The Aldeburgh Vibe

“Where are you off to?” asks the cab driver en-route to London Liverpool Street Station.

“Aldeburgh. East Suffolk, ” I confidently reply. “For the weekend.”

Recognising the implicit permission granted, the cab driver proceeds to tell me about his recent experiences in the area.

These recollections turn out to be rooted deeper in Essex than East Suffolk, but one short anecdote about a café on the Essex coast not accepting credit or debit cards grabs my attention.

“I didn’t have any way to pay the bill. There weren’t any signs, ” protested the cab driver. “But the owner was really helpful. Told me how to find the nearest cash machine and said he was quite happy to wait for me to return with the money.”

The apparent trustworthiness of the café owner surprised the cab driver. “That wouldn’t happen in London.”

The anecdote prepared me well for my second trip to East Suffolk for this year’s Aldeburgh Festival: things are different in East Anglia. Adjust.

For a lot of my trip to the Aldeburgh Festival I made use of electric bikes hired out by EezyBikes. £40 a day. A surprisingly good workout completing my 25 mile Thoroughly Good Expedition from Aldeburgh to Orford and back.

The accommodating spirit isn’t necessarily evident in every interaction, but the change of pace is, almost as soon as you arrive at Saxmundham train station. Things move at an entirely different pace in East Suffolk.

This is exactly the point about the area. The most rural part of the county is also the most difficult to travel around if you’ve not got your own transport. Settlements are remote and facilities sparse.

The consequence is that the area has a feel of steadfastly clinging onto the past. And only an idiot would assume that its inhabitants will willingly shift to your pace of doing things. You have to adjust to the county.

Aldeburgh Beach

Don’t expect to book taxis on the day; there are no Ubers. There is a regular bus service but it doesn’t start early, doesn’t finish late and takes in a great many other towns and villages, making it the least efficient mode of public transport if you’re in a hurry.

If you’re looking to book a table at a restaurant, don’t ring up for availability on the day. Eating opportunities are by and large at set times because staff are thin on the ground. Avoid disappointment outside of these set times by not asking if they still serve food. So if you can, eat before you head out. This and the fact that East Suffolk demands you don’t rush anywhere means you must plan in advance. The county insists on it. It also recommends that you get your head out of your phone and look all around you at the area of outstanding natural beauty you find yourself in. It won’t take long before you’re mesmerised.

The view from Snape Maltings Concert Hall Restaurant looking out over the Suffolk marshes

This is of course one of the reasons composer Benjamin Britten settled in the area after returning from the US after the Second World War. Being in such a spacious environment promotes clarity of thought. It also stirs emotions and calms the nerves. It makes focussed activity a pleasure. The benefits of being in an area so remote wasn’t on him, his creative pals, and the many thousands of musicians and artists who have followed in his wake, hence why, after a two-year COVID hiatus, we’re here for the 73rd Aldeburgh Festival.

It was also where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears had in mind when the pair first had the idea of a school for training musicians back in the late sixties. As oboist Nicholas Daniel explains in the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme Thoroughly Good Podcast, one of the benefits of the remote location of Snape Maltings Concert Hall and the Britten-Pears School is how it promotes a different kind of musicianship. It is a place where people can recalibrate themselves.



The necessary overnight stays a visit to this location demands make the shift into a lower gear helps create a state of mind which is sustainable. This process is also accelerated if you’re staying with a landlady or in shared accommodation. Far from being an anonymous experience affordable privately rented accommodation means you’re going to be interacting with the owner of the property you’re staying in. Nothing promotes a sense of community and their (and by extension your) place in it than a conversation over breakfast about shared connections.

The Red House – Britten and Pears home – open to the public offering exhibitions about Britten and his work, access to the house itself and the considerable Britten-Pears Archive

During my first stay on the first weekend of the Festival, I discover I’m renting from a lady who used to be a stage manager for the English Opera Group, worked with the English Chamber Orchestra at Snape from time to time, and had lived through the Jonathan Reekie era of Aldeburgh Festival Management, and now the still-relatively-new era of Roger Wright’s. Both are praised for their individual achievements, unique qualities, and impact on the Festival, but one thing remains clear from the conversation over our wholemeal toast: building a connection with the local audience is vital for Britten’s continuing legacy.

What I observe in the Concert Hall Café is that this connection is a matter of course and one of pleasure for current Chief Executive Roger Wright. I comment to the equally outgoing and interested Executive Director Sarah Bardwell on the third night of my stay just how ‘visible’ both of them and their counterparts Harry Young and Caro Barnfield are amongst the audience. Watch Roger Wright walk hurriedly down the length of the restaurant and there are multiple occasions when he stops to talk to concert-goers passing the time with a cup of coffee and a slice of cake.

