Songs for the betrayed world

Last night I was privelidged to play with the life and death orchestra, playing the piano for a disturbing and moving performance of “Songs for the betrayed world”.  We were performing in the University of Essex which is in Colchester.  I have to say that Universities have changed so much since I was at Royal Holloway nearly 20 years ago.  The campus was reminiscent of a town, with a veritable high street of shops and eateries.  Admittedly the food in the American Diner was as poor as you would expect, but the very fact it existed at all was enough to impress me!

The concert went very well with around 80 people in the audience, including some holocaust survivors.  The performance is based around writings from survivors from Auschwitz and Dachau and other camps, set to music composed by Bill Smith.  The style is fairly minimalist but the words add a huge sense of pathos and depth to the work.  The writings are so frank and revealing, devoid of flowery language and tired metaphor, instead speaking plainly about death and life.  I think the line that sticks with me most is during “The Argument”, when the protagonist of the story answers the phrase “Love conquers everything”, with the line, “NO, death conquers everything.”

I was delighted to have an extensive solo, “Klara’s escape” in the middle of the show.  It has been a long while since I have played the piano on it’s own, without having some comedians or other musicians to support.  I hope it is something I can continue to develop.

The other members of the orchestra were extremely professional, and it was a joy to rehearse with real musicians who could pick things up quickly and concentrate on the musical aspects of the performance.  We only had two rehearsals before the gig so there was no time for the kind of flabby rehearsals that used to annoy me so much with orchestras and bands.

If there is a video forthcoming of the concert, I will update!

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The warmest church in Sussex.

It is healthy to be reminded why we do what we do sometimes. Last night was a prime example of this. The quiet village of Poynings nestles snugly behind the South Downs, safely shielded from the brashness of Brighton, guarding the lower entrance to Devil’s Dyke. The Maydays were playing in the Village Church as part of their fundraising efforts for some new heating. The need for this was all too apparent as I sat and watched Rebecca shivering with her entire body as she waiting on the wings. We were performing our new show, “All about you” which takes anecdotes from the audience and turns them into sketches and songs. It is a lovely format in an intimate community like Poynings as most people know each other, so te anecdotes are meaningful to all. However, nobody was expecting the acrimonious break-up of a teanage couple to dominate the evening, with anecdotes from both parties!
The atmosphere was far warmer than the temperature, and we soon warmed to our task, the homemade mulled wine and mince pies keeping the audience alive. Highlights were surely the death of a clown, foxes against humans and the expensive crisp blues. On a personal level, the chance to play the church organ for our final Gospel number was a unique experience for me. Admittedly, the song itself still needs a bit of work, but as for new experiences, that one is hard to beat.
After the show we were approached by so many members of the village whose friendliness and genuine curiosity in improvisation was heartening and heartfelt. We found ourselves in the local pub soon afterwards and continued to be chatted to and welcomed into what felt like a close-knit and vibrant community.
THe discussion amongst the Maydays turned to the value of doing gigs in communities. It does say something that we had a bigger, more appreciative audience than at some of our Komedia shows in Brighton. Also, we all left feeling that we had not only entertained the village, but had contributed to their much needed cause also. Thank you to the wonderful people of Poynings!
Find out more about what we do at themaydays.co.uk

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The life of a musician

I have just had a typically strange and gloriously diverse weekend of being a musician. I guess this is why I love doing what I do, gets me out meeting all sorts of interesting people, especially Brighton people, and always has me on my toes, not quite knowing what I will be doing next. Prime example, a gay Brighton wedding reception at Latest 7. My brief was to simpy accompany four singers who were happy to rehearse beforehand and who had music. Simple. Turned up for rehearsal and there is one nervous guy who does indeed have music for “It had to be you”. We ran through no problem. Then the groom arrived. He had promised to sing his new groom Nina Simone’s version of “He Needs Me”. Well, typical Nina Simone, the chords, beautiful as they are only sketch out the harmony really, and so most of the time we were totally at sea. Managed to work it out between us. Then I was told that there would be a couple of other people who were professionals and so would just come up and sing a standard, and that I could wing it!

