When I teach my pupils know I have a huge set of ‘chill’ tunes. These tunes are fairly simple but gorgeous, instantly taking the stress away. Then there are the complicated tunes that take weeks or even months to unravel, but the sense of achievement is fantastic. Then there are the tunes that all of us dream of playing but for some reason they just come out different or you just can’t fathom it right. Then there are the tunes that just don’t ‘click’ or you just don’t like. We always move right on, I don’t let pupils be put off ……… and this is why! At school the nuns lived by a rule. “Be frugal”. When this was applied to eating it proved very costly. I believe the episode I am writing about occurred when Sister Gillian came across a huge quantity of extremely cheap mushy pea soup. Every Saturday lunchtime in the Michaelmas Term we had soup and if we didn’t finish it ……. misery. “We must not waste, we must overcome our bugbears and be strong.” I would sit down and look at it with tears in my eyes. When the tables were cleared all of us who had left it had to stand at the front and place our untouched bowls on a special table, ready for tea-time when we would sit down to a bowl of cold soup. At tea the same happened but the residents at the following breakfast table were fewer, and again at lunchtime. At tea-time the following day there was usually just me or a couple of us. We knew the ordeal was nearly over. At the end of this meal the dishes were finally taken away and that evening at supper we were allowed biscuits before bed. I still cannot eat mushy peas, in fact eat most vegetables ‘a la dent’! A couple of years later a school nurse was employed. We were all weighed and lo and behold the ‘naughty table’ was removed without mention – also I think the soup, unlike good music, had finally run out.
You should see my new watering can. It wasn’t expected. I wrote down the code of a cheap plastic one but at the counter they told me they had sold out. A voice from the back called out they had plenty of metal ones. It is massive! Beautifully shiney and looks very robust – ideal. The unexpected is the norm in this house. When one of my pupil’s Dads arrived to pick up his daughter after her piano lesson he accepted without comment the vision of us both dressed up with feathered headdresses playing a tune on page 12 called Hiawatha’s Dance. The tune wasn’t particularly exciting but the story warranted me fetching one of my treasured possessions, a present from my Dad after one of his trips to America. Another unexpected event this week. We were at the tile warehouse in Bradford when my phone rang. Huge apologies, Bradford Literature Festival thought the hotel had rung me and they thought the Festival office had rung me – was I free to play on Thursday night! It is the first night dinner and I have proudly played for the event every single year since it’s inception. I shall need two harps, one in the upstairs ballroom for the reception and one in the downstairs ballroom for the dinner and a splendid dress, to compete with the Saris priced in thousands – one last year hand woven in gold thread in India. When the guests are called to dinner I shall drum them out of the room and down the stairs then run through the kitchen, a short cut, and be playing Mascagny’s Intermezzo etc as they arrive for dinner.
I am always telling my pupils to close their eyes or turn the light off. To listen instead of watching their fingers, to feel the music with their whole being. As a child I always played in the dark, letting the music take over and never knowing where it would take me. The other day I was booked to play at a local venue which had just finished a massive refurbishment. It looked beautiful. Alas the door didn’t work but I waited outside with my harp and a lady in her wheelchair whilst they ran up and down the stairs visible through the massive glass window till they found a plastic card that opened the door. The auditorium was fantastic. The chairs rose up in front of me to a great height and it was wonderful to see familiar faces and children in the audience. I was looked after like a star! Would I like tea or coffee? Did I like the dressing room? Was it big enough? Did I like the ensuite shower and bathroom? Yes! (Wow!). The lights dimmed and I started to play. Suddenly we were all plunged into pitch darkness. I carried on and the audience applauded at the end of the piece. A lady from the back apologised and said we could wait whilst they called the lighting engineer who had gone for lunch. I replied no need if everyone was happy and to just leave the auditorium lights on. I set off again and to our surprise the lights suddenly came on, followed immediately by a multicoloured disco effect zooming around the stage. The audience cheered at the end of the tune, and the next and the next as we went from disco to black, to strobe, to zooming, to spotlight, and back to disco. The children loved it and we had an amazing time. I asked “any questions?” and over a hundred excited hands raised. When we finally ended over 30 children and adults came to ‘have a go’. The lady from the back was stressed. We would have to leave and there wasn’t tine for this as there was a book group at 2 pm. I packed up and carried my harp to the door. A young man ran up apologising. He was sorry he went for lunch. That’s alright I replied, we made the best of it. Apparently the lights were on automatic setting for a magic show…..
