Music Technology and the Lazy Button

Music technology dominates the charts, the radio, the performing musician and the college and higher education circuit. Over the last six months I’ve used music technology every day in my composing and education work and I’ve been to a lot of of gigs including The 1975, Stevie Wonder and Lukas Graham, all using technology in unique and different ways to create great music and an all-round experience. Technology is such an intrinsic part of music these days that it can generally be assumed that the two go hand in hand.

I recently read a definition of music technology from an educational establishment as “any technology, such as a computer, an effects unit or a piece of software, that is used by a musician to help make music, especially the use of electronic devices and computer software to facilitate playback, recording, composition, storage, mixing, analysis, editing, and performance” (M:Tech). This, for me, is a decent, thorough definition of the music technology of 2016 that works well in its intended context, but I would argue that it runs the danger of losing a longer-term view and chronology. Music technology has been developing since the first bird bone flute and has always had a direct influence on the composition and production of the music itself.

To explore this further, I will briefly examine three early instruments and the means through which they produce sound.

The Tabor – An early drum instrument played almost exclusively alongside a pipe in the 12th to 15th centuries. The tabor has a cylindrical shell with two heads covered with animal skin and tightened by rope. These were widely available throughout western Europe in various forms, and most effectively played suspended from a string rather than on a stand due to their thin shell.

The Lyre – A harp like instrument originating in Ancient Greece. Variations of the lyre include  four, seven and ten string versions played with fingers or a pick and capable of chromatic or enharmonic tunings. The vibration of the strings, as with any string instrument, relative to their length affects the pitch and timbre of the resulting note.

The Organ – An instrument that produces sound by pumping air through pipes triggered by a keyboard (manual) and pedal board. Each pipe produces a single pitch and registration, with each set divided into a rank. The earliest example can be traced back to the water organ in Ancient Greece in 3BC with serious development continuing until this day. A fully specified organ may have five manuals with 20,000 pipes. Different stops (registrations controlling one rank of pipes) are pitched at 8’ (concert pitch), 4’ (one octave higher), 16’ (one octave lower) or in various mutations at different intervals and combinations. This allows a huge range of timbres and variety of sound.

Here are three early instruments that can be placed in three distinct categories: Percussion, String and Keyboard/Wind. All three work on the same principle that every acoustic sound producing device requires:

  1. A source of vibration
  2. A vibrating force
  3. A resonating chamber

Over time, each of these instruments has developed into new instruments many moons away from the original concept. I, personally, view each of these instruments as an example of music technology. The technology and knowledge of the time was used to produce a device that was able to aid the production of music, no matter how simple or complicated it may be. The music of Tallis, Purcell, Handel through to Beethoven and Wagner was influenced through the musical forces and technology available.

It is not only composers, but also performers that have used the most recent technology and pushed it, and the music produced through it, to its limit. J.S.Bach was a consultant to the German organ builder, Arp Schnitger. 19th century clarinettist, Manuel Gómez, championed the new Boehm system of the time. The  Wagner tuba was developed in close collaboration between Richard Wagner, Hans Richter (performer) and C.W.Moritz (instrument manufacturers).

Let us now move forward to the twenty and twenty-first centuries and explore more current examples of music technology.

Moog Mother 32 – The recently released Moog Mother-32 synthesiser draws on the original Moog Modular (originally designed in 1965). The modular concept involves a series of modules that can be added or removed to compile whatever signal chain is desired. Modules include oscillators to produce the soundwaves, modulators to add movement to these soundwaves, filters to take out particular frequencies, equalisers and effects to further shape the  sound waves. There is no way for me not to compare the technology of a synthesiser to that of the traditional pipe organ. Sounds and harmonics are combined to produce resonances – LFOs on a synth provide the tremulant on an organ, and combinations of synth modules mimic the routing of couplers on an organ.

