Musical Realms: Composition & Music Technology

Back in January, I was invited by Joshua Dowling to watch a concert
showcasing the works of composers at the Birmingham Conservatoire. It took place at the church of St. Martin in the Bullring which is situated in the heart of Birmingham’s city centre. The idea of music bring people together was evident. This lunchtime concert was very much a community concert; the audience included the general public as well as fellow students and members of the church.

Joshua Dowling, composer and music technology student had two of his pieces performed in the concert.

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Joshua Dowling

A choral scholar at Bromley Parish church from age 7, Joshua grew up in London before coming to study in Birmingham. In addition to singing he played oboe with Bromley Youth Symphony Orchestra. Being half American, Josh often spent summers in Pennsylvania – to this, he attributes his interest in 20th century music of the Americas – central America i.e. Mexican music, Canadian folk, Steve Reich and minimalist music. Aside from music, Josh’s other interests include running (members of his running club even attended the concert). Despite formally studying on the music technology course at the Birmingham Conservatoire, Josh definitely sees himself as a composer. Studying the two, Josh doesn’t see any barriers between them and is keen on exploring multi-faceted music and using music as a means of communication. As a child, Joshua said that he was always wanting to do different things – doing both music technology and composition, in addition to always wanting to fuse different musical elements together is only a natural manifestation of this.

January’s lunchtime concert proved a real labour of love for Joshua. It is was in this concert that he truly explored and demonstrated different areas of work i.e. exploring writing for larger ensembles in his piece titled “Danaus” (this was conducted by composer Chris Creswell). Josh is eager to explore polystylism, intertextuality as part of his creative portfolio.

The Pillar of Cloud’ is an electroacoustic realisation of a four part SATB choral piece ‘Lead Kindly Light’ composed by Joshua Dowling for the season of Epiphany. The words for Lead Kindly Light were written by Cardinal John Henry Newman when he became ill in 1833 while visiting Sicily. He was desperate to return home to England but no boat was available for three weeks. While waiting, Newman visited various churches but according to his writings, attended no services. Once on a vessel heading back to England, Newman saw a light from a nearby harbour and was prompted to write a poem, titled ‘The Pillar of Cloud’ expressing his desire for guidance in a difficult time. The choral setting  was performed by Lily Allen Dodd, Lufuno Ndou, John Eclou and Joshua Dowling. The electroacoustic realisation followed.
Danaus is a piece for chamber ensemble which embodies the life and migration cycle of the species of butterfly more widely known as Monarchs. Between September and November, northwestern Monarch populations migrate annually from southern Canada to central Mexico. They remain in their overwintering sites until March before returning to Canada in June or July. Five generations of Monarch are present on this journey at any one time. This piece draws inspiration from works by notable composers of the 20th century Americas including Canadian folk music and the use of minimalist procedures. 

In addition to Joshua Dowling’s pieces, the concert included The King Quintet, a newly formed ensemble this academic year. They performed Haydn’s Quintet No. 2 and a new piece especially commissioned for the ensemble – ‘Viva’, composed and conducted by BMus 1 composition student Georgia Denham.

Composer and pianist Hannah Liu also performed her composition “Wondering”.

Move on, or stay? What do you think? There is always a voice in your heart, but still unsure…wondering. Hannah Liu plays one of her own compositions for piano – Wandering.

 

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Reflections on 2016-Hello 2017

2016 was the year I decided to take the plunge and start my blog. It was something that I had been thinking about but never had the courage to actually do it. A year on, the support and interest that I’ve received has been overwhelming. As quite an introverted person, it was a big step to put myself out there by starting a blog and sharing my thoughts online.   I’d say that simply starting my blog was my biggest achievement of the year.

The year 2016 started off really positively for me. Things seemed to be going well and for a while I was quite productive. However, as always, life starts to get in the way and I gradually became bogged down, demotivated and generally stressed.

