Tags: audience participation, Christmas, downton abbey, humour, interactive, special
Tags: bicycle, biking, commuting, cycling, humour, inventions, irritations
Cycling Weekly’s Worst Cycling Inventions were all a bit foreign to me. My cycling’s firmly at the ‘enthusiastic but a bit rubbish’ end of the spectrum, so I’ve felt no need for Spinaci bar extensions or Spinergy wheels (although my first commuter bike did feature Biopace rings; it’s nice to think there’s a reason I was so slow). However, cycling is RIFE with other rubbish things. Here’s my list of the REAL worst cycling inventions.
1. Pannier fixings with those stupid elastic hooks. How many hours I wasted fiddling with these, tightening them, loosening them, snapping my fingers on them, swearing, then losing them when I took the panniers off, while the Manchester rain beat down upon me and local dogs revved themselves up, I don’t know. A lot.
2. Gel seat covers. Designed to give terrible saddles a momentary illusion of comfort, all they’re really good for is carefully storing the rain you avoid while you’re at work and timed-releasing it all over your arse on the way home.
3. Mini LED lights. After a lifetime of lugging battery lights around in case you get invited out for a drink, these look like THE ANSWER. So teeny! So cute! So light! So bright! Just pop them in your pocket! Except they don’t work in the cold. Or in the rain. And they go out suddenly if you go over a bump, and don’t tell you. And when you take them off to give them technical taps, you drop the elastic things in a puddle.
4. Single-sided pedals. As if getting clipped back in while going uphill wasn’t difficult enough already.
5. Tyres that are physically impossible to get back onto the rims if you’re a woman. A gent once stopped, kindly, as I cursed and wept over a flat. He must have been seventy. He offered to help. I let him.
Tags: baking, bespoke, cooking, french, individual, macarons, macaroons, masterclass, medici macarons, one-to-one, personalised, tuition
Lynne arrived with two bags full of gear and a shiny chromed food-mixer under her arm. She’s a self-taught macaronier – ‘I just thought, they’re not going to beat me’ – and Medici Macarons specialises in weddings, creating bespoke towers delicately flavoured and coloured with all-natural ingredients. Her macarons are the most unfathomably delicious things I’ve ever tasted, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my chum: I’ve eaten many others, and none are a patch on Lynne’s. Now she’s offering one-to-one macaron tuition. I couldn’t have been more excited to have her in my kitchen. If Paul Hollywood had shown up, I’d’ve been all, ‘Sorry, but I’m just a bit busy; could you come back?’
She’d sent me a list of instructions in advance, so I’d stocked up on ingredients and dug out bits of equipment. She was delighted that I had a milk pan (‘You’d be surprised how many people haven’t’) and declared my ancient, chipped, scratched Mason & Cash mixing bowl ‘perfect’ (‘You can’t do it a in plastic bowl’).
Oh, you can’t be making macarons with any old tat. These exquisite, otherworldy mouthfuls demand precision and perfection at every step. Of course, like the divas they are, they have their contradictions: old eggs are better than fresh ones, and the finished macarons like to snooze in the fridge for a couple of days to mature before you eat them. But still. It’s not a job for those who like checking twitter while they’re cooking.
We got settled in my kitchen. Lynne teaches people in their homes, because ovens are unpredictable beasts, and what works in one may fail in another. We had a cup of tea, and I wondered if my oven would be up to the task. Then it was on with the weighing and mixing and heating and beating.
I’d love to give you a detailed breakdown of everything we did, but, well, this is why I’m not a cookery blogger. Despite macarons having only three main ingredients, there are an AWFUL lot of stages. Mostly, this is because eggs are Nature’s multitool; the whites go into the macaron shells in two different states, while the yolks make the lemon curd for the filling. If you’re the geeky type of baker, making macarons is DEFINITELY for you. The oven must be EXACTLY the right temperature. The sugar syrup can’t overheat by a SINGLE degree. The batter has to have PRECISELY the right consistency. Lynne is the perfect teacher, jolly and strict in equal measure; even flighty types like me know they’re in good hands.