The Reactable – Bjork’s Reactable is a tabletop electronic instrument designed with the Music Technology Group at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. By placing objects on the backlit display a synthesiser is triggered. Different objects (tangibles) affect which part of the synthesiser is triggered (oscillator, arpeggiator, filter..) sending messages to a computer to affect the output. An ipad app of The Reactable is also available.

Manson MB-2 SE Electric Guitar – An aluminium covered electric guitar with a hand-held effects unit (Korg KAOSS Pad), MIDI controller and laser beams built in. Designed in collaboration with Matt Bellamy of Muse and luthier, Henry Manson, and electronics engineer, Ron Joyce, in Exeter.

Here we have examples of three cutting edge instruments, just as the original three would have been at the time of their original existence. The invention of electricity has been a  crucial factor in the the development of music technology. I think it is important, however, not to be fooled into thinking that new technology is always a replacement for earlier versions of the machines. We have had vinyl, tape, CD, DAT, DVD and now the majority of music playback has moved to computer files. This is a natural development but there is, even at this moment, a strong interest in earlier playback methods, with vinyl having a particular renaissance.

Key names that are often quoted in the development of music technology include Luigi Russolo, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich and Vangelis. These are, of course, key figures in the advancement of music technology based music and composition. They each explored how sound could be taken away from the realm of conventional instrumentation to produce new and innovative sound and music.

Leon Theremin, Maurice Martenot, Robert Moog are key players in the development of the synthesiser but they did not emerge out of thin air. They drew on hundreds, if not thousands, of years of instruments and music that had come before them. Remember, if the music wasn’t being developed alongside the technology, there would be no use for the new technology itself.

So, to revisit the earlier definition of music technology, the definition places technology as being highly reliant on electronics and computers. Technology did not suddenly start with the invention of electricity though. The horse-drawn combine is as much technology as the modern day combine harvester. How is this any different then with the bellow organ and the electronic synthesizer? The tabor, the drum kit and the drum pad?

As a composer, I am constantly reminded of the importance of using the equipment most suitable for the task and most pleasing to the ear. Music technology has always existed to help realise musical intentions but, perhaps, the one key difference is that early music technology did not do our homework for us. The performer would have to learn the theory, the technique and the art of practice. Modern music technology often presents us with the ability to get a lot out without putting much in, meaning that we have to work harder than ever to sound different and find our own musical voice. The technology may have these features, but it is the learning of both “music” and “technology” as separate entities and bringing them together and pushing their limitations that will produce the most interesting music.

Relevant Listening

  • Ancient Lyre Albums – Michael Levy
  • Organ Works – J.S.Bach
  • Hyperprism – Varese (1923)
  • Mikrophonie – Stockhausen (1964/5)
  • Petsounds – Beach Boys (1966)
  • Switched on Bach – Wendy Carlos (1968)
  • Emerson, Lake and Palmer – Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1970)
  • Pictures at an Exhibition (Live) – Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1971)
  • Bladerunner – Vangelis (1982)
  • A Smile is a Curve that Straightens Most Things – Bass Clef (2006)
  • Volta  – Bjork (2007)
  • Interstellar Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer (2014)
  • Drones – Muse (2015)

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The Two Masks of a Modern Day Film Composer

This year I have become very aware of the number of  current film scores that are now heavily weighted towards sound design – the drums and distorted guitars of Mad Max, the rumbles and crashes of Sicario and the eerie atmospheres of Gravity. I love each of these scores and appreciate their effectiveness as an element of the entire film. They also very much reinforce the 1950’s director, Arthur Lubin’s observation that “The key to a good score is finding a function for the score that is not being filled by any other element on the picture”.

I have also been enjoying re-visiting the music of composers like John Williams, John Barry and Ron Goodwin on CD as I embark on countless motorway journeys. These tend to be concert works compiled from themes so tend to work very well as pieces in their own right. This is not always the case with film music and neither should it need to be. It is no indication of the success of a score. It is, however, something that I consider interesting l to explore and consider though, both from the position of a composer and a viewer/listener.

