I try to work out when to breathe

October 14, 2015 at 11:57 am | Posted in barbershop, music | 2 Comments
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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.

feel the fearIt’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.

SoScreenshot (196), 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.

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I learn some CHOREO

September 12, 2015 at 5:37 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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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.

white rosettes banner

NOT choreo, just a bit of fun in a warm-up. Spot the Distractions. Yup, that would be me

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.

labbs convention hall

Convention. IT IS COMING

I do some BARBERSHOP

May 20, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Posted in barbershop, 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.

Music, emotion, denial, and anyway, I blame Iestyn Davies

April 21, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Posted in music | 6 Comments
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Yesterday, I biked through Old Town in tears. Yeah, yeah, I know. This time it was different, though: I wasn’t weeping over the hills, the headwind, my lack of grit, my terrible urge to pack up and go home after 15 miles. I was thinking about Dad.

It’s been a troubled couple of weeks. Mostly, I blame Iestyn Davies. I don’t listen to classical music. I kid myself it bores me, but really, it terrifies me. The other week, the boyfriend went to bed early, and I sat half-watching Rule Britannia, one eye on twitter. I looked up to see Iestyn singing ‘Dove sei, amato bene?’ and suddenly I was a mess.


It’s all still raw, then. The cracks, papered over. So much I’d forgotten. I was probably fourteen. It was getting late; I left Dad in front of the telly and went up to watch the end of Madama Butterfly in bed. God, it’s heartbreaking. Dad came up the stairs to say goodnight. He wiped his eyes; I blew my nose. And we laughed. Silly sods.

His emotions ran so close to the surface. Sunsets could bring him to tears, but music did it most reliably. He’d hide in the lounge and turn the volume up: Verdi, Puccini. No interrupting.

This was me, too. Singing in The Crucifixion, dreading the approach of ‘God so loved the world’ because I was going to cry, no matter what, in front of everyone. Paired ‘cello lessons with Denise, who was measured precision and correctness where I was all mad emotion and fluffed intervals.

But for Dad, joy in a beautiful performance had a flipside. That sharp intake of breath at a bum note. Hilariously accurate pisstakes of operatic overindulgences. Watching New Faces: ‘All he’s got is cheek.’ ‘She’s just a belter.’ Tuning, timing, interpretation, criticism. I used to wait until he was out to practise, because I couldn’t bear to murder the music he loved. Bach, Elgar, Saint-Saëns.gary larson roger screws up

And I couldn’t be good enough, never mind for him, but for myself. I stopped playing, because the fear of failure, of screwing up, far outweighed the joy. And I stopped listening, too; it was all just too much.

Dad had a folderful of skits. Good stuff. I put on one of his tiny plays at school, and we won a prize. I don’t know what happened to it all; I didn’t realise that after a funeral, stuff just gets thrown away. He was going to send his writing to Punch, some day, soon, when he’d just tidied it up a bit. It never left the house. He thought the world would be a harsh critic, as harsh as he was; he couldn’t expose himself to it. And I know I don’t want to be like this.

My boys are learning the piano. I bash out boogaloo riffs, worked out by ear. ‘That’s really GOOD, Mummy!’ I blow the dust off my ‘cello and scrape through TV themes. Someone dares me to post them on audioboo; I do it (after a couple of glasses of red), and I’m taken aback that people don’t go, ‘Eeeurgh! Stop it!’ but instead say, ‘How great to be able to do that.’
gareth malone tweet

So I’m trying to love the fear. It’s a bit of a work in progress. Like the joke about the stubborn understains being all that’s holding your pants together, I’ve grown accustomed to the tension: the conviction that if I relax, it will all come out – love, terror, pain, god knows what else – and where will it stop? So, small steps. This week, playing bad boogaloo. Next week, digging out the Elgar. Listening to The Messiah, and letting myself bawl uncontrollably, then stumbling back from the edge.

Because it’s not just music, of course. All those dreams, procrastinated over, because I’m paralysed with fear that I won’t be good enough. If I can do it with music, will it transfer? Embrace the emotion, feel it, let it rip me up, then piece myself back together. I’m going to try. No, really, I am.

