Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Things to do before you’re 40

It’s my 40th birthday in December, as I’ve mentioned before, and obviously it’s an important event.  Unlike some people, I’m not unhappy about it (a school friend recently posted on Facebook that she was “drowning her sorrows” in the face of turning 40!) and do want to mark the occasion, but maybe not in the “bucket” list (how I detest that term!), once in a lifetime experiences you see suggested on the internet, like doing Machu Picchu or swimming with dolphins.

Whilst  I haven’t had an official list of Things I Must Do Before The Big Day, I’ve made a couple of significant (to me) achievements.  The first is that I have now attended concerts of the whole of Wagner’s Ring cycle. My best uni friend and I have been meeting up once a year in Salford Quays for the last four years to see Opera North perform the Prologue and Trilogy of  operas that make up the sequence. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we first started but we’ve both really enjoyed the experience and feel that it’s a suitable induction into Real Adulthood!

The performances are different from what you would usually get in an opera, as they’re in a concert setting as opposed to a fully staged setting, meaning that the singers are not in costume (although sometimes they wore something to give a clue to their character or to use as a prop, such as a red handkerchief which would be pulled out of a pocket if the character was killed) and stand or sit at the front of the stage, rather than acting, and also with the use of a video display behind the performers which added extra atmosphere, with footage of water or fire or trees, etc, depending on the scenery.  This display also shows some narrative text, to keep the audience following the story (in the absence of any real acting) and all the surtitles to translate the German into English.  I really liked this setting and found it helpful, as well as enjoying seeing the orchestra on stage with the singers (although it was sometimes a bit of a squash, especially in Götterdämmerung when a 50-person choir was also required!).

For each performance we both found that it took a while to “get into” the story and the music, but that after about 20 minutes or so we became more immersed in it.  One performer we really admired was Mati Turi, an Estonian who played Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.  He was so involved in his character and his face showed such life and feeling it was hard ever to look away, even to read the surtitles!  I was really pleased that he returned for the final opera, as he hadn’t been going to but the original choice pulled out, and it really made the night for me.

It’s been so much fun having our little weekends away that my friend and I plan to carry on having them, and are now looking for ideas of what to do or see next!

My second achievement is to have visited all six branches of Bettys. Bettys Café Tea Rooms are a Yorkshire-based company started in the early 20th century and have retained their Edwardian atmosphere and standards. It’s always a real treat to go there, which is why I’m having my birthday celebration there in a few weeks. That will be at the larger York branch, my favourite Bettys, but I realised a little while ago that there were several I hadn’t visited. Southern Daddy took me to the original Harrogate branch on a day out when we were newly-married, and growing up I used to go quite often to York with my family. I finally visited the Ilkley branch a couple of years ago (that’s a particularly lovely place, especially if you can get a table with a view out of the window), which left three.

Southern Daddy and I called into Northallerton after dropping the girls off at camp this summer. We were lucky to find only one family queuing ahead of us – I don’t know if this is usual here but it’s certainly a change from the hour + waits you can expect in York and Harrogate! Northallerton Bettys won the Tea Guild’s “Top Tea Place” award in 2012 and it’s certainly a great place. It has the feel of a Georgian summer house or garden room, older in style than some of the other branches, and it felt very relaxed despite being full and busy to the extent that they had run out of scones!

The next branch we tried was at RHS garden Harlow Carr just outside Harrogate, at the end of August. We were returning from a weekend at my sister’s on the Bank Holiday Monday and decided to make the detour for tea. When we arrived, later than we’d hoped, we wondered if we’d be able to get in as it was less than an hour to closing, but actually we were seated with no queuing (!!) and treated as if everyone had all the time in the world, finally leaving a full 20 minutes after the stated closing time. In the busy world we inhabit, where everyone has something else to do and even National Trust café staff are putting chairs on tables around you if you outstay your welcome, this was a real pleasure. My only disappointment was that we didn’t have time to make our usual visit to the shop for take-home goodies, because it was closed by then, of course.

Finally, we visited Bettys of Stonegate, York (formerly known as “Little Bettys”). This week just gone was the half term holiday for us and, after another visit to my sister’s to see our Gran on her 90th birthday, we had an afternoon out in York, taking in a bit of shopping and a trip to the Treasurer’s House, too.  We decided we’d try and get lunch in Bettys, so we joined the queue for about half an hour before being shown to our table.  This branch has its tearoom upstairs and shop downstairs, and it has a very quaint and cosy feel to it.  We chose sandwiches and tea, and afterwards viewed the cake trolley to select something for our dessert.  It’s not cheap but it’s definitely a lovely treat and worth the wait.

I have had other ideas for things to do before I’m 40, such as watching a film I’ve never seen for every year of my life, but I just haven’t had the time!  I have exactly 5 weeks to go now, so I’m open to suggestions if you have an idea I could do quickly!

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Something new

A few years ago, when the Bookworm was small, my sister and music-loving brother-in-law bought her a CD and DVD set called Here come the ABC’s by the band They Might Be Giants.  It’s a fun approach to letter-learning, with a quirky sense of humour, and we’ve enjoyed listening to it and watching it over the years.  My favourite song is Alphabet of Nations, which lists a country for every letter of the alphabet (including a surprising idea for W and X!) and I love the music, which has a very patriotic feel to it!

This gift was followed up some time later with Bed, Bed, Bed, a book and 4-song EP set, which the girls also listened to a lot (although probably not as much as Here come the ABC’s).  I believe Here come the 123’s has also been released now, although my girls were a bit old for it by the time it came out.

Anyway, without knowing very much more about They Might Be Giants (apart from remembering Birdhouse in Your Soul being popular in my youth) I started following their Facebook updates in gratitude for those children’s CDs, which make such a difference in the life of a parent whose personal music interests have had to be set aside almost completely in favour of nursery rhymes and audio versions of picture books.  I see their posts from time to time, usually announcing extra tour dates in obscure American towns I’ve never heard of, occasionally announcing a new track or album available (once we all had to download Birdhouse in Your Soul to see if it could get to number one, but it didn’t. Fun though).