If we take a set of established composers and create an overview of their work, we end up with terms like “Williams-esque” or “Hermann-esque”. This is the nature of classification and historical collection, and all composers from Bach to Beethoven to Schoenberg experience this. I understand why this is done but we shouldn’t let it undervalue or pigeon-hole the diversity and skill of these composers. Along with Williams’ Indiana Jones and Star Wars scores, we have his 1970 score for Images – far more avant garde and spectral than we would usually associate with his music. Along with Bernard Hermann’s Physco score we have his Taxi Driver jazz-based score; Takemitsu’s Empire of Passion along with his Black Rain score. Of course, over time these composers establish their own general voice, a huge achievement in itself, and for this reason they are hand-picked by directors, but each of these composers still makes an informed decision about how to approach each score on a project by project basis.

One current composer that I feel is doing a very good job at avoiding the danger of becoming pigeon-holed is Jóhann Jóhannsson. His last two film scores, The Theory of Everything (2014) and Sicario (2015), could not be any more different. This, of course, also reflects the content of the films. The Theory of Everything covers a thirty year period of the live of Stephen Hawking. It covers his private life and health, his family life and his professional life. It draws on emotion from a number of perspectives and gently merges Hawking’s humour along with all that he is experiencing, adding a dimension of inspiration to the film. Sicario follows the Mexican cartel and the challenges that American government forces face in their task of tackling such an organisation – a land of lawlessness built on fear and brutality. Whilst there is an unspoken bond and connection between the American law enforcement team, this is not an open affection that can be displayed. Decisions, both moral and physical, have to be made on the spot and any lapse in timing or judgement will have immediate consequences.

Jóhannsson became involved with The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh) once the filming was complete and early into the edit. The first theme that he settled on was the four note theme, introduced right at the start of the film. From here on, the piano took dominance as an intrusumnet representing characters and subject. Piano and other keyboard instruments appear alongside an orchestra of forty strings, double winds and two horns. Such instrumentation lends itself to an incredibly warm texture that can really realise the potential of such simple, emotional motifs. Both the strings and keyboard instruments have huge ranges, and this score is orchestrated using very particular registers to provide particular effects. For example, high strings with high piano produce a thin, slightly vulnerable texture whilst sections focussing on middle range bring a very warm, secure bedding to the score.

The first theme that we hear in The Theory of Everything is introduced on the piano with a four note motif (D Eb F Bb). The motif is in 3/4 lasting for two bars (six beats), meaning if placed in 4/4 it comes around to land on the first beat of the bar every other time. This is a great rhythmic device in that when the string line enters in 4/4 it is very difficult to get a firm grip on the pulse. It is a light-hearted, youthful theme that goes well with the excitement of university life in the summer. This four note motif feeds into much of the score from here-on.

Themes over this four note motif (in very guises) are developed and orchestrated with a strong use of the different pitches. By the time we reach Domestic Pleasures and the Epilogue the music has moved to a lilting waltz with held high string lines above a lower, rich string melody. This idea is further developed melodically with counter melodies and scales played by the flutes and glockenspiel providing a diverse sound combination, whilst always keeping the melody at the focus.

Thory of Everything - Cambridge '63

There are strong elements of minimalism throughout this score. It tends to occur to the listener that themes are derived from earlier ideas, though it is often difficult to quite place one’s finger on where exactly they have come from. The mode may be altered, the order of the notes, the time signature or it may just be in a similar style. This, for me, is a great example of taking a few ideas and really expanding them to get the most out of the material in the name of supporting the picture and development.

Jóhannsson became involved with Sicario right from the beginning, even pre-shooting, having worked with director Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners in 2013. Villeneuve did not provide Jóhannsson with a temp track, instead favouring a discussion providing Jóhannsson with a blank slate from which to work (apart from the  specific guide of “subtle war music”).

