Time Travelling with Music

by Sophie Simpson

Hello! I’m Sophie, a violin and piano teacher for the Becky Dell Music Academy in the new Manchester branch.

I’m sure many of you are aware of how versatile stringed instruments are; as a violinist there are opportunities to play in a pop band, folk music, in an orchestra, a quartet, as a soloist, at a wedding…etc.

However, I’d like to talk specifically about a particular niche I have found myself being involved in within the performance world: historically informed performance or HIP for short.

The music world is a competitive one and it can be useful to find something different to help you to stand out. I fell into the HIP world sort of by accident, but quickly became hooked, though I continue to perform on the ‘modern’ violin too. It might sound dull at first but I promise it’s not! It’s great when you’re performing to know that you’re creating something that sounds the way audiences would have heard it hundreds of years ago – if you close your eyes you could almost travel back in time…

What is historically informed performance?

The idea with HIP is that the performance reflects academic and practical research into how the music might have been performed at the time it was written. This research can take many forms including analysing surviving letters, treaties or publications from the time, the music on the page, or the instruments themselves can give us clues.

There are even some instruments that are no longer in general use, such as the viola da spalla, which looks a bit like a small cello (or big violin!), but was played with a strap around the neck and in more of a guitar hold and has five strings.

Here is a link to a video of Sergey Malov playing some music by Bach on the viola da spalla: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-H6XAIwZKA

So what counts as historically informed performance?

Taken literally, this could encompass anything that happened in the past, even yesterday!

However, when musicians talk about HIP they tend to think of the Renaissance (c.1300-1600), Baroque (c.1600-1750), Classical (c.1750-1820) and Romantic (c.1820-1850), or even early 20th Century time periods. Early recordings from the 20th Century can be classed as a useful resource for research, though obviously there are no recordings from the Baroque or Classical eras!

As a violinist one of my specialisms within HIP is the Baroque era. How are Baroque instruments different to their modern counterparts?

Instruments have been constantly developing along with technical advances and to adapt to changing styles of composition; there was never one point in history when people woke up and said ‘we are no longer in the Baroque era, today marks the start of the Classical era and we must adapt our instruments accordingly’!

The Baroque and modern violins look relatively similar upon first glance. The shape and dimensions of the body are much the same as they have always been. You may have heard of violin maker or luthier Antonio Stradivari and even today many luthiers try to make copies of his violins.

However, there are some differences: the Baroque violin does not have a chinrest as this was not invented until around 1820 by Louis Spohr; neither did they have shoulder rests, but they may have used a piece of soft leather to make it more comfortable to hold; the strings were made of gut instead of metal as they are today; the angle of the neck was shallower on a baroque violin than a modern violin as the gut strings could not take the tension that comes from a steeper angle.

The bow was also different: the baroque bow is shorter and convex (frowning) in shape whereas the modern bow is concave (smiling) and longer, which makes it more powerful. I play on a replica baroque violin for my historically informed performances of music from the Baroque era. The baroque cello does not have a spike, but instead the cellist balances the cello between their legs.

Wind and brass instruments also differed as they were not able to make metal keys for them in the baroque era, so brass players had to tune notes with their lips only, and wind players had basic holes for their fingers cut into the wood. These instruments feel and sound quite different to their modern counterparts.

In the Baroque era, the piano hadn’t been invented, but they did have other keyboard instruments including the organ and harpsichord. The harpsicord is similar to the piano, except that the strings inside are plucked instead of hit, and there is no pedal so it sounds quite different.

One of the other main differences is pitch.

Today we usually label an ‘A’ (the note an orchestra will tune to) as 440 Hertz, but in the baroque era, their ‘A’ may have been higher or lower than how we hear it today. It varied according to where you lived in Europe and how the church organ was tuned. Because people were not able to travel as far and as frequently as we do today, there was no standardisation of pitch until much later on. Based on research, historically informed performances of works by Monteverdi are often at a higher pitch of A=465Hz and Bach is often played at a lower pitch of A=415Hz.  

