15 minutes a day

Some time ago, during a rehearsal break, one of the singers was standing at my window looking at the note in the photograph. She asked what it meant. My answer was short and incomplete, something about working on a project 15 minutes every day to divide big projects in little steps. But in fact it’s a lot more than that. The 15 Minutes a Day Method can become a way of life.

For me, it started with my Italian teacher (who later became my French teacher). I wanted to learn Italian and she and I made a plan. She had a grammar and exercise book which we divided into 12 parts, one for each month. Then we divided each part into 4 so I had weekly lessons to prepare. Then she said: ‘You don’t have to work much at home. Just 15 minutes a day. Every day.’

She then explained to me that this was the way she learned foreign languages. She had learned Italian, French, Russian, and Czech. By now she was 67 years old and she had just started to take up Chinese with her 15-minute method. I admired how focused she was. But I had my doubts: ‘She can do it,’ I thought, ‘because she’s retired, she’s focused and I’m not, she has time and I don’t, she doesn’t have a partner, she…’ etc etc.

I realised they were all excuses. I wanted to learn something, so I should try it.

OK, here comes the magic of the method! So, like I just said, first I thought I had to be focused to be able to do this. But the good news is that it’s the other way around. It is the 15 Minutes a Day that get you focused. This is how you do it.

  • Let’s take an example – you want to master that piece of music.

  • Take the little mechanic alarm clock egg that everyone has lying around in a kitchen drawer, and set it on 15 minutes.

  • Then sit with the music. Listen, sing, read, take notes.

  • Work until the alarm goes off.

The fun thing is that when the alarm goes off, chances are that you don’t feel like stopping. You may want to set another 15 minutes, but you don’t have to.

The pluses of this method are

  • No stressful last-minute study (you know, two hours before a rehearsal going through the sheet music in mild panic?)

  • More peace of mind (and less thinking ‘I really should’ or worse, ‘I really should have…’)

  • A sense of happiness that you are creating time for yourself

  • You get better at what you want to learn

  • You get a lot of things done in one day because you have paid attention to each task, even if it was only for fifteen minutes.

I invite you to try it. With my teacher, I did one year of Italian, and managed to do 15 minutes, well, almost every day. It worked, and it made me happy. So I’m wishing the same for you, in whatever project you take on.

All Around My Hat – a song with more than just one story

This is one of the songs in the Save our Songs Projects. The theme of All around my hat depicts the archetypal idea of the separated lovers. Like so many traditional songs, it appears in many forms. Sometimes the protagonist is a man, sometimes it is a woman, and lyrics have been added or changed throughout the years or centuries.

The ‘green willow’ in the song signifies wearing willow sprigs in your hair or on your hat as a sign of mourning, like sometimes the yellow ribbon, or, as it is the custom in Ireland, the black velvet band (there’s a song too!). The willow is traditionally a symbol of mourning. It is found all over literature throught all times. Even in the jazz standard Lullaby of Birdland, the ‘weepy old willow’ is mentioned.
The magic potion recipe in the third verse of All around my hat seems like a playful reference to witchcraft. The lyrics that we will be using are probably the result of a mixture with another 19th century song called Farewell he.

The first version of All around my hat appears in the early 19th century. It tells the story of a lover (male) who must say goodbye to his true love who is sent to Australia to serve seven years of sentence for theft. The journey in captivity to Australia is a theme in many traditional songs. One of them, Botany Bay, I came across when I did a workshop with a shanty choir in the Netherlands years ago. The song stole my heart from the first moment. The sad theme stands in stark contrast to the extremely merry melody & bouncy waltz rhythm. Years later, I wrote a three part arrangement of this song for my choir in France, with the men singing the lead, and the women doo-bee-dooing and toora-lay-ing along in a happy chorus.

Back to All around my hat. The song is found all over the anglophone countries. The lyrics differ: sometimes the protagonist is a man, like in the ‘Australia’ version above, sometimes it is a woman, like in the version we know (‘He’s a false, deluding young man, let him go, farewell he’).

