Desert Island Artists – Part 1


desert island discs

Here’s the game.¬† Most people in the UK will have heard of the radio show Desert Island Discs.¬† If you haven’t, the basic premise is this.¬† A well known person is asked the question, if they were be¬†to castaway alone on a desert island, what 8 records would they choose to take with them.¬† (They would also have for company, the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, another book of their choice and another luxury item)

This is a modified version of the above concept conceived by a friend of mine and is a great way to while away long car journeys.

The Rules

Unlike the radio show this version of the game is somewhat more generous with the amount of music you can take with you, but the basic question is the same.  If you were only allowed to  listen to a limited number of musical artists for the rest of your life,  who and what would you choose?

In this version of the game you are allowed the complete works (everything written and/or recorded) by your top 10 favourite pop/rock artists and your 10 top classical composers.  To start you off you also get thrown in the complete JS Bach and the complete Beatles.

Why Pop/Rock & Classical and how do you define the genres?

Yes, there are countless other genres of music out there. To be frank, these are the two I have most knowledge of and most interest in Рbut you are welcome to use whatever categories you like.  Also feel free to argue the toss over which category you think jazz, metal, dance, folk etc etc fit best into.  My very loose definition of the categories is this:  Pop and Rock, I define as short form music Рie the musical and lyrical ideas can be distilled down to a single 3 minute piece of music.  The classical category favours music where the ideas are developed over a long timescale, a symphony or an opera etc.  The classical category tends to be exclusively composer led as it is almost certain that the ideas will have been intricately worked out and written down in advance. Pop and Rock tends to be more performer led and often the ideas can be better communicated aurally.

So, for example – (spoiler alert), I have both a musical theatre composer and a jazz composer/performer in my list, Stephen Sondheim and Miles Davis¬†– and there is possibly an argument for both to fall into both the classical and the pop list.¬† However, Sondheim’s whole ethos and attitude to writing is based on meticulous planning and attention to detail prior to performance.¬† Not a single word is left to chance.¬†Also, his themes and ideas are developed¬†over the length of a 2 hour theatrical show.¬† Miles Davis, on the other hand, is all about taking great performers, freeing them from the shackles of¬† composer led music¬†and living in the moment with them.¬† Whole albums are improvised and ¬†constructed instantly¬†out of¬†the barest of initial ideas.¬† So, very clearly Sondheim has to fall into the classical list and Davis into the pop/rock list.¬† Ironically Sondheim (despite his probable protestations – “I’d like to perform a medley of my greatest hit”) has probably had more hit singles than Davis.

I don’t like Bach or the Beatles?

You don’t have to listen them just like you don’t have to read the Bible or the complete works of Shakespeare.¬† They are¬†there as the most significant originators of the two genres of music we’re looking at.¬† Also, feel free to argue the case for someone else if you wish!

A bit of history and geography

alan partridge

“I’ve got a broad taste in music, from the Britpop bands UB40, Def Leppard right back to classic rock like Wings. They’re only the band The Beatles could have been. [Favourite Beatles album?] I think I’d have to say The Best of The Beatles.” – Alan Partridge.

Like Alan, I pride myself on a pretty broad taste in music so – before I put my cards on the table and humiliate myself with my achingly uncool/mediocre/ignorant music choices I thought I’d do a very rough and ready study.¬† If we look at the fact that we have access to musical ideas going back approximately 1000 years across six different continents where does my breadth of taste fit in with all of that?

Well, looking at birthdates of the artists concerned and city of birth, my classical choices span 117 years (1813 – 1930) and 3 continents (although I’m not entirely sure that St Petersburg in any way represents Asia).¬† On top of that there’s a definite cluster around Germany/Central Europe and 1860ish.¬† The Pop list spans 68 years (1915 – 1983) and only 2 countries (no prizes for guessing which) with a cluster of artists born round about 1950 in or around New Jersey.

Not a bad spread – but pretty tiny compared to the history of the world.¬† And that’s okay – if I’m going to be stuck on that desert island I want it to be stuff I want to listen to – not stuff I ought to listen to.

Which means none of those artists or composers you see in lists of people you’re supposed to listen to:

i.e. (for Classical) no Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Handel, Haydn, Purcell,  etc

and for Pop (or it’s¬†allegedly more credible big brother, Rock) no Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Smiths, The Jam etc¬† – or countless other white male rock bands that a certain type of (white, male, over 40) music journalist like to worship and put in their all time¬†greatest lists…

Not, I hasten to add, that I have any problems with any of the above – indeed I do rather like a lot of it – but as I discussed in my previous post, popular stuff tends to be popular because it’s popular, and I rather think that critically acclaimed stuff (a different type of popularity – another discussion)¬†often ends up going the same way. (Not that I’m going to set the world alight with my own choices either…)

After that ridiculously long preamble here goes Р(for no particular reason) in geographical order РEast to West.




C1. Igor Stravinsky – born St Petersburg, Russia (1882 – 1971)

Our most easterly point for the classical world is St Petersburg and Stravinsky.¬† And my first entry might straight away make it as my number one favourite classical choice.¬† Did he create modern music and the sound of the twentieth century and beyond with masterpieces such as the Rite of Spring?¬† Very probably.¬† But don’t just listen to¬†those lavish early ballet scores.¬† There is so much variety and reinvention in this one composer’s output, and I never tire of listening to any of it.¬† His ballet music alone is a history of twentieth century musical form, from the lavish¬†romanticism of The Firebird (1910), Les Noces (1914) – minimalism 50 years early, Apollo (1928) – neoclassical elegance, Agon (1957) – 12 tone music¬†50 years late!¬† Then there are theatrical works such as The Soldier’s Tale (1918) and Oedipus Rex (1927) using innovative ways of integrating music and storytelling.¬† And countless orchestral, vocal, solo and chamber works – all unique, all utterly compelling, all Stravinsky.



P1. Kate Bush – born Kent, UK (1958 – )

The furthest east we go for the pop category is Kent, UK.¬† If you’re a lover of Europop or Indipop, sorry!¬† And straightaway, we see how wonderfully restrictive terminology like pop and classical are.¬† Kate is undeniably a pop artist – she has hit albums, number 1 singles, sell out concerts at the Hammersmith Apollo.¬† Most of her songs are the statutory 3 1/2 minutes in length.¬† But she sounds like no other pop (or classical) artist I’ve ever heard.¬† Her songs (clich√© alert) really do defy categorization.¬† I think she writes tiny operas in miniature.

My favourite Kate Bush album, “The Dreaming” was¬†the first album she produced¬†on her own.¬† It’s an eclectic soundscape of¬† musical and vocal styles alongside experimental synthesizer, sampler and drum machine techniques.¬†¬†Where this crazy collage of sounds comes to the fore is when you start to listen to the stories the songs tell and the characters that Kate becomes.¬† In one song she’s an East End bankrobber.¬†¬†In another, she’s an Australian bushman.¬† In another, wonderfully and heartbreakingly, she’s Harry Houdini’s wife standing by the side of the stage watching the escapology trick that kills her husband.

There’s something wonderfully British about Kate Bush – that strange¬† world of the eccentric inventor merged with English woodlands, Edwardian fairy stories, bookish studiousness and wistful daydreaming.¬† Are we unique in the world that we live somewhere where an 18 year old can conceive of¬†a song like Wuthering Heights which can then make it to number 1?¬† Probably not, but it’s a romantic notion.


C2. Dmitri Shostkovitch – born St Petersburg, Russia (1906 – 1975)

My second choice to come out of St Petersburg.¬† Unlike Stravinsky who got the hell out of the country¬†following the revolution, Shostakvitch remained in the USSR his whole life.¬† I have mentioned before, that his music is¬†inextricably linked with the¬†history and fortunes of that country¬†throughout the twentieth century.¬† In particular, an understanding of the¬†frankly bizarre relationship Shostakovitch had with the tyrannical dictator and amateur music critic Joseph Stalin¬†provides an extraordinary¬†background to many of his compositions. It never fails to amaze me how much, time and time again, the powerful and influential fear and try to manipulate the arts to their own ends¬†– even music, opaque in meaning, with it’s lack of words and pictures.

And of course, shostakovitch’s ¬†music stands on it’s on too.¬† This music has real emotional depth, humour, anger, pathos, romance,¬†despair.

A towering figure.



P2. Amy Winehouse – born London (1983 – 2011)

Such a tiny output of music before her untimely death, but what a compelling artist.¬† I never grow tired of listening to her 2 (only 2!) albums or her many live performances you can find on youtube. Her vocal skills and musicianship are undisputable but I’m also¬† blown away by her lyric writing (usually a secondary concern for me).¬† Particularly on that first album, before she became stratospherically and destructively famous, there’s a wisdom and sophistication of ideas¬†mixed with sheer¬†naked emotion and honesty.¬† And a self¬†aware sense of ¬†humour.¬†And a¬†youthful¬†optimism and love of life.

I was lucky enough to hear her in a small venue in Manchester just before she became huge. Flawless performance.  And she invited everyone in the audience out clubbing after the gig!