This picture is one of the earliest known depictions of a violin.

It is artist Gaudenzio Ferrari’s Madonna of the Orange Tree, painted 1530. A cherub is seen playing a bowed instruments which clearly has the hallmarks of a violin.

I hope this has been an interesting introduction to the world of historically informed performance, and an eye opener to just one of many musical opportunities out there waiting for you!

Over the last few decades, there has been a boom in interest in HIP and there are now many groups and orchestras who perform in a historically informed manner, including the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Academy of Ancient Music. There are also several vocal groups who sing with a historically informed approach, including I fagiolini and Ex Cathedra.

Do look them up if you’re interested in finding out more!

Fantastic Beasts and The Woman of Many Talents…

As if J K Rowling hadn’t already made it abundantly clear that she is an extraordinary woman – a world famous author of one of the biggest book and movie franchises the world has ever seen, generous philanthropist and campaigner and now, it turns out, a composer!
The latest brick in the Harry Potter tower, the new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film (which we love by the way) has a speakeasy scene, where a female goblin with a fabulous voice (actually sung by Emmie Joy Green who was discovered online and sung the demo in her childhood bedroom!) sings a song called “Blind Pig”. Turns out our superwoman J K Rowling co-wrote that very song!
Take a listen below and fall in love like we did – my, my it’s catchy!
How many magical creatures do you hear mentioned…?

Glastonbury 2016 Round Up

So I managed to wangle myself a ticket to Glastonbury this year and as ever it didn’t disappoint. As ever we were also three feet under in mud, but hey, it’s Glastonbury, what did we expect…

I saw some great bands, both old and new and wanted to share them with you.

Thursday

I’m awarding myself a gold star as I stayed in London to vote, not that it did much good, le sigh, let’s not go there… It took 7 hours to get in, so we didn’t arrive till evening, but still, we used the time waiting in the queue to do out hair and make up so at least we looked FABULOUS for an hour at Glastonbury….

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Friday started with a heavy heart at the referendum result. I decided there was nothing for it but to cover myself in glitter and go and do Power Ballad Yoga in the Greenpeace Fields. Yes, that’s a thing. It was part comedy, party yoga and very funny. There were maybe 150 people all doing it and feeling the love. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3lI3foiGtU

Next we went and checked out The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians with Damon Albarn on the Pyramid Stage. At that point it felt more important than ever to go and show our support for the refugees and remember we are all connected as human beings and remember that we have more in common than that which divides us. I’m not going to lie, it was a bit emotional.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p03y0j0m/glastonbury-2016-the-orchestra-of-syrian-musicians-with-damon-albarn-guests

Then we drank some cider (standard) and watched Hobo Jones And The Junkyard Dogs who have become a firm festival favourite band over the years. A tongue in cheek skiffle band, these three chaps know how to rock a tent! https://youtu.be/1as_4YGLmlQ?t=1m25s

Next up we saw our friends She Drew The Gun (SDTG) performing in the backstage bar at Theatre & Circus. SDTG won the Glastonbury emerging talent competition and played 5, yes 5 (!) times this festival, finishing off by headlining the John Peel Stage on Sunday morning, which I just missed, (arriving as they finished) because I’d been too busy dancing disco with drag queens in a backstage bar. For real. Anyway, you should definitely check out SDTG, they are destined for big things and Louisa is a top gal with a clear conscience. http://www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk/she-drew-the-gun-win-2016-emerging-talent-competition/

Then I headed off to Bastille with my friend’s kid, Rory. Rory is 12 years old and has been to Glastonbury 10 times already. In theory I was looking after him but the reality is that I think he was looking after me. Top tips like shortcuts and “lift with your heel!” when you get stuck in the Glastonbury mud. Man! It’s so frickin sticky!!!!! Rory persuaded me to go to the front of Bastille and we got right to the front! Big thanks to the lovely Bastille fans who let us go right to the front. You made a 12 year old kid (and a 36 year old adult) very very happy. Bastille were absolutely brilliant live, with the lead singer performing superbly. It was a sunset session, so utterly gorgeous to look at. Check it out here. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p03y0jf0/glastonbury-2016-bastille

