Sunday, 24 March 2013

Alfie Boe in Concert at the N.I.A, Birmingham - 22nd March

Sometimes when you gear yourself up to seeing a favourite artist in concert things don't quite live up to the expectation. Thankfully no worries with Alfie Boe. The evening was simply brilliant from first note to last. In truth it wasn't quite what I was expecting, but expectations were surpassed with a concert that will live long in the memory.

Sickeningly the day coincided with a bad week in Ruth's continuing battle with the annoyingly unpredictable illness that is M.E. or chronic fatigue syndrome. Unrelenting pain and fatigue were refusing to clear making the trip to Brum  a non-starter for her. She took the decision to stay at home which was such a shame, but hopefully we'll look for another opportunity to see the man another time soon.

So it was down to just Anna and me to battle through the sprinkling of snow and find the Travelodge which is situated a mere five minutes walk (or ski?) to the arena. Birmingham Central Travelodge is one of the older ones and thus is a bit tired looking and in need of a bit of an overhaul. In particular dire need is the lift which is one of those that fills you with utter dread. Doors that were reluctant to close and which randomly opened at either floor  8 or 7 depending on it's mood! And the rattles, bumps and shakes inspired little confidence that we would ever get out of the place alive!

Never mind, we walked in a minor blizzard to the massive venue and after a lengthy search, eventually found the merchandise stall.  Anna already had her T-shirt having ordered weeks before online so settled for a notebook. I gave the clothing a miss in favour of a couple of Alfie mugs! One for Ruth and one for me! Sorry Peter Kay, but the Alfie mug is now promoted to the position of fave brew holder of choice!

The National Indoor Arena, Birmingham filling up prior to the concert.

Now, inside the vast arena we actually had cracking seats - front row of the upper tier so had a great view. Right on time at 7.30pm the support artist Emilia Mitiku did about 25 minutes of her songs. She was fine, starting slowly but was pretty good actually and passed the time nicely until the 'main man' took to the stage.

The set started with a drum solo as the band assembled and the neatly coiffured Alfie Boe arrived to something of a roar from the sell-out audience.  He presented a very different set of music to what I was expecting, but it was brilliantly put together and perfect for this venue. The musicians on stage were the obvious clue as to what to expect. A string octet plus a trombone, trumpet and saxaphone as well as drummer and guitarists should have told me that operatic arias and musical theatre numbers were not likely to play a major part. Instead songs from his new album 'Storyteller' was to form the bulk of his set. Well, it is the 'Storyteller Tour' after all! He started with The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore' the Walker Brothers song which was just the perfect opener. He followed with Bridge Over Troubled Water; Can't Help Falling in Love; the old Stones Song Angie; Roy Orbison's It's Over, which was perfect for Alfie's powerful voice; Elvis' It's Now or Never and others. Emelia Mitiku actually joined him on stage to duet on two songs and I can't recall ever seeing a support act join the main act on stage before.

Alfie Boe on stage at The National Indoor Arena, Birmingham.

He changed the mood superbly well as two sofa's were brought on stage and he did three ballads accompanied by accoustic guitars. I used 'Soundcloud' to record one of these which came out surprisingly well. You can have a listen if you can find me on Soundcloud.

 A somewhat blurred close-up of Alfie Boe on stage
 at The National Indoor Arena, Birmingham.

 Alfie Boe and band. Note the Guitarist with the Brian May hair!

Alfie Boe gives us a wave!

Opera and musical theatre weren't completely forgotten about but were given an interesting twist. The song I wanted to hear above all else was of course the legendary Bring Him Home from Les Mis. Here it was performed with just an acoustic guitar and a violin or two. And it worked so well it makes me wonder about a future performance with the LMVC for me with Chris Higgins accompanying on guitar? Hmm!?!
Anyway, absolutely brilliant that was, and the audience loved it! 

Mr Boe is certainly a performer who knows how to handle an audience and made frequent pauses to thank the audience for what they had done for him and he seems a genuinely humble man who just loves what he does for a living. To be honest we could've done without some of the ladies shouting out their undying love for the man. One shouted "Alfie, you're so FIT"! "Oh", says Alfie, "does that mean I'm very healthy or just good looking?" 

He completed his set with some real 'rockers', including his at times wild and enthusiastic dancing. There was even a Jimi Hendrix song but I forget the title. He finished his set at around 10 o'clock and as the lights were yet to come up most people knew an encore would follow while some lunatics decided that getting out of the car parks was more important than sticking around. Why do people do that? Fools!