The instrumentation throughout Sicario is extremely percussive with a 65 piece orchestra with an emphasis on tom-toms and military snares (with the snare off), and a large brass section focussing on the lower end of the register. Whilst there are contributions from solo singer, Robert Lowe, cellist, Hildur Guðnadóttir, and bass guitarist, Skúli Sverrisson these are rare, and only provide a break from the sheer relentlessness of the surrounding percussion and sound design. The score is, in the main, orchestral although unlike a traditional film score the orchestra was recorded in blocks to allow for more focussed sound manipulation post-recording. Sound designer, B.J. Nilsen, assisted with this. Whilst Jóhannsson mentions that there is melody involved in the score, he also admits that this is not particularly evident due the elongation of the themes and the textural manipulation surrounding it.

Jóhannsson uses two main rhythmic ideas throughout – one providing a war-like rhythm, almost from the underground (a pulsating, threatening motif), and the other providing the loneliness and solitude of the desert whilst  mirroring the difficult life and loneliness of the character, Alejandro. The rhythm and drive in Sicario is strongly dominant over any melodic content. The restlessness of the throbbing brass and hard hitting drums, is directly reflective, of the world that we are taken to. Even if there is no immediate violence, there is always this underlying threat banging away that dominates the Mexican life around the cartel.

“Armoured Vehicle” has a regular muffled drum rhythm with brass cluster chords growing and falling around it, often effected to the point of sounding like distorted guitars. The drums become more and less filtered throughout the piece, gradually adding slightly more movement, whilst the brass wrapping it together remains the same.

“Convoy” has a musical blanket of sound-design and eerie effects surrounding the regular drums. The orchestral parts have more movement than in “Armoured Vehichle”, this time with cello lines accompanying the war rhythm and brass tuttis often sounding like semi-improvised parts to create a particular sound around these lines. .

“Desert Music” isn’t full of the driving underground rhythms, and generally has no clear indication of a pulse. A lyrical cello line fits beneath the higher held strings in its own space. Over time the higher strings take begin to play the melodic lines, with recurring flute ostinati. Such cues provide a break from the pulsating music with some emotional input. We know that the emotion cannot last long, however, always returning to the daunting, uncomfortable drums, strings and brass.

The Theory of Everything and Sicario are films that cover two entirely different emotional worlds. The scores directly reflect this with the first being a much easier listen, taking the listener on a journey in its own right, and the latter being a much more difficult, especially when taken away from the picture. Each score responds directly and effectively to the picture and content. The Theory of Everything follows a man and his family through their lives and aims not to be set in one particular time. It underscores and mimics this journey, with the theme introduced at the start being used as the spark for much of the later material (the motif from the beginning re-appears in the lecture scene 35 years later where he imagines himself getting out of his wheelchair and picking up a pen). Sicario doesn’t allow this progression. There is un-ease throughout. There is un-certainty and although we glimpse quasi-emotional moments these never last, and come through with more of a sense of loneliness than anything else.

Composition and sound-design are a key part of modern day composition and are very much becoming increasingly blurred. Jóhann Jóhannsson demonstrates this perfectly with these two scores, and in doing so shows his versatility and that that is required of a modern day film composer.

Here Is the Sun (George Martin’s re-imagining)

A symphonic introduction, arpeggiated winds and romantic string lines building to a climatic pad behind an oboe and classical guitar dialogue. A cinematic swell with harp runs and brings the brass entry, before a diminuendo returns us to the lyrical statement of the melody from the cellos. The acknowledged Ravel-like arc then clears way for a clear melodic rendition of the uplifting music of George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun. A song of optimism and leaving troubles behind,  written during the recording of Abbey Road, draws on Harrison’s appreciation of nature and a day’s escape from the routine of life and business to Eric Clapton’s house in Ewhurst, Surrey. Clapton recalls the song being born in front of his eyes and ears as George Harrison just strummed away in his garden.

Here Comes the Sun is featured on George Martin’s 1998 farewell album, In My Life, in which he felt that the time had come to call it a day for his music career and re-visit some of the works for which he was best known from his days as the fifth member of The Beatles (a position often given to Brian Epstein or Stuart Sutcliffe, but very much acknowledged this last week as belonging to The Beatles’ long term producer, Sir George Martin). There are thousands of posts about the life of this amazing man, many of which have taught me a lot that I didn’t know about him, but the most interesting material for me this week, has been the ‘making of’ documentary of his retirement album. This documentary shows him as a producer in the truest sense of the word – working directly with artists (including some great footage of him and Robin Williams), writing arrangements and conducting the orchestra. A producer in the sense that is so often forgotten today.