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After that we made a quick tour to Stormzy and Muse before heading back to sensation Seekers Stage to watch a bit of cabaret. Yes, that was all one day. No wonder I’m still tired! Over the four days I did 100,000 steps, which is equivalent to about 1,000,000 normal steps due to the sticky Glastonbury mud…. We went to the after hours area “SE Corner” which was pretty banging and danced to some breaks and I randomly bumped into a friend. Love it when that happens!

Saturday bought a backstage meeting with the lovely Jess AKA Tourettes Hero, she is a bloody legend and an inspirational and funny person through and through. Also know as ‘Biscuit Lady’, she uses her tourettes to put on a hilarious show.  http://www.touretteshero.com/
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Then I swung by West Holts stage, also known as the world music stage. I saw two acts I hadn’t seen before. First up was Mbongwana Star, who are a 7 piece Congalese band, very up tempo and fun. Perfect for a Saturday afternoonhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p03yggrf/glastonbury-2016-mbongwana-star

They were followed by a Japanese performance art group, which are everything you might expect a Japanese performance art group to be. Flipping mental! Didn’t know where to look!! Orchestral musicians, dancers, naked dancers, people doing art. They are called Shibusashirazu Orchestra http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ewcj5v/acts/ab6p8g#p03yggnv

Saturday evening was always going to be Adele. I was lucky enough to get a last minute ticket to see her at the 02 recently and she was jaw droppingly amazing. The thing that most people don’t realise if they haven’t seen her live is just how funny she is. I love her refreshing honesty and genuine approach to life. As well as being a world class singer she can also tell a cracking joke and you just want to go down the pub with her. If watching Adele on the Pyramid Stage was amazing, spare a thought for our very own trombone tutor Emma Basset who was PLAYING FOR HER! ON THE PYRAMID STAGE! What a star Emma is and we’re very very proud of her. She was playing on Skyfall, see if you can see her here…. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p03ybdky/glastonbury-2016-adele

Just as Adele was finishing we decided to hot foot it to another section of the Festival and popped up to The Park for the David Bowie tribute. It was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing a live orchestral piece by the American composer Philip Glass. His “Heroes Symphony”, written in 1996 in homage to David’s 1977 album Heroes was the first classical headliner to appear at Glastonbury and was accompanied by an outstanding laser show.

We then watched a bit of cabaret, went to Block 9 for a proper Glastonbury rave up, complete with subway crashed into the building (it’s a theatre set, not real but still completely impressive). Then I got distracted by dancing drag queens.

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Sunday bought some much needed sleep and a quick gig watching Mahalia, a very talented young lady (possibly only 18 years old?!) from London. Her dad played guitar with her which was so sweet. With her unique look, gorgeous voice and cracking songs, I’m sure this girl is destined for big things.
https://www.facebook.com/mahaliamusic/info/?entry_point=about_section_header&tab=overview
We decided to skip Coldplay and headed for an early exit and managed to avoid getting stuck in the mud in my low slung car, phew! Despite the mud (oh god the mud) it was probably my best Glastonbury yet. Fab times with fab people and a whole bunch of music and art to check out.  This is how I choose to live my life. Thanks to all the wonderful people that choose the same and make it what it is.
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Walk Off The Earth

by Jess and Becky

We are really lucky that over the past 50 years we have had decade after decade of great music. People that are born twenty years after the release date still sing along to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, and we are still getting great songs released on a weekly basis. No wonder then, that so many people want to do covers of these classics. Now, you get some covers that literally just copy the song completely, but what we are interested in are groups that put a new slant on the songs we know so well.

“Walk Off The Earth” are a group that do exactly that, covering songs in new and innovative ways. Their first major hit was when all five members performed “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye, with all of them playing the one guitar.