C.3 Jean Sibelius – born Hameenlinna, Finland (1865 – 1957)

Chances are I’ll never visit Finland, but I feel I already know the country intimately; ¬†it’s political¬†history, climate,¬†it’s myths and legends.¬† Sibelius is to Finland what Shakespeare¬†is to England and Burns is to Scotland.¬† Except even more so.¬† This chilly northern land is Sibelius and Sibelius is Finland.¬† And the music, beautiful and melodic, is so unlike any other composer – particularly when you look at his contemporaries – spanning the end of lush indulgent romanticism through to the spiky violent rhythms of twentieth century modernism.¬† Sibelius’ music on the other hand is ¬†expansive yet intimate, simple yet¬†endlessly complex.¬†¬†Outside Finland we tend¬†to only really hear his symphonies performed –¬†like in the recent triumphant¬†visit¬†to the Barbican of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil.¬† But there are loads of tone poems and songs based on Finnish legends, seldom performed outside the country.¬† My triple CD boxset containing many of them arrived today – lots of new stuff to get to know!

P3. Steely Dan / Donald Fagen РFagen born Passaic, New Jersey, USA (1948 Р)

A few quotes taken from Telegraph journalist Neil McCormick from his very entertaining liner notes from the 2009 album “The Very Best of Steely Dan”.

“Steely Dan, a group who exist outside of¬† pop culture”

“Steely Dan existed in an entirely different musical dimension to all of their contemporaries, a parallel universe where pop music was actually a form of Blue Note Jazz.¬† Imagine if Miles Davis and John Coltrane got together and wanted to make hits, blending uber cool 50s noir jazz with southern boogie, and topping it over with wry super-smart lyrics”…..”a sinuous blend of groove, harmonic structure and frankly outrageous playing”

“Sadly Steely Dan was far too ahead of our time to make itself properly understood.¬† In the course of eight increasingly desperate years, Steely Dan’s attempts to establish whether there was intelligent musical life on earth drove some of the greatest session musicians in the world to the brink of despair and insnity in a quest for perfection beyond human comprehension, the cosmic search for the universal chord.”

I’m sure the rules of the game allow me all the material those despairing session musicans produced too, so that includes the great Michael McDonald (keyboards/vocals) and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar)¬†from the Doobie Brothers, Michael and Randy Brecker (sax and trumpet) and a whole load of America’s finest.

And¬†Steely¬†Dan is ¬†named after a giant steam powered vibrator from a William Burroughs novel – you’ve gotta love that…




Right, that’s well over 2000 words and I’m off on holiday tomorrow – so I’ll finish the list¬†in the next post.

In¬† the meantime I’d love to hear about your own lists, or suggestions for me, or predictions for what’s on the rest of my list.¬† If you’ve read my other posts a lot of the choices should be fairly easy to work out…

Till next time – Happy Easter!













Once Upon a Time in Shaolin

wu tang

Those of you who have¬†read some of my earlier posts will know that I am rather foolishly in the midst of trying to write¬†an opera. ¬†I’m pleased to say that it is very nearly finished – only a few more pages of orchestration to go.¬† I’ve just started to have some initial chats regarding potential¬†performance opportunities and will let you know more when there is more to tell.

So, whilst I’m not quite ready to talk in detail about the opera, being¬†ensconced in this¬†process had got me thinking long and hard about the craft of ¬†writing.¬† I should make absolutely clear at this point that I am not in any way a trained composer, librettist or songwriter.¬† This is purely a hobbyist’s pursuit and I have no¬†grandeurous delusions as to the quality of the work I produce.¬† However, as you will hopefully ascertain from my other blog posts I am particularly interested in the craft, tradition, influences and learning processes attached to the world of music making; whether it be writing, producing or performing.

With that in mind I was all set to write what I thought would have been quite a cute post discussing my attempts at songwriting and composing in the past.  It would have been based around my experiences writing songs for my musical ( Рcheck it out) and would have talked about who I was performing with at the time, what I was listening to, and how all these things molded and influenced the songs as they were written.

I love reading about all that sort of stuff – the creative process.¬† I find it can only enhance your enjoyment of a work.¬† And it’s an essential part of learning how to do¬†pretty much anything.

But, as many of you will know, ¬†jurors in Los Angeles¬†last week¬†awarded the Marvin Gaye estate damages of $7.3M for alleged plagiarism of Gaye’s hit “Got to Give it Up” by Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams’ song “Blurred Lines”.¬† And here’s the thing – the songs ARE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!¬† Now, I’m not here to comment on the relative quality of the songs or the appropriateness of the lyrics,¬†etc etc¬†– but the melodies and lyrics are not REMOTELY THE SAME!¬† Yes, they have a drumbeat and a bass line which perhaps share some similarities.¬† But this is pop music!¬†Familiarity is why pop music is popular!¬† The differences in rhythmic meter, harmonic structure and melodic invention in the history of pop is minute compared to other forms of music.¬† And that’s fine – those are the parameters.¬† And the medium moves forward, built on the past. Or it doesn’t, and we just sit and watch the lawyers get wealthier.

I absolutely sincerely believe that this sets a dangerous precedent for the music industry and I’m glad that the ruling is being challenged.¬† Obviously I can only speculate on the case and the jurors’ conclusions but I do think a major factor in the case is the fact that Thicke and Williams had talked about their influences with regard to the song – and somewhere down the line the lawyers¬†saw an opportunity to make a load of money.

In light of the above¬†my desire to share¬†any thoughts about the writing process has waned somewhat,¬†however like the majority of people who have created anything, my conscience is clear.¬† The musicologists will just have to argue over my influences long after I’m gone!¬† Not that anyone would try and sue me – I don’t expect to make a penny out of anything I have written. In contrast Blurred Lines made a cool $16M – worth the risk for the honourable profession. And therein lies the real¬†truth – ‘where there’s a hit there’s a writ’…

Who gets the money (minus fees) in the above case?¬† Not the writer,¬†Marvin Gaye – he’s long dead.¬† Instead it goes to his children, who¬† have already ¬†lived their lives with all the advantages/disadvantages, opportunities/prejudices that come with being the progeny of an multimillion selling recording artist.¬† And I want to be clear on this, I don’t judge them – the law is the law – and they are just exercising their right.¬† And the laws¬†governing royalty payments¬†are of course¬†a¬†good and proper thing.

Which brings me on to another topic I’d like to talk about. Royalty Payments.

Firstly¬†a bit of history: many of the laws set up concerning royalty payments were due to the¬†sterling efforts of Jessie Coleridge-Taylor.¬† Her husband Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (not to be confused with nutty poet and opium addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge) was a truly extraordinary man.¬† Born in 1875¬†to an English mother and a black African father, he overcame prejudice to become one of the most well loved and successful composers of the Victorian era. His biggest success was a choral work called Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast which was repeatedly performed all over the world, with¬†the sheet music selling countless copies.¬† Coleridge-Taylor had sold the rights to the piece outright to publisher¬†Novello so made no further money from the piece. This was fairly commonplace for composers, who of course generally didn’t have a great deal of cash flow, so money up front for work was necessary.¬† Likewise publishing companies shouldered all the financial risk with printing and promoting a piece that may have¬†ended up earning them nothing.¬†When Coleridge-Taylor died, young (partly from the exhaustion of having to rewrite from scratch his violin concerto after the only score was lost on the Titanic – don’t forget to back up your work folks) his family found themselves with no source of income.¬† Jessie tirelessly campaigned for her family to receive a share of Novello’s profits and as a result, the Performing Rights Society was set up to ensure musicians were paid a fair price for their work.¬† All good and proper and I heartily endorse it.¬† However this copyright endures for (at the time of writing, in the UK) 70 years after the composer’s death.¬† Compare this to, for example, the big bad pharmaceutical companies who have¬†10 years to make their money from a product before it comes off patent.¬† And this is after maybe 20 years of development and trials costing billions with no guarantee of the product working at the end of it all.¬† Perhaps this begins to explain why the drugs are so expensive.

Conversely I think that¬†the 70 year ruling for music publishing means that too much of the financial¬†risk has been transferred from the copyright owner¬†to the performer, or concert promoter or radio station owner.¬† Particularly in the classical world, if it costs to put on a piece of new music and it’s less likely to attract a large audience because it’s unknown we end up in a vicious circle of “safe” programming.¬† This can particularly be seen in the opera houses where an increasingly dwindling number of different operas are put on again and again purely because they are considered box office draws.¬† So we end up in this¬†weird feedback loop¬†where stuff that is popular is only popular because it’s popular.¬† And of course the pop world will take even fewer risks which is why we end up with a relatively small number of performers making vast amounts of cash from increasingly unambitious music choices.¬† So, the rulings brought in to help the Jessie Coleridge-Taylors of the world have ended up profiting an increasingly small group of people.

I suppose we should marvel that “Blurred Lines” is still capable of making a ridiculous amount of money in this day and age.¬† In this increasingly acquisitive world, as people suffocate under the weight of more and more ‘stuff’,¬†¬†the¬†thing more and more people are divesting themselves of is their record and cd collections.¬† Streaming technologies have pretty much rendered obsolete the need to own or pay for music at all, especially if you aren’t too fussed about sound quality.¬† The music recording has pretty much been rendered¬†worthless.¬†In fact, getting people to pay for music in any form is becoming harder and harder – and once again we’re back in that inevitable world of ever decreasing ‘safe’ choices.