Snape Maltings Concert Hall

This isn’t unique to Snape and Aldeburgh – I observed Roger Wright do a similar thing at the BBC Proms when he’d appear talking to the many Prommers queuing for their place in the arena. But here in a building that reaches above everything around it casting a strong distinctive line in the wide Suffolk skies, the sense of a connected community and a shared experience is much much stronger than in London.

We are not punters at Snape Maltings; we’re joining up with fellow fans to soak up the atmosphere and restore ourselves. On occasion, this might even include listening to music too.

The Concert Hall restaurant is also where I bump into old friends. Some from twenty-five years ago, others I’ve made connections with in the past five. Wide smiles and warm embraces compliment the vast expanse of nature beyond the windows that consistently delights our eyes whatever the weather.

Here we talk about concerts we’ve been too, the atmospheres they’ve created and debate whether the seat cushions on sale in the gift shop are as effective mitigation for the wicker Concert Hall seats, compared to a much-loved feather cushion brought from home.

Looking out from the Concert Hall Restaurant across the Suffolk marshes towards Iken Church

Here we can breathe slowly and deeply from our diaphragms. We become accustomed to the recently selected gear required for East Suffolk life. The Aldeburgh Vibe sets in.   

In this almost euphoric state, musical experiences command far more focused attention.

At Orford Church, clarinettist Mark Simpson’s devastatingly still melodic line in the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet performed with the Solem Quartet has the effect of rendering everyone in the audience motionless.

Later that same evening, him and a network of musician friends (including one extra player drawn the London Sinfonietta who were also playing at Snape that night) rattle off Mozart’s considerable Gran Partita, revelling in the clarity of Snape’s acoustic and wowing the audience with spectacular articulation and jaw-dropping breath control. Rock stars the lot of them.

Clarinettist Mark Simpson

Tom Coult and Alice Birch’s dystopian opera Violet is a compelling watch and it seems universally applauded by critics and audience alike. There is a buzz about the site as performers delight in the reviews. “Would you believe it?” I hear one member of the production team say, “Five stars. From The Telegraph!”

Dwarfed by the large expanse of Snape’s wooden stage, the sight of Piatti Quartet members and oboist Nick Daniel made their performance of Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet a touching celebration of a man who’s output still connects with musicians and audience alike. Written when he was 19, the work fizzes with Britten’s characteristic musical language and treatments and sounds as though it makes a great many demands on the oboist.

Vikingur Olafsson

My concluding concert before I return to London was the most spectacular. Pianist Viknungur Olfasson disarming the audience from the stage as he introduced his playlister-programme, awkwardly shuffling from side to side as he did so. After which he turns to the keyboard and plays with such stillness and focus that there are moments when it’s doubtful whether the audience will ever move again. A collective sigh when Olafsson segues from a fragment of Mozart’s D minor Fantasia to a D Major Ronda confirms that, like me, everyone had been unwittingly carried along by the tension the pianist had created curating the programme in the way he had. The ability to create this kind of experience, and to experience it in a remote place is very special indeed.

After Olafsson’s performance, I say goodbye to my friends in the concert hall foyers and say hello to others of old I haven’t seen until now. And now a few days after an early train made possible by a seemingly impossible find – an early taxi – I find myself in a slump, yearning for the Suffolk marshes again. That’s the sign of a good Festival.  

5 reasons why Yuja Wang is a brilliant classical music artist

Yuja Wang at Southbank Centre. My first time seeing The Wang play live. After the unpleasantness of daring to speak up in response to Norman’s nonsense in The Critic last year and everything else that followed, this was a no-brainer. I bought my ticket the week I wrote that blog post too.

There were hardly any seats left when I booked. Hence why I ended up sitting in the Choir looking out towards the audience the piano lid blocking the sound. Not great. Hence why this is a journal entry not a review.

No matter. Experiencing the occasion was what was most important. Some thoughts arise.

Yuja doesn’t hang around

Yuja Wang strides purposefully onto stage, carefully prepares her stool, and plays with terrifying power. After which she stands, bends effortlessly at her waist, her hand resting gently on the edge of the piano, after which she sits down for the next bit. The speed of this procedure makes her phenomenally difficult to photograph even on a shitty mobile phone. There are moments in the first half when I wonder whether her bow to the audience is just part of a series of automatic moves from the audience’s obvious enthusiasm, almost as though it’s automated. She also plays at a rip-roaring white-knuckle speed in those bits where the music is fast. Ligeti’s L’escalier du diable especially so. This is terrifying and gripping. So very very gripping.

She keeps the crowd wanting more

Wang’s strategy seems to be keep the crowd wanting more at all times. That means a delay before heading onto stage (the auditorium doors appeared to be shut in readiness for a surprisingly long time). When the music is over and the bow delivered, then it’s time to stride off stage again. This isn’t a problem for me at all. It only ramps up the tension, making the audience ever more keen to applaud her more those times when she is on stage. And what that translates into are encores. Lots of them. I left before the seventh (it might have been the sixth – I lost count).

