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Last week I sang in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall with my choir. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the wonderful Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Not to be missed, but the late nights for rehearsals in the run-up to it were punishing for someone who usually goes to bed near 9 in order to survive being awake any time from 4 am the next day. The chorus rehearses two nights a week, but this week the rehearsals were Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Friday was the concert. I felt like death warmed up on the day of the concert, but knew I would find a second wind. The piece is a quite a gruelling tour de force for the sopranos (as well as being stomach-achingly beautiful) but I was able to stay standing till the end and sing the last note without completely losing my voice, so I count my performance as a success.

Anyway, dragging my tired personage across Waterloo Bridge and thinking how this vista of London doesn’t inspire the same excitement in me as it did when I was wide-eyed and younger, I was presented with this-

On the wall of the Hayward Gallery was projected the question, ‘How are you sleeping these days?’ How apt. Another soprano in the choir who is a grandma was telling me how her son got in some sleep specialists to sort their terrible broken nights with their toddler. It cost 250 quid and it has worked. She sent me a copy of the ‘task form’ detailing all the things the parents had to do to get the boy sleeping through the night. BB isn’t as extreme a case as Stanley, but she’s still up way before the dawn. This is what we are going to try-

  • Set a small lamp up in his room, with a low wattage bulb, 10-12 watts. Make sure he can see it from his bed.
  • Connect the lamp to a timer switch and set it to 6.45am.
  • If he wakes and the lamp is on, go and get him up immediately – show Stanley the lamp and explain that he can now get up.
  • If the lamp has not come on, he must wait until it is on before you get him up

The problem may be that BB has no way of knowing when it’s morning. I have prepared our lamp and timer, only l set it for 6.00. No good aiming to high! BB has been unwell these last few weeks, but is much better now. Fighting fit, so battle must commence. Last night I had her out of the cot at 3.15. This is no good! One daunting thing is that tonight when playing before bed, she learned how to stand up in her cot. Lord help us.

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It’s a crisp autumn day. Dad and I went out last night for the first time and left BB with a babysitter (my mate with five kids who has furnished our house with all the baby stuff you could possibly need. BB couldn’t be in safer hands). I got called at the last minute to play a gig with our old band. It was a long setlist with three new songs. I hadn’t played the old ones for a year and a half. This morning, though slightly groggy, I feel suddenly light on responsibility. What a wonderful feeling! I guess since I was asked last Tuesday my mind has been full of when am I going to find time to practice, how will I make the rehearsal after teaching, coping with suddenly not going to bed at 9 but still getting up at 5. How am I going to organise cover for BB and make the incredibly early soundcheck. BB is quite demanding, she’s becoming a toddler and needs fresh air and continuous entertainment! Apparently me playing an hour of accordion doesn’t count. She does let me play a bit of piano if I keep giving her cheesy grins over my shoulder.

Yesterday was quite intense. Making sure I had all my stuff ready, trying to snatch a bit of essential practice in here and there of the tunes I hadn’t yet managed to play through, taking BB to ‘baby stay and play’ at the children’s centre (what a joy – more about this later), doing the washing, the battle that lunch has become. Taking BB on the bike to buy snacks for the babysitter and a quick dinner for us, the battle that dinner has become. Dad back covered in dust, quickly jumps in the bath, handover, I run out to the car, speed outrageously along the A40, set foot on stage at KOKO, Camden for the soundcheck at 5.30 on the dot. I made it! What a beautiful venue. Looking out at the round, tiered theatre from the stage, all dark wood and red lights is enchanting.

Inbetween having dots painted on my face and doing some sneaky last-minute practice on a piano backstage I give Dad a ring. Everything’s fine! Except he has to confide that there was one point at bathtime when staring exhaustedly into space, he looked down just in time to see BB suddenly slip under. An image of her panicked little face beneath the water was burned into his memory, and she was completely freaked out for the rest of the evening. Oh dear. Poor BB, poor Dad.

It’s fair to say Gabby pulled out a few stops for this one. Apart from us Other Animals, there was a samba band, a large brass band, a troupe of dancers and two aerialists spinning around on silks above our heads. Gabby wore a dress like a little salt cellar. Halfway through she changed out of this, into a dress like a large salt cellar. I (who had said to Dad beforehand, ‘I won’t let them backcomb my hair’) had my hair backcombed into a large bun on the top of my head. The gig went really well. I wasn’t on top of my game, but managed not to completely embarrass myself!