Each arrangement brings a new surprise. Their cover of Adele’s “Hello” uses boomwhackers, a beat boxer, a bell and three of them singing. Then Justin Bieber’s “What Do you Mean?” has them using a clock as a rhythmic pulse on a loop pedal, a mouth organ for melodic figures and an accordion to pad out the harmony. There’s even a picture of them playing drums covered in paint! Sounds like a fun group to be in!

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Check out the videos below and the website here.

 

 

 

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The Name’s Bond….

written by Jess Tomlinson 10995427_10155690504155109_3214150190701156284_n (2)

For the first time ever, a James Bond theme song has reached no. 1 in the UK charts. I found this difficult to believe when I read it- out of 24 films spanning over 50 years, featuring some of the most famous artists of all time, it has only just happened in 2015. I’m going to throw a few ideas out there to see why this is the case.

Sam Smith’s song “Writing’s on the Wall”, recently released as the song for “Spectre”, topped the charts last week even though it had mixed reviews when it was released. I have to say I was one of the less enthusiastic listeners when I first heard this song, enjoying the orchestration, but pinning it down to just being the classic “James Bond sound” that we’ve heard in so many of the films. That being said, it is obviously very popular.

screen-shot-2014-12-23-at-3-33-20-pmThe artists of previous Bond themes, like Sam Smith, have always been some of the most famous performers at the time of release; Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever), Paul McCartney (Live and Let Die) and Adele (Skyfall) being just a handful of names you might recognise. These artists will be forever remembered as some of the greatest of their time- is it that Sam Smith has more a fan base than the previous artists? Or is it these artists that helped him get to the top? And why did some of their most famous work not top the charts?

Just looking at the figures of the Bond films alone, you can see the explosion of the film industry over the last 50 years. The budgets have doubled almost every other film, with these bigger projects moving along with society’s demand for film. Maybe we are now wrapped up in film so much that when a theme song is released, it is obligatory to listen to it. Our need to listen to and download popular songs has moved forward with the industry boom, making it natural that the Bond song has finally got to no. 1.

Or maybe it’s the work of all the previous artists and films that’s helped this song finally get to no. 1. Over 50 years of hype for the most famous film series in the world must surely help the promotion of a song. Never do songs have more pre-release discussion that when they represent the Bond franchise. The past songs have been so exciting and set such a precedent, that people can’t wait to hear the next one.

Some of my favourite Bond songs were released for the films that span through the 70s, one of the most iconic decades for the music industry. Perhaps the classic Bond songs of this era didn’t hit the top spot because of the tyranny of choice the lucky listeners of the 70s were presented with. Maybe there was just too much new music to listen to compared to now?

It could simply be, however, that “Writing’s on the Wall” is the best song we’ve had yet. There will never be a deciding answer as to what the best Bond song is, it is all personal opinion. But I do think it’s interesting to see through this franchise how much the music industry has been developed, how it is so integral to other industries and how it’s clearly a very exciting and talked about aspect of our society.

Focus at Will

Finding it hard to focus? Don’t we all! In our plea for productivity, we’ve found a really useful website to help people of all ages focus on the task at hand – it’s called Focus at Will.

Focus at Will is a collection of beautiful music specifically chosen to boost concentration and focus. There are over 10 unique channels to choose from to fit your music taste so there’s something for everyone, and you can adjust the intensity to match your energy levels at different times of the day.

Another great feature is that it’s not restricted to your computer – you can take it on the go and play it on your iPhone, iPad, iOS or Android device. You’ve also got access to productivity tips to help you get the most out of your productivity sessions – hurrah!

Give it a try (there’s a 30 day free trial, so nothing to lose!) and let us know what your newly focussed mind masters!

Focus at Will

Never underestimate Little People!

As you might know, the theme for the summer concert is ‘Music From The Movies’ and one of my students, Iona, loves Les Miserables. We’ve been learning it for her Grade 2 singing and she LOVES singing it! It’s such a cracking song and she sings it with such gusto and sincerity and it’s so true – never underestimate Little People!

