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.

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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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