2017 has arrived and already I’ve started off the year with a chest infection, feeling quite stressed and anxious with the prospective events this year already has to offer. So, it’s decided. I’m not making a long list of resolutions that I probably will not stick to. My resolution for 2017 is everything in moderation. I’m the type of person that quickly becomes excited and enthusiastic and then takes too much on, only to be be stressed not long afterwards. This year I’m not aiming for complete perfection, I’m just simply wanting  to be happier, healthier and be prosperous. Everything in moderation.

 

 

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The Black Faces of Classical Music Explained

The Black Faces of Classical Music* is a movement seeking to champion and bring to light the many black individuals, ensembles, initiatives, charities and organisations that are affiliated with and represent progress for Black people within the domain of classical music. *Although the movement is called “The Black Faces of Classical Music”, and will focus primarily on music, it will include people of ethnic minorities and will also look at literature and arts. “The Black Faces of Classical Music” is a play on words: Black Faces = black people. This also represents the past forgotten figures, the presently up-and-coming figures and the achievements made by black people in the industry that have perhaps not been given as much recognition in the mainstream media.

The idea came to me  in the planning stages of my blog as I was thinking of the main themes to write about. One of the most obvious topics for me was the issue of the lack of diversity within classical music. In an industry dominated by caucasians and east asians, I think its important for me as a black person to see more people. Going to concerts and seeing the main orchestras, string quartets and other ensemble I found that it was quite  difficult to spot people who looked like me. In the rare occurrence that I did spot a face of a darker complexion, I would immediately smile jump for joy.

The Black Faces of Classical music is a movement that wants to see more talented black people and people of ethnic mintories excel in the classical genre addition to the genres pertaining to black culture i.e. Reggae, Rap, RnB, Soul etc. In the 21st century, where the world is so diverse, it should be a norm to see people of different complexions and cultural backgrounds in top orchestras and ensembles. In addition, the movement endeavours to create a dialogue and online platform to draw attention to and celebrate past, present and future talent in classical music that has its roots in African/Caribbean heritage.

If you’re interested in finding out more and reading some more articles follow the links below.

My Page – The Black Faces of Classical Music

Chineke! Foundation – Europe’s first professional orchestra comprised of Black and Minority musicians

The Black British Classical Foundation

Ritz Chamber Players – Chamber Music Ensemble comprised of African-American Musicians

Kinshasa Symphony – inhabitants of Kinshasa in DRC are not formally trained but have formed the country’s only symphony orchestra

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Introducing: Shannon-Latoyah Simon

I started playing the classical guitar at the age of 9 and naturally I became interested in the repertoire, which actually isn’t too vast or varied for the instrument. I think my involvement with classical music really grew when I started studying at the Northampton School for Girls (my secondary school), which was also a specialist music college. Classical music was played in nearly all of our classes to improve cognitive function and we were all encouraged to compose pieces, join the after school music ensembles and attend as many concerts and recitals as we could!

For me it’s very important to see more people of colour in the industry. Growing up I found it difficult because there were hardly any people of colour I could look up to as a role model. Due to this I have become involved with the BBCF (Black British Classical Foundation) an organisation that represents and provides opportunities to ethnic minorities within classical music. This year I was able to perform in the BBCF ‘Music inspired by Shakespeare’ concert at St Pauls Church in Covent Garden, which was an amazing experience. I love working with the BBCF because it inspires minority audiences and makes them see the possibilities for themselves and think, “I can do that too!”

I don’t feel as though being a black person in classical music has had any advantages or disadvantages as such. I’ve never been discriminated against of made to feel uncomfortable in any situation. I like to think that any opportunities or achievements I have gained have been down to hard work and determination.

