Six days to go…

This time next week, I’ll be in the Scottish Borders with CLOUDS Harp Quartet, preparing for the first gig of our Summer Tour 2017.

We have launched a kickstarter to ask for your support towards our travel costs, and there are just six days left.

If we don’t reach our target, we get nothing.

The reason we are asking for support is that we absolutely love the music that Esther Swift writes for us, and we want to bring it to as many people as possible. Over the course of the tour we will be driving 1,500 miles each. That’s 6,000 miles of fuel we need to cover. In real terms, that’s £2,700 we need to make just to cover mileage.

We are literally driving the length and breadth of the country to play for as many people as we can. Just keep your fingers crossed that our cars can survive!

Thing is, we can’t really afford to do this if we don’t make any money from it. Of course we are passionate about the music but we need to support ourselves too during increasingly uncertain times.

This is the biggest tour we’ve undertaken since the quartet formed in 2008 and we are SO EXCITED to get out there and release this new music to you. Even if you can’t support us via kickstarter, please have a look at the concert dates and come along if you can.

Our kickstarter page can be found here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cloudshq/clouds-harp-quartet-summer-tour-2017

As ever, thanks for reading, we’ll hopefully see you very soon!

A x

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I’ve been spoilt rotten.

Musically speaking, that is.

This past week has been a week of inspiring, amazing music, and I wanted to share a little bit of it with you.

Firstly, I spent three days with CLOUDS Harp Quartet. We are learning a brand new programme for our upcoming tour in June (more details on that to follow). Spending time with CLOUDS is without doubt one of my favourite aspects of my career to date. Esther‘s music is challenging and beautiful and the act of learning it is making us all better musicians. Here’s a little video I made of a tiny snippet of the music that we’ve been learning:

At the end of the three days, Elinor and I went to see Swan Lake at Manchester’s Palace Theatre. Despite having a mild obsession with Tchaikovsky I have to admit that I’d never seen a professional ballet production in my adult life.

I absolutely love the music and it was such a treat to see the ballet as well. Although, hearing the harp cadenza being played on electric keyboard was a disappointment. Playing in a ballet orchestra is a huge dream of mine and when even Moscow City Ballet don’t think it’s worth having a real harp in the pit, it’s a little demoralising to say the least.

The following day I had a gig in Sheffield (my favourite). The drive over was a bit scary and involved fog, wind, and snow. Nevertheless, Hallam Sinfonia needed a harpist for their performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. If you haven’t listened to this work before, do it right now – especially the Adagietto – it is gorgeous and heart-breaking. Sometimes I can’t believe that my job is to practice and perform such beautiful music.

To finish off the week, I was singing for Sunday’s morning service with my choir at St. Ann’s Church, directed by Simon Passmore. Not only was the setting composed by one of our members – Dr David Liggins – the music for the anthem Lead, Kindly Light was written by our late director of music – Canon Ronald Frost – in the form of the hymn tune Loppergarth. I’m trying to find a recording of us singing this gorgeous and emotive piece, leave it with me… Ronald was a wonderfully kind and talented soul and all of us in the choir who knew him, miss him greatly. It’s such a blessing that we can carry on performing his music in his memory.

I have to say that I feel so grateful and lucky that I have such wonderful music and wonderful people in my life.

As ever, thanks for reading, and don’t forget to pop your email address in the box to subscribe and receive these posts in your inbox (never more than once a week).

Chat soon,

Ax

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Orchestral Etiquette: how to get conductors to like you

You think being excellent at your instrument automatically makes you an asset to your orchestra?

Well… not necessarily.

I started playing with orchestras as a child, going away for week-long orchestral courses for IAPS and NSSO. These early experiences of playing in an orchestra are absolutely fantastic and get you into some great habits. As a young harpist, I was lucky to receive guidance from many amazing harpists – all of whom I still know and respect today (Honor, Gabriella, Eira, Rachel, Georgina and Anita to name just a few).

The following is a list of some of the things I’ve learned about playing in orchestras, if you are new to orchestral playing, following these tips will certainly help you make a good impression. 

If some of these seem stupidly obvious, please forgive me, it’s my attempt at being thorough. Please know that this isn’t me being ‘holier than thou’ – believe me I’ve often fallen short of these standards. But I believe this is what we should all strive for.

Being on time is not good enough

First thing’s first. If a rehearsal starts at 10am, turning up at 10am means you are late and inconveniencing the conductor. I’d recommend if you have a large instrument (harp or percussion), aim to arrive AN HOUR before the starting time of the rehearsal. Everyone else, half an hour. 

