: Yours.).

And there were some things to try at home. Declaim the text dramatically, in time, before you sing it. Start consonants on the note, not below the note. (Sarah: I don’t THINK I do that. I probably do. Haha! Now I’ll go and check.) Add a subtle /h/ when the first word in a phrase starts with a vowel, to avoid starting on a glottal stop.

WP_004872Demonstrations from Julius and Sarah were stunning; you realised what stars were in the room with you. I was in awe of all the students. It’s one thing to perform; another to perform in front of people of stature; yet another to subject yourself to their critique in public. It felt like a tremendous privilege to be there watching these learning processes unfold. Sarah and Julius expected a lot from them, and got it; that they did this leaving everyone grinning is testament to their thoughtfulness and skill.

I left wanting to burst into SONG, but knew I’d be swiftly frogmarched from the premises by the GMP (Genuine Musicians’ Police) if I dared open my mouth. Instead, I headed for Johnny Roadhouse Music where I bought a capo for my guitar and fell in love with a drumset sized perfectly for a six-year-old. And when I got home, there was an email waiting for me with a sheaf of barbershop music attached, in time for next week’s rehearsal. As International Happiness Days go, this was pretty much up there.

* So far this has never happened, but I live in hope.

I do some community singing

March 14, 2015 at 9:35 am | Posted in mental health, music | Leave a comment
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‘It’s all about having fun!’ my teacher said. ‘Not pitch, or timing, or accuracy.’ Then, pointedly: ‘It would be really good for you.’

The previous week, I’d reclined on her figurative couch and rambled on about my musical upbringing, while she tried not to look too shocked. Apparently there’s more to making music than Getting It Right. Some people find it enjoyable! Who knew?

Despite my conviction that rabid anxiety is all that’s holding me together, she insists I need to loosen up. Enjoying singing, it turns out, is not just about hitting that high F on your own in the kitchen, to the freezer’s baritone thrum. It involves OTHER PEOPLE. So there I was in the Town Hall bar, waiting for the Women’s Community Singing Group to show up. Efficient types tried to recruit me to the Arts Festival volunteer posse. I may have agreed. I’m not sure what to.

I’ll admit I was PETRIFIED. There’s a whole lot of community in our town, and it mostly freaks me RIGHT out. While I’ll happily wave at people from the safety of the other side of the square, I feel like an alien interloper among all these people Gaily Mucking In.

There was no time to worry about the strange local customs, though, as we were OFF with the fiendish warmups. Hannah, looking in through the window, was appalled:Screenshot (91)

My kung fu background helped, here: I am no stranger to waving my limbs around and looking a bit daft in public. The verbal exercises were a different story. Try this. Count out loud, singing up and down the scale as you go. One. One two one. One two three two one*. Go up to five, then six, then seven. Quicker. Now replace every ‘three’ with a clap. Now do it in French. The teacher was laughing openly at me by the end.

no parking no music

Notation? Pah!

OK, first song. Four parts. I nipped round to join the basses. Wise decision, as it was an easy part with lots of repetition. It’s all taught by ear, so no music to read; instead, the teacher goes through each part in turn and you’re supposed to remember yours. Then you all sing together. I was smugly confident**, but it was more difficult than I expected, mostly because a) I realised halfway through that I was trying to remember everyone else’s parts as well as mine, and b) it was all in Swahili, FGS.

A cup of tea, and then a different song, with harder words. Happily, my section were mainly going, ‘Hum, bum, KULE!’ Well, I think we were. I’ve done some group singing before, but this was weirder than I remember. Maybe it was the room; I couldn’t hear myself, and I couldn’t really hear anyone else. Singing turned into a leap of faith. (I explained this to the boyf later; he said, darkly, ‘You can hear yourself if you’re doing it wrong.’) Every time I tried to listen to what everyone else was doing, I screwed my bit up. A couple of times, I was so busy watching for the cue I completely forgot to sing at all.

The next day, I tried to teach the boiz ‘Hum, bum, KULE!/ Sha-la, la, la!’ in three parts over breakfast. We got as far as the 6yo going, ‘Hum, BUM! You HUM. Out of your BUM!’ and the two of them collapsing. Boyf [horrified look]: ‘You were doing WORLD MUSIC?’

But it was fun. No, it really was. I had fun. Me, Little Miss Don’t­-Make-Me-Leave-The-House. The basses were a jolly bunch, cracking jokes and making up dance steps and coming in in the wrong places and cackling. People kept introducing themselves to me, even though I forgot all their names instantly out of shock. (I decided just to call everyone Sarah or Cathy.) It was bewilderingly friendly. ‘Are you new? Are you going to come again?’ Yes. And yes. ‘Good!’

* do, do re do, do re mi re do…

** I got 94% on a musical memory test for the Goldsmith’s earworm project. That’s NINETY-FOUR PER CENT. You’re DAMN right I’m proud.

