Coronaclassical 24: Into the Post-Covid World

Yesterday may have been the first day of the rest of our lives. A press release announced that the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine being developed by Pfizer is, on current data, more than 90% effective.

This is good news.

No one should make the mistake of thinking that this is where our current crisis finishes. In Hollywood rom-coms, weddings usually mark the end of the protagonists’ problems. So it is with vaccines in Hollywood pandemic movies. In real life, both herald the beginning of the real hard work.

Many questions remain over Pfizer’s vaccine – what exactly does 90% effective mean in practice, how easy will it be to distribute, how long will it take to get it out there widely enough to make a difference, how frequent and severe are the side-effects, can we persuade enough people to take it – and so on. This may not even be the most practically effective vaccine we end up using in the long run. And there remains the potential spectre of mutations to the virus which will send us effectively back to square one with vaccine development.

But let’s allow ourselves a moment to pause, breathe, and celebrate a little. It was quite conceivable that scientists might have come out at the end of their trials and told us that a vaccine wasn’t a realistic prospect. Whatever else happens next, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The first twilight before the dawn, whenever it may eventually come.

Without going into the logistical details, and the potential bumps in the road between now and the sunrise, it could still be a while yet. For the classical music industry, 2021 might even turn out to be stranger and more traumatic than 2020 in some ways. In an ideal world, the global distribution of any vaccine would be even, fair, and targeted first at the most vulnerable and those most in need.

In case anyone hadn’t noticed, we do not currently live in an ideal world. The chances are that the globe is about to get even more asymmetric, and inequality even more pronounced than before. Travel restrictions and border controls, for example between vaccinated and non-vaccinated regions, are likely to become a more familiar experience to us before they begin to fade. For the next twelve months or so, I would double down on my existing advice to opera casting directors: think local.

This should also be a stark wake-up call to anyone still publicly questioning the logic of strategies to contain and control the immediate impact of Covid. There can be no question now that we can get through this. We need financial help to sustain the artistic community through the rest of this brutal era. But the idea that we should sacrifice the health and lives of our audiences – many of whom, for classical music, are in the groups most at risk from this ugly, cruel, remorseless disease – in a rush to get back to full steam ahead a few months early must surely now be seen clearly for the reckless misreading of priorities it always has been. There’s a safe way of doing what we do, but theatres are dangerous places in many, many ways, and taking risks with the lives of those on both sides of the curtain should never be an option.

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Winston Churchill

If we can just hang on for a few short months we’re nearly there, and then we can come back all guns blazing, as it should be. What a day that will be.

Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

Giving It Away: Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales
ON SALE NOW
Posted in Books, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, Science, singing, Theatre, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Giving It Away: Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales

Eagle-eyed regular readers of this blog will have spotted that there’s considerably less material on here than there was a week or so ago. That’s been in anticipation of the launch today of The Book of the Blog:

Based on the last six months of Coronaclassical blog posts, with some additional new exclusive content too, the paperback version is available to order on Amazon right now in the UK, USA, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Japan, priced at £7.99 or local currency equivalent. All international purchase links are now available on my website: www.paulcareyjones.net

While I was ill with Covid-19 in April, the Royal Society of Musicians were staunch allies, providing financial, medical, and moral support, making me feel remembered at a time when so many of us were feeling forgotten. It’s my pleasure to be able to pay them back in some small way: 50% of the author’s profits this year will go towards supporting their work.

Keep an eye out for the forthcoming release of the Kindle edition, which will be available in all the territories above as well as India, Mexico and Brazil. An audiobook edition will also be released in early 2021.

If you’ve been reading this blog religiously – I keep an eye on my stats and I know you’re out there – then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the material in this new book, although I hope you’ll still enjoy it in this new format. The support this blog has received over the last six months has been breathtaking at times – thank you all for your time, attention, loyalty and support. Any queries, glitch reports or feedback of any sort will be, as always, very welcome.

This thing caught us all unawares. Disney were preparing to launch their new subscription TV channel on March 24th in many European countries, including the UK, just as those countries headed into lockdown. Disney’s course of action was clear: they immediately stopped production on their new content, told the content creators they couldn’t afford to pay them and laid them off, put all their existing content online for free, and appealed to the public for donations to help them through the current crisis.