Many versions from the 19th century have survived as they were printed as ‘broadsides’ : A broadside (also known as a broadsheet) is a single sheet of inexpensive paper printed on one side, often with a ballad, a rhyme, the news and sometimes with woodcut illustrations. They were one of the most common forms of printed material between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in Britain, Ireland and North America and are often associated with one of the most important forms of traditional music from these countries, the ballad.

Wikipedia tells us that All around my hat seems to have been particularly popular in Nova Scotia (Canada), and that several versions have been recorded by Helen Creighton. She was a folklorist – someone with a passion for folklore and traditional songs. What a poetic profession! She collected literally thousands of stories and songs to preserve her heritage. In order to collect the tales & music, she often traveled on foot, pushing her little (but quite heavy!) organ in a wheelbarrow. She was also interested in the supernatural, and published two collections of ghost stories during her long life.

Fairest Isle – the top hit of the nineties

Fairest Isle was a big hit for Henry Purcell when John Dryden’s play King Arthur was first performed in London at the beginning of the summer of 1691. Both Purcell and Dryden were superstars in their days, and Purcell is, by many, regarded as the best English composer of all times. This “play-with-music” is sometimes called “semi-opera” but it is really a highly developed yet short-lived genre-on-its-own that is typical of British culture in those days. It is a spoken play with musical interludes, and characters bursting into song.
During the same time, the continent was more into French and Italian operas: lengthy works consisting entirely of sung lyrics, with long arias en dramatic recitativos. But even though the reigning monarch tried to introduce the European opera to his people, the English stuck to their good old stage-plays with some good tunes thrown in, like Fairest Isle.

The work is teeming with gods and goddesses. There is Wotan, Thor, there is even a reference to Friesland, which is the north of the Netherlands, and at the very end of the work, Venus herself is flown in all the way from Cyprus to sing the top hit of the century – Fairest Isle. In the Brittanica Encyclopedia, we read that “Fairest Isle is one of the best-known airs from Purcell’s theatrical works. Its placement in the opera is a choice of genius. It flows straight out of a drunken, dancing revel by peasants. The sudden change of mood is a thing of beauty, and the song Fairest Isle praises (the blessed isle of Britain in) dignified and elegant phrases.”

The melody is indeed wonderful and flowing, and several arrangements for choir have been created, so that we can sing this work to remember a great composer who died too soon. At 36 years old, he wrote his will, mentioning that he was ‘dangerously ill as to the constitution of my body, but in good and perfect mind and memory’.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his magnificent Thou knowest, Lord was performed. This monumental work has been sung at any state funeral ever since. After his death, Purcell’s wife Frances published many of his works. Thank you Frances, because we still enjoy them!

this is one of the songs in the Save our Songs Projects

Lizzie I, Thomas, and us

For a long time I had the score of a beautiful work in my ’16th century’ folder: O Nata Lux by Thomas Tallis, but for some reason I never performed it with choristers. Until… somebody asked for it when booking for the Save Our Songs Projects. I’m glad I said okay let’s go….

Thomas Tallis lived during pretty much all of the sixteenth century. Together with his friend and colleague, the magnificent William Byrd,he possessed the sole right to publish his works in print, and O Nata Lux was published in a book of sacred works in 1575. The person who had granted them this monopoly was Queen Elizabeth I, an extraordinary woman whose reign gave some stability in a period of grave political and religious turmoil. Also, she loved music and the arts, – we have several good poems by her – and she worked hard to enhance cultural life in her country. To achieve this, she surrounded herself with talented musicians like Tallis.

Thomas Tallis lived from 1505-1585. He can be seen as a link between early and late 16th century English music.
Renaissance church music hadn’t seen a lot of development for a long time, and Tallis introduced the great polyphonic school into English church music.

Now what is polyphony? We speak of polyphony in a work of music when two or more independent melodies sound together. So if there is a choir with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, and they sing in 4-part polyphony, their lines start at four different moments in the composition, usually following each other up within the first sentence of the piece. It is like constructing a beautiful cathedral – you start with one wall of stones, and as you build on, the whole becomes a unity, soaring right into the heavens. Tallis constructed his own musical cathedral, in one piece he used 40 voices!

