Musical Notes from a small island blog 174 – Friends of square pianos

I got an invite to a gathering of the Friends of Square Pianos over Easter and to be honest I was not entirely sure how much fun it would be.

The main draw was the fact that my own Beyer square piano was going to be there and I am obviously keen to see how the restoration was coming along.

The gathering was organised by David Hackett in the village hall at Chelveston – only an hour’s drive from me so off I went in the lovely sunshine.

Well – it was brilliant !

Slightly bizarrely for a Friends of square pianos event, my own Beyer was the only square piano. Restorer Lucy Coad and her team told me all about what they had done so far and it is close to being finished which was wonderful in itself.

The hall was full of keyboards and spinets were the featured instrument for the day – just having the opportunity to move around try out so many beautiful instruments made the day worthwhile.

The really positive experience however was being in a hall of 30 or so enthusiasts who were clearly masters of their trade: full of knowledge and most, if not all of them, highly skilled artisans able to transform seriously neglected instruments into beautiful works of art that played wonderfully.

The talks were fascinating and the jewel in the crown was the excellent singing of Angie Hicks, accompanied by David Wright, singing songs from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, obviously, accompanied on authentic instruments – Brilliant.

Musical Notes from a small island blog no.173 – The Magic of Modes

Very unusually the wonderful world of Youtube let me down as I explored it to find the right tutorial to help me explore the mystery of the modes.

Like most classically trained musicians I was of course aware of them and their place in the history of musical development; but like most classically trained musicians my ‘musical language’ was firmly based on major and minor scales.

Let’s be honest – I could not tell you all the names of the modes and certainly not in order – but I can now.

What I was looking for was something that made the modes fun and interesting to learn and understand – rather than just a theoretical study – but I didn’t find it. So in the best traditions of the DIY enthusiast I came up with the following.

You may well know more than I did at the start of my journey which is that the modes are subtlety different to each other but this subtlety is what makes them so magical and ethereal.

I played through the modes, appreciating that the pattern of tone and semitones change for each one – but this was really dry and not what I wanted at all.

I then treated each mode as a jazz improvisation and therefore tried to find a chord in the left hand that worked with each modal scale – and that is when it all clicked into place.

I attach what I came up with and of course for those of you with far more knowledge of modes and jazz it is nothing out of the ordinary but I have to confess I was very pleased with myself and can now play all modes in all keys and have fun doing it !

This is downloadable should you feel it is of any interest to you.

Musical Notes from a small island blog 172 – Riverside Jazz

I mentioned in an October blog that I am a regular at a new jazz venue in Leamington – based at the Irish Club but called ‘Riverside Jazz’ because it is next to the river Leam – so why not.

It is organised by a local and very talented musician called Andy Derrick who performs every time in a different band line up on bass guitar or occasionally double bass. The fact that he is also headlining the next gig (April 21st) on trombone gives some clue as to his wonderful versatility.

Last Thursday we enjoyed the combined talents of Kris Chase-Byrne on keyboard, Spencer Hedges on kit, Andy on bass guitar (with a cameo on trombone) and Nick Dewhurst headlining. Perhaps the thing I enjoyed more than anything was the sheer joy that all the performers showed throughout the evening. They were seriously impressive musicians having a seriously good time making music together.

I marvelled at the multi-instrumental and composing skills that Nick has. It is almost pointless to try and write down how far my jaw dropped as he moved effortlessly from trumpet to flugel to rhythm guitar and even threw in a set on valve trombone. I also fail completely to find the superlatives to describe his very original compositions.

Fortunately I do not have to stretch my humble writing skills too far because Nick has very conveniently recorded a track where he plays all the instruments – amazing.

Musical Notes from a small island blog 171 – Full Circle

Do you occasionally find yourself going ‘ahh ha’ as you finally realise something really obvious? No? – just me then.

This week’s ‘ahh ha’ moment was attempting to play the easier bits in Grieg’s piano concerto – a work of genius mentioned in a previous blog 157.

I am happily playing this gorgeous section in the third movement – in F major but with an Eb casually thrown in to transcend beauty to a whole new strata of wonderfulness.

Now – as I delve ever deeper into the jazz world I am becoming fully aware of the extraordinary musical knowledge jazz musicians have – and particularly of modes.

