Grace Notes: Being plunged into the depths of Jazz solos!

In your third year at Trinity Laban, you can choose two classes to go towards your end of year mark. I decided to do arranging as one and jazz as the other . I knew nothing about jazz and took it because I liked the sound and wanted to know more. Although I find the lessons very hard I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about how jazz pieces are structured in terms of chords. This has also helped with my Arranging course.

One of the jazz assessments was to choose a solo and then transcribe and play it from memory. I chose ‘Tiny’s Tempo’ by Charlie Parker and I used the 3rd take. I like this solo because it is  upbeat and the saxophone improvisation wasn’t too unrealistic to play on the violin. We were instructed to learn the head  (the unison tune at the start) and then the solo so you had approximately 3 choruses (all 12 bars long).

To aid with the transcription I used a computer program called ‘Transcribe!’ which allows you to slow down the track to hear all the notes more clearly (without altering the pitch). I started by writing out a rough version and then re-wrote it, to make the rhythms more accurate. Then I had to learn it from memory. Memorising isn’t really my strong point, so this was the most challenging task for me.

I started by taking small sections  and playing them slowly along with the recording, repeating over and over. Gradually I made the sections longer and sped them up. By the end I could play it up to speed and without any music. This was a huge achievement for me, as I managed to memorise the piece in only a week and it wasn’t a standard piece of violin music, making it more awkward to play (as saxophones don’t have to deal with string crossings, position changes, a fixed low G…).

I think the assessment went alright. Nerves got the better of me at first, and I ‘fell off’ the recording, but the second time through I got it. After doing this I’m more comfortable with memorising and I’ve been practicing small memory exercises. If you ever have trouble memorising I’d recommend doing this. Like anything, memory improves with practice so if you aim to learn a few bits from memory (script, poetry, revision, music etc…) every week, you’ll gradually build up the skill to do it quickly and efficiently.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the above track and this blog. Hopefully if you need to memorise anything, the above technique might work for you too.

Grace Notes: Music of the week – A song signalling the end of our journey round Middle Earth

Ever since I was a young child I have loved ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ . I remember my dad reading them to me (yes, the whole of LOTR!) and falling in love with that world (even though I spent a large portion of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ thinking Merry was a girl…). I’ve grown up with all 3 of the LOTR films coming out, and soon the third and final Hobbit film will come out, ending the cinematic adventure.

The final film ‘The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies’ is in cinemas on December 12th, and as a taster the end song has been released. It is sung and co-written by Billy Boyd (who plays Pippin in LOTR) and he said that ‘We focused on not just the final instalment but moreso on this 10-year epic adventure. A song to sum up the six movies’. I think the song does exactly that. I particularly like the fact that Boyd has sung the song because he was an integral part of the LOTR trilogy and I feel that this ties them together with another thread.

After listening to the song I agree with what Boyd says. There is the quiet and slightly ominous introduction and then the swelling strings that add so much to the soundtracks to the entire film (very ‘elvish’ in my head). The song isn’t loud and brash, but feels like a fitting end to the 10 years we have journeyed through Middle Earth. It also has parallels with ‘Into the West’ which closes ‘The Return of the King’ and I like the symmetry there. Both talk about journeys, saying goodbye and moving on.

I feel this song allows the audience to say a fond farewell to the land which has brought us so many adventures following Bilbo and the Dwarfs, and then Frodo and the Fellowship. I’ll miss it all for sure.

Grace Notes: Travelling back in time to a harpsichord and lute-filled weekend!

Last week a huge annual event took place in and around the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College (which houses Trinity Laban and Greenwich University). Yes, the Early Music Festival had returned. Once again, I was stewarding on the main desk and in the Chapel for some of the concerts. I always enjoy this three day festival because all of the staff are lovely and most of the customers are too. The EMF includes exhibitors (where you can buy anything from sheet music, to a clavichord, to an electric recorder), makers demonstrations and concerts (normally 3 or 4 a day in various locations). It’s very action-packed and there is always something going on.

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(I do not own this photo)

I’m lucky that as a student, I can work at this festival and get paid to see so many interesting exhibits and concerts. Every year we always grumble that the hours are long, it’s going to be cold and can we really cope with any more Baroque bagpipes. But, every year we enjoy seeing some of the same faces from previous years and watching some incredible performances. One of those moments was the final concert. It was Brecon Baroque, an ensemble created by the phenomenal baroque violinist Rachel Podger. They played a program of Bach, including Brandenburg 5 and some pieces  from ‘A Musical Offering’. I had never heard Bach played with such life and vigour, and this performance  gave me a new appreciation for the music. It’s going to help me change the way I play and practice the Bach solo sonata I am currently learning.

