What a week that was. Great fun, but I could not sustain too many of them.
It started a week ago yesterday, with rehearsals in the afternoon. Two grade 1 violinists for their exam. Their brilliant teacher made a round trip of 50 miles to bring them for the rehearsal. She brought them in, sat them down, tuned their instruments, put one of their copies on the music stand, rummaged in her bag and then announced, â€œI canâ€™t believe what I have done.â€ She had not brought the piano part. Oops.
There was nothing I could do because I had a rehearsal with Alex straight after, for a midday recital later in the week. The exams were straight after the recital but in different towns. I promised to arrive as early as I could and try fit in a run-through in the waiting room.
Alex is a 17 year old violinist capable of playing with amazing musicality for one so young. I met her when accompanying some gcse practicals last summer. Alex is my sort of girl; I am her sort of teacher. We stuck together and she now has piano lessons with me as well. The rehearsal was great.
Monday and Tuesday were relatively quiet days, so I was able to practise all of the 150 or so accomps I was to have played by the end of the week. There was my normal evening teaching and a singing lesson to take Heidi to but nothing out of the ordinary.
Wednesday am and off to pick up Alex and drive to Louth for the recital.
Alex's house - Louth = just over 50 miles. I could see she wanted to withdraw within herself, so told her that if she wanted to put the radio on and find a channel she liked to go ahead.
So I drove to Louth for an hour with extremely loud pop music and associated drivel from Galaxy FM playing over the radio. I have never done that before
What we do for kids, eh?
Thing about Alex is her personality shines out from within; it affects everyone she meets. The audience took her to their hearts, as I knew they would. Her playing was mostly great but decidedly iffy in places. The great thing about a live performance is that it is a complete package. Alex looked wonderful and responded to the audience magnificently, so they just loved each other. As I knew they would.
We had horribly mistimed the programme and it was going to be 10 minutes short. During some applause, I muttered to Alex, "We have mucked up the timing." "I know," she replied, "Any ideas?". I didn't want to throw in a solo - it was her day so, "How about that Handel sonata we bashed through passably well last week?" "OK, let's do it." I explained to the audience what we had done and how we were going to solve the prob. Alex played with colossal aplomb.
Aged 17. Wow.
The run back to Scun-thorpe consisted for 45 minutes of gbh of the left eardrum by a very high Alex. I tried to shut her up with vast quantities of chocolate but nothing worked. Can't really say I was sorry. Staggering how kids can talk round gob-fulls of chocolate, isn't it?
We got to S######horpe for the exams with a couple of minutes to spare (thankyou, O Mighty SatNav). I spent that 'taking through' the pieces with the girls' teacher, then it was 'in'. They had both promised solemly that they would ignore any of my introductions that were not at the correct speed.
So, piece no 1 and I took off like a rocket - didn't mean to but just did. 8 year old girl completely ignored this and played at about one third of the speed. I adjusted instantly, of course, but couldn't help but admire the composure. Modern kids can be so good, can't they?
Back to the car and a further 30 minutes or so of gbh of the left eardrum.
Brilliant isn't it, the trust that parents and kids invest in me on these occasions. For all sorts of genuine reasons, Alex's parents were unable to attend the concert. I was allowed to hijack their daughter, and drag her off into the wide blue yonder into a situation where I was the only one who knew what was going to happen.
Fantastic. Of course, I feel an awesome responsibility on these occasions. By the same token, I can spoil the kids rotten without having to worry about bringing them up. And boy, do I spoil them.
So, very pleasant day.
Back to sunny Scunny on the Thursday am for some more exams; not much, with just a grade 8 flute (usual Poulenc and Handel) and a grade 4 saxophone. That and travel took up most of the morning; still, that gave me the afternoon and Friday during the day to work further at the 130 or so accomps I was going to play over the weekend at the Bradley Youth Festival in Grimsby.