Legendary hiphop collective the Wu Tang Clan have come up with an interesting concept regarding the perceived financial¬†worth of music.¬† The mysterious box at the top of this blog post is the one and only copy of the Clan’s album, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”.¬† It will be exhibited in galleries like a major artwork.¬† People will only be able to listen to it through headphones after being searched for recording devices.¬† After being exhibited it will then be auctioned off to the highest bidder.¬† Once bought, the buyer will not be allowed to release the product for 88 years.¬† The idea of course is to try and rekindle in people’s minds that music has¬†artistic and commercial worth in a similar way to, say, a painting by Van Gogh.

But there is a flaw in the logic…¬† The reason an artwork sells for an extraordinary sum is precisely due to it’s uniqueness rather than the quality of the work. Also, inherent in this is the understanding that seeing a reproduction of a work is in some way not as fulfilling an experience as seeing the real thing,¬† hence why millions of people flock to the Louvre each year¬†to see the Mona Lisa despite every single one of those people having already seen the picture in reproduction form. Ironically their postcard almost certainly gave a clearer view than the one they’ll get in the Louvre! ¬† Conversely, every copy of a recorded music album is (and is supposed to be)¬†identical to the original,¬†so the burning desire of the wealthy collector to own something unique becomes impossible.¬† Therefore is¬†“Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”¬† actually being sold as a piece of art rather than a piece of¬†music?

However the musical artist has one up on the visual artist – they¬†can provide a the unique experience of a live performance.¬†¬†This is¬†still the most emotionally involving and spiritually moving way to experience this most visceral of art forms.¬†Therefore unlike¬† a¬†painter or sculptor who has “made it”, a successful musician¬†has to keep on working and performing until the day they die to¬†satiate their audiences’ desire for unique emotional experiences.¬† Ironically, the visual artist can actually see¬†the worth of their¬†work increase¬†the less they produce!¬† In fact, if you happen to own a Damien Hirst dot painting the best way to force an increase in it’s value is to hire someone to murder Damien – then watch the value of his art skyrocket.¬† Just to be clear I’m NOT advocating you do that!

And then bizarrely, the pleasure that people derive from having something other folk don’t have, doesn’t apply to music.¬† At least, I don’t think it does.¬† If I like a piece of music, a band or¬†a singer, I want everyone else to know about it and love it too.¬† Isn’t everyone a bit like that?¬† In a strange sort of way,¬†our own self worth and the way we judge other people is wrapped up in the music we – and they – listen to.

So there we go, a strange dichotomy – music, both priceless and worthless. And maybe that’s always been the problem.¬† How do you put a price on something that’s priceless.¬† Happy Listening! xx


To Alto or not to Alto


trombone family


It’s a bit of geeky brass player post this week I’m afraid…

A big topic in the classical world¬†in recent years has been the thorny¬†subject of the Historically Informed Performance.¬† This is when conductors and players strive to perform a piece in a way that is as close as possible in style and sound to the way the piece was¬† performed when it was originally composed.¬† The intention being that this is the best chance we have of hearing the music as the composer intended it to be heard.¬† I joked with our conductor the other week that if we were to do a historically informed performance of the first outing of the Rachmaninoff symphony we were playing, we would need a drunk conductor, an orchestra that couldn’t play half the notes and a composer in therapy for the next three years.

Generally historically informed performances concentrate on 2 aspects:

  1. How the notes are played – speed, articulation, vibrato etc
  2. The choice of instrument the piece is played on.

The first aspect ought to be relatively straight-forward to achieve with a certain level of technique, commitment, listening ability, adherence to direction from the conductor and musicianship. The second is often less achievable, particularly in the amateur music scene Рeven at a high level Рas it can require investment in new instruments (expensive),  and new techniques (expensive in practise time, which for many is limited to the occasional evenings.)

With regards to playing style, I have a whole number of bugbears concerning a lot of orchestral trombone playing.¬† Some require a bit of historical knowledge and context; others just require a player to use their ears! (Warning ‚Äď rant coming up):


Richard’s Historically Informed Bugbear Number 1

The great nineteenth century composer, Anton Bruckner¬†peppers his trombone parts with this symbol above the notes:¬† ňĄ

Now, any musician worth their salt knows that symbol as a marcato, a really strong, loud accent.  In other words, hit the note hard and then come away from it quickly Рimagine hitting a bell hard with a metal hammer.  We trombone players are great at that sort of punch in the solar plexus sound.


Bruckner, as you all know, was an organist.¬† His music looks and sounds like¬†organ music.¬† When he writes a trombone line, it’s like the organist has pulled out the Posaune stop.¬† So he wants a loud sound, but with no ‘smack’ at the beginning of it, but also no reduction in volume.¬† That’s just the way an organ works. ¬†He probably should have put this symbol above the notes: – the tenuto (play the note for as long as you dare), instead of the ^¬†but he didn‚Äôt. It sounds terribly ugly if it‚Äôs played as written. So, trombonists, use your ears and bear in mind the context of the piece.

Richard’s Historically Informed Bugbear Number 2

Fortissimo (very loud) in a Schubert symphony is not the same as fortissimo in a Shostakovitch symphony. Schubert uses the trombone as part of the general texture of the piece, much like he would the bassoon or clarinet, whereas with Shostakovitch the trombones have been held back for moments of earshattering chaos and despair! Playing loud on the trombone isn’t that difficult.¬† Playing the appropriate volume – well…

Trombonists get an awful lot of stick from conductors/ fellow players for playing too loud.¬† For what it’s worth, I think more often than not the real problem isn’t trombonists playing too loud in the loud bits, but woodwind players failing to play soft in the quiet bits – but that’s another whinge for another post on another day…

Rant over for now.



Back to what I really wanted to talk about…

Choice of instrument.

When it comes to historically informed performance, trombonists do seem to have slightly more choices on offer than other classical musicians.¬† Baroque oboes and bassoons, gut strings and short bows on violins really are the preserve of a few specialist players – but even in the amateur world most of the¬†trombonists I know own more than one instrument.¬† When I tell you that the majority of trombone parts in the orchestral repertoire are playable on the standard tenor trombone, you may ask why?¬† Well, maybe we are a bit geekier than other musicians.¬† Maybe we’re lucky that a¬†good quality trombone costs a good deal less than a quality oboe or bassoon, and a massive deal less than a quality violin or cello.¬† There is also the wide range of music styles that trombone plays a part in, and the fact that the standard instrument used in the jazz band has more in common with the instrument used in the early nineteenth century orchestra than the instrument used in the modern symphony orchestra.

So we can play around with instrument choice a bit more than some of the other sections of the orchestra.¬†¬†¬†If we look at the development of most of the orchestral instruments, the tendency has for them all to move towards louder richer sounds.¬† In the case of the trombone this has been generally achieved by designing instruments with wider bores (tubing) and using larger mouthpieces.¬† As mentioned above, jazz and pop players tend to stick with narrow bores and smaller mouthpieces.¬†This allows them greater agility, range in the upper register and a brighter sound, but loses them volume and richness of tone.¬† For example, take Darth Vader’s theme in Star Wars and compare that with the sound of the trombone solo at the opening of Dinah Washington’s recording of “Mad about the Boy”. The difference between the 2 sounds from the two different instruments is marked.

My old trombone teacher, Chris Stearn – principal bass trombone with Scottish Opera ‚Äď recently had a moan on the trombone forum about the section being asked on occasion to play narrower bore instruments for reasons of authenticity.¬† Why should the trombones be singled out for special treatment when the rest of the orchestra are quite happily playing modern instruments?¬† With much respect to Chris, I do think that this difference in trombone sound is marked enough to have had an effect on the way composers wrote for the instrument.¬† It takes quite a practiced ear to discern the difference in sound between a German rotary valve trumpet and modern American piston valve trumpet, or the difference between a Viennese Oboe and a standard oboe.¬† We used narrow bore trombones for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantasique recently.¬† The razor sharp edginess of the sound compared to the usual warmth of sound I like to think we produce was quite terrifying – noticeable enough for it to draw comment from audience and orchestra alike.


Back to what I really, really properly wanted to talk about…

The Alto Trombone.

I’m now about to completely contradict what I said above about composers writing for specific instruments, particularly with regards to the trombone (and the tuba – but that’s for another even geekier blog post).

When a wind player sees the words bass clarinet, or tenor saxophone or alto flute at the top of their part they can be reasonably assured as to what instrument to play the part on.¬† If you are¬†a trombone player this is not the case. In earlier music, things were pretty straight forward. The parts would say alto trombone, tenor trombone and bass trombone and would be played on the equivalent instrument.¬† This was mainly in church music, accompanying the equivalent choral part (see my previous post,¬†“The trombone, too sacred for frequent use”).¬†The tenor trombone is the standard instrument that most people would visualize when they think of the trombone.¬† The alto is two thirds the size of the tenor, pitched in Eb. The bass was a cumbersome instrument pitched in G or F¬†with an extra-long slide, which was so long that it required a handle to reach the lowest slide positions!¬†¬† Despite the different sizes being in different pitches, the trombone has never been treated by composers as a transposing instrument. This is unlike, say, the saxophone which can be pitched in either Eb or Bb allowing the different sizes of instrument to¬†be played by the same player without them having to learn an entirely new fingering.¬† So a concert pitch Eb is written as C on the alto sax and a concert pitch Bb is written as C on the tenor sax.¬† On the trombone a C is a C which I think makes things conceptually easier to think through.¬† There are, of course, exceptions – brass bands treat the trombone as if it were a transposing instrument in Bb – but let‚Äôs leave that to one side for now.