Just kidding. Obviously.

So where did I get that nonsensical example? Say hello, ladies and gentlemen, to the fairytale world of classical music.

Stranded in London when the Coronavirus pandemic hit, Welsh opera singer Paul Carey Jones began chronicling the voyage of the classical music industry through the perils – and opportunities – of a global pandemic. Based on his hit blog series Coronaclassical, this book is his lockdown story so far.”

Posted in acting, Art, Books, Cars, Cinema, Coronavirus, Cricket, Football, Hire Car Top Trumps, Mathematics, Motoring, Music, Opera, physics, Politics, Religion, Science, Science Fiction, singing, Sport, Theatre, Time travel, Travel, Uncategorized, University Challenge, Wagner, Wales, What they don't teach you at music college | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hire Car Top Trumps: Vauxhall Mokka

A lot has changed since our last instalment (the gap being a result of me owning a car again). The most noteworthy geopolitical event since 2016 has of course been that Vauxhall no longer sponsor the Welsh football team, thereby relinquishing their automatic bonus in the style section, which without being harsh they could hardly afford.

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This is a more or less brand new Vauxhall Mokka X. One of the aspects of the design proliferation available to modern car manufacturers is that they rapidly run out of non-stupid names, hence this model being named after what I think is some sort of chocolate-frappuccino-caramel-cinnamon-fennel-quinoa-smoothie-shake that you get when you should have ordered coffee, which is black, everything else being flavoured milk. The Vauxhall Mokka is a crossover vehicle, which must mean something to someone. Is it like a crossover singer? On first inspection it seems to be shaped like a proper car but smaller, making it of far less practical use and mildly irritating. Perhaps it is like a crossover singer. That style rating is in mortal danger of dropping into the minuses.

Vauxhall’s official website describes the Mokka as a “rugged, dynamic, stylish, full-on SUV”. They’re fooling no-one. On my original booking the vehicle was listed as a Vauxhall Crossland, and I struggled to work out whether or not the Mokka I was presented with consituted an upgrade. Vauxhall’s offical website describes the Crossland as “Muddy rugby boots. Fizzy-drink spills. Scattered popcorn from the cinema. Luckily, the life-ready Crossland X is ready for it all.” Most of those things aren’t even sentences.

In the absence of anything which makes any sense, I think we can infer that the Mokka is intended for everyday practical use by a small family. (I agree, they should get me to write their blurb – it would be rubbish but it would save us all a lot of time.) In the interests of scientific rigour I therefore assembled the quartet known in the Indian restaurants of London SW17 as oh shit not them again or alternatively the Tooting Avengers, the members and their responsibilities being: Fat Thor (age 45; in charge of driving and crap jokes), Wonder Woman (34; navigation, snacks and discipline), Teenage Negasonic Warhead (12; attitude, alternative fashion sense and soundtrack (music)), and Ant-Girl (4; consumption of snacks and soundtrack (whining)).

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The Tooting Avengers

The task facing this plucky band of heroes was a weekend trip along the M4 junctions 1-32 and back. Fat Thor approved of the Mokka’s ease of bluetooth set-up, which under cover of his pseudonym he feels comfortable in admitting he has never successfully completed in any other vehicle. This immediately led to 17 missed calls to Wonder Woman, who it seems never answers her phone, presumably being too busy saving the world from being overrun by rare blood diseases and laundry. Further crucial assessments came from The Warhead, who comprehensively tested the sound system’s capacity for playback of the entire output of My Chemical Romance – comfortably up to the task, much to Wonder Woman’s chagrin – and Ant-Girl, who was disappointed that the colour scheme turned out to be mainly black rather than the predicted “ummm GOLD”, and found fault with the model’s climate control, which apparently was capable of making the rear left corner of the interior simultaneously too hot, too cold, are we there yet and I’m still hungry.

That’s about all we had to say about it, which may not be much but is still far more than it deserves, and makes infinitely more sense than anything the Vauxhall marketing team has to offer.

