Failure is not an option. It could be the tag line from any Hollywood movie about a sports star/secret military raid/politician from the last 40 years. Maybe if you’re behind enemy lines failure really isn't an option but in musical performance, it’s more of a state of mind.
There have been many times when I’ve been deeply unhappy with my performance as I trudge offstage and yet colleagues and audience members have congratulated me. Conversely I also remember coming off stage delighted with the way the flute section had played a very difficult piece in a high profile concert; we all felt that it couldn't have gone any better, and yet a reviewer simply said that it ‘was not a great evening for the flute section’…
So which one was the failure?
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail Better.
When I was studying at the Guildhall School of music last century, someone gave me a postcard with these words on after I had managed to get lost in a performance and recapitulated in the wrong key…Nowadays they’d probably just tag me in a meme involving a miniature dog du jour stuck up to its neck in horse manure, or an emoji. The thing is, I didn't understand the postcard, why would I want to fail? I didn’t want to fail and I certainly didn't want fail again, better or worse, richer or poorer…sickness and health is another story. It didn't make any sense and rather than ask someone what it meant I recycled it. I wanted to be a winner, I didn't want to speak loser. It’s a shame that I didn't ask someone like…my flute teacher for instance, the person I saw most regularly and probably failed in front of more than anyone else. It’s more that a shame, it’s ironic as my teacher at that time was Edward Beckett who is the grandson of Samuel Beckett, the author of the quote. Having said that, if I had asked him about it, I’d have probably discovered that although this little chunk of prose is ‘inspiring,’ in context it is much darker. Beckett wasn’t especially well known for his side splitting banana slipping gags or indeed his cheerful outlook. The full piece is more about the inevitable journey to the grave rather than a cute soundbite to camera explaining away your third unsuccessful appearance on Dragon’s Den.
I was at Abbey Road studios last night. I didn’t play a note. It wasn’t one of those tedious sessions where you sit for hours waiting to play a note which they never get around to, I was there to talk. People who know me, know that the only time I stop talking is when my flute is on my face, but on this occasion, I was there to talk about the history of Abbey Road Studios and the LSO’s part in it. Such is the aura of the place, a place that isn’t usually open to the general public, that I really didn’t need to say anything at all. When you have a group of people who love music inside those walls, and they are surrounded by photos of the legends who have recorded there, in the corner is the old mixing desk from Sargeant Pepper and a piano used in A Day in the Life, and the Hammond organ from Dark Side of the Moon - well, most people just sit with a grin on their face and soak it up. A man who walks in as a CEO, once through the door is transported back to being the teenager in his bedroom dreaming of stardom once again. Any words or light shows or virtual reality are unnecessary. The zebra crossing, the studio, the history and the instruments speak for themselves and oh how I wish the walls of studio 2 could talk! As producer/engineer Jonathan Allan, who records us regularly in studio 1 said last night, “We record anything here...as long as it’s good.” With a long list of names that span time and genre, Elgar, Menuhin, Bartok, Prokofiev, Glen Miller, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellars, Star Wars, Harry Potter...the list is endless and proves his point.
If music speaks for itself and needs little embellishment, then why is it that the classical music ‘business’ seems intent on continually reinventing itself?
San Francisco evidently read my last blog. She didn’t want me to leave. At 8.30am yesterday morning we left for an 11am flight to Los Angeles. The shuttle to LA is such a popular route that there are often two planes an hour. The planes are small, two by two with a single aisle, it’s almost like getting the train to work. If you follow me on twitter, you’ll know how much I enjoy South West Trains daily challenges. Unfortunately, Delta airlines decided to take a leaf out of their book. We boarded a little late, I buckled up drifted off to sleep. I couldn’t believe it when I was awoken by the clicking of unfastening seat-belts, it’s not often I manage to sleep through a whole flight, even a short one. Sadly, all I’d slept through was the boarding process. Due to a fault, we had to ‘deplane’ and shortly afterwards, the flight was cancelled. LSO management went into overdrive and after a couple of hours waiting, boarding cards began to trickle out with instructions to either run to terminal 3, take a bus to San Jose or just wait around for the 4 o’clock flight. There was nothing I could do, I sat down to a burger and looked at Facebook as some of my more fortunate colleagues checked into the Biltmore in LA. I didn’t pay much attention to where anyone else was, or what flights they were on and so after I got bored of coffee refills, I walked out of the restaurant and was met with...well, nobody. I couldn’t see a single other LSO player. A prickle ran up my back. Had I misread my new boarding card? Had I missed my flight? Was I going to have to pay for a new ticket and miss the concert?