There were some unexpectedly fun bits in amongst the worrying about whether the sugar syrup was crystallising and whether the batter was over-whipped and whether the shells were going to come out hollow. I really enjoyed piping the macarons onto the sheets, following the printed guide underneath. There’s also a great bit where you drop the tray of newly-piped lovelies onto the work surface with a CRASH, to encourage any trapped air to come to the surface. Then you get a cocktail stick and prick the tiny bubbles before the macarons go in the oven, a process which can become completely obsessive (Lynne likened it to picking spots, which brought me back to reality with a thud).
I’m immensely proud to say my oven proved itself worthy, turning out two trays of really-not-at-all-bad macaron shells. We washed up and had another cup of tea, and Lynne told me how to make lemon curd, which I later piped into the middle of a tiny ring of buttercream for her trademark ‘secret centres’. About half of the finished product disappeared into my family’s gullets before they’d had a SNIFF of the fridge. Boyf: They are SUBLIME. 7yo [mournfully]: I wish I could have another one.
The take-home message from the day is that macarons require a) precision b) concentration c) practice. My approach to cooking is generally fairly slapdash: I’m not used to weighing things out to the gram, or putting them back in the oven for another thirty seconds. But I just might be hooked. I’m off to google food mixers. Stay out of the fridge while I’m gone, okay?
Tags: barbershop, chorus, convention, doubt, fear, ladies, singing, strategies, terror, women
If you watch The Westminster Chorus doing Mardi Gras Parade, there’s a bit near the beginning where the chorus sings, without stopping, moving through different chords, for thirty seconds. I know Farinelli could hold a note for over a minute, but he wasn’t leaping around waving flags and doing somersaults at the same time. Golly.
Of course, now I know that this is mostly smoke and mirrors. You take a breath when you need one. As long as it’s not where Sally says ‘Absolutely NOBODY can take a breath there’, and as long as the other basses don’t all take a breath at the same time, and as long as you don’t LOOK like you’re taking a breath, and as long as we can’t hear you come back in with the note, it’s fine. So I’ve got this figured out, now. Mostly. Breathing while doing choreo has required a few adjustments so I don’t go cross-eyed and faint, but I’m getting there.
It’s the normal, day-to-day, in-and-out type of breathing that’s become problematic. Between hands and feet, I’ve now got enough digits to count the days until Convention. There are even a few left over. Predictably, this is resulting in hyperventilation and the occasional coughing fit.
So for now, my toes are staying firmly in my socks. I’ve got my boots on, too. And my gloves. It’s not that I’m in denial or anything. It’s just that there’s such a lot to worry about.
Seasoned chorus members are telling me I will be terrific, and I mustn’t let the doubt in. As someone who normally approaches challenges with the conviction that everything is bound to go horribly wrong, I have trouble with Positive Thinking. Motivational slogans leave me cold. If people tell me I am fabulous, I laugh and assume they’ve got me mixed up with someone else.
So, as per Sally’s inestimable wisdom, I’m approaching the whole thing like eating an elephant: a bit at a time. Last week, I thought about stage makeup (well, Liz and I drank a fair amount of wine and admired each other’s brushes and decided we needed to wear our fake lashes to rehearsal, just to make sure we could still see Sally from behind them). Today, I’m mostly worrying about vowels, and grins. Tomorrow, I’ll be practising walking backwards in heels.
Sometimes, the stars align themselves just so, and I manage to think about more than one thing at once. At the last rehearsal, I remembered to do something with my face AND my body at the same time. Then Sally gave us some singing points, and it all went to pot again. The tears came, right there on the risers, because I love this so much, and I love the people so much; I can’t bear the thought of letting everyone down.