Me, Dad, Grandad. Yes, that is what you think, in that glass

Me, Dad, Grandad. Yes, that IS what you think, in that glass

(The best bad boogaloo:)

Harassment: it’s just like riding a bike

April 4, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Posted in cycling | 18 Comments
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This morning, this video by the Guardian caused a bit of a stir. If you can’t/ won’t/ don’t want to watch it, it involves a young female actor accosting various men, asking them if they want to come home with her, if they wax, if they’re gay, and shouting ‘get your arses out!’ lewdly at builders.

builders screencap

While this is fun, on some level, it doesn’t really ‘turn the tables’ as the video’s makers suggest. The reason for this is clear: women threatening or demeaning men is not scary or even particularly offensive. As @smaryka points out,

The reason (some) men make sexist comments is not to ‘flatter’ women, or to make them laugh, or even, really, to indicate sexual interest in them. It’s about power. Because men have the physical ability to overcome women, to do them real harm, women can’t just ignore these comments. They carry weight. They’re a constant reminder that we are not men’s equals. As 21st century women, we may have high-flying careers, terrific relationships, fulfilling sex lives. We have control in all sorts of meaningful ways that were unavailable to previous generations. But men still have power over us, and every now and then, it suits some of them to remind us of this.

I understand if you can’t imagine what this is like. Even lovely, right-thinking, educated, feminist-leaning men find it difficult. Surely things aren’t that bad? Surely we shouldn’t take it seriously? Maybe if we just laughed, or thought up a cheeky reply? So here’s an analogy you might understand: It’s a bit like cycling.

You know when you’re riding along, minding your own business, and someone passes you so closely they could shave your legs for you? And then looks surprised when you scream at them? This is builders shouting at you, asking you if you take it up the arse.

You know that feeling of looking over your shoulder and seeing a huge truck coming up behind, and thinking, he might swing wide, but he might not? This is walking along a road, towards a group of lads coming the other way.

You know when you see someone about to pull out from a side road, and you lock eyes with them, and they definitely see you, and they pull out anyway? This is people you know, people you thought were OK, saying and doing things that make you want to weep.

You know when you’re advised to stay off main roads because they’re too dangerous, and you think, ‘Isn’t it up to all the motorists to try not to kill me, not up to me to keep out of their way?’ This is women being advised not to wear short skirts, not to drink too much, not to walk home alone.

You know when someone gets knocked off, by a motorist who was obviously in the wrong, and the motorist gets let off? And the newspaper reports focus on how the cyclist should have been wearing a helmet and hi-viz? This is what women know they’ll face if they accuse a man of rape.

This is what it’s like. Except for cyclists, it stops when they get off their bikes.

Why crushes are perfectly OK and not at all worrying

February 8, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Posted in affairs of the heart | 9 Comments
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Who’s your crush? Go on. You can tell me.

If you won’t, it’s probably because you’re suffering from a) guilt b) fear or c) shame*. Lie on the couch. I’ll address these in turn.

Guilt. There’s plenty of guilt associated with crushes, not least because you should be working instead of scrolling through whatareyouwearingBenedict.tumblr.com and cooking up elaborate fantasies about meeting John Simm ENTIRELY by chance in the station pub in Huddersfield. Your partner’s getting grumpy at the little involuntary moans you emit while watching House, and at being dragged off to yet another book signing, even with the promise of Pizza Express afterwards. So you feel guilty.

Fear. This chap thinks you’re a stalker if you have a crush, and you’re a sad sack who should get a life. What if everyone else thinks that, too? What if the crushee finds out, and gets a restraining order? Most importantly, what if everyone starts pointing and laughing when you talk to her/ him? You fear being found out.