She’s theatrical

Lots of bile has been spat out by crusty old men about The Wang’s love of fashion on stage. I have in the past been critical of A Male Pianist love of trainers and trousers that cut above the ankle, but he and I have ‘sorted that out now’ and I see where he’s coming from. In light of this I should probably be carefully about how I position my comments re: The Wang’s threads. Also, I know nothing about fashion. But BLOODY HELL she looked fantastic. And, the change of outfit mid-interval gave a whoosh of even more energy when she strode onto stage at the beginning of the second half. That attention to detail adds an additional level of theatre to proceedings to an already theatrical presence at the keyboard. And that kind of detail creates a highly charged atmosphere. And there is nothing better than being in the thick of an audience that is excited to be there.

She’s versatile

The difference in character between the first and second half was remarkable. Beethoven, Ligeti and Schoenberg conjure up entirely different and hugely demanding sound worlds. The Scriabin No.3 second movement was ravishing in its lyricism and saw tenderness that stopped me in my tracks.

Yuja Wang knows the secret

We spend so long picking over how to appeal to a new (younger) audience. Yet here were most if not all of the ingredients: anticipation for international soloist; soloist playing the audience like a violin and whipping them up into a state of frenzy; a dazzling range of repertoire; theatre; huge extended applause. This was a capacity audience. And there were endless (what I would describe as) young people in attendance too.

Job done, Wang.  

Blunders beset Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra‘s change of programme

Up until 10pm last night I was unaware there was a Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra. Thanks to a BBC Music Magazine tweet (this was my route into the story but I see BBC News online published two hours before) and article (now updated) highlighting an amended concert programme I’m now aware of the CPO, it being an amateur band, and it having a limited social media following. Never before has a change of programme for an amateur orchestral concert garnered quite so much attention.

And bile too. Calls of ‘absurd’ and ‘idiotic’ and ‘cancel culture’. Why? Because the programme consisted of works by Russian composer Tchaikovsky. Cue hoards of classical music ‘fans’ painfully low on curiosity calling out ignorance and demonstrating a level of self-righteousness that hasn’t had an outing in recent months.

As it turned out, there was a little more to it than first met the eye. No clarification was sought as to the thinking regarding the decision. Had it been then it would have been more easily understood. It was later confirmed that it was the militaristic musical material – 1812 Overture and March Slave – and the second symphony known as ‘Little Russian’ which for some Ukrainians is problematic because of competing Russian identities in Ukraine around the time of the collapse of the Russian empire. Oh, and there’s a player in the ‘non-professional’ band with family in Ukraine.

So, a reasonable decision-making process for an orchestral concert by a group I was unaware of that I’m even less likely to attend has triggered all sorts of people who should have known better, not least the author of the article who saw traffic in their eyes at the point of hitting publish.

A fuller statement in an image posted on social media would have been the best route. Seeking comment for the originating article would have been the appropriate course of action too. Keeping the article merely about the Cardiff Philharmonic and not aligning it with the Gergiev ‘resignation’ might have been good too.

But perhaps more than all that pausing to think whether the story was worth it given that the orchestra’s amateur status might have been the more respectful thing to do. Because what I’m reminded of now compared to yesterday is there’s quite a lot of sneery people in the classical music world that makes the classical music world it’s own worst enemy.

Buying Schubert

Unexpected bereavement brings about odd behaviour. That’s not opinion. It’s fact.

Evidence. Late Saturday afternoon, me and Simon are watching a three-part documentary on Hitlers last year (available via Disney+). The credits roll, I turn to see my 20 year old cat Faero lick at the bowl of water on his cushion in front of me, after which he starts shaking uncontrollably. Simon holds our ageing puss at the same time as looking at me in a way that signals to me: this is the moment.

One hour later I’m at the vets looking at a piece of paper with mine and Faero’s name on it. “You mean I have to make this decision?” I burble at the vet. “I thought at least you made a recommendation.”

Faeroe is the last of two brothers to be put down and I’ve felt ridiculously stupid and childish going through the process. But, Simon and I have remained courageous, flagging to one another those moments when the familiar habitual thoughts bring about painful feelings.

This morning was one such example. Neither of us wanted to get out of bed. Neither of us wanted to pass the front room on the way to the kitchen, look to our left and not find the pointy black ears we’d come to look out for over the past ten years.

I capitulated. I made the tea.

And whilst I drank it, I watched Pavel’s Schubert in G minor D894 from Wigmore Hall on YouTube.

How utterly wonderful it is, I think to myself, that something that brought so much joy a few nights ago can bring a much needed injection of joy now.

How wrong the would-be iconoclasts are about Wigmore’s innate understanding about the music that means I can sit here at 9.15am sobbing about the departure of a trusted pal of twenty years and feel reassured, supported, and possibly even empowered.

Digital doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. Digital needs to work harder at telling the story of the joy of music: listening.

