University Challenge Strategy Guide Part One

This guide was largely inspired by two experiences – firstly my own as captain of the Royal Academy of Music’s University Challenge team in 1999, and then from following the (much more successful) campaign of my friends at Newcastle University in the 2017-18 series.

It is aimed primarily at teams preparing for their appearances on the show. Institutions with a history of sending teams to UC will often have an experienced coach, official or otherwise, overseeing their strategy. Less traditional UC colleges might not have the benefit of that support, so this is an attempt to level the playing field a little bit.

I also hope that UC viewers reading this will gain an insight into what it feels like to be in the firing line, and therefore more enjoyment from watching the show.

I’ll be endeavouring to update and expand the guide, so any comments, disputes, queries or requests are more than welcome.

PART ONE

Everyone’s a novice

The biggest thing I can tell you about playing UC for real is that it’s absolutely nothing like it is sitting and watching at home. That might seem like stating the obvious, but I’m constantly amazed at how many people don’t seem to get this from the comfort of their armchairs, where you can tick off how many answers you reckon you would have got at your leisure. Since UC reappearances are not allowed, at the start of each series every competitor is a complete novice. Some will have had the advantage of better preparation than others, but nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of facing Paxman under studio lights with the cameras rolling.

It’s tempting for TV audiences to judge the Round One teams against the finalists from the previous series, but remember they were novices too when they started out. Watching a team improve their strategy and develop as players is one of the joys of following the series throughout its run.

It’s not what you think

The number one thing that hits you when you kick off for real is that at the front line UC is not a general knowledge contest. It’s a buzzer speed test. You could know the answer to every single question on the show, but if you’re slower than the opposition, you will score precisely 0. This is perhaps why older teams don’t tend to fare as well as you might expect, given their (one would assume) greater breadth and depth of general knowledge – the kids are, in general, going to be quicker on the draw.

So players need to be prepared to be confident and proactive in their use of the buzzer. Here’s the thing – the rules state that if you buzz you need to answer straight away, which seems to imply that you shouldn’t buzz until the moment you know, or think you know, the answer. But one of the unique features of UC is that in actual fact you have the time it takes Roger “The Voice of University Challenge” Tilling to enunciate your college and your name, plus the length of the buzzer sound itself of course. (Let’s call this the Tilling Interval.) Altogether that could be two seconds or more. So the optimum time to buzz is two seconds before the answer pops into your brain – in other words, your brain has the time to go “I know the answer to this, it’s……” and then it comes out of your mouth.

(I suppose this means it’s an advantage to have a long college name and/or player surname. While that probably shouldn’t be a high priority during team selection, if you do have various versions of your surname – perhaps an optional hyphen, patronymic or tussenvoegsel – then you may want to opt for the longer version.)

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Tilling Interval Dream Team

Of course relying on the Tilling Interval for your final recall of an answer is a high-risk strategy, and it depends not so much on you knowing things, but knowing what sort of things you know, and how well you’re able to recall them under pressure. I’ll come back to this point in the notes on preparation in Part Two.

The downside of the aggressive buzzer approach is that you will more than likely incur a few 5-point penalties for incorrect interruptions. Overall, a confident team will probably decide that’s worth it – after all, a starter + bonuses should gain you 15-20 points, so over the course of a match it’s worth taking a few -5 hits. You can’t score a goal if you don’t have the ball, and you can’t score your bonuses if you don’t get the starter. The crucial point is that your buzzer strategy needs to be a team decision – the risk is collective, and only works if it’s shared (although it doesn’t necessarily need to be shared equally – see Part Two).

It also depends on the team being clear about who is primarily responsible for which subject area, but again that’s something to which I’ll return in Part Two.

Alternatively you may decide that you’ll employ a more aggressive buzzer strategy if you go substantially behind (let’s say three starters – 60 points or so) at any stage, especially to a team who may have more firepower than you – again, that’s something you should discuss collectively.

One more thing – if you buzz in early (before your opponents), and then realise your answer is incorrect, you’re actually better off not giving it – otherwise you’ve eliminated one possible answer when it gets handed over to the opposition. Even more importantly, unless your brain is lightning fast it’s better not to change your answer or hesitate – the worst case scenario is to buzz in early, delay before giving the answer and then blurt out the correct answer but too late for the points to be awarded to you – you’ve just effectively handed 15 points plus bonuses to the opposition. If in doubt, stick to your original thought, unless during the Tilling Interval you’ve realised it’s wrong, in which case say nothing.