Today they are trying something new and I’m seeing if I can participate.  They are giving away free an entire album, as tracks recorded live on their tour last year, to anyone who requests it.  In return they would like people to share the opportunity with others, on Facebook or Twitter, or in a blogpost.

First of all you need to add downloads@theymightbegiants.com to your email address book (they are pretty clear that it will not reach you if you don’t!).  Then use the widget to send your details to get the download code.  I’m afraid my lack of technical skills is preventing me from getting the widget to embed on this page as desired, but if you click the link below you’ll see the widget and it’s still clickable and workable!

http://www.theymightbegiants.com/widgets/index.php?i=1

After you’ve done that you can use the bottom part of the widget to share the news with others too!

I have mine downloading now – hope it works for you!

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Do you know your tables?

A long time ago, before the concern over the appearance of our resting face, the fascination with how to treat introverts and even the quizzes revealing which Disney princess/Jane Austen heroine/Hogwarts house we were, the trend du jour was to ascertain our learning style.  There are three main categories that people fall into: visual learners, who are most receptive to information when it is presented in written or pictorial form; auditory learners, who best remember what they’ve heard; and kinaesthetic learners, who benefit from using movement, touch and texture when studying.  Most of us use a bit of everything, but there’s probably one you can identify as your main strength.

I’m most definitely an auditory learner.  I remember things much better if I hear them spoken or say them out loud to myself – especially with numbers, which I often confuse when I see them written down (bizarrely I always confuse the same pairs, because to me, certain numbers look like one another).  At university I once gave a friend the wrong date for a ball we were planning to attend together, because I’d only seen it written on a poster.  Thankfully, I realised my mistake in time to pass on the correct information, which was pretty lucky for me, as the friend in question was Southern Daddy and the occasion was the evening on which we decided we were actually more than just friends!

It’s useful to be aware of your own learning style, but all the more important to be aware that others may not share it, especially if you are involved in any form of teaching!  When I’m leading Bible studies (both for adults and children, at different times), I have to remember the importance of using visual information and interactive methods as well as just speaking.  We have a small whiteboard which we use at our ladies’ Bible study group – the hardest part for me is deciding what I should write on it that might be helpful to others!

I’ve been reminded of learning styles on a couple of occasions recently because of the issue of Times Tables.  I’m not an especially political person and, I’m afraid, pay less attention than I probably should to the news, but I read a few weeks ago on a blog that one of the planned changes to the school curriculum (which are pretty much a constant thing just at the moment) is to encourage children to return to chanting tables.  This has caused something of an outcry amongst teachers, along with maths experts such as Carol Vorderman, who don’t believe this is a helpful or effective way to learn them.  My first response was to wonder why they are all so against the method, since to my mind constant repetition is the best way to learn anything.

Then I realised I’d answered my own question: to my mind.  My auditorily-focused mind, which relishes hearing the spoken word, takes in sounds other people don’t notice, learns all the lyrics to a song by the third time through.  I learned my tables by reciting them, out loud, repeatedly, until they were stuck in my head.  (The last one to stick was 8×7=56 which I recently found out is recognised as the most difficult one).  But I’m told that auditory learners are in the minority, so it’s not surprising that teachers are concerned that this method won’t benefit their students.  Clearly what’s required is a bit of everything, so that each learning style is accommodated and all the children find something helpful to them (and, by the way, I don’t think I’ve just revealed anything especially groundbreaking there, if they trusted consulted teachers more they’d discover loads of little gems like that one).

All this has coincided with the Butterfly’s transition from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2 this coming September (for those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s what used to be called “going into the Juniors” – her year group will be turning 8 during the school year and work has a tendency to become noticeably more difficult) and the expectation that she will learn most, if not all, her tables over the coming months.  This proved more than a little difficult with her sister, who preferred to perform the calculations in her head rather than learn the answers.  Whilst mental arithmetic is a useful skill and one in which the Bookworm is very proficient, what’s required in tables-learning – whether you like it or not – is an instant recall of the answer.

So, in an effort to avoid the stress and misery which came with our last journey through Year 3 Tables Homework, I’ve been researching a variety of fun and interesting ways to learn them.  I started with a bit of googling, which threw up some ideas of games and websites.  Carol Vorderman’s site, The Maths Factor, offers a variety of courses aimed at children of different ages (primary school level).  It covers all kinds of numeracy work, including tables, but although I agreed with Vorderman’s overall approach (understanding patterns, working through tables spoken and written, aiming towards an instant recall of the individual responses and not just an ability to recite the table as a whole) when I read about it, the courses on the site are expensive and a big investment if you’re not sure your child will take to it.

I canvassed opinion via Facebook and discovered some other, much cheaper, resources from friends who are teachers or parents (or both!), including Teaching Tables which has various different free games, some of which work on learning and performing the calculations, including looking at the patterns, whilst others focus on the speed element.  Both the girls love Table Mountain, in which you have to answer a series of questions correctly in order to propel a climber to the top of the mountain (and successful participants get the fun of watching him slide down the other side!). Another teacher-recommended site is Education City, which caters for both schools and families.  However, membership is payable, and although a free 10-day trial is available we decided not to register as we were about to go on holiday and wouldn’t be able to use it (we may still try it!)

With the holiday in mind I wanted something portable to keep things ticking over (we didn’t do much but I feel it was better than nothing!), and took up another parent’s recommendation in the form of the Squeebles Times Tables 2 app from Key Stage Fun.  It’s available for iPhone, iPad and Android and cost me £1.49, but I think it will be well worth it.  As with Teaching Tables there are various tables-related activities and participation earns equipment for a just-for-fun game called Bubbleball.  When a stage or level of the tables activities has been completed, a Squeeble is rescued from imprisonment at the hands of the Maths Monster!  The games are customisable in the PIN-protected parents’ zone, e.g. at the moment I have removed the harder tables that we’re not working on and it’s easy to switch these back on again once we’re up to that.