None of the accomps were difficult to play. Thing is, I cannot rely on reading during the performance if I am also to devote the attention to the soloist that he\she needs. By the time I have played through them 3 times, they are starting to feel familiar; after 4 times they are starting to feel comfortable; 5 times and they are mostly safe.
130+ accomps take a long time to play through, so most of my time during the last 3 weeks was devoted to them. The performances mostly went smoothly, partly because of the magnificent teaching offered to the competitors and partly due to my preparation.
First trip to Grimsby (88 mile round trip) was Friday night for 3 hours of vocal and woodwind classes. These naturally stretched to about three and a half hours, as the festival had underestimated the length of time each performer would need.
I was met at the door by an anxious 17 year old saxophonist explaining that she had not realised she was supposed to send me a copy of the music. Would I be able to play it for her? She would understand if not. I knew why, when I saw the piano part. 3rd movement of Milhaudâ€™s sax sonata; need I say more?
In my favour was the strict ternary form of the movement, a samba. Section A had a typical samba rhythm consisting of lh chord, then two rh chords, then another lh chord within each semiquaver group â€“ I do chords with ease, mostly. The middle section was tougher, being more contrapuntal but I used adudication times to study the section and work out what notes to leave out.
Come the performance, I wanted the judge to know I was virtually sight-reading a difficult piano part. I didnâ€™t want to highlight the competitorâ€™s mistake so I lied, and told the judge that her original, regular accompanist was ill and could not turn up. Excuse my inadequacy etc.
The performance was a barnstormer â€“ mountains of applause â€“ loads of kudos for the competitor for playing so brilliantly with a pianist she had never me before and for me for doing so well under such difficult performances.
Now, we muzos all know how temporary success can be. Mine lasted about 5 minutes. The next class started with a recorder player of considerable skill. The only performer in the entire festival I forgot to ask whether she was playing the first section repeat did exactly that, so I lost her. I found her eventually, then lost her again when I forgot about the third page â€“ the second finished with an emphatic perfect cadence and I had gormlessly not realised there was a third. The judge shot me a wicked grin at the end.
Up at 6.30 am on Saturday for The Killer Day. A couple of set song classes in the morning â€“ 18 performances of â€œWhere is Love?â€ followed by 15 performance of â€œPath to the Moonâ€ had the judge and I frequently checking each othersâ€™ sanity by asking for confirmation of our names.
The festival was held in Grimsby town hall. All the vocal classes took place in the Assembly Room â€“ a magnificent hall with a stage and a wonderful, full-sized Steinway grand on the stage.
Thing about a full-sized Steinway grand is, it can make a lot of noise â€“ as I proved to an admiring festival committee when I test drove it properly with Chopinâ€™s G minor Ballade during a meal break.
Thing about singers aged 6 to about 13 is, they donâ€™t make much noise when they sing. Put them on stage in a huge hall with a full-sized grand and the accompanist has a problem. The soft pedal helps but the technique and finger control required to play softly enough is colossal. And exhausting. There are a lot of vocal classes that kids can enter in this festival; lots of them entered the lot. By the end, I knew all their names.
The accompanist can do much to enhance the festival experience for the competitors by smiling a lot. I always greet them as they approach the piano with a huge grin and a â€œHelloâ€¦. It is wonderful to meet you\see you again.â€ At the end of the performance, I offer a â€œThat was fabulous. Well doneâ€ and another huge grin.
I take charge of performances that falter â€“ after all, I am one of only two people in the room being paid and the judge is busy. Rather than letting a corpsing performer stand in terror waiting for execution, I direct them back to the a good starting point. I will even sing along with them, if necessary; this usually forces them back on track out of sheer self-defence.
Downstairs after this to the rest of the morning accompanying cello classes, then violin classes in the afternoon. These were all superb; there is a magical string teacher living close to Grimsby and child after child played beautifully.