You can see two good examples of an incorrect starter potentially giving the opposition a hand from Royal Academy Jones here at 1’40” and 4’28”:

YouTube – RAM vs Salford 1999

One of the crucial factors about UC is that it’s a game of emotions and psychological pressure, and an aggressive buzzer strategy, even if only partially successful in itself, puts pressure on the opposition, and can in turn lure them into a more aggressive buzzer strategy than they’d like to adopt. So if you’re up against strong opponents, or if you go significantly behind, it’s worth being brave. You might as well go down fighting.

By the same token if you find yourself ahead in the game, and the opposition switches to more aggressive buzzing, then you have two options – fight fire with fire, and step up your own buzzing, or stay calm and focus on picking up on their incorrect early buzzes. Both involve an element of calculated risk, but for my money the latter strategy is probably smarter, especially if you combine it with good clock control.

Technical issues

Here’s something to bear in mind while you’re filming – the primary aim of the producers is, ultimately, to produce good television, not, as you might think or hope, to produce a fair or balanced contest. That’s not to say they don’t want to, but it means that if you feel you’re being hard done by, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, before and during the recording. After is too late.

Before the show, as a technical check you’ll be asked to test your buzzer. Don’t assume it will be in full working order – that set has been around a while now, and maximising your buzzer speed wasn’t a budget priority in the first place. Plus you might be filming straight after a perspiringly vigorous buzzer-presser. So check it, double-check it, and if you’re not happy, speak up.

You should also check your screen visibility – bizarrely in this day and age, you’ll have to share a screen between two of you, and under lights your view of it might not be at all clear. Check it carefully, especially if you have any mobility issues.

Once filming starts, if any of these things turns out to be an issue, don’t be afraid to stop the filming, and do it at the earliest opportunity. The same goes for any issues with the accuracy of the questions and answers – mistakes do happen, and they can’t be fixed once the contest is over. You’ll feel awkward, and don’t expect anyone to be grateful for your intervention (after all, you’re lengthening their working day) – but don’t be afraid to fight your corner.

This is when it can help to have friendly faces in the audience. While you can’t talk to them at any stage of the filming process, it can bolster your confidence to have them there if and when an issue arises.

Play your half of the game

Here’s another area in which the playing the game on TV is – or should be – different from playing it at home. In your living room you’ll attempt to answer all the starters and both team’s bonuses. In the studio, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained in paying any attention to your opponents’ bonus questions – and potentially you’ll cause yourself emotional turmoil of some sort. Your aim in the time they take to deal with their bonus round should be to regroup, slow your heart rates and focus on nailing the next starter question. While you can’t really natter away, some simple sign language and eye contact team discussion can take place – e.g. do we switch to a more aggressive buzzer strategy, reassuring any flagging team mates, and so on.

Conversely, when you’ve got the bonuses, be very aware of what you do during the third bonus. Even if you’re trailing and trying to move the game on, don’t get so tied up in this final bonus that you disadvantage yourselves for the next starter. Use the time you have, even if you know the answer straight away, and make sure you’re all focused (the non-captains especially) when the next starter kicks in – if your opponents are game-smart, they will be.

Successfully executing this strategy should put a lot of pressure on the opposition – it makes it much harder for them to build momentum, in terms of scoreboard position and emotionally.

Teams with official coaches will often have a stat-taker in the audience, analysing the match as it unfolds so that the team can focus on their own game. One of the things they should be looking at is percentage of starter questions won after an opposition bonus round. I’d suggest aiming for something over 70%.

Eat the clock

Here’s where we dip a toe in the darker arts. The rules of UC are something of an unwritten constitution, as you might expect from an old-fashioned British quiz show. Teams are not allowed an unlimited amount of time to answer their bonus questions, but how much time that actually is seems to be, as far as I know, entirely at the discretion of Paxman. (His application of this rule is perceived to be flexible – quite what it depends upon is anyone’s guess, and the subject of a much lengthier discussion than this.)

