Saturday, December 30, 2017

beginning to see some improvement

While Brexit, the Trumpocalypse, and other disasters were unfolding, I had a surprisingly good year, so much so that I looked at the short biography on my website earlier this month and realised it needed a major overhaul (done now), as so many exciting things happened this year. While the writing business continued as normal (but no new books to brag about) and the children are have also finished growing up, the surprising new developments of 2017 were mostly of the musical sort.

Maybe it all started when I attended Lydia Kavina’s theremin workshop in November 2016 – once you realise that you can play tunes by waving your hands around in thin air, anything becomes possible. Seriously though, it helped me to trust my unconscious mind, which appears to be a better musician than the conscious one.

With just a short introduction into the basics of the technique, I found I was able to play arpeggios and then tunes. Although the idea was that the teacher played the notes on the piano and the student was to find them on the theremin, I knew both the tunes she played and I realised that when I thought of the next note in my head the hand would do the correct move automatically.

With that in mind, and in preparation for further theremin adventures (and considering that I don't have a proper theremin yet), I picked up the family cello to learn some more interesting pieces, starting with The Swan. To my own surprise, I managed to learn the piece without getting arrested by the animal protection police, so I’m now expanding my cello repertoire, have recently joined an orchestra with the cello (also inspired by John Holt's memoir Never too late), and I’m signing up for the next theremin workshop. Meanwhile, my flute repertoire, supported by half-hour lessons twice a month, is also growing very slowly. I’ve started to mark progress with a still life photo for every piece.

In the very busy Oxford folk scene, I have continued attending many of the regular sessions that I had joined with the young musician during her gap year (2015/16). This was lesson 1 in “Trusting the Unconscious” – if I think about what I’m doing (or sight-read, or recall a tune from memory) I am already three bars behind, but if I just go with the flow, it works much better.

In March I played flute and about three bars worth of guitar in the very lovely Misa Campesina Nicaraguense, which is performed annually in celebration of Oxford’s partnership with León, Nicaragua. Preparations for the Misa Campesina 2018 are underway.

Shortly after the Oxford Folk Weekend, where I played in various sessions for something like 18 hours in three days, we had a special Galician session with Galician bagpiper Carlos Núñez, who is an amazing musician and a huge star in celtic folk and happened to be on holidays in the UK. Which was absolutely magical.

Folk Weekend Oxford 2017, taken by the official photographer.

After the June edition of the Galician session – which has always been my favourite one of the (at least) 10 different folk sessions I have joined or tried out since August 2015 – one of our pandeireteiras (tambourine players/singers) asked me if I was going to run the sessions after Mano’s departure, which was in fact the first time I heard that he was about to leave Oxford. And it was the last of his sessions I could attend, as he moved his final one to mid July, to a date when I was abroad. (Yes I do plan my travel around the Galician sessions and I do get mad when people move them!)

I reckoned that even without Mano’s musical genius and multiple bagpipes, we still had the unique combination of our very enthusiastic and talented Galician pandeireteiras, some seriously good international instrumentalists who can play the tunes much better than I can, and a faithful audience provided by the Intercambio Spanish language meetup, which routinely publicises the sessions as the Galician Music Night. And I reckoned it would be foolish not to do something with these assets.

So, without wanting to claim any musical merit, I agreed to take on the admin and make sure that some of the more experienced folkies would be at hand to keep the tunes flowing more smoothly than I might play them if I was left to my own devices. We had a small session with a core cast at the end of July, but numbers perked up in the following months, as London gaitero David Carril joined us on a regular basis, and after I got hold of the mailing list and set up the facebook group and WordPress blog to make sure that at least the information flows freely.

Simultaneously, our pandeireteiras carried on with their weekly tambourine classes, and we had a few lovely special events, including the Magosto (chestnut party, organised by the Galician Studies Centre), an excursion to David’s third session at London, and a special xmas session.

Oh, and the Galician Studies Centre has also spoilt us with cultural goodies this year. We had the UK premiere of the opera O arame, and the first screening in a new series of Galician movies. All of which is also a welcome opportunity for me to finally get to grips with the Galician language, building on the 2 terms course I attended in early 2016. If you know Spanish, it isn’t all that difficult. It’s essentially the same internal structure with a different set of decorations on the outside. Possibly even easier if you know Portuguese, but I don’t. A native speaker told me it’s just like Portuguese only with lots of xs. And knowing the language also makes it easier to join in the songs we sing at the sessions. So it’s all connected.

Watch this space for more linguistic and musical excitement happening in the new year, everything is possible! A back of the envelope calculation revealed I may have passed those magical 10,000 hours of practice some time in this crazy year, and sure enough, as Pablo Casals famously said (when asked why he still practiced the cello every day in his 90s), “I’m beginning to see some improvement.”

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