Homophony, on the other hand, is when all the voices in a work sound at the same time. The works by Tallis I used for my Save our Songs Projects have just a little bit of polyphony in them and mostly homophony, as the whole fun of singing polyphony is that you can see and respond to each other when singing. The absolute pinnacle of this style is the aforementioned 40-part motet by Tallis, called Spem in Alium, sometimes mistranslated as ‘I believe in garlic’. He also wrote less complex works, like some beautiful and simple Reformation service music, which is mostly homophonic.

If Ye Love Me is a beautiful example of this less embellished style. As a student, I used to think it was a love song – remember this was before Google, and a lot of things you just had to guess -, but it is actually a ‘motet’ or ‘anthem’ (a biblical text set to music). It is a mix of the polyphonic, and homophonic style, and we are recording this song in our project, each singer in different parts of the world in their own home. The project is not finished yet, but as soon as the video-clip is here I will post it.

As polyphony is pretty difficult to sing, requiring some experience (especially in counting and singing at the same time!), the homophonic style was the one most used in church services so the congregation could sing along. Descant and bass parts would be filled in by trained singers.

Just imagine how all this exquisite music was written at a time when Protestants and Catholics were hacking away at each other! However, Tallis survived all the ruckus, composing his works both in Latin and in English, depending on the religious preference or the tolerance of the reigning monarch. For instance, under Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), who was a fiercely pro-Spanish catholic, he wrote Latin hymns and masses. Under Elizabeth I (her reign started in 1558), he wrote in English and Latin. Lizzie was a Protestant, but she didn’t mind Thomas’ catholicism. He was all about music, and she simply loved it. Just like we do now.

15 minutes a day
Some time ago, during a rehearsal break, one of the singers was standing at my window looking at the note ...
Read More
All Around My Hat – a song with more than just one story
This is one of the songs in the Save our Songs Projects. The theme of All around my hat depicts ...
Read More
Fairest Isle – the top hit of the nineties
Fairest Isle was a big hit for Henry Purcell when John Dryden's play King Arthur was first performed in London ...
Read More
Lizzie I, Thomas, and us
For a long time I had the score of a beautiful work in my '16th century' folder: O Nata Lux ...
Read More
Virtual? Yes, but also very real.
If we have to stay at home, we have to. In order to stay safe, for ourselves, but also for ...
Read More
Ludwig’s final works
When Ludwig van Beethoven had one of his string quartets played for a nobleman in Saint Petersburg, the aristocrat was ...
Read More
Auntie Anke’s Storytelling Hour II
Auntie Anke takes you on a totally eclectic tour through music history. Today: Renaissance Man! The this beautiful partsong Mon ...
Read More
Auntie Anke’s Music History Storytelling Hour part I
Now I keep wanting to write the Want To as Wanna. Because that is really what she is singing. ‘She’ ...
Read More
Vocal Workout. And physical. And spiritual.
Jack is originally from California but he has lived in the Lot – where I live and work - for ...
Read More
The secret power of songs
As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about singing and writing. I can't choose between the two, ...
Read More

Virtual? Yes, but also very real.

If we have to stay at home, we have to. In order to stay safe, for ourselves, but also for others who are vulnerable. Of course we want to do everything we can to not spread the virus.

But it can make us sad. Especially in these days when times are supposed to be jolly and full of expectation. I am now asking myself: why do we suppose that these days should be jolly? In times like these, we can only become frustrated, disappointed and sad when we try to meet this crazy requirement, that we should be jolly.

So we must turn inward. We must look inside ourselves and deal with whatever we find there. These days can be hard work if we do this inside work of the soul! So we also need something to make us feel good, really good. I mean we don’t need comfort food. We need soul food.

And the best soul food is music.

This is why the Chorale de Cazals has come up with a plan. We will be singing together. You and us. Online, each in our own home.