If you’re trailing on the scoreboard, or if things are pretty close, you’ll most likely be wanting to get on with things as swiftly as possible. So you won’t want to waste time on getting bonuses wrong – achieving this depends again on you as individuals, and as a team, knowing what you know and how likely you are to be able to retrieve it swiftly. That’s an aspect of the team play that will develop over the course of the series, and is a large part of the art of UC captaincy (see Part Two). However, take another look at what I said about Bonus Q3 above – don’t hurry yourself into losing the next starter for the sake of trying to catch up.

If you manage to get yourselves substantially ahead on the scoreboard – let’s say three starters, i.e. 60 points or so – then it’s in your interests to slow the game down, and as the rules of the game stand there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t. So if you know the answer straight away, or if you immediately realise that none of you will know it, don’t be afraid to confer anyway. You may need good acting and improvisation skills – if you just sit there chatting inanely about the cricket or Leon Trotsky then Paxman is likely to tighten the time constraints. This is where some team practice time can be usefully spent – especially in trying to keep a straight face. As a rule of thumb, if you’re 60 ahead and you’re not hearing Paxman’s trademark “Come on!” at least once per bonus round, then you’re not using up enough of your time.

And whatever else you do, if you’re leading and the opposition have incorrectly buzzed early on a starter, take the whole of the starter question before you buzz. There’s absolutely no reason to buzz early under those circumstances.

Let’s look at two great examples of clock-eating from Newcastle from the latter stages of their match against Fitzwilliam College Cambridge. Firstly their poetry bonus round at around 24’45” onwards:

YouTube – Newcastle v Fitzwilliam 2017

There’s some great work from Nielsen on Q2, controlling the pace as Chair 2 should, and Reynard’s meanderings on Q3 are lovely too. An important point here is that I can’t even tell whether they’re consciously slowing the game down or not – their deliberations appear entirely legitimate, and well within the unwritten rules of the game.

Now let’s look at their Maths bonus round at around 26’31” onwards. I’m especially interested in Noble’s headline-grabbing answer to Q2, which at the time seemed like a lightning piece of mental arithmetic. The alternative explanation – that he knew the answer and killed a bit of time by conferring – is, to the student of UC strategy, even more impressive. Note that I don’t know which explanation is correct, and I’m happy to let Newcastle Noble keep that to himself. What you should consider is this: why is a Maths teacher asking two medical students for their input on a question about Pascal’s Triangle? Either way, it’s a noteworthy piece of UC-ing, and great television.

Overall this match is an excellent case study of Newcastle at their peak – aggressive buzzing gives them a three-starter lead by 11 minutes in, and their game control – regulating the pace of their bonuses, plus an impeccable 100% post-opposition-bonus starter rate – means that from that point Fitzwilliam were never able to get back into the contest.

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Orally Fixated

Last month the New Yorker published a short story called Cat Person, which went viral as part of the ongoing discussion of relations between the sexes. It’s a good read – you can access it here if you’re one of the six people who haven’t read it, or one of the two people who don’t have an opinion on it.

If you’re like me* then on first reading you’ll have struggled to get past the end of the first paragraph, which mentions Red Vines – which we immediately infer from context to be a kind of confectionery.

Here’s the thing. I really like sweets. To the extent of having them organised into a clear hierarchy at all times. (For example: Celebrations go Malteasers – Galaxy – Galaxy Caramel – Snickers – Mars – Bounty – Milky Way.) Maybe this comes from having two brothers, which necessitated swift decision-making when a tub of chocolates was being passed round at home.

I dutifully read the rest of the story, but the only issues my mind was willing to grapple with on this first pass were related to the revelation of the existence of Red Vines. What are they? What do they look like? What do they taste like? How much do they weigh? (Since the context is that of a cinema sweet shop, that latter point comes into play at the pick & mix stand.) From the name, I guessed that they might be like strawberry laces but thicker – it seemed like a strange choice of snack for a grown man, but that was fairly clearly an inference that the author intended the reader should draw.

Luckily, as with all my innermost thoughts, the first thing I did was to post this question on Twitter, and only a day or two later a friend duly presented me with a box of Red Vines. Consequently I am able to inform you that they do look like thicker versions of strawberry laces, but the taste is considerably different – as a taste-texture combination they are something like a Ralgex-flavoured condom.