However writing for all three different sized instruments in C does mean that the location of the notes on the slides of the different trombones are all completely different, which is a pain if you are a tenor trombone player who occasionally has to play the alto.

Anyway as I said, for a whole bunch of music up to about 1850, the parts would say alto, tenor, bass, the pitch of the parts would more or less mimic the equivalent singing voices, and the appropriate clef would be used for the parts. Most people are fully conversant with the treble and bass clef, but other clefs exist so that parts of a certain range fit comfortably and are easily readable on the 5 line stave.  The picture below shows the same C major scale (bass clef 1 octave down) written using 4 different clefs.


By the mid nineteenth century, the alto trombone began to fall into disuse.¬† The invention of the valve meant that horns and trumpets could now play chromatically, so the need for a higher pitched trombone was less apparent.¬† The cumbersome bass trombone in G with the extra-long slide also began to fall out of favour although plenty of players carried on using it throughout the twentieth century.¬† The modern bass trombone¬†wasn’t really invented until about 1960 and is based on the standard tenor trombone.¬† It has the same length of slide, but has a much wider bore of tubing, a larger mouthpiece and a valve section¬†to extend the range downwards.¬† It is a truly impressive instrument.¬† However (warning ‚Äď rant coming up):¬† If you are trombonist asked to play for example the bass trombone part in Mozart’s Requiem, please do not turn up to accompany a chamber choir with an instrument that has been designed to support a full modern symphony orchestra from the bottom of a Hans Zimmer film score.¬† The choir and conductor won’t thank you!¬† The tenor trombone will do the job far better.

And here’s the crux of this rather rambling post – often we just don’t know what the composer’s intentions were with regards to instrument choice.¬† I rather think that often their intentions weren’t necessarily realized and that they were stuck with whatever instruments the players they were writing for had and could play.¬† But often their intentions aren’t clear on the part.¬† The driver for writing this post was a performance of Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony I was involved with and I was genuinely unsure of what instrument to play it on.

The part says Alto Trombone.¬† It’s written in the alto clef.¬† The range of the part is consistently in the high register, including rather too many top Ds (a note I don’t care to play too often the tenor trombone if I can help it).¬† It’s a no-brainer; it must be an alto trombone part mustn’t it?

But, we get plenty of trombone parts that say alto on them and clearly aren’t. For example, the aforementioned Bruckner – trombone writing of epic proportions – the part asks for the baroque and dainty alto trombone.¬†And he is by no means the¬†only one.¬†Why?¬† Well, there are all sorts of theories, most of them wonderfully prosaic and banal. One is that the pre-printed manuscript came with alto, tenor and bass already there. Another is that the convention was to call the highest part alto and the lowest bass. Another is that the copyists and publishers edited and published the parts as alto, tenor, bass and the instructions remain today.

Often the parts hedge their bets altogether and call the parts trombone 1, 2 and 3. Hmmm, is that  2 tenors and a bass? 3 tenors?  Even a composer as exacting as Mahler (who on occasion writes for a four trombone section) hedges his bets.  2 tenors and 2 basses?  3 tenors and 1 bass?

And as for that pesky alto clef…!

Composers can’t seem to agree on what clef to write the instrument in.¬† This is¬†partly because the instrument is blessed with a large range but it does leave us in the awkward situation of having to learn music in up to 5 different clefs: bass, tenor, alto, occasionally treble and the aforementioned Bb transposing treble clef.

So, back to the Dvorak 6.¬† Everything on the page points towards it being written with Dvorak intending it to be played on the Alto.¬† But, in my gut Dvorak just doesn‚Äôt seem like an alto trombone composer.¬†¬† Certainly the later works – the Cello Concerto and New World Symphony in particular – are most definitely for tenor trombone, but this piece is earlier, with a more classical feel. The trombone parts are more like the sort of parts I would see in a Schubert or Mendelssohn symphony. ¬† Hmm, perhaps the internet can help with a definitive answer?¬† Well, not really. Because there is a lot of interesting debate amongst some of the top players from top orchestras about what the correct instrument should be ‚Äď resulting in a pretty much 50/50 split between tenor & alto.¬† In fact, the Internet tell me that those Dvorak symphonies may have played on some new design valve trombones, so a different instrument again.

In the end, I played the part on the tenor and just squeezed my buttocks a little harder together for all those top Ds on the final page.

So, if there is a point to all this rambling, and a counter to Chris’s moan about the special attention trombones sometimes receive, perhaps it’s this.¬† The trombone is a huge sledge hammer of instrument. ¬†A wrong dynamic or articulation can have a massive, and obviously negative¬†effect on a performance. Therefore we do have an obligation to our fellow players, conductors and audience members to get the subtleties right (well, as subtle as you can be blowing into 9 feet of brass tubing).¬† Ladies and gentlemen of the trombone section, you wield great power.¬† Use it wisely!


In anticipation of the even geekier tuba entry (don’t worry, not for a while) – check out this low brass version of The Game of Thrones Theme…




Gig Guide

I’m playing Mozart C Minor Mass for the Stockport Grammar School Chorus and Chamber Choir, Saturday 14 March at the Grammar School.¬† This one’s definitely written for the alto trombone! Hopefully there‚Äôll be some sensitive playing on the bass part too‚Ķ







Back to Rydell High


Great to see phenomenal  writer and performer Beck (pictured above with my all time musical hero Prince) getting his Grammy last week. Cheers for all the free promo, Kanye.

When I came up with the title of this blog I¬†specifically¬†included¬†“amateur” in the title.¬† I didn’t want my dilettante dabblings to be in any way confused with the endeavour of people who have taken the risky¬†and honorable¬†choice of ¬†earning their living¬†in the Arts, the Music Industry¬†or Show Business¬†(three subtly different fields¬†each with subtly different attitudes and approaches to music making).¬† However, I have skirted round the edges of these professions throughout my life and have had the privilege of working and performing with many different individuals who do indeed call it their life’s work.

One of my most interesting and sustained periods of professional music work was back in 2001 when I found myself working as a trombone player on board the cruise ship MS Westerdam for a 6 month stint.  This is the first in an occasional series of essays on my musical experiences on board ship and covers my first week aboard.


So it was January 2001 and ¬†I found myself staring up at the massive Holland America cruise liner, MS Westerdam in the Florida port of Fort Lauderdale.¬† After my job had collapsed a few months earlier I had, on a suggestion and a whim, auditioned for a cruise line musician‚Äôs job.¬† I now stood on the other side of the world, 2 trombones and 2 suitcases in tow, looking at my home for the next 6 months ‚Äď and my first performance on board in a matter of hours.

I had never even seen a cruise ship, let alone been on one, so there was an extremely steep learning curve to be had.¬† Although I only did 6 months, the stories I could tell could easily fill a book ‚Äď however¬† many would be highly inappropriate and probably libelous!¬† Thus, I intend to concentrate on my performing experiences.

There were many musicians aboard the Westerdam.¬† Most came aboard as bands that played background music in the many bars and lounges on board the ship, a jazz trio in the cocktail bar, a string group in the lounge, a steel band on deck etc.¬† I was on board as part of the show band, based in the 1000 seater theatre.¬† The show band¬†musicians all audition as individuals and were a rolling group of players who were¬†picked particularly for their sight-reading ability since their job was to accompany the ever-changing roster of live performers. ¬†The live acts would differ from cruise to cruise and would perform one of the live shows – ¬†generally a 50 minute show performed twice with a short break between performances –¬†every night aboard the ship. ¬†Half the passengers would be dining formally whilst the 1st show was on and would then swap round for the 2nd sitting.¬† On board the Westerdam we had a show band of 7 musicians consisting of piano/MD, bass, drums, keyboards, trumpet, reed and trombone.¬† Guest performers would come aboard with music charts arranged for this lineup.

The majority of the cruises during my first 3 months on board ship were 8 night cruises in the Eastern Caribbean.¬† The 8 days included visits to Nassau in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, St Thomas, St Maarten, Half Moon Quay ‚Äď an uninhabited island in the Bahamas¬†– and 2 days at sea.¬† An 8 night cruise meant 8 different shows. My first week’s¬†cruise included 3 shows featuring our on-board cast of singers and dancers, a variety show featuring performers from the week‚Äôs cruise, a magic show which the band weren‚Äôt required for, and 3 more shows featuring the guest artists below.

What I didn’t know until I arrived that first day was that the ship was currently in the middle of a series of Rock and Roll nostalgia cruises featuring artists from the 50’s and 60’s.  Also on board each week were a number of TV stars from the same era, who would do talks and chat to the passengers throughout the week.  In fact, the very first fellow mariner I met was in my taxi from the hotel to the ship.  It was very pleasant gentleman who it turns out had played the little boy in the Lassie TV series.  It’s fair to say I didn’t recognize him Рonly because he had grown a moustache since his tv days.

Musically, the Rock and Roll cruises meant that show band got to perform with a large number of rock and pop acts¬†who had hits in the US in the 50s and 60s. As I had come from the UK and was not born until the 1970s, I have to admit that I hadn’t necessarily heard of all these acts but I certainly recognized many of the songs and it was a joy to meet these performers and hear their stories (again, many unrepeatable!)

The 3 acts in my first week really did set the bar high for the rest of the tour.¬† First up….


