Music and memories

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One offshoot from the ‘Cissie’ project has been an unexpected but enjoyable foray into care home entertainment.  Through my work with the Alzheimer’s Society I got to know an activities co-ordinator in a local care home who was interested in the show.  The original idea was for me just to go in and give a concert but we talked this through and realized we could get more from the character and props.  We have worked together over several months developing a session we call “Music and memories” and ‘Cissie’ has now made several visits to the home and other dementia units.  I dress as the older Cissie, a 1940s housewife, and take a basket of props – not forgetting my trusty Eubank carpet sweeper. (Didn’t everyone’s Grandma have one of those?)

There is a rough order of anecdotes and songs but we are guided by the memories sparked off by the props and we just run with those until it feels time to introduce another idea or sing another song.  I enjoyed learning some Gracie Fields songs which fit with the ‘Lancashire housewife in clogs’ persona. We include everything from ‘Daisy, Daisy’ to ‘We’ll gather lilacs’ and I love it when some quiet sleepy resident perks up and sings every word of something. The power of music to communicate and get through to people still astounds and moves me.

 

Music for Lady Jane Grey

My week at Dartington continues to work its magic through the wonderful people I met there who continue to influence my creativity.   And so, one Sunday morning in early September, I drove a friend out to Bradgate Park near Leicester to experience some live music from Fabula Musica.  It was one of those lovely end of summer days, still warm but with a hint of freshness, and I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with a beautiful park I hadn’t visited for twenty years or more.  Bradgate Park has a connection with Lady Jane Grey so the programme was entitled ‘Musical shades of Grey’ and took place in the Chapel of the old manor House.

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It was a lovely venue, and perfectly suited to the trio, suitably attired in 16th century costume.  We were a small but appreciative audience and we were treated to a selection of songs by voice, harpsichord and bass viol.  The sun streamed through the chapel windows, Motje Wolf’s voice rose effortlessly to the rafters, and I was happy.  It was like a little spot of heaven.

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After the first set we hung around to meet the musicians, one of whom was a Dartington connection, although it felt like greeting a life long friend, not a fairly new acquaintance. Someone mentioned the lute, which hadn’t been used yet, and before I knew it I had accepted an invitation to stand up and sing. I was vaguely aware of the sensible side of my brain going “but you haven’t warmed up, what about the croakiness from that wine last night, what are you thinking?”  but the sheer joy of performing Dowland again won out!

 

Dartington magic – part 1

 

Looking back at my post from earlier in the year I am reflecting on just how many unknowns there have been but also how many opportunities for growth.  Somehow, back in those dark days, I summoned up the strength and self-belief to rehearse and organise recordings in order to put an audition tape forward for a Masterclass with my all time hero – Emma Kirkby.  This was as part of the Early Music week for the Dartington International Summer School. I wasn’t that hopeful, but with the help and support of musicians I trust and admire, the recordings were made, the resume written and the application sent off.  I felt I had nothing to lose, and was only a little disappointed to get put on the reserve list rather than a confirmed place.  At least it wasn’t a complete rejection!

I determined to enjoy the week anyway and get the most out of being with other like minded people, to rediscover my passion for early music after so many years exploring other music with my teacher.  It had been a wonderful musical journey but now I felt ready to go home.  And that is exactly how I felt when I first ventured out into a sunny quadrangle outside the Great Hall.  (I will not dwell on the details of a 7 hour drive on a hot July day, the stress of finding a new place, checking in and getting luggage stowed and car parked).  As soon as I walked out on the grass in that beautiful place, hearing Stile Antico rehearsing madrigals for the evening concert I knew I was in a magical place, a place of healing.

I was a little daunted and in awe of the musicians I met that first evening but everyone was so open and welcoming that I was reassured.  The concert given by Stile Antico was superb.  I would love to take our choir to see them; there is no musical director and they all work collaboratively to deliver the music.  All take equal responsibility for looking, listening and being aware of each other in performance.  Most importantly they obviously enjoyed themselves enormously, and there was total engagement with the audience.

The course started in earnest on the Sunday and I went along to observe the Masterclass, determined to learn as much as I could.  I sat at the back watching and taking notes as Emma guided a dozen singers through their initial performance, a wonderful group of talented and engaging young people from all over Europe and beyond.  And then she checked her notebook and commented that she was missing a couple of people – ‘Carmel Edwards is on my list’. I timidly put up my hand and explained about the reserve place, and she breezily waved that thought aside and asked me what I wanted to sing.  My mouth jumped in before I could engage brain and I found myself, with no preparation, and with a borrowed score, singing Dowland’s ‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’. There was a hiccup with timing (which was to become my nemesis that week!) but I was too shy to admit I only picked it up to learn a few weeks ago, goodness knows why it was the only song title that came into my head at that moment!