Why you should become a FIEND

February 19, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Posted in music | 4 Comments
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Members’ booking opened today for Jonas Kaufmann’s gig at the Royal Festival Hall. The programme’s still unconfirmed, so it may be Yodelling The Classics or perhaps an Eartha Kitt retrospective, but frankly, we don’t care. This is the Greatest Living Tenor, and we want IN. Unfortunately, so does everyone else.

Being a Friend, of course, is the way to go. Pay your yearly fee, and get priority booking. The price depends on the venue. Some charge one flat sum for everyone; others propose a scary hierarchy of increasingly exclusive ranks of Friendship, from entry-level, giving you a badge and a t-shirt, up to £HE,LLO.OO, which lets you jump the toilet queue in the interval, say ‘The usual, please, Fiona darling’ to the bar staff, and lick peanut butter from the belly of your favourite performer up to three times a year.

The arts need supporting, of course, and there’s a long tradition of benefaction (if that’s a word). But what about impecunious fans, unable to cough up membership fees for every venue in which our favourites might perform? After all the Inamorati, Friends-With-Benefits, Exes-We’re-Still-On-Good-Terms-With, Slight-Infatuations, Friends-of-Friends, Facebook-Friends and People-We-Nod-To-Uncertainly-In-The-Street have had their share, there may be precious few tickets left for us to scrap over.

exam

Tension mounts as Joyce DiDonato fans struggle to remember her favourite pizza topping

That’s why I’m proposing a new category of ticket purchaser: the Fiend. Become a Fiend, and book first for all events your favourite is performing in, regardless of venue or price. That’s FIRST. Before EVERYONE else. There’s no joining fee or annual subscription: being a Fiend is entirely free of charge. All you have to do is answer a set of questions, randomly selected from an enormous database, under exam conditions. Examples for Jonas fans are given below:

  1. Jonas was amazed that his Andrea Chénier costumes lacked…
    1. Whalebone corsetry
    2. iPhone pockets
    3. Automatic poppers
  2. Jonas has described learning to use his natural tenor voice as…
    1. Like driving a truck
    2. Like growing a beard
    3. Like waiting for a bus, oh my GOODNESS, totally incredible, you know, how you wait for HOURS and then three come along at once, haha!

(Databases for other stars are still under construction; sample questions can be provided on request. The Iestyn Davies exam, for example, is expected to include advanced matching of Farrow & Ball paint shades, and the practical identification of dog hair on settees.)

The benefits to fans of the Fiend scheme are obvious, but venues will also profit; no longer will they need to employ ushers with long sticks to prod snoring audience members, or devote scant staff resources to fielding 176 phone calls a day from the same person enquiring about returns. And EVERYONE will need to buy a programme. If only to fan themselves with it.

(Thanks to @SecondNorn for the conversation that provoked this, and for her unrivalled JK knowledge.)

Go-Round: how to organise your own Hour attempt

February 8, 2015 at 5:13 pm | Posted in cycling | 3 Comments
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Everyone’s talking about the Hour record. Why not do more than just spectate? My handy guide shows you how to organise your own attempt at the Hour, using facilities that are readily available in your local area. Grab a bike and a ruler and Go-Round!

Venue. Velodromes are pricey, but there are plenty of alternatives.

Sports halls provide hot snacks and seating for spectators; a range of helpful lines are painted on the floor for guidance and with all those aerobics classes, someone’s bound to have Eye Of The Tiger in a drawer somewhere. If you want to take advantage of altitude, look for one at the top of a hill.

If you can’t persuade the dodgeballers to vacate the premises, use the swimming pool. Once you’ve sent someone with a Bronze Survival award down to pull the plug out, the tiles provide a nice smooth surface, there’s a welcome second or two of respite as you roll back down towards the deep end, and your lycra trunks are half a skinsuit already.

Indoor venues are good for keeping things predictable, but they get noisy and hot. What about the park? Outside, you face unpredictable weather, but you won’t be distracted by the smell of the spectators’ chips, and if you make a bad start, well, the sun must have been in your eyes.

91:180 on 5-20-11Why leave home at all? Move the table into the middle of the room and bingo, kitchen velodrome. The audience will have to sit on the stairs and the timekeeper in the sink, but that’s a small price to pay for the familiarity and cost-effectiveness of a home-based attempt. Family members can enjoy VIP dining while you whizz past their ears, and if you run up and down the stairs a few times afterwards then get in the bath, that’s basically a triathlon.

Come to think of it, the bath itself provides the smooth corners and steep angles that could propel you to a new record. Just remember to bunnyhop the taps.

Equipment: Go-Round regulations are less strict that those imposed by the UCI on professionals, in order to encourage participation. Any human-powered vehicle with fewer than four wheels is acceptable (vehicles with stabilisers are exempt). No motors, sails, wings, clockwork or rubber bands.

Validation: All Hour attempts require officials to measure the track, time the attempt, and do the maths. Primary school children are ideal, as these are Key Stage 1 skills, and the sound of a classful of six-year-olds chanting one-banana, two-banana should take your mind off the pain. Failing this, just put your Garmin on. You won’t make it into Cycling Weekly’s Ten Strava Maps That Look Like Guinea Pigs feature, but it’ll prevent arguments over your dad’s measuring-the-OS-Landranger-with-a-bit-of-string technique.

