Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A Weekend in the Heart of the British Barbershop World

As I sat looking out over the bay in Llandudno, late on Sunday afternoon in the last weekend of May, I was struck by
Venue Cymru, overlooking the bay at Llandudno
with the grand Venue Cymru on the right.
the darkening grey skies, threatening rain as they had done for most of that day. What was most striking of all, though, was my mood. Influenced as we Brits are by the state of the weather, it occurred to me that I was, at this particular moment, quite the contrarian. No kind of weather could have dampened my spirits that weekend.

The location was the Venue Cymru, the venue, this year, for the British Association of Barbershop Singers National Convention in 2015, a meeting of all the greatest musical minds, voices and hearts that this nation's barbershop community can muster ... and a good deal of talent from a few other musical communities for good measure. To be singing in this kind of company may be fine enough, but to be singing with the Chorus, Hallmark of Harmony, who were and, it could be argued, still are the best in the UK, is something else altogether! 

We arrived on the first day of a four day fest, to perform as current gold medal champions in the Friday night show in the theatre that seats 1,500 or more and it was to a capacity
The Theatre at the Venue Cymru
audience. Our opener was a new arrangement, by our resident genius, Sam Hubbard, of an intro appropriately called "Overture", a song with a touch of show business parody, set the pace. Next, two songs, new to Hallmark, were that Marvin Gaye classic, "I Heard it Through The Grapevine" - voted recently the best ever Motown song - and the towering not to mention drama filled, David Wright arrangement of "The Impossible Dream". We finished with the competition set, which we will take to the International Convention in Pittsburgh at the end of June: the Rogers and Hart, Adam Reimnitz arrangement of the 
beautiful ballad, "My Romance" and our up-tune, that Hammerstein, Harbach and Kern song, to an arrangement written specially for Hallmark by the remarkable Liz Garnett, "I Won't Dance". 

The Arena at the Venue Cymru
As if that wasn't enough, we were treated the following day, to some magnificent singing in the Chorus competition, aimed at finding out who, out of thirty-six entrants (fewer than the forty-eight that competed last year), would  be the pretenders to Hallmark of Harmony's crown. Because current champions are not allowed to compete the year following their triumph, we did, however, perform a shorter set starting with Grapevine, at the end of the chorus competition in the Arena that evening. They call it the 'mic cooling' session. We had also asked the bank of twelve - yes, TWELVE - judges to score us privately, to check where we are, so to speak. For reasons of propriety and etiquette, I cannot tell you what that score was, nor where it would have placed us, had we been competing this year, but suffice to say we were very, VERY pleased with the result ... the winners of the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were Bristol's very impressive Great Western Chorus, Bolton's Cottontown Chorus, who have been great supporters of our efforts this year, and Nottingham's Grand Central Chorus, whose up-tune was an ambitious and, in my view, a magnificent take on The Wizard of Oz. They were all very worthy medalists.

Some of the boys of Hallmark after their
Mic Cooler, waiting for the results ...
As a footnote to the chorus competition, and the winners in particular, we had noted the flattery in Great Western's up-tune, which was a parody of barbershop singing. In the concluding passages of this performance, there was a very deliberate and obvious imitation of some of the moves in Hallmark's own performances, which were considered to be innovative and ground breaking in the barbershop world. So in the hour's warm up before our own performance as mic coolers, we slotted in a small and subtle change to one of our own moves in "I Won't Dance" as a return compliment. It was noted, with a few whoops of appreciation! 

On Sunday morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed, we were scheduled to have a coaching session with the music team of the best chorus in the world, current international Gold medalists from Texas, Vocal Majority (apparently there's a long waiting list of budding singers wanting to join them, not surprisingly it turns out). However, far from being a quiet coaching session, it turned out to be a Masterclass held under glass in the Hall at the Venue Cymru, to a capacity audience, standing room only. And what a session it was! So much of value came out of this, not least a little moment towards the end of the hour-long masterclass. Following a suggestion from VM's Musical Director about how we might sing a part of the tag (the closing dramatic section, aka the coda) in "I Won't Dance", the way in which we responded to this suggestion brought a spontaneous whooping and applause from the (albeit very knowledgeable barbershop) audience before we'd even finished the song! Lump in throat moment.