I’m fairly sure that both my daughters are auditory learners like myself, so I wanted to find something we could listen to – particularly in the car – which might reinforce the learning almost subliminally.  To achieve this, the songs would have to be a) clear, b) fun and c) acceptable for parents to listen to several times over.  There are dozens of CDs and downloads of tables songs, and many of the samples I listened to were performed in unusual voices (singing cats, etc) which made the content unclear.  In the end, after a lot of review-reading, I plumped for what has possibly been my best decision in years: Professor Mathmo and the Voyage to the Times Tables.  This is written and performed by Giles Hayter, who conveniently happens to be a musician, artist, composer… and maths teacher.  On listening to this CD, my children have proclaimed him “The Colin of Maths” which, as you’ll agree if you’re a Colin fan, is no half-hearted accolade!  I have to agree that his approach is appealing, catchy and parent-friendly (no irritating squeaky voices… oh, OK, one irritating squeaky voice – but it’s for one line only and it’s actually very funny!).  The CD was £7.99 and over our two-week holiday we’ve probably listened to it over twenty times.  The songs are cheerful and clear – easier tables such as 2s, 5s, 10s, are sung as they stand, whilst the more difficult ones have rhyming lines as an aide-memoire – sometimes a whole line in between, sometimes just a little comment to tie together a section, such as:

One eleven is eleven

Two elevens is* twenty-two

Three elevens is thirty-three

And four is forty-four – who knew?

*Yes, it should be “are”, but as Southern Daddy pointed out, he’s a maths teacher, not an English teacher…

The girls have picked these songs up quickly and sing along to them whenever the CD is playing, as well as sometimes when it’s not.  I think this will be a winning move in the war on Tables Homework!  My only criticism would be that more could have been made of the “voyage to the times tables” concept.  There’s a booklet included which shows the answers in each table on a different page (in a random order), and the listener is encouraged to point to the numbers as the song plays (the idea obviously being to get quick enough at remembering the answers to be able to do this in time).  The numbers are represented by alien characters that Mathmo and his sidekick Walter meet, and I thought that there might be more of a story on the CD about the intergalactic voyage and goings-on on each planet.  A missed opportunity?  Perhaps, but at least there’s nothing to detract from the task in hand.

Still keen to use a more structured approach as well, I bought Carol Vorderman’s Times Tables Book, published by Dorling Kindersley.  As someone who’s worked with educational literature and seen a lot of it – good and bad – I’m a long-standing fan of Dorling Kindersley’s contributions, and was further reassured by the fact that this book uses Vorderman’s approach (detailed above) and that it has only good reviews on Amazon.  We’ve not gone far into it yet as we chose not to take that on holiday, but it seems helpful and informative, whilst colourful and imaginative enough not to come across as boring to children.

Altogether, my approach to the whole Tables journey is now a lot more positive, which can only be helpful to the process!

So, what about you?  What’s your learning style? What helps you take things in? Do you have any resources to add to my list of recommendations?

And do you know your tables?

Thankful for…

A really refreshing holiday with beautiful weather and many good memories

Some great times with extended family

A tidy, peaceful house to come home to (still reaping the benefits from Susan‘s planner!)

A couple of weeks to get ready for back-to-school

The prospect of a long anniversary weekend approaching

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Don’t lose the Wonder

WARNING! THIS IS VERY LONG!  I read recently in Tim Chester’s Will You Be My Facebook Friend? (enjoying it so far btw) that nobody reads blog posts longer than 400 words. Nobody ever told me this before, and given that I tend to read anything if I’m interested in the subject, I’m in a quandary about it.  Is it true?  Does that mean this is too long, at a shocking 5 times the length? I am verbose – possibly even garrulous, but as I think I’ve discussed before, this wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t.  So if you have an opinion on long posts, leave me a note and let me know.  I’ve put subheadings in to make it (hopefully) easier to look at.

Finally, my review

209751_492987144053413_655733065_oA while ago I promised you my thoughts on the film of Les Misérables and I’m finally getting round to sharing them. Other post ideas and distractions such as illness (I’m not really the fragile flower I sometimes come across, but I suffer – relatively mildly – from several chronic conditions which mean that life is put on hold periodically whilst I deal with the latest bout) got in the way in the meantime, but today I’m able to get down to it.

In a nutshell, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. As you’ll know from my previous post, I’m a long-term fan of the stage show and my desire to see the film was partly to enjoy the action once more (and more cheaply and conveniently than going to London) and partly out of interest to see how it would translate onto screen.

It’s important to say from the outset that, as a film of the stage show (I never know whether to call it a musical or an opera!) it must, in my opinion be compared to that version. There have been films made in the past based on the book which could be approached differently, and the stage show itself could also be reviewed in comparison the the book (which I’ve only read part of) but this film really needs to be looked at in the context of its immediate parent. Ultimately I think the translation worked rather well. If you’re familiar with it from the theatre, you’ll know that the set is fairly minimal so that it can all be worked out on a revolving floor in the centre of the stage, using light and image projections onto the floor to add extra effects. The audience sees one side of the set at a time (and one assumes that on the other side any necessary alterations are being made in time for the next 180 degree revolution), and at times the set rotates to reveal a still tableau which can be as effective as action or a song in other parts of the show. One example is after the barricade scene when the audience (whose perspective has been from the revolutionaries’ side) is then able to see the fallen – without wanting to give too much away! – on the other side. These still images are pretty iconic and I had my concerns about how the film would be able to replicate or replace them, but I was really impressed with the way it was done.

Obviously there were many differences in the way the film was set, but I felt that all of them worked well and took advantage of the medium and space available. Probably the most striking, just because it’s the opening scene, is when we see Jean Valjean (Prisoner 24601) and his fellow-convicts at work as they lament their fate in the song Look Down. On stage they are lined up breaking rocks, but on screen they are faced with the immense and altogether more visually spectacular feat of hauling a huge ship into the dry dock. This scene allows for a useful detail to be included, of the prison officer Javert commanding Valjean to “Fetch the sail” which involves the use of his unexpected strength to lift the ship’s mast, thus contextualising Javert’s later comparison of “Monsieur Madeleine” to the prisoner he once knew, when he sees him free a man trapped under a cart.

