In vino veritas.

I will freely admit that I am someone with a rather unsophisticated approach to wine. I do not see it as a magical elixir derived from a tradition honed and perfected over millennia. I do not see it as divine nectar, the swirling of its veiled complexities an expression of its inherent virtue. No, in my world wine is grape juice for grown ups.

However, I feel that having a developed palate and some kind of knowledge about wine are markers that prove you’re an intelligent, independent, well-rounded adult. The fantasy of being the perfect hostess, able to provide the ideal pairing of excellent wine to compliment every stage of an exquisite (but not excessively elaborate) meal holds fairly strong appeal for me. I once did a wine-tasting tour in Chianti in an attempt to develop my wine appreciation skills. All that happened is I got incredibly drunk before noon on a Wednesday. You can take the girl out of Australia…

There is one area in which I can claim to be an expert however. Years of post-performance, post-exam, post-opera, pre-lesson, what-the-hell-it’s-a-Tuesday drinks with a wide range of singers has given me a good understanding of some pretty basic principles in the conservatory singer – wine relationship. For instance:

  • If your favourite wine is cheap and/or comes in a cardboard box: you are a musician.
  • If your favourite wine can be described by any combination of the words fruity, sweet or sparkling: you are a soprano.
  • If your favourite wine is beer: you are an alto.
  • If your favourite wine is a 1973 Domaine de la Romanée Conti Grand Cru: you are a tenor. Nobody else gets enough work to afford such expensive taste.
  • If your favourite wine is whiskey: you are a bass.

Through extensive research (both active and observational) I have been able to identify a peculiar phenomenon that occurs far more frequently among singers than among the general populace. When normal people drink wine, they use their senses to draw conclusions and pass judgement on the wine. When singers drink wine, the overpowering insecurities that have driven them to alcohol in the first place mean that the wine ends up acting as some kind of oracle, drawing conclusions and passing judgement on the drinker.

In order to help singers everywhere make full use of the opportunity for self-discovery each glass of wine occasions, I have developed:

B’s Helpful Guide to Wine Tasting.

  1. Look at the wine in your glass. What colour is it? Is it murky and unclear, like your coloratura? Or is it pretty and bright, like the singer that got booked at the audition you did today? If your wine is in a teacup, bowl, or goon sack, feel free to skip this step.
  1. Swirl the wine in your glass. This will help liberate your inhibitions from any vestiges of good judgement. If you spill the wine at this step, you might want to slow down.
  1. Take a deep sniff of the wine. Do you smell the aroma of disappointed dreams? Of unfulfilled potential? Or do you smell the enticing scent of future possibilities? If the last one, you are probably a first year student, and should be aware that your naive remarks are probably annoying the older students who have developed more sophisticated palates capable of discerning the full range of cynicism offered to them by their wine.
  1. Sip the wine and swirl it around your mouth. What flavours can you detect? Is there the metallic tinge of crushing student debt? Or the syrupy flavour of guilt for not having learnt your aria before your lesson this week? How would you describe the texture? Is it full bodied, like how you feel in your concert dress after gaining the fresher five? Or weak, like your commitment to practicing?
  1. Swallow the wine, and pay attention to the aftertaste. Is it unbalanced, like you in movement class? Is it awkward, like the Monday following an opera after-party when everyone pretends they didn’t hook up with each other 48 hours earlier? Does the aftertaste linger, like the student in the lesson before yours, who always asks your teacher complicated questions right as your lesson is supposed to begin?
  1. Repeat steps 5 and 6 ad libitum. This is the most important step, and deserves much practice.
It's medicinal, I swear.

It’s medicinal, I swear.

In vino veritas, in cervesio felicitas.

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Climbing the Green Mountain.

For the last few months, it seems I have spent every waking hour (when not on Netflix or in Spain) doing some kind of admin or organisation for a new project I’m involved in. A bunch of friends and I have set up an ensemble that will explore the music written for three female voices in Ferrara and Rome in the first half of 17th century. We’ve got a few concerts lined up in Belgium and Italy, along with a masterclass with the formidable Jordi Savall.

In addition to addressing the administrative details of dates, rehearsals, repertoire and travel arrangements, I’ve had to take a much more active role in the musical preparations for this project.

Usually for a concert, musicians perform from modern editions of scores, which some musicologist or editor of some big publishing house has kindly put into nice legible, clear notation. However, for this project, we’re performing some music that doesn’t exist in modern editions, and for a few pieces I’ve had to go about transcribing the weird mensural notation into something more readable. I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out whether a mark in the manuscript is a dot, a rest, or just a meaningless splodge of dirt. I’ve been confused by clefs I’ve never seen before (seriously, since when was the mezzo-soprano clef a thing?) and spent hours trying to find two missing beats in the alto line. Even I know it makes no sense to have a piece thirty one and a half bars long.

A sonic screwdriver would fix this.

But B, I hear you ask, why are you complaining? Surely this is not a difficult process for you? After all, haven’t you spent years studying music? Haven’t you obtained degrees that tested your aptitude for these things? Don’t you possess the skills necessary to do this job?

Well, no. No I don’t. Why? Because I’m a singer.