Minutes after the stream starts up on the TV I message trusted pal Fran. “Do you suppose that as a returning pianist,” I ask her, “I could play the Schubert Pavel played?”

“I was hoping you might want to learn it.”

Later on today I end up going to Great Marlborough Street where I’m told by Fran I can find a copy of Schubert’s D894. When I step through the front door I gasp at the shelves packed full of scores. It’s ten, maybe twenty years, since I’ve been in a music shop to buy music.

Schott’s in Great Marlborough Steeet, London

Uncharacteristically I don’t hesitate about the price, after having checked with Fran’s message whether I’m getting the right publication. I opt for Wiener Urtext: there are more sonatas in it – more opportunities in the future.

My purchase comes in a colourful bag. Sonewhere in the background – from the practise rooms in the basement – I hear Rachmaninov’s music, and the first part from a piano duet I recall playing with an old school friend forty years ago.

“You have the best job, being surrounded with all this music,” I say to the woman behind the till. “We like think so.”

Escaping to a sound-proof box

Throughout 2022 I’m exploring my connection with the piano. I want to gain a deeper understanding of why I came to learn to play it, what the experience of playing it was back in my school days, and why I find it so difficult to return to playing it again now.

Today, I’ve sat down at the piano for the first time in maybe three years.

I’ve been meaning to take the first steps for a few days. The piano behind has become the subject of conversation in various different video calls – some with new coaching clients, others with journalists in Istanbul, one eager for me to conclude my training session on Google Analytics with a tune at the keyboard. “The answer is no.”

I won’t play on demand. I don’t do that. I can’t. I must explore that some other time. But I also won’t practise because I know it won’t sound any good. I’m too out of practice. I won’t be able to play anything. It will sound awful. So I won’t play it. 

Classic procrastination. And yet, if I were to make a start I would start the process of getting back into practice. Start the process of getting better.

So, I start with scales. Two hands. C major. Keep it simple, I think. What I notice first off is the complicated demands of the thumb passing under the third finger in the right hand, and the fourth finger crossing over the thumb in the left hand. Two unnatural movements occur in rapid succession, fingers moving automatically. My fingers awkwardly climb up towards the top of the keyboard but my brain is struggling to catch up with the movement. I’ve no idea whether I’m doing it right or why when I discover I’ve run out of fingers and there’s some kind of snarl-up, what went wrong when.

I try other scales. G major presents itself as a slightly more straightforward affair and perhaps even a more interesting scale, what with contrasting black F sharp key in the middle of all the white. But I’ve forgotten how different scales demand modest changes in the fingering. A major is instinctively the most appealing scale what with its three black sharp keys; F major feels oddly pathetic.

But what links all of these brief tentative excursions is how quickly half-forgotten processes return to the fingers. Also, how quickly I’m able to discern there’s tension in my upper arms and once I’ve identified how relatively straightforward it is to relax the arms mid-scale.

There’s also the finger position. Arched not flat as if to emphasise at the moment how important it is to isolate the fingers. Memories of John Bradbury return – make the fingers move not the arm.

And not long after, another forgotten process creeps back in. Relentless repetition at varying speeds, first to ensure the right fingers are pressed down on the right keys in the right order, but also to create a fluid line. As each scale is completed the challenge begins again. Focus on the movement from one note to the next. Pay the closest attention you possibly can. Wherever there is movement strive for grace.

There is something rather beautiful and calming about this moment. There is an understanding that fluidity doesn’t only come from the movement in the fingers but also from the mind. The mind needs to visualise the goal – a fluid line – so that everything can be aligned mentally and physically in order to pursue the goal. Then comes the question – what is the greater power in achieving this state? Muscle memory or mindset?

 

I remember how I used to enjoy this process in the past. It is as though the lights are turned down low and all focus is on the smallest of movements, bringing awareness to the whole body in order to create the best state for the production of sound. Having the opportunity to bring that much focus to something so small is in itself a joy. I remember experiencing that joy forty years ago even if as I recall now, I wouldn’t haven’t realised what was actually going on. I am here and now in a mindful state.

There were noises off. Sneering voices. Faces laughing and pointing through sash windows. “What do you want to do that for?” and “That’s boring. You’re boring. You’re gay.” What did I know that I didn’t? Familiar words – some heard at home, some at school – I escaped from in soundproof practise rooms.

Music practise provided purpose. Goal setting. Discipline. It was a haven. I don’t recall any of my other studies bringing quite so much satisfaction.

Yet it was an activity that was evidence of somehow being less of a person – deficient in sporting ability. The crowd can’t deal with the difference. Music compensating for being awkward. If I was the same as them I wouldn’t need music.

Practise provided a physical barrier. An excuse. Practise offered a valid reason to extricate me from risky interactions. Respectable justification for an unhelpful avoidance strategy.