Shame. Aren’t you a bit old for signed photos and giggling? We think of crushes as a teenage thing, and yes, some of us ARE eternally stuck at that point in development where we were convinced no-one was going to fancy us back EVER, and spent our daTelephone Cordys scribbling feverishly in diaries and trying to get the phone extension to stretch into our bedroom so we could shut the door and discuss what he meant when he said ‘OK, see you’, what did ‘see’ really mean, did it mean he liked us or was he just being polite, or was he playing with us because he KNEW, or what? And however much we kidded ourselves we wanted something to happen, we were relieved when it didn’t, because we could stay safe from the scary mess of a real relationship. Now we’re grown-ups, we’re supposed to put all this behind us. We read edifying literature and watch Newsnight and listen to classical music and do Proper Relationships. So we’re ashamed of our crushes.

These are thinking errors.

Guilt: As long as you’re not driving obsessively round your crush’s training routes in the hope (s)he’ll have a mechanical in a hailstorm and need a lift, you’re not hurting anyone. And everyone needs a screen break.

Fear: Not only are most of us far too lazy to be effective stalkers, we HAVE lives and families and jobs and stuff. We know the difference between fantasy and reality, thanks very much, and frankly fantasy is often MUCH better, so why would we want to conflate the two?

Shame: Relax. It’s not really about him/ her, is it. George Clooney said to Benedict Cumberbatch on the subject of how to deal with half the internet wanting to sleep with him, ‘It’s so much about projection.’ (I’ll just give you a moment to ponder George and Benedict having a little heart-to-heart. Let me know when you’ve finished.) We don’t know George, or Benedict, or John Simm. They probably cut their toenails into the sink, and whine about taking the rubbish out, and talk over the questions in University Challenge. A little fantasy about how we’d like them to be, and how we’d like to be, passes the time on a rainy afternoon, and exercises the brain more than watching Bargain Hunt. Moreover, crushes can serve important purposes.

The important purposes of crushes

1. Bonding. This might be the most important purpose of all. Ever since I prowled the school with my best friend at lunchtime looking for that mod in the sixth form, I’ve built friendships around shared secrets. In a minute, I’m going to DM someone in mock agony about a crush who’s mysterioiphonefaketextusly stopped talking to me. Does he suspect something? Are all his mates elbowing him in the ribs and sniggering? Is there any way I could reasonably entice him to the station pub in Huddersfield? And she’ll DM me back about how she’s gone off her crush, no, really, she has, since he said that thing about you-know-who, it’s OVAH, oh, but did you see that picture of him on the turbo, with his arms and everything?

2. Distraction. Being an adult can be pretty terrifying. It’s not just about avoiding doing your expenses; some of my most vivid and absorbing crushes have coincided with tough times. Trying to get pregnant. Feeling isolated and incompetent with a tiny baby. Hating my job. Off work with stress, I disappeared into a crush for a couple of months; I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anyone face-to-face, but I had real and imaginary conversations with him. (OK, the imaginary stuff wasn’t just conversations. You know. Come on. It’s pre-watershed.) Not having to deal with life for a bit while you have what @VecchioJo calls ‘a proper think’ about your crush gives your brain room to decompress a little. And when the crisis passes, often the crush does, too.

Thor Hushovd3. Aspiration. Think about mancrushes: avowedly heterosexual men suddenly going a bit silly at the sight of Thor Hushovd. There are many possible explanations, but a simple one is that admiration takes different forms, and it can be hard to work out which form someone evokes in us. Do we want to bang them, befriend them, or be them? (Channel 5 can have that one, for free.) I have mild crushes on an array of brilliant writers. (They mostly make me weep with laughter, too; this has long been an effective way to get me into bed.) I type obscure jokes, and sweat, waiting to see if they’re reciprocated. I live in hope that they’ll read my writing and laugh. One insomniac night, it struck me that they were, simply, what I wanted to be**; if I could imagine their approval, maybe this meant my dream of doing something similar wasn’t completely unattainable after all.

So I’m not ready to give my crushes up, just yet. When my life is sorted out and I’ve achieved my dreams and I have perfect confidence and an unshakeable sense of myself, then I’ll give up. Probably. At least, until they bring back Green Wing. Julian Rhind-Tutt in Green Wing

* or d) you genuinely don’t have one, which is too weird to contemplate

** I know this is crashingly obvious, but it came as a blinding insight to me. Call me slow.

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