The Sky In A Room: A performers diary.

 

 

 

Hello there again dear friends.

By now you’ll know about my fascinating double life as an organist.

organ.jpg

https://museum.wales/cardiff/whatson/9865/Ragnar-Kjartansson-The-Sky-in-a-Room/

And I thought I should keep a diary of all the things I’ve learnt my thoughts and feelings about playing the same 3 minute Italian pop song over and over and over and over and over again 2 days a week for 5 weeks.

I’m currently at the start of week two so I will try and remember everything from week one and continue to keep updated after every set.

 

Week 1:

 

so after the two days of rehearsals and private viewing last week it was a little bit of a relief to be finally actually doing the project. The set times has shifted around quite a bit but it ended up being three 1 hour sets, which I think works well because there’s only 2 long breaks instead of a bunch of small breaks, and it also means you get to go home at 3:30 if you’re on the early shift and don’t have to come in until 11:30 if you’re on the later one.

The first day was tuesday 6, my first full day, foolishly I had bought an entire packet of fig rolls (I love fig rolls! and this comes in later on), so the first set was a little bit of a struggle, getting warmed up and comfortable after being told ‘Do it slower’ ‘do it quieter’ all throughout the rehearsals. But honestly, there’s 7 different performers with 7 very different voices and what is quiet for me is VERY loud for someone else, so my ‘piano’ is just what it is… so after that first set I went and watch two episodes of Bojack horseman and ate a whole packet of fig rolls… the second set was my favourite, warmed up and comfortable with enough energy to do the whole hour and feel pretty good about it. Second break I have a cup of tea and chat with the art dept women (as our green room is also the Art Dept break room), my third set was a little dry and I had to go to the loo really badly so that REALLY dragged on… because I had eaten an entire packet of fig rolls and it should be pretty obvious to any one reading why I needed to loo so badly…

 

Anyway, the day ends and I have to go play a conference drinks reception down the bay.

The next day I’m off to a music in Hospitals gig in Taunton which is a real culture shock after spending about two weeks just thinking about one piece and then having to play and whole concert full of different repertoire!

 

Friday comes along and I’m back, this is very much the same, a little rough to start off with, then a beautiful second set and a comfortable third set. I have to take a choir rehearsal right after so I was VERY warmed up for that!

 

A change of plans and a big arts magazine critic coming on Saturday means that I’m in on Saturday as well, although I hadn’t planned to be in! So on saturday I’m having my photo taken by the south wales echo about my lovely little Topaz Street Garden and then I have to grab my stuff and hurry in for 11:30. By this time our green room has moved. It’s no longer the windowless box that is the Art Dept break room but a gorgeous meeting room with front facing windows at the very front of the museum! It’s huge, it’s quiet and there’s excellent people watching!  so… naturally I spend my breaks practicing my cartwheels.

I’m not good at cartwheels.

As a result of the green room being moved we are now using the public loos (we were using the Art Dept toilets which are closed to the public) so on my pre-performance loo trip a woman stops me and says ‘Oh you’re the singer! That was just wonderful!’, which is the first of I’m sure will be MANY loo trip compliments. (‘Loo Trip Compliments’ is going to be a merch-shirt you can buy at Cardiffweddingharpist.com/merch )

Today’s tip: practice makes perfect…. sooo keep practicing.

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So, Saturday I’m pretty tired but I make it through, it’s not too bad, more fig rolls (No I have not learned my lesson and I refuse to!).

Week 2

Tuesday 13th Feb: Today was an interesting one… in the sense that an old man snuck up behind me and really startled me! Which was a little terrifying. For the last week people have been a solid metre away, and usually off to the sides because I am very much like a horse, it is best to approach from the sides as to not spook me!

That was during the very end of my middle set and I did yell ‘That was terrifying!’ at the man because honestly, he was a foot away from me and directly behind me… also he was in a windbreaker and I did NOT hear him approach with is worrying! silent! like the wind!

I’ve started trying to make the other organists laugh when we swap places, because I feel as though whenever I’m replacing someone they always look very serious and if they haven’t played the piece 800 times already, and if no one can see your face I’m going to do a lot of eyebrows… I like to keep things interesting.