One term during the production of a school play I was in, rehearsals were scheduled late into the evening necessitating day pupils mixing with the boarders for an evening meal. Unexplored territory. A new frontier. Peers out of uniform, even more, self-assured than they were during the day. The prospect terrified me. This was not somewhere for the self-conscious. Instead, cheese and beetroot pickle sandwiches in a practise room before slipping into rehearsals without anyone looking. Practising scales to kill time.

Hope springs eternal

Earlier this week I ran some coaching sessions for young music students in Norwich.

Twenty or so students sat in a circle and explored their thoughts and feelings in a series of facilitated conversations and exercises that sought to raise awareness and build confidence.

I was slightly daunted by the process, unsure whether they would embrace the opportunity and engage. Leading with my own personal experience helped encourage the others in the group.

The resulting conversations surprised and delighted. The content of those sessions remains confidential, but the impact of the day doesn’t..

The assembled groups of teenagers who demonstrated high levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence co-created a peer-to-peer learning experience that deepened their understanding of themselves. Subsequent anecdotal feedback shared via the course commissioner confirmed what I’d hoped during the sessions: this was something that had a positive impact on all those who attended.

This work brings together a number of different strands of my work right now: coaching, digital, training, arts consultancy, and personal development. It’s work I’d set out to do back in 2017 when I left the BBC and set up business on my own.

Nearly five years later, my diary is full of work I’d hoped to be doing. What links all of those engagements – training foreign journalists in digital analytics, arts consultancy, coaching clients from global FCMG businesses, and now this week facilitated development sessions with a group of teenagers – is the techniques that are used in all of them: create a space to think, invite people to talk, and support them as they explore some difficult subjects, then share tools to help them create a change of thinking. It’s a very special thing. Rewarding. Almost second nature. Why isn’t this happening more?

And yet, elsewhere in my life the same knowledge and experience are to a large extent looked down upon.

In some of my closest circles, those skills I use instinctively in my business not only fall on deaf ears but is even is interpreted as a sign of weakness. A sign of failure. Talking is regarded as evidence of a lack of strength or a lack of coping. If you were able to be tough like the rest of us then you wouldn’t need to talk so much, and how much easier that would be for all of us. What on earth do you do all day? It can’t be proper work. You’ve basically retired, haven’t you? Lucky for some.

I have yet to find a way of helping those people, people you might assume would be the easiest to convince because of proximity. These people look on exploration of mental health as evidence of illness that needs treatment. Mental health is a source of shame rather something we could take a more active interest in, something as every day but necessary as cleaning your teeth or washing your hands.

The sadness that comes from thinking about that rather odd contrast in my life (not to mention the slew of unhelpful negative thoughts it invites) represents a phenomenal weight to carry around. It’s familiar and I’m used to it, but I am rather tired of it now, I can tell you. Knowing when it’s possible or even allowed to put the weight down is a tussle between instinct and a sense of duty. By no means is it a simple calculation.

In between each of the two group sessions I facilitated, I was invited to attend a student concert in the nearby Norwich Cathedral – fifty minutes break between sessions. Pupils, teachers and other interested parties congregated in the South Transept of Norwich Cathedral to listen to music for euphonium by Joseph Horovitz, and a selection of musical theatre songs.

One song, in particular, acted as an unexpected and necessary foil to the day’s events and thoughts. The words of ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables were of little consequence to me, it has to be said. Lyrics rarely have an impact on me. I respond more readily to harmonic language, texture, or the qualities of a melody. Here in the South Transept at Norwich Cathedral listening to the music of Claude-Michel Schönberg realised by piano and voice, I experienced something unexpected. A word came to mind in the moment. No question. No doubt. Hope.

Such is the power of melody and harmony, I’m reminded. Just as metaphors help coaching conversations visit places that might initially present themselves as off-limits, so music can connect us with an overlooked emotion and thought at a point in time when its least expect and most needed.

I’ve been listening to recordings of ‘On My Own’ on streaming platforms today and none from the considerable back catalogue comes anywhere near what I experienced earlier this week. It wasn’t only the music, that sense of hope came from that moment in Norwich Cathedral, conjured up by a sixth former. That’s connection.

Play It Again

Throughout 2022 I’m exploring my connection with the piano. I want to gain a deeper understanding of why I came to learn to play it, what the experience of playing it was back in my school days, and why I find it so difficult to return to playing it again now.

 

Behind me sits a black upright piano, currently dust free but not always so. The same scores sit on the music desk as a year ago. Occasionally the keyboard is approached to bash out a vaguely recalled melody, but for most of the time the piano stands silent and dejected, holding its own as impactful Zoom call backdrop.

I think we paid £750 for piano. Soon after me and my partner met and I’d moved in to his flat on King’s Avenue, we woke up one Saturday morning bleary-eyed wrapped thinking that buying a second hand piano might be a good way to start the nesting process. Later the same day at Markson Pianos showroom the trade was made, the serviced instrument delivered a few days later.