 

 

For more information about Shannon visit www.shannonlsimon.com

Practise: 5 things I’ve learned

Enjoy it

When the legend that is Vladimir Ashkenazy visited the Purcell School it was a day that all present will not forget. When asked for any advice he would give to student musicians who may be reluctant to practise, the maestro said “Think how luck you are. Think how blessed you are to be able to do something that you love everyday”. That really resonated with me because so many people are trapped in jobs that they hate and that’s the last thing any wants. Also, as a music student who’s hoping to have a career in music, you forget that although the industry is tough, fundamentally we must enjoy and love what we do.

Quality over Quantity

It is so common to hear “I practised 6 hours a day”. I think it’s pretty safe to say that not all our practise is 100% focused and our minds naturally tend to drift. I’d rather to practise less time with great results and more productivity than more practise in which I’ve seen no improvement.

Doesn’t necessarily involve playing

You can practise without your instrument. ways of practising without playing include:

  • Analysing & studying the score
  • Listening to various recordings
  • Researching the composer and the history of the work and similar works.
  • Mental practise – I often do this on the train when I have long journeys.

Practise= correct repetition & never give up

A while back, I used to practise and in certain aspects of my playing, I didn’t see any improvement. I’d practise for hours and still make the same mistakes and I always used to wonder why. This was until A wise man once told me  “Practise is correct repetition”. It is possible that one can practise how to do things wrong to the point of no return and the correct way seems harder.  Correct repetition requires concentration and when you’re practising 4-5 hours a day, concentration can be difficult. Breaking practise into chunks is really vital. I never do more than an hour without a break and usually I have breaks of 15mins-30mins in between sessions. I find that drink water really helps. Somedays we have good practise sessions and others things just do not work. The important thing is NOT to give up.

Practise doesn’t make perfect

One often hears this phrase but I found it to be untrue. we often say this to children in order to encourage them to practise but I don’t agree. Simply for 2 reasons:

i) perfection does not exist and is therefore unattainable. Too many musicians waste time and emotional energy on trying to be perfect. I could happily explore and delve into the etymology of the word perfection and then become very philosophical about it however that’s for this blog post!

ii) In art forms such as music, art literature that so much rely on subjectivity there isn’t so much a definition or standard of perfection. What may be perfect to you may be imperfect to someone else.

That is not to say we should settle for mediocrity. For me it is a case constantly aiming high but not getting bogged down in disappointment. I think a common trait in musicians is that we are by nature perfectionists! Another wise man told me to “Practise until you can’t get it wrong!” and that’s the mantra I go with when I step into the practise room.

 

 

 

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Birmingham Conservatoire

Sunday’s stunning concert was particularly significant not only for the conservatoire but also for the Birmingham music scene. The Adrian Boult Hall has been a prominent concert venue for the last 30 years and this farewell concert was the last before its demolition to make way for developments in Birmingham’s city centre.

If you missed the original broadcast on BBC Radio 3, don’t worry, it’s still available! Click here. The full concert  is also available to listen to on youtube. I had the absolute pleasure of working with one of the finest conductors in the business: Barry Wordsworth. His positive, uplifting and encouraging attitude along with his infectiously warm personality made rehearsing a breeze and an unforgettable concert.

After the resounding success of the “Requiem for a Concert Hall” concert and a brilliant review, I began to think about Birmingham Conservatoire as an institution and how it is viewed by those in the music sphere.

Birmingham Conservatoire was founded in 1886 as the Birmingham School of Music – yes 130 years ago. This really surprised me as the conservatoire is actually only 4 years younger than the prestigious RCM (founded (1882).

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This status says it all.

 

Having been a sixth former at a specialist music school, I have to say that there seemed to be a particular emphasis on students studying music in London. When I was auditioning for conservatoires, there wasn’t much conversation about Birmingham Conservatoire or many other music colleges outside of London. I almost felt like there was a pressure to gain a place in London just to prove my worth. For me, I had a pretty realistic idea of where I wanted to study so I didn’t actually audition to RCM or RAM. Initially, it turned out that I was the only person in my year that was going to study in Birmingham whilst the majority of the year gained places in London. Similarly to the Facebook post above, comments by others made me feel like I was joining a less prestigious and sub-standard conservatoire compared to others. I feel like people were only impressed about my place at Birmingham Conservatoire when I casually mentioned that I’d been offered an unconditional  place and a substantial scholarship. This is sad because it is a great achievement alone to be entering into a conservatoire seeing as there are only 9 in the UK!