Dad, who in the days when he was the bass player railed against the gigs ‘becoming a circus act’ enjoyed it immensely from the audience and said it was all wonderful. Driving home together on our well-trodden route back from many a midnight gig in the past, he told me about his journey to the venue on the tube and the shock of being out late. ‘The people you see at night are a completely different animal to those you see in the park at 7 a.m.’ At Kings Cross he had looked around, feeling a little vulnerable and bewildered and saw a bloke in full combat gear, limping along like he’d just stepped out of Vietnam. He was closely followed by a man in rugby shorts and two bleeding knees.

Back home to relieve my fantastic friend, who sped off towards Ruislip, leaving one sleeping child to get back to her five. What a trooper. Before she left, I enquired, ‘Did Dad tell you that he nearly drowned BB before you arrived? ‘Ha, I’ve nearly drowned all of mine in that baby bath at one point or other’.

Its been a while, but I’ve been busy. The following is what happens when you’re looking for things in other people’s trousers. This is a summary of my journey to the other side.

Dec

Got married on a snowy day when unbeknownst to us, there was the tiniest twinkle that made us three in total standing there instead of two.

Jan

I’m pregnant! Here began the constant weetabix eating, the copious snacks taken on every journey, the early nights, the slumping in a heap of nausea and exhaustion.

Voiced that I’d always fancied a home birth if ever I was to have a baby. Dad not keen, decided on birth centre as halfway house.

Feb

This is the coldest winter ever and I feel sick- but my boobs are growing and sex is great!

Watched an energetic thing the size of a newt jumping up and down and spinning around. Dad thought he saw a little willy.

12 weeks came and went, no sign of an end to winter or nausea.

March

The first antenatal class. It was a ‘look after yourself’ one that the partners weren’t invited to. Very good and informative, not the pointless waste of time I was convinced it was going to be. When the nurse asked if we had any questions, a woman put her hand up and said, ‘when will I have to stop lifting things? I’m not sure how long I can do my job.’ The nurse replied, ‘that depends what you are lifting, what do you do?’ and the woman replied (bearing in mind we are pretty much in central London), ‘I’m a blacksmith’. Straight up! I kid you not. Nobody laughed, but I bet like me they were all laughing inside.

Last gig with the band that changed my life, Gabby Young and Other Animals. Emotions running wild.

Sang in a lunchtime concert with the chamber choir, Tredici. The last one for me for a while.

There is one band where being pregnant was never an issue, I was in the majority as two-thirds of us were pregnant. The Mange Tout Mamas! We played at the TUC building where we rounded off an International Women’s Day event with a rousing chorus of ‘We are Family’. Indeed.

When out on my bike, I used to think of the small developing thing that was travelling with me. It struck me that for these months, whatever I was doing, I was never alone. I would feel the baby’s presence keenly when I was cycling, or in the warm seclusion of a bath. It was on my bike when I was ruminating on a fact which I’d read that at this point the baby had see-through skin. The lyrics of a song began to formulate around this in my head.

Talking of reading things, I was forever looking at week-by-week pregnancy guides in various books people had leant me, on different websites and the freebies I got from the hospital. It was exciting to find out what was going on in there, and I hungrily lapped up all the information I could get my hands on. But it had its drawbacks, like being told ‘by now you should be feeling a whole lot better’ when you feel awful, and the point at which they say you should be feeling your baby move. I felt nothing till a good few weeks after they told me I would. I was impatient for the sensation and started to worry, which of course was completely pointless and when it happened it was wonderful.

Played in Claire Benjamin‘s night, ‘Electric Lady Lounge’ along with a trumpeter and saw player. Fay Presto was the headline act, and she told my favourite joke of 2010.

‘I asked my niece what she wanted for her birthday. She replied, “an Action Man for my Barbie”. I told her, “Barbie doesn’t come with Action Man, she comes with Ken”. “No,” she said, “Barbie fakes it with Ken, she comes with Action Man.”‘

Boom boom!

I noticed that when you go out for a night where you would usually be necking back the booze, and you stay completely sober, you kind of feel a little tipsy anyway, with the vibe of the people around you. I returned home late all wired and full of stories, and had to convince Dad I had only had water all night.