Hear me out here.

Arriving sufficiently early means you have time to find somewhere to park, unload, sort any potential disasters, find where you are going, settle in and tune before wind and brass start warming up, and maybe even grab a coffee too. By the time 10am rolls around, you’re relaxed, warmed up, caffeinated, and good to go. Plus, with traffic and the (very real) possibility of getting lost, we often arrive later than we expect – so this plan at least gives a good margin for error

No chatting, NO PHONES, no reading, unless the orchestra is rehearsing a movement you’re not in.

I get it, you’re not playing for a hundred bars and you need the gossip from last night. Maybe just send a quick text to see what’s going on. 

No.

Conductors see everything and being on your phone in a rehearsal is unprofessional and rude. Just don’t do it. If you’re not playing for a whole movement that’s perhaps different but in general, keep in off, in your bag, away from you so there’s no temptation. Personally, during movements I’m not in a prefer a good book or a crossword/sudoku.

Whispering and chatting to your deskie while the conductor is talking is also a no-no, it’s obvious and distracting to others.

Tune quickly and quietly, when it’s your turn, and stop playing when you are in tune.

Oh, the joys of getting an orchestra in tune. Harpists, sit back and hope that you tuned to the same A that the oboist is now playing – personally I prefer 440 Hz but different orchestras might do things differently (441 or in some places even 442 *shudder*). Everyone else, tune when directed to do so, but please do it as quietly as you can (so as to be considerate to the players around you who are also tuning) and stop playing as soon as you are in tune – to make it easier for those still tuning.

Practise the music beforehand

I hope this one is obvious, particularly for harpists. If you can get your hands on the music in advance, do it! What helps me a lot is finding the score online (try imslp.org) and then listening to it on spotify. Notice any tricky or solo passages and work on those. Mark up your part as necessary. The better you know the music, the better prepared you are on the day. Preparation is key and no one wants to get caught out.

Be prepared

Have a specific bag that you bring with you to rehearsals, or keep these bits in your instrument case. A couple of 2B pencils (darker lead and easier to rub out), a wire stand in case there aren’t any at the venue, and a folding light just in case the light is poor for the concert. 

Depending on your instrument of course you will need other bits and pieces, for me, I take my gig bag, the contents of which I list here.

Having these bits with you just puts your mind at ease that you won’t be caught out. It’s embarrassing to not have a pencil when you need to mark important instructions (cuts, repeats etc.)

Always, always, count.

So you’re not playing for a hundred bars, cry me a river and just make sure you count. All the time. SO many times I’ve been counting for what feels like hundreds of bars only for the conductor to stop just before I come in. Classic. But it’s still useful. You learn and can note down any important cues and get so much more of a feel for the music this way – and ultimately – that will add to your confidence when it comes to the performance. You’ll know exactly where to come in – and the conductor will love you.

Never rely on getting a cue from the conductor.

I say this with love, I really do. Conductors have so much to think about I don’t know how they do what they do. They won’t always be able to bring you in for your entry. This is why you need to count 100% of the time. Still WATCH the conductor at all times, but don’t be afraid to come in if they don’t give you a cue.

Harpists and other lone instruments: if you are not sure about your entry, come in anyway, if it’s wrong, it can be addressed, if it’s right, great work! Have the confidence to just come in, even if you’re not completely sure where you are. This comes with time and experience.

After a concert, sit when the leader sits, leave only when the leader leaves.

All this bowing, clapping, and standing after a concert has finished can seem silly, I mean, some of us actually have homes to go to, homes that are really far away. If in doubt, do what the leader does, when they sit, you sit, when they have left the stage, you can leave the stage.

Just don’t actually bow, you’ll feel ridiculous and you’ll be the only one. Smile at the audience and stand up straight, act like you are proud of what just happened.

Long Black is more professional that All Black.

Ladies, when it comes to concert clothes, let’s keep it decent. You don’t want the audience thinking you must be going clubbing right after the concert. This is less of an issue in winter, when church concerts make you want to put at least ten layers on as well as a hot water bottle and mittens.

But seriously, smart, professional, and long is best in my opinion. No miniskirts. ESPECIALLY if you straddle your instrument (I’m looking at you, cellists and harpists).

I used to love flouncing around in a black ball-gown at every orchestral gig I did. Nowadays I prefer smart black trousers, a black plain top and a black cardigan for smaller concerts and I keep the dresses for the bigger concerts halls and solo gigs.

