Wednesday, 14 March 2012

ABRSM Grade 4 Exam Day

So that is that then? ABRSM Grade 4 Singing Exam done and dusted. After all the build up, all the stress about whether I would get my tongue around 'nachbarn nicht', all the worry about whether my brain would go blank during Barb'ra Allen. Then in a flash it was all over and all that's left is the need to go over the entire proceedings in some form of literary post mortem.

What better way to do that than pour it all out into this humble blog. So settle down with a nice cup of tea and let me tell you all about it. Before I start, may I point out that Anna-Ruth was also doing an exam today - Grade 7 in fact and light years ahead of me. But this blog will unashamedly concentrate on ME. Hell, it's my blog after all. Anna can add her thoughts herself later if she so wishes.

Right then, an important part of my preparation is to ensure a good night's sleep and thankfully I was feeling calm, relaxed and confident about it all. So no last minute panic text to Caroline would be needed this time. I've no recollection of any dreams, but I'm sure any would've involved singing. I got up feeling okay and there was no time to ponder the events to come as parental duties were required. Firstly I needed to drop Ruth off for her bus to work and then take Amy to the Docs.

With that done I returned home to relax in a nice warm bath! Bliss. . . . Food of some sort was required but I could only contemplate fruit strangely - bananas to be precise. The lack of appetite was a sure sign that the nerves were starting to kick in. The guts had started to do the 'hokey-cokey', but things were under control. I had a determination to try and enjoy this experience which shouldn't be too unrealistic particularly as there was nothing riding on this exam other than pride. But the nerves persisted right up to the start.

Caroline later arrived at our house for a pre-exam warm up. I had by this time noticed a tickly sore throat starting to rear it's ugly head, but didn't mention it to anyone for fear of sounding like I was making excuses. Anyway, I can sing through that any way! The worst thing about performances and exams,  is the waiting beforehand. It is simply torture - no other word for it.  We left for the exam venue, Emmanuel Church, Loughborough in good time and found that a 'no-show' meant I might be on a little bit earlier. Great! Let's get on with it.

The call came soon enough and it was 'game on'. In I strode with the old heart a pumpin', trying to look relaxed and confident and probably failing. Thankfully a cup of water was available as the bottle of water that I prepared beforehand was left behind. Oops! The exam room was rather small containing a desk for the examiner (a bloke) and thankfully, a piano. The somewhat deadpan examiner did little to settle the nerves so nothing for it but to crack on.

With the nerves there, I did nevertheless feel determined to give it my best shot. Nest started Caro mio Ben and we were off and singing! Considering it was the first piece it was okay I thought. I think I rolled the 'r's sufficiently in suitably Italian fashion and thought it was a good start. A quick glance at 'Mr Grumpy' behind the desk gave me nothing, so on we went with An Die Laute. A good sip of water prepared me for the previously described tongue-twisting German lines. I do seem to be developing the ability to sing the words and at the same time think about the lines that are coming up next, which is quite handy really. The slightly trickier second verse went well and all lines were sung in the right order. So that was 'two down, two to go' and 'so far so good'.

Mr Grumpy said 'carry on with the next piece when you are ready' so on we went with Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful. The slightly confusing intro was made easy by Nest's nod of the head and this piece went well too. All through all the pieces I was aware of a slight wavering of my voice due to nerves, but this is never really apparent to listeners apparently, so I didn't worry about it. At some point I made the mistake of looking at the examiner who was looking at me and our eyes met for a split second. Bad idea and not something to be repeated. Puts one right off! After this piece was finished Nest then got up and left the room. As if the unaccompanied piece isn't traumatic enough, it is quite awful to see your accompanist get up and leave as you then know exactly what's coming up.

Mr Grumpy then told me to play my starting note and I realised with horror that Nest hadn't played me my 'E' flat before she left as she'd promised to do. Now, my grasp of the piano is basic at best, but thankfully I remembered where 'C' was and worked out where my starting note was. It sounded right anyway! Crikey, if I'd got that wrong it could've proved fatal! So off I went feeling like I was back on Rivington Pike again. On reflection, it went reasonably well with the exception of: 1) singing 'green birds they were swelling', rather than buds. Eejit! 2) forgetting to sing 'so slowly, slowly, she came up' err, SLOWLY! I rattled through it at the same pace as the rest. Doh. and 3) had a mental block after the second verse. I failed to remember that after Jemmy Grove was dying, he was then 'laid in grave'. Yes, it's a jolly tune, this one! Rather like the church lesson reading fiasco as a 10 year old, it felt like I paused for half an hour, but in reality it was probably only 4 or 5 seconds. What the hell, I sang through the rest, finished off well and in tune as usual. I think!?!

