Black Friday – Christmas Carols for Class, Free Download (all 26 tracks)

I saw this at the museum of broken relationships

My motto.

For last year’s Advent Calendar, I did 26 sketches of Christmas Carols for class. I’d love to make the album properly one day, but in the meantime, if you would like to use any of these for class, please be my guest. Some are a bit silly, some aren’t in straight sets of 8 bar phrases (that’s Christmas carols for you), and some are a bit rough round the edges, but you might find something in there you like.

If you want to read the background, see last year’s Advent calendar as a list 

More (sorry!) on triple metre and ballet classes


One of the reasons that I’m very sympathetic to anyone who says they don’t “get” time signature, is that my own hearing and sense of metre can play strange  tricks on me. The most bizarre of these is when  I accidentally play the “wrong” thing for an exercise, and it turns out to be OK, because there’s some kind of metrical equivalence that I had never thought of before (there’s a diagram coming to explain that).

Here’s an example: the other day, I did something in class that I don’t think I’ve ever done in 28 years of playing for ballet.  The teacher marked a ronds de jambe à terre exercise, a  bog standard 3/4 one, no surprises, no tricks. But as I was watching, the music that started playing in my head was What a wonderful world. It’s against all the unwritten rules of ballet (ronds de jambe must be on a dirgy 3, or – once, in about 1976, on a slow 4) that I hardly dared do it. But it went almost unnoticed, which is to say, nobody died, and everyone did the exercise, and the teacher didn’t stamp the floor and look shocked. So it does work.

If you think about it (which I did, for a few seconds before, to see whether it could possibly work in theory, and a long time afterwards, to explain why it did in practice) one bar of a 4/4 ballad-y thing like that, with triplets in the left hand, is at some level equivalent to a bar of 2 bars of 3/4. One reason why it’s not immediately obvious is because those six quavers are split down the middle in the 4/4, and into 3 lots of 2 in the 3/4. Another reason is that when you think “6/8″, “3/4″ or “4/4″, you think certain kinds of music or tune, you don’t think about imaginary metrical levels that might connect them in a metric-theoretical universe.

Potential metrical alignments between three time signatures/tunes

Potential metrical alignments between three time signatures/tunes

The diagram above shows – metrically – how a 4/4 ballad with triplets, a tune in 3/4, and a tune in 6/8 could be used for the same exercise. Imagine the 6/4 written out in 6/8 with semiquavers instead of quavers, and played half speed.  I’m not offering this as a handy tip for solving problems in class – like I said, it’s taken me almost my entire career to work this out, and it makes my brain hurt to look at that diagram. I discovered the trick only this year, when playing for adages – when teachers mark something in what sounds like an impossibly slow 3/4, you can play a 4/4 ballad. I couldn’t work out the theory, I just found it worked.

One of the things that enabled me to work it out, was (mis)hearing a teacher counting a bar of 6/8 in a rehearsal – I couldn’t tell whether she was grouping the notes in threes or 2s, so it sounded sometimes like 3/4, sometimes like 6/8.  This connects eventually with my last post on the perils of being too “musical” as a pianist – ballet teachers are sometimes much “cleaner” and stricter in tempo than us musicians, and that’s why I was able to mis-hear what she was singing. The trouble (for pianists) with thinking in 3/4 (as in Santa Lucia in the diagram), is that under the influence of the tune or the main metre, the quaver accompaniment begins to slide into fancy “musical” performance. If, on the other hand, you mentally imagine that you’re grouping the quavers as 3+3 instead of 2+2+2 (as in the bottom line of the diagram) you slip out of the 3/4 tendency, and it becomes the steadier, more reliable undercurrent that is better in adage.

All of this makes me think that Justin London’s “Many Meters Hypothesis” is absolutely bang-on. Metre isn’t a neutral grid that you can just lay over or extract from music, so that all 3/4s are in some way equivalent. Quite the opposite – within the range of things that are in 3, for example, there are repertoires which have particular qualities of threeness, and you’ll recognise and parse these to a greater or lesser extent, depending on your musical enculturation. The proof of this, to me, is that the theoretical (metrical) equivalence of the three things that I’ve shown in the diagram is so strained as to still appear unusual and unintuitive, even when you see it written down and “proved” on paper. Each of those pieces has a particular feel which cannot be reduced to a unifying metrical level.

As chance would have it, I was skimming through Prausnitz’s Score and podium: a complete guide to conducting book on conducting (recommended to me by Gavin Sutherland, thank you very much, sir), and came across this terrific quote on page 115:

A timely caution: one good subdivision does not necessarily deserve another. Given the fact that most music is made between beats, it follows that the fewer the beats, the more music making can take place.