So there you have it! Just a few tips to help make a good impression on your colleagues at orchestral gigs. Thanks for reading and I hope you find them useful.

Do you have any others that I’ve missed? Leave them in the comments below. 

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CLOUDS summer plans

There are so many posts in the pipeline at the moment, it’s crazy. But I said the CLOUDS post would be next so, here it is.

On Tuesday, 22nd April my harp quartet CLOUDS are performing as part of the Wales International Harp Festival. Unfortunately Bec is away playing on the Cunard ships so on this occasion it’s just Esther, Elfair and myself.

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Esther received a commission to compose a piece for this concert, the theme given was mythology. The Scottish murder ballad The Twa Sisters was chosen as our specific subject matter. It is a rather gruesome tale in which sibling jealously turns to murder over the attentions of a knight. The younger sister is pushed into the river and drowns, at which point a harper finds her body and makes it into a harp, using her bones and hair (told you it was gruesome). The harp then begins to play itself and tells the tale of her elder sister’s crimes.

As is Esther’s usual style, none of the music is written down. So Elfair and I have learnt it of course, but if there are any parts we forget… it’s kind of hard to get hold of Esther right now as she’s in Brazil with her folk duo Twelfth Day. Hope you’re having fun my loves!!!

This is one of the most fascinating things about CLOUDS in my opinion ~ we all do such different things on a day to day basis that we have all these different experiences to bring to the music when we meet up to rehearse, compose or perform.

Later on in June this year the four of us will be spending a couple of weeks in Edinburgh. We are shooting a new video, recording a new CD and playing in St. Giles Cathedral.

After that we are heading down to Buxton to take part in the Buxton Fringe Festival. We have four concerts, more details can be found here.

So lots of exciting things in the pipeline for CLOUDS this year – I can’t wait to spend a whole month with the girls!! Despite all these plans however, the cost of shooting a new video, having new photos taken and recording a new CD – not to mention all the travelling we’ll be doing with our harps – is proving difficult to afford. We’re applying for funding from various organisations and we have also created a GoFundMe page, click here.

So, if you would like to make a donation (or know a friend who might), please do visit the page and make a donation. All donors will be thanked in the credits of our new video.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I look forward to bringing you more CLOUDS updates very soon!

x

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CLOUDS Christmas Concerts

The last seven days have been devoted to my harp quartet CLOUDS. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we rehearsed in my living room (having four harps in one room is far from normal). We were rehearsing for four concerts that made up our mini Christmas Tour.

The music we play is written by fellow CLOUD Esther Swift. It’s got a lot of folk influence. Think folk mixed with Steve Reich mixed with a tiny sprinkling of dub. None of the music is written down, this means Esther teaches it to us by demonstrating and explaining. It also means we have to remember it from one tour to the next, the amazing thing is we manage it.

It all started when we were at music college together, the four of us (myself, Elfair Dyer, Rebecca Mills and Esther Swift) were put in orchestra together to play Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. We had so much fun rehearsing together that when Esther mentioned that she’d written a piece for four harps we jumped at the chance to play more music together and it’s grown from there. I don’t think any of us (apart from Esther) had much experience with playing folk, learning by ear or improvising so for all of us it is a real learning experience and, personally, it has opened my eyes to new ways of learning music.

Bearing all of this in mind, it was fitting that the first concert of our tour was in the RNCM. The Studio Theatre to be exact:

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The current members of the harp department came along to support, which was lovely! There was an interesting moment when an astrophysicist came up to us at the end to correct our definition of an Interstellar Cloud. But how amazing that he saw that one of our pieces was called Interstellar Cloud and that made him come along to hear us!

This gig went pretty smoothly, ignoring the fact that a certain CLOUD managed to leave her shoes at my flat and had to run back and get them five minutes before we were due to be onstage. Not looking at anyone in particular (Esther).

The following day Elfair, Esther and myself headed to Long Marston in North Yorkshire for our second gig. We spent the day making sure we could play our programme with just three of us and playing through extra duets that expanded the programme from the previous evening.

Long Marston is a really special church for me, my parents were married there, my dad still plays the organ there and I was also Christened there. Having said that, it is one of the coldest and most spidery churches I’ve ever been in. We were ready for mulled wine and mince pies in the interval!