The Crystals

The Crystals were one of the original girl groups of the 60s, produced by Phil Spector, and famous for hits such as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me”.¬† They had a number of different lineups and, to be fair, by the time I got play for them there was only one original member –¬†the lovely Dee Dee Kenniebrew.¬† It’s very possible that the performance above featured the arrangements that we used on the ship¬† with one important difference – I had to make up the trombone parts for that first show.¬† Somehow, the trombone parts hadn’t been brought on board. So much for being employed for my sight reading ability!¬† Luckily my skills extended to transposition so I was able to make up a trombone part based on reading the Bb trumpet part of trumpeter and new room mate Marshall who sat next to me on the band stand.

Whilst I could cope with making up rock and roll trombone parts on the spot for the Crystals, I was completely out of my depth when required to play with the rest of the band as background music for Captain’s cocktails.¬† This was a jazz set using numbers from “The Real Book” –¬†a massive volume of¬† standards used by jazz musicians consisting of nothing more than handwritten melodies and chord symbols.¬† As well as being totally unable to improvise credibly around a jazz tune, I was also completely unprepared for the way a¬†musical number – complete¬†with an intro, head (main tune), improvised section and finish – could seemingly be conjured up instantly from these scant materials with no prior preparation or discussion.¬† I had minimal knowledge of most of the tunes picked and certainly no real idea of the conventions and playing styles even for the notes that I was presented with.¬† All in all, it was¬†a very long¬†scary half hour standing on a stage.¬† So much for being employed for my sight reading ability!¬† After that first week I tended to duck out of Captains Cocktails and over the course of my time on the ship my fellow band members took upon themselves to educate me in all things jazz.¬† They would frog march me to various jazz bars in the ports where ship musicians were encouraged to perform and make me practice my improvisions on the unsuspecting drinkers. I would get informal lessons on the history of the art form, the different styles, suggested recordings etc.¬† I went from a novice to a genuine aficionado of probably America’s greatest original art form, and whilst my improv skills are still fairly ropey, I can now fake it for short bursts at least!


Frankie Ford

Frankie Ford was a larger than life rock n roll singer and pianist in the mould of Jerry Lee Lewis.¬† He had a huge voice, Elvis hair and sunglasses and piano keyboard scarf.¬† His party trick during performance was to fill the room with his vocals just as easily without the microphone as with it.¬† His big hit was a song called “Sea Cruise”, so the ship was a natural place for him to end up.

“I don’t like rehearsals”.¬† This was pretty much the first thing Frankie said to us during our morning rehearsal slot – our one chance to every day to prepare for the night’s show.¬† And true to his word, he worked with us for about 30 minutes in preparation for the 50 minute show.¬† This certainly gave the show an edge, which nearly backfired when some of Frankie’s vocals didn’t quite match what was in our parts causing a collective mild panic in the band, thankfully invisible and inaudible to the audience.¬†¬†So much for¬†sight reading!¬† The clip below made me smile, as Frankie used exactly the same introductory spiel when I played for him – memories!


Bobby Rydell

The biggest show of the week came courtesy of 50s and 60s teen idol Bobby Rydell.¬† By ‘Big’ I mean that the band was significantly augmented for this show.¬† As well as usual¬†the 7 of us, we also had 4 extra horn players (2 trumpets, 2 saxes) on board with us all week who had been drafted in just to play for this show.¬† These guys were all Florida session players who regularly played for the Disney shows and Kool & the Gang amongst others and we had great time getting to know them throughout the week.

Like Frankie, Bobby didn’t like rehearsals either.¬† However this time Bobby’s MD and drummer, David¬†(our drummer, Alain, got the night off) drilled us extremely¬†thoroughly earlier in the day.¬† I’m pretty sure it’s David directing the band from ¬†behind the drums in the clip below.


All the clips I have chosen for this post are taken from the round about the time I performed with the artists concerned, so it really is how I remember them, even down to the musical arrangements used.  There are plenty of clips from the 50s and 60s available too if you are interested.


Anyway, the upshot of the rehearsal was that the first time I actually saw or¬†heard Bobby Rydell was when he walked on to the stage for the first performance.¬† It really was a fabulous show, particularly with our magnificent 7 piece horn section – and all the stops and starts that David had meticulously rehearsed all made perfect sense when seen alongside Bobby’s stage banter.

One challenge did rear its head to me for the first time that evening.  It was first time I had experienced some choppy seas during a performance.  Normally the band all sat at the back of the stage in a purpose built bandstand.  For this performance with the extra players, we all stood out front.  As the ship swayed back and forth I did find myself having to concentrate rather hard on trying to stay balanced.  With nothing to hold onto I gripped my trombone somewhat tighter than usual Рliterally hanging on for dear life!

I never got the chance to chat to Bobby Rydell sadly, so I never got the chance to ask him the big question that had been on my mind the whole week.¬† Was the school, “Rydell High” in the film musical “Grease” named after him?¬† The music style fitted.¬† He was friends with Frankie Avalon who plays a memorable cameo in the movie.¬† It all seems too much of a coincidence…

Well, I’ve just checked Wikipedia, and it says the school is named after Bobby… so it must be true!



Gig Guide

2 coming up in the next week.¬† The first is the Cheshire Sinfonia at St Michael’s Church, Bramhall, 7 30pm Saturday 21 February.¬† I always enjoy playing the interesting and slightly unusual programmes which this band like to play and this one is no exception.¬† The 2 pieces I am in are definitely worth a listen, 2 less performed works by Elgar (Froissart- my part has a quote from Keats at the top of the page “When chivalry lifted up her lance on high” -pretty much sums up the piece) and Dvorak (his 6th Symphony).¬† The real interest in the concert for me comes in the piece I am not playing in, a piece from one of my all time favourite composers Benjamin Britten –¬†his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.¬† Please do note the comma,¬†a serenade for tenor horn and strings would be an altogether different¬†piece…

Secondly, my funk band Lostock (check my Uptown Funk/ Urmston Funk post) are playing at the world famous Night And Day Café on Tuesday 24 February, 9pm.  Be there!







The Power of Three



Ok:¬†so those of you who reached the end of last week’s blog will¬†know that this week’s random theme is a list of¬† the greatest 3rd Symphonies.¬†¬†If you’re new to the world of classical music and want to find out more, it’s as good a jumping off point as any other.¬†¬†¬†Why 3rd symphonies?¬† Well no real¬†reason at all, but it just so ¬†happens¬†that¬†3 different things inspired me towards this subject –¬†such is the power of three..

Reason To Make¬†a List of Reasons to Write About Third Symphonies Number 1:¬†¬† Everyone loves a list.¬†¬†The internet in particular loves a list, so it seemed only appropriate that this blog should join in on the online world’s mania for list-making.

Reason To Make a¬†List of Reasons to¬†Write About Third Symphonies Number 2:¬† ¬†The prestigious and popular music blog written by¬†top conductor and friend, Ken Woods, also likes a list occasionally.¬† A recent post of his¬†on the seemingly arbitrary subject, The Greatest Symphonies in the Key of D minor, caught my eye.¬† Ken’s blog posts show real passion, insight and an in-depth knowledge of his topic as well as plenty of humour.¬†No one seems to have picked up on the cheeky Spinal Tap reference in this post:

If Ken’s essays come from a position of knowledge and insight, this blog is more of a pub conversation.¬†A few ‘facts’ tossed about, not too much emotional engagement, some crisps (top ten crisp flavours anyone?)¬† Well, it would be if blokes sat around in pubs discussing favourite symphonies instead of the Premiership. Err,¬†that’s football –¬†right?

Reason To Make a¬†List of Reasons to¬†Write About Third Symphonies Number 3:¬†My wife’s concert this weekend with the Manchester Beethoven Orchestra. They are playing a pair of great 3rd symphonies by Sibelius and Brahms.¬† Now, Sibelius is a composer who can do no wrong in my eyes so I can heartily recommend that one.¬† Brahms, I tend to admire as a ¬†composer rather than love, but there is certainly much to enjoy in this lyrical work.

But, if you decide that 3rd symphonies is your thing, what else is out there?¬† Below, a list of popular choices, a couple of more obscure offerings that deserve, in my opinion,¬†to be¬†more well¬†known, and also a couple of outings by composers that usually do much better….

So here goes:

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony “The Eroica”

This is one of the all time greats of the classical repertoire, a game changer when it came to symphonic writing, etc etc – and I’m a little embarrassed to say I find it a little bit long and boring….except for that cool bit with the french horns in the scherzo, obviously.¬† But what do I know – this is my list and we’re all free to make up our own minds.¬† What I do love is the history and background¬†surrounding some pieces of music.¬† For instance, the photograph at the top of this post is the title page of the manuscript score of the Eroica.¬† That hole in the paper is where Beethoven has vigorously tried to rub out his dedication to Napoleon following his disgust at him declaring himself Emperor. Pretty cool huh?

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony

Now this is more like it.¬† Mahler generally wrote extremely long symphonies, often concerned with fun topics like death, the inexorable march of fate, life’s profound mysteries – that sort of thing.¬† An oft repeated quote of Mahler’s is that the symphony should be like the world and this is certainly the case with the 3rd.¬† He pretty much throws the kitchen sink at this piece.¬† But unlike some of his works, this is really quite lighthearted and optimistic.¬† And funny.¬† If orchestras aren’t playing it¬†vulgar, they aren’t playing it right.¬† I reckon it’s really quite an easy listen, and not a bad piece to try if you find the world of the symphony a little daunting.¬† It is, however, very long….