(This is not a recording from the concert, just an example of their playing. I don’t own this)

Overall the festival is a fun experience  but it doesn’t come without its challenges. There are always a few characters who can make our job as stewards challenging (for instance, people who ask  if they actually need a ticket if they’re only going in for 5 minutes, or complaining bitterly about the lack of a cloakroom which we have no control over, or huffing and puffing as we ask them to reshow their ticket when they come back after leaving for lunch) but overall the guests are nice and it’s always fun getting to talk to them. There was one lady in particular  who  was telling us all about how she loved the festival this year (and all of the other music she was interested in and the history of the site) and although she’d never been before she’d love to come back.

So if you’re free next November I’d seriously recommend a trip to Greenwich to visit this festival. Even if you’re not sure that early music is your ‘thing’, I can almost guarantee there will be something that will interest and amaze you. I’ll see you on Friday for my next post.

Grace Notes: Music of the week – Shia Surprise!

I’m afraid that today’s  post is going to be a tad surreal. The song I’m sharing with you is very  strange in its own right, but when combined with a string quartet, a couple of choirs and contemporary dance it gets a whole lot stranger.

The song ‘Shia LaBeouf’ was written by Rob Cantor in 2012 and is his imaginings of meeting the blood-soaked cannibal actor Shia LaBeouf in the woods (this is a work of fiction I hasten to add – he is not a cannibal). It became very popular, thanks to social media, and lots of remixes and videos for the song have been created.

Recently , however, Rob Cantor released a music video himself called ‘Shia LaBeouf Live’ which has been orchestrated with choirs and more instrumentalists added. There are also a group of contemporary dancers some of whom don a giant ‘Shia LaBeouf’ head towards the end of the song. The video ends with a lone audience member clapping and as the camera pans round, it is revealed to be Shia himself.

Although this is a strange and pretty creepy song I really like it. The lyrics are just fantastic.

Running for your life (From Shia Labeouf.)
He’s brandishing a knife. (It’s Shia Labeouf.)
Lurking in the shadows, Hollywood superstar Shia Labeouf.
Living in the woods, (Shia Labeouf.)
Killing for sport, (Shia Labeouf.)
Eating all the bodies, actual, cannibal Shia Labeouf.

My favourite line is: Wait! He isn’t dead! Shia Surprise!                          

The way that Rob has written this song is seriously creepy. The old style sound of the voice and the whispers do evoke a sense of fear. The original is great (https://soundcloud.com/rob-cantor/shia-labeouf) but I feel that the atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the strings and the voices. It adds another level of creepy.  All this combined with the comedy means you’re left with a very bizarre mix of emotions at the end

I hope you enjoy this song! After writing this I’m going to have it stuck in my head for days! Looking forward to seeing you on Monday for a blog post that couldn’t be more different…

Grace Notes: How to prepare for a concert with only one day of rehearsal

Last Friday I took part in a concert with Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra where we played ‘A London Symphony’ by Vaughan  Williams. This was a ‘Side by Side’  project, which meant that teachers and professionals were sitting in the orchestra playing alongside us (in the string sections we had the pros sitting in the number 2 spot). What was most difficult about this project was that we only had one rehearsal as a full orchestra and one 2 hour sectional earlier in the week. I want to share some tips that I found helped me to prepare for this so that I wasn’t still practically sightreading in the concert.

Before you start to practice your part:

  • Listen to the recording so you can familiarise yourself with the work (if you are doing this for an audition and not a concert also research the background just in case you are asked any questions about it)
  • Mark in cues (often having a score for this helps too) by what you hear so that when sitting in a full rehearsal totally lost, you can get yourself back in again.
  • Highlight (always with a pencil though…) the exposed and fast bits so when you have a chance to practice you can zone in on those sections and not waste time practicing slow notes.
  • Listen with a metronome and mark in the approximate tempos so there won’t be any nasty surprises when you get to the full rehearsal (this has happened to me a couple of times and doesn’t make the rehearsal easy going!)
  • Keep listening. It can be really boring sitting and following your part, but just have it on in the background and get in your head through the power of osmosis.

(I do not own this video)

While practicing:

  • Practice slowly with a metronome, and gradually speed up any passages that seem too fast to play at first. To ensure you can really play it, take the metronome faster than you’ll have to do it in the concert and then you’ll be sure you can get it right on the night. You need to be really picky though, as there is no point in practicing mistakes fast. Don’t go up a metronome ‘notch’ unless you are comfortable with the current speed.
  • Don’t be tempted to play all the way through your part. The tunes are fun to play, but they are probably (obviously there are some exceptions) some of the easier bits of the piece. Especially if you only have limited time to practice, make sure you have highlighted what needs work and focus on those sections.
  • Don’t be afraid to write in fingerings. These will help when you get to that tricky bit and can’t remember the amazing fingering you came up with.
  • Play along with the recording (at this instance you CAN play the whole work) and then you get a better idea of where your part fits in with the rest of the orchestra.
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(I do not own this image)

During the rehearsal:

