Saturday, 14 November 2009

Back to Bach

Yesterday I went to the Early Music Festival in Greenwich.

It was a little strange being in the area again. Attending a concert in St Alfege church as a member of the public was a little odd but not hugely so, despite the fact that the last time I was there was for my final recital. It was good to hear the Trinity recorders play as I've been doing some playing with recorders myself recently after almost no contact with them for decades.

Stranger was going to the Old Royal Naval College Chapel and hearing Susan Sheppard play the first two Bach 'cello suites.

The Chapel, especially in my final year at Trinity, was somewhere I went to collect my thoughts, to sit in silence and regain some calm when the bustle and noise of a music college all got a bit much for me. I went just to sit and think at least as often as I attended concerts there, probably more. If the weather was good and I had time I'd go to the park, but if I only had a few minutes and it was pouring with rain I went to the Chapel.

The repertoire was even more significant, though. In autumn 2007 I returned to my studies after taking time out for injury and illness. It was still a bit touch and go whether I'd be able to continue. Playing for very long was painful and I knew it would take time and patience to regain my former endurance. For most of the autumn it was all I could do to keep up with various ensemble performances and I really wasn't keeping up with any personal practising.

Early in 2008 I realised that I needed to find a way to relate to the instrument again, to play music I love for the sake of playing it. It wasn't a very conscious process at the time, but somehow I fell into playing Bach again: the third 'cello suite, and the second and first which I had studied before. For around three months I played little else, or that's how I remember it now. I would turn up, do a warm-up, play some Bach. Here was something that would challenge me musically as well as technically, something that I could come back to day after day after day. Here was the spiritual sustenance I needed to learn, again and yet for the first time, to do the work of making music. My long-suffering teacher didn't scold me when I turned up lesson after lesson with yet more music written for an instrument neither of us play. He waited until I was ready to learn new repertoire, and in the meantime we worked on Bach. It worked. 

That isn't the only time I've used Bach to get myself playing. When I was busking on the London Underground I also used to play Bach, and in some ways it was that, rather than the prospect of people literally throwing money at me, which got me out of the house on sluggish days. But that wasn't as profound as the transformation in 2008, not as necessary. 

I've been struggling to practise the horn a little, lately; it seems I'm awfully busy, and much of my work right now is on other instruments. Yet lack of time alone doesn't explain it. Surely it was sensible to have a brief rest from horn playing after the end of my degree, but surely it is time to get past that, to move on, to keep playing. Something feels not quite right, something I know I need to play through rather than avoid, but which also makes me reluctant to start playing.

The recital in the Chapel yesterday, the juxtaposition of that repertoire and that space, reminded me that the Bach suites, for me, will always be partly about healing. 

I think I know what I need to do differently.

Thursday, 5 November 2009


I do seem to be having something of a dry spell, in terms of blogging here. I have been quite busy!

I composed an anthem; it was sung during a church service on 27th September. The sheet music is available here and a MIDI file here; I don't yet have a suitable recording. The piece is dedicated to Rev Dr Catherine Dowland-Pillinger, on the occasion of her ordination to the priesthood of the Church of England, and the church service was the first Eucharist at which she presided. I'm very grateful to the vicar, music director and choir at St Mary's, Addington for allowing me to contribute in this way.

Closer to home, I've been rehearsing with a couple of other ex-Trinity students. Between us we play an eclectic variety of instruments and it has been good fun finding and adapting repertoire to suit our sound. We'll be playing this Sunday at the launch of the Roots and Remembrance exhibition at St Andrew's Church, Colworth Road, London, E11 1JD. The launch begins at 11.30am, after the annual Rememberance Sunday service.

Also at St Andrew's, I've been learning a bit of how to play the organ. It's a lot of fun, this making notes with my feet, but really very difficult to co-ordinate with my hands! I've also been doing some singing in the choir there. We will be having a Lessons & Carols service on 13th December, and welcome anyone interested in singing in our Community Choir to join us for rehearsals on Friday nights from 7pm.

On December 9th will be the annual London Gallery Quire Christmas concert, held as last year at St George's German Lutheran Church, 55 Alie Street, London E1 8EB. Do arrive 6.30pm for the 7pm start; tickets are £5 on the door. As well as the rare treat of listening to West Gallery music this is a good chance to see the inside of the oldest German church in Britain.

I almost forgot to mention the London Performance Collective lunchtime concert at St John's Notting Hill at 1pm this coming Thursday, 12th November. This concert of "Known, Visible Music" will include works by Bassi, Piazzolla and Whitlock, as well as yours truly playing the Haydn Divertimento a tre for horn, violin and 'cello.

It would be great to see some familiar faces!