The chorus, in their usual fashion, are rallying round, giving me bear hugs and tissues, and writing me detailed descriptions of EXACTLY what will happen in the performance, and sharing their mental-pretzel tips on how to turn the terror into a productive force. They say no-one in the little audiences we’ve sung to can tell who the newbies are. I try to believe. I practise beaming at myself in the mirror, telling myself: You’ve worked for this. You deserve to be here. It will be amazing, and you’ll be a part of it.
Eventually, I just decide that it’s easier if I pretend to be someone else. Someone brimming with confidence, skill and natural awesomeness. I visualise the curtains opening to bright lights and two thousand people’s applause. And I channel Beyoncé.
Tags: castrati, classical, countertenors, duke of york's, fangirling, farinelli, iestyn davies, mark rylance, music, opera, theatre
Well, I wouldn’t want to share a stage with Mark Rylance. It must be like having Hemingway show up to your creative writing class. However good you are, his performance is so subtle, so natural, so nuanced, it makes everyone else look like they’re trying a bit hard.
I often feel this way about Iestyn Davies, too, so it was a rare treat to have both these luminaries under the same roof. The original run of Farinelli and the King, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare’s Globe, sold out in approximately three seconds, so I didn’t get to see it. But The Duke of York’s theatre is a good alternative venue; warm, informal-feeling and intimate under candlelight, and small enough that I didn’t need my James Bond-style opera glasses, even peering from the Upper Circle. I’d upgraded us at the last minute to a box – I KNOW – and Mum and I arrived to find the Ambassador Experience awaiting us. Gosh. I’m absolutely SURE the free cava did not influence my appreciation of the production in ANY way – I am a professional, after all – but it certainly got us in the mood for this sensitive, witty and absorbing play.
You’ve probably read 673 reviews of it by now, so I won’t go over the plot again. But it’s a story that resonated for me: the healing power of music, the experience of being transported by a magical voice. I loved the idea that the King and Farinelli were both lost in lives they hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t control. Mum wasn’t sure about the BOGOF Farinelli – ‘Iestyn definitely could’ve acted the whole thing!’ – but I thought it worked well: the confident, assured performer and his diffident, boyish twin. When Farinelli and Carlo finally parted, it was understated and moving.
The story developed believably with only a couple of clunky moments – ‘But the Pope doesn’t approve of your scientific ideas!’ – and there were lovely portrayals of the European opera scene, and the life of stardom and adoration Farinelli had left behind. Some scenes were partly onstage and partly in the auditorium, and the audience were cheerfully roped into bits of the action: hints of the experience you might’ve had if you’d gone to the theatre in the 18th century.
The music was the real star of the show, though. The whole place sat perfectly still when Iestyn sang. I thought about the very first time I heard him, and how I found tears running down my face; and I hoped everyone else was experiencing that, too. The arias reflected the range of Farinelli’s skills – from the coloratura pyrotechnics of Venti, turbini to the clear poignancy of Lascia ch’io pianga – and the tiny orchestra, costumed and bewigged and acting along, were the perfect match. It was so spellbinding, that sometimes it felt odd when the other characters went, ‘Well, anyway, as we were saying…’ rather than weeping, fainting, or throwing knickers. But still. It was the King that mattered, and it was completely credible that this bewitching voice could have saved him.
- Farinelli and the King runs until December 5. Day tickets are available for sold-out performances. You’ll need to queue. It’s worth it.
Tags: channel 4, grand designs, humour, is it still on, it's still on isn't it, kevin mccloud
Well, it’s a sitting duck, isn’t it. But anyway. I celebrate the return of everybody’s favourite unfavourite.
Tags: audience, behaviour, classical, concert, etiquette, humour, music, opinion, rules
I got all excited when I saw Gillian Moore’s Sinfini piece, Classical etiquette: the new rules. Finally! I thought. Someone arguing that people shouldn’t be keelhauled for sneezing in a quiet bit! Sadly, Moore’s new rules are basically the old ones, with a bit of ‘Calm down, everybody!’ attached.