Plus you get to sing about a flea biting the bottom of the Pope in Rome, what’s not to love?!

Start having a think about which songs or pieces you’d like to perform at the concert and remember, never underestimate yourself, you can all do amazing things! (Apologies for not having the whole piece, my phone ran out half way through, ah technology….)

Music from the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics

Whatever ones personal feelings about Russia’s laws regarding personal freedom and sexuality, you can’t deny that the country has produced some cracking composers over the years.

Watching the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics on Friday night was like watching a Who’s Who list of my all time favourite composers. Late Romantic Russian music is probably my favourite genre of classical music and the following pieces were played in a sort of Russian-classical-mash up offering during the last part of the Opening Ceremony.

First of all the magnificent (and gay, just saying, Putin) Pytor Llyich Tachaikovsky and his ageless sounding Swan Lake, danced here by the American Ballet Theatre. The last five minutes of this ballet are some of the best five minutes of music you will ever hear in my opinion.

Another firm favourite to be played during the ceremony was Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera, Prince Igor, here performed by the mighty Kirov Ballet and Opera Company. The driving rhythms and lyrical folk melodies are simply enchanting. Add in some powerful orchestral parts and weighty harmonies and you have an incredibly powerful and memorable piece of music. You might recognise the melody as ‘Stranger In Paradise’ from the musical Kismet.

Lastly and probably my all time favourite piece of music is The Firebird by Igor Stravinky. The ballet is based on Russian folk tales of the magical glowing bird that can be both a blessing and a curse to its owner. When the ballet was first performed on 25 June 1910, it was an instant success with both audience and critics and still wows audiences round the world today. It is another ageless and inspiring ballet.

You might have seen during the finale of the Opening Ceremony that the Olympic flame was lit on an object that looked like a tail. This is representative of the tail of the Firebird. I saw this performed many times by the wonderful Mara Galeazzi at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, sadly I can’t find a video with her in it, but here is one with the Royal Ballet. Whilst all of the music is wonderful, start from about 4 minutes in if you want to get to the highlights.

Also, if you were interested who the choir was, it was these guys, they’ve been going for 600 years; they must use some great moisturiser.

It’s not really surprising that all three of these wonderful pieces are for ballet. Music and dance are both passionate, intense, complex art forms and this is a perfect example of the sum of their parts being even greater when combined. If you’ve never been to see live ballet with an orchestra, then I strongly recommend you give it a go, and maybe start off with a magnificent, firey Russian composer.

Lastly, one can’t talk about the Winter Olympics and skiing without referencing this little gem. Enjoy!

Welcome to my blog!

So. My friend Katy said I should have a blog. She does ‘Comtemporary SEO & Marketing’ so she should know. She said I should gather all my thoughts, links I post on FB and twitter and my general musical ramblings to the world in one place. If this doesn’t sound like something you’d like, I suggest you go and open a nice bottle of rose and go and watch Neighbours instead.

I’ll write about all kinds of musical related goodness, but right now I’m going to talk about Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of my favourite British classical composers.

I’m studying a piece of RVW with one of my grown up students at the moment and she said she didn’t know much about him, so I emailed her this listening list:

“I would suggest you start with Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; it’s a beautiful piece of music and you’ll probably recognise large chunks of it. If you haven’t listened all the way through, then do listen to The Lark Ascending, it’s one of my favourite pieces of classical music and I often find myself listening to it when I can’t sleep.

Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus is beautiful and you’ll probably recognise it from an old English Hymn (I Heard The Voice of Jesus Say), in fact RVW arranged a load of hymns and his harmonies are second to none. In terms of heavier weightier orchestral pieces, his fourth symphony is explosive and intense. The London Symphony (2) is good. Like all good classical composers he wrote 9 Symphonies so you have a lot to choose from!”

I hope you enjoy listening to a bit of Ralph, let me know how you got on!