When I was studying in Australia, it was a given that the singers as a group uniformly sucked at Aural Skills. We’d go to class, we’d struggle through the chord progressions, the cadences, the sight-reading, the rhythm exercises, and my personal nemesis, melodic dictation. Then when it came to exams, we’d either all cry, fail, or go with the universally successful “But… I’m pretty?”

What do you mean, fail? Look at my hair!

However, when it came to dictation exams, no amount of tears or hair-flipping could redeem me. Yet as a zealous high-achiever, there was no way in hell I was going to let stupid Aural Skills drag down my GPA. So I negotiated an arrangement with the Piano Kids.

In addition to Aural Skills, all students at the Con had to pass two years of Music Theory courses. These were taught by composers who felt that our understanding of basic elements of musical composition would be enhanced by watching really old films with classic scores, listening to confusing allegories of rocks turning into chickens, and learning five different synonyms for “fuzzy” in order to better understand the harmonic language of Debussy.

Clearly, the Piano Kids had too much practice/procrastination to do to bother going to Theory classes. Clearly, I was too stubborn/lazy to practice melodic dictations. So it was agreed that I would go to Theory, sort the examinable content from the pretentious wank, and allow the Piano Kids to copy my answers in all the exams. In return, they would ensure optimal seating arrangements in Aural exams in order for me to copy their melodic dictations. We justified our duplicity by arguing that our actions were defended by Freedom of Information. We were merely exercising our right to access the information contained on the other student’s paper.

I had no real qualms about not addressing my deficiency in these academic musical skills. I thought, when would I ever need to note down some melody I heard or figure out a chord progression in under three listenings? I wasn’t planning a career in ethnomusicology or reproducing cheap, Spotify knock-off versions of songs not licensed for streaming services.

But recently, my laziness has come back to bite me in the behind. For this new project, we want to include an arrangement of a Monteverdi duet stolen from, copied off, ahem, inspired by a particular recording. Which has required me to not only learn how to use Sibelius to create a decent score for the additional instruments, but to spend a depressingly long time doing which is essentially two-part melodic dictations.

So there you have it kids. Don’t cheat in school. It makes stealing intellectual property later on in life so much more difficult.

Brain ache.

On a scale of one to what?

So, the other day I was discussing exam results with a friend, and we were remarking upon a common but confusing occurrence, whereby the jury says:

We feel you’ve made a lot of progress this year. We hear many different things happening in your music making now, and we feel that you have really developed yourself as a musician and performer. With this in mind, we have decided to award you exactly the same mark we gave you last year.

It can be somewhat disheartening to us poor, downtrodden music students to be given the same result year after year, especially when that is somehow supposed to reflect the improvement and development that we have (hopefully) achieved.

This is when my friend and I came to a very simple, but life-changing realisation.

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Calling it out.

As previously mentioned, the Early Music singers had their exams here a few weeks ago, yours truly included. After such a turbulent year, my end of year recital was always going to feel different from what I had come to expect from performing. There are many perspectives I could muse upon, including the discrepancy between how a performer and the audience experience the same performance.

But there’s one thing that keeps coming up and every time I think of it, it irks me. It’s not even the usual over-analysis of my own performance and disappointment from that note that was out of tune, or that dynamic effect that didn’t quite work. Rather, it’s one of the comments from the examination committee.

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…by which I mean…

In less than a week, the Early Music singers at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague head onstage and expose their musical and artistic souls for the judgement and criticism of a panel of examiners.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am writing this blog post instead of writing my program notes.

It is a well known fact that even if one has just sung a universally acclaimed solo recital in Carnegie Hall, the prospect of singing an exam in school will reduce you to a nervous, stressed-out mess. And not the hot kind of mess.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have not just sung a universally acclaimed solo recital at Carnegie Hall. Neither am I a hot mess.

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Wrong is the new normal.

I’m going to break the unwritten rule of the internet in this post. You know, the rule that says we only admit to and promote the aspects of our lives that make it seem like we’re living in a Coca Cola ad. The rule that has us spending a ridiculous amount of time adjusting light sources, doing hair and make-up, taking twenty three different versions of the same photo, adding filters and cropping out anything remotely unflattering, then claiming #Iwokeuplikethis.

If you’re looking to buy into the idea of a flawless, rainbow coloured existence where living overseas is a dream filled with magical sparkles and prancing unicorns, quit reading now because this post is not for you.

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I quit sugar.

If I had to describe myself in three words or less, I’d go with “raging sugar addict”. It shames me to admit it, but I have been known to add five teaspoons of sugar to a cup of hot chocolate. Those desserts that most people outgrow by the age of eight because they become nauseating to eat? Yeah, I eat those for breakfast (when I bother to eat breakfast). When The Wasp asked me what to include in my next care package from home, I insisted on CSR brown sugar, because I had not found an acceptable version of brown sugar in the Netherlands. Yes, I’d tried out more than one type.

So facing the not-medically-confirmed possibility of having my legs amputated from diabetes at age 30, I decided drastic action was needed. I was going to face my kryptonite, wrestle my delectable demon, conquer the cake. I decided to quit sugar.

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