Friday, January 16, 2009

Recorder Rebels

Bonding with your gig-mates is one of the things that makes gigging so delightful (among many other things, because, let's face it, as jobs go, it's not exactly going down the mines), and when someone you think is really brilliant rings you up and says "Will you do a gig with me?" it makes you feel a bit like a teenager being asked out on a date by the person whose name you've been writing on your exercise book for months.

A couple of weeks before Christmas I was waiting in the Playhouse theatre lobby, about to go and see La Cage Aux Folles, when I got just such a dream phone call from guitarist and ukeleleist extraordinaire, Martin Wheatley. He asked me if I'd do a gig with him that Saturday for a birthday party at a venue near Euston. Now this is the man who I've not only heard accompanying the stunning Cousin Alice with exquisite lightness of touch, but also the man who can play 'the dam busters' on a single ukelele and make it sound like the entire orchestra. I said yes immediately, even though I already had two gigs on that Saturday - one in the afternoon, and one late night - and the reason I said yes was purely and simply because it was Martin, and I knew that getting the chance to sing with him was going to be like a Christmas present all by itself.

Then it turned out that the gig he was asking me to do was the very gig that I'd actually turned down a few days before because I was already booked up. And so I had been - until Martin asked me. See what happened there? I got seduced into doing the gig purely and simply for the pleasure of working with one of the best musicians in London, and sure enough it turned out, miraculously, that there was room to fit a third gig in between the other two after all. If any musician ever tries to tell you that they're only doing it to make a living, don't believe them. They're doing it because they love music. (This is why musicians almost never get paid what their services are actually worth.)

Martin picked me up in the car from Volupte after my afternoon gig, and gave me a lift to the bar where the gig was - but when we got there we discovered that we were an hour and a half early, and the venue was locked and dark. So we pulled into a parking space around the corner and ran through a few numbers together on the ukeleles, using a torch to light the cab of his people-carrier enough to see the chord charts - because we hadn't actually had a chance to rehearse a single thing beforehand. This may seem shocking - either the bit where I'm sitting in a parked car in the dark while a strange man gets his instrument out, or the bit where he and I are about to play a 90 minute gig completely unrehearsed (which one you find the more shocking will depend on your musical background, probably).

But it's not really that shocking when you consider that there is a huge back catalogue of jazz standards that most jazzers know like the back of their hands, all of which Martin has been playing for decades probably, and many of which I've now been singing for 15 years too. All the musicians need to know is the singer's key, and they're off. And as for me, I never have a clue what the tempo and the style is going to be until they start - which is exactly why I've always got such a kick out of singing jazz with a 'scratch' band. It's a musical rollercoaster. The Slinktet have been going for nearly 5 years now and I absolutely love rehearsing and performing our own material, but I also get a wicked thrill out of going back to my old edge-of-seat ways and flying by the seat of my pants for the odd gig too. Especially when the musician flying the plane is as skilled a pilot as Mr Wheatley.

Having run through a few numbers quickly that we'd both be able to do on ukelele together, Martin pulled his car around to the front of the bar again, only to discover that it was still closed. So back we went to our backstreet parking space. But instead of doing some more rehearsing, we started to chat about how we'd first got into music as children, and a conversation began about our first instrument - the recorder.

It turned out that we had both ended up as musicians despite, rather than because of, the start that we'd had on that unassuming little instrument. Martin revealed that as a child he had actually been thrown out of his school recorder group. Why? Because he had been caught cheating. How had he been cheating? Shockingly, instead of sight reading the music in front of him, he was listening to the tune and copying what was being played. This was considered extreme disobedience by his music teachers, hence his expulsion from recorder paradise.

My own recorder misadventures began when my grandfather (who was an antiques dealer, rather more of the Arthur Daily than the Lovejoy school of the genre), gave me a bakelite recorder so I could join the school recorder group (from which I'd already been excluded for a year by the fact that my parents considered it a waste of money to splash out on a bit of plastic for me to blow down). Unfortunately the bakelite recorder, while a charming antique to look at, was out of tune with all the other recorders in the school recorder group. Thus, whenever we played a tune, there was always that hideous buzzing sound that you get when somebody in the group plays the wrong note. Except in this case, nobody was playing a wrong note, it was the recorder itself that was out of tune, as my recorder teacher discovered when she took the offending instrument off me and tried playing it herself.

After (I suspect) a discreet word in my parents' ear, I finally got a proper bona fide Aulos soprano recorder of my own (which I still have somewhere, complete with deep teeth-marks on the mouthpiece). But my recorder misadventures didn't end there. A few years later my mum gave me a note to give to my recorder teacher. I didn't read it (because I was that kind of a goody goody kid) so I had no idea what my mum had said in it, until my recorder teacher called me over after practice and said to me very gently that it was okay to make the tune up by listening to it and then copying it, because that was actually something called 'playing by ear' rather than cheating. So I wasn't to worry about the fact that I wasn't doing it properly - in fact I should be proud of the fact that I was able to play by ear because in fact that was actually a gift that not everybody had. To be honest I was a bit baffled by this little pep talk, because I wasn't aware that I'd been doing anything wrong in the first place - my mum hadn't actually shared any of her concerns about my musical shortcomings with me - she'd just gone straight over my head to the teacher. And, in fact, it never occurred to me to report back to my mum what the teacher had said. So my mum went on thinking that I was a musical retard - possibly to this day, who knows?

I still can't really read music, to be honest. That's where years of cheating gets you. But what I can do is sing, unrehearsed, with someone I've never sung with before, in front of an audience, and sound like I know what I'm doing. It's the ultimate bluff. Except it turns out not to be a bluff at all, but, in some people's books at least, what you're actually supposed to do.

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