Sometimes I look at the thing and pity it. Twenty four years later it’s a piece of furniture that fills a gap but goes unplayed. Just play me. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? That’s what other people do with their pianos, they play them. There have been occasions when I have, usually when I’m performing for others. But most times I’ll feel the weight of the past – a big hand pushing against my chest, telling me to steer clear. How can something which has in the past played such an important part in my development as a human now be such a barrier?

It got quite a lot of use to begin with, at first rehearsing a range of tenor solos preparing my still-new partner Simon for theatre auditions.

My recollection of ‘98 is one of dissatisfaction with my own technique. I was no rehearsal pianist. No pencil in my ear, a keen eye cast across the top of the instrument looking out for a two beat intro and then in on the first beat of the bar, heel pounding the floor.

I was a sluggish player, stumbling over seemingly unexpected chords. Speed changes which were at best aspirations, and dark messy key signatures promised failure, apology and shame. Mozart opera transcriptions were no good because I couldn’t expand on the simple score laid in front of me. Sondheim was too fast and too complicated. I would end up ‘marking’ bars and, after a few failed attempts quietly suggest that maybe I should just practice a little more. “It will be better when I’ve got it under my fingers.”

My main problem was not being any good at approximation at the keyboard. Plenty of others in my past had seemed adept at making a simple looking score sound considerably fuller than the manuscript indicated. Simon’s singing teacher Scilla’s ability to add a shake to any written chord gave proceedings a much grander sound. Mr Lane – my first class music teacher at Culford School – was able to make anything in The Beatles Complete sound as full and exciting as the fab four. And then there were the likes of Jerome at school or Pete at university who defied any kind of rational explanation who sat at the keyboard and did something known as ‘playing by ear’. Skills such as this made me as suspicious as I was jealous.

Forty years on I still can’t hear the title track from Ghostbusters and wince a little, remembering my peers crowding around Jerome as he bashed out Ray Parker Jr’s top ten tune with energy and attack I could only dream of.

Whilst diverting from the score seemed like cheating, there was also the need to build on the score – making more of what was printed in the manuscript. This too, like improvisation, was something completely alien to me. This was the ultimate in making yourself vulnerable to the world. This no doubt largely down to the formal tuition I received rooted in scales and arpeggios, and the value placed on accuracy, not only in practised pieces of music but also in sight-reading too. There was order in this process; chaos in improvisation.

There was too an implicit expectation established early on, originating in watching peers or teachers at the keyboard, that the really good musicians were those who played from memory or from ear. You needed to be able to improvise. You needed to be dextrous. These were the musicians who weren’t intimidated by the keyboard, they commanded it. I always felt like the keyboard insisted upon negotiation (and probably had days off at the weekend too.) the piano instead wanted to be played not participate in a scientific experiment.

How did those other musicians get to that stage? Did Jerome just wake up one morning and discover he could do this thing with this hands at a piano keyboard without so much as even one music lesson? If there were those who could sit at a keyboard and play without seemingly the many hours of practise I felt I had to put in, what was the point in continuing? Why was I wasting my time? I was going to have to run to catch up if I was able to catch up at all.

MU calls for support for freelance musicians Omicron variant

Photo by Andrea De Santis on UPhoto by Denise Jans on Unsplash

You know you’re in the zone when you get a press release from both the DCMS Committee and the Musicians Union during your last-chance pre-lockdown Christmas shopping trip. So it was this afternoon.

As far as I can see both the committee AND the MU are broadly in agreement.

This is what DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP had to say after Chancellor Rishi announced money for the hospitality and leisure sectors ahead of what most predict will be New Year restrictions to combat the Omicron variant.

“While we await the detail, the announcement of additional financial support for the entertainment and hospitality sectors is welcome. It will be important for this funding to help all those whose livelihoods depend on thriving theatres and live venues, whether they be on the stage, behind the scenes or front of house.

“More crucial still will be giving clarity for what the likely outlook for Covid restrictions is in the short and medium-term. You cannot simply start and stop a production or tour with a few days notice. They need to be planned and are dependent on a reasonable assessment of whether enough people can see it to be financially viable. While additional money is welcome we must also give the entertainment sector the best possible chance of being up and running on its own. Without more clarity, this will not be possible.”

South of the river, the Musicians’ Union (MU) had this to say:

“Whilst the Union welcomes the Treasury’s announcement of £1bn in financial support for businesses in the hospitality and leisure industries, the lack of provision for freelance workers leaves the majority of MU members uncertain about their future.

Early results of the Union’s latest research reports that 86% of musicians have had work cancelled due to the surge in cases related to the Omicron Covid-19 variant. Plus 41% of musicians state that they expect to earn under 25% of their usual income during the next two months, while the results show 75% expect to earn less than 50% of their regular income.