Clearly, therefore, the type of snack chosen by some sort of psychopath. Bingo! I felt ready to proceed onto the second and subsequent paragraphs of the story.

In fact, if I paid more attention to TV on the rare occasions when I’m actually watching it then I’d have had this Damascene moment a lot sooner. In the series Fringe there’s a quite brilliant piece of double character work by the Australian actor John Noble, portraying two versions of a scientist named Walter Bishop – the series is set in parallel universes (it’s science fiction, did I mention that?), and so each actor is required to play the same character whose circumstances have diverged at some earlier point. It’s a very scientific measure of acting ability, and Noble is stunning as both Walter Bishops. Anyway, the Walter Bishop in the show’s principal universe is clinically insane, and one of the ways in which this is delineated (by contrast with sane Walter in universe number 2) is his predilection for – you’ve guessed it – Red Vines.**

I have to admit that my experience reading Cat Person was not atypical of my life as a reader. I’ve read every single Maigret novel, and yet I couldn’t tell you a single detail about any of the plots except that he often goes into a bar for a marc, and they are always ordering beer and sandwiches from over the road when they’re in the middle of an long interrogation (come to think of it that probably just means anything over 10 minutes).

Thomas Hemsley always claimed that years spent singing, as well as the time and effort spent studying and thinking about singing, caused an overdevelopment in the part of the brain concerned with the mouth – teeth, lips and tongue included. This, he speculated, was at least one of the reasons behind the connection between singers and food. It’s a plausible theory – I can’t think of a singer who doesn’t have a passion for eating, drinking, cooking, or combinations thereof. It may also be why you’ll still see some singers smoking more often than you’d expect (which is obviously never), and why – based entirely on anecdotal evidence – singers are excellent kissers, although I’ll largely leave that to you to explore further if I may.

(By the way, Hemsley also used to claim that singers eating a lot was entirely acceptable since in a typical performance a singer would burn more calories than a coal miner during a day’s work. Now, I’m the last person to tell people how to do their jobs, but I might suggest that if a singer is expending more energy during two hours on stage than a collier on a 12-hour shift, then they might want to consider calming down a little.)

Come to think of it, characters in opera are often required to eat and/or drink during a scene – it doesn’t happen in every opera admittedly, but when you take into account that it’s the one thing we’re literally not able to do while carrying out our job, then it makes absolutely no sense for operas to take place during mealtimes at all. It seems that composers and librettists share their singers’ oral fixation.

Which brings us to Freud, who as you might expect had rather a lot to say on the subject of oral fixations. It should be no surprise to you either that Freud was inclined to think that all this was to do with experiences in very early childhood – you can read more about it here.

So which is it – if Freud is right, perhaps infants with an abnormal experience of breast feeding are more likely to go on to become professional singers? Or do we go with the Jones-Hemsley theory that it’s the experience of singing which leads to a more general oral fixation?

Not wanting to leave you hanging, I asked a friend who is a clinical psychologist for her verdict. Her thoughts on Freud: “Some good concepts, twisted by him being a misogynistic sex-obsessed man of his time.”

And what about Jones? “Well. You’re not a misogynist.”

So there you have it. Jones 1, Freud 0. I’m off to crack open a box of Red Vines to celebrate.

 

 

* NB you’re probably not. Be grateful.

** Since writing this I’ve learned that The Big Bang Theory also deals with this subject, Red Vines being Sheldon Cooper’s confectionery of choice. (It’s quite likely I’ve also seen this and immediately forgotten about it. I don’t watch TV very closely, you may have gathered.) Red Vines = sociopath must be a whole semester on the standard American Creative Writing course.

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Not racist but.

“I’m not racist, but…” The dining room table of a bed & breakfast in rural Leicestershire, mid-June 2016. A retired gentleman from Birmingham has just uttered the time-honoured phrase, invariably the prelude to a stream of muddled (in this instance, anti-Asian) invective which could only be categorised as anything but not racist….. “and that’s why I’m voting Leave on Thursday.”

Being of sound Welsh-Irish working-to-middle class upbringing, I responded as I had been raised to do – by ignoring the utterly nonsensical illogic of the monologue (not to mention the crass offensiveness of describing in detail how he was for no valid reason about to disrupt the lives of the mixed-EU couple across the table), making non-committal sounds of polite non-disagreement and attempting to change the subject as quickly as possible.