Rented from: Avis Battersea
Country of origin: UK but not for long
Country of use: England / Wales

Year of manufacture: 2019
Year driven: 2019
Engine capacity: 1600cc
Power: 17/100
Performance: 19/100
Handling: 34/100
Style: 21/100
Comfort: 59/100
Luggage: 61/100 (bonus marks for carrying 2 children + my duvet and three pillows)
Max passengers: 4 + 3 pillows
Drivetrain: FWD
Value for money: 7/10

Written and originally published May 2019

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A4 Avant

This is an Audi A4 Avant TFSi: “T” because it’s got a turbo, “F” because – you know what, I have no idea. Letters on the back of cars are like the medals on the Duke of Edinburgh’s uniform: you assume he earned the first couple but at some point they just started lobbing them on there like kids’ sticky darts. “Avant” is Audisch for “Estate”, which I can’t explain either. Maybe it’s a comment about what eventually happens to members of the avant-garde, they end up driving business-grey German family estates.

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I hope you like this picture, for which I had to break several traffic laws. It was taken on the Afsluitsdijk, which is a 20-mile causeway between Friesland and North Holland, the building of which created a 1100 square-kilometre freshwater lake. The Dutch are really into that sort of thing, and you would be too if your entire country was below sea level. Along the Afsluitsdijk there are several points at which you can stop and buy a souvenir so that you can remember the great time you had staring at the vast grey nothingness of the North Sea and being unimaginably cold.

As you will already have noted, this car is a bit classier than usual, and its job was to drive me on a 900km audition round-trip. I could have kept the car from Budget for a couple of extra days, and if I’d had known it was going to be the Volvo I might well have, but on the other hand, as I explained before, it could have been a Hyundai. Of course you could turn up to an audition in a Hyundai, just as you could walk on stage dressed as Nick Slaughter from Tropical Heat, and when the casting director asks for your CV you could hand him a turd in a shoe box; but in these matters there’s could and there is should.

In other words this was some sort of attempt to give the impression of being a serious grown-up professional, and that’s exactly what this car is – it is serious and grown-up and professional.

The A4 is a modern design classic, neither frozen in time for fear of buggering it up like the Fiat 500 or the Mini, nor actually buggered up by misguided tinkering like the Honda Civic. Every update to the A4 has given it slightly pointier elbows and a slightly more furrowed brow, showing that its design team know exactly what the car is all about. It is serious and grown-up and it means business.

I will pull it up on two points. Firstly, the built-in sat nav is like having a Commodore 64 in the dashboard. It’s so horrible that I drove straight around the block and back to my front door to pick up my Tom Tom. Fine, you can switch it off but it’s odd to lumber half your dashboard with something so useless. Secondly, the stalk for Resume Cruise Control is right next to the stalk for FLASH THE DRIVER IN FRONT OF YOU LIKE AN ARSEHOLE IN AN AUDI, which might explain a lot about the reputation of Audi drivers, and certainly left me wishing I knew the hand signal for Es Tut Mir Leid.

Other than that everything about this car is good, the engine is good, the ride is good, the gearbox (Audi’s trademark superfluous 5th gear notwithstanding) is good, the interior is good, fuel economy is good, load carrying from Ikea is good. It’s all good. And it’s very very good at driving on motorways, and even better on Autobahns, where it will drive extremely fast with only the slightest raise of an eyebrow. In fact, after 900km not a single thing about it bugged me – I’m almost certain it’s the least annoying car I’ve ever driven.

The thing is, there’s that involuntary moment after you’ve been married for a while when a stunning woman in a crowd turns your head, and then on closer inspection you realise it’s your wife, and you know that if you were single you’d marry her all over again. If that sort of feeling is a factor in your choice of car, an Audi A4 Avant is never going to make your heart skip a beat when you catch its eye across a crowded room. But on the other hand, being the least annoying car ever as a basis for wedded bliss also has a lot to commend it.

Rented from: Sixt Den Haag
Country of origin: Deutschland
Country of use: The Netherlands / Deutschland

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1800cc turbo
Power: 88
Performance: 84
Handling: 74
Style: 72
Comfort: 81
Luggage: 87
Max passengers: 4
Drivetrain: FWD
VFM: 8/10

Written and originally published March 2016

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A1

When I was learning to drive in my mother’s 950cc Fiesta, there were four gears and life was a lot simpler. You knew where you stood with four gears. First was for starting off, second was for going slow, fourth was for going fast, and third was for getting from slow to fast. The best gear was third, because the most fun thing about driving isn’t going fast, it’s accelerating, by which I mean the Physics definition of accelerating, which includes going round corners. Which you did in third. The thing is, at the time, when you were in third, you always thought you wanted to be in fourth sometime very soon, so you never really appreciated third gear while you were in it.