Confident as I am in my abilities as a pianist, there are few scarier things than having to immediatly accompany a singer, who usually has a set idea in their heads of how the song goes according to their backing track or regular musician! I made the tragic mistake once of accompanying a singer in a restaurant in Amsterdam on the spur of the moment. We did “I will always love you”. I proceeded to jam and wing my way through it, but omitted the painfully long and drawn out key change. Whoops. Singer and accompanyist in different keys never a good idea. That was a long time ago.
Turned out that there were no other people wanting to sing, so I played my two tunes and disappeared.

Then Sunday, I was back at Latest 7 for a first rehearsal of the very moving “Songs for the Betrayed World”, which is a collection of pieces by Bill Arnette from poems on the holocaust.  We are performing it at a venie in Essex later this month.  It was a great rehearsal but I was plagued by haunting images….of the gay wedding the previous night.  Excuse my shallowness, there were some poignant holocaust images also, but they got a bit lost in the irony.

Tonight improv rehearsal with the Maydays. Bring it on!

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Music, improvisation, and non verbal communication.

Musical improvisation and Non Verbal Communication

 

While studying music at University I was fortunate enough to play the violin in a string quartet.  Being students, there were many convoluted and bizarre relationships among the four people playing, and we would often bring unresolved arguments, unrequited love and seething jealousy with us to rehearsals.   After the cursory and often bitter verbal exchanges we would place our bows on strings and begin.  At this point, our verbal communication channel was muted, talking was reserved purely for practical purposes.  At the end of rehearsal however, the air was often cleansed of the heavy emotional content that had suffused it so thoroughly beforehand.  Arguments dissolved, passions muted and conversation would often return to more mundane practicalities of the day.

I was also studying psychology at the time and distinctly remember coming fresh from a lecture about non verbal communication into one of our rehearsals.  As the first violin, it was my job to “lead” the quartet.  This means that the tempo, dynamics, phrasing and synchronising were my responsibility.  A bow high in the air descending towards my strings would allow the other members to time their simultaneous entries so we all came in together as one.  Leaning forwards would bring down the volume, sitting back and broadening my shoulders could result in a triumphant crescendo.  Eye contact could encourage a tune to rise above the others, a slight frown could send a tune scuttling back to a supporting role.

In amongst all the artistic decisions being made were entire conversations.  A slightly pleading expression could say sorry; a faint smile, I forgive you.   Arguments could also be started.  One I remember clearly was during the Shostakovich string quintet.  I had the job of stating a new, jaunty theme on the violin before passing it to the viola.  I gained eye contact with her just before finishing the tune, a slight nod and she was off.  She stamped on the tune, growling it out, giving it a complexion I had been utterly unaware of until that time.  The exchanges became more and more violent, and at the end of the rehearsal, she packed up and stormed out.

I am convinced that the three years of playing in that string quartet improved my ability to communicate effectively without speaking.  I now use those skills as musical director of improvisation company, The Maydays.  As the sketches develop, I need to make the decision when to start playing, what to play, and what emotion to bring out.  Once the song has started, it is my job to give it structure and to signify any significant changes in mood or style without giving any visual signals.  As the end of the song nears, I am looking for someone to take charge of the ending of the song.  If no clear leader emerges I will make it as clear as I can when I think the song should stop.

From the singer’s perspective, things look rather different.  Essentially the performers are making a case, putting forward a point of view, but doing this as a team, without preparation and without verbally communicating with each other.  The success of the song is measured directly by the reaction of the audience, whether it be one person or a room full.  The fact that there is music which has a definite speed, rhythm and harmony means that there is little room for hesitation.  Full commitment is required not just for the individual, but so the rest of the team understands their role.