Alex played, along with Ruth, another violinist who has piano lessons with me, and Ama, a brilliant young player I was meeting for the first time. There were a couple of transcendent classes in the afternoon when these three were competing with one another. Alexâ€™s playing won her a class cup and the trophy for most promising violinist. It has been a good week for her and has introduced Alex to a new form of playing â€“ that to an audience that actually sits still and listens. She has an electric violin and backing tracks she uses to perform for obscene amounts of money at weddings, so she performs many times a year, but not to people actually listening (have a look at her website here if you are curious).
Playing with me, Alexâ€™s Meditation (Massenet) is special. In front of the audience at Louth and in the festival class, it was extra-special. Come the festival concert for outstanding performers, she took one look at the audience and thought, â€œWow. You lot are mineâ€ and gave a stunning performance. Born performer, this girl.
All this being nice is almost as tiring as the playing. Into the seventh our of Saturday, I was in danger of starting to hallucinate. This hour coincided with the start of the third session of the day â€“ songs from the musicals and films.
The younger classes were fine â€“ well taught kids. Hitting the older age groups is where the problems started. Ok, so there were only a handful who had not sent their music in beforehand â€“ these also turned out the be the worst prepared â€“ but so many of the performances bore no resemblance to what was printed on the page.
Time and again, kids in the 14-19 age bracket came to me with their score and said things like, â€œI go to here, then back to here, then on to here, then back to hereâ€¦â€¦..â€ and then gave a performance that was completely unrelated to anything they had told me. I managed, mostly, although there was one on whom I gave up altogether.
On relating this to the other accompanist the following day, she quipped, â€œI did those classes last year. You donâ€™t need a score to find where they are, you need a map and compass.â€ Frankly, I think I needed a divining rod.
The evening finally ground to a halt at about 9.35 pm. Home to bed.
Back the following morning for some remaining classes â€“ all set songs. 18 performances of â€œThe Snowmanâ€ had me and judge regularly checking our sanity again. 12 performances of â€˜Snakesâ€™ were little better. The 8 and under â€˜5 Little Miceâ€™ attracted a heavenly total of 1 competitor; the whole room suffered a massive ecstasy attack. Is it possible to die of cute, I wonder?
Wayward saxophonist had sent in a box of Roses chocs as a thank you for not dropping her in the stew on Friday night. The final class of the festival was the 10 and under â€˜The Kangarooâ€™ with ten competitors. As a celebration, I broke open the box and gave each of the kiddies one after they had sung. I am sure I heard one little girl ask her mum if she could go up and sing again.
There just remained the festival concert to go, at 2.30 in the afternoon. Half a dozen performances to accompany, all early on so that I could get away. Event done and dusted and a whole host of new friends made with grateful parents who recognise a good thing when they see it, especially those who go to festivals where accompanists lack basic skills.
Why did I need to get away? Well, Heidi was singing on Friday and Saturday, along with Kate, another of my piano pupils who also studies singing with Heidiâ€™s singing teacher. The girls had performed superbly; no first prizes but a host of seconds between them â€“ brilliant given the standard of singing over there.
On the Saturday, Heidi had said, â€œI die on Mondayâ€ in that way she has when she expects me to save her life. Naturally, I asked why she expected such an extreme event to occur. Roughly a grade 8 standard violinist, 6-7 standard singer and 6 standard saxophonist, Heidi is a somewhat exceptional year 10 gcse music student. The class teacherâ€™s method of dealing with her is to arrange her instrumental lessons during her gcse classes and then expect her to sort out the class work for herself; he plays steam with her when she cannot. Unfair, but it is what happens. The cause of Heidiâ€™s impending demise was some grade 6 music theory that she could not possibly sort out for herself. I had promised to stop off on my way home and sort her out.
Others might think I am bonkers, but I feel the need to at least try to be consistent with kids. Heidi is very special to me and relies on me for much. I can hardly turn round and tell her she can only be special when it is convenient. So, back to her place to sort out the theory â€“ only took about 45 minutes, so I was home for 6.00.
So, a brilliant week that I thoroughly enjoyed. Glad there are not too many like them, though.
Steve, enjoying a day off