At some point soon after that they made a fifth gear, which was sort of fine because you just got to fourth and then eventually remembered there was another one up and across and so that was fifth.

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This is an Audi A1 Sportback S-Line and it has six gears. On paper I thought this would be a good thing on the basis of more-is-more. In practice and with hindsight I think five is plenty if you’re not planning on driving at 100mph+. What six gears means is that whichever gear you’re in, it never feels like the right one – a feeling which is exacerbated by the car, like most modern cars, constantly nagging you about which gear it thinks you should be in. They should just admit what they’re up to and have Patricia Routledge do voice recordings of the whole range of carps. I took fourth as a test case and tried to find a speed at which Hyacinth was happy with me staying in this gear for more than fifty yards. I can report back that fourth gear on an Audi A1 is designed for going at a constant 43mph.

There is also an Audi thing called Drive Select (or that’s what the button said), which allows you to choose between two modes called ‘Dynamic’, which is fun but burns a lot of fuel, correction, which is fun because it burns a lot of fuel, and ‘Efficiency’, which is a lot cheaper but should really be called ‘950cc Fiesta emulator’. The point of shelling out for the sporty model is presumably that it’s more entertaining than the cheaper versions, an experience almost immediately ruined by having one’s inner Hyacinth querying whether we should really be burning this much petrol when there’s a perfectly good and much more economical alternative available at the press of a button.

In S-Line version the handling is very good, at the expense of having a ride quality which feels like when you used to go sledging but only had one sledge between three of you which your big brother would hog so you’d end up having to go down the solid-ice rock-studded sledge slope in a bin bag.

Also it had a built-in Sat Nav with the world’s stupidest route planner, meaning that when I was looking for the Celtic Manor I ended up in McDonald’s. Although perhaps that was just another manifestation of Efficiency mode.

So look, this car popped up on the Avis website as a guaranteed-model option (for an extra twenty quid or so) – that’s worth looking out for if you’re hiring and you like cars. I was quite excited at the prospect of having it for a weekend, and in the end if it wasn’t quite as much fun as I’d hoped then that’s probably my fault more than the car’s (including the fact that it turned out to be a colour which I’ve always reserved exclusively for my first Ferrari). And when I had to hand the keys back I was genuinely sad for a moment.

The thing is, if it came to buying one, I’m not sure who this car is for. If I had been born female I would have been called Jennifer, so my parents tell me. Jennifer Jones would have felt that the A1 Sportback is cute but not as stylish as a Fiat 500 or Mini, not as tidily efficient as a Polo, and not as much fun as one of those mental Fiestas like off the remake of The Sweeney.

As for male manifestations of current selves, what blokes, unless they’re undertakers or harpists, really want in a car is a boot. That’s because the boot is the automotive equivalent of the shed – it’s a place down the end of the thing where a bloke can put Stuff and forget about it for six months. Show me a man in a hatchback and I’ll show you a man who feels there’s something missing in his life but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Unless he owns a shed.

Rented from: Avis Birmingham Airport
Country of origin: Germany
Country of use: UK

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1400cc
Power: 77/100
Performance: 82/100
Handling: 88/100
Style: 75/100
Comfort: 46/100
Luggage: 60/100
Max passengers: 3
Drivetrain: FWD
Value For Money: 8/10

Written and originally published February 2016

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Summer opera? Pray for rain.

It’s summer in the UK, which means lots of black-tie picnics in muddy fields. The British attitude to rain is summed up by the fact that we buy more roofless convertible cars than any other country in Europe, despite, logically speaking, having the least cause to do so.

Stiff upper lip aside, there’s another reason why you shouldn’t get too downhearted if the weather is gloomy on the day of your opera-going, and that’s that you might well end up getting better singing as a result. Here are three reasons why.

Sound travels further in cold air

Although sound actually travels slightly faster through warmer air, the effect is so slight that it would normally be imperceptible to most human ears. On the other hand, in cold weather refraction will often cause sound to travel further – good news for those of you with the cheap tickets at the back.