The event will take place on 14 December at 19h00. You can buy cheap tickets online – really just to support the choir, so we can continue to spread music and joy. Please join us, and invite your friends too. We can take 99 people on Zoom.

You can book here: www.choraledecazals.fr

Talking about staying at home…. I’ve had the strangest experience during the past few weeks. Since I started my online choir projects in September, I have been feeling so connected to the singers who subscribed.
We
are all in our own homes, of course, watching and listening to each other on Zoom. But I’d never expected to experience such a sense of connection & closeness. The Café Sessions (all singers present, from Sweden across the Netherlands and Belgium right to UK and Canada and back to France again) were fun, and the singing lessons were just extraordinary. I was not only able to see and hear but even to feel what was happening during the session. It nearly made me cry! Thousands of kilometres between us and we were having a singing lesson as if we were in the same room.

When the first lockdown was announced in March, I was very reluctant to try Zoom, Skype or any other of those platforms. I probably simply wished ‘all this’ never happened.

Now, I am convinced that if we need to continue living like this for a while, ‘virtual’ is a second best that is not bad at all.
Even for singers.
Because we want to be creative in finding solutions to continue doing what we love: to give our voices to the world!

Happy Christmas, and see you online!

Ludwig’s final works

When Ludwig van Beethoven had one of his string quartets played for a nobleman in Saint Petersburg, the aristocrat was in for a surprise. He had never heard such strange music. He told the composer. The composer shrugged his shoulders.

Muzio Clementi, the one whose sonatinas we have all played if we enjoyed more than two years of piano lessons when we were small, said the same to Beethoven.
‘It sounds so strange,’ said Clementi.
‘That’s because it’s music for later,’ said Beethoven.

But even now I find that, listening to Beethovens beautiful string quartets, the ones he composed later in his life, sound strange indeed. Not dissonant, nor ‘wrong’. Now please don’t argue that he wrote mistakes because he was deaf. He knew what he was doing. Beethoven knew about music theory. It’s a bit like Leonard Cohen who sings ‘It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.’ Music theory summarized in one song.

You will find the quartets (numbers 12-16) on the internet.
Wait until dark, light a candle, listen.

Beethoven just before his death sounds, well… not of this earth. Perhaps he really meant to show us that this was music for much, but much much later.

Perhaps for a time when we have all transformed to something that is not of this earth anymore.

Auntie Anke’s Storytelling Hour II

Auntie Anke takes you on a totally eclectic tour through music history. Today: Renaissance Man!

The this beautiful partsong Mon coeur se recommande à vous was written by the great Orlando di Lasso or Roland de Lassus or just plain Lassus. How did our friend get all those different names?

Well, Orlando (or Roh-land) was something of a globetrotter, within Renaissance limits, of course. He was born in the Netherlands, the part which is now Belgium, but he spent his youth in Italy. Apparently already as a young man, he stood out. At 24 years, he was the biggest cheese in church music (alongside Palestrina, of course), and had published several song books. A bit like the Beatles, really. Songbook after songbook he filled, and at the end of his life he had written 2000 works, both for church and for the, well, the pub really.

I strongly advise you to listen to some of his music on the web, and also to have a go at Palestrina’s music. When I say ‘music’, I mean ‘vocal music’ because that is what these men were extremely good at. Why would you have to listen to both composers if we are just going to do one of them in our project?

Well, after thirty minutes of listening, you will be amazed at the difference between these two gods of Renaissance music. Palestrina is clean, clear, heavenly, flowing like a beautiful river in springtime. Lassus is impulsive, intense, emotional, versatile, combining the flavours of France, Italy, Venice, Germany.

Oh man, traveling all those countries, in those days. Just how did they do it? Just imagine. France-Venice on horseback or in a carriage…. Anyway, Roh-land did it, and his international career was boosted by the flourishing art of book printing, and Antwerp in his home country being the commercial centre of Northern Europe.