That to me sums up the hazards of marking adages for the pianist. Teachers are encouraged to indicate musical subdivision to musicians, and sometimes, it’s good that they do. But in adage, the more they prescribe the subdivision, the less chance there is that you as the pianist can think laterally about how to fill the space between the beats. And for the teacher, those subdivisions are less significant, it seems to me, than they are for the pianist – but you have to be a brave soul to take the risk and play something other than was marked, in case the teacher really did want that thing she asked for. Nine times out of ten, I don’t think it matters. I’ll run and hide now.

The perils of “musicality” when you’re accompanying a ballet solo


In the last week, I’ve had the same correction from two eminent ballet mistresses about my playing. What I did seemed so glaringly wrong to them that the correction came with the same tone of voice as you might tell someone they’d left the door open.  The mistake concerned exactly the same rhythmic pattern in two pieces of music, and more or less the same kind of step.


6/8 B major solo from Glazunov’s “Raymonda.”

swan lake

Tchaikovsky: White Swan solo, Act 2 Swan Lake

The first example is from the slow solo in Raymonda (B major), the second from the white swan solo in Swan Lake.  I put what I thought was quite a subtle tenuto on the D major chord in the second half of the last bar of the Raymonda example, and on the C#s at the beginning of each bar in Swan Lake. 

I instinctively labour those notes slightly. The harmony, melodic contour and rhythmic sequence of dotted quaver followed by semiquavers in a 6/8 bar all seem to demand it. Or more precisely, my training as a pianist taught me to do it.  It’s so instinctive, that I wasn’t aware that I was doing anything unusual until I got impassioned pleas from the front to “just keep the rhythm” “don’t hold that note” and “keep the tempo going.”

In both cases, the dancer was doing what to my mind was a visual analogue of a tenuto – “holding” a position in a way that I’ve heard referred to as precipitée - i.e. get there quick and linger. There was me thinking I was being a good accompanist, following these very musical dancers and lingering with them, only to find that I was doing something fundamentally wrong which imperilled their performance.

Once I’d got over the shame of having to be corrected over something so basic, I realised that this is one of the ironies of accompanying very accomplished dancers: what looks “musical” in ballet is that ability to linger on a note, to play with the timing. But if you’re going to do that, you have to have something to play against. It’s a bit like what my piano teacher (who was a singer, as well as being a renowned accompanist for singers) used to call “support” – i.e. providing a firm musical mattress for the singer, not one that gave in to every lump and bump in the musical line. In fact, the dancer in the rehearsal yesterday said “don’t watch me, because I’m going to play with the music,” which seems to confirm what I’m saying.

Your own “musicality” as a pianist, the things you do with timing that are conventional markers of expressiveness in musical performance, can be perilous when you’re accompanying dance. It’s not just that you have to remember that you can’t muck around with beats in an orchestra the way you can with a piano. It’s also that in order for the dancer to be able to “play” with the music using those same conventional expressive markers (rubato, agogic accents etc.) you have to provide something solid enough for them to work with. It’s their show, not yours.

Is this a rule of thumb? I don’t know. It’s odd that this should have happened twice in the same week in different countries with different people, and with the same kind of musical object. I began to doubt myself yesterday, wondering whether I’d become a kind of Mapp and Lucia pianist, proudly wallowing in my own “musicality” without realising that it just sounds mannered and plain unrhythmical. It’s a funny business, this ballet thing – they say you never stop learning as an accompanist, but I seem to be getting worse, rather than better sometimes. A kinder interpretation is that I just happen to have worked with two expert coaches in the past week, who were able to determine accurately what it was they and their dancers needed to make things work.  It’s probably somewhere between those two poles. The rather frustrating thing is that the nature of the job means that you rarely get to discuss these things with others, unless you do what I’m doing now and blog about them.

Meter vs subdivision: An easy solution to the ballet and time signature problem?


In the course of writing an article about the problems of ballet and time signature recently, I read a lot of books and articles about 18th century theories of meter. I’ve already blogged about that several times recently, as I found a lot of it helped to answer queries I’ve had for years.

As the dust has settled on the thoughts that I had for the article, I have come to a conclusion, for now at least, that “mixed meter” as the 18th century theorist Koch used that term, offers a really useful way of understanding meter and time signature problems in ballet teaching. I began to formulate that idea in And now for something completely sextuplebut I could say it even more simply now.