Moisture keeps the voices lubricated

The typical human body is around 60% water, and singers will spend a lot of time pre-show making sure they’re fully hydrated. It’s not my specialist subject, but I’d hazard a guess that anything more than 60% air humidity should help singers stay hydrated during a show, assuming that it’s not coupled with high enough temperatures to make dehydration from sweating an issue. Furthermore, sound travels faster in moist air, so you should get a bit more ping when it’s a bit damp out there.

Rain keeps pollen levels under control

Air pollution and especially pollen levels are a problem which, anecdotally speaking, is proving increasingly irksome to many singers. A spell of wet, cold weather with fairly low wind levels will help minimise the risk of mid-show vocal conk-outs, and of course in an outdoor arena the lack of wind will help the acoustics too.

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Local honey – an important ally in the battle against air pollen

So there you go – the ideal summer singing conditions are probably a coldish, damp, wind-free evening. Reasons to be cheerful as you wrap yourself in a blanket, crack open your Thermos and enjoy the season’s offerings.

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Wagner: Don’t bump into the furniture

“Ah, good old Cyril. He’s a delightful chap. Such a shame about his memory problems.”

As skewering of rivals go, it was the most effortlessly effective I’ve heard. A singer referring to a colleague of advancing years, getting right behind him, as one needs to do before stabbing someone in the back.

You see, there’s no comeback is there? You could cast aspersions on a rival’s singing, but people can hear for themselves and reach their own conclusions. You could belittle his acting ability, but again they can judge that too, it’s highly subjective anyway, and frankly even if true has hardly been a career-ender for a lot of singers. But as soon as there’s a question mark over the memory… well, even the slightest slips become signs of an irreversible decline.

It’s not that memorisation is the most important skill in a singer’s armoury, but its absence is a pretty-much-insurmountable obstacle to a career in opera. It is infinitely more important than the ability to sight-sing, and significantly more important than the ability to read music (or words for that matter). Those things can be got around, as can wooden acting or movement issues, assuming that the end product is worth it. But a bad memory is probably a deal-breaker, especially in this era where a prompter, while not unheard of, is highly unusual and taken to be a sign of a serious malfunction somewhere along the line.

And yet, along with many other vital professional skills,  the process of memorisation is barely touched upon at music colleges. It was referred to once when I was training, in a class where the professor suggested I try singing without copy. I said I hadn’t memorised the piece (and in fact was preparing to sing it with score in concert). She said have a go – you might surprise yourself. So I did, and I didn’t. The idea of knowing something by heart without being aware of it struck me as very odd at the time (as now) – I’m pretty sure I’ve never learned anything by accident.

I’m not really here to talk about memorisation though. It’s just that it’s on my mind, to the near-exclusion of everything else, because this is Ring rehearsal week 0 – which is to say, 7 days to go, 77,000* words still to be memorised.

I’m not going to bang on about word-learning, since it’s the most mind-numbing, soul-destroying process ever. One day I might attempt to write something which will help young singers to grasp some useful skills when it comes to approaching the process of committing a role to memory, which is to assume that Wagner doesn’t finish me off in the meantime.

For now, let’s take a look at how The Master might have helped us a little bit here and there, even though he caused the problem in the first place. Here’s Wotan giving his daughters the sharp end of his tongue in Act 3 of Die Walküre:

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“Erzog ich euch kühn, zum Kampfe zu zieh’n, schuf ich die Herzen euch hart und scharf, dass ihr Wilden nun weint und greint, wenn mein Grimm eine Treulose straft?”

And here he is in Act 3 of Siegfried making small talk with his eponymous grandson:

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“Wer schuf das Schwert so scharf und hart, daß der stärkste Feind ihm fiel?”

Now, you’ve no doubt already spotted the memorisation problem here – is it hart und scharf this time, or scharf und hart? And why couldn’t he do us a favour and stick to some sort of consistent order?

Let’s look closer and get into Wagner’s head – and more importantly his ear – a little bit. Wagner the poet gets a lot of stick, not least for his E J Thribb-like alliteration, but there’s often reason to his rhymes, and at the very least aides-memoire for his long-suffering singers.