  • Especially if, like in this project, you have a pro sitting in front of you, try and copy how they play phrases and within the section. For example, if (like me) you are a string player, watch for the part of the bow the front of the section are playing in or ask the pro for help with fingering for a difficult passage. (This applies even if you just have a normal section principal as well of course! )
  • Copy in the bowings (or if a non-string player any other markings) as fast as you can. Hopefully the desks in front of you will pass it back, but if they don’t then take it upon yourself to copy in the bowings quickly in your break as no one likes to see bows going in the wrong direction in the concert.
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Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra (I do not own this image)

Hopefully this has given you some ideas as how to deal with a concert if there aren’t many rehearsals. Apologies for this being so string heavy, I’m afraid I don’t have much authority on sitting in any other sections of the orchestra! I hope some of these tips are useful to you, whatever you play. Thanks for reading and I’m looking forward to seeing you all for my next post!

Grace Notes: Music of the Week – Arrival of the John Lewis Christmas Advert!

So it’s not Christmas yet. Yes, it’s getting colder, but I think the display of decorations in various shops and on streets is a tad premature. The one thing that doesn’t frustrate me , however, is the John Lewis Christmas Advert. Every year without fail it tugs at the heart strings and brings a tear to my eye. This one is no different.

It follows the story of a young boy and his penguin companion (called Monty) playing in the park, on the trampoline and making dens. After Monty sees a couple in love on the tv, he gets lonely and keeps looking longingly at other couples he sees out and about. In a heart-warming finale however the little boy gets Monty a girl penguin for Christmas! There’s then a view from the mothers perspective, and you see that the little boy actually has two cuddly toy penguins and the end shot shows the words ‘Give someone the Christmas they’ve been dreaming of’.

What helps to make this (and every previous advert) so emotional is the music. For the last few years they have used older songs but with modern artists and this year follows that same pattern. The song is ‘Real Love’ by John Lennon sung by Tom Odell who has a very smoky voice and really enhances the story. It begins with just voice accompanied by piano playing very simple chords. Towards the end of the song, some high strings join (to add an extra slice of poignancy) and then fade out so we’re left with voice and piano again. The song emphasises the simple pleasures of Christmas and draws the audience into  the story that is unfolding in front of them.

Thank you for reading and I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog! Also apologies for not posting a ‘Music of the Week’ blog last week. I was doing a lot of travelling and so listened to an awful lot of different music and didn’t feel that anything had really jumped out at me. I am looking forward to seeing you all on Monday for my next blog.

*I don’t own this video

Grace Notes: A Memorial Concert with Shostakovich and Barber

Last Friday my quartet (Horizon String Quartet) and pianist Alvaro Siculiana put on a concert at the Old Royal Naval College Chapel in remembrance of all those who died during World War I.

We opened with the Adagio from Samuel Barber’s string quartet Opus 11. This very popular movement was turned (by Barber himself) into ‘Adagio for Strings’ for a string orchestra and this Adagio  version has also been used in many films including ‘Amelie’ and ‘Platoon’. It is very chorale-like and the harmony moves slowly with lots of suspensions before the phrases finally resolve. This tempo was difficult for us because every part in the quartet is very exposed and intonation can be a problem. We worked very hard this and built up a lot of the chords (starting with the cello and then going round to the first violin) so we could be sure we were exactly in tune in the rich  harmonies that Barber wrote. We also found that following the phrase through was difficult (again due to the slow tempo), so we practiced a few times playing it much faster and this helped us get a sense of where to aim for.

The rest of the concert was Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet and we were joined by Alvaro on stage. We worked on this piece a lot last year, as we played it in a concert in Leeds, so the challenge was picking it all back up after a summer off! I love this piece (as I’ve said in a previous blog, Shostakovich is my favourite composer). It was written in 1940 for the Beethoven Quartet with Shostakovich himself at the piano. As with many of his pieces, the mood may seem cheery and light, but there is an undercurrent of grief and anguish always drifting close to the surface.  My favourite movement is the 3rd, a Scherzo (meaning ‘joke’) which is very wild and gallops along (a total contrast to every other movement which seem more guarded).  The main challenge here was to blend our quartet sound with the piano, so we became 5 equal instruments, still respecting when one of us had the tune. It was a lot of fun working together as having the extra musician added a new dynamic to the group.

The concert was a success and we got a great response from the audience. The acoustics really helped us project the quietest and most poignant sections of the pieces. We’d all love to play there again. Now we are looking forward to learning some new repertoire and preparing for future concerts.

Horizon String Quartet

Horizon String Quartet

If you’d like to find out more about Horizon String Quartet, we have a website and Facebook page. Thank you for reading and looking forward to seeing you all next week!

*Note: I do not own any of these videos and they are not the Horizon String Quartet performing.

If you are interested in listening to Horizon Quartet, here are a few tracks that we did in a recording session earlier in the year. These are the sorts of pieces we use at weddings and other functions, and there are so much fun to play. We also arrange a lot of our own music. I hope you enjoy!