Grace Notes: ‘I’ve seen Hell, and it’s white. Snow white’

If you were to ask what my favourite costume drama was, my answer would immediately be the 2004 version of ‘North and South’ (with the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice coming a close second… who doesn’t love the lake scene!?). I’ve introduced it to many of my friends, all of whom have loved it and gone on to recommend it to others. I saw the TV adaptation before I read the book, but I fell in love with the book too and was given both the series and the novel in a ‘survival pack’ when I went to uni.

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(I do not own this image)

The story of North and South is tragic, heartbreaking and gritty. The acting is wonderful and you get completely sucked into the events of the episode. My mum and I watch it together a fair amount, and we often end up staying up late into the night to finish it because we are so engrossed by the story. The other thing that draws you in however is the music. The soundtrack was composed my Martin Phipps and it’s so beautiful and haunting and it really compliments the story unfolding.

Although it is scored for full orchestra, the whole ensemble is rarely playing at the same time, with Martin opting for just strings, solo wind or harp. There are a few patterns of notes that recur through many of the themes and this links all of the segments of music together.

Here are my top three scenes and soundtracks:

3) The opening of the first episode is one of the scenes that sticks with me. Margret is sat on a train and there are ‘bird-like’ entries in the flute, then the clarinet enters playing a countermelody and finally the bassoon, before a solo cello joins. All this is underpinned by the harp playing broken chords. It’s such a bittersweet piece of music that’s also slightly on edge, and alerts the viewer to the fact that something is changing.

2) The scene at the end of the episode where Margret is writing a letter to her cousin and she says the line ‘I’ve seen Hell, and it’s white. Snow white.’ There is a low rumble in the strings and then a solo cello plays the haunting main theme, before the whole section joins in with violin harmonics in the background. Then the orchestra, including brass and wind come in swelling to a climax, before fading out and ending with the solo cello. This perfectly accompanies the end shot of the mill running with ‘snow white’ cotton in the air, a both heavenly and hellish sight.

1) My favourite scene and music has to be the final one (this is possibly my favourite scene of anything I’ve seen…). For those of you who have watched ‘North and South’, I mean the station scene (you’ll know it!), and those of you who haven’t should, so I won’t spoil the plot for you! The scene has very little dialogue, and so the soundtrack is very prominent. It’s a harp and piano broken chord accompaniment, with a solo cello playing a slow, sustained and beautiful melody. As the scene continues, more of the string section joins in, intensifying and broadening the music and wonderfully accompanying the drama.

As I’m writing this I’m listening to the soundtrack (one of my flatmates has just come running in getting very excited that I was watching North and South! I felt bad disappointing her by saying I was just listening to the soundtrack for my blog!) and even without the drama accompanying the music it’s still bringing a smile to my face or reminding me of a particularly heart-breaking scene.

You may be able to tell by the tone of this post that I love ‘North and South’. Everyone I know who’s seen it loves it too, so I can’t recommend it enough. You’ll soon be drawn into the gritty industrial world and the lives of Margret Hale and John Thornton and all of the haunting melodies will stay with you long after the end credits have rolled. In fact, I think I may go and watch it now…

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Grace Notes: Changing the way I practice through yoga

Ever since I started at Trinity Laban, my teacher had been saying to me how good yoga is for you, and how it’ll improve strength and relaxation of the muscles when playing. I ignored her for about 2 years (using various excuses every time she asked) and then just before last Christmas I started. The main reason for this was that my right shoulder was (note the past tense……!) giving me grief and no amount of thinking about relaxing while playing was helping. It kept half popping out, was painful most of the time and was starting to hinder the amount of time I was able to play for. I decided that I needed to try something, so I and started yoga.

I didn’t have a yoga mat when I first decided to start, and as my flat has no carpets I just did a few simple routines on a towel. Not ideal, but better than nothing. Since I got a yoga mat for my birthday in January however, I’ve been doing at least a 20 minute practice every day.