Golly, classical music fans like telling each other how to behave*. When you attend a gig, know this: your fellow audience members are looking down on you for all sorts of human failings. Don’t decide you’re too hot in the middle of a piece, and try to take your jumper off; but don’t fall asleep because you’ve had a long day and it’s hot and you don’t dare to take your jumper off, in case you snore. Don’t have a cold, even in the depths of winter, in case you cough; never mind that you paid £50 for your seat and booked your train ticket and accommodation MONTHS ago and have been looking forward to this all year. Do know all the pieces in advance so that you know EXACTLY when it is safe to clap, but don’t follow the score, because that’s showing off. If you’re not sure when to clap, don’t clap until someone else has; but if you DO know where to clap, don’t clap too early, and never shout WOO! because that’s just attention-seeking, and absolutely DON’T stand up to clap, because others might not agree with you that the performance was so terrific it needs a standing ovation. And don’t take your kids, even if you think they might like it, because they might swing their legs in the wrong rhythm, and anyway it’s just smug parenting. And don’t forget to adjust your hearing aid.
I understand all this. I really do. I know that classical music isn’t amplified and you need to shut up in order to hear it properly. I get that performances will differ in subtle ways and you need to pay attention in order to pick these up and enjoy them. But some research suggests that coughing may indicate a lack of engagement, rather than a wilful attempt to spoil everyone else’s fun. Could people be allowed to engage with what’s going on a bit more?
I sometimes think I was born at the wrong time. Mozart-era concerts sound like a lot of fun. Apparently everyone was rowdily engaged, shushing each other in the quiet bits, applauding, yelling ‘da capo!’, chatting and laughing, and quite possibly chucking things if they didn’t approve. People got into fights over their favourite performers. It all sounds right up my street.
When I listen to music at home, I sing along, talk over the bits I don’t find that interesting, crank up the best bits and lie on the carpet. I nudge anyone who’s in the room and go ‘No, listen! I love this bit!’ I’ve been to classical concerts where I wanted to clap and whistle when I recognised the opening bars of my favourite song, like I would at a rock gig.
And it’s not all about me. I sometimes feel like we’re missing something else, something bigger, that we could be experiencing if we stopped looking on our fellow concertgoers as an irritation, and started taking notice of them. What would it be like if we tried to enjoy being in a room with a lot of other people, experiencing the music as a group, rather than all sitting in our individual seats feeling aggrieved that the chap next to us is manspreading and the woman in front is so ridiculously tall and trying in vain to pretend that Iestyn Davies is singing to us ALONE in our living room for our personal delight (however brilliant that sounds)? What if we weren’t scared to react to what was going on – if we turned to our neighbours and grinned, got to our feet and moved around, sang along and danced and interacted with each other? Maybe went for a beer in the bits we didn’t like, and worked our way to the front for our favourites?
Ah, you say, knowingly. It’ll never work. Tom Morris came a cropper last year with his no-rules approach to audience engagement at the Bristol Alternative Proms. With no etiquette to stifle them, the audience simply took the policing of other people’s behaviour into their own hands, forcibly ejecting a chap who tried to crowdsurf in the Messiah’s moshpit.
But this stems from the unhappy mixing of people who want to loosen up a bit, and people who don’t. Glyndebourne has separate performances for the under-30s. I think we need Performances for the Under-Disciplined. Then all the people who want to shoulder-poke can go to regular performances and tut loudly at each other’s programme-page-turning, and the rest of us can have some fun. I’ll bring the plonk, if you bring the sarnies.
* It’s not just classical audiences, of course. The ‘STFU’ above is in the Jazz Cafe, and even popular music has its shushers.
Tags: 2015, barbershop, beginner, choreo, choreography, chorus, distractions, fear, LABBS, ladies, music, rehearsal, singing, terror, white rosettes, women
The White Rosettes, not content with being utterly marvellous musicians and the loveliest people on the planet, are also pretty nippy on their feet. My friend Sarah: “I can’t believe you have to do all those MOVES as well as singing!” Me: “Not moves. CHOREO.”