Alfie's encore. He reckoned he'd been practising the
chords for three years and was hoping to get them right!

Alfie returned to the stage with his guitar for one final song to round off a fantastic concert. I can't remember an hour and forty-five minutes passing so quickly or ever enjoying an arena gig so much.
The quality of Alfie's voice in loud rock songs, powerful arias and soft ballads is just breathtaking. God knows, I'll never have one ounce of his singing ability, but he will forever be the singer I will aspire to that's for sure.

I would strongly recommend the man to anyone who enjoys quality singing and wants a guaranteed cracking night's entertainment. Alfie clearly doesn't want to be be pigeon-holed as a opera or musical theatre singer and on this evidence, that would be a cruel waste of his phenomenal talent.
If there are any tickets left for any of his tour dates do go see him! I promise you, you will not regret it!


Saturday, 23 March 2013

ABRSM Grade 5: The Result!

Well, what do I know? Clearly not much it would seem. After explaining to you all where I had gone wrong in my quest for something better than a mere 'pass' it was something of a surprise to find I had passed with MERIT!

Hoorah! To say I am chuffed to bits seems barely adequate. It's not just the result, but the comments on the feedback sheet that are so rewarding.
I'll give you a run through of the main points:-
1) For my first song Like to a Linden Tree, the examiner noted my anxiety "which spoiled the tranquil mood" but also said that it was "a secure account and words came across creditably". So not too bad and he gave me 25/30.
2) Where e're You Walk: here he noted my dodgy breathing saying "the occasional top-up breath was taken, slightly breaking up the words". True enough. On the positive side he said " there was sincerity of emotion and words were used delicately" but "needed a little more warmth and inner calm".
3) On the Street Where You Live: on the plus side I "concentrated hard and sang competently" but "without much vision " and said "it was all a bit earnest and measured". And he was absolutely right in also saying "it just needed a bit more carefree happiness - and a few longer breaths". 24/30.
4) Now the best bit! Pleasant and Delightful, the unaccompanied folk song. "There was good character and your timbre and style really suited this sort of song. There was a little huskiness but this actually added to the mood. It was varied and nearly all well in tune". And in the additional comments section he added "I shall remember your folk song - it was so very well in character". Good eh?
That just left the sight reading and aural tests. With masterful understatement, of the sight reading he wrote "this proved challenging" and "could not achieve independence of rhythm or pitch". 12/21 (fail!)
Thankfully the aural tests were marginally better but only "good enough overall nonetheless". 14/18.

So that all added up to a total of 120/150 and a MERIT.

Thankfully the examiner was looking beyond the nerves and saw the good stuff lurking beneath and the whole thing gives me a welcome confidence boost.
Now the Coward household awaits the result of Ruth's Grade 4 - coming soon!

Now I wonder if a few more LMVC members fancy having a go at an exam or two? Come on guys, you might just surprise yourselves!

See you next time,

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

ABRSM Grade 5 - further reflections

When one thinks about a recent performance, be it on a stage or in an exam it is easy to fall into the trap of analysing it to death. But having slept on last Friday's ABRSM Grade 5 exam I have come to a few conclusions that will hopefully point the way to greater success in the future.

On reflection, any chance of a merit was scuppered by nerves. No surprises there I hear you cry and yet I sang Pleasant and Delightful really well when the nerves magically disappeared for a few minutes. Why?

My simple conclusion is this: PREPARATION. Last year I wasn't as nervous for my Grade 4 even with 'Mr Grumpy' examining. When I think about it I just knew the pieces better. This year, I only really had Like to a Linden Tree to learn from scratch, so it should've been a piece of cake.

In truth, I didn't work hard enough. It's as simple as that. In my defence, there was a multitude of reasons why that was the case and I won't bore you with the details, but in essence, the amount of work I put into that one new song was too little too late and it showed.

When I consider my performance of Bring Him Home last November, the reason that went so well was because I knew that song inside out and no amount of nerves were going to make me forget any part of it. It is only when I get to that stage that I can relax enough to sing with a bit of freedom and expression or 'with gay abandon' as Caroline likes to put it. Clearly, that is where I need to get to with everything I attempt to perform.

I daresay some of you reading this are thinking "well duh, obviously!" Well yes, I suppose it is obvious, but sometimes it needs spelling out and the exam did just that.

So apologies to Caroline, but things will be better in future. Work needs doing on music theory which should also help matters plus an all round better approach to learning songs. I have the books, I just need to get my finger out!