You’ll no doubt be way ahead of me here – in the first extract it’s “hart und scharf” because it follows “Herzen”, and the second is “scharf und hart” since it matches with “Schwert”. Hooray for us and no excuse for not getting it right from now on.

But let’s not stop there. Look again at that first sentence – here it is with some of the consonants capitalised for your consideration:

“er-Z-o-G- ich euch -K-ühn, -Z-um -K-ampfe -Z-u -Z-ieh’n, -SCH-u-F- ich die -H-e-R–Z-en euch -H-a-R–T- und -SCH-a-R–F-, dass ihr -W-ilde-N- -N-u-N- -W-ei-N-T u-N-D- -GR-ei-N-T, we-NN- -M-ei-N- -GR-i-MM- eine -TR-eulose s-TR-af-T-?”

Alright I got a bit carried away there, but you get the idea – this isn’t just straightforward alliteration, but a quasi-structured pattern of consonants. (Bear in mind too that in theatrical German e.g. the G in “erzog” sounds like a K, Z sounds as TS, etc.) It doesn’t quite conform to any particular set of rules – the author saw himself, after all, as von Stolzing not Beckmesser – but the consonant groupings are no coincidence.

Any reader who ever took classes in Welsh literature will recognise the similarity to what we call cynghanedd – literally “harmony” or “chiming” – a major part of which involves patterns of corresponding consonants, usually according to fiendish rules, the complexity of which is crucial to producing the uniquely flowing sound of Welsh poetry**, as well as giving us an excuse to indulge in our national pastime of arguing amongst ourselves.

In fact, anyone seeking an insight into how a meeting of a guild of Meistersinger might have looked and sounded could do a lot worse than pop down to the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff Bay this week and sit in on the Ymryson y Beirdd (“Contest of the Bards” – also sometimes called Talwrn y Beirdd) – the attention to detail, controversy and debate, not to mention the resulting outstanding works of literature, are surely not a million miles from the corresponding events in 16th-Century Nuremberg.

I’ll leave you to carry out the same exercise on the second excerpt. It’s no coincidence, either, that the highlighted consonants are by-and-large the most significant in that section, and are the ones that coaches and conductors will harangue their singers about emphasising.

And yet they’ll also want a classic legato line in the singing, assuming they have a good sense of Wagnerian style. That was Wagner’s own desire – exceptionally clear consonants combined with an authentic bel canto legato. And here’s why some singers speak of Wagner as Superman looks at Kryptonite. If a singer has been brought up with the idea that legato singing is just about vowels, and that consonants should be kept to a minimum, if not dispensed with altogether, then Wagner’s demands will test their technique to breaking point and beyond. Either the clarity of the text will be lacking, or the line of the legato will be broken in an attempt to make larger consonants, somehow independently of the actual singing (often resulting in the notorious “Bayreuth Bark”).

Coming back to the Eisteddfod, if you’ve grown up singing in Welsh you have a head start here. In terms of how the language itself functions – the relationship between vowels and consonants – Welsh is probably closer to German than most other European languages, and more than that, the approach to the importance of language, words and poetry in song in traditional Welsh singing corresponds very strongly to Wagner’s attitude.

Plus we start them young. When I adjudicate at local Eisteddfods I often begin the day with the 4-6 year old category, and while the musical standard of the singing can be slightly idiosyncratic at times, I can’t remember a single instance where words – in terms of diction and meaning – weren’t crystal clear.

Here’s Bryn Terfel singing Gwynfyd*** by Meirion Williams, with that very same clarity of diction and meaning. This was recorded when he was a mere 27 years old – but bear in mind by that time he’d been doing it this way for a quarter of a century. And the skills, as he has demonstrated, are unquestionably transferrable to Wagner.

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I had a great ending lined up which would tie all of this together most elegantly, but I’m damned if I can remember what it was.

 

* rough guess + poetic license

** for examples of cynghanedd in English language poetry see some of the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and also more loosely Dylan Thomas.

*** I don’t think there’s any strict cynghanedd in the text – although I’m happy to be corrected on that – but the flavour of it is certainly there.

 

Posted in acting, Music, Opera, singing, Theatre, Wagner, Wales, What they don't teach you at music college | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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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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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