Publicity: You may wish to invite the local press along to write about how you are tearing up the grass and trampling the daffodils and ruining the park for law-abiding motorists and bringing house prices down and wasn’t the Tour de France last year, anyway? Alternatively, just bribe the above-mentioned schoolchildren with Percy Pigs to yell HOORAY and KEEP ‘ER LIT and NNNEAAOOOWWW YAKATAKATAKATAK and IS THAT MUMMY WELL IT LOOKS LIKE MUMMY.

Heineken Beer Advertising BikeSupport team: Friends and family may be keen to paint banners, wave pompoms and tweet using the official hashtag. But even if your only spectators are a couple of seagulls and a pre-teen practising endoes, someone to put your bike in the shed and run you a bath will make you feel loved, and a takeaway will alleviate the post-race comedown. Don’t forget to scrub the tyre marks off the bath.

I go to the GRAND to see FIGARO

January 27, 2015 at 8:22 pm | Posted in music, reviews | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
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The Rules

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro premiered in 1786, a tad late for a Baroque chick like me. But everyone said ‘Oh, Figaro, such a treat!’, and it was just up the road, and the last Local Opera I went to was a triumph, so what could possibly go wrong? The boiz dutifully signed the Riot Act in triplicate; we left them with my Mum, a stack of fish fingers and a Tintin boxset, and made a dash for the train.

Now, Leeds Grand. That’s a proper theatre. It’s gorgeous: all red and gilt and plush, with art deco lighting and beautiful Victorian tiles. As you meander along the corridor looking for the bar [cough], the curve and gentle rise give you the sensation of being on a very stately boat. And it’s the first theatre I’ve been to since schooldays that has opera glasses between the seats. WIN.

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Squeeee!

I’d done a smidgen of homework – enough to realise that the boyf singing FIGARO FIGARO FIGARO FIGARO was a cunning ploy to distract me* – but I’d never heard the opera before. Actually, of course, I had; a lot of it, at least. Figaro’s pretty much Now That’s What I Call Mozart – all those tunes you know from the radio, adverts and hold music. My Mum complains that the beauty of the music in Figaro is let down by the triteness of the story. It IS a bit of a romp, with some of my favourite operatic tropes: The Rudimentary Disguise That Somehow Fools Everyone, Even Your Husband; Chicks Playing Chaps (in this case, Chicks Playing Chaps Playing Chicks); and enough mistaken identity, misconstrued eavesdrops, sneaking in and out of rooms and trousers-round-ankles to fill a couple of Alan Ayckbourns. Everyone’s trying to sleep with/ marry/ outwit/ avoid someone, and women mostly triumph** – Figaro even has an MRA-style rant about how fiendish and untrustworthy the ladies are.

Casting this opera must be tricky: everyone needs to be a comic actor as well as look the part. The acting was consistently excellent: Helen Sherman was great as randy pageboy Cherubino, Silvia Moi’s Susanna was lovable and intelligent, and Jeremy Peaker stole all scenes as the call-a-spade-a-shovel Gardener. There were some standout musical performances: Richard Burkhard was a terrific Figaro, with an impressive sound throughout his range, and Ana Maria Labin’s delicious voice made the Countess’s arias things of utter beauty (even if some of them were about writing giggly letters). But I wondered about the matching of voices to some other parts. While Ellie Laugharne’s acting and physical type suited Barbarina perfectly, I wished her gorgeous voice had been given more to do. Quirijn de Lang made a devilish Count (you could almost hear him murmuring, ‘With MY reputation?!’), but I wasn’t sure he quite commanded the role musically***.

Unusually, there was no FANGIRLING to be done this time, so the boyf and I and Hannah and Mr Fish roamed the streets hungrily, looking for a bar that wasn’t going DOOFDOOFDOOFDOOF. The kitchen had closed at Veeno but they magicked up cheese to go with our wine, and the boyf and Mr Fish talked audaxing while Hannah and I tried to pinpoint the exact year in which everyone suddenly decided it was fine to wear patent platforms to graduation.

And the Figaro verdict? Well, I laughed a lot, but remained otherwise strangely unmoved (noteworthy, for me, as I’ve been known to cry at Charlie and Lola). The boyf pointed out that we were under the balcony, so this muffled the sound; maybe that had something to do with it (back to the Upper Circle next time, then). But I came away wondering whether I just didn’t like Mozart much. I know, I know, this is heresy. I can hear that it’s beautiful and clever and witty, but it leaves me cold. It’s a bit like George Clooney: I can see he’s terribly good-looking, and I know everyone is NUTS about him, but he just doesn’t float my boat.

* it’s from The Barber Of Seville. When I pointed this out, the boyf switched to singing AI NO CORRIDA! instead. Okay

** Hooray!

*** if I had the cash, I’d go back later in the run, as this may have been a first-night effect

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