Here Comes the Sun features John Williams on guitar alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded at Sir George’s studios, Air Lyndhurst. Williams humbly talks about the challenge for a classical performer in approaching a ‘pop’ song, although this particular song does draw on more than may be expected from the average pop tune. Irregular time signatures weave away alongside Indian influenced modal passages and repetition. George Martin drew on this repetition to produce his own theme and variation-like piece around George Harrison’s song.

Following the introduction and solo guitar passage, an orchestral tutti complete with timps leads us into a nimble feel with pizzicato strings and the oboes doubling the guitar melody before legato string lines compliment the quicker natural decay of the guitar. The guitar is doubled either in octaves or unison, at which point the guitar becomes a part of the orchestra and not a soloist (i.e. 2’08” for the “Sun, sun, sun” rundown).

John Williams is then able to start exploring more adventurous ornamentation as a soloist with the orchestra providing a solid bed. The range and technique of the guitar passages is carefully considered in relation to the instruments around it as is so well demonstrated in the documentary.

The final chorus is more homophonic with the brass lines moving directly with the guitar melody, making the descending chromatic clarinet passage at 3’00’ very effective, almost humorous, but without becoming too comical.

John Williams and the orchestras brilliant performance, combined with Sir George Martin’s production and arrangement skills, produce a very fresh take on this brilliant song and demonstrate the talent and creativity of such an amazing musician.

The Men Behind Motown

This Sunday I am running a workshop in which I was given the music of Motown to work with (please find details at the end). I initially thought that it was going to be very easy to choose songs with my Beatles’ obsession leading me straight to Please Mr Postman, You really got a hold on me and Money (That’s what I want). I’d settled on these before sitting down to listen to some Motown playlists – Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson – I soon realised that it was going to be impossible just to settle on these three songs alone. The problem was it also started to become impossible knowing what to pick as once I had settled on one, I then listened to the next and thought that that would be better.

I then came across the amazing BBC 4 documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, exploring the work and music of the original Motown backing band, The Funk Brothers. This film is based on the book of the same name by Ralph.J.Gleason, and the trailer begins by asking the question “What was the Motown Sound?”, the answer being the “musicians”. There is even a quote in the documentary saying that these musicians could have been given a middle of the road song and still made it sound alive and fresh. Thankfully, they also happened to be provided with great songs. The Funk Brothers played on more number 1 hits than The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Elvis – Stop in the Name of Love, Ain’t no mountain high enough, I heard it through the Grapevine, Reach out I’ll be there, My Girl, I was made to love her, Do you love me, the list goes on (and on and on…).

The “Funk Brothers” are generally considered to be the musicians from the Detroit era of Motown:

  • Joe Hunter and Earl Van Dyke (piano and organ)
  • Clarence Isabell (double bass)
  • James Jamerson (bass guitar and double bass)
  • Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin and Richard “Pistol” Allen (drums)
  • Paul Riser (trombone)
  • Robert White (guitar)
  • Eddie Willis (guitar)
  • Joe Messina (guitar)
  • Jack Ashford (tambourine, percussion, vibraphone, marimba)
  • Jack Brokensha (vibraphone, marimba)
  • Eddie “Bongo” Brown (percussion)
  • Johnny Griffith (Keyboards)
  • Van Dyke (band leader)
  • Uriel Jones (drummer)
  • Bob Babbitt (bass)
  • Dennis Coffey (guitar)

The most complete and fair list of the Funk Brothers lineup can be found at the official documentary website page http://www.standingintheshadowsofmotown.com/film2.htm.

