As summer draws to a close and the leaves are starting to fall from the trees it seems like a good time to pause and draw breath. The year 2020 might go down as the year we’d all rather forget! Did anyone actually celebrate New Year? It was more like good riddance in this household. Like most people I’ve been focusing on the way ahead rather than mulling on the rocky path we’ve all travelled. There were lows – cancelled gigs, postponed tours and lost teaching – there have also been some amazing personal highs. So I warn you now – this might turn out to be a bit of a showy-off blog. But I’d like to share some of the pretty-darned-cool things that have happened over the last 18 months. We all need some positivity and right now I need a little extra so forgive the indulgence. In a way this is, on the one hand, a story about making the best out of things and, on the other, appreciating how lucky I’ve been to have had the love and support of so many friends, family and followers. Somehow we’ve all muddled our way to here. For that I’m truly grateful!
In Every Heart
Before we get to the pretty-darned-cool things there’s a bit of a blip. If you’re wondering why I’m feeling sentimental then here’s why. In January 2021 composer David John Roche sent me a hauntingly beautiful tremolo piece called In Every Heart for solo ukulele. The title comes from a Billy Joel song called And So It Goes.
When that email and the music popped into my inbox and I saw the title there was a lump in my throat.
Dave didn’t know about my heart condition. It used to be called Lown Ganong Levine Syndrome. I call it the hamster wheel. Since the age of 9 I’ve suffered from palpitations. I can vividly remember the first episode. I was playing netball with school friends and suddenly my heart started racing. I sat down and after a couple of minutes it went back to normal. I never told anyone. But that was the start. I never knew when it would happen next. It seemed to happen spontaneously and episodes only lasted a few minutes. I found I could control it with deep breathing. No worries! I didn’t tell anyone. Palpitations were associated with frail, neurotic women and I was a toughy who played football and cricket.
In my early 20s it got worse so I plucked up the courage to go and see a doctor. He told me it was stress related and told me I needed to change my lifestyle. Really helpful – not. At least he didn’t prescribe laudanum but I got that “hysterical woman” vibe. So, I got used to living with the hamster wheel. Things were OK until my early 40s and then it started to get worse. I’d never told anyone (apart from that doctor) but decided to confide in my best friend Josie. She took me to see a cardiologist. He did an ECG and that’s when he diagnosed LGL syndrome. Basically the electrical impulses in my heart don’t work quite right and that can trigger the hamster wheel. So, put down that bottle of laudanum! No need to lock me in the attic…yet…
I was prescribed pill-in-pocket medication and up until 2019 that worked. But things were getting worse. The hamster was joined by the jellyfish. Imagine having a jellyfish wobbling around inside your chest while the hamster is going full tilt on its wheel and you get the idea. Some episodes lasted 8 hours. Not good. Once I had to go to A & E and they rebooted my heart. Really not good. Sinking into the dark abyss even for a millisecond was not something I wanted to repeat. In December 2020, after 6 hours of the jellyfish and the hamster doing their thing, I had to go to A & E again. We all decided it was time to find a better solution. I can’t even begin to tell how fortunate I am that one of my ukulele pupils is a cardiac nurse. I know…you really can’t make this stuff up. Anyway, 24 hours wearing a monitor gave a pretty clear picture of what is going on with my heart. My friendly cardiac nurse organised a video consultation with a cardiologist and I was put on an NHS waiting list to have an ablation for AF and flutter. I was told it would be at least 12 months wait. Meanwhile, I was prescribed daily medication.
A month ago I got THE call from the NHS and the date was set for the procedure. September 1st. Eek. Sooner than expected. Eek. And that’s what prompted me to start looking back. Suddenly the way forward was a little bumpy. As I wait for the procedure I’ve found it difficult to concentrate on anything for long. I want to get it done, get over it and move on but I don’t like thinking about it either. So let’s go back to early 2020.
The Best of 2020/21
In January 2020 I was invited to be a consultant for the new Rockschool Ukulele Syllabus. As many guitar teachers are now also teaching the ukulele the idea was to create a syllabus that paralleled the Rockschool fingerstyle guitar syllabus. My main task was to offer advice on the technical work. (I was also asked to record Bohemian Rhapsody which is a Grade 8 piece.) The most exciting thing about the technical work was Rockschool’s willingness to include campanella scales and encourage the use of standard re-entrant tuning. Guitarists come from a linear landscape so it feels natural to want to play the ukulele with low G tuning. While I’m not against low G tuning and believe it has a special place I’ve always felt re-entrant tuning is the heart and soul of the ukulele. Plus, you all know how much I love campanella style and the high g offers greater potential for the over-ringing. I really think Rockschool produced a beautiful syllabus for fingerstyle ukulele and I was delighted to play a small part in creating it.