In the classical world it is easy to think that modes died out as the major and minor scales (harmonic and melodic) took over but of course they never went away and the jazz world makes full use of them.

So a deeper analysis of the Grieg passage above quickly shows that an F major scale with an Eb is – of course – a Phrygian mode. The Eb transforms the chord on the 5th from a C major to a C minor chord and we have a chord on the flattened 7th – Eb major. Add the seventh to either or both of these – and Grieg does exactly that – and you have jazz; or rather, you have a chord sequence that is entirely in keeping with the language of jazz.

Superlatives of course completely fail when trying to describe the genius of Julia Fischer who is a world renown concert violinist but is here playing the Grieg piano concerto on her ‘second study’ instrument. If you really only have a couple of minutes then skip to 24 minutes on this recording to hear the ‘jazzy’ bit – but what you really need to do is listen to the whole thing and think – if only – like I do.

Musical Notes from a small island blog 170 – Take Five

Take Five – a melody made famous by Dave Brubeck but written by saxophonist Paul Desmond – is such a well known piece that it is a bit of a must for me to master; a jazz classic for sure.

It has very specific challenges being ( obviously ) in 5/4 time and in the key of Eb minor – not a go to key for me to be honest.

It is one of those pieces that, once reasonably understood, can be added to in complexity little by little; most obviously through improvisation over the main Eb minor riff and also over the Gb major middle section.

As ever I searched the net for inspiration and, as ever, I was not disappointed.

I attach the Michel Camilo solo performance for two reasons; firstly because he is yet another astonishing performer that I have never heard of and secondly – well, because his performance is astonishing.

However, I cannot pretend I learnt too much from his performance simply because it is so beyond me.

I did learn a great deal from Mr. Tony Winston and his generous tutorial on how to approach Take Five which was full of humour and lovely insights – for example the advice that you only need to play sevenths in the left hand for the Db major middle section.

I also really enjoyed his advice on improvisation and the challenge to play a hemiola style variation – a great challenge to learn but such fun to get right – eventually.

Christmas lunch at Warwick castle

I am of course messing with you and did not dine at Warwick Castle on Christmas Day; but I did attend Carols at the Castle – a lovely tradition that has been going on annually (apart from last year) for the last 40 years.

At least 2,000 people, young and old, gathered in the castle courtyard to listen to and sing with the charismatic choirs of St. Mary’s collegiate church Warwick, accompanied by the sparkle of Royal Spa Brass – a brass band first formed in the early 1900s and for whom I played when I was a teenager (but not in the early 1900s in case you were wondering)

I did get the chance to tell everyone there a little bit about Warwick – A Singing Town and what we hope to achieve and I think it had an impact because when I got home that evening I posted a facebook comment and by the next morning it had received over 600 views – which I thought was quite a good result.

As I type this we are again faced with a great deal of uncertainty about the immediate future but what is certain is that Warwick – A Singing Town is off to a great start and we are singing every week with well over 1,500 children in local schools.

I was able to announce that next year we will present a Warwick’s Got singing Talent competition, the Warwick annual Choral Festival and a Singing Spectacular involving around 1,000 children – so quite a lot to look forward to in the New Year.

I leave you with a few images of singing that has taken place in Warwick in the last three months and I wish you a very Happy Christmas and New Year.

Massive Messiah
Class singing at Aylesford primary school
Armonico Consort’s performance of The Armed Man with singing partners Warwickshire Choristers and local school children
Children from St. Mary’s primary school performing for HRH Princess Anne
Songlines community choir
Children from Aylesford primary and secondary schools performing at Victorian Evening in Warwick town square
The wonderful Memory choir run by Armonico Consort for people living with dementia and their carers
Year 4 children from Westgate primary after their Christmas concert in the local church

Musical Notes from a small island blog 169 – my first (jazz) piano lesson

I had my first jazz piano lesson last Monday with Mr. Gary Lewis with whom I have worked at Warwickshire Music and who has been a Head of Music in a number of local schools over the years.

I met up with him again at the Thursday night jazz evening in Leamington and, as is always the case, was so impressed by the seemingly effortless playing of Gary and the band around him.

I have very simple and very challenging targets – I want to be able to play melodies and improvise in all keys and Gary is the man to help me achieve this. I am now the proud owner of ‘Jazz Piano’ and will work my way through all the standards therein, but I am working in particular on Lullaby of Birdland with music by George Shearing and lyrics by George David Weiss.