I thought nothing more of it until I awoke on the morning of June 24th to the head-banging mass stupidity of the referendum result. My first useful conclusion was to vow never again to meet the words “I’m not racist but” with silence.

I mean don’t get me wrong – I’m perfectly happy to listen to a racist diatribe, and then, with any luck and a fair tail-wind, to engage with it and attempt to unravel the false assumptions on which it’s based, whether successfully or not. But you don’t get to say “I’m not racist but…” and then express a series of racist opinions. That is literally what makes you a racist. You can say “I am racist and….” plus racist opinions, or “I’m not racist and….” plus non-racist opinions, but “I’m not racist but….” simply makes no sense.

When the writer A A Gill died late last year, opinion (especially at home in Wales, for perfectly valid reasons which Gill himself makes clear in his memoir Pour Me – A Life) was divided between whether he was a brilliant writer or a complete prick, as if the two are in some way mutually exclusive.

Gill on a lot of subjects I could always take or leave, but I could never quite tear my eyes away from his restaurant column. “One of the great misconceptions about dinner is that nice people make good food…. But it’s almost exactly the opposite. Great food is cooked by twisted, miserable, depressive, cruel, abused and abusive, needy, compromised and shamed people.” Perhaps that’s also true of writers, and from experience seems more plausible than not.

Gill’s memoir is self-indulgent, rambling, disagreeable, unattractive and at times incomprehensible. I thoroughly recommend it. He’s not someone you can ever imagine preceding a series of offensive, prejudiced outpourings with “I’m not a racist but” – he repeatedly leaves that for us to decide, from the content of what follows.

Three sections stand out for me. His feelings on religion I knew before, and they’ve always struck a chord. His thoughts on dyslexia were new to me – his own, how dyslexia is approached, and his broader thoughts on the British education system overall. There were many times during my career as a teacher where I felt I was being asked to turn daffodil bulbs into tulips, or vice versa, which is really not a valid objective no matter how good the gardener or how potentially fertile the bulb.

And then his thoughts on critics and criticism.

“The rule of criticising anything is – first you must love it, innately, the thing itself, the idea of it, the application of it. If you don’t wholeheartedly adore the medium, then why would you ever care if someone did it badly or well?”

“…. there is no such thing (as constructive criticism). Critics do deconstructive criticism.”

There’s food for thought there, for critics and artists alike. The two instances where I balk at critics’ writing is when I feel that whatever love they had for their chosen subject has diluted or disappeared completely, and when they attempt to offer solutions to shortcomings they (rightly or otherwise) identify. Singers constantly wish critics would do this, but the point is they don’t know how and it’s not their job.

Ultimately the aspect of Gill’s writing which keeps drawing me back to it is his humanity – as a restaurant reviewer, I never felt he was unbiased, objective, fair or constructive. What I did feel was that I had a clear vision of what it had been for him to experience that portion of his existence spent on that meal. I knew how it felt to be him at that moment. A shared experience with a fellow human.

After all, deep down, we’re all complete pricks.

 

 

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ILL

I’ve got a cold. Please leave sympathetic messages and/or eulogies in the comments section below.

Fortunately I’ve timed this cold very well: although I should be singing this week, no-one is paying me to do so, and consequently this cold will cost me nothing financially. That’s not entirely coincidental – there are several preventative measures which I could have taken last week to stave this off. I didn’t because most of them cost money or are rather boring or both.

Singers are hypochondriacs. Even if you don’t start out that way, year upon year of relying for your income on one of the most fragile parts of the body will turn you into one. So far I’ve never had to cancel a professional engagement as a result of illness, although a lucky streak can only last so long, especially as roles get longer and heavier. There have been times when I almost certainly should have cancelled, but there are times when you have no choice – for example, when you find yourself singing niche repertoire without a cover (understudy), and so either you go on or the show goes off. So in the case of anything short of the more advanced stages of rigor mortis having set in, you’re going on.

Aside from that, the way that most opera contracts work, if singers cancel a performance because of illness, they don’t get paid. That doesn’t just mean for that performance: a contract is often arranged so that rehearsal fees and/or expenses all get wrapped up in a per-show fee, so in effect cancelling even one show will leave a singer seriously out of pocket, perhaps even making a loss on the whole contract.