On Saturday we were playing for a sell-out concert in All Saints Church in Brandsby. Rebecca joined us for the rehearsal beforehand but it soon became clear that she was too unwell to perform (if you’re reading this Bec, get well soon and I’m sending you lots of cuddles!) so we made a last minute decision to play our Long Marston trio programme again as we’d already prepared it. Coming from a city like Manchester, Brandsby feels so rural, no street lights meant we were wheeling our harps in complete darkness – interesting. Plus we had to get four harps home in three cars.

Saturday was a little bit stressful.

On Sunday, we were booked to play for York’s Annual Community Carol Concert. I’ve been going to this event practically every year of my life. My dad, John Warburton, is the Musical Director of the event. The three of us arrived really early to set up, tune, sort out microphones etc. We found our dressing room, had some lunch and got ready for the concert. Everyone had remembered their shoes, we were unstoppable.

The afternoon itself was lots of fun, community carols sung by an audience of over 1,400, two school choirs, the beautiful Rebecca Newman, a brass band and of course CLOUDS all contributed to a lovely afternoon of Christmassy joy.

And then it was time to say goodbye, Elfair, Esther and Rebecca, you are all legends and I love you. Can’t wait til the next tour!

For more information about CLOUDS visit www.cloudsharpquartet.com where there is a link to buy our CDs!

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Festival No. 6 2013

Between the 12th and 15th September I was in Portmeirion playing for Festival Number Six.  This was a real experience and, considering I hesitated a little when originally asked to do it – I’m so glad I did.

The first day was chaos.  There’s no other way to describe it.  I thought I’d be clever and set off super early to allow for ‘getting lost’ time once we’d arrived.  I was giving a lift to horn player Joel Roberts – hi Joel! – and we set off around 8am.  The postcode we’d been sent to was an empty business park (later we realised it was only empty because we were so wonderfully early) – so we drove on to the main festival site – which I later realised I wasn’t allowed to drive on to … naughty me.

Anyway, fast forward about an hour of wondering if we’re in the right place we’d managed to find the Cassia String Quartet, fresh from driving up from the South of France, as well as our artist wristbands:

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After being given wristbands I was told there was no way I was getting my car on to the Festival site to drop off the harp.  Just no way.  They offered to take it by golf buggy – I politely declined.  I ended up having to put my harp into a Volvo four by four.  I couldn’t believe it fit!  The driver of the Volvo – Sid – was lovely and said they were there to give lifts to the artists when we needed them.  I think he somewhat underestimated how busy they were going to be over the next few days as I was only able to use a Volvo at the beginning and the end of the Festival.

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I left my car on the football field in the photo above – unfortunately due to the crazy weather this field turned into a muddy mess – it took me ages to get my car off the mud and onto the safety of an actual road.  Getting off the field involved taking a ‘run up’ to the curb in order to get up the muddy slope and onto tarmac.  There were three Welsh car park attendants egging me on telling me to go faster – I was so not in the mood for that.

My harp’s home for the next few days was the Town Hall.  It wasn’t until later that evening that we (the ensemble) found our home for the weekend.  ‘Artist Camping’ – when we eventually found it, was about 15 minutes walk from the main village, and completely devoid of showers/toilets.  Not to be deterred though, we set up our tents in some sort of circle – some quicker than others.  Joel had the unpleasant experience of a drunk festival-goer tumbling into his tent in the middle of the night, who somehow managed to crawl in between the inner and outer part of the tent… how?  I have no idea.

So the camping part of the trip was cold.  I won’t lie.  It was cold, windy and damp, but I had my inflatable mattress and memory foam pillow, as well as lots of layers for the night.  We’re talking strappy top, t-shirt, long-sleeved top, hoody AND blanket as well as sleeping bag.  The weather got progressively worse as the weekend went on (Saturday – lovely then rain, Sunday – rain and so windy I saw three tents blow away).

The playing part of the weekend was great.  The Cassia Quartet, formed of Amy, Tori, Laurie and Josh, as well as horn player Joel and percussionists Delia and Graham, along with myself we formed the Festival Number 6 Ensemble directed by Joe Duddell:

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The ensemble was to accompany a few different acts during the festival. Daughter, Jackie Oates, and Cathal Mo Chroi (aka Chas Smash from Madness).

Working with Cathal was certainly fun. He did a set of six songs: Love Songs No. 9 and 7, A Comfortable Man, Do you Believe in Love? Goodbye Planet Earth, and The Wren’s Burial. The harp was needed for everything, yay! There’s also a youtube video of my favourite, which can be found here.

