Britten – Interlude from Ceremony of Carols

My exam piece project has reached Grade 6. We’re getting into the higher grades now and the music leaves plenty of room for interpretation and individuality.

I often hear this piece performed very slowly, but if you look at the metronome mark it should actually move along a bit.

First thing’s first, you need to be confident with your harmonics in this piece. Really make them as beautiful as you can. You’re in all flats so they should ring really nicely – Britten knew what he was doing.

The rhythm is tricky but exceedingly important, spend some time looking at the music away from the harp and really work out where each right hand chord should be played. In my opinion the entire first page is a slow build up to the climax of the piece at the top of the second page, so really play as quietly as you dare at the beginning.

There’s a section in which the left hand plays straight chords while the right hand is playing spread chords, I remember this taking a long time to master! It’s an important skill though and well worth the time invested.

The final line is also open to interpretation, some harpists stick to Britten’s exact markings in terms of the right hand glissandi, while others gliss more freely. I think this performance falls somewhere in between, trying to stick to Britten’s markings but also keeping the gliss flowing as much as possible.

If you haven’t heard the rest of the Ceremony of Carols, listen to it immediately (if you can listen to Christmas music in May). It’s atmospheric and very moving.

Do you play or teach this piece? Please leave any tips for students in the comments.

Thanks for reading.

Chat soon,


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December 2014 catch-up…

This post is a continuation from last week’s post in which I raked over the glowing embers of November 2014, I originally wanted to put November and December into one huge post but alas, there was just too much to put in! So here’s a run-down of December 2014.

The first gig of the month was a solo recital! Yay! This is what it’s all about: performing lovely repertoire for a large, appreciative audience. Many thanks to Philip Scowcroft at Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery for inviting me back to perform – I always have a lovely time. Thanks also for inviting me and Marten to do a joint recital next year – time to find some harp and piano repertoire, suggestions in the comments please!!

On December 5th I had a background gig at Manchester Art Gallery. Those of you who know Manchester will be aware that there is very little parking around there. Pretty much none in fact. So I thought it would be a clever idea to get an estate car taxi to take me there – what could possibly go wrong?

I called the taxi company at least twice during the day to check the booking, 5pm estate car taxi to the city centre. Emphasis on the estate car part. Five o’clock rolls around, no taxi. At quarter past my phone rings to let me know the taxi’s outside, so I trundle out with the harp and all my bags.

It’s not an estate car.

Cue one diva-strop.

Car goes away, angry phone call to Radio Cars, an estate finally arrives. I’m now behind schedule. Trying to hold it together.

I arrange with the driver that he’ll come and pick me up after I’ve finished playing so I don’t have to go through that again. I’ve been asked to play downstairs in the foyer. But all that happens is people come in, hang up their coats, and head off upstairs to the party.

I’m providing music for the hanging up of coats. This has to be a new low.

Fast forward to the end of my set. No taxi.

Cue another massive diva-strop (I’m getting good at these) and phone call to Radio Cars “Yes, it’s the lady with the harp” to request an estate asap.

Taxi turns up, it’s not an estate.

By now I’m rather upset, I finished playing an hour ago and have gone nowhere. Another strop, another phone call and the driver who stood me up sheepishly apologises for not showing up when he said he would, and takes me home, where a party is currently underway, that I am hosting, that I am also very very late for.

Time to start drinking.

Luckily, by comparison the next few days went very smoothly. An hour of background music in Middlewich for a community Christmas buffet-type-thing (I had a lot of the cakes, they were excellent). Then on the Sunday I had the first Ceremony of Carols of the year down in Wilmslow – conducted by Lloyd Buck.

Barnby C of Cs

The Ceremony of Carols is a very special piece – written by Benjamin Britten. I’m sure it is special to many harpists, it’s just for treble voices and harp – although it has been arranged for a full choir.

The following weekend also had engagements on both days, so I decided to get my first ever spray tan in preparation (even my winter foundation for very pasty skin is now looking quite orange on me – I need some sun asap) I went for the lightest tan you can have (they call it ‘Glow’) and yea, it was fun for a few days, until it started coming off. In patches. Starting with my hands. Bad times.


On Saturday 13th December I was playing for a wedding banquet, in a marquee. A marquee in December? Sounds crazy but was in fact surprisingly cosy. Who knew?

The following day  I headed over to attend York’s Annual Community Carol Concert. My dad has been conducting this event for decades. It usually attracts a crowd in the region of 1,500 and raises money for several good causes in and around York. They get a school band, a couple of school choirs, a church choir and a ‘novelty item’ (in 2013 it was my Harp Quartet CLOUDS) and we spend an afternoon together singing carols and being entertained by the wonderful Revd Andrew Foster. Father Christmas usually makes an appearance to hand out sweets. I honestly can’t say enough good things about this wonderful event. Long live YACCC!