I hurried out of the class at the end in a state of shock not realising there was a group workshop that afternoon, so by Monday I was 24 hours behind the others, but I just had to get on with it and catch up.  There was a mad dash to the library to get scores, to the summer school office to get photocopies of the group pieces Emma had sent to the others in advance, and then about an hour to decipher and learn 2 new pieces on facsimile scores.  A younger self would have been tempted to give up or cry or panic, but I just knew it needed doing, and that I would do it.  The workshop was a success, and I held my own with the sight reading.  I has underestimated the skill, picked up from so many years in choirs, of picking up tunes and harmonies quickly.  It turns out I may be a slow reader but I have a quick ear.

I am the sort of person who likes to have a plan, I like to be well prepared, and I like to craft songs until I think they can be aired in public.  This is partly down to my lack of confidence in my ability to sight read.  But the most important thing I learned last week was that I could just jump in and swim, and, what’s more, get a huge sense of achievement from it.  I ‘felt the fear’ and did it anyway.  It reminded me of the inspiring speech made by Nadiya Hussein when she won the great British Bake Off last year.

“I’m never gonna put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never gonna say I can’t do it. I’m never gonna say ‘maybe’. I’m never gonna say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will”.

Another evening with Cissie

Friday 13th May turned out to be lucky for some when we again took to the stage with Cissie’s Songbook.  This time we were better rehearsed, and there was time to think about aspects of staging and scene transition that hadn’t worked so well at the first performance last year.

I was lucky to be joined again by Neil Fordham, whose melifluous tenor voice is perfectly suited to songs of the period.  The accompanist was a local pianist, Peter Riddle, a man of talent and good humour, and it was good to know the musical accompaniment was in such a safe pair of hands.

The evening was a fund-raiser for the Wirksworth Care Project and Friends of Waltham House, with the show followed by supper, wine and a raffle.  We presented it in the residents lounge of the care home, and much hard work took place behind the scenes to pull the evening together, with the committee working tirelessly to get everything in place.  But current estimates for money raised stand at £800, so well worth the work.

It was a lovely evening, with an appreciative audience who didn’t hesitate to participate.  And it was so rewarding and humbling to be thanked by older members of the audience, who were moved to tears by memories evoked by some of the songs.  People said they found it engaging, moving and funny, all I could hope to hear.  There were one or two hiccups, but we are not professionals, and the odd slip may be excused.  Especially as they added to the humour.  I went to pick up the ‘baby’ doll, only to find it upside down with the feet sticking out at the top of the shawl.  This made me giggle, and my fellow performer leaned in to the microphone, and explained to the audience that it was my first baby, and I would get the hang of it!

Music is life… restoring

When I chose the sub heading for my blog I never realised how apt it would be.  When all about you is change and uncertainty, and emotions threatens to overwhelm, then music is more than just a balm. It is a state of being, where pain stops being a negative emotion, but is harnessed to add colour and passion to your music making. it is a place where you can lose yourself in the moment, find purpose and focus, and glimpse the possibility of joy once more. It is life giving and life restoring.

2016 will be a year of unknowns, but the musical journey continues and I look forward to wherever it will take me. My music has become my constant, grounding me and reminding me who I am.  I am looking forward to many more performances, to singing in new situations and widening my repertoire, and always to learn and grow.  I love this quote on confidence and performance:

“I will cast this spell: I know I can open this door and show you something unforgettable and transforming, and I’m determined to take myself there and to take you with me”  (Jeffrey Kahane, pianist).

Magnificat

The years rush round again, and 26th September 2015 brought Wirksworth Community Choir’s annual Choral Day, bringing together a large ‘come and sing’ choir.  As usual it was a very enjoyable day, plenty of hard work, laughter and that special sense of community sharing beautiful music with like minded folk.  The programme was varied with old favourites such as Parry’s ‘I was glad’, and Handel’s Zadok the priest, and culminated in Bach’s Magnificat.  It was interesting to give up my usual top soprano part, and quickly learn the second soprano solos instead, and  I was especially happy with the arrangement when I heard the talented young woman who joined us for the day.  It is always delightful to see young singers starting out on their journey, and share the thrill of hearing moments of great promise.  The trio, Suscepit Israel, was one of those sublime moments when you are part of something so special you don’t want it to end, and judging by the breathless pause at the end of it, neither did the audience!  The best summary of the day comes from the Wirksworth Community Choir Facebook page:

“just when you might have thought exhaustion would rule, Parry lifted us, Stanford and Handel set us straight, and Bach sent us to heaven!”

The rest is details…

There comes a time when the details become important, like three weeks before a performance when you realise you still only have half the props and costume in place.  Thank goodness for ebay!  This wet Bank Holiday has been the perfect time to sit in the office and tick ‘details’ off the to-do list.

I have worked out staging and roped in family as ‘front of house’ – they are kindly putting up with my obsession with Cissie!  The room has great acoustics and a sense of history, I’m lucky to be able to use the Coach House Studios.

This has been an incredible journey, I now have a workable script and a sense of something coming together.   I also feel closer to my family and roots, helped by a trip back to Preston in early August.  I had planned a visit to my Auntie, Cissie’s daughter, but wasn’t expecting the group of cousins as well, what a wonderful surprise.  I do feel a sense of responsibility; although ‘my Cissie’ is a fictitious character she is based on my Grandma of that name.  So much of the story is based on real anecdotes, and the true Cissie remains in the memories of so many people.  I am very lucky to have my Dad’s writings to help me, it’s no coincidence that many of the anecdotes refer to his life as a child and young man.