Despite all this navel gazing, I'm really looking forward to getting my result and feedback form which should make very interesting reading. I will bring you all the gory details as soon as it arrives.

Before all that, we've got a trip to Brum on Friday for a concert by a certain ALFIE BOE!!! Now this is a guy who can sing! Frankly, I am beside myself with excitement! 'Eeeeeeeeeeee', as Livvy would put it! A full concert review will follow on 'A Nightingale Sang' on Saturday.

All together now, 'GOD ON HIGH, HEAR MY PRAYER. . . '

Cheers for now,

Friday, 15 March 2013

ABRSM Grade Five and a funeral

Whatever I may say about my life since I discovered singing, one thing is for sure, it is never dull. Even singing at a funeral for the first time last Monday was quite an experience. Caroline sent an urgent plea for a few people to sing at a funeral so Ruth and I were happy to oblige. Gail Morgan was intending to come along as well but was prevented from doing so by some major catastrophe with a back garden marquee! Anyway, the three of us (can just three actually be called a choir?) made a great job of Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus and one other hymn which impressed the organist. Other than that it was a pretty funereal funeral. Very, very dour.

I will jump quickly onto the subject of today’s ABRSM Grade 5 Singing exam. That’s why you’re here after all, right?  Okay, so here’s the background: My accompanist for last year’s Grade 5 exam, Nest Harris was otherwise engaged in Leicester accompanying someone in a Trinity exam I believe. Not my wife, who by a bizarre coincidence was also doing her Grade 4 Trinity exam today, accompanied by Caroline Sharpe Singers’ very own Gail Morgan.

For me, Caroline Sharpe would do the honours, despite some reservations about her own piano playing ability. I think she’s being a bit modest to be honest! So let’s wind it back to Wednesday 13th March at Caroline’s for my last lesson before the exam. One would hope that it would be a matter of simply dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s as it were, but as we went through each song there were some pretty dodgy bits needing urgent surgery. After two false starts with Like to a Linden Tree, I was then getting it perfect until a glowing ember from Caz’s coal fire popped onto the carpet and threatened to set it alight, causing Caroline to abandon piano and leap on said ember, stomping on it until it ceased to glow!

With inferno averted we continued with moderate success and a mid-lesson coughing fit, due in no small part to the smoke from the fire that was proving somewhat temperamental. I left Caroline’s, with the thought that I would be fine on Friday, provided I could relax and just enjoy it. Ahh yes, that old chestnut. Easier said than done as ever. With my sight-reading clearly needing a bit of a boost I decided to skip this Thursday’s LMVC rehearsal (sorry boys!) and try to sight read a few hymns and carols.  Not sure how much benefit I gained in retrospect.

Anyway, Friday came round all too quickly and typically the nerves kicked in as soon as I woke up. But hey, at least I slept okay. As ever, it’s the waiting that ‘does my ‘ead in’.  Ruth was excitedly running through her songs while I just retreated into my nervous shell. Half eleven arrived – eventually and off we went to the exam venue. I arrived attractively covered in dog hairs as the trousers I chose to wear are so charged up with static that they attract Nicky–dog’s hair like a magnet! No matter, it wouldn’t affect my singing.
Ten past twelve arrived and in we went to be greeted by a somewhat jovial chap with a smiley face. I’d already had a tip-off from Caz that my examiner was a nice chap not a grumpy old trout like last year.  Okay, firstly I was to sing Like to a Linden Tree Am I. This was the one newest to me and thus the one I was worried about most. As it happened, I think it went reasonably well but was spoiled by a bit of hesitation in the middle when I suddenly thought I was singing the wrong words but actually wasn’t.  Doh!

Then it was Where e’re You Walk. Keen readers of this blog will remember that I sang this beauty back in November 2011 for my solo debut at Trinity. This time I think I sang it fairly well but again spoiled it with a bit of hesitation in the middle. And at times my breathing was all over the place, grabbing silly and unnecessary breaths at ridiculous times.

My final accompanied piece was On the Street Where You Live, I think the examiner made a witty remark at this point, and I think I tried to make an equally witty response but it’s all a bit of a blur to be honest. Like the first two, I again sang fairly well, but spoiled it with some schoolboy errors, dodgy breathing but maybe I’m being hard on myself. At this point, Caroline had to leave the room for me to sing my unaccompanied folk song which was a pity as she didn't witness what followed. We had chosen Pleasant and Delightful, partly because it is already familiar to me (the third verse at least!) from singing it with the male voice choir, but also because it is a good folk song that might just make the examiner smile a bit.

