Villanelle: Rehearsal

14 July 2011 § 8 Comments

Conducting experiments

It’s better than it was before.
But it must be exactly right.
Please can we try it just once more?

That’s just what I was hoping for,
You strings; you kept your bowing tight.
Far better than it was before.

Flutes: sorry to be such a bore:
Those quavers must be quick and light.
Please can we try it just once more?

Remember, trumpets: really soar
In bar sixteen – be bold and bright.
Still, better than it was before.

You’ll notice if you check the score
A rallentando – very slight.
Please can we try it just once more?

You’ve worked so long and hard, I’m sure
You’ll sound amazing on the night –
Much better than you did before.
Now: can we try it just once more?

A small tribute to our wonderful Community Orchestra conductor; a gracious lady with infinite patience and nerves of steel who gives her professional experience freely to amateurs possessed of far more enthusiasm than skill. She works us hard, sets high standards and encourages us to play music, not simply the right notes in the right order. For two hours a week, there’s no room in my brain for anything except music. And for that, perhaps above all else, I’m incredibly grateful to her.

Soul music

15 April 2011 § 9 Comments

Hardy Perennials

Left pop-eyed by an hour’s hauling
Through worthy, densely-noted classics
We put the hallowed names aside,
Relaxed our reverential frowns
And turned to those prolific geniuses
Trad. Arr. and Anon.
‘The Soldier’s Joy’ and ‘Six-Hand Reel’
Sparked new quickness in my fingers;
Reinvigorated lungs
To send the trills and grace-notes swirling
Round the room like silver swifts;
Warmed me through like strong mulled cider.
Not holy writ with Koechel numbers,
Catechism in compound time,
But tunes that sprang from workfolk; fiddlers
Hardy and his fathers knew. The music
Of the Christmas party, country wedding, village dance
Dick Dewy and the Mellstock choir
Played beneath that greenwood tree.
A heritage all-but forgotten
In this downbeat, download age,
But mine to claim, preserve and play,
With or without the printed page.

Inspired by this week’s Community Orchestra rehearsal. Like most people who play orchestral instruments, I revere Beethoven, Bach and the other Great Masters; however, I generally prefer to listen to their better-known music, and certainly don’t have the technical skill or theoretical knowledge to play it properly myself. So it was a huge relief at the end of the rehearsal to be handed a set of fiddle tunes collected by Thomas Hardy. Like his father, grandfather and various uncles, Hardy was an excellent musician and played the violin in his local church band, or choir – the inspiration for  the Mellstock players in Under The Greenwood Tree.

Having spent most of my childhood in Dorset, I have a great love of the old folk tunes, which are our true musical heritage. If the classical canon is music’s great literature, folk tunes are its oral tradition; the tales handed down through generations that tell us something of ourselves. And while a Colossus like Beethoven can wring my heart, these humbler melodies speak to my soul in a language I truly understand.

Notes to self

10 March 2011 § 8 Comments

Silver bullet

My mother
Never understood how I
Could play this thing
When I couldn’t see
What my hands were doing, or
Which finger pressed which key.

My father
Couldn’t fathom embouchure;
And though he tried
He could not begin
To see the simple physics
Of blowing over, and not in.

My classmates
All clamoured for their turn
Then wondered why
They could not make it speak
Beyond a hollow, windy hissing
Or sudden, scalded shriek.

And I was grateful
For their foolish questions
Which moved my mind
From darker, deeper fears
That occupied it then, and still
Endure despite the years.

And even now
The asinine demands of others
Fade into forgetfulness
Whenever I take up this length
Of slender silver, close my eyes,
Reach back in time, and breathe.

On one level, the flute is a very simple instrument: you only play one note at a time (no chords like the guitar, or double-stopping like the fiddle) and only ever in the treble clef (it doesn’t go lower than middle C). At the same time,  many people find it fiendishly difficult, or even impossible, to produce a single note (the idea is to blow across the hole, rather than into it). And while it’s sweet and soulful, it can also be very powerful, cutting through the sound around it like a silver stiletto.

I’ve been a flute-player on and off since I was nine years old. After being ‘off’ for most of my thirties, I’m now playing regularly again, as precisely half the flute section in our local community orchestra. We’re a small ensemble, mostly ‘of an age’ and pretty rusty, but through our weekly rehearsals, I’ve rediscovered the sheer joy of making music again.

Although the ol’ brain and fingers don’t work together quite so well as they once did, I’ve surprised myself with how much comes back to me when I stop trying too hard.

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