The sidewalk is blocked by a crowd. There is shouting and I stop to look. Two Chinese women are standing, arguing without a care over what seems to be a turnip. From the tone and volume of their voices, I’m guessing it’s an exceptional turnip. I walk on. A few minutes later, the pavement is once again blocked. Men in vests and shirts with rolled up sleeves are talking at speed in Italian. Although I’m not entirely sure what they are on about, the gesticulation, the differences in opinion and the passion flying across the corner cafe tables, means they can only be discussing one thing. Football. If you’re reading this in American, that’s soccer. I carry on up the same street and fairly soon, I’m one of a handful of people without a healthy beard and slightly too short trousers. The remains of the handful are women. The landscape is dominated by coffee shops. Not the ubiquitous costabucks, but independent, eco friendly, probably vegan and reassuringly expensive coffee shops. It’s a bit like being in Shoreditch but with post ironic sunshine. I arrive, hot and jet lagged at Fisherman's Wharf where the sweet smell of boiling shellfish overwhelms the early flowering Jasmine of the nearby residential roads. I skipped breakfast and the lure of the seafood is irresistible. I dive in to a restaurant, take a table looking out across the harbour where the towers of the Golden gate bridge thread through the masts of the fishing fleet. I order shrimp, and relax. I realise that for the last thirty minutes, I’ve been walking around with a huge grin on my face. San Francisco does that. The trouble with touring is that whilst I’m having a great time, at every turn I see something else that I wish my family were here to share. The criss cross slopes of Lombard street, the cable cars, the bridge, Davies Symphony Hall with our name on it, Alcatraz...and so it goes on, it’s easy to fall in love with this place and to be honest, if my family were here, I have a hard time of it. I left my heart in San Francisco, or so says the song. I love the city, I really do, but I left my heart somewhere in Surrey.
I suppose music imitating nature isn’t a new thing. Whether intentional and explicit as in Beethoven’s pastoral or just through the patina of place and time - Shostakovitch perhaps - you can’t get away from it. Walking around New York City earlier this week, I had my headphones on, Nirvana playing as I walked purposefully down to the bottom of Manhattan to visit my favourite bookshop, Strand Books. Nirvana can make quite a noise, but even they couldn’t drown out the sounds of the city which layered themselves on top. The sound of illegal street sellers shouting in one direction and looking for the law in the other, the constant car horns sounded for a thousand reasons and none, music dripping from stores and the chatter of tourists excitedly spotting landmarks for the first time. In the end I gave up, removed my headphones and floated downtown on a jet lagged soundtrack of the city...and you know what, there were no cows, I heard no Sibelius but instead the rhythms and tones of the Gershwin piano concerto we were playing that night, seemed to drift in and out. Not surprising I suppose in this city of infinite possibilities.
I never really got Sibelius when I was a kid. I’m not the only one either. My mother in law has always loved his music, and repeated plays as a child, left my wife slightly traumatised by what has become known in our house as ‘that symphony with the cows.’ She was scared of it as a kid. In case your relationship with sound and visuals isn’t as vivid as my wife’s, the cows in question are the low grunts from the basses, tuba and bassoons that underpin the final movement of his second symphony. You’ve probably never thought of it before, but if you listen with a child’s ears, it does so
I always wish my grandparents were still alive when I visit Buckingham Palace. I know that my Gran would have been so impressed that I was going to see the Queen. The fact that I was simply playing in the orchestra whilst it was actually Simon Halsey who was being awarded the Queens Medal for Music would be a minor detail - by the time she’d told everyone, my 30 minute performance would most likely have been upgraded to a knighthood in the village. Still, without wishing to boast, I have had several brushes with royalty. It’s very interesting watching how people think they are going to react upon meeting the Queen and the way they actually react. Some people get terribly republican and mutter about not believing in the the system and so on. In my experience, when faced with royalty, they usually end up performing the most extravagant bow in the line up. I don’t know if it’s nerves, but I always seem to end up making a joke at an inappropriate moment.
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