Now, as you’ll know, I’m not generally one to ‘blow my own trumpet’ so make the most of this – it might not happen again. My rendition of this folk song was bloody marvellous! I’d love to have a video of it to show people as I honestly think it is the best performance of a song I have ever given. The examiner commented, “I presume you’ve done a lot of folk singing, it really suited your voice and you really told the story there!” So rather pleased with that I must say.

Finally, the dreaded aural tests. These went quite well I think though Mr Jolly wasn’t giving much away. I was positive the first piece was Baroque and I then repeated the next piece with some confident lah-lahs! Clapping out the rhythm of the next piece was a bit more tricky, but not far off. Then I had to comment on whether a piece was 2, 3, or 4 time and major and minor key. Groan! I was as confident as I can be that it was major key and I plumped for 2. I joked that I could do with another listen to be sure and amazingly he played it again! Then I could tell it was in fact 4 and said so, but I presume he’ll take my first answer.

Last of all was the sight reading and let’s just say it was a ‘challenge’. I limped through it in shambolic fashion and was aware that what I was singing was nowt like what the piano was producing! On the positive side I think I wasn’t too far off with the rhythm of it. And that was it, but unlike last year the examiner had a brief chat about how long I’ve been singing and how good it was for him to have a more ‘mature’ entrant to listen too.
So now I have a wait of a couple of weeks until the results come out. Rest assured good people, you’ll be the first to know the result.

Cheers for now,

Monday, 4 March 2013

Education, education, education. . . .

Recent events within our household just serve to underline some fundamental problems within the education system in our fair country. I won't go into too many details as it's not what you come here to read, but suffice to say the emphasis is all wrong. Forcing kids to learn stuff that is of no interest doesn't work. Presenting subjects that might be of interest but in a dull, uninspiring way kills off what interest there ever was. When will the penny drop that if you make a subject exciting then kids and adults will actually want to learn?

If you need evidence of that just take a look at the growing numbers of both the Loughborough Male Voice Choir and the Caroline Sharpe Singers. It is surely no coincidence that both choirs are currently enjoying something of a boom in membership, though the reasons for both are maybe a bit different. The LMVC had been struggling in recent years to replace members who had left, but since September about eight new faces have joined and seem to be here for good.

Perhaps the change in appearance has helped and I don't just mean the bow-ties. The choir now sings with a smile on its face which dare I suggest hasn't always been there in the past? We are the 'grumpy old men' no more! I'm pretty sure that has come over more during the last year or so to such an extent that one of our new members and by far the youngest, (Peter) was moved to ask if he could join just before Christmas. Clearly, make it look like we are actually having fun and people will want to join in. Simple?

That is also the reason behind the success of Caroline Sharpe Singers. Caroline I think (beware: football analogy approaching!) is the Sam Allardyce of singing! Like Mr Allardyce, Caroline takes a bunch of individuals of varying levels of ability and manages to get the best out of them. Who would have thought that the random bunch of individuals that initially formed CSS a short time ago would soon be singing One to the standard we did last year?

The most important ingredient within both choirs is simply this: FUN. If that was not there we wouldn't do it. The fact that it is, is down to the skills of the talented pair, Chris Hill and Caroline and their ability to add it should not be underestimated.

This morning (Monday 3rd) Ruth and I went over to Caroline's for a lesson. It  is now less than two weeks until our singing exams - Grade 4 for Ruth and Grade 5 for me. Ruth will be accompanied by Gail while I will be accompanied for mine by Caroline herself, stepping in for Nest Harris who is otherwise engaged on the big day. There is both good and bad things about being accompanied by Caroline. There will be something reassuring about having her there, but on the flip side, she will hear every note and word I sing, so there will be absolutely no escape if I mess up.

But I won't mess up. I'm gonna be great! This time I know what to expect so hopefully I will be able to sing with a bit more freedom. I want a Merit this time! We'll see eh?

Meanwhile, the revamp of the LMVC website is slowly but surely taking shape and right on cue, the Shepshed & District Camera Club have delivered a CD of photos from their recent shoot at one of our rehearsals. And a pretty impressive job they have made of them too. There are some superb shots and also one or two that would be perfect for a caption competition! So as a little taster of what to expect from the new website I  will leave you with just two of the sixty-odd photographs.

See you next time!


A bunch of second tenors in rehearsal mode.
(Photo courtesy Shepshed & District Camera Club)

'A Policeman's Lot is Not a Happy One' according to Tom Carter and Gerald Morling.
(Photo courtesy Shepshed & District Camera Club)