(It does seem a flaw in the system that there’s no room for the company to pay an unwell principal their fee but to make the decision to put the cover on in the interests of all involved, but I can’t see that changing any time soon.)

So why is it that your favourite singer seems to be the one who cancels far more frequently than others? Well, assuming that your favourite singer is someone famous, because they can afford to, since a missed performance fee won’t result in an unpaid council tax bill.

But also because they can’t afford not to. I’m constantly surprised at how even some seasoned critics will comment that A. always sings wonderfully, on the occasions when she doesn’t cancel. So allow me to join the dots: perhaps A. always sings wonderfully because she cancels whenever she knows that she’ll be anything less than wonderful. I can’t imagine Le Gavroche serves many collapsed soufflés.

While there are exceptions, there is a strong correlation between vocal quality and fragility. To aim for the utmost degree of vocal quality is to take a risk, because the singer knows that quality requires a fresh, healthy voice.  That doesn’t mean that the singing which emerges will sound fragile – in fact, quite the opposite in many cases – but that the process of producing it is vulnerable to anything less than peak physical condition. It’s analogous to fast sprinters having vulnerable hamstrings.

In many ways it’s far safer to develop a less refined but more robust vocal technique, which a lot of singers do, knowing that it will allow them to sing even when they’re ill or knackered. But I’d bet that none of those guys is your favourite singer. Ultimately, it’s better for a singer that you’re disappointed by their absence than by their sub-par performance.

That’s a major reason why singers are constantly asking their agents to do whatever they can to increase their fees. It’s not (just) being greedy – higher fees bring added security, which allows a singer to take the risk of aiming for higher artistic standards.

Furthermore, I’m guessing your favourite singer is probably someone who sings the biggest roles, ones which simply cannot be performed at anything significantly less than full physical capacity. It’s not a question of an ill singer not wanting to present their Tosca, Carmen, Otello or Wotan to the audience that night – the roles simply won’t allow it.

So the next time your favourite singer has to cancel on you, bear that in mind. And if you’re still not happy, you could always switch your allegiance to one of the guys who’s standing at the back worrying about his council tax.

 

 

 

 

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Words and Ears and Brains

This morning’s poem on Radio 3 was this recording by Richard Burton of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo:

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-21-25-09

If you’re anything like me, Burton’s reading will have hit you in the ears like a Gatling gun – the sheer pace of it is breathtaking, almost overwhelming. The technique required to deliver at that speed while maintaining the utmost clarity and precision, not to mention that trademark baritone legato line, is staggering.

Anthony Hopkins has spoken of the legacy passed on by Laurence Olivier to both Burton and himself, and it’s constantly fascinating to catch fleeting moments of that vocal DNA, each actor’s delivery being so clearly related and yet unmistakably distinct – a reminder that the point of classical vocal technique is to liberate, not suppress, individuality.

Back to this question of pace. Here’s Burton in the opening of Under Milk Wood in 1954:

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-21-26-25

Compare that to Michael Sheen sixty years later:

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Just looking at the raw timings, Burton takes just over a minute to get to “tidy wives”, Sheen a good twenty seconds longer – a pattern which continues, cuts notwithstanding. Now, let me be clear – Sheen is an excellent actor and undoubtedly has the technique to go faster, so the difference is an artistic choice.

For further comparison, here’s Dylan Thomas himself in 1953, only just being pipped to the tidy wives post by Burton:

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-21-34-37

Admittedly this is far too small a sample to draw any scientific conclusions, but it’s interesting to find an instance where our assumption that attention spans have got shorter over recent decades seems to be challenged. (Binge-watching box sets is another.) Which style you prefer is of course a matter of taste.

(If there’s something about current fashions in the delivery of text which bothers you, you might enjoy David Mamet’s True or False – there’s a preview article with a few of the essential points here.)