Extremely long…

Not as long as the first act of an average Wagner opera, mind you.

Or a Peter Jackson film.



Vaughan Williams’ 3rd Symphony –¬†“A Pastoral Symphony”

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of those composers who manages to be simultaneously both under- and over-rated.¬† A number of his pieces always tend to appear near the top of the Classic FM favourites chart, but there has been a tendency in the past for some¬†critics to dismiss his music as¬†all a bit landscapey, picture postcardy – famously quoted as ¬†the musical equivalent of “a cow looking over a gate”.¬† This is blatantly untrue if you start to listen to his prodigious output of symphonies, concertos, operas and choral works.¬† However a little background does help with regards to the interpretation of the Pastoral to help banish the memory of the aforementioned cow.¬† Now, there’s nothing wrong with the view that a piece of music should be it’s own thing and be able stand up on it’s own without explanation.¬† After all, music doesn’t tell a story in any real sense.¬† It is just¬†a bunch of notes on a page, instructions for musicians to make sounds – an abstract art- form.¬† But, as with the Mahler above, an understanding of the background and intentions of the composer can provide a significant “in” to this¬†somewhat impenetrable art form.¬† Many people will happily purchase and listen to a modern film soundtrack, often consisting of atonal and dissonant musical techniques but will baulk at the idea of listening to contemporary “difficult”¬†music.¬† So, in a similar way, once we understand that Vaughan Williams was inspired, not by the English countryside, but the fields of Normandy and the¬†graves of WW1 soldiers¬†left behind, this charming melodic music takes on a much deeper significance.

Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Symphony

Rachmaninoff is another of those composers¬†who “serious” musicians are a little suspicious of.¬† How can anyone who writes such memorable tunes actually be any good?!¬† The 2nd symphony is the one that gets performed the most, but in many ways this is the superior piece.¬† It’s shorter and edgier than it’s predecessor.¬† It still contains the romantic melodies we would expect, but just feels all together more spikey and modern.

Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony – “The Organ Symphony”

Probably the most well known of all the pieces on my list, particularly the wonderful climax when the organ kicks in.¬† This was famously used as the theme music for everyone’s favourite movie about a talking pig, “Babe”.¬† There’s much more to it than that famous climax though.¬† Symphonies by French composers are a somewhat rare occurance and it’s¬†wonderful¬† to feel the warm sensuality and joie de vivre associated with the country come through in this delightful piece.

babeA pig – yesterday.

Prokofiev’s 3rd Symphony

I probably liked this when I heard it.




Now a few more obscure choices which, to my mind, could certainly do with a revisit.


Scriabin’s 3rd Symphony – “The Divine Poem”

Why is so little of this composer’s output performed?¬† We should definitely be performing more Scriabin.¬† He might have been a bit of a fruitloop with a God complex who spouted lots of pretentious guff about the human spirit aspiring to divinity, but his music is gorgeous and epic.¬† And he’s out of copyright, so it’s not even too expensive a risk for orchestras to take!

Fun fact about Scriabin: he had Synesthesia (saw colours in response to different sounds) and he invented an instrument called a Colour Organ (sounds like the name of a sex toy) so everyone else could see what he saw.

Less fun fact about Scriabin: he died at the age of 43 after a sore on his top lip went septic.¬† Thank Fleming for antibiotics….

Bax’s 3rd Symphony

I like Bax.¬† He’s got a great name. Not many composers out there with 3 letter names (Cui?)¬† We should definitely be performing more Bax.¬† He writes lovely lovely music.

If I’m honest, I would struggle to tell one of his¬†symphonies from another.

Or remember any of the tunes.

Or really be able to tell if it was Bax at all.

But it really is lovely lovely music!

Honegger’s 3rd Symphony “Symphonie Liturgique”

Honegger is generally known for his light hearted witty pieces¬†and his association with¬†the collective of ¬†Paris-based composers known as ‘Les Six’, but he was also a prolific symphonist.¬† La Liturgique is influenced by¬†the 2nd World War and is a chilling depiction of¬†the horrors of mechanized warfare.


Finally, a couple of composers whose 3rd symphonies aren’t quite up to their usual standards…


Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Symphony

Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve only heard this once on the radio and I’m afraid, to my ears, it seemed a bit meandering and repetitive, with none of the usual melodic invention or passion that you would usually expect from the Russian master.¬† It has to be said that all of Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies are regular visitors to the concert hall, so it seems that even geniuses have the occasional off day…

Shostakovitch’s 3rd Symphony “The First of May”

In terms of structure, it’s hard to say if this really should be called a symphony at all.¬† It feels more like a sort of experimental tone poem with a choir singing a revolutionary anthem tacked on at the end.¬† It’s not¬†a particularly satisfying listen.


The symphonies of Shostakovitch (15 of them) provide an intriguing backdrop to the turbulent history of the USSR over the entire twentieth century, from Shostakovitch as a young idealistic communist, through the horrors of the Stalin years, the War and finally, reflection on the Soviet Union’s place in history.¬† In this respect even Shostakovitch’s lesser works deserve our attention.¬† As with my discussion of the Vaughan Williams symphony above, a lot of these works are phenomenal listens in their own right.¬† With an understanding of the environment in which they were written, they’re mindblowing.

Listen to them all.


Gig Guide

I’m playing for the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra next Saturday 14th February.¬† I talked a little about the programme in the last blog which includes Rimsky Korsakov’s Easter Festival Overture and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’s (or The South Bank Show for those of a certain age).¬† In rehearsals, though, the real revelation has been learning Rachmaninoff’s 1st symphony.¬† It’s another of those pieces that’s very rarely done, but unjustly so.¬† Apparently it had an awful first performance (due to a¬†drunk conductor)¬†and was¬† lost when Rachmaninoff got out of Russia.¬† It was then reconstructed from rediscovered parts after his death and in many ways is a more sophisticated work than his later efforts.¬† Well worth a listen!

The Trombone – ‘Too Sacred for Frequent Use’

trombone angel

Phew – It’s snowy isn’t it…

So with last weeks blog post, I tossed a tiny pebble into the ocean that is the internet and somehow ended up with¬†800 or so views – such is the power of the Queen/Adam Lambert fanbase.¬† Somehow, I imagine, this week’s blog on the role the trombone plays in the nineteenth century symphony orchestra may be somewhat less popular… But playing trombone in a symphony orchestra is what I do an awful lot of, so I thought I’d waffle on a bit about¬†it.

I’m halfway through rehearsals for the next concert with the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra, an all Russian programme.¬†And the orchestra is sounding uncommonly good.¬†Perhaps there’s something about this fiery dramatic writing style – wearing it’s geographical origins, one foot in the enlightened cities of central Europe, the other in the mystical exoticism of central Asia and beyond on¬†it’s sleeve – ¬†that suits the temperaments and playing styles of the amateur musicians of North Cheshire.¬† Or perhaps, says he a little cheekily, it’s because the programme is a particularly busy one for Wilmslow symphony’s extremely fine trombone section…

As the title¬†of this week’s essay suggests, the trombonist is one of the few members of the symphony orchestra that spends more time with the instrument on the stand than actually playing any notes, and there are solid historical reasons for this.¬† Whilst I’m inclined to think that¬†the quote about being “too sacred for frequent use” was probably said by some oversensitive conductor who didn’t want this (let’s face it) frankly noisy and cumbersome instrument getting in the way of some intricate and delicate string playing, the phrase has actually been attributed to the great German composer, Felix Mendelssohn.¬† Beethoven himself described the trombone as ‘the voice of God’, and, well¬†quite frankly he’s right!¬† But in all seriousness, before it’s relatively late inclusion into the symphony orchestra, this remarkably ancient instrument (the basic design has remained unchanged for over 500 years) was found primarily in the church. They were often used to accompany the choir.¬† Different sizes of trombone would play the alto, tenor and bass lines allowing the singers to listen and sing along to their individual parts.¬† The tone of the trombone provided a sonorous solemnity to the proceedings and thus composers outside the church reserved the trombone for similar moments of religious fervor¬†or unearthly weirdness. Therefore, you have Mozart reserving the use of the trombone in his opera ‘The Magic Flute’ for moments of masonic mysticsm.¬† Beethoven, in what is often said to be the first use of trombones in a symphony, reserves them for the final movement of his 5th Symphony. The final movement is to all intents a triumphant choral anthem¬†emerging from the¬†darkness of the previous movements. When¬†the trombones join in, they¬†basically represent the missing choir.

It has to be said that composers’ use of the trombone’s godly qualities has tended to fall down on the side of Particularly Angry Thunderbolt Flinging Deity, so we do spend a lot of time representing death and hell and doom.¬† In Mozart’s greatest opera, Don Giovanni, he¬†reserves the trombones for two short moments when the murdered Commendatore returns from the depths of hell to haunt the Don.¬† They’re great moments, but there’s awful lot of sitting around in the orchestra pit waiting for them to come.