It also feels so important to get on and do this now, and use my voice while I can.  The original Cissie, my parents, and countless other men and women of their generations couldn’t choose but just got on with it, dealt with poverty, war, separation, and passed the baton on to us to make the most of life.

Cissie’s Songbook flier

 

Cissie’s Songbook

I love the random connections in life, and the way you never know what a new day will bring.  Sometimes it is one of those painful challenges, but occasionally the start of something joyful and exciting.  After singing an Ivor Novello song at the May concert with Wirksworth Community Choir a tenor came up to me and handed me a copy of an Ivor Novello Songbook.  I had no idea then where it would lead, but I am very grateful to him for having that confidence in me that I should do more of the same.

 

I have been toying with the idea of putting on a fringe event for the Wirksworth Arts Festival Fringe for a couple of years now, but somehow never go round to it, and wasn’t sure what form it would take. But after this concert the germ of an idea started and wouldn’t go away, and with the help and support of family and friends I took the plunge and registered a musical evening entitled ‘Cissie’s Songbook’.    I had no idea what I was starting, and it has been a whirlwind getting to grips with all the practical elements, such as venue, licenses, props, publicity but at the heart are the glorious heart-string tugging melodies of Novello.  It was difficult to cut down to a practical number, but I listened constantly and then waited to see which ones I was humming in the kitchen or shower, and which moved me to tears, and those were my choice.

 

So who is CisYoung Cissiesie?

I have had the space this year to pull back a little from work, thanks to my understanding and supportive husband, Mike, and revisited the family tree work I started years ago, then continued by my parents.  I came across a studio portrait of my paternal Grandma, Mary Elizabeth Singleton known as Cissie, and a copy of my Dad’s autobiography.  Rereading that account of his early years brought her vividly back to me, not the old lady I had known, sitting in a chair, hat firmly ensconsed with a large pin, but the young Cissie, who had always wanted to go on the stage, but started in the cotton mill at 12.  And then I found another picture, an older Cissie, arms folded, looking straight at the camera, dirty pinny, clogs and a toddler by her side.  And suddenly it was clear in my head.  Cissie would get to sing again, and the songs of Ivor Novello would be the background to her story.

Now is the month of maying

Wirksworth Community Choir gave their spring concert on Saturday, and were able to include a most appropriate madrigal, ‘Now is the month of maying’ ( by Thomas Morley).  I do like this version by the King’s Singers.  The concert was held in St Mary’s church in Wirksworth, a beautiful building with lovely acoustics.

We had the privilege of giving a premiere performance of a brilliant choral anthem – God is ascended up on High – by Derek Moore Morgan. It employs a brilliant trumpet solo along with organ. There is a family connection to the choir, and we sang it in memory of a dear member of the alto section who sadly died last year.

It was a very pleasant evening, with a varied programme, and several contributions from talented pupils from the local school.  It’s so great to see the love of music being carried by the next generations.

I was able to contribute a song by Ivor Novello, ‘I can give you the starlight’.  When I was younger I didn’t appreciate him, finding the songs a bit sentimental, but as I get older, (and more sentimental myself!) I just enjoy the gorgeous tunes and can appreciate the more innocent and magical world he created.  It must have been such a wonderful escape from some of the dark and dismal days in the first half of the twentieth century.

It is a new song for me, so not entirely bedded in, but I will enjoy working on it.  Below is a very poor recording taken on a phone, but you get the idea!

Finding the inner Diva…

Tired but happy today after an excellent Opera workshop yesterday, one of a series of specialist workshops run from the  Lynne Wayman Voice Centre.  I am so lucky to live within an hour of Nottingham and be able to study with Lynne and attend classes.

Each singer brought along an aria in preparation, and as we moved through the day Lynne set each in context and took us on a journey, from the delicacy and precision of Voi non Sapete by Mozart, to the grand emotion of Verdi’s Otello and ‘Verismo’ (Realism) of Puccini and Mascagni.

There were also fascinating discussions on the anatomy and physiology of singing, particularly as related to opera.  There were music teachers and experienced singers in the group and the shared experience and wisdom all added to the day. 

My own work in progress was ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’ from Catalani’s La Wally.  I was a little unsure on this choice, as my favourite versions are by Maria Callas and Rene Fleming and I wasn’t sure if I could do it justice, but was pleasantly surprised by the good feedback I got.  There is a core of singers at Lynne’s events whom I have got to know over the years and several people remarked it was the best they had ever heard me sing.  This is a huge boost, coming from great singers I trust and respect. Especially as I am recovering from a cold

Over the last 18 months I have concentrated on building stamina and strength through Pilates and uphill walking, gone back to basics in technique and breathing exercises and most importantly worked on self belief, and defeating the ‘inner critic’ which can do so much damage to performance.  It is heartening that the voice is responding so well.  But I must remember to rest it today!

MariaCallas