There are many parallels to the business world here.  There are often times when a case needs to be put forward by a team to an audience, whether it be a board of directors, or a room full of employees.  Often the narrative will turn in unexpected directions and there is no time for discussing strategy, the team must move as one and communicate with conviction and without hesitation.  The success of the team is measured directly by the response of the audience and the acceptance of the proposition being put forward.  Let’s look at some specific skills that are required for this dynamic strategy to be effective.

Leadership

As I mentioned before, if no clear leader emerges then I will make the decisions myself, being behind the keyboard.  Performance becomes significantly easier however if an individual steps forward, often physically and takes control.  In business a leader will be predetermined by their profile within the company, however there are times when the leader needs to have knowledge in a specific area such as I.T. or H.R.  In these situations, the right person needs to take control or the message can easily become unconvincing.  Leadership can be transferred so that the best person is in control at any one time, or it can be maintained by an individual, so that they are always in control of the team.  An effective interviewer will take charge of the entire conversation and make it clear when the interviewee should start talking, and more importantly, when to stop.  This can be done by positioning the body, gaining effective eye contact, or even audibly taking a breath.  If control is given away to the interviewee, the results can be disastrous.

Listening

One of the worst case scenarios in a performance is when two people start singing together.  At this point the façade comes tumbling down, and there is  no way of convincing the audience that this was supposed to happen.  The same is true when speaking.  Speaking over someone else is rarely an effective way of getting your point accross.  When putting a case forward as a team, it is even more important that everyone takes their turn without crashing anyone else’s point.  Just as in leading a string quartet, signals of when to start and stop can easily be given with eye contact or intonation. Listening is not just about words, it is about body language and facial expression.  Only when you can “listen” to all the channels of communication can you really work together effectively as a team when delivering a message.

Commitment

Once a leader has emerged, they must then carry the role with 100% commitment.  Many songs have begun with a ridiculous line such as “Aliens have stolen my dog”.  If this song is sung with a feeling of apology or embarrassment then the humour is not as effectively delivered.  If however, the performer steps up to the front of the stage and sings the line with a full voice, wide gestures and complete commitment, the humour is intensified massively.  The same is true when trying to persuade someone of your point of view.  If the listener detects a hint of insecurity, they will most likely remain unconvinced.  After all, if you do not have faith in your own convictions, why should anybody else?  It is far funnier if the performer really thinks aliens have stolen their dog, than if they are just putting that forward as a funny idea.

Non-verbal communication

 Give the same speech to two different people and they will deliver two different messages.  It is possible to read a speech with the same words in the same order, but communicate an entirely different meaning.  Our body language, intonation while speaking, expressions and eye contact will all tell their own story, and it is often far more powerful that the story the words are telling.  How many times has a text message you sent been completely misinterpreted, and then you spend the next four messages just trying to communicate that you were joking, or you thought they were joking?  Effective speakers often have very well rehearsed movements that they use to deliver their messages.  One only has to look at world leaders to see that their use of their hands, eyes and body is very carefully controlled.  When part of a team, you must not only use these skills to communicate with your audience, but also with the other members of your team.

Improvisation

Speeches are only as good as the person speaking.  Most of the time, having the words written out for us is a hindrance.  Losing eye contact with the audience, losing our place on the page and stumbling over words are very common problems, even for the most experienced speakers.  Being able to construct a speech or conversation on the spot is a far more powerful way of communicating.  The best public speaker will have bullet points, or general headings to structure their speech, but will not rely upon a script.  When a conversation or discussion takes an unexpected turn, the improviser will be right there, ready to respond, ready to turn the surprise back on the other person.

All of these skills can be practised.  Traditionally this has taken the form of painful role-play situations at training days.  It does not have to be like this!  Joining an improvisation workshop gives a safe, supportive environment where these skills can be honed within a group of like-minded people.  The role of comedy is to give the performer a clear objective, and also makes the whole process a lot more enjoyable.  From my point of view, the role of music within improvised comedy is to break down inhibitions and really nurture commitment.  It is a very personal experience to sing in front of a group of people, but in the right environment it is also very empowering.  There is no need to have a good voice or musical experience, singing is a natural extension of talking, and we can all do that.  You will be amazed how quickly fear can turn into self-belief, and often into addiction!