Another interesting feature of the film which differed from the theatre was in the reinsertion of the “fourth wall”. On stage, some of the narrative (especially scene-setting) is directed specifically at the audience as if they were somehow involved in the action. Highly appropriate for the theatre, but not so much for the cinema, so instead, the action is contrived to suit the conversational tone of the libretto by providing a new audience. So, for example, Gavroche’s How do you do… piece is directed at the surprised passengers in a carriage on which he’s hitched a ride, as he hangs upside down and addresses them through the window!

The cast

The casting was, I thought, very very good. I know people always have their ideals in mind when a star-studded film version of something well-known is made (and I’m probably more guilty of that than anyone!), but really everyone there was utterly believable and expressed the same characters I’ve seen in stage. In fact a couple of them seemed so familiar (eg Grantaire, Gavroche) that I was surprised later, when I looked them up on IMDb, that I hadn’t seen them in anything else. Sasha Baron-Cohen was a magnificent Thénardier, suddenly acquiring a French accent whenever he was called upon to speak to his social superiors and perpetually mistaking Cosette’s name in the way I first saw done by Matt Lucas at the 25th anniversary concert. Helena Bonham-Carter brought her own style to the character of his wife (ironic that the two coarsest characters should be played by actors with double-barrelled surnames!) although I don’t expect anyone to match the standard set by the wonderful Jenny Galloway who has played Madame Thénardier in two anniversary concerts as well as on stage. On the subject of past cast members, I thought it was a lovely and fitting gesture to include two original cast members: Colm Wilkinson, the first Jean Valjean, as the Bishop of Digne and Frances Ruffelle, originator of the part of Eponine, as one of the “Lovely Ladies”. It was also a touching change to include the Bishop in Valjean’s final moments, in place of – and really more appropriately than – Eponine, as I believe happens in the book.

Many of the lead cast, such as Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, have roots in musical theatre and from the documentaries and interviews I’ve seen seem to have enjoyed the innovative recording style of singing directly as the scenes were filmed, as opposed to lip-syncing to a previously recorded track. Only Russell Crowe seemed slightly discomfited by the requirement to sing and act simultaneously – and, although this sounds a lot like the Grade 6 piano examiner who sarcastically remarked on my report that I was not yet confident playing with both hands together, I mean it as much less of a criticism than it might seem! Crowe’s ability and versatility as an actor has been called into question in the past but I am really quite an undemanding viewer and generally very easy to please on that score (I even watch things with Keanu Reeves in and suspend my disbelief!). In this case, however, I just felt that whilst the other leads expressed their characters’ various emotions through their songs, Crowe delivered his two solos (Stars and Suicide) beautifully but somewhat impassively. But it’s about context really – I don’t think I’d have noticed at all if his co-stars hadn’t been quite so good at it! And it’s all a question of taste, because the friend I was with said she much preferred his delivery to the others’ “messing about with the timing and rhythm”!

The slight down side

My one criticism was that almost all the songs had been curtailed in one way or another. I assume that this was to ensure the running time didn’t exceed 2h30, but then again, they found time to include the new (and in my traditionalist opinion wholly unnecessary) Suddenly. For the long-standing, soundtrack-owning, libretto-memorising Les Mis fan, the omission of some of the less well-known verses – including my own favourite, the introduction to Master of the House in which the customers discuss Thénardier, his history and the quality of his establishment (enjoy this LEGO version by Codex Productions!) – is always going to be a disappointment and make it feel more like one of those highlights albums, rather than the full deal.

And in addition to the missing verses, there was some talking in it! “But it’s a film,” said one of my Facebook friends. “I found it weird that they didn’t speak some of the lines, when they were too short to be tuneful.” The fact is, as I said before, that it’s not just a film with songs in it, like a Disney cartoon, or even the film of a musical, like Mamma Mia, but the film of Les Misérables, which contains no spoken lines. If I went to see a film of La Bohème, for example, I wouldn’t expect the actors to start speaking in the middle of a scene. I think it detracts from the essential character of the performance when the clever, rhythmical verse sung by Valjean’s arresting officer, outside the Bishop’s palace, almost interrupted by the Bishop’s calm “That is right,” is replaced with “So you expect me to believe that the Bishop gave you all this stuff, do you?” (or words to that effect). So that annoyed me slightly, more because I couldn’t see the point of it than anything.

The Wonder

On the whole, my reaction to this film is an entirely positive one. At this point, I have to make a confession which will shock some of you:

I didn’t cry.

Sorry for that bombshell, but it’s commonly believed amongst my acquaintance that I have a faulty gene when it comes to emotional response. Unlike most of my friends, I don’t weep my way through my children’s school plays and concerts, and my view of the final scenes of Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel or Love Story is not obscured by tears. (On the other hand when I do cry it’s quite a good gauge of early pregnancy, and Southern Daddy knew something was amiss when he found me sobbing in front of the 2002 Winter Olympic opening ceremony, blubbering “They’re all just so patriotic!”) But that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel emotion during the film, whatever Chris Evans said about anyone who didn’t cry at it being made of stone. There were some amazingly touching moments, especially Javert’s surveyal of the fallen revolutionaries after the barricade scene, and the amazing reinterpretation of the final Do You Hear The People Sing? (sometimes I really get what CGI is for!)

Before I saw the film, I read a scathing review written by someone who didn’t like it at all (apparently there are such people). I wanted to link to it but I can’t find it now. It was vicious – the reviewer criticised the plot for not making sense (I think he needed to listen harder, “the text is everything” as we are endlessly told as singers, and in the film it is not unclear) and the music for being uninteresting and lacking complexity. Most of all, he was attacking the audience’s emotional response – he was at a loss to account for it and felt that it was dishonestly evoked by sentimental musical arrangements and exaggerated emotion within the story. So what’s new? Isn’t that what the film industry has been doing since its inception? Even before “talkies”, themed music was played to create an impression and a reaction.