Daddy Barbican

We are now half-way through the month, almost there. Believe it or not December 2014 was comparatively quiet for me… I’ve had much busier Christmas seasons – I’ve also had quieter ones where I’ve had to live on frozen vegetables with rice due to lack of money. 2014 was a very happy medium, except for the fact that I’m pretty sure I had a chest infection (or just the worst cough of my life) and sounded like I was dying for the whole month.

On Friday 19th December it was time to head over to York again for the Masonic Carol Service that I always play for – this time I brought my own page-turner with me. Doesn’t he scrub up well?

Marten and me at lodge

This is another lovely event that takes place every year. We have a small service of lessons and carols, then claim a glass of sherry or three and head downstairs for a Christmas Dinner with all the trimmings. Just what we need. The evening then always finishes with my parents reading from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s predictable, it’s the same every year, but we love it and for me this evening is what starts Christmas off.

Saturday, 20th December was my final gig of 2014, and it was a Ceremony of Carols (what else?) in Rochdale.

Cantare Programme

I also contributed to this concert by playing a solo, Marcel Samuel Rousseau’s Variations Pastorales sur un vieux noel. One of my favourite solo pieces, but sadly it’s christmassy so I can’t really perform it any other time of year. It was so lovely to work with Michael Betteridge for this gig – his energy is fantastic – I do hope I can work with him again soon *hint hint*.

So there you have it. I didn’t mean for this post to turn into a 1000+ words epic but there you go. The rest of December was spent either with my parents in York, or with my sister down in the Midlands, lots of food was eaten, lots of wine was tasted. All in all a lovely Christmas, and for that I am very thankful.

I hope you all also had wonderful Christmasses and New Years. How are those resolutions going? Next week I’ll be gauging the success (or otherwise) of mine. Eeek.

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Merry Christmas!

Well that’s it. I have finished all my gigs before Christmas!

It’s been pretty frantic over the past few months. Five Ceremony of Carols, a week of concerts with my harp quartet CLOUDS, and several other background and orchestral gigs too. I have two more engagements in 2013 – a funeral on December 30th and a New Year’s Eve Gala in Buxton.

My last gig was in Bradford Cathedral doing Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, which was being conducted by the lovely Alex Woodrow – an old school friend of mine from St. Peter’s in York. I was looked after exceptionally well. Convenient parking, coffee on arrival, a leisurely rehearsal schedule, a successful performance and pub&curry afterwards! Met some lovely people and generally had a great day. Good gig!

Just thinking back to this time last year, I had such a quiet Christmas it was unbelievable, I cried numerous times over having no work and worried constantly about the lack of money coming in. Compared with this year the difference is like night and day. I know that, even though January is quiet I won’t be living off couscous and frozen vegetables. Hurray!

2013 has definitely been a learning year. The first half was dominated by my job in Long Tall Sally, the second half dominated by lots and lots of work. In amongst all that there’s the constant uphill struggle of trying to ‘sort my life out’ – which is often on my to-do list. Is any musician’s life truly sorted at this stage? Looking back, some decisions I’ve made this year have been for the best and some have been downright silly. But all we can do is learn from the mistakes and do better next time. I’m so lucky that I have such a supportive family… and someone special in my life who I can talk to and lean on (gently) when things feel difficult.

So I’d like to wish all those who read these posts of mine a very Merry Christmas. I hope those of you who need to travel are able to do so safely despite the stormy weather, and let peace, goodwill and festive cheer be with us all. Somebody pass the mulled wine…

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December is looming!

There are two gigs to report in the last week. Today is – scarily enough – the last completely free day in my diary before Christmas! This thought is terrifying. I made the most of it by eating seashells in bed until lunchtime (chocolate seashells – before someone carts me off to the nearest asylum) and then spending the afternoon practising with the aid of copious amounts of coffee.

Last Saturday was the same repertoire as the week before, Verdi, Britten, Wagner – we know all about it. The concert was in Knaresborough. Quite a long drive from Manchester but it meant I could pop home for a quick drink and a chat with my dad in the afternoon.

On Sunday morning I was singing with my church choir, before dashing off to Crewe for an insanely last minute gig. A Viennese Christmas Gala with the British Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. Luckily I enjoy sight-reading (adrenaline!) as there was no time for me to get hold of the music before the day of the concert. I knew we were doing to be doing excerpts from Merry Widow, hurray I thought, I’ve done that before! But alas, we were doing a different arrangement to the one I played in summer. So before I was happily doing my Lehar style um-chas but on Sunday I was relegated to counting bars of rest. Shame. We also played lots of Strauss, waltzes and polkas, think New Years Day in Vienna. There was also, I’m ashamed to say, Christmas music, it’s not even December yet! Way too early for Jingle Bells – although I did secretly rather enjoy it.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week have been free in my diary, yay! It feels like a weekend, which I probably need as my next gig-free day is a week today! Busy busy! Looking back to this time last year, I had hardly any gigs over Christmas at all – which ultimately led to me needing a part time job (and going home to cry to my parents and seriously considering a change of career). But here I am a year later, working like crazy! What’s changed?

So not much to report this week – but Christmas is looming on the horizon and there is A LOT to do before then!

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