For more details on how to join a workshop, visit themaydays.co.uk or email info@themaydays.co.uk.

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On Bach to Shostakovich

On Bach and Shostakovich

About 15 years ago I discovered Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues for piano.  The story goes that he was a judge at a Bach piano competition and heard Tatanya Nickolyova playing the Bach preludes and fugues.  He was so taken by her playing of Bach’s masterpieces that he set about writing a set of 24 preludes and fugues of his own for her to play.  There is a recording of her playing these pieces which is amazing to hear, but there is also a recording of Keith Jarrett, better known for his jazz improvisations, playing these pieces that is quite mind-blowing.

It was Keith Jarrett’s playing that made me determined to learn some of the harder preludes and fugues, and I jumped in with both feet, attempting to learn the trickiest ones I could find.  I failed.  I realised my technique was simply not up to the delicate finger work required by the writing, and I wondered why that was.  I soon realised that years of playing Chopin and Rachmaninoff had rendered my left hand incapable of playing anything delicate and accurate.  A comment made by my violin teacher at University came to my mind, “You should learn some Bach”.

It seemed fitting really to start with Bach, as he had been the inspiration for Shostakovich.  I duly purchased the Bach Well Tempered Clavier which is his set of Preludes and Fugues.  I dived in and learned a few of the easier pieces without too much difficulty.  Then I tried some of the more complex fugues.  I was lost.  I decided to learn the preludes and fugues from Book 2 in order so as not to avoid anything I felt I found too hard.

15 years later and I am on number  17 of 24.  Admittedly there have been large gaps due to children, laziness, life in general, but I am far from disheartened.  In fact the only concern I have is whether I have enough life to complete this task and move on! At the present rate it will be another 7 years to the end of Book 2, but what about Book 1?

I feel as though I am still heading back towards Shostakovich, but I had no idea of the wonder, beauty and intelligence of Bach.  I am totally involved in his music, his treatment of line and form, his experimentation and his lyricism.  Bach for me is to played in the morning, as a meditation, a tonic, an escape from an unstructured world into one who’s structure is the world.

I thought I was going to move on from Bach, through Scarlatti, Mozart, Schubert and eventually back to Shostakovich.  Instead I am happily ensconced.  I have no need to move on for I feel I am learning all  need to know here.  I have barely played the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues since, except for sometimes while teaching.  They wait for me, waiting until I am mature enough, accomplished enough, knowledgeable enough to play them.

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SeeChord-A new approach to music harmony

J.Samuel

Seechord.co.uk

A New approach to understanding harmony.

The “rules” of harmony have consistently provided some of the greatest teaching and learning challenges in music.  Even simple chord progressions can become dauntingly complex with the addition of a few extra notes, a different chord or a change of key.

Notating chords as text or Roman numerals can give us some insight into the patterns that are inherent in all music, but quickly become cumbersome and often more confusing than the written music itself.

SeeChord is trying to change all that.  Using simple visual patterns to represent the harmony of a piece, the user can quickly identify certain important features of a piece of music that stand out as being conventional, or that break the “rules” of harmony.

A SeeChord chart is basically a graph, the root notes of the chords are laid out on the y-axis in fifths, time in bars and beats on the x-axis.  An empty bar of a chart looks like this:

So, why are the chords laid out in fifths on the x-axis?  Well, it comes down to the fact that a fifth (C-G or G-D) is probably the most important interval there is in music.  Mathematically, a G resonates at 1.5 the frequency of the C below it.  Our are are finely tuned to pick up these relationships and so we hear a C and a G as “consonant”.  Detune the G slightly and our ears pick up a nasty “dissonance” as this relationship is warped.

Likewise, a C resonates at 1.5 the frequency of the F below it, and so F and G are the most closely related notes to C.