The impression I gleaned from the tone of the article, and its ironic suggestion of other, superior, films and musicals to see instead, was rather one of snobbery. Perhaps – once again – I’m naïve, but I don’t see the difference between watching something which is simplistic or “low-brow” and something which is critically acclaimed and acknowledged as a creative triumph –  if I’m enjoying it. I’m no music scholar, and couldn’t tell you what constitutes a “complex” and “interesting” score, but I know that I admire it when everyone sings their own song, separately, and then suddenly they’re all singing them together and to my amazement they all fit! I love the sound you get when you have ten singers lined up on stage, belting out their parts, whether it’s in Beauty and the Beast or Die Walküre. I love the clever way lyricists play with language – whatever language that happens to be. And the whole is presented with such flair and excitement as to enchant the audience and catch them up in it. If you don’t feel that then you’re either much more skilful than me (I think there’s a certain sense in which you always marvel a bit at what you can’t do yourself) or you’ve become hardened to it in a belief that it’s somehow more grown-up to be critical than to have fun. But I’d rather keep my childish amazement, and never lose the Wonder.

Thankful for…

My trip to the doctor today revealing that the worries I had were unfounded

Southern Daddy being able to work from home today

The new ticket machines having finally been installed in my local Metro station (explanation here)!

The Cross of Christ by John Stott, which I’m reading for Lent

The Bookworm settling into Guides so quickly and being keen to go on camp with them in June (we had to sign up tonight)

A lovely meal and DVD yesterday evening (we watched Noises Off which is based on the play of the same name and almost as funny as when we saw it at the theatre a few years ago.  We liked it so much we’re going to use some of our Christmas Theatre Tokens to see it again in April!)

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Hearing the people sing

It’s amazing that the musical (or “muscial phenomenon”, as it’s often described) Les Misérables has been around for so long – it will celebrate its 27th birthday on 8th October.  I think I was about 16 when I first became a fan of the music, when it had been running for 6 years or so.  I’d heard some of the songs before, and then we sang a Les Mis medley in our school chamber choir.  Not long afterwards, my sister Peacock picked up a very cheap recording of most of the songs on cassette and I remember that we subjected our parents to it many times in succession whilst on holiday that year, whilst we sang along in the back of the car.  Not having read the book or seen the show, we hadn’t much idea of the plot or the events portrayed, so not all of it made sense to us.  In addition, the recording we had at our disposal had been rendered all the more inexpensive by the singers’ doubling up on parts, which is usually fine, but makes the Confrontation scene,  between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert (but all sung by one person), utterly bewildering.  We had no idea why Valjean, who had seemed so kind to Fantine in her final moments, then appeared to address her with:

And this I swear to you tonight: there is no place for you to hide

before confusingly promising to take care of her daughter!

(For those of you unfamiliar with the lines, Valjean is in fact swearing to care for Fantine’s daughter, as Javert interjects between lines that Valjean has nowhere to hide, and that he’ll continue to seek him out).

Nonetheless we sang along with gusto, imagining little storylines around the lyrics we could understand.

It wasn’t until two years later, after I’d left for university (accompanied by a second copy of the same cassette), that we finally got to see the show itself.  For Peacock’s 17th birthday I decided to surprise her with a trip to London and matinée tickets at the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.  The day was part-adventure, part-disaster – we travelled by train and tube, then arrived at Tottenham Court Road station and proceeded to walk an extremely long way in the wrong direction before realising our mistake, but somehow still managed to get back to the theatre in time, at the expense of our lunch!  We had balcony seats (in my inexperience, I didn’t realise where the balcony of a theatre was, and thought I had a booked a box at a very reasonable price indeed!) but this didn’t spoil the experience one bit as we sat enthralled, looking down on the actors and fitting the events which unfolded in front of us to the familiar words of the songs.

Later, after I was married, I was able to see the show again from a better position in the stalls, when Southern Daddy and I visited a friend who lived nearby and managed to get some returns one evening, and enjoyed myself just as thoroughly.  I’ve also read the book.   Peacock has acquired a reputation as number 1 Les Mis fan in the family and amassed innumerable pieces of  memorabilia, including mugs, CDs (better quality recordings than that original cassette!) and the DVDs of the 10th and 25th anniversary concert performances.  Those concerts feature casts made up of favourites from the different productions around the world, and it amuses me that the same actress plays Madame Thénardier in both.  If you’re familiar with the characters I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a strange sort of accolade, to be considered the best Madame Thénardier in the world over a 15 year period!

I’m now waiting for my daughters to be old enough to see it, so we have an excuse to go again (they have already seen The Codex Production’s excellent LEGO version on YouTube, which so far has covered about one-third of the whole musical!).  In the meantime, I’m very excited (along with many other Les Mis lovers) that the long-awaited film version, first talked of by Cameron Mackintosh in 1988, is shortly to be released.  I say “shortly”, although there’s not so short a time left as was originally promised.  The latest release dates announced are 25th December for USA and 11th January for UK (click International Release Dates at the bottom of the website homepage to find the release date for where you are).  Originally, however, the release was planned for 7th December – I know this because it’s my birthday, and having found out in about April that this was the case I arranged the whole weekend carefully, booking a babysitter, etc, so that I’d be able to see it on its first night.  The way I heard it was that the People In Charge decided that they wanted to do battle for ratings with The Hobbit (also originally announced for 7th December – not sure what’s become so wrong with that date, I’ve always kind of liked it) and so pushed back the release date a week to 14th December.  They then decided that perhaps they weren’t guaranteed to come off well in that fight, so picked 25th December for the US to go up against Quentin Tarantino’s latest film instead (with which they’re probably less likely to share a potential audience).  Why the dates have to be so radically different around the rest of the world I’m not sure, as I thought we were all about world-wide release to avoid piracy etc nowadays.

