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Tuesday 25 October 2016

On the road to Damascus

I’m 6200 words into writing Opening Bars, a 25,000-word book about starting to take singing lessons. I face the question: what’s in it for those who may never sing to an audience?

Scroll forward to last Monday. V wants me to sing staccato and has chosen an old French drinking song. It’s rated presto (ie, crotchet = 152) which turns it into real tongue-twister. Try this at speed:

S’il est bon, s’il est agréable,
J’en boirai jusqu-à mon plaisir

V’s French isn’t too hot and I tease her, something I regret bitterly a few minutes later.

We’re two-thirds through the lesson, my voice is not only thoroughly warmed up it’s well used. We’ve dropped the French song and I’m doing Waly, Waly, half-imitating a well-known tenor I’ve seen on YouTube. V nods when I’m finished. I can’t remember her exact words (Ah, would that I could!) but this is the gist:

“Why don’t you forget every pro singer you’ve ever heard, relax, pretend you’re alone, and sing this in your own voice.”

It’s not the first time she’s made this recommendation but in the past it’s always been impossible to follow. This time the song, the state of my voice and the moment all click. I push all those “singer-ish” memories to one side and open my mouth:

The water is wide,
I can not get o’er

V doesn’t nod, she spreads her hands. “There, that’s what you’ve been looking for. Your voice. And it’s lovely.”

And I’ve got one answer to the question in my book.

Friday 21 October 2016

The little things in life

The new car demands a new mount for the satnav. But the curvaceous dash offers no purchase points and the previous wooden frame, crudely fashioned from wood and painted black to hide the crudity, must be now be ditched. Enter a replacement mat which self-adheres to the dash and offers up a smooth plastic (glass?) disk which accepts the satnav's sucker.

This is not a story which leaves me looking clever.

Disk and sucker mate, staying together for a week. Then the suction dies and the satnav tumbles into the car's foot-well. Brother Sir Hugh suggests attaching Velcro pads to the disk and the sucker and letting their tenacious hold do the job. "You may find it difficult to tear them apart," says Lord Hugh, Duke of DIY.

I install the Velcro; disk and sucker disengage in one second flat. "Am I missing something?" I ask.

"You do know that Velcro comes in two parts: a smooth pad and a hairy pad?" says Bro. I didn't, perhaps because the instructions came in picture form. I do as I'm told and it works. But a little part of me inside dies.

DEATH THROES I'm using Waly, Waly (arr. Britten) as a way of smoothing the rough tone of my singing voice. It's a simple tune with a narrow range. I decided I'd post it for all to hear. Recorded it ten times and deleted it ten times. Went downstairs to examine knives, nooses, and various poisons. Came back up: recorded/deleted it a further ten times. Went downstairs having decided to drink myself to death.

Ten more times and THIS will have to do. Alas, still some wobbles,

Friday 14 October 2016

The Gardener

Sonnet: On visiting the blog of a dead friend

The sap has dried, disabled stalks have turned
To compost – and he’d know the truth of that.
For me decay, for him life’s stuff re-formed,
It’s not my field, I’ll simply tip my hat.
Others have taken this way.  Like E. who
“Passed by – like Time” and died, another friend.
Her roots were strong, the wit between us grew,
She blossomed to an uncomplaining end.

In glades of death the plant that grows is loss,
Who needs a bell that sounds nonentity?
Why should it be worth my while to doss
Down here wanly in tranquillity?

Text is quite silent, echoes come from sound,
Where else might such a miracle be found?

Friday 7 October 2016

A niggle avoided

My new car allows me to check tyre pressures electronically at the steering wheel. And, if a tyre starts to deflate an icon lights up. This is a worthwhile step forward. I always carry a pressure gauge (several in fact) and will continue to do so, but its application seems rooted in the dark ages, slightly hit and miss, with consequent small loss of air.

In fact it requires a knack. Knacks are for men who reminisce about old cars, boasting about how their skills overcame a vehicle's shortcomings. In the twenty-first century there should be no shortcomings to overcome, and for this reason: even the feeblest modern car can exceed the motorway maximum speed. Often it takes a crash or a near-miss for an inert driver to realise just how much dangerous energy is involved in a ton at 70 mph.

Check, too, the local newspaper for road fatalities. They appear to be split between the very young and the very old. Reflect: the very young are probably too young to have picked up knacks, the very old are quite likely to have forgotten them.  Yes, I'm well aware which category I belong to.

I've switched from diesel to petrol for speculative reasons I won't go into. A veritable sea-change, whatever that is (Please don't explain; I too can use Google). With the diesel at slow speeds I used to loaf along, my right foot merely hovering over the loud pedal, torque being developed at tiny rpm figures. Now even the mildest acceleration requires conscious foot pressure; occasionally I forget.