A circle of fifths has traditionally been used to illustrate the movement of harmony.  Here, the simple progression C-dm-G-C can be seen represented with arrows:

Problems quickly arise with longer sequences of chords as the circle becomes cluttered with lines.  We certainly could not represent the harmony of an entire song or piece as the result would be unintelligible!  On a SeeChord chart, the sequence looks like this.

Different symbols have been used to represent different types of chords as below:

The symbols have been joined up with simple lines to provide a little more visual clarity.  Now we can easily extend this sequence for as long as we like.  Let us look at the first 11 bars of this piece, which is The First Prelude from the first book of  The Well Tempered Clavier by J.S.Bach.

Now we can start to build up a picture of how the harmony is moving in this piece without getting bogged down in chord symbols.  Let us do some analysis of this simple and beautiful chord sequence. You can see a similar analysis online and hear the music being played at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JE5penT5_e0

This piece is in the key of C major and as we would expect, C is the first chord (the chord is split into an arpeggiated pattern in the actual music).  After a small journey through dm and G7, we return to C.  This is a way of establishing the tonic which gives us the sense that we really are at home in C.

Next, we can see a pattern that occurs in almost every piece of music at some point; a sequence of falling fifths.  SeeChord highlights this pattern very well as the graph literally falls down through the chords.

Finally, at the end of the phrase, we can see a temporary modulation into the key of G.  It is only temporary as soon afterwards, the music returns to C again.

It is important to notice how this modulation or key change has been achieved.  The new key is established with a perfect cadence D7-G.  This is the most convincing way of arriving at a new key.  However, this cadence is really three chords, am-D7-G.  The am chord strengthens this key change even more.  This is often referred to as a ii-V-I, but is really easy to see on the chart.

This kind of analysis is made simple by being able to see entire pieces on a SeeChord chart.  Modulations, recurring themes, harmonic sequences and much more can be explored just by pointing out visual patters that leap from the page.

However complex the music, SeeChord can give insight into its structure.  Let’s look at this excerpt from Prokofiev’s Classical symphony.  Again, to see this while hearing the music, visit http://www.seechord.co.uk/resources/topics/cadences/.

This example starts with a perfect cadence in the tonic of D.

Then we have two interrupted cadences.  These cadences occur when we expect the music to fall to the tonic as in the perfect cadence, but it goes somewhere else instead.  In this example, the first goes to bmin, the second to G.

The grey arrows indicate where the ear expect the music to go.  Finally, we are treated to the same perfect cadence that this section began with, giving a very satisfying sense of completion.

If we were to write out this passage in conventional chord notation, it would look like this:

A7-D, A7-bmin, A7-G, A7-D.

Or in Roman Numerals:

V7-I, V7-vi, V7-IV, V7-I.

The SeeChord chart really brings these to life.  Now we see the cadence structure of this passage and can discuss, teach or simply listen with a more educated ear to the beauty of Prokofiev’s writing.

SeeChord is already being used in Secondary schools to help students enter more meaningfully into the complex world of harmony.  Song writers are using it to develop more interesting progressions, or to emulate their heroes.  Composers can really construct beautiful harmonic sequences and negotiate tricky modulations by writing with a SeeChord chart close to hand.

If you would like to know more about SeeChord, visit our website seechord.co.uk and see what it can do for you or email info@seechord.co.uk with your questions.  I hope we can provide a more meaningful musical experience for you.

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Notes on improvisation

Improvisation is become my main source of expression nowadays. I work closely with an improvised comedy troupe in Brighton called The Maydays.  I am solely in charge of providing the music for anything that might happen on stage; songs, dramatic scenes, sound effects or general silliness! This has provided me with such an amazing base to work from. Their sense of comedy, timing and freedom to go wherever the mood takes us means that I can really explore some more interesting musical avenues that are not really accessible when sight-reading or straight accompanying.

We tend to be so obsessed about recording everything now, yet some of the most precious experiences have come from creating something and then just letting it go.  Relying on my memories to appreciate experiences, rather than through the false lens or recording forces me to appreciate the act of creation itself.  You cannot retract what you do when improvising, there is no filtering or reviewing or criticising process other than that which happens in the present.  Often I will find myself playing something utterly different to what I expected, or even what I started to play.