A couple of observations for singers. Firstly, Burton’s pace in the Manley Hopkins poem doesn’t prevent him from “word-painting” – imbuing individual words with distinct colours and flavours – his technique still allows him to do this. But what the pace of delivery does, for my ear at least, is to allow (or even oblige) him to maintain those individually painted words as part of longer phrases, structures and ideas. It’s very easy for singers, of art song especially, to gain easy favour by indulging in individual words, without necessarily keeping an eye on the broader intention of the poem. For my money it’s the latter which is more important. Not that I’m suggesting that singers should sing quicker, but that they need at all times to bear in mind the overall arc of the phrase, sentence and the poem itself if the meaning is not to be lost. Sometimes that will mean foregoing an opportunity to colour an individual word. And technique is also a crucial factor in achieving this goal, for singers even more than actors.

Secondly, my initial reaction to the pace of Burton’s delivery was to panic – I knew my ears and my brain couldn’t possibly keep up with this, especially in text as dense as GMH’s invariably is. In an ever-increasingly visual age, our ears have got lazy – or perhaps we’ve lost faith in their ability to cope on their own. But miraculously ears and brain stepped up to the plate. It just required me, the listener, to take a leap of faith, to trust the actor, and to commit to the process of listening.

I often get that same sense of instant panic when listening to singers, and my survival instinct in that situation is to cling to the surtitles or printed texts like glue, assuming there are any. Surtitles provide that dilemma for us – singers, or at least those with good diction and acting skills, dislike them, as do directors, but audiences are hugely in favour. What can we do about this? Taking away the paying public’s beloved visual comfort blanket against their clear wishes can hardly be the answer.

Instead, perhaps we as performers need to strive to regain the trust of our audiences, to nurture the rebuilding of their confidence in their ears and the aural parts of their brain. And indeed in us. We can deliver our texts with such clarity, commitment and technical excellence that surtitles become an irrelevance, and audiences begin lobbying for their removal.

Incidentally, whenever I’ve tried to read Under Milk Wood aloud it comes out sounding like I’m narrating Ivor the Engine. This bothered me for years until the day I read an interview with its author, where he admitted that the whole idea for Ivor had been inspired by his love for Dylan Thomas’ creation. So there it is: while the bearers of Olivier’s legacy are Burton, Hopkins, Sheen et al, I am the sole heir of Oliver Postgate.

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-21-55-37

 

 

Posted in acting, Books, Music, Opera, singing, Theatre, Wales | 2 Comments

Let ’em spin

March 1996. I’m a trainee physics teacher and we’re on a Maths and Science department outing to London, ostensibly to assess various venues for their suitability for school trips. It’s also an excuse for a bit of a party (hard-earned over the course of a tough year), and at an early stage of the evening we find ourselves in the Nag’s Head, opposite the back of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

Through the fog of hindsight I’m never quite sure when I decided I wanted to be a professional singer. It can’t have been earlier than when I was 13, when I first started singing solos as a baritone, and was certainly no later than 23, when I applied to music colleges. What’s clear is that the idea must have been quite well-formed in my mind by this point, at the age of 21, because I shove a pound in the Nag’s Head fruit machine and tell myself that if I win anything, it means I’m going to sing in the opera house across the road one day.

On the fifth spin the reels stop on three bunches of purple grapes. The machine pays out.

I finally bit the bullet and started music college in the autumn of 1998, and if you’d asked me then to estimate when I would be ready for my Covent Garden debut, I’d have said, with absolute certainty, that it should come as soon as possible, since I was ready right now, or would be very shortly. In those days I wasn’t shy of backing my ability, even though that (usually misplaced) confidence would frequently get me into trouble.

Andy Warhol once said that no-one gets anything until they stop wanting it. And things tend to come along, if you’re fortunate, when you’re actually ready for them, rather than when you think you deserve them.

11am, Tuesday 4th October 2016. I set foot on the stage of The Royal Opera House for the first time, as a Guest Artist in their new production of The Nose. It feels like a significant milestone – I walked past the Nag’s Head on the way to the stage door, and I’d thought of those three grapes. I look around for a colleague to share the moment with. Perhaps I could tell John Tomlinson, since I’m pretty sure he’d at least feign interest, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Everyone is – understandably – preoccupied with their own tasks. I try to take the auditorium in, and check a few basic sight lines, and I put the milestone to one side. In actual fact, perhaps I’m a little disappointed at the lack of thrill inside me; reputation and history aside, it’s just another theatre, albeit a very pretty one; by now I’ve seen a lot of them, and most of them work the same way.