The problems I’m talking about are almost exclusively to do with triple meter, and the fact that in the kind of music that you get in ballet classes (i.e. predominantly 8-count or 8-bar phrases) there is always a possibility of counting in 2 or 4 rather than 3 – and if trainee ballet teachers have to learn about time signature, they often have difficulty understanding why something should be classified as a 3 or a 6 when it seems more natural to count it in 4.

If Koch were to come back to earth and teach such courses, he probably  wouldn’t say  “you’re wrong, it’s a 6,” he would have said “this is a tripled 2,” or “mixed meter” – you’re right, it is four, because the tune is moving predominantly in a 1,2, 1,2, fashion, rather than diddeley diddeley diddely diddely style, like a double jig, or Schumann’s Der wilde Reiter/The Wild Horseman.  Koch’s point was that these things that sound like fours, are fours, but you write them in compound time like 6/8 because it’s notationally easier. A true 6/8, or truly triple meter, is one where the movement of the tune coincides with the “6” in the top of the time signature.  The exceptions – and they have to be learned – are the triple jig, the polonaise, and the sarabande, and very slow versions of either minuet or mazurka (and of course, many other styles of music that are not so commonly used in ballet).

To put it another way, what matters about time signature if you’re trying to make a bridge between movement and music is not how many beats there are in a bar, but which beats carry the motion. This rather 18th century way of looking at it helps to distinguish meter from subdivision. If you define time signature only as how many beats there are in a bar, without also looking in individual cases at what  happens  in the melody or most salient part of the musical surface, then meter and subdivision get confused. That’s the kind of class where hapless students try to count “12” in a bar of 12/8 where Koch would have said, “Don’t count 12, because this is mixed meter, it’s really a 4, written in 12 for the sake of notational simplicity.”

It’s rather a shame that I’ve only just realised this at the point in my life where I no longer have to teach it, but that’s why partly why I keep a blog – to atone for my past conceptual sins.

Goffman and the office


The Guardian has published two articles on contemporary office design in the last two days – the first a diatribe by Jeremy Paxman, “If I were king for a day, I would ban open-plan offices,” the second a glowing vision of the future as if Paxman had never spoken: “Death of the desk: the architects shaping offices of the future.” Paxman cites the satirical programme W1A as an extreme, hilarious-if-it-weren’t-actually-true example of office design gone mad, the second article offers the architect’s defence.  With no hint of irony, it also describes new offices that will have a running track for employees, because with longer hours, workers need somewhere to “let off steam,” as if Google and others are doing their employees a favour. So much for the future envisioned in the 1970s where we’d have so much leisure, we wouldn’t know what to do with it.

The bit that really caught my eye was this: Philip Tidd of design and architecture firm Gensler says things are changing, and that “[y]our seniority in the organisation, your status in the organisation, does not need to be reinforced by how much space you get.” If that is the case, then I can only wonder at the ways in which seniority and status are reinforced in a building where all the stage and props have been removed. In The presentation of self in everyday lifeErving Goffman brilliantly describes and analyses how people use props, costumes, “stage” and “backstage” areas in their workplaces to “perform” their role.  Once you’ve read that, it seems hard to believe that you could take away the conventional material expressions of status and not see new ones resurface somewhere else.

When I temped in offices in between music jobs, I was staggered at the way people in apparently un-theatrical professions were prone to unwitting displays of ego (a point I have to make constantly to people who think that the theatre is a place of unbridled egotism – it isn’t, you can’t get theatre made that way). You always know which are the consultants in hospitals: they’re the ones dressed like something out of Jeeves and Wooster (the circus and medicine are two of the few remaining professional arenas where loud shirts and bow ties are still acceptable costume).  The executive may not have the corner office any more, but their status is probably even more prominently displayed in the car-park, where they’ll have one of the only allocated spaces. Or they’ll have a Brompton folding bike, and bring it into the office (something which would be frowned upon lower down the food chain, I suspect). In 2012, the intern is given the problem of storing the executive’s Brompton in a building that has no useful space to store stuff away discreetly, frittering away his time, or forcing him to leave the bike somewhere awkward.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life amazingly timeless, such good observation and analysis that you have no sense that it was written 60 years ago. It encourages you to look out for precisely those activities and accoutrements of a perfomer (i.e. a normal person, performing their everyday life) that are either designed to be missed, or of which the performer is themselves unaware.  It’s not in Goffman’s book, but one situation that fascinates me is the so-called “open door” policy that some managers operate. Can there be anything more terrifying or status-affirming than having to judge whether it’s really OK to enter a manager or director’s office when the door is always open?

See also: great article on the pain of having to dress “appropriately” by Lauren Laverne. 

Oh so it’s not just me then – Facebook saturation point

Ajvar - a Hungarian told me he couldn't get it in Budapest, even though they're "next door" to Croatia. But here in Tooting, SW London, people even leave it on garden walls.