Techniques developed by the Funk Brothers include using two drummers (later seen in with bands including Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers and Genesis), doubling instrumental lines (piano, bass and vibes lines were often doubled) and the use of experimental instruments or objects such as toy pianos, chains, synthesisers .

Of these names, I would say that only two or three could even be loosely considered as names recognised in their own right, and for me that tends to be the bass players, most likely down to my own bass playing. These early Motown records influenced The Beatles’ hugely and I remember reading how Paul McCartney said that he took so much influence from these early Motown records but never knew the name of the bass player he had been listening to all of these years: James Jameson (or perhaps Carol Kaye from her claims that she actually played a lot of the L.A. Motown bass lines in which Jameson only followed for a short stint). Over the years this, of course, worked both ways with many Motown renditions of Beatles’ songs.

Only recently have the Funk Brothers started to receive the recognition they never received at the time of their work, previously having been hidden behind the huge artists that they backed and tied into Berry Gordy’s contracts. They received the Grammy Legend award in 2004, entered the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2008 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was the final Funk Brothers recording in the Detroit Hitsville USA Studio A before Motown moved to L.A.. In 2008 the Funk Brothers re-united for a performance and recording in Orlando. The following clips are taken from this concert, first with Ben Harper singing Gaye’s I heard it through the Grapevine, and then Joan Osbourne singing Martha and the the Vandella’s Heatwave. Both are perfect examples of the arrangement that went into these amazing songs – every player has a purpose (being a line or a texture), the backing vocals either fill out the sound or punctuate the lead vocal line, the bass adds not only depth and rhythm but often counter-melody without being overly busy, and the guitars aren’t flashy but provide little pieces of ear candy that sit tightly in between all the rhythms and textures around them.

And one more as a good will gesture, Joan Osbourne’s version of Martha and the Vandella’s Heatwave (not the most flattering headshot).

All are very welcome at the workshop at the Gresham Centre EC2V 7BX, 2-5pm Sunday 28th February. More details to be found here:

http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/come-sing-motown-classics-with-richard-norris-vision-singers-tickets-21403925718

Johnny. B. Who?

I was listening to Johnny. B. Goode last week, a song that I have played at least a thousand times and have become a bit guilty of finding it, the most unfair criticism of any song, “overplayed”. Chuck Berry has also become a bit tired of playing it however, refusing to play it when I saw him a few years ago (though he may have been in the middle of a court case about it to be fair!). Anyhow, as I was listening I started to think about the words and realised that I had no idea who this Johnny actually was, and was listening to a story that tells you enough to want to know more about this boy, but not really who he actually is.

It turns out that Johnny.B.Goode is actually a semi-autobiographical of a young Chuck Berry. Written in 1955 at the age of 29 and recorded and released three years later in 1958 (produced by Leonard and Phil Chess), the song is about a poor boy from the deep south  who couldn’t read or write but found fame and fortune through his guitar. Berry was actually from Goode Street, St.Louis in the mid West and was pretty well read.

So why the name,  Johnny. B. Goode? Johnny came from Chuck Berry’s keyboardist, Johnnie Johnson, whilst Goode came from the previously mentioned street on which he grew up. The song is very much a twelve bar rock-n-roll song with typical guitar breaks and a driving backbeat though interestingly if you listen carefully the drum part is swung against the straight guitar part. In the nature of a good artist borrowing and a great artist stealing, both of the guitar breaks were heavily influenced, if not lifted, from Louis Jordan’s Ain’t that just like a Woman, a big-band jazz tune.

So, despite a few autobiographical discrepancies the song is fundamentally autobiographical and even has a sequel in the form of “Bye, bye, Johnny” in which Johnny leaves on the Greyhound bus, heads West and finds fame and love. He actually used the character, Johnny, in some form in over thirty songs also including Go Go Go and Johnny.B.Blues.

Chuck Berry hasn’t had the most straightforward of careers or lives, but this is an interesting insight into his early life, though perhaps slightly over-simplified compared to how it has actually turned out.