I remember during one of the breaks, Cathal met up with us in the cafe and showed us some poetry he’d written and recorded – very amusing and well written (and naughtily rude). The overall vibe I got from working with Cathal is that he’s very chilled out, and definitely doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s so nice when the people you’re playing for actually make the effort to hang out and talk to you backstage. It doesn’t happen all that often.

Playing with Daughter was amazing as well – not only were they incredibly professional, punctual and efficient in setting up all their equipment – they also had a pleasing attention to detail in rehearsals.  As well as that, they are absolutely lovely people, a real pleasure to work with.

The Daughter gig was on the Saturday night, which was followed by some drinks and dancing – loads of fun.  On Sunday the weather turned really nasty.  I was so worried my tent was going to blow away – I actually saw several tents blow over in the wind.  It turned out that I wasn’t actually needed for any rehearsals or sets that day so I set about trying to take down the tent and pack all my things.  By some miracle I was allowed to bring my car back on to the festival site to pick up my harp.  Hurray!

On returning to Manchester, I had a new-found appreciation for lots of little things: getting dressed standing up for example, rather than awkwardly lying down in a confined space.  The first night back in my bed was amazing!  I think my harp was very happy to be back – I’d booking it in for a service the following day as a much needed treat.

So, lots of good things from the Festival, fun music, lovely people in the bands and the ensemble – but the weather could have been better/less muddy.  Definitely an experience I’ll remember.

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CLOUDS mini-tour

Last week was spent up in Scotland with my harp quartet CLOUDS.  

The purpose of the week was to learn the material for our forth-coming album ‘water’, and to pay our way we would do four lunchtime concerts at St. Giles Cathedral up in Edinburgh Monday through to Thursday.

Learning music with CLOUDS is very different to how I was trained and it has been so good for all of us.  Esther composes the music, then, without writing it down, teaches it to us aurally in group rehearsals.

Our first CD was entitled CLOUDS and we recorded it I think two years ago now.  Water is so different, it’s much more exact whereas CLOUDS had lots of improvisation.  Water is incredibly rhythmic, and often I think it’s very hypnotic as well – I’m really excited about its release in early October (it’s also available for pre-order now! Visit http://cloudsandharps.bigcartel.com/product/water )

The first few days of the ‘tour’ were pretty stressful.  Bec’s car broke down in Manchester but she somehow managed to get up to Scotland, Esther’s car smelled of smoke every time she drove anywhere and, well, Elfair doesn’t have a car yet.  So it was up to me to transport harps and harpists to and from the cathedral each lunchtime – luckily we have found a slick way to get two harps in one car!  

Monday was easily the most stressful concert, well the concert was OK, getting there was another matter.  It was the final day of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and what we hadn’t accounted for was that the street where we had special permission to park was CLOSED!  And the traffic was at a standstill.  But luckily a very nice traffic warden man told me where to find a little side street where I could park.  Lovely.

That was with harps 1 & 2, with harps 3 & 4 our friendly traffic officer had disappeared and had been replaced by a much less nice lady who didn’t seem to understand that IT IS 12.40 WE WERE DUE TO PLAY AT 12.15 AND WE ARE ALL VERY STRESSED WHERE DO WE GO?!?!?!?!

I argued with her a little bit, most unlike me but I was stressed out!

Meanwhile, harps 1 & 2 were wondering where the rest of us were and trying to patch together a concert of solos and duets – from what I hear they did an excellent job considering the stress of the moment.

Compared with Monday, the rest of the lunchtime concerts ran smoothly – we sold lots of CLOUDS cds and got some lovely audience feedback.

Each afternoon we would learn a couple of movements of water to play the following day in the concert.  

Friday was recording day.

can’t believe we tried to record an entire CD in one day!  After choosing a room in which construction work outside couldn’t be heard we started to record at around 2pm.  We finished at 2am.

Ana – who was doing the recording for us – was lovely.  She hadn’t had breakfast or lunch but didn’t tell us this fact until around 5.30 in the afternoon!  She must have been ravenous.  Sorry Ana.

At around 11.30pm Bec and I realised that the car park our cars were in closed at midnight – with any cars left getting towed away.  What a lovely opportunity for a late night run through the streets of Edinburgh to ensure our cars weren’t taken away and crushed.

But despite the stress of the day and the situation, I think the recording went really well and I’m so excited to hear the finished product.  There were lots of tears along the way but I’m so proud that we could learn the music and record it in five days – it was intense but great as well.

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