These are just a few milestones in Roh-land’s musical life. He earned a small fortune by working as a tenor singer in the city of Munchen, Germany. He staged a performance for a noble wedding, also in Germany, where he also performed as an actor, singer, and lute player. As his fame was rising, publishers from all over Europe started to reprint his works. Twice, he won the first price in a prestigious composing competition in the French city of Evreux. He even survived a stroke, and continued working until he was quite old, refusing to take his master’s offer to retire.

Finally, in 1594, he was made to retire as his master, Count Wilhelm, let go of 17 musicians in his orchestra because he needed money to finish a prestigious building project in Munchen. Orlando died soon after.

Mon Coeur Se Recommande a vous is a beautiful, short song in the chanson style. It is largely ‘homophonic’, meaning that you all sing at the same moment, with a few polyphonic elements, which means that the voices come in at a different time, yet following a certain logic.

I always tend to think of Renaissance songs like this as being very closely related to good pop music. The songs are short, they have a logical structure, they are a balm to the ear, and of course, they so often, if not nearly always, deal with the universal theme of love – because love binds us all. All over the world, all through the centuries.

Thank you, Roh-land.

You can look up the song on Youtube. I can recommend this version.

Auntie Anke’s Music History Storytelling Hour part I

Now I keep wanting to write the Want To as Wanna. Because that is really what she is singing. ‘She’ is of course, Dusty Springfield, who left this planet way too early, at only 59 years old. She was an important ambassador of what is called ‘blued-eyed soul’, that is, soul music sung by white people in the sixties, and this song became a smash hit in 1963, when Dusty was only 24 years old.

Dusty was an icon of the Swinging Sixties: beehive hairdo, long evening gown, heavy make up, dramatic shows…. Who didn’t wanna be, or rather want to be Dusty in those days!

I only want to be with you is one of those teenage I got such a crush on you songs that Dusty Springfield loved to sing. In the eighties, it was British singer Samantha Fox – you know, the one who became famous after appearing in the newspapers just when she had forgotten to put on a T-shirt? – who covered the song in a sort of post-disco-era version of which we asked ourselves: ‘Was this really necessary?’


Numerous other covers of the song have been made, and we particularly like Annie Lennox’s version with her first band called The Tourists: there are nice guitar riffs and interesting vocal harmonies. And if you want a rather disconcerting version, then listen to Volbeat and watch the soft horror video clip that goes with it.

Did you know that Dusty hosted a television program in the sixties in which she actively promoted soul singers? She would receive Motown artists who already were famous in America, but had yet to start to make it in Europe.

Dusty was a perfectionist. She would go to great ends to make the perfect recording. The story goes that she hated the Philips Recording Studios and preferred to tape her songs in the ladies toilets because of the great acoustics there. Of course…. Don’t we all like singing in the bathroom!

Therefore, keep singing. Even in rough times like these. If you find yourself humming a song, hum a bit more, perhaps look up the lyrics, perhaps find the song on the web. Then turn up the volume and have a good time with yourself and the music.

As always, viva la musica!

Vocal Workout. And physical. And spiritual.

Jack is originally from California but he has lived in the Lot – where I live and work – for ten years. He is 76 , practices yoga on a daily basis, makes his own Bulgarian yoghurt and is an avid swimmer.  He used to be a windsurfer, which he enjoyed well into his fifties. Today is his first singing lesson and he is completely fascinated by the concept of breath support. For a good part of the lesson he compares breath control with yoga breathing and under water swimming, and his happy conclusion is that singing is basically a sport. ‘So I got a new sport now!’ he chants.

We set to work. Scales and other singing exercises are produced and pursued with gusto. The results  are a bit wobbly at first, which is normal,  particularly since  Jack has never ‘really’ sung before. As the lesson continues, his tone becomes firm as he becomes more aware of what is happening in his body and how the ribcage (for breath) and the head (for resonance and vowel formation) are connected. ‘Wow!’ he exclaims. ‘This feels real good! You know, this would be great for everybody?’ He then explains how he sometimes feels sad when he sees how people of his age – and much, much younger people too – walk around slumped, as if gravity was something they can’t deal with. He demonstrates this by  walking around the room and, as he walks he morphs into an old man. Shoulders  bent forward, belly outwards, he exudes an aura of utter exhaustion.  Then, suddenly, he jumps up again. ‘It’s so imPORtant to breathe well, you know, and stand straight!’ he shouts. ‘Look at Freddy Mercury, or Mick Jagger!’