A mistake is a friend with which you grow

A wise-man (in the form of a drunken friend) said to me last year that “A mistake is a friend with which you grow”. Top of the news this week is Adele’s performance of All I Ask at the Grammys, something I feel that is slightly hyped and actually quite refreshing. Little glitches remind us that performances are live and that part of the nature of live performance is taking a risk (something that is less the case at the Superbowl half-time performance with previously recorded tracks). Other glitches that come to mind are Christina Aguilera’s fumbling of the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner at the Superbowl in 2011 and Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude at the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012.  If anything, all of these actually demonstrate the performer’s sheer professionalism and their determination not to fall at a hurdle.

A few years ago I had grown complacent about checking the tuning of my bass as it seemed that an earthquake would have no effect on the tuning of my main gigging bass. On this particular occasion, I had, however, borrowed a friend’s bass and after the soundcheck I had put it back in its case before grabbing it to play later that evening. The first song had a bass and vocal intro so all was absolutely fine until the keyboards and rest of the band entered in the first verse. This bass was obviously not as weather-proof as my usual bass and it had obviously detuned itself quite significantly in the time between soundcheck and performance adding a dose of microtonality to our band performance (much to the understandable annoyance of the singer who had no idea which way to go!). After the inevitable accusatory glares between band members I tried to re-tune each string as inconspicuously as possible, though not escaping the notice of the bassist of an internationally renowned band who were playing after us. He let me know as soon as we finished.

On another occasion I was  accompanying a singer in front of a packed (and attentive) music venue. I sat down (over) confidently at the piano stool to be be quickly met with the thought of “What the hell am I meant to be playing?”. The singer had given me a piece of paper with some chords scribbled out and I had listened to a recording that morning and not thought much about it until I was sat at the piano. The singer decided that the best option was to stare at me like I was some sort of maniac and call someone that she regularly played with in the venue to come up and play instead, leaving me to crouch down behind the piano with a choice selection of words seemingly directed at her (but mainly directed at myself for putting myself in that situation and not having prepared properly).

It has re-assured me, however, that I am not alone in such situations and I have been enjoying comparing my own experiences with other musicians’ horror stories. One musician was sat at a harpsichord playing with an orchestra and choir for Handel’s Messiah only to turn around and knock the drum pattern button on a Clavinova. Not being technologically minded he felt that the best option was to exit the stage behind the orchestra on his hands and knees leaving those more technologically minded around him to press the Stop button.

At an organ inauguration at Blackpool Cathedral the recitalist had spent the afternoon re-writing the final page of his First Organ Sonata. During the performance that evening, he began Bach’s Wedge Prelude to find the entire organ had ciphered (a whole noise of sticking notes). Lights went and the team of organ builders, who were supposed be enjoying the fruits of their labour, set to work to try and discover the course of this disaster. After much head scratching they lifted the keyboards to find the pencil erasings of a thousand schoolboys.  Dustpan and brush to the rescue and the concert was able to continue.

On another occasion, a friend’s cello teacher was performing the Tchaikovsky Rococo variations. Sitting through the orchestral introduction, having rehearsed extensively for the performance, she began thinking about something that had happened that morning or about a difficult corner in the performance. She suddenly  became aware that her mind was not where it needed to be at that moment in time and only just managed to find her way into the first passage, at which point, thankfully the hard work paid off.

We are all vulnerable to mistakes, whether through technological issues or losing focus. From my most recent experience, once my brain started to think too consciously the result was a mish-mash of thoughts leading to becoming flustered and confused. Paul McCartney, Adele, Luciano Pavarotti and Barbara Streisand have all spoken about performance anxiety and how it can hit anybody regardless of the size of the audience and the venue. Sometimes preparation is not available, and in such cases pre-performance focus time is even more important (this is one occasion I can see a genuine purpose for a risk assessment). I could have avoided all of my experiences if I had taken this time to think it over, and listened to the track or just played it through in my head before getting up on stage.

As much as I welcome mistakes as my friends, I am happy for them to only visit from time to time, and in the meantime I plan to grow!!