Top marks to the MU for the most devastating line about the current situation.

“Although the Government is not formally cancelling events, it appears to be advising people not to attend them, which is harming audience confidence at live music performances.”

The venues I’ve been in attendance at in recent weeks for filming and concerts have made every effort to reassure visitors that safety is front and centre. They’re doing their bit. The Government appears to be revealing its complete lack of understanding about the world around it. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. They don’t experience the impact of their decisions. How could they?

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

John Bradbury

There are a handful of subjects that are sure to prompt me to reach for the keyboard.

Recent examples include injustice and gratitude. Death too often triggers a similar impetus to write. Last year saw a necessary tribute to one of my school music teachers James Recknell. So too this year, with the news of the untimely and completely unexpected death of another school music teacher John Bradbury.

Unlike Mr Recknell’s tribute, this one for John feels a whole lot more difficult. I’m not entirely sure why. News of his death came in a late-night surprise phone call. “Can I call you back?” I blurted out on the phone. “I need to take 5 minutes.”

We tell ourselves stories about our past. We’re constantly reminding ourselves of those stories long after the event has passed. In some instances, the rewriting of those stories casts us further and further away from the truth. In other instances, they bring closer to the person or the idea of the person in mind.

The story I tell myself about my past may well have gone through a series of rewrites, but some characters remain consistent in each and every draft.

So it is with John Bradbury. Perhaps that’s why news of his death in his early 60s came as such a shock.

I owe a great deal to John. I see the influence he had on my motivation, determination, and attention to detail. He was disciplined. He was a poster boy for discipline. He made music something that could be excelled at, perhaps simply through a process of paying the greatest attention to the smallest detail. Repetitive relentless practise wasn’t something to be endured but embraced. By going over and over and over the same phrase, first slowly, then faster and faster, so confidence could be fostered and fluidity be more of a guaranteed.

“Relax your shoulders!” he would bark as he watched me plough through whatever piece I was working on in my piano lessons. How could I possibly expect to tackle anything fast if I held tension in my arms and my upper body? And how on earth would my fingers move up and down the keyboard at speed if I let my wrists slump and didn’t ensure the movement came from my digits instead of my upper arm? He was strong on identifying faulty technique and prescribing corrective action.

The story I tell myself now of my piano lessons has one dominant image: me sat on the floor with my arms stretched above me, trying to learn a more conducive position for my wrists to optimise my playing. I passed Grade 8 as I recall. Merit, if I’m not mistaken. That’s in no small part down to John Bradbury and his relentless attention to detail.

John’s own ambition and the energy he drew upon to realise it had a critical impact on me too.

Membership of the Culford School Junior Choir was decided upon with rigour. Auditions had an other-worldly air. Membership wasn’t guaranteed; it was dependent on meeting a certain standard. The reputation of the ensemble was at stake. The Culford School Junior Choir could after all, be something to raise awareness of the school itself, hence participation in the then Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year Competition with Walter Barrie’s arrangement of Stodola Pumpa, Britten’s Old Abram Brown, and (if memory serves me correctly) Harold the Frog.

An unexpected invitation to join the school Chapel Choir came a few years later. Impressionable, spotty and and eager to demonstrate difference and (let’s face it) superiority over my peers with whom I felt I struggled to acquire credibility, the chance to go ‘on tour’ with the school Chapel Choir gave me an unexpected sense of worth.

Haydn’s Little Organ Mass sung in numerous churches across Northern Europe (so it seems to me now) when Fergal Sharkey, Aha, The Blow Monkeys and Whitney Houston featured high in the UK charts and on my Walkman made for an unlikely playlist of music that now, all these years later, still triggers a raw and unshakeable sense of self-confidence.

Later still, the Culford School Chapel Choir played a key role in Sunday services in St Edmundsbury Cathedral, the Queen Mother’s massed-choir birthday celebrations in Horseguards Parade and St Martin in the Fields. Weekly Tuesday evening rehearsals assumed a different edge: time dedicated to the necessary hard work for the forthcoming weekend’s showcase. This was a demanding process. Sometimes it felt like stupidly hard work. It pushed us. Not so much demanding as reinforcing the importance of the occasion for the choir and more so perhaps for him. The payoff? That undeniable sense of being part of a special moment.

When John left Culford School, me and Rebecca mid-way through our A-Level music studies there was an unshakeable sense that he was abandoning us for something better. He never billed it that way but the sense of loss was considerable. Such was the bond he’d created by virtue of the vision he was trying to realise.

John Bradbury had an unshakeable vision and terrifying attention to detail that was both exhausting and aspirational at the same time. To this day I still celebrate that core principle: secure solid technique and everything else will follow; strive for the very best in everything you do. To be reminded these past few days that my years with him were when he was in his first job post-studies says something about his remarkable commitment.

News of his death came as a shock. The thought of him not being around is something that will take a long time to get used to.