There is an attitude floating around that the only reputable conservatoires are in London. This is simply INCORRECT. Don’t get me wrong, the music colleges there are brilliant. After my BMus course,  I would love to do a postgraduate degree there but studying music in London is not the be all and end all.

Since joining in September, I have found the conservatoire to be a vibrant and friendly  atmosphere overflowing with exceptional talent from all departments. Particularly with this concert, there was a strong sense of camaraderie and solidarity amongst the students. The academic teaching in addition to the music teaching is outstanding and there is support coming from every corner. Just recently, I was taken aback at the talent at the Junior Conservatoire and the high level of teaching it provides. Also, our principal Julian Lloyd Webber has been friendly, approachable and generally present and very involved throughout the year (which has been his first year as well as mine). Birmingham Conservatoire was definitely the right place for me to be and I truly believe that I would not have made the same progress at any other institution. Furthermore, I’m happy to say that in September 2016, there will be 6 Purcellians at the Birmingham Conservatoire (all with scholarships) so I think attitudes and perceptions are changing for the better. I’m positive that the new building (opening in 2017) will be an influence factor in bringing many more young musicians to consider studying at Birmingham as their first choice rather than 2nd or 3rd.

Don’t forget there a number of notable alumni  (to name a few):

  • Mike Seal
  • Laura Mvula
  • Richard Van Allan
  • Rhydian Roberts
  • Mark Gasser

To anyone who does not have an informed opinion about the college, please listen to the concert – it is a perfect reflection of the high standard of music-making that is achieved at the Birmingham Conservatoire. The recent concert has definitely confirmed the fact  I am very proud to be a student there.

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*Cover photos of concert by Greg Milner Photography

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Procrastination, Motivation & Discipline

The Two Set Violin guys call it Pracrastination. Pracrastination? Yes: Procrastination for practise.

Particularly for student musicians, I think it’s a common issue. It can often be very easy to put off the hours of practise and say you’ll do it with it later.  Also, the fact that no-one else is watching makes it easier to procrastinate.

It’s definitely something that I struggle with from time to time.  At times, I can be super motivated and utilise my time well; at others, I can be quite talented in the art of procrastination.

Finding different sources of motivation is imperative for me in order to avoid procrastination. I’ve noticed that I often procrastinate when I’m feeling demotivated. Lack of motivation leads to procrastination. This cycle can last for a few days or a few months however the longer it continues, breaking out of it becomes increasingly more difficult.

One of the benefits of learning an instrument from a young age is that one can easily learn discipline as a by-product. Having a routine and something to focus on and have fun with definitely lays some foundations for skills like organisation, creativity and becomes an advantage later on in life. Unfortunately, I didn’t begin learning the violin at a young age  so the foundations of discipline were not already there. I kind of had to work things out   by myself i.e. a practise schedule and balancing that with homework etc. Despite this, I’d say that this helped me to find motivation from myself and no one else which is always a good thing to have when no one else is there for encouragement.

I’m constantly looking for new ways to freshen up my practise so that it doesn’t become stagnant.  I believe that musicians can adopt certain attitudes pertaining to sport. In the way that athletes train to maintain their fitness and work towards a tournament or competition, musicians can do the  same. Practise is our training for a performance. For me, thinking in this way gives me a new lease of motivation.

“I hated every minute of training, but I said ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’”. – Muhammad Ali

I love the late Muhammad Ali’s quote and the same idea is relevant for musicians. Practise and having the motivation to practise is not always easy. Some days are better than others and they can be quite tedious. However, the more good practise we do, the better musicians we’re able to become. Don’t quit, stay motivated!

 

 

 

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