Choreography is VERY important for barbershop choruses. The 220-page Barbershop Harmony Society Contest And Judging Handbook defines Presentation as ‘communication via the transformation of a song into an entertaining experience for an audience.’ The judging criteria talk about ‘believability’ and singing ‘from the heart’ and creating ‘rapport with the audience’. (You aren’t actually allowed to look at the audience most of the time – glancing away from the director is called ‘eyeballing’ and is a Distraction for the judges, which loses you points.) You create this connection with your audience by a) picking a song you can sing well b) singing it well and c) using your faces and bodies to reinforce and amplify the emotions of the song.
Some songs need delicate handling. You really can bring people to tears by standing and singing, not just beautifully, but like you mean it. But others cry out for a bit of The Treatment. Done well, choreography turns a good performance into a showstopper. Here the Rosettes are, doing Cruella De Vil:
And while you’re here, you should have a look at The Westminster Chorus doing Mardi Gras Parade:
It’s the kind of thing that makes sane people suddenly remember an urgent appointment at the other end of the country. Something about being on the risers warps your judgement, though. Perhaps it’s the altitude. You find yourself going, “Cartwheels? Of course. And I can hide those rabbits up my jumper, no bother.”
It’s the end of August. LABBS Convention, the big competition for British ladies’ barbershop choruses, is a suddenly-very-countable eight weeks away. The songs I was struggling to learn a few weeks ago are now embedded in my brain. I know my bums from my dums, and my oohs from my ohs. In fact, it’s all so automatised that Sally can sing any bit of the lead line and I can come in with the bass, without even thinking. This would be kind of impressive, if I didn’t have so much else to worry about. You know the rubbing-your-stomach-and-patting-your-head thing? Try rubbing your stomach and patting your head while reciting key quotations from Hamlet, converting cake mix ingredients for an 8” round tin into a 9” square one in your head, and doing the Charleston. Backwards. In heels. Ginger Rogers, you didn’t know the half of it.
There’s a palpable sense of ‘Right, then!’ in the air. As someone with a background in dodgy amateur dramatics and terrible orchestral playing, I’ve done a fair bit of rehearsing in my time, but I’ve never experienced anything LIKE the pace and intensity of these White Rosettes rehearsals. It’s terrifying and exhilarating and completely exhausting.
Even with seventy-something of us on the risers, there’s nowhere to hide. Sally sees everything. She throws out little reminders to people between takes: “Hands lower down. Right, not left. It’s up in the air, not in front of your face.” Predictably, she catches my eye just as I smack Hannah round the chops. Damn. Damn. Sally: “Welcome back, everyone who’s been on holiday. I Hope You’ve Had A Nice Time.” She’s kind of joking. We laugh, shiftily. It’s not just me looking a bit scared.
Jane’s answering questions. “The first time, the arm goes down behind the person in front of you. The next time, it goes between the two people in front.” Ah. Okay. I put my arm out and down. If I stretch a tiny bit, I can reach the singers two rows forward. I wonder if this is a Distraction I’ll get marked down for (‘Please address the problem of freakily long limbs on the fourth row’), or whether it can be put to use in some Mr Tickle-themed comedy moment.
Sally’s cracking the whip. “LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME KEEP LOOKING AT ME I DON’T CARE IF YOU FALL OFF THE RISERS DON’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF ME.”
Jane, unperturbed, is adding new bits. “Right, do this, starting on the left. Hmm. Now do it the other way round. Okay, now do it the first way again.” She videos us. I immediately do absolutely everything wrong.
Now we’re going through a different song. YES. I’ve been practising this one at home. BRING IT ON. Right. All good so far. Yes, that’s right. Oh. That move. Oh yeah. Too late. Argh. Sally: “Don’t go on autopilot. NEVER go on autopilot.”
Yup. My mistakes come when I allow myself a nanosecond to think, “I got that RIGHT!” I spiral gloomily into meta-meta-meta-awareness, trying to stop myself worrying about trying to stop myself critiquing my own performance as I go along.