If it were possible to cap this, going to see the Vocal Majority perform their own show in the Theatre, on Sunday afternoon did this. At one minute, hugely entertaining, the next stirring, watery eyed moments. Shear class. This is what we are aiming for!

And later that afternoon, the final of the quartet competition. Four of the six finalists had Hallmark members singing with them. And the Gold medalists, who seemed to be genuinely far more surprised at the result than most of the audience, our very own Tagline, comprised entirely of Hallmark members, present or recently past ... and maybe just about to rejoin us. Very well done to them and to our own bass section coach, Rob Foot, who is the anchor of that winning quartet.

In conclusion: I ask myself how much have I learned about singing in the past few months since joining Hallmark of Harmony? The answer is: "loads!".  And how much more have I got to learn? ... Loads!!  

Only one musical instrument made an appearance throughout the weekend, perhaps the cheapest and most amazing instrument that ever existed, the human voice. A perfect contribution and conclusion to the musical experiences that contributed to my mood last weekend ... and not a metaphorical cloud in sight.

We'll be back for this next year!

Friday, 30 January 2015

British Bulldogs, Great Speeches and Poetry ...

Photo: John Anstie
It is not a new notion to say that great speeches are like great poetry [Look up Simon Armitage's documentary on the subject "Speeches that Shook the World" shown on BBC TV on 6th November in 2013 *]. We know all too well how there are certain circumstances, certain events that cause negative emotions to be stirred in us, like the fear that we would ordinarily prefer to keep hidden; fear that has the capability to paralyse us, and deny us our inner strengths. But great speeches. like great poetry, can also stir in us those very positive emotions that bond us in our familial, local and national and even international communities and, in so doing, bind and galvanise us, as well as motivating cooperative action, repair and renewal. The like of this kind of behaviour may seem difficult to believe, these days, when our motives seem only to be characterised by an aspirational, but selfish pursuit of wealth and personal celebrity, often at the expence of those less fortunate; often at the expence of greater causes.

But one man encapsulated the essence of leadership for Great Britain, at a time when it was needed most. He was a man, who, despite his unpopularity amongst certain sections of society in peace time, galvanised a nation into girding its loins and taking action; who, above all else, was capable of stirring the most powerful of positive emotions in us, of breathing the oxygen of hope into a nation that was almost on its knees in the early years of World War II. He was a man, who was an articulate weaver of words, a speech-maker and, it could be argued, a poet. Above all else he was a true leader. That man was, of course, none other than the late Sir Winston Churchill. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of his State funeral - an honour, apparently never before afforded to a 'Commoner'. 

His speech at the conclusion of the Battle of Britain was poetic:

"Never in the field of human conflict
was so much owed
by so many
to so few" 

I have deliberately broken his prose into poem-like lines, to emphasise the pauses he made between them, to great dramatic effect; an effect that embeds a message deep into our psyche, it sears the soul such that you could feel it in your guts.

The way in which he delivered his rallying speech to Parliament on 4th June 1940 ...

"We shall go on to the end. 
We shall fight in France, 
we shall fight on the seas and oceans, 
we shall fight with growing confidence 
and growing strength in the air, 
we shall defend our island, 
whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches, 
we shall fight on the landing grounds, 
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, 
we shall fight in the hills;  ... 

... without doubt, embraces many facets of the poetic. It had such rhythm, even half rhymes and cadences, to say nothing of the way he used the repeated punchy phrase "we shall fight" and how the subtle stress on certain words, lingering on the vowels of certain key words and leaving short silences between lines built drama as the speech progressed to its conclusion.

... we shall never surrender."

Whatever your detractors may have said against you, Sir Winston, for the huge role you played, between 1940 and 1945, in helping a nation believe in itself again and that it could, nay, would prevail, I salute you.