Ajvar – a Hungarian told me he couldn’t get it in Budapest, even though they’re “next door” to Croatia. But here in Tooting, SW London, people even leave it on garden walls.

Just a few weeks after my last post about my growing disenchantment with Facebook (and all social media, as it happens), I found an article by Theo Merz on the same subject in The Telegraph. “It increasingly feels like the party is happening elsewhere,” he says.

Roughly speaking, I agree, but I don’t think we’re looking for another party to join, so much as enjoying the forgotten pleasures of not being at a party, of enjoying some experiences for how they appear to us at the time, not reconstituting them for an imaginary public.

If anything has propelled me to the exit, it’s the trend for posting reasons to be cheerful, or 100 days of happiness and so on. I’m a big fan of positive psychology, and would recommend anyone to just list a few things they are pleased about in order to pull themselves a day and a millimetre at a time from whatever dark hole they’re in. I also like rubrics in blogs and posts – it’s prompts creativity and resourcefulness. I’m also happy if my friends are happy. But I feel that to post these things on Facebook is against the spirit of what makes focusing on positives work: if you’re feeling down, or finding it hard to get up in the morning, then the fact that you put the rubbish out on time – or some other task that everyone else seems to find routine and simple – can count as one of your three-a-day. But are you going to admit that to anyone except your closest friend or therapist? Probably not. Because Facebook is precisely the kind of forum in which you need to exercise careful impression management, to use Goffman’s term from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  





Facebook echo and rediscovering privacy

The Charles Bridge. Log-jammed because of people photographing their own passage across it

The Charles Bridge. Log-jammed because of people photographing their own passage across it

Don’t get me wrong: I love Facebook, and I am one of its most shallow users. I’ll post anything – videos and pictures of cats (a lot), pictures of things I’m about to eat, reposts from The PokeI love seeing other friends’ pictures of their day. The more trivial, the better, because it’s the trivia that colours and shades the detail of friendship.  But knowing how much I loved it made it easy to decide to have a break from it (see earlier post).

It wasn’t difficult to stop reading Facebook, in fact, it was rather like not having to scratch an itch anymore, but the impulse to post was an itch that wouldn’t go away.  Within minutes, I realised that using social media had developed a tic in my brain I call “Facebook echo” – an internal voice that samples your experience in slices and presents it back to you as a status update before you’ve had a chance to take the experience in as a whole – like hearing the reverb before you hear the sound.  Walking down a street, being with friends, eating in a restaurant, preparing a meal, reading the news, it didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, I’d find events echoing back to me as potential Facebook or Twitter posts, whether I would actually have posted them or not. Remember Fred Elliott in Coronation Street, who said everything twice, I say, who said everything twice? A bit like that.

Facebook echo digitises what was once an analogue experience – though the habit is so well-formed in my brain now, that I can hardly remember what it was like to live without running a rolling news service at the same time. Walking across the Charles Bridge in Prague (as I was when I started thinking about this) is no longer “a walk” but a series of photo opportunities that must be immediately captioned. The prospective status update makes you decide which bit of your experience to sample. Every glance, every thought and impression is processed, edited, captioned, categorized (humour, morals, social conscience, pet-hates, self-promotion, information, and so on).

I’m not taking the moral high-ground here: for one thing, I was thinking all this only because I was crossing the Charles Bridge to meet someone that I hadn’t seen for some years, but who I’d stayed in touch with on Facebook. By that time I’d decided not to use Facebook for a week, but my journey across the bridge was slowed down by people starring in their own celebrity biopics of themselves in Prague. Even two weeks on, the urge to turn everything into a status update or a tweet is still there, but without the means of scratching the itch, it wears off, as the attraction of smoking did after I gave up.

What I love is the return to privacy – to having a life that no longer has to be lived with your skin inside out. Andy Warhol’s predictions were not as accurate as people say, I think: we are not all famous for 15 minutes, we’re all starring in our own show 24 hours a day. If you’re not photographing yourself without make-up, someone else will be, as you become the unwitting backdrop for their selfie or holiday snap. Apparently 1 in 3 people would let their employer have access to their Facebook account in return for job security. If there was ever a reason to not have a Facebook account at all, this is it.  For my taste, the wresting of privacy from an individual is wrong, whether it’s Facebook, your employer, or  the Stasi/KGB who do it. When you’ve got a choice, to opt in seems crazy, but I think we are fast forgetting what privacy once meant, so there appears to be no choice to make.

PS: I did think later on, if I care so much about privacy, why am I making this post public? I have no idea.