Then, just when you think you've done it, up come the sight reading and aural tests. Oh Lord. Actually, the sight reading wasn't too bad. I know I went horribly off at one point but did manage to keep going and at least ended well. Clapping out the rhythm was a bloody nightmare! It seemed okay and I was quite happy with it until he just kept going. And going. AND GOING! How the hell any human being is expected to remember all that God himself may fail to fathom. I think I got the first half of it about right, but the rest?

The slightly odd exercise where one is played a chord and then have to sing 4 or 5 notes was easy-peasy, but the one where one is asked questions about a piece of music was pretty awful. I was asked to comment on tone and what gave it its character. As for character I hadn't a clue. It was such a non-descript piece that all I could think of to say was (brace yourself), 'its key'. This naturally brought the question 'was it major of minor?' Oh poop! Mentally I tossed a coin and said 'major', confidently. Oh dear the one question I didn't want....

And that was it. All over in about 15 minutes. I left Mr Grumpy behind thanking him for his time and returned to the waiting Caroline, Nest and Anna, who then went in to show how it's really done!

If I was to be hyper-critical of myself I would say I sang quite well, in tune and with a bit of expression at times, but the nerves probably showed in my clenched fists  and fixed stare at a poster on the wall. There's still some way to go before I can say I actually 'perform' a song rather than merely 'sing' it. But it was a great experience and I'm so glad I did it. By the way, I'm only joking about 'Mr Grumpy'. He was fine really, he just didn't say much or give anything away about what he thought. So I suppose he was just doing his job and 'examining'.

So time to chill out and put my feet up now then? Ha! You're joking aren't yer? No sooner had I sat back down in the waiting room than Caroline just happens to mention the possibility of doing a solo in the upcoming Caroline Sharpe Singers concert in April! Actually, it wasn't too much of a shock as I'd rather suspected she was letting me get the exam out of the way first, before dropping something like that on me.
On the Street Where You Live, which I'm quite familiar with thanks to Nat King Cole, so that should be a breeze.

All that remains is to say a big, BIG thankyou to firstly my wife Ruth for enduring endless renditions of the above songs ad nauseum; to Caroline for her patience and unwavering belief and of course Nest for her tremendous piano playing. Thank you all!

I'll let you all know when the results are out in a few weeks time.

Cheers for now,

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Three days and counting.

With less than three days to go to the Grade 4 singing exam, you may be forgiven for presuming that I would now be slipping into panic mode. Actually to my surprise, I'm feeling quietly confident. Strange but true. It is a bit weird how quickly confidence can surge after a few good rehearsals or lessons, but also how quickly the opposite can happen after a less than successful one.

Thankfully, it has been a good couple of weeks with the male voice choir, Caroline Sharpe Singers and with the preparations for the aforementioned exam. So let's start with the LMVC shall we? The new pieces that Chris Hill has introduced are really coming together, particularly the Hollies song He Ain't Heavy. This was a tricky one to get going as it sounded quite awful initially and I really did wonder about the arrangement, but in the last two rehearsals we've almost got it sorted and it's starting to sound really good. It's the same with You've Got a Friend too. A tricky section that I'd been struggling with suddenly slipped into place last Thursday. The next gig in April should be an interesting one I reckon.

By the way, do take a look at the revised diary dates (see right hand column). There's a few changes with some propopsed gigs not coming off and new ones added.  One date I won't be able to attend is the choir's next social event - a meal out at Longcliffe Golf Club on Thursday March 22nd. I thought a Thursday night would be fairly safe, but alas not. Step daughter Amy is due to change school next September and has gained a place at the Stephensons Studio School in Coalville and just so happen to be holding the 'Welcome Evening' for pupils and parents on the very same evening. Typical, but our daughters education obviously takes priority, so I'll have to wait until next year.

Caroline Sharpe Singers continues to go from strength to strength. This fascinating mix of singers is starting to make a very impressive noise. There were times a week last Saturday when the sound was almost spine tingling. So 'into it' are some of the newcomers that one or two are requesting singing lessons from Caroline. I can understand that - once you get bitten by the bug you want to do it the best you can. Learn better technique, try a solo at a concert and even do an exam?

Preparations for my exam have been something of an emotional roller-coaster. I've gone from 'this is crazy, I'm going to be a disaster' to 'in the bag' in just the last two weeks. A lesson with Caroline highlighting my inability to tell the difference between a major and minor key was  somewhat embarrassing. And my tendency to panic during the sight reading is not a good habit. I joked that I may need to be heavily sedated in order to get through this exam, but now I think such drastic measures will not be required.

Why the change? Well, the final run through with Nest Harris was something of a triumph. Now knowing what to expect, I was less nervous last Friday and thus more able to sing. This was my first attempt with her without copies and it was the first time I've got each of the three word perfect. Hoorah! Caro mio Ben would've been perfect if it wasn't for an unfortunate coughing fit on the very last line. Dammit! Then An Die Laute was fine and I even got my tongue around the nasty last line. Lastly Do I Love You was also good. The slightly off putting thing this time was that as I was not gazing down at any music, I was instead staring at this rather serious bearded geezer singing to me. Nest has a huge mirror mounted on the opposite wall, so there's no escape from the sight of yourself singing. Scary! So is this what I look like singing? Hmm, major work in performance/presentation style called for! Try smiling lad!