Mick and Freddy! Now there are a few favourites of mine. Check them out on YouTube and watch how they move on the stage. (I have to say I prefer Mick because he looks more human.) It’s not so much about the way they dance, but rather  how they carry themselves, so the best way to study these  singers’s attitude is when they sing a ballad. It becomes especially interesting if you mute the sound. No distractions. Just watch, like a research scientist. Ask questions. What aspects of the posture make the guy look strong and dynamic? Check out: movement, head, jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, spine, arms, legs, feet, and more movement.

Even if you don’t have an athletic figure like these guys, or like Jack, for that matter, I cannot stress enough the importance of good posture. I love to think of this Buddhist monk who interrupts his teachings on how to meditate every now and again to remind us: ‘Spy stay!’ Meaning ‘spine straight’. Meaning, in the words of the eighteenth century singing masters in Italy, the noble posture. The noble posture enables you to breathe deeply, which stimulates blood circulation, which stimulates oxygen distribution in the body, which nourishes all vital organs, which improves health, which improves happiness, which improves good posture, and round and round it goes.

Singing combines all that, and more. To sing is to play. To sing is to express your true self. To sing is to be a vessel that carries art: the visionary art of composers and songwriters, whether you sing Cohen or Mozart, or one of those folksongs that have resonated through the hills and valleys of the British Isles for a thousand years. To sing is to resonate with your body, almost effortlessly making it more healthy.  No running or weightlifting involved. Your voice asks only one thing of you one: a proud and noble posture – spy stay!. Many of us have un-learned that posture somewhere during our lifetime. We tend to breathe superficially and bend our shoulders and back forward. Perhaps it is because we have been told not to appear too proud. Or maybe just because we have spent too much time in front of a computer or the telly.

So if you want to do your body and soul a big favour, play a little. Stand in front of a long mirror and do a Freddy or a Mick. Stand tall, chest lifted, shoulders low. Spine straight. Exhale through the mouth. Wait a few seconds, let your mouth drop open. Then inhale through the nose, your mouth still open, lift and spread your arms out from your shoulders. This is the ultimate alpha male or female posture. Keep standing like that for ten seconds, breathing comfortably in and out, keeping your chest high. You will notice that it is in fact possible to breathe without letting your chest drop completely.

Feel good? Feel better? Great. Keep playing. I wish you happiness.

The secret power of songs

As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about singing and writing. I can’t choose between the two, so I combine them. When a friend encouraged me to start writing about music history, at first I became nervous because I really did not know where to start. Music History is so HUGE! So I tried to my way into a format that I enjoyed and thought other people would enjoy reading. What came up was the song. The song throughout the centuries.

I could have known this! Songs of literally all periods have always made their way into my heart and soul. I don’t particularly prefer one period or one style and you can see that in my programming. And there are links between songs. Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher based a lot of his extremely hot guitar licks on baroque chord progressions. The make-up of The Stones’ Paint it Black is entirely classical, modulating from the minor D to the parallel major key of F. The Elizabethan bard didn’t differ that much from today’s singer-songwriter.

Songs want to be heard. They surface in the soul, not tied to any boundaries of time. They work their way into the mind and settle there so comfortably we call them ‘ear worms’. It’s those ear worms that demand to be admitted to a concert programme. Often, they present themselves through somebody else so I get emails with Youtube links and messages like ‘Ooh, can we do this?’ or ‘I have always loved this song, can you make us an arrangement?’

Songs also want to be written about, with a little bit of information about their surroundings, their family, their time. Or they want to be linked to songs of later periods who are their brothers and sisters. So that is the work I have to do and I shall do it, she said dramatically, blogging on this website.

So you see, songs have a very strong will of their own. I wish you Happy Reading.