Anyway, what’s special about this film, as you’ll see if you watch the short film on the website, is that the actors have been recorded singing as they act, rather than filmed lip-syncing to tracks they have pre-recorded in a studio weeks before.  This has never been tried before, and I’m excited to see how different the results will be from other musical films and how similar to the live show.  UPDATE: You can read my review of the film here.

I’ll finish with a video which never fails to bring a smile to my face.  It’s a flash-mob of One Day More, performed by the cast of the Polish production to advertise their show and recently released album.  It’s in Polish, but the passion and feeling they bring to the performance transcends the language barrier (and if you know the show, you’ll know exactly what they’re singing anyway!)

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Header photo downloaded from Les Misérables Facebook Page

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Something a little bit different

It’s the weekend, so we get a break from our daily writing challenges and I thought it was about time I posted something that wasn’t too writing-related.

A little while ago I mentioned that I’d talk more about our trip away, and then got swept along into my 15 habits and never came back to it.  For any of you still sitting with bated breath, we went to Dorset for my niece’s naming day.  Unfortunately the weather wasn’t as good as we’d hoped (we were especially surprised that the temperature fell steadily the further south we travelled, as we’re constantly hearing from our more southerly relatives that they have better and warmer weather than we do) and it was decided that the celebration would be held at the campsite, rather than on the beach.  Despite this, it was a fun occasion and possibly a little more relaxed than a beach event would have been, as the children could play unrestricted in the large field and the adults weren’t constantly on the watch for any small people wandering too close to dangerous water.

Cake and Bunting

Cake and bunting on a rather grey day!

We all unpacked our camping chairs and sat in a large circle, enjoying what sun there was and the company of family and friends we’d not seen for a while.  Little K’s life-advisors all said a few words (some better prepared than others!) and then we toasted with champagne and tucked into a variety of cakes and biscuits which had been brought along.  The afternoon stretched on with more laughing and chatting, a game of rounders and an impromptu barbecue when it turned out to be a day for the “meat man” (a local butcher who visits the campsite a couple of times a week to supply the holiday makers with the most delicious sausages, burgers and kebabs).  All-in-all, despite the weather, it was one of those days which creates itself when you just turn up not knowing what to expect.

Charlecote Park

The beautiful Charlecote Park

It was a fairly fleeting holiday and with the rain we weren’t able to do much, but we did get an interesting trip on the Sandbanks chain ferry (include a look at the impressive and unusual array of expensive houses in Sandbanks Bay), as well as a visit to Charlecote Park near Stratford-upon-Avon on the way home.  Most of the time, however, we were in the car (it’s a 7 hour drive each way), and it takes work to maintain a reasonable degree of harmony when we spend such long periods of time at such close quarters!   Living a minimum 3 hours’ drive from any of our extended family, however, we are used to dealing with long journeys.  As our girls have grown up, we’ve had to modify our approach to this a number of times – gone are the days when we could expect them both to fall asleep the instant the engine was started so we could settle into a good audio book (and sadly, because of this, we are now very behind on the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.  If you have the chance to listen to the audio books, read by Adjoa Andoh, they are well worth it).  This holiday, for the first time, we have trialled a number of “car games” from a new book we bought recently, with some success (we especially enjoyed Crambo), although the Butterfly often still finds it difficult to keep up with the rest of us when a wide and imaginative vocabulary is required.

Another popular approach we have long taken is that everyone gets a turn at choosing music.  Before we set off, each member of the family contributes choices to the CD changer, which holds 12, and can also bring a couple of cassettes if required (yes! our car stereo still plays cassettes!).  In addition, I have my mp3 player, so we have access to a variety of music and stories for our trips and we spent a lot of the time on our most recent journeys listening to music.  Now, although Southern Daddy still finds my fascination with song lyrics unusual and a little obsessive at times, a lot of my influence has rubbed off on him over the last seventeen years and, as we headed down the M1 on that rainy Sunday morning, he said to me “Some of these songs are quite creepy, when you think about it.”  These songs were a collection of 50’s and 60’s music which I have on mp3.  Sure enough, the track we were listening to at the time, Save the Last Dance for Me, is a message from a man to a woman whilst at a party, to the effect that however much she enjoys herself while she’s there, she will still have to return home with him.

“Baby, don’t you know I love you so?  Can’t you feel it when we touch?

I will never, never let you go; I love you, oh so much,”

could be construed as passionately romantic, but alternatively slightly sinister.  And why does she need reminding not to forget who’s taking her home – why is he so afraid she’s going to run off with someone else?  What is he doing while she’s “having her fun”, anyway?  Standing around being boring?  No wonder she’s in danger of leaving him.

A similar idea is presented by The Foundations in Baby, Now That I’ve Found You.  It’s all very well to say you won’t let someone go, but when you follow it up with “even though you don’t need me” it sounds lacking in self-respect at the very least.

It’s a common theme in songs of the 50s and 60s (when possessiveness seems generally to have been considered an attractive quality!) but in more recent songs, other lines crop up which can make you think twice.  A few weeks ago I was listening a lot to Billy Joel’s The Longest Time which, for some reason, I always like to play when the weather is hot.  I love the song, partly because it’s such a sweet sentiment and partly because the rhyme scheme is so clever.  But even loving it as much as I do, I’m perpetually puzzled by the line “I’m that voice you’re hearing in the hall.”  Why is he in her hall?  And why does she need telling that it’s him?

After we’d been discussing this topic, I remembered that musical comedy duo Frisky and Mannish had investigated the same idea (this particular video seems to have replaced the one in which I first saw the medley, and I have to warn you it’s either slightly more tasteless than I remembered, or they’ve changed it since the version I saw, but it’s still entertaining nonetheless.  If you haven’t come across Frisky and Mannish before I recommend you also look for their versions of Baby, It’s Cold Outside and Chris De Burgh’s A Spaceman Came Travelling).