* Armitage revealed the key elements of a good speech (and also a good poem), which were defined by one of the many people he interviewed during his documentary, Vincent Franklin, who played the blue sky thinking guru, Stuart Pearson, in the BBC's comic satire, "The Thick of It". Franklin is a speech writer in his other life. The three elements he revealed were based on the 'rhetoric strategies' of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, which are also referred to as the 'modes of persuasion' that defined a great speech as one which had Logos (an appeal to logic and factual argument), Ethos (an appeal to the authority or trustworthiness of the speaker) and Pathos (having secured your audience's attention, this is the quality of the language, which drives the message home more powerfully than any other technique). The final speech presented by Armitage in the documentary is Martin Luther King Jnr's famous "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered to quarter of a million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963; a classic mood changing, history making speech if ever there was one.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Dr Who

Well, what better place, I thought, than this blog, which tries to address the eternal questions about life, the universe and everything, to talk about the one and only Dr. Who?

On Saturday night we watched the first episode of the new series of this fifty year-old Sci-Fi series, which has countless fans all over the world, as well as a few detractors ( who, I think, are just boring contrarians! ;) ). A 'new' Doctor along with an assistant, who is clearly having difficulty coming to terms with an older, silver haired incumbent time-lord.

So, for those of you who saw it, what did you think ... about the story, the characters, the new Dr. Who? The hints at more worldly things: politics, current affairs, many metaphors, hints at political correctness, timeless modern life; it was all in there somewhere!

We saw hints of the Scottish referendum for independence - in the beginning, the Doctor didn't seem happy with the 'English accents' around him. Only the reptilian lady (with the Scottish accent) seemed to be talking a language that was acceptable to the clearly disoriented Doc.

The same sex, albeit preternaturally and probably intergalactic marriage offered us a nudge at a topical issue. What interested me most is something that perhaps could place the scriptwriters' intentions firmly on centre stage of topical socio-political issues. The repeated use of 'the veil' (which, at times, covered said reptilian lady's face) and the closing scene, it has to said delivered with a generous helping of pathos, in which Clara is still having difficulty recognising the transmogrified Doctor and coming to terms with his new ageing grey face ... the epitome of how the fragile human condition is characterised  by how significantly it is affected, nay obsessed, on so many levels, with what we and others look like on the surface. How much do we spend on keeping ourselves looking young on the outside, whilst ignoring what's going on the inside!?

I'm sure many readers of a certain age will know what I mean when I say that, in the latter stages of my life, I can only be affected and attracted by beauty that is deeply rooted; that is sometimes almost indefinably subtle, but most certainly far deeper than the skin and it is glaringly obvious when you encounter it! The colour and quality of our skin, our height, our bone structure, even the way we speak are so often a cause of prejudice, sometimes crippling and socially unacceptable prejudice.
Anyway, please excuse my diatribe. All I wanted to know is what others thought about the new Dr, Who?

Let me know by giving me your own comments below. Make 'em as long and detailed as you like; rants and diatribes are both acceptable. Let rip with your eulogies and crucifixions as much as you like.


Friday, 16 May 2014

There is Light ...

© 2007 John Anstie
[Posted in honour of the International Photography Month of May and 'Wordless Wednesday', being celebrated over at The Bardo Group]

Monday, 5 May 2014

Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Forgiveness Challenge

Dear Fellow Blogger and Reader,

I have to tell you about Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho, who have started something. I feel that I have no choice, other than to promote this challenge, given that the subject is very much on my mind (evidence my recent posting over at The Bardo Group "Good Friday, Good Fortune and Forgiveness"). Forgiveness is not just a philosophical, theological or allegorical instrument of persuasion, it is instead being reviewed by psychologists and physicians the world over for its value in healing. This is probably because deep-seated anger, stress, resentment and guilt, may be emotional responses to life, but are known to cause physical and mental illness and personality disorders, if allowed to fester.

It is with honest intent that I recommend this to you all. The link to the site to register is at the Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge website.

Before you go there, I would urge you to have a look and listen to this interview with the very articulate Alanis Morissette, of whom I knew little before this point, except that she was a musician, but, relating her own journey of forgiving to her song-writing, I found a lot to understand and admire here ...

Do let me know what you think.