Unlike his boss at Culford School James Recknell I did, during a drunken evening a few years back in central London, tell him exactly what impact he’d had on me, and I thanked him for it. Rather predictably he was uncomfortable taking the praise. No matter. At least he knew.  

Warmth, joy and strength at the RPS Awards 2021

Given that it was live-streamed on YouTube with highlights and excerpts broadcast on Radio 3 on Monday 8 November, asking for a ticket to this years RPS Awards felt a little odd. Awards ceremonies are essentially just a series of announcements, the bare content of which can easily be gathered from a webpage, tweet or press release. Assuming you’re not in line to collect an award, why the need to attend in person?

It is the atmosphere that matters most. That’s what can’t be conveyed online, in video or on-air. The reuniting of old pals, reconnecting over experiences of pandemic-driven gardening, running, or remote working. “Fancy another?” says a pal in the Cock and Lion on Wigmore Street. “Just a small one,” I say. Shortly after it’s a quick mad dash up the road to the main event. It’s dark. There’s a nip in the air too. Shut your eyes and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Christmas Eve.

The customary pre-ceremony toilet dash pre-ceremony (where I note all present were masked and thoroughly washing their hands), before the steady climb up the stairs to the Wigmore Hall auditorium, always done with seconds to spare before the start, always done at a snail’s pace.

And here, quite unexpectedly the real excitement of the evening. Up in front laughing and joking with one another, three oddly familiar faces. Full of verve, brimming with energy – Mark Simpson, Cordelia Williams and Nicola Benedetti. Here and now I feel like a Lower Fifth; they feel like the Sixth Formers. Celebs. Individuals with talent and vision and passion and spirit. It would be easy to smile, say hello and wheedle my way in. But I won’t. Because it’s their night. Leave the talent alone.

The buzz is as unexpected as it is invigorating. So too is the hubbub in the auditorium. 

I apologise to the person sitting in R16. “That’s my seat I think. I’m terribly sorry.” After she moves down I quip how it feels like we’re on a train what with the confusion over the seats. Only later does it become apparent that the person in question is in fact a prize winner from The Hermes Experiment. In the seat in front of me, a long-haired blonde woman surreptitiously drops her mask to say hello (it’s Heloise Werner). And across the aisle pianist Chris Glynn smiles back at me. I write like these people are old friends. They’re not. They just feel that way. It’s all unexpectedly warm. It’s like being a part of a family. I’ve missed this feeling a great deal.

The award winners are well-deserved, appreciative and are perhaps in some respects even irrelevant. The shortlist reads in its entirety as a reminder of the many potent creations pored over by hungry audiences starved of live, curious and grateful for digital. The winners in this hybrid world succeed in a similar way, perhaps gaining more prominence as a result of the unusual way classical music and the talent that creates it rose to the challenge of the pandemic over the past twelve months.

I was especially pleased to see composer Dani Howard win Large Scale Composition for her Trombone Concerto, and both unsurprised and excited to see Nicola Benedetti win Instrumentalist for basically being brilliant again. Laura Bowler’s Chamber-Scale Composition win for Wicked Problems drew huge excitement in the Wigmore Hall (and shone a light on another Huw Watkins work I need to listen to – his Violin Sonata with Tamsin Waley-Cohen).

The Storytelling Award winner Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason’s House of Music reminds me of a Christmas list addition (the nominee Kate Kennedy’s Ivor Gurney biography is something I’m disappointed to say I hadn’t even been aware of and will rightly compete for my attention come Boxing Day this year).

2021 RPS Instrumentalist Award winner – Nicola Benedetti at the RPS 2021 Awards in the Wigmore Hall on Monday 1 Nov. 2021 Photos by Mark Allan

Chamber-Scale Composition – Laura Bowler – Wicked Problems
supported by Boosey & Hawkes in memory of Tony Fell

Conductor – Ryan Bancroft
supported by BBC Music Magazine

Ensemble – Dunedin Consort
supported by Tarisio

Gamechanger – Bold Tendencies
supported by Schott Music

Impact – ENO Breathe
supported by ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music)

Inspiration – Hilary Campbell and Bristol Choral Society
supported by Decca Classics

Instrumentalist – Nicola Benedetti – violin
supported by Help Musicians UK in its centenary year

Large-Scale Composition – Dani Howard – Trombone Concerto
supported by The Boltini Trust

Opera and Music Theatre – L’enfant et les sortilèges – Vopera
supported by Cazenove Capital

Series and Events – The World How Wide – Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia
supported by PRS for Music

Singer – Jennifer Johnston – mezzo soprano
Supported by Jenny Hodgson

Storytelling – Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason – House of Music
supported by Lark Music

Young Artist– The Hermes Experiment
supported by Sir Simon and Victoria, Lady Robey OBE

Pictures (except for Wigmore Hall interior) are by Mark Allan Photography