As far as the actual music, I’ve started adding parts, which I justify thusly:

So when we first got the score it was a transcription of an audio life, this was then simplified in the second draft and made easy enough for us non-organists (because none of us are really organists, however they did find two singing harpists, so that’s pretty impressive!). So when I play it I like to try and re-incorporate the complicated aspects of the first draft so that it’s more like an on going project where I try and make it a little harder for myself every week.

So I think I’m more than allowed to add bits. And also it’s FUN!

performance wise, I’m thinking of the piece more as a complete 1 hour work rather than one song repeated. And I’m working to the half hour every set. So I will play and say to myself ‘Oh Almost half way through’. It’s a lot like that Kimmy Schmidt bit where she says ‘You can do anything 10 seconds at a time and then by the end it just starts again’ and that is A LOT like this piece. I’m just working through it.

Vocally, I’m trying to do it in the healthiest and most artistic way I can, which is always a neat on going project.

Organally, I’m experimenting with speeding things up and slowing them down during the cadenza, which is alright.

My thesis statement about the project so far is this:

There is no tangible goal or outcome. You aren’t building anything or making anything. At the end of the project all you’ll have is the small amount of money they’re paying you and a nice photo your mother will probably frame in her dining room. You go back to your regular life as a busking harpist who occasionally plays posh gigs. So the only thing really happening is the gradual progression of time. Just like Life and Winter you’ve just gotta get through it.

Also today, LOO TRIP COMPLIMENTS! An Italian lady stopped me in the loos to tell me how wonderful my singing was and asked if I was Italian… clearly that language training day paid off!

Today’s tip: life is full of compromise. You can’t win ‘em all.

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For the Friday performance I had someone leave a note on my stool (upside-down so I couldn’t read it during) and when I got up to swap performers the note had disappeared. After an hour of wondering I returned for my final shift at the organ and the note has landed between the pedal board! That was the only exciting thing that happened.

 

Week 3

I keep bringing in ‘Green room snacks’ because the work is pretty tiering and bringing in some garbage food to eat during the break is the only thing keeping me going.

For Wednesday’s performance I may have eaten far too many cookies during my first break and spend the second break trying to hold them all in! Oh boy! that made life exciting.

For the Friday Performance my parents came down and my mother absolutely loved it! They came for the last performance and during the first hour I thought ‘I should use the swell pedal’. There is a small wooden pedal on the right hand side of the organ that effectively opens and closes a lid on the organ. It catches on latches was you push it down and you have to push the long catch away as you press the pedal so it can move…. Anyway, I had not used the swell pedal except for when I pressed it during the photoshoot and thought I had broken the whole thing.

The key to doing anything in life, be it taking apart an alarm clock, fixing a car or playing an organ is to always remember who it was before you started messing with it. Unfortunately, I only now know this bit of wisdom… because I decided to press the level anyway…. there is a part in the piece where there is a long organ solo in which nothing happens… there’s not stops to pull, no pedal notes to change, nothing. So I decided to put a small swell during this section to make it ‘more musical’…. and of course by ‘more musical’ I mean ‘I was bored and like to challenge myself’. So, without thinking about where the pedal was on it’s latch I went and engaged with the swell pedal… it didn’t go poorly, and in fact, someone came up and said that it was the ‘Most magical hour of their life’ so, I can only assume my desperate right leg dancing up and down seemed like part of the plan… same to say when you know there is a change coming up and you will have to move your feet and body you tend to be far more willing to find a solution. I bravely (because, let’s be honest, I’m writing this blog and I am the hero in my own narrative), found a latch and clicked it in place! ‘PHEW!’ I thought, ‘Old Sammie did it again! safe!’

It wasn’t on the right latch… for the next 15 minutes I spent my time between wondering how many latches there were and where the bottom was, I eventually go up the nerve to click it down another run and I thought I’d call it a day.

Would I try it again? Absolutely, it was thrilling and made the time fly by.

What did I learn? You’re asking the wrong person…. because I got out of there pretty quickly after and didn’t look back! Pedal, You’ve been swell!

Week 4:

I only did Sunday this week and oh boy was that a struggle!! We were hit by heavy snow and the humidity dropped a lot (that’s what happens when it gets cold and snows) so singing in an already pretty dry room that just got dryer was a living hell…

I spent the first set just concentrating on breathing and trying to get a good sound! It was quite a shock coming from last week’s nice and controlled singing to this week’s train wreck.