The Virtual Ukulele Ensemble
After my 2020 summer tour of Australia had to be postponed I decided to create a Virtual Ukulele Ensemble in order to perform Tom Armstrong’s Shadow Variations. Tom had composed this wonderfully innovative ensemble piece especially for workshops. I was really looking forward to working with various groups around Australia so when that was no longer possible I decided to try a virtual collaboration. The variations explore various extended techniques such as tapping and is both educational and musical. The VUE included amateurs and professionals from across the globe and was a new challenge for me. We all recorded our own parts and then Tom and I put them together in Garage Band. The technical challenges were huge in terms of balancing the parts and getting everyone in time. You can have a listen to the videos here…
3 Minute Thesis
At the start of lockdown I thought I’d have loads of spare time and decided it would be a good challenge to enter the virtual 3MT (3 Minute Thesis). This is a global competition which invites PhD students to present their research in just 3 minutes. The first stages of the competition are internal and the overall winner is then entered into the national stage etc. Initially I was just thinking it would be a good thing to do to help develop my presentation skills and learn how to talk briefly about my research. The rules are such that you can’t play an instrument or any audio. Apart from one slide to illustrate your topic everything is spoken. My uni (the University of Surrey) offered plenty of support with workshops and advice from the previous winner. I wrote, honed and memorised my script and then spent 3 afternoons locked in a small bedroom trying to get a good take. I think I did about 50 takes before I was happy! I couldn’t believe it when I got into the finals. After a bit of tweaking and another 50 takes I sent in my next video. I was absolutely blown away when I received an email telling me I had been chosen as the over-all winner for the University of Surrey!!! That was as far as I got but it gave me confidence to talk about my research briefly. The Amazon vouchers were also hugely welcome as I was able to buy some much needed text books for my research.
An important step in the PhD process is getting past Confirmation. Passing means you are confirmed as doing a PhD. As part of that process I did a concert (January 2020) where I presented some of my arrangements and compositions. I also had to submit a written outline of my proposed submission along with some other written work. I then had a Viva Voce with the two examiners. They asked some tough but pertinent questions and after some minor changes I got through. Yeah!
When we first went into lockdown the school where I teach asked if I wanted to be furloughed or do online teaching. I opted for online. It was really great to still be able to see my pupils every week and I think they enjoyed seeing a teacher. Despite the endless connectivity problems – which we’ve all come to know & hate – lessons went pretty well. Most of my private teaching, however, and hence my income evaporated overnight. In May 2020 I decided to start a Patreon page. I’d had mixed feelings about Patreon but online platforms were proving a lifeline for musicians like me so I decided to give it a go. Despite my reservations my Patreon channel has been a huge success. I love being able to connect with people who share my love of classical ukulele. So far I’ve shared 89 videos with Patrons. Many are tutorial videos which include access to my arrangements and compositions. I’m also creating videos on The Classical Ukulele Method published by Les Productions d’Oz. A recent addition to the page has been access to live Zoom workshops. These workshops are great fun and give Patrons a chance to ask questions and learn a piece in real time. In the last year I’ve gone from Patreon doubter to Patreon embracer!
Zoom presentations have also been a great way for us all to keep motivated and in touch. I’m delighted to have been able to give presentations at the following events:
Banja Luka Symposium
The Banja Luka Symposium was very special because it was a collaboration with the inimitable Giovanni Albini. One of the best things to have happened over the last year is my friendship with Giovanni. United by our mutual aim of furthering the ukulele, and a love of the music of Arvo Pärt, we gave a presentation called Sounding Bells: The Tradition of Arvo Pärt is Tintinnabulu as an Inspiration for Ukulele Arrangements. We explored and discussed our different approaches to arranging Pärt’s Für Alina for the ukulele. I look forward to more collaborations with Giovanni, especially the upcoming First Ukulele International Conference co-directed by Giovanni Albini and Giovanni Cestino.
Here are some new works composed or arranged over lockdown and now published with Les Productions d’Oz include:
From Renaissance to Late Classical: 22 arrangements
I was super excited to be featured in the Spring issue of Ukulele Magazine. This not only recognised my work but acknowledged the ever growing classical ukulele movement. You can read Blair Jackson’s interview with me here.
BBC The Forum
The most unexpectedly awesome thing that happened was to be invited by the BBC World Service to participate in a discussion on the history of the ukulele in their programme The Forum. The other participants were Brittni Paiva and Jim Beloff. You can listen to the podcast here.
And Finally! Phew!
My composition Flower Sleeps at 4 was nominated joint runner-up in the Joyce Dixey composition competition at the University of Surrey. You can listen to it here:
All in all it’s been 18 months of ups and downs and it’s nice to reflect on the good stuff and share it with you all. Thanks for indulging me. Now I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off. But I’d like to leave you with some recordings I did this week.
And So It Goes… see you in a bit!