In the break, Karen must have noticed my air of abject terror. “It’ll come together. It always comes together.”
Back at home, I watch tonight’s video. In between absently thinking, “Gosh, I’m so ridiculously tall,” it hits me how Rachel is right when she says every single person matters. We’ve all got our homework to do, and our small but crucial contribution to make. And when we all get it right, it gathers you up and sweeps you along, and it’s completely thrilling to watch.
I run through it in my socks in the kitchen, cracking my head on a light fitting and knocking over a bottle of wine. But the final chord makes me well up every time. Blimey. This is going to be AWESOME.
Tags: desperation, distraction techniques, freelancing, humour, I'm hopeless without a deadline, procrastination, self-sabotage, writing
Tags: art, bronte parsonage museum, bronte sisters, bronte society, dance, diane howse, exhibition, haworth, music, review
It’s easy to see how people become obsessed with the Brontës. The interweaving of their short, strict lives, their intense fictional worlds, and the unforgiving landscape they inhabited is heady. This small exhibition by Diane Howse and collaborators encourages these kinds of connections, and plays with them. Quoting from the brochure, The Silent Wild ‘… takes as its starting point the written word, and how silent shapes on a page have the power to conjure whole worlds of sound, noise and commotion.’
Situated in the Brontë Parsonage, the exhibition interacts with the existing layout. The Parsonage is part museum, part reconstruction. The rooms are decorated with historically-accurate papers and paints, and are largely set up as they were in the time the family lived there. Cases display Brontë relics – Charlotte’s wedding dress, a first edition of Shirley – alongside Mr Brontë’s piano, the children’s bed, and Branwell’s portraits of his sisters.
The effect is to pull you in and out of the Brontës’ world, real and imagined, and their stories, factual and invented. The exhibition is focused around sound: the sounds of words themselves, and the sounds the Brontës might have been surrounded by – the tick of a clock, the tinkle of a teaspoon on a china saucer.
Some exhibits abstract tiny elements from the writings of the sisters – single words (silent), phrases (not a fluttering lark or linnet), or quotations. If your impression of Wuthering Heights is all doom and gloom, you might be surprised to learn that giggle, laugh and chatter feature in it, alongside shriek, howl and wail. It’s not over-explained, this exhibition, which I liked; I came away chewing over thin murmurs of life, wondering if this was about the potential of written words, the Brontës’ own brittle existence, or the resilience of their writings.
It’s easy to become immersed in brooding over these driven, gifted women and their fierce lives. The best thing about this exhibition is it takes us out of this inward spiral, and pushes us to think about bigger things. The dance piece, The Silent Wild, does this beautifully. Set to music constructed from found sounds in the Parsonage and readings of the Brontës’ works in many languages, the dancer starts on a floor plan of the Parsonage’s small dining room, reproduced in the enormous empty space of Salts Mill. His props are a dining table and chair, like those in the Parsonage. This is a special dining table, of course, as it’s the place where Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and other works were written. The dancer moves around, testing his physicality against these hard surfaces, exploring their affordances; small movements give a sense of internal focus, of potential. He moves outwards and inwards, under the table then outside the limits of the room: claustrophobic, then agoraphobic. To a rising cacophony of unknown languages, he pirouettes over and over, ending up with a crash under the table again. The table supports him, launches him into the world, then protects him again.
I found myself pondering what we know, and what we imagine. The museum hints that we can over-romanticise the Brontës’ lives; for example, although many people assume they didn’t travel, one exhibit is a trunk used by the sisters on trips to London, Ireland and Brussels. It wasn’t quite the claustrophobic, intense life we imagine. The house is small, and the weight of the tragedies it saw hangs heavy. But it’s also possible to imagine it as a refuge from the heave and thrust of life; there’s a quotation from Mr Bronte on how his little family comforted him, and brought him happiness after the death of his wife. It’s easy to focus on the heartbreak, but there’s life and potential here too.
- The Silent Wild continues at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, until 28th September 2015.