So it would seem that if you’re going to write a song about someone it’s important to consider what the other person will understand when they hear it!  That goes for dedications too:  SD and I often laugh at Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs (on BBC Radio 2), because people tend to select a song for their loved one based on the first line, the chorus or the fact that it’s about someone with the same name, without (presumably) being aware that the rest of the lyrics express a completely different sentiment from the one intended, or are about someone who’s dead/in prison/really not interested.  Apparently one of the most popular songs to dedicate on radio shows in the late 80s and early 90s was REM’s The One I Love.  What could be a more appropriate message than “This one goes out to the one I love”?  Sounds made for request shows, doesn’t it?  And if you’re far from home: “This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind”?

Well, maybe, but unless you also wanted to inform the dedicatee that he/she is merely “a simple prop to occupy [your] time”, you might want to consider something else…

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Christmas music

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been involved with Christmas music in a couple of ways.  Obviously, since September we’ve been rehearsing our pieces for the choir Christmas concert which was on 11th December.  It was great that my parents were able to be around for that – as last year, they came up for the weekend to see the girls in the church nativity play and stayed around for the concert on the evening – I think they enjoyed it!  We started off with Duruflé’s Requiem for the first half.  I hadn’t liked this very much in rehearsals – it’s difficult to sing as the time signature keeps changing and I lost count of the number of times I’d written “Don’t try to count this section – just WATCH!!!” over certain parts of my score.  Some parts are too modern to be particularly tuneful (it was written in 1947) which for me makes it harder to learn.  But somehow, when we got into the afternoon rehearsal on performance day and sang it with the orchestra and soloists, it all made a lot more sense!  I really enjoyed doing it although I know we made several mistakes in timing (despite all the WATCH messages) and I was kicking myself on one occasion when I knew I was right but backed down against the prevailing opinion of the sopranos around me.  Hmm.  So I was glad to get through it and into the second half, which was a mixture of Christmas madrigals, performed carols and audience-participation carols.  My favourite of the madrigals was Philip Wilby’s The Word Made Flesh which, as well as being set to a beautiful tune, has really meaningful and Christian words about the purpose of the incarnation.  My favourite of the carols was The Twelve Days of Christmas, mainly because there are 3 places at which the second sopranos (i.e. my part) separate from the firsts and the performance was the first time we managed to get them all right!  It’s a lot of fun to sing.  We had to learn a very last minute descant for Good King Wenceslas (last minute = just before we went on) because the orchestra part had been arranged to accompany a slightly different version from the one in our books and didn’t fit.  I didn’t mind much as I hadn’t actually realised we were doing it and hadn’t learned the first one (we didn’t rehearse the carols much, as you can tell!), and the new one turned out to be easier.  I was mainly glad we weren’t doing We Wish You a Merry Christmas, as it’s so fast, and differed so much from the arrangement we did at school, that I just couldn’t manage to learn it.  Altogether I got the usual buzz from the concert and I’m disappointed we’re not going back until 29th January, because the Easter Concert is a Come and Sing event, so we don’t need as many rehearsals.  In the meantime (well,  just before!) I’ll be going to the Join in and Sing event at the Sage Gateshead on 21st January, so I’m very much looking forward to that, although I struggle slightly when I don’t know pieces as well, because I can’t arrange my breathing well and I end up very tight throated.  I’ll have to learn some relaxation techniques for singing!

On the same day as Christmas concert, in the morning, was the church nativity play, as I’ve mentioned.  Both my girls were in it, the Bookworm as an innkeeper and the Butterfly as a shepherd, as well as “girl getting water in the town scene” (we don’t have many children at our church so they have to double up on parts – oh yes, and we also had puppet angels this year!)  As usual, I was part of the choir of women who stand at the side and sing along as the children act out the play.  I’ve been around long enough to remember when the choir was supposedly there to “bolster the children’s singing, as they’re not very loud”.  These days all pretence is put aside, the kids don’t sing at all (which I think is a shame) and we do it instead.  Over the years the music has become slightly more challenging and, in amongst the more childish songs, we often do a couple of more serious pieces in parts.  This year we did Rutter’s Nativity Carol – I was glad not to have to do the descant on the final chorus, though, because it’s very high!  We did it in the evening when it was fine, surrounded by some seriously good voices, but in the group at church I think we’d have struggled to make it sound good (it’s much more of a “sing for fun” affair, and many of the sopranos are sopranos only because we get to sing the tune almost all of the time)!

The previous evening (apologies for going at these backwards, it’s just the way it’s turned out) I was at a concert at the Sage with a friend.  It was a Christmas concert by the Northern Sinfonia and choirs, with Gervaise Phinn doing readings.  He was very entertaining but what impressed me most was the music.  We were sitting overlooking the orchestra (you have to have been at the Sage to understand the seating arrangements, really, but on “Level 2” – kind of equivalent to the Circle in a theatre – there are several rows of seats at one end, plus a narrow balcony which runs along each long side of the hall, with 2 rows of seats, and that’s where we were) and had a great view of the percussion section – always entertaining – as well as most of the other instruments.  There were 4 choirs behind them – the Northern Sinfonia Chorus, an adult choir, and the Quay Choirs:  Quay Voices, Quay Lads and Quay Lasses, three choirs for young people of varying ages.  I was particularly impressed with the Quay Voices, who are aged between 14 and 19.  This is often a time when young people are quite self conscious about performing in public, and this shows in their performance.  This choir, though, despite being small in number (about 15 I think) sang clearly and confidently and articulated every word.  I’m currently looking at getting the girls, especially the Bookworm, into something like this for younger children, as I’d love them to be involved as they grow up.

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Catch-up: part three

On to singing…

Last Sunday was the choir performance of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion.  I have to admit I approached this term with trepidation for two reasons: firstly the fact that I have never really liked Bach.  An overdose of Two-Part Inventions in piano lessons convinced me that his music was boring and predictable and music GCSE confirmed that indeed nothing interesting happened musically until about 1750 when it began a general upward trend to the early 20th century!  It wasn’t the composers’ fault, I thought, it was the fact that they didn’t have enough instruments and were far too constrained by conventions.  I’ve always tended towards the more romantic end of the spectrum (as in everything) and Wagner, Mahler, Rachmaninov, etc. and my belief was that the bigger and more multi-layered the sound, the better.  So to spend a whole term rehearsing one piece of Bach wasn’t a prospect I relished.  In addition, I’d been told repeatedly all of the Christmas term that the Easter piece coming up was daunting to say the least, and that even the people who had done it before were nervous.