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(I do not own this image)

Being a student, I can’t afford £10 per yoga class, especially as I’d like to go more than once a week. So I decided to look on YouTube for yoga teachers, and after a bit of searching and trying out routines I’ve found a woman called Adriene who I really like. Her channel ‘Yoga with Adriene’ has all sorts of types of routines of different lengths, all geared towards various goals, so you can choose exactly what you want to focus on for that days practice. What I especially like about her though is that she encourages you to ‘find what feels right’ and not to just try and copy exactly what she does if it’s not going to be beneficial to your body. She also gives lots of options for some of the harder poses, meaning that just because you find something difficult at that particular time, it doesn’t mean you have to sit out the practice.

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(I do not own this image)

I have been completely converted to the power of yoga. I find that waking up in the morning and getting straight onto the mat really sets me off on the right foot for the day and gets my body moving, meaning that by the time I go to practice the violin, I’m already pretty warmed up. Through learning the different poses I’ve also been able to incorporate some of those into my stretches before practicing violin (I’m going to do a blog on that soon), and they really help to open up my shoulders before I have to stand in an awkward and unbalanced position for the rest of the day.

Although it takes a while (as with anything in life) to get into the habit of getting onto the mat every day it’s completely worth it. Going back to poses that I couldn’t do two weeks ago, but now can, gives me such a sense of achievement (like being able to touch my toes. Anyone who knows me, will not have failed to notice that my legs are stupidly long and so I’ve never been able to touch my toes. I’m so proud of myself that I can now!). It’s another way of expressing myself (like this blog) that’s not playing the violin, and through that I find it very rewarding. I’d totally recommend giving it a go, and you’ll be surprised with what you find you can do!

Grace Notes: The importance of growing up with classical music

I am currently in my final year of my county youth orchestra (Part of Cardiff County and the Vale of Glamorgan Music Service), and I have been a member of that particular ensemble for 7 years. I have been in these groups since I was 9 and I’ve grown up through the system. When I was younger there were so many different ensembles (4 orchestras, windbands and brass bands as well as 3 choirs and jazz ensembles, plus many more!) but sadly, due to funding cuts there are far fewer ensembles available to children, so fewer are involved getting to experience classical music (this is happening all over the UK, not just in Cardiff). This makes me sad because those groups have been a major part of my life and helped my grow into the person I am today. Musically they helped me no end as an ensemble player, but personally I grew more confident and the friends I made have been the ones that I’ve stayed close to.

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The Cardiff County and Vale of Glamorgan Youth Orchestra on Tour in Italy

Although funding for the arts is being cut left, right and centre, there are a number of projects out there that are still encouraging children to take up music. One of these is the BBC ‘Ten Pieces’ program. This is led by BBC learning and BBC Performing Groups for primary school children aiming to open up the world of classical music to them (pieces range from Baroque to Contemporary) and allowing them to develop their own creative responses through various artistic mediums. The film of the ten pieces (featuring the BBC NOW and various celebratory presenters and actors) was first shown in autumn of 2014 at free cinema screenings for schools and will culminate in a celebratory finale in the summer of 2015 (with two proms and various concerts around the country using the BBC orchestras and choruses). The schools are encouraged to upload videos of their pupil’s creative responses to the film and share them on the BBC Ten Pieces website. The best ones will be chosen to appear in the BBC Proms Ten Pieces Concert in July 2015. This is such a great project and by taking the first step to getting children aware and taking part in classical music it may inspire them to take it further.

The film is still available on BBC iPlayer here if you fancy watching (which I’d thoroughly recommend). I was totally enthralled for the whole program and thought the filming of the orchestra and the sections with the actors melded together beautifully. It’s accessible to anyone, children and adults alike, and I think it can bring a whole new audience of all ages to classical music.

Trinity Laban also get students involved in getting children interested in music. We have a section of our course called ‘Engaging Audiences’. In this we look at ways in attract new audiences and get ourselves out into the big wide world there as musicians. In second year, our project was to create a short workshop for a class of children with activities to get them involved with music. The range of workshops varied hugely! My group did a ‘tour of the world through music’ and we got the children clapping and dancing to lots of different folk rhythms, another group did one about films, and getting the children to recognise and join in if they knew a theme. We also had groups which explored vibrations through the instruments (this involved the children touching instruments like the double bass and cello while they played to feel the sound vibrations), call and response patterns and different sections of the orchestra. From taking part in and observing all these workshops, you can tell that the children really enjoyed learning about music, but if the opportunities aren’t there, the interest will fade and it’ll become ‘dull and boring’ as they get older.

