The Women In My Life (Revisited)

It’s two years since I put together a couple of diagrams – essentially mindmaps – capturing the names and qualities of all the women in my life who have had an impact on me.

Given that its International Women’s Day today, I thought it high time to revisit those original diagrams and update them.

Note – updates are done in blue ink, with green and orange highlights.

The process isn’t especially complicated – its essentially a coaching/awareness exercise. (Take a look at the previous post from 2016 for an explanation). In that way the diagrams are reasonably self-explanatory. What revealed itself to me this time around was what prompted me to connect up the different individuals in the first diagram – an indication of perceived likeness from my perspective.

There are, inevitably, people I’ve missed. Which is annoying. But to be honest, if I don’t draw a line under it this minute, this mini-project could go on all day – not especially good for business, you understand.

I was also surprised by how many additional people I needed to add to the chart. My assumption had been that since going freelance I hadn’t really come into contact with quite so many people as I previously had. What I now realise is that the quality of the interactions is entirely different. Free of the usual day to day distractions, connections with people become more focused, meaning strengths are more keenly felt and easier to recall.

Turner, museums and asking the audience ‘Why’?

Another thought emerges regarding that agonising act of self-flagellation going on at the moment about language used in programme notes.

Instead of wringing our hands about what to say and how to say so that audiences feel included, why not do this instead: put the audience at the heart of the listening experience, support and empower them in that listening experience and, when it’s over leave them wanting to experience the whole thing again?

The central tenet of this potentially radical strategy is not education, but promoting a sense of self-reliance in the listener or audience member.

Sure. I know. That’s all a bit fucking weird, isn’t it. Bear with though. It’s a thought borne out of an experience I had today.

After a meeting at the Royal College of Music, a bit of free time on my hands. The sun was out. The sky was blue. Go on, I thought swing by the V&A on your way home.

I hadn’t visited the place in 10 years. I didn’t want to part with £19 to see the Opera, Passion and Power (quite a lot of money), but I fancied a wander around the free exhibits solely for the pure joy of discovery what resonated with me and what didn’t.

There’s a thread on Twitter – take a look. I basically live-tweeted my trip (yawn). My God though, it was a glorious visit.

My attention focussed on small detail, tessalations, china and glassware, vast facades, rugs and tiling, and the colour in stained glass windows. I experienced an undeniable thrill when I saw those elements. I gasped. I paused. I looked deeper.

The most striking was seeing a picture I’d never seen before: East Cowes Castle: The Regatta Starting for their Moorings (see above).

I don’t visit art galleries anywhere near enough. That probably accounts for why the impact being in the presence of so many large physical items at the V&A had on me anyway. But this image by Turner’s – The Regatta – took my breath away.

I stood staring at it for ages, transfixed.

One question quickly emerged: why? What was it about this image that so grabbed my attention?

The answer was immediate: it was to do with the use of light – the way the light was almost a subject in its own right, rather than an element that illuminates a subject. There was an unequivocal sense of elegance to the scene too. Energy, motion and just general joyousness emanating from the colour, light and sharp edges. Then as I looked more closely, there were the endless untold stories about the men in the boats and the people on the opposite river bank. It was the relatively simple way this painting stopped me in my tracks and commanded my attention. It was an intensely moving moment.

I know fuck all about art. Nobody was telling me what to think about the art. Nobody was telling me what they thought I needed to know about the art either (in whatever language they presumed I needed to be spoken to with). I just stood there and let my emotions respond to thing I was engaging with at that moment in time.

Here’s the zinger for me. I am interested in the