There’s one bit of doom laden music that comes up time and time again for us at the back of the orchestra.¬† Composers can’t get enough of a little bit of¬†13th century Gregorian Chant¬†from the Latin Mass for the dead, called¬†the ‘DIES IRAE’ (pronounced dee-ez ear-ah)¬†or ‘Day of Wrath’.¬†Cheerful stuff. It sounds gloomy enough when it’s intoned by a bunch of monks, and it’s¬†frankly terrifying when tanked out by a bunch of trombones, tubas and church bells¬†as it is in the final¬†‘witches dance’ movement of Berlioz’s¬†Symphonie Fantastique, especially having followed immediately on from the equally cheerful ‘March to the Scaffold’.¬†¬† Over the years¬†the Dies Irae has¬†become a musical shorthand used by composers when they want to represent a general all gone tits up moment¬†– and it’s more often than not it’s the boys and girls at the back of the orchestra that get to play it.¬†¬† Notable examples include Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre; almost certainly some shit by Liszt;¬†Steven Sondheim’s trombone-heavy masterpiece Sweeney Todd (“swing your razor high Sweeeneee…”),¬†‘The Empire Strikes Back’¬†and a whole other¬†bunch of film scores including this notable example:



So, anyway – where does this all fit in¬† with the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra Russian programme?¬† Well, the first¬†number of the concert, Russian¬†Easter Festival Overture by Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov¬†is a piece made up almost entirely of tunes taken from Russian Orthodox liturgical chants.¬† Quite frankly, these plainsong melodies aren’t a great deal more cheerful sounding than the Dies Irae above.¬† In fact when the music appeared on the stand, the part didn’t look a whole lot different from the aforementioned Symphony Fantastique.¬† Makes you wonder what exactly how much celebrating was being done at these nineteenth century Easter funfests. ¬† Having said that, it’s a really fun piece of music!¬†So, religious subject matter? Tick!¬† Ancient, somber melodies? Tick!¬† It all adds up to a whole lot of trombone! Yay!

As for the other two pieces, well they’re both by another great Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninov.¬† As well as being a phenomenal pianist and writing some of the most compellingly beautiful tunes in the repertoire, Rachmaninov also happened to have a minor obsession with the Dies Irae.¬† It turns up in almost all of his major orchestral pieces, even the more light hearted ones, get a sneaky dies irae in there somewhere…played by, yup, that’s right….

So when is all this ecclesiastical solemnity happening?¬† Well, Valentine’s Day of course!¬† Now, aside from an oft quoted ‘hilarious’ gag about trombonists doing it in 7 positions, no one has ever described the trombone as the voice of love.¬† Aww….:) – picture credit


Gig Guide

A quick heads up this week for the Manchester Beethoven Orchestra concert, next Saturday 7th February in West Didsbury.

It is being guest led by my¬†lovely and talented¬†wife, Susan Harris and is a superb programme of pieces including the 3rd Symphonies of both Brahms and Sibelius –¬†2 phenomenal works, linked really only by the fact that they both have the words symphony and 3 in the title….

…which I think is probably a good enough random topic for¬†a blog. Everyone loves a list, especially on the internet, so – next time – best (and worst) 3rd Symphonies.¬† So, if you have your own favourite, let me know.¬† And if you don’t know any symphonies, go ahead and pick a 3rd one at random, it’s as good a way as any other to try something new…

Queen is Dead – Long Live Queen


A bit of a sideways glance for this week’s blog.¬† Whilst my intention with the blog is to highlight my experiences as a performer this week I’d like to chat a little about the gig I went to.¬† All time rock legends and national treasures, Queen brought their tour to Manchester this week and Susan and I were there in the¬†two hundred and thirteenth row. (Actually, our seats were pretty good, considering the size of the arena). I’m sure Queen really¬†need no introduction to anyone reading this blog (nor pretty much anyone else for that matter).¬† They are one of those curiously British¬† phenomena like James Bond, Doctor Who, pantomime,¬†Monty Python, the Beatles where a genre (action movies, science fiction, theatre,¬†rock n roll) is taken and subverted¬† to produce something unique and compelling¬†and – yes unmistakably British.¬† With Queen, a standard 70s rock band format and songs is twisted just enough to become a heady mix of operatic theatricality, cheeky sexuality and an endearing campiness whilst all the time ensuring a superb commitment to phenomenal songwriting, instrumental playing & singing.¬† Whilst humour and a knowing wink to the audience are often to the fore, without a doubt this a group of musicians to be taken extremely seriously.

I’ve been thinking back to my younger years and my first memories of the band – certainly I have very distinct recollection of their videos on Top of the Pops.¬† The video for I Want to Break Free particularly¬†was¬†an eye opener for a na√Įve 10 year old.¬† “Dragging up” – that great British panto tradition – was certainly nothing new, but Freddie Mercury’s take on it, even to my 10 year old eyes, suggested a sexual world extending beyond what school and home taught me!¬† That particular video was banned in United States – here in Britain we were, and still are, far more progressive and grown up about-¬†well- most things…

queen 2

It was at high school when I got further insight into the band, as one of my friends, Chris was a massive fan.¬† He introduced me to the albums, regaled me with little tidbits of info like the fact that Brian May built his guitar he always plays out of an old fireplace and some motorcycle springs; their rather luddite insistence on ‘no synthesisers’ on their records; controversies surrounding songwriting royalties; the Marx brothers etc.¬† So, Queen became a not insignificant part of my early teenage years (not as big a part as that other regally monikered rock artist, Prince, but that’s another story).

And then one Friday it was announced that Freddie was sick…and¬†by Sunday he was dead.

It was a big enough event in our lives for our school chaplain to talk about Freddie’s death in our next assembly.¬† I still remember how he started his address, with the pronouncement that is made in this country when a monarch dies -“The King is Dead – Long Live the King”.¬† And then – “Queen is dead – Long Live Queen”.¬† Of course, what he meant was that in the modern world of media culture, movies, records, music videos, an artist becomes truly immortal – the records and films made, to all intents and purposes mean that to an audience they never age or die.¬† And this would be the case with Queen.

But in Queen’s case there has been more.¬† Despite the loss of one of the most unique front men in the history of rock, Brian and Roger (and initially John before his retirement) have carried on recording and performing now for a longer time without Freddie than with him.¬† And despite a continuing roster of guest singers, the legacy of Freddie’s¬†performance¬†has not in any way felt diluted. Undoubtedly the best of these performers is their current singer, Adam Lambert.¬† On paper it sounds like a disaster.¬† An American?!¬† He’s less than half the age of the rest of the band!¬† He’s a reality tv show runnerup?!¬† But, arguably Adam is the finest male singer of his generation and its wonderful to see him get his teeth into a back catalogue of songs worthy of his skills.¬† This wasn’t a Freddie impersonation but¬†it was a stylish compelling performance that stood up in it’s own right and¬†was a worthy and touching tribute.¬† He really sold it.¬† And he can get round those songs, and believe me they are a hard sing.¬† In another life, in my student days at St Andrews University¬†I used to be part of a close harmony¬†group called the Hangovers – a great bunch of lads and really quite a good bunch of singers.¬† We used to sing at balls at parties in and around the town, a mixture of trad barbershop and arrangements of current pop tunes.¬† I’m not quite sure why, but I put myself forward to sing a couple of Queen numbers and I – Was – Awful!¬† The rest of the guys would gamely back me up as I, a skinny goofy teenager in a cheap bow tie and ill fitting¬†tux¬†would try¬†to get my voice round¬† Fat Bottomed Girls (of all things!)¬†with none of the swagger and style of the original.¬†¬† Here are the boys below looking young fresh faced and thin!


Anyway, for what it’s worth, finer performers than me have fallen foul of living up to the Mercury magic, but Adam knocked it out of the park – as did Roger and Brian – a special night. So on that note, Freddie, Brian, Roger, John, Adam – thank you and Long Live Queen!


Gig Guide A quick heads up for the very fine Northenden Players and their next play of the season, Agatha Christie’s The Hollow from 1 – 7 February, details at the link below: This is the directorial debut of my friend and musical writing collaborator Mr Ross Keeping (Musical, I hear you ask?¬† Have you written a show Richard?¬† Why, yes I have!¬† Check it out at – its available for performing!) – but I digress -Northenden Players always put on a highly entertaining, extremely high quality performance, and knowing the director and the cast as I do, this will be no different.¬† Get down there -the front of house folk are always really welcoming too!

Finally, a couple of dates for my ¬†Funk band, Lostock, talked about at length in my previous post – 24 Feb at Night & Day (if you put your name on the list in advance, you get reduced entry, no obligation, so drop me a message if your interested) and we’re back at the Blue Cat Caf√© on 27 March.¬† See you there!


Credit – photo

Uptown Funk/Urmston Funk

Lostock 1

So – this week I did something new. I wrote an application for a band to be considered as an act at a festival.¬† The band was the funk band I joined towards the end of last year, Lostock (named after the roundabout near where we rehearse – no I’m not wild about the name either) and the festival is the well regarded Manchester Jazz Festival.¬† I think our chances are pretty small, but I have a lot of affection for the MJF (check it out, 1st week in August, a really eclectic programme, and not expensive/a lot of gigs are free¬† ) so nothing ventured….

Anyway, for your amusement – the PR blurb I was asked to submit (the brief was no flowery language or clich√©s – oh well¬†…)

Featuring the songs and vocals of Phil Steele, this is straight up old school funk combined with Northern grit & humour, Lostock is the band Manchester has been waiting for. Lostock were formed last year by 8 experienced Northwest musicians drawn together by a love of funk and great live performance and they look forward to bringing their big band sound to the city and beyond.