The second set was, of course, much better, and I was slowly starting to warm up, I had 5 gigs cancel on me because of the snow so this was my first time properly singing all week as well!

The final gig I decided to have another play with the swell pedal and It went… well… swell! surprisingly I did pretty well! A museum assistant came and stood next to me for like 10 minutes at 4pm and I turned to her and said ‘you ok’ and she gestured back the universal signal for ‘Don’t mind me’… always 15 minutes later she was still stood there and I said ‘Is there a reason you’re stood here?’ and she did the hand gesture again and said ‘We’re closing early so if you could finish up’… the action of waving your hands in a low X across your body does not indicate ‘If you could just finish so I can go home, that’d be great’, it’s a ‘Don’t mind me’ gesture… anyway, I did one more because I had gone round again by the time she said something and we got to leave 15 minutes early, but it was really odd that she just stood there instead of just saying ‘we’re closing at X time so finish at X time please’, which is what other MA’s have done in the past 4 weeks… anyway, it was just a weird thing that happened… as you can probably imagine, when you’re singing the same song over and over again in a dark room staring into an organ keyboard there is very little going on….

I think I’m still watching the clock in a way that I don’t do at any other time. sometimes I do it if I’m playing a long wedding breakfast if I’ve come to the end of the set that I like and have to do music I’m not that much of a fan of, but mostly this is just doing an action and watching the time go by… it’s basically a skilled version of shelf stacking in tesco… except I get hour long breaks every hour and get to practice my cartwheels and am also being paid a lot for the 5 hour day so I really should stop complaining and get better at cartwheels.

Week 5

I made the mistake of bringing four chocolate chip muffins into the green room and then I spent the whole day wondering if my performing partner was gunna judge me for eating all four of the muffins (that’s important to this story)

So, I actually fully warmed up before this performance on Wednesday and that may have been the trick all along. I went to 7am yoga and then did a full and long vocal warm up at home… so my first set was really comfortable and easy… and so was the rest of the day… I think the main reason it was so easy was because I put the swell pedal (clearly the cause of all the drama and interest throughout this second act) to a notch below ‘fully open’ during the first half of my first set, this meant that the organ was a little quieter and a little easier to sing over when you’re just starting out the day.

The day went well and I did a couple plays with the swell pedal that were actually very successful. My Cartwheel was not.

Today’s tip: sometimes practice doesn’t always make perfect.

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Sarah also came to see me and enjoyed it.

Today’s tip: ART! A.R.T.

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FINAL DAY!

well gang, we’ve come to the end. Does it feel like the end of an era… not really… am I full of emotions… no….

Today went fine…exactly fine. I got to eat muffin number 3 (I ate two of the muffins yesterday…) and during my last set I heard a dog barking…. ‘Who lets a dog into an art gallery??!?! how did a dog get in here!?’ I thought for a second, then I remembered the seeing-eye-dogs (Is that what they’re called) that I saw in the foyer and thought ‘Wouldn’t it have been hilarious if I hadn’t seen them’. you can’t turn around or see behind you while playing so it would’ve been completely out of the blue. This really made me laugh during my final go round of the piece.

all in all, a pretty good day. My performance partner at the other muffin and tweeted that he was ‘Saving me from myself’… which is very true.

 

Final Thoughts

Throughout the performance I have had a lot of time to think and I would say I divided my time between two things:

Firstly, I spent a large amount of my time and energy on the piece. Playing and singing it to the best of my ability. Once the first set had happened the whole thing became a sort of ‘Marathon vocal exercise’ where the only real goal is doing the piece in a confortable and artistic manner…. which is basically the whole root of my work as a musician and essentially what I do when I busk or play at weddings/events… It’s basically what being a musician is all about. It is, what I have described in pervious posts, ‘Being an artist’, spending hours and hours on the same piece. I have written about how I rarely rehearse the same piece for a long time because that’s not economical for my style of work. If I’m spending 8 hours a week on some Bach that only lasts 3 minutes then I have to spend an insane amount of my time rehearsing to get a 3 hour program. However, when put in a position where you are basically being paid to rehearse one piece over and over you get to play with different aspects and features of the music.