Anyway, After we were done, Nest complimented me on my vowels and clarity which was nice.  The one thing still needing work was the unaccompanied folk song and I ran through that with Caroline on Saturday afternoon. Despite one muck-up when I stopped because I forgot the next line and then carried on, I still finished bang in tune! This is something I manage to achieve every time strangely and seems to be quite unusual among Caroline's pupils. Well, I might be useless at clapping rhythms and picking out major and minor keys, but at least I stay in tune! Unknown to me at the time, Ruth who was sitting in on my lesson, just so happened to be secretly filming me on her i-phone, the little tinker! One recording has somehow managed to find its way onto Facebook. So if you have a strong stomach and a taste for the macarbre . . . .

So as' D-day' approaches I reckon I should do quite well providing I stay calm.  God knows, if I do keep calm and relaxed I might even do a half decent job of the sight reading and aural tests too? Maybe?

Rest assured dear readers, if I manage to refrain from over indulgence of an alcoholic nature following the exam, be it celebratory or sorrow drowning, I will describe the day's events, warts n' all by late Wednesday evening!

In the meantime, wish me luck!


Saturday, 3 March 2012

Caution: Exam approaching!

I never thought writing a blog would become such a responsibility! To receive a message from Neal Chantrill asking what’s happened to this week’s blog was a surprise as I had never thought I would get to a point where readers were actually waiting for the next post. I suppose it must mean that I’m doing something right and that this idle banter is actually worth reading.

I do aim to post something at least weekly providing there’s something worth saying of course, otherwise things would get very dull. But ‘life’ has the habit of getting in the way of things all too often as me, Ruth and the girls end up rushing around Loughborough like headless chickens, engaged in our various multitude of pursuits, leaving precious little time for writing. Whatever one may say about our life, it certainly isn’t dull.

So where were we? Oh yes, Grade 4 singing exam which is now less than two weeks off. Really? No, it can’t be surely? When Caroline actually said that last Wednesday, I suddenly realised she was right, which was momentarily frightening. So how is it looking, or rather, sounding? Well, my own personal assessment (Caroline’s may differ somewhat!) is that Caro Mio Ben should be fine barring a total brain seizure. As it’s the first up, I am likely to be at my most nervous, but I know this one well enough so it should be fine. My second piece, An die Laute should also be okay. I know all the words, but have a nasty tendency to juggle the lines up a bit. A line from verse one has the habit of popping up in verse two. I will sing all the right lines, but not necessarily in the right order as Eric Morecambe might’ve said.

Thirdly, Do I Love you Because You’re Beautiful is easy-peasy, but there lies the danger I think. I must rehearse this properly too and make sure I do a decent job. Sis-in-law Julia who listened in on a recent lesson of mine said that she ‘almost’ got that ‘hair on the back of neck’ thing when I sang it. Almost but not quite, so I guess there’s room for improvement then?

Finally, there is the unaccompanied folk song, Barb’ra Allen. Sigh! I’m still feeling like I’m on the top of Rivington Pike, but at least I’m clothed now and just a little chilly rather than hypothermic. It’s coming – slowly. The story in this one needs to be ‘told’, but it’s remembering the damned words. But a fortnight of repetitive listening and singing will hammer it home, I hope. Goodness knows how those poor X-Factor wannabees cope at ‘boot camp’ when they are given a song to learn overnight. I’d be useless!

Then after all that, it’s the sight reading and aural tests. Caroline assures me that I’m okay at sight reading, providing I carry on and sing what I think as I’m usually right. But I’m so unsure of myself that I hesitate and it all goes belly-up from there on. The repetition of a short piece and clapping out a rhythm is fine. Commenting on the ‘dynamics’, rhythm and tone of a piece though is not as easy as it seems and I forget to use Italian. Saying ‘very loud’ in an Italian accent will not do apparently!  When I’ve got my exam out of the way, it will then be the turn of my wife to have a go. Oh yes, it had to come. Ruth has just started having lessons with Caroline, so it’s only right and proper that she should try an exam! And a solo in the November concert too perhaps? ;-)

Meanwhile, back in the Loughborough Male Voice Choir, Chris Hill has unearthed the ‘New Amarillo’. Readers will remember the tales of our prolonged agony while we all toiled for week after week, trying to get to grips with it. Well, Mr Hill has produced his very own arrangement of a favourite of his, You’ve Got a Friend. At this Thursday’s rehearsal when us tenors and the bass/baritones had separate sessions initially, the common consensus was that this one was a ‘rhythmic nightmare’. Let’s just say it is a ‘challenge’. But hey, we mastered Amarillo eventually and will master this one too, you just see if we don’t.