Funk, has long been a style of music which I have loved to listen to so it has been a real source of excitement for me that I have finally been given the opportunity to play it with a group of musicians who understand the form and are serious about creating a well rehearsed quality product.¬† What is it about funk that appeals to me¬†so much?¬†If I may – an extremely brief and simplistic potted history of the form.¬† Funk basically originated in the US in the late 60s/early 70s when rock and soul musicians started hiring jazz musicians for their bands.¬† Most famously, the ‘godfather of soul’ James Brown was extremely exacting and restrictive with regards to what he allowed these musicians to do in performance.¬† Artists who followed ¬†such as Sly Stone and George Clinton were a lot freer and allowed these instrumentalists the flexibility and freedom to play their strengths.¬†(A small¬†aside – I was given the evil eye- from the stage to the balcony-¬†by¬†George¬†Clinton at a gig¬†in the Bridgewater Hall.¬†Terrifying.)george clinton

The result, is a type of music where the melodies and harmonies are extremely compelling in their simplicity whilst being played and embellished by the most virtuosic of playing.¬† It’s also extremely rhythmic, and because we’re listening to human beings producing these sounds rather than computers and drum machines, the result is something wonderfully organic, dirty and – well – funky!¬† There’s a fantastic documentary about the origin of funk¬†on BBC 4 which I’m sure you can find on iplayer if you want to¬†know more.

Anyway – it’s been a great learning experience for me, in particular, as a classically trained musician to be thrown into a world of no sheet music where everything is worked out and memorized in rehearsal by ear – particularly difficult in the horn section where¬†three of us¬†have to play¬† together sometimes extremely melodically angular and rhythmically exacting phrases. The reader versus non reader approach to music is an interesting one and probably worthy of it’s own blog post.¬† There is often very little crossover between the 2 types of¬†performer and, for what it’s worth I can see the pros and cons of both approaches.¬† Ultimately though, music is an aural artform and it’s never been easier, via the power of the web, to go out and listen to and try to copy the greatest performers in whatever your chosen medium is.

So – Lostock have been playing together for a number of months, we’ve performed in public a couple of times and are now in the process of sitting down and discussing seriously the direction we would like to take.

The first discussion we are having¬†concerns the types of gigs we would like to play.¬† It’s a fine line between putting ourselves forward for lots of gigs and, what should be an enjoyable activity, begins to turn into a bit of a chore;¬† too few, and the incentive to practice becomes less and our cohesiveness as a band is threatened.¬† For me, a musician who usually just ‘turns up and plays’ for gigs on a more or less freelance basis, being in a situation where performing relies on the whole band agreeing is a novel situation.¬† Anyway, the general consensus from the band is that we believe that we have a quality product to offer so we intend to ‘aim high’ – hence the jazz festival application, amongst others.¬† Obviously we’re not in a position to turn down gigs until we’re offered (!) but I look forward to keeping you posted on our progress.

The second discussion concerns the thorny subject of¬†‘cover versions’.¬† The band, as it stands, is essentially a vehicle for our singer and guitarist, Phil Steele’s own songs.¬† He seems to have an endless capacity for turning up week in, week out with another batch of catchy riffs, melodies and lyrics and we all¬†enjoy the process of turning them into (hopefully) slick performances.¬† However we do understand that audiences do like to hear something they know, so the occasional well known number is always welcomed warmly.

We do a couple already, including a funky take on pop diva and friend of the band, Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’.¬†¬† Check out¬†our live version below:

We have great fun with that one, as we do with our other cover, Starsky & Hutch, but the burning question (you should see the emails going back & forth) is what next?¬† Of course, we would¬†all dearly love to do one of our favourite funk heroes’ numbers- something by¬†¬†Parliament, Tower of Power or Steely Dan – but if no one in our 2015 Manchester audience recognises it, it kind of defeats the purpose as laid out above.¬† (and if you haven’t heard any of the above bands, may I suggest you head over to youtube after you’ve finished reading this to further your musical education and have your mind blown ūüėČ )

So where does that leave us?¬† I’m inclined to go with something extremely current and ontrend – Ed Sheeran anyone? (yes I know… but I’m always grudgingly truly blown away by his performances!)¬† “All About That Bass” (no treble) has also¬†been mentioned (yes I know…but you’d be all¬†singin’ along wouldn’t you!) Anyway – over to you – all suggestions gratefully received!

If current and on trend is the way forward then it has to be said, funk is where it’s at – yes funk has returned to the top of the charts with a vengeance.¬† (That’s right¬†kids, the hit parade. Cast your minds back to those heady days¬†when you used to listen religiously every Sunday, taping your favourites).¬† If you haven’t heard Uptown Funk (definitely funk- it’s in the title) from Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars check out the Michael Jackson inspired video below.¬† It’s hilarious and brilliant (I’m particularly amused by the appearance of Mark Ronson in the back of every shot looking a bit goofy… look below, there he is¬† grimacing at the ¬†back on the left…)

So, perhaps we’ve found our cover – could Uptown Funk become Urmston Funk?¬† Could we really be that funky?¬†¬† Whatever the outcome, you can be¬†sure that we’ll be doing our utmost in helping to¬†fly the flag for ¬†the funk revolution up here in our little corner of Manchester. Watch this space!


Gig Guide

Okay, if this blog goes to plan I intend to put out a post roughly weekly.¬† I also intend to give you news of any upcoming gigs myself and my friends are involved with which I think may be of interest.¬† Also please feel free to let me know about anything you would me to bring up.¬† If you’d like to write a blog entry, even better.¬† Anyway, first up I’d like to bring to your attention a chamber orchestra¬†gig this Saturday evening (17 January)¬†in Cheadle Hulme.¬† Musica Nova are a ¬†great little orchestra, led by my friend Jem Bradley, who are known for their high quality performances and a convivial informal atmosphere at their concerts.¬† This Saturday’s programme features the harp playing of Alex Scott Young in some really interesting pieces.¬† Some such as Vaughan Williams’ Dives and Lazurus and his take on Greensleeves will be familiar, others such as Debussy’s Danses Sacree et Profane, less so.¬† All, in all, an orchestra and programme worth checking out.¬†Details below:

Till next time…




Happy New Year! – made any resolutions then?

Well – A good day and a happy new year, 2015 to all of you who have stumbled across this page… and welcome to the very first post of my brand new blog!¬† I find myself staring at a blank computer screen after, on a whim, deciding to register my name as a domain, downloading some blogging software, and typing in the rather wordy title ‘Thoughts and musings of an amateur Manchester musician’ (might change that later when I come up with a better one…)

Needless to say, that title pretty much sums up what I’d like to blog about.¬† I’m just about to turn 41 and it occurred to me that I’ve pretty much spent over 30 of those years involved in music making of some form or another.¬† Like countless others, including, I hope, some of the readers of these articles, I’m not talking about a mere hobby or relaxation.¬† No, as many of you will entirely understand, this is an all encompassing lifestyle which truly colours your day to day existence.¬† No, we can’t go on holiday that week,¬†I’ve got an opportunity to play¬†Mahler’s 3rd Symphony…¬†Sorry, can’t come to your wedding, there’s been a gig in my diary on that date for the last twelve months…¬† I’m still a little disappointed that me and my wife’s trip of a lifetime to Australia coincided with my friend’s theatre group’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’… and it was even a bit of a consideration about whether we would start a family.¬† Who’s going to babysit when we both have a gig on the same day?¬† (Susan’s a very fine violinist – out at a rehearsal as I type). (We did have a baby by the way, he’s called Eddie, he’s one now and pretty fab – here’s a picture of him playing piano duets…Eddie piano

So, the plan is to try and put pen to paper and come up with a few thoughts about my musical life, past, present & future, hopefully a few interesting anecdotes, some words about the projects I am involved in currently… snippets of minutia that come to mind that I think might be worth sharing.¬† And hopefully I’ll get to hear the same from you!¬† So many of you are involved in exciting projects – concerts, gigs, recordings,¬†theatre productions.¬†¬† Lets make this a place where we can share our excitement!¬† What are you involved in now?¬† Let’s hear about it.¬† Going to a concert, gig or whatever is great but I love hearing about the journey to that finished product, the behind the scenes toil, the craft and art behind it.¬† That’s what I intend to write about and I’d love to hear the same from you too.

I realise that, if¬†you are¬†reading this at all, chances are you already know me and probably already have an idea about the sort of music I’m involved in.¬† But- in case you have just¬†stumbled across this – a little bit of background.

My musical life is and has been pretty eclectic and has involved a bit of singing, piano playing, composing, conducting and mainly (as can be seen from the dubious photo of me in a hat, probably to the left of this article) trombone playing.¬†¬†The eclecticism also extends to the types of music I have been involved with, ranging from classical through jazz, swing, opera, music theatre, light music, pop & rock.¬†I’ve always been particularly interested in the way that musicians schooled and trained in these different styles differ in the way they work and have enjoyed learning from them – so hopefully I’ll be able to talk about that a little too.

Currently I’m playing in a number of local symphony orchestras, a swing band and a funk band and I look forward to¬†writing more about them all in due course.¬† I am also on course to finish writing a short opera which I hope I’ll be able to find people to sing/play through later in the year (there – I’ve¬†said I’ll finish it in black & white now….my librettist will be happy).

And then there’s this blog, a chance to tie it all together and spread a bit of¬†positivity and excitement about this lifestyle that has been chosen for us.

And that’s my resolution.¬† Would be lovely to have you along for the ride!