16 weeks came and went, no sign of an end to winter or nausea.

April

I’m getting fatter!

Loved lying quiet and still on my back, waiting for little movements and kicks.

Choir trip to Madrid singing Beethoven’s 9th –  last concert with the Philharmonia Chorus for a while. Sat right behind the French horns hoping baby would hear, knowing it would feel vibrations. First proper heat of the year. Lovely. Slightly overdid walking through the city in a balmy evening with my super-fit friend. The next day every muscle in my body ached.

The 14th – a big day. We saw our lazy baby take a big yawn on screen. No little willy. Its a girl!

20 weeks came and went, nausea lifted, the skies cleared. Thank God, thank God. Goodbye sickness!

Hello mega heartburn.

May

Fatter still, starting to feel ungainly. The only time when I felt normal, free and healthy was when I was whizzing along on my bike. My daily routine involved quite a lot of this back then. People began to have concerns and I was constantly having to explain myself. But not everyone was doomy. Some thought it was sensible and impressive!

Baby seems to get hiccups every morning.

Took part in the recording of Tricity Vogue’s album, ‘The Blue Lady Sings.’

Recorded some music for my friend’s wedding in the US (accordion now quite heavy on my bump. Remember that, girls – if you get pregnant it will hamper your ability to play accordion – THINK TWICE) and wrote a round for her congregation to sing as she and her groom arrived. I made a recording of this to send to her guests so they could learn it. An angel in the form of a friend of hers who is also a composer made it happen. They had three conductors, no less! The result is on youtube, I was proud of them all.

After lots of reading, started to think about homebirth again. Wasn’t sure if Dad could be persuaded though.

June


Played in the last Tricity Vogue Slinktet gig. Enjoyed playing the part of a jilted lover for one of the songs in my rotund state.

Gave half my pupils away to another piano teacher. A weight off my shoulders. Things are getting serious now!

Antenatal classes. A large number of pregnant people (I wonder what the collective term is?) and partners crammed into a stiflingly hot room, having to sit still and take in two hours of information. But all the talk of the importance of a calm environment and this phrase from the midwife – ‘Giving birth is a state of mind’ made Dad comment afterwards that maybe a homebirth is not such a bad idea. Hooray!

July

Its official – I want to have a homebirth. I want to be in intimate familiar surroundings and not have to make a trip outdoors halfway through my labour. I asked the midwife at my check-up who said someone would ring me. ‘They’re very keen to find people who want a homebirth’. I wait but no one rings. I ring and ring different numbers from on my notes, leave messages, people promise I’ll get a call back. I don’t. How frustrating.

Played at my mum’s exhibition in Brick Lane with Kath Tait. As I was pregnant and she was menopausal, she suggested we call ourselves ‘Hormonal Imbalance’. Great to play with Kath again, and to get some guitar in before things change. My girl is having the widest range of music to float around to!

Recorded my song, ‘Bubble’ which was inspired by the thought of a tiny girl with the see-through skin.

August

 

I finally made contact and met my midwife – a very sweet, very laid-back West Indian Lady. She will now come to see me at home every week till we give her the call that the show has begun. Very exciting.

I’m cleaning everything, I’m putting up shelves, I’m painting dodgy bits of wall, I’m doing my tax, I’m sewing spongy underlay on the back of the living room rug, I’m making flapjacks, I’m washing and sorting into sizes a HUGE bundle of baby clothes I’ve been given from my friend with five kids who are all under seven years old.

Gave myself groin strain by reaching for something high up, one foot on a wicker chair, the other on a slightly higher, wobbly table. The stupidity of it was made more so by the fact I’d already been warned in no uncertain terms about it months ago by a friend on the choir tour. Her pregnant sister had got groin strain previously and she didn’t stop badgering me about it. Then I went swimming thinking it would help, but it made it worse and I had to just stop moving for two days. ‘Idiot’, I told myself. ‘so far along without a hiccup and then you go and arse things up this close to the birth’. It was painful, but it didn’t last.

Due date came, due date went.

September

Come on already! Baby was still no-where near engaged. Every week I had seen the midwife and confidently said, ‘I think her head is engaged’ – ‘no, it isn’t’. Poo. Dad’s off work. We’re doing long walks, I’m eating curry.

This pretty addition leant to me by a friend which I placed at the foot of my bed greeted me emptily every morning. It did not help my state of mind!