I think projects like this are so important. Many places no longer have to funding to spark an interest in classical music, let alone allow children to pursue it as far as I have. With projects like this it could really help some children to become more confident, explore new skills, become better at working with others. Most importantly however, it would introduce them to the world of classical music in such a way that they will want to learn more, rather than thinking it’s ‘uncool’, or ‘boring’. There’s so much more to classical music than sitting silently in a concert hall for three hours listening to a piece that was written hundreds of years ago. It’s such a diverse and vibrant art form, that there’s something to interest everyone and the world of skills that classical music opens up to children is invaluable.

Grace Notes: Performance Anxiety… Is there a cure?

Over the past couple of years, I have developed really bad stage fright when playing solo. This means I dread playing in class, auditioning for anything, even playing in front of my friends! I never experience this level of anxiety when playing in a group (either a chamber group or orchestra), so still enjoy those experiences, but I’ve started to avoid having to play solo violin like the plague.

I’m fine before, until the moment I stand up/walk in and see everyone looking at me. I put my violin up and my brain descends into panic mode. I’m suddenly back about a month in terms of practice and all those little nuances I’ve worked in never existed. I’m simply ‘getting through’ the piece rather than performing. As soon as I make a mistake I dwell on it far too long and my body ceases to function properly. My hands get clammy, sweaty and start to shake as my brain says ‘oh no I’ve made a mistake, everyone will have heard me make that mistake, why couldn’t I play that?…’. This then causes me to panic and get more wrong because I’m not focussed. My brain goes into overdrive so that any technical ability I may have once possessed has gone. I’m now simply clutching onto the violin and bow for dear life just trying to get to the end. My heart rate goes up and I find myself short of breath and tight-chested. When I finally reach the end of the piece I often can’t remember what happened as my brain blocks it out, and I certainly don’t enjoy the experience. All I remember are the awful mistakes I made, and worry about what people will think of me now.

This happens almost every time I play in front of someone so has become a major problem for me, and will continue to get worse if I don’t do something. So, I’ve done a bit of research into different techniques which might help. I’m going to share them here and I’ll keep you updated on which ones work and which ones don’t. Then, if you’re in the same place as me (even if you’re not a musician, it could be anxiety when giving a talk or lecture, acting, or dancing), maybe you can get your anxiety sorted sooner and enjoy performing solo again, which is something I long to do!

  1. Practice until you know the piece inside out. Learn it from memory, be able to sing it and even practice writing it out! If the piece is in your body, you can concentrate on letting go of the fear and allowing the music to take over.
  2. Perform as much as you can. Play to anyone who will listen and PERFORM (not just play) when you do! Get used to the feeling or nerves and try to channel them into emotion.
  3. Try to focus on the positives, not the mistakes (this will be particularly hard for me) and then you’ll be in a happier mind-set, which will come across to the audience/audition panel/family member.
  4. Take the time to relax and breathe before a performance. Try meditation, or just long breaths lying in semi-supine position, relaxing your whole body. This reduces the number of thoughts and emotions bombarding you, and help anxious feels to evaporate. Try taking deep breaths with your diaphragm and this will help you to calm down.
  5. Use the ‘monkey position’. By this I mean if you start to feel like your body is seizing up you bend your knees, hips and ankles which gives you a sinking feeling and will take the attention away from the tension you may be feeling elsewhere in your body. (Thinking about this, you’d look pretty silly doing it in a performance, but if it helps, I’m more than willing to try!)
  6. Accept that you will feel anxious, and then move past it.
  7. Remember: The audience are there to hear a good performance. They won’t be counting the mistakes, so neither should you.
  8. (this is the technique that interests me the most) Try visualising the performance in great detail. Imagine the feel of the instrument, the exact look of the hall, what you’ll be wearing, who is in the audience or on the panel, what the stage feels like under your feet. Then perform. Go through the whole performance in your mind, every note, every rest, every bow. By ‘doing’ the performance a few times, it should feel more familiar by the time of the actual concert, making you feel more comfortable.