Seeing the music whilst concentrating on playing the harp isn’t easy. Your face is turned to the right towards the strings. The only logical place for a music stand is to the left involving a 90 degree turn! Some of my pupils confess to blue-tacking their music to the fore-pillar, some place it in vision on the right to see through the strings and some, like me, memorise it. In the past the harpers were blind. The job of itinerant musician was very important and well paid. So much so they employed a guide. To boost their earnings they wrote tunes for their benefactors and employers. It was traditionally a male job and the training was vigorous and long. The females were not encouraged to play but there are notable exceptions, Mary, Queen of Scots was brought up in the French Court which was one of the few in the world where women played, and she did play. I have sat in the window seat at Castle Bolton with my harp looking out across the landscape wondering if she did the same. There was a ‘Blind Mary’ in Belfast forced to gather sticks for firewood although she played well because it wasn’t seemly for women to play. There was the lady in Scotland buried face down because she played. I am talking of course in the distant past. Last week in a charity shop in Halifax I spotted the perfect light – it had a swinging brass arm so each pupil could move it to the best place to see both strings and music without dazzle. Next to the till was an old piano and a young boy trying a few notes out. “Do you want to learn a tune?” A very enthusiastic yes was his reply. We started on the theme tune to Lord of the Rings and moved on to Pachebel. My new pupil playing duet. I counted 5 notes that didn’t work but it made no difference. We were having a fabulous time. His mother had chores to do so we played our last note and he ran off. Half way across the shop he turned and sped back to give me a massive hug, gripping me hard, his face lit up. “Thank you” he whispered.
We have all been watching The hurricane news this week as my sister lives in Florida. My niece actually bravely stayed in the TV station where she works along with her dog! Both are safe but we await news of the damage as they had a direct hit. It has been quite a traumatic week. So much so that when I was due to play outside in a wood this weekend I was fired up with Yorkshire survival-ness. On waking the sky was grey, the rain was hitting the window and the tree branches were swaying erratically. I polished the small ‘busking’ harp, gathered a waterproof mat and a thick knitted cardigan that would keep me warm but also looks really good. Then I became inventive. A gazebo would last about 2 seconds in theseYorkshire gusts so I concocted a canepy by laying poles through the roof bars on my car and using an old inflatable rubber mattress as my roof. The last step was to put on my newly dubbed walking boots, pack my lunch , load up the car and set off. On arrival I was greeted like a star. Although everybody else had to brace the weather they had arranged for me to play inside the most beautiful Tudor chapel hidden deep inside the vast mansion. Indeed I never knew it was there and have visited the property several times before. Oak panelling covering the walls, oak floorboards and a level oak ceiling ensured the best amplifier a musician could possibly have. Sat in my boots and ‘bad weather-clothes’ I was thrilled. One of the most difficult projects of my harp-making career was to achieve a small, carriable harp that could still achieve a full sound. I was inundated with enthusiastic people drawn to the chapel by the sound of harp drifting through a fair section of the house. I had a pipe band to compete with and Morris dancers downstairs. The Accrington Pipe Band were superb playing outside in the pouring rain, we all survived but not only that, achieved something in the process – respect to you all.
At boarding school there was a huge vegetable garden. It was fabulous, you could get lost in the rows of beans, peas and raspberries. The nuns were self-sufficient and fed us 300 or so girls from their farm and the gardens. There were Walnut trees and Cherry trees and rows and rows of beautifully trained ancient Apple and Pear trees. We were allowed to keep pets at school and I had an Old English bunny called Barney. Every day after school I used to check the boxes at the end of the gardens for scraps. All the leaves from Cauliflowers and any other veg were left in this box along with bruised Apples etc. A lot of the girls used to shove some pellets into their rabbits cage and rush off to other things but not me. Barney was my best friend and was treated as such. He became very tame and hopped along behind me or laid down to wait for me. I soon managed to get myself on the best list at school – the fruit picking list. We picked crates and crates of fruit and I learnt to whistle. The nuns had a rule you see. Just the one. Whilst we were in the garden we had to keep whistling. If we stopped they rushed in to find us within seconds. Just enough time to stuff our mouths with raspberries.