So this term’s rehearsals have been full of pleasant surprises.  The first was that the music was easier than I’d expected (most things are, I think, if you’re fearing the worst!): many of the the Chorale movements are to the tune of a doxology we sang at school called Commit Thy Way to Jesus (which then turned out to be one of them) and the others were no more difficult to learn.  The other choral movements (by which I mean the movements in which the choir sings but which are called something other than Chorale!) were more of a challenge, but not impossible.  Yes, I had to practise at home with the help of my recording and of Cyberbass, but the sense of achievement when I managed it added to the enjoyment of learning the piece.  Over Christmas and the New Year I had struggled with colds and flu which had an effect on my voice and I actually started to wonder during a “Join In and Sing” day at The Sage Gateshead whether I had forgotten how to sing!  During the second rehearsal of the Bach I realised that I had fully recovered and was able both to cope and to enjoy singing again, which was a wonderful feeling.  I also realised that it was a year since I had started singing with the choir and that I had made real progress over the year in terms of strength and stamina: last year I regularly used to go home croaky and hoarse and on the day of the Easter concert the afternoon rehearsal left me with no voice whatsoever!  I’m glad to say that doesn’t happen any more!

The more we rehearsed this term, the more I began to enjoy the music as well as just the feeling of singing it.  I have actually felt quite crestfallen since the concert and have listened to the recording several times even though we’re no longer rehearsing, and I’m looking into studying more about earlier music (I’m not sure whether the term “early music” includes Baroque so “earlier” will have to suffice!)  so I can find out about how different composers worked within the conventional and technical constraints they faced.  I’ve been impressed by the depth of sound that can be created with a relatively small group of instruments (and an organ which I think is what makes a lot of the difference).

Something else which I’ve really appreciated in my 4 terms with this choir is the opportunity to work with 4 different conductors.  This is partly by chance – apparently they don’t always change conductors for every concert (!), and indeed but for unforeseen circumstances we would have had the same one this Easter as last.  Initially I was disappointed when I heard he had pulled out but I am now glad we have had the opportunity to see Magnus Williamson from Newcastle University’s International Centre for Music Studies, albeit only for two rehearsals and the concert day.  Each term we have learned something different about how we sing and present the music and this term Magnus taught us several things which included the value of listening carefully to the other parts whilst singing, and also the way that Bach and other Baroque composers used a style feature  called a Seufzer (sigh) to bring more expression to the singing, and how to emphasise that.   (It is this sort of information that I’m interested in discovering more about in order to understand better the particular features of the music from different times and how composers were able to express themselves within the restrictions placed on them.  For my degree I learned a little about a similar concept in drama and poetry and it increased my admiration for the writers no end!)

Next term we are going to be singing two works I have done twice each before: Vivaldi’s Gloria and Fauré’s Requiem as well as something by Byrd (which will extend my early music experience even further!).  I’m looking forward to it immensely and hoping that the summer concert will be as enjoyable as this one was.  In the meantime I am taking part in another day at the Sage next week with several of my friends, to sing Handel’s Messiah.

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Fantastic Day

Since I started this blog I’ve really neglected the “singing” aspect so it’s now time to rectify that and talk about a day I spent at The Sage Gateshead.  Last Saturday I took part in Prom Praise North East with 8 other women from my church and about 100 other singers from churches all over the North East and also southern Scotland, I think.  We had already been to 3 rehearsals in the centre of Newcastle and on Saturday we rehearsed in the morning with the All Souls’ Orchestra who had come up from London and the Emmanuel College Youth Choir who were performing two items on their own.  Then there were two performances, on in the afternoon and one in the evening.

I have never performed (or attended a performance) at the Sage before and I was surprised to find that Hall One didn’t seem as big as I’d expected (probably because I’d spent the previous week listening to people telling me how huge it is!).  I was lucky enough to be moved, along with a friend, onto the front row of the choir tiers not long after we’d been squashed on at the back (!) and this meant that I had a fantastic view of all the orchestra, most of the rest of the choir (we were seated right over at one side) and almost all of the audience/congregation.  The orchestra in particular were a delight to watch at work and we were just above the percussion section which was rather noisy but it was fascinating to see the three members of the section constantly rotating around the instruments, especially at the start of the second half when they performed the overture to West Side Story.

The choir items were a mixture of hymns and choruses with which the congregation joined in: these included Creation Sings by Keith and Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townend, and Stuart Townend’s You are my Anchor (probably my favourite thing that we did); and some choir-only pieces which were a setting of Psalm 150, Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, a setting of John 3:16 and a spiritual called Midnight Cry which was very complicated but sounded great when it was mastered!  For some of these items we were joined by David Erik, a baritone soloist who is currently touring in the musical Chess, and it was this that made the last item quite so difficult, because his style was to sing it in a very loose and rubato way, whereas we had learned all the syncopation particularly rigidly so that we were all singing together and it was difficult always to know where to come in when the solo part was not behaving as expected!  However it was a real treat to listen to his solo items, in particular a song called Watch the Lamb, a fictional piece about Simon of Cyrene going to Jerusalem with his children to sacrifice in the temple and unwittingly becoming a part of the Passion story.

The Emmanuel Youth Choir were excellent although most of them looked very self-conscious and didn’t appear to be enjoying themselves very much!  The teacher in charge of them did a really good job at keeping them going and acting as a second conductor from her position in the middle of the group.

It felt like a very long day – by the time we left I had been there over 12 hours – and there were several delays in the car park owing to a misunderstanding among some choir members about how to pay and several people’s leaving their car at the barrier to go and pay at the machine!  But it was well worth it, and I’m looking forward to my next performance at the Sage in January, as well as my choir’s Christmas concert at the beginning of December!

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