Here are links to the sites (WebMD, majoring in music and anxiety coach) that I found most of the above information on. Take a look if you want slightly more in depth solution. Finally, here are two YouTube videos that share 4 techniques (that I’ve touched on above) about dealing with performance anxiety. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

I have an audition tomorrow and I’m going to try to use some of these to see if they calm me down and help. I’ll let you know which of them help me to actually enjoy what I’m playing and be a musician, rather than a quivering wreck.

Grace Notes: Technology Troubles

I haven’t got a lot of (any…) experience in dealing with music technology. I can use music computer programs, but ask me to mic up a drum kit, or mix a band, I’d be lost. The only piece of ‘kit’ I own is my electric violin. When I was about 6, I walked past a music shop in Cardiff and in the window was a bright blue electric violin. I asked my mum if I could have it so she said that if I got a distinction at Grade 8 I could have one (thinking I’d give up, or if I didn’t Grade 8 was years away) and I never let her forget it. So then after my Grade 8 exam we went shopping for electric violins and I got a silent Yamaha violin.

A Yamaha Silent Electric violin (I do not own this image)

A Yamaha Silent Electric violin (I do not own this image)

I used to play it with my dad (he was on electric guitar) before I moved to London and we had loads of fun messing round with effects and playing with the different sounds we could make. When I moved however I just took the violin, no lead or amp, and I now use it for silent practice in the flat. Last Sunday however, I did my first gig on it. We’ve all seen films where the band rock up to the stage or the recording studio and plug their gear in a go! It sounds great and nothing ever goes wrong (unless that a plot point ). In reality it’s very different. I’ve discovered this on the few occasions I’ve done gigs that involved a mixing desk, and the gig on Sunday was even harder because I was one of the people with a problematic instrument! We arrived at the rehearsal starting time and nothing had really been set up. Being completely out of my depth I could do nothing to help so just ended up waiting round for half an hour while cables are sorted. Then we finally got to go onto the stage. We did various sound checks and this took a while as you have to go round everyone individually, and then get us all balanced right so it sounds good for the audience (you can barely hear anything on stage, but I’ll get to that in a minute). As this was my first time doing an actual gig on my electric violin I (rather stupidly) hadn’t thought about how I was going to hear myself (my violin being ‘silent’ means its barely audible in an empty room, let alone next to a fully functioning band) and so when we first started rehearsing I was playing complete rubbish because I could hear nothing. This was solved however with a foldback monitor. This is basically a speaker that points towards the band so we can hear ourselves. However, this in itself created problems. I had to be turned up high enough to be able to hear myself over everybody, but no so loud that it became screechy and ear splitting for everyone else. After a few tries that was sorted and most of the time I knew what notes I was playing. It was still a weird sensation for me though because I’m used to hearing what I’m doing right under my ear, and it was disconcerting to have the sound coming from about a foot away! Once this was all finally sorted (about 4 hours later) we were ready for the gig. That went well, with only a few technical hitches (the foldback monitor not being on for the beginning of the second half, one of the mics not working, and the film cameras not recording one of the numbers) and it was suddenly finished and we were all packing away. In reality, amplified gigs are far more hassle than you might think. There’s all of the gear to be set up, and the high possibility that something will go wrong. That being said, I had great fun and I did enjoy getting to perform that sort of music. If I ever do something like that again however, I definitely need to practice on my electric more often, or invest in a pickup for my normal instrument! P.s. In my last blog I mentioned a concert that some of my friends from Trinity Laban were playing in (as part of GMT Brass Ensemble). The concert was amazing and it was great to be able to watch so many students from around the UK come together and perform. The GMT Brass Ensemble were also featured on ‘In Tune’ on BBC Radio 3 so have a listen on iPlayer if you’re interested!