“Start-stop” switches off the engine at traffic lights, saving fuel; re-starting is instantaneous and virtually unnoticeable. For Trump voters and other climate-change deniers there's a disabling switch. The car is thus politically neutral.

The auto/manual gearbox is seven speeds.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Furry friends

Shaggy question: Was £10 plus £2 tip well spent?
Is the word pet - (n.) domestic animal - disappearing from the English vocabulary? Does the "pet" concept still exist?

These questions have to do with word usage and the passage of time. Decades ago, at echt middle-class gatherings in Britain, conversations might have kicked off in response to: "And do you have a pet?"

Maybe I don't get out enough but that question seems strangely at odds with the year 2016. These days it's likely to have morphed into "Do you have a dog?" Then, slightly more reluctantly, "A cat?" If the sequence were to continue all the way to "A budgie?" a reference to pet might crop up, possibly out of nostalgia. But dogs and cats I imagine are no longer pets. They're something grander and the subject of rhapsody.

Needless to say I have innumerable theories which I don't intend to rehearse here. I've lived in homes shared with animals but, with one exception, it's been someone else's choice. I even get along with animals although gloomy speculation dogs me: "What happens to the French villa holiday?"

That exception, many years ago, concerned a white rat. During a period of reduced parental scrutiny I acquired it and loved it. In return it ran up my arm and nibbled my ear lobe. By contrast a labrador would have been misanthropic. As I approached with cabbage leaves it emerged from its sleeping shed, pink eyes glistening with affection – for food but mostly for my company. Outraged at the discovery, my father ordered its disposal and I gave it away.

It was definitely a pet. Proving the point I petted it. I wish I still had it so that my 2016 cocktail-party answer might be: “Actually, a white rat.” Writers should always try to arrive out of left field.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Do graves and lists speak?

Poignant - Middle English poinant from Early French poindre: to prick. Latin pungere: to prick, sting.

Or, these days, says my Penguin dicker, causing or renewing distress; painfully sad. But surely such sadness is not entirely negative; might it also be associated with distant contentment, glancing appreciation of beauty, whispered reassurances?

One hundred years after the event Younger Daughter (Occasional Speeder), hubbie and son visited the WW1 cemeteries in northern France and Belgium. What were they expecting from these inanimate tombstones and well-kept lawns? One justification is the number of tombstones, enough to make anyone reflect. But OS's family is comparatively young and more than three generations have rolled by since the guns went quiet.

Did they go there to experience poignancy - to cause or renew distress for themselves? My immediate answer was no, then I paused. How about sub-consciously? And in doing so find tranquillity? I haven't asked. Wouldn't.

Lucy and I have been kidding about blog contact lists. Well, that's how it started. But three of the names on my list belong to the dead. I guess their listings are my equivalent of the Menin Gate, I want to hang on to them. The least I can do given the way their owners entertained me in life.

Illness may have intervened with others, or I may have offended them into silence. Either way they wrote to me at Tone Deaf and, before that, Works Well. That gesture deserves marking.

Do I retain their names to cause or renew distress - to me? It's quite possible. I suspect several suffered when I went "too far". Is their continued listing poignant? Are my reasons painfully sad? Vaguely defined words always have most potential.

Saturday 1 October 2016

An official gift

Official gifts between couples glued together for ages can be the very devil. True feelings, it is thought, can only be expressed with a “new” gift and newness in old age can be a hot potato.

How did VR feel, I asked, about a session with V (my singing teacher, sorry about the confusion) talking generally about music and illustrating things vocally. VR, not presently in good health but an avid listener of BBC Radio 3, proved agreeable.

It didn’t start well. In a taster about my progress, I warmed up and discovered the aftermath of my cold had cropped my range 20%. Worse, singing the warm-up Tué Tué, Barima Tué Tué as a round with V, something I’ve done many times, I completely lost the plot. Much worse still, V was suffering from a cold and her upper notes were denied her.

From then on V was bloody marvellous. Explaining how students have to be discouraged from “swallowing their consonants”, positively illustrated by an artlessly pure-voiced Norwegian soprano. “Listen,” said V, “you can hear her Ss.”

Then V’s relationship with her own teacher, a glorious mezzo capable of tonally matching the trumpet in a church piece, eventually (in my opinion) outdistancing the yard-and-half of brass tubing in the matter of subtlety. And I speak as an ex-trumpeter.

V, using voice and piano, to reveal the contrasting textures of a Michael Head song cycle and how they combine. V, most of all, unable to contain her enthusiasm, admitting to singing round the house. Disappointed by those who only sing when they’re paid.

How did it go? I asked VR.

“For two hours I didn’t know I had shingles.”

As one on the outer fringe of this world I felt both stirred and comforted. Brexit and physical frailty forgotten.