I am attempting to do the following from memory:

  1. Play the melody and simple bass in F minor and then in all keys
  2. Play the melody and a more exciting bass line in F minor and then in all keys
  3. Add harmony in F minor and then in all keys

After 4 days I have achieved 1. and am exhausting myself with 2. – because it is exhausting to try and play a melody in different keys……..well it is for me.

Having struggled with Bach preludes and fugues for a few weeks you can imagine my delight and utter admiration for the attached performance featuring pianist Ignasi Terraza playing a stunning opening improvisation on Lullaby of Birdland in the style of J.S.Bach – yes really – have a listen.

Warwick – A Singing Town is for everyone

A few weeks in and things are going well. Weekly visits to project schools are well established and events are beginning to happen – despite some understandable covid caution.

One of the first of these was our ‘Massive Messiah’ which was a massive success with over 50 local singers turning out for what was for many their first sing with a group of fellow enthusiasts in 18 months. I like to think that we did it in some style with an high class orchestra and, despite the fact that we deliberately limited the rehearsal to two hours, performed creditably and enthusiastically to an audience of family and friends.

A more recent event created a unique experience for children from St. Mary Immaculate Catholic primary school as they performed to HRH Princess Anne who was on a very special visit to Warwick to meet and talk to local charities.

Two of our local choral partners teamed up for a wonderful and moving performance of The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins at the university of Warwick Arts Centre. The concert was organised by Armonico Consort and superbly conducted by artistic director Christopher Monks. Warwickshire Choristers were invited to take part, along with children and young people from three local schools, in a truly memorable event.

Musical Notes from a small island blog 168 – Inspiration

Inspiration comes in many different packages of course but when I start to decide on a next piece to play my go to are the many performances available on You Tube – a technology I still marvel at.

Having spent time with Scarlatti I wanted to go back to the Chopin Etudes – mainly because they look so daunting – although my chosen one is the Etude no.9 in F minor – which is still daunting to me but not actually impossible.

So a quick look for performances and one name comes up time and again – Valentina Lisitsa. For a seemingly effortless technique and the most exquisite interpretation of the music I have not found a better musician.

I am very definitely still working on my jazz – very early days yet to be sure so a wonderful documentary on Keith Jarrett was just perfection to watch. If Keith Jarrett is a name you know without knowing much about the man, and this was certainly the case for me, then ‘The Art of Improvisation’ is the perfect introduction to someone who must surely be seen as a musical genius.

I love the fact that at the age of eight he was giving classical piano concerts with his own improvisations being played at the end – and the fact that he ‘could play any instrument he picked up’ as demonstrated in the film by his extraordinary and virtuosic saxophone playing.

But it is of course at the piano that his astonishing talent and unique playing style makes him one of the most significant pianists of the age. You can only be in awe of his many compositions and his astonishing ability to improvise 9o minutes of music in his solo piano recitals – not once but hundreds of times.

In a world of instant celebrities who seem to have no talent to offer whatsoever it is very important, to me at least, to be able to admire talent and hard work.

Musical Notes from a small island blog 167 – Thursday night jazz

Along with everyone else I am revelling in the unlocking of live music events and a friend of mine is involved in a new jazz night at a local club in Leamington Spa.

A three piece band supports a different guest artist every third Thursday of the month and I have been to the first two evenings to listen in awe to what jazz musicians can do.

The first guest was saxophonist and flute player Alex Clarke who was extraordinarily wonderful but who also told us that during lockdown she was delivering pizza – a stark reminder of how challenging life has been for professional musicians.

I have always been a bit mystified by jazz and jazz musicians given my very classical music education and so I searched the web once again for jazz piano playing tips and very quickly discovered Mr. Jonny May from Southern California.

Jonny is a pianist and piano educator from a distinguished musical family and has started up what is clearly very successful online tutorial business alongside his playing career – and good luck to him.

As ever I am impressed not just by the content of the freely available tutorials but also by the generosity of putting so many videos online for people like me to learn from. Of course you are invited to subscribe but it is all done in a very relaxed and easy manner.

I have now discovered a whole new musical language that has introduced me to licks, grips, guide tones, Root 5th upper neighbours, turnover progressions and the mixo blues scale – wonderful.