Improvising has also taught me to clear my mind of the babble of the head voice that likes to say, “This is going to be rubbish”, or “Bet you can’t come up with anything good”.  I find now that I can wait for the right moment to play and then just start playing.  Sometimes a theme will develop from one note, from a rhythm or from the performers on stage.  Often the verse of a song will be utterly different the second time round, but since when did all verses need to sound the same?

I am fortunate in that I have perfect or absolute pitch which is the ability to recognise notes just from hearing them.  This means that I can play pretty much anything that is in my head, allowing me to concentrate more on the creation process rather than the performance.  However, I have worked with many of my students on improvisation and have a few tips for those wanting to improvise better…

Do It!

Improvisation improves with practise just like anything else.  Often I hear my students say that they “can’t” improvise and so they do not try.  Anyone can improvise, after all we do it when we talk to people, sing in the shower, in fact we are improvising all the time.  There does not have to be any pretext, ceremony or hesitation, just sit at the piano or pick up your instrument and make some noise.  Improvisation is exploration and does not have to sound nice or make sense.  The more you play, the more you will find out what works for you and what doesn’t.

Structure

With music, I find it enormously helpful to work within some kind of structure or constraint.  For example a simple chord sequence like C-am-D-G.  Once familiar with the basic feel of the chords, perhaps with the left hand, the right hand can begin to explore scales that might work well with those chords. As for the melody if there happens to be one, try working with just one or two notes and build an idea from there.  A motif is simply an idea that is repeated and developed and it can be breathtakingly simple.  Take the famous start or Beethovens 5th..da da da dum!  This simple little rhythmic idea is propogated throughout the symphony, and you can bet that Beethoven spent hours at his piano exploring this idea (in fact he became rather obsessed with it!).  If you allow yourself to be free you will soon find that ideas start to appear from everywhere.

“‘Tis a gift to be simple”

One of the hardest skills when improvising is to listen to the sound you are making.  Sounds silly but I often find myself trying to fill spaces in the music or over-complicating things when, if I actually stop to listen, I find that the simple ideas are the best.  Listen to one note, two notes together, the lowest note on a piano, find moods and emotions in the small details, and the rest will fall into place much more easily.  Love can be suggested by a slightly spread octave up high, villains by a random sequence of low octaves.  Ticking clocks, heartbeats, birds and trains can all be found in very simple ideas.  When I am on stage with the improvisers it is rare to come storming in with a very strong idea.  I would have to be sure I was making an intelligent choice.  Better to make an offer, a suggestion and then grow with the performer into something more substantial.

Improvisation has no limits, it is not constrained by a musical score or a script.  By its very nature it sometimes fails spectacularly and I have learned from  The Maydays to embrace those moments with as much commitment as the magical moments when everyone comes together.  This is not an art form for the faint-hearted or for the possessive, it relies on trust and freedom, and the rewards are massive.

To find out more about improvisation check out  The Maydays website, we offer courses in comedy and music.  Give it a go, it might just be the best thing you ever did.

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The blog starts here

This is my first blog so I’m guessing I am going to take a while to find my feet.  My feeling is that I will be blogging about music and improvisation mainly, as that is where my life seems to be heading as the Musical director of  The Maydays, a comedy improvisation troupe based in Brighton, England; and The Treason Show which is a comedy sketch show also based in Brighton.

However, I am also pretty excited about Seechord.co.uk which is the result of about three years of research and development into a new way of analyzing and seeing music, especially chord progressions and harmony in songs.  I am still trying to get as much feedback from the world as I can at the moment into how to progress with SeeChord.  There are so many directions I can see it going in, but I need to know what people want or need!

Do let me know if you have anything to say, or if you know anyone you think might get as excited as I do about it!  That’s all for now, I will be posting some articles and other things pretty soon so keep watching!

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