I don’t think I did it right or ‘how the artist intended it’ once… I did it how Sam Hickman thought it should sound, and I think people liked that… I didn’t come in and play the same piece over and over again exactly the same each time, I changed it up… a lot…. and I think that was the intention of the work… but also, I added a lot of stuff… big sections of rubato, runs, trills, other trills, melismas, humming… I feel like I basically stuck to these philosophies ‘I’m getting paid either way’ and ‘If the artist wanted it a certain way, he would have stayed and baby sat or he would’ve been more specific’. It’s a real ‘While the cat’s away’ situation and this mouse is gunna at an organ solo that no one expected.

My Second thoughts were mainly regret. Mainly I thought ‘I’m not being paid enough for this’…. and while that sounds like I’m a complacent and stuck up diva who is, honestly, just the worst. I think it’s pretty true…

My expectation of the piece was that it would be 3-4 days a week as a minimum, we would be a small group of musicians coming in frequently and being paid a lot as a consequence… however, it turned out to be much more like a light work load that I originally thought… I had this impression that I would be slowly driven mad by the song… playing it over and over again for weeks on end… the studio manager in an email said ‘We’ve like the performers to play of the song so much that they hear it when falling asleep at night’… that was a little laughable for me because the thought of me being able to get to sleep that easily seem as ridiculous. But also, it was only 2 days a week… a the very most… and only 3 hours a day… with hour long breaks in between… so I didn’t ever get the song stuck in my head… in fact for the first two weeks I had ‘Always something there to remind me’ by Burt Bacharach, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56m63bsQvB8

and then for the last two days I’ve had ‘I can’t help falling in love with you’ by Elvis Presley, but not the Elvis version the arrangement from the jut box musical ‘All Shook Up’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eSt7qVdRgI  which is actually a delight and you should listen to it.

My other regrets were about the art itself… ‘this is kinda bullshit’, I would think… ‘how is this ‘ART”…?!’ like, It is art in the sense that that is the term you would use to describe it… but it’s not particularly timely or relevant… like 2018, Trump is president, Grenfell tower, NHS cults, The Me Too movement… and I’m sat in a dark room playing a song Gino Paoli wrote to a sex worker he ‘fell in love with’ after paying her for sex… sure… I guess that’s relevant and says something about our culture…

The main think I found it said about our society was about our economy. (and what do you know the Times beat me to it https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-to-spend-money-on-performance-art-w78bhhbch) In the tv show ‘Adams Ruins everything’ he does an episode of the economy, and why your Iphone costs far less and the company makes far less than App developers. He states that ‘Services are more valuable that Goods’, and this is very true in the music industry, Adele will make X amount from Music sales but will make a lot more from tours, that’s why so many musicians tour and their tours are huge and long and they all get vocal injuries because none of the them are bloody trained. But the Same must be true about art… a painting for a museum might cost (let’s say) £1000 to commission, but having 7 people on staff 6 days a week, and paying for the idea of having them play the same song over and over again costs well £30,000. And if you want to do the piece again…? well that’s more money for the artist… it’s the equivalent of licensing a song for a TV advert but having a live band play the song for you every time they want to use it. I don’t know if this theory is right… but honestly, after playing the same piece on repeat for five weeks my new moto is ‘Does it even matter?!’

So those were my thoughts… I had other work around this gig because it paid just under my weekly financial target (which basically meant I had to keep working, teaching and booking gigs just to keep everything running) and they aren’t paying us until the 25th of March, which would’ve been nice to know going into the project because I did not budget on having no money for 2 months.

so quick fire summary section:

What did I set out to do?

Get a gig for the dead period between Christmas and the start of wedding season.

Did I achieve that?

Yes.

Did I enjoy it?

Meh… it happened. I don’t really remember it.

Would I do it again?

double the salary and yes, sure, why not.

What did I learn?

how to play one piece on an organ… after playing it over and over again and also singing an Italian over and over again, I am now 90% certain that I can play organ professionally and speak fluent Italian….

Today’s tip: you only miss the opportunities you don’t take.

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I also learnt that I am bad at cartwheels.

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