I am so proud to be asked yet again to play at the opening night of Bradford’s Literary Festival. They said it would not be the same without me as I was an exceptional Harper. Ooooooooooo! 🙂
The weather here has been beautiful and it was warm enough in the evening for our neighbours to sit in the conservatory and watch tv. In the pitch black outside a black shape kept moving past. Thinking it was Stix the cat they opened the window to shout at him to leave them in peace but instead Dodge the donkey’s head burst through. He had worked out how to open the field gate and wandered into their garden. We arrived back late to find a note that Dodge had been put into another field. Finding a black donkey in the dark wasn’t easy but we did it. I often get phone calls from my pupils. ‘Katie’ they start. ‘ I’m stuck!’. I love it. The younger ones launch into their tune putting the phone on the floor so that I have to wait until they pick up again to explain. Often 5 minutes later they’re back with another tune to sort out. Usually it all ends very quickly with ‘I get it, sorry, byeeeee’, as it suddenly dawns. Yesterday I had a panic-stricken dad on the phone. I always encourage performance and my pupil had practised a modern tune to play at a ‘naming ceremony’. Everything was going well until she suddenly realised she had forgotten the tuning key. The last I heard was he was looking for a DIY shop in Bristol to buy a radiator key. For some reason the pegs that hold the strings on a harp are usually the same size as a radiator bleeding valve. As harps are thousands of years old I’m guessing one of the first plumbers also had a harp! Well I hope the race around Bristol was successful, I know the performance would have been and I am now off up to the top fields as the Tour de Yorkshire races right past us. Look out for Stix on telly. I’m sure he’ll find a way …. (ps looking forward to a concert in The Dales next week)
All they wanted was a golden harp but they were mesmerised by the sound of my homemade wooden harp decorated with gold painting. The two most remembered tunes at a local primary school where I played a few weeks ago were Sleeping Beauty and a flamenco tune with lots of drumming and bells. Sleeping Beauty is known courtesy of Walt Disney but it was good to get feed back on an unknown tune, although everyone, regardless of age, likes the rings on her fingers and bells (not on her toes, but on her ankles)! I add, for those of you who have never heard me play, I have parrot bells on kilt pins around my ankles and rings with wooden beads on my fingers for bodhran style drumming. The most favourite tune at concerts is one of Daves. He was once awaiting a procedure at hospital and was on a waiting list. I went shopping and suddenly he got a phone call from hospital. They were sending an ambulance to pick him up as they had an unexpected slot. He had no time to write me a note so he sang me a song on the answer phone. Although I can’t sing well, I can play a melody well and the tune makes a wonderful instrumental. You may be wondering about that modern invention, the mobile phone! For years we had no reception at our house, neither did my Mum and well over half of the venues I play at up The Dales still anounce before a wedding “if you’re lucky enough to have reception on your mobile please turn it off”. Currently I have an old £9.99 phone “just for emergencys”. This may be a good time to thank the two builders from Oldham who gave us a litre of water for our car as we were perched precariously on rocks at the edge of the reservoir trying to get water in an old yoghurt pot… (Dave’s tune: O Come to me my Darling from The Book of Caris)
It was very nearly completely unnoticed, silently and efficiently done, not to mention the speed in which the deed was done. Alas though, a teeny, tiny scrap of sellaphane drifted out from under the sink unit. I pulled it and lo and behold it was the empty wrapper from a pound of bacon. Stix had polished it off so fast he nearly got away with it. I have made him a ‘delux’ wooden cat house and swopped his food for a well known brand – all in an effort to make him appreciate the delights of home. It seems to be working, well at least Stix is hanging around now, if only to raid the pantry. I took part in many successful pantry raids at boarding school. The cook was named M rs Cook – proudly reminding us at every opportunity of her famous ancestor, Captain James Cook. She was about 4 foot tall, was a tower of strength and made the best muffins in the whole world. Based in Whitby we were proud of our sea-faring heritage and Mrs Cook made us ships biscuits for break from a recipe passed down her family. They could apparently sail round the world and last for months. I believe her, I have never come across anything quite like them and I loved them. I got to know Mrs Cook quite well because we had a system of chores at school. The worst job was washing up. To make it fair each half term the rotor started at each end of the alphabet. My surname beginning with H meant I was permanently in the middle and permanently washing up. It did have its perks though and Mrs Cook was generous when she baked and smiled and turned a blind eye, keeping our secret from the nuns. As I practised the harp Stix appeared at the window, so I smiled at him.
The water came over the sills of the car and soaked my bag but I tucked my dress up and had my wellies on so my feet kept dry. The bride and her maids all had their yellow wellies on so I kept mine on… so what if they were old black Dunlop ‘real’ wellies? My dress nearly covered them up. I learned a trick a few years ago when it never stopped raining all summer. I make my own dresses so bought loads of synthetic furnishing taffeta. If there’s a shower the guests run in first leaving me and the harp. I’m not bothered about a bit of rain but my harp is – so I make my skirts huge so I can shove some over the harp whilst I wait. You can screw the material up and it dries in 5 minutes without needing an iron. Anyway this bride went down the aisle to Daisy, Daisy which was a first for me but very sweet. I am practising all my Turlough O’Carolan and jigs ready for a concert in Doncaster coming up. My pupils are all learning jigs – trouble is every time any one gets out of time and it all falls apart the parrots (Charlie and Lills – both rescue parrots) join in our laughter and Lills calls them a ‘f—-er’. I used to wince but it seems to be having the opposite effect to what the ‘mums’ and me thought. Yesterday Charlie decided to imitate an electric drill as well. ‘Good job you’re not a dentist’ someone said. Yes I thought it could be worse, but we’ll keep trying so I’m off to sing ‘Daisy’ and call Lills ‘a little tinker’.