I’m bombarded with texts and emails asking for any news. There is no news, I’m in limbo. Bets are placed on various dates which all sail by uneventfully. I wanted her to have the birthday 8/9/10. She didn’t. On the 9th, we went for a waddle round Kew Gardens. I no longer believed I was going to have a baby at all. Later that night….

 

What makes a person like a piece of music? What makes a person like a piece of music enough to practice it? Play it and various parts of it over and over until it’s right where you want it? As a teacher, I’m constantly aware of the artificiality of picking a piece and telling someone to practice it. To do that kind of work on something like this, you have to have a reason. You can’t do it for no reason. Imagine practicing something you don’t even like. But what makes a person like a piece of music?

When I play music there must be some kind of chemical reaction going on, like when people say the smell of chocolate releases endorphins, or as I heard on the radio a while ago, the act of talking releases endorphins in the brains of women, but not men (?!) That’s why girls are generally further ahead with language than boys of the same age.

When I start playing its like I enter a different zone, I’m entirely happy with life and content in the moment, obsessed with the sound that’s being created here and now.

This seems wholly biological, to do with chemicals in my brain that are entirely out of my control. So how can you influence someone else to feel this?

Maybe you need that obsessive thing in your personality. I don’t think you can learn an instrument without it. There are people you meet in life who say, “I tried to learn once, but it just wasn’t in me“, “I didn’t seem to have any talent for it”, “I didn’t have the co-ordination for it”. Bollocks to co-ordination. I possess very little of it. Maybe they were all just not obsessive enough. Maybe talent equals obsession.  I’ve yet to hear “I tried to learn the piano but I just didn’t have enough obsessive tendencies in me for it”. It would make a nice change.

Anyway, when I hear these things I generally blame the teacher. Assume that they went at it from the wrong angle, and didn’t instil any pleasure in the act of playing, any reason to practice. So how do you instil this?

I like to make people aware of the harmony within whatever they’re playing, so they know how the chords relate to each other, how they fit together and why. And so they understand how music is composed (i.e. finding relations between notes, chords and rhythm, combinations that the composer happens to like the sound of) and realise that this something they can do straight away.

The life of a melody needs to be cared for and this can only be done by understanding its meaning, like emphasising the right thing when saying a sentence out loud.

A lot of fun can be had with rhythm games away from the piano, playing with this innate sense of rhythm which all humans have. It seems to create adrenaline.

I like people to be aware of the richness and variety of sound that comes out of a piano, which I remember being mesmerised by as a child.

But I don’t think any of these things actually deal with instilling the initial pleasure someone feels when hearing or playing music. I think it has to come from within.

I’ve been musing over all this to myself over the last few days. Yesterday I took the grade 3 book to a pupil, played through the pieces for her and she made her choice. There  was one which stood out as really ‘her sort of thing’. She was excited to learn it and as she was picking out the first few notes (which she doesn’t find that easy) she exclaimed, “Oh I’m going to love this!”

As I cycled away from her lesson I recalled as a child how excited I was when I started playing the first few notes of my first grade 1 piece, and the feeling as it unravelled itself (extremely slowly)for me.  I remember calling my mum over each time I’d put another note on because each step was so unbelievably beautiful. I recall after about three times she suggested I learn a bit more – maybe a whole line before I call her again.

I’ve always remembered this piece and it still has the same effect on me, especially those first few bars.

I suppose all you can do is guide them towards having this kind of experience, pointing out stuff, suggesting stuff, playing stuff.

Some people are eager and find beauty in most of the music they are invited to learn.  Others somehow expect the pleasure to come from outside and be put into the piece. They don’t make any emotional connections with the music as they play it, are emotionally disconnected from it and it remains in their mind a series of symbols. That’s when its not working. There are lots of places in-between these two points.

But then I suppose music must be like perception of colour – you can’t know how another person hears the same music, we must all have different internal responses, so how valid is it then to try and impose my emotional reaction to a piece of music on someone else anyway? 

And while as a teacher you’re always trying to inspire and holding yourself accountable if inspiration isn’t there, you do have to remember that some people are always going to enjoy making music more than others.  And also when you teach you lay down seeds which may not germinate immediately.

Music is a force which is mysterious and unquantifiable. We’re dealing with magic here, it’ll never be black and white.

So just keep exploring…..