11.05am. I’m standing centre stage. We’re in the middle of Act 2 Scene 9, at the beginning of which I have a short solo. The rehearsal has stopped just after my solo ends. The director is shouting at me through a microphone. I’m not in the light. I need to get further downstage. It means reworking my positions completely, ditching what we’ve been doing for the last four weeks on the dummy set in the rehearsal room. Fine, I’m sure I can deal with that. Thumbs up. Now the conductor is shouting at me. He has a microphone too. I’m singing too fast and not following his beat. I was looking straight at him but there are bright lights shining in my eyes, I’m wearing a prosthetic nose which is slightly too big and a peaked cap which is slightly too small, and it’s hard to argue when everyone has a microphone except you. There are ten of my colleagues on stage with me, others in the wings, and an auditorium dotted with people. All of them are very good at their jobs. This is Covent Garden. If you’re screwing it up, the chances are it’s not someone else’s fault.

We start the scene again. I stand in the light and manage to sing at something resembling the right speed. This time we don’t stop after my bit and the scene continues. This means it wasn’t a total disaster the second time. I think. I go up to my dressing room and sit down. I’ve worked for eighteen years for this, I’m good at my job and I know my role backwards, and I wanted it to be perfect. I feel like crying but I don’t. I pick up the score, look at the awkward corners – frankly, the whole damn piece is an awkward corner – and get to work.

When you’re young you tend to undervalue experience, since it’s something you don’t have and there’s no shortcut to obtaining it. You can sing, you can act, you’re pretty, you’re working on your languages, you know your way around a stage. The operatic world is crying out for a talent like yours. What more could experience bring, other than grey hair and wrinkles and cynicism? I guess what I’m saying is that what experience brings is the capacity to get shouted at by men with microphones and carry on doing your work, screwing it up a little less each time. Or at the very least, screwing it up in more interesting ways.

The Nose opens tonight. It’s a very special show, in a very special place, and I’m very proud to be a small part of it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a ticket, and have a moment to spare beforehand, feel free to put a pound in the Nag’s Head fruit machine for me.

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A solution to No Balls

NB this is a post about cricket, so if you’ve come here looking for insights into opera, or indeed other possible insights that come under the category “No Balls”, you may need to look elsewhere for the time being.

A batsman being dismissed off a No-Ball, where the bowler has overstepped the mark, is often described as ‘controversial’. Since bowlers are required to bowl from 22 yards or further from the stumps at the other end, it’s difficult to see where the controversy lies – you quite literally have to draw the line somewhere.

Spectators often wonder why the bowler chooses to step so close to the line, and therefore risk having otherwise legitimate wickets (correctly) being given Not Out, rather than bowl from a few inches further back and remove the risk, realistically speaking, altogether. You sometimes hear bowlers argue that they are striving for every last advantage, bowling as close to the batsman – and therefore giving him as little time to react to the ball – as possible being a reason.

Let’s do some sums. At 80mph, a cricket ball takes 0.563s to travel 22.0 yards. (Of course, the batsman will play the ball slightly closer than 22 yards away, but let’s use that as an approximation). To travel 22.5 yards at the same speed would take 0.576s – a difference of 0.013s.

Let’s compare that to the difference between an 80mph bowler and a 90mph bowler, 90mph often being cited as a benchmark for a Test-level fast bowler who will trouble top-class batsman. At 90 mph, the ball will take 0.500s to travel 22 yards – i.e. a difference of 0.063s, which is considered significant enough to make life difficult for the batsman.

By comparison, the difference of 0.013s from bowling half a yard further back, while not being entirely insignificant, doesn’t seem to justify the risk of an otherwise legitimate dismissal being given Not Out.

(TL;DR – the advantage from bowling right on the crease is too small to be worth the risk of a No Ball.)

So why bowl from an inch behind the crease, rather than half a yard? (Or a foot or six inches, if the bowler is concerned that an extra 0.013s is too much?)

I’d need the view of a far better bowler than me on this, but I suggest that, just as most bowlers use a visual mark of some sort to mark the start of their run-up, they also use the crease as a visual mark for the end of it, for consistency – it’s far easier than judging an invisible point half a yard behind the crease, since the crease itself has to be kept clearly visible at all times.

So might a solution to No-Balling be to mark an extra line half a yard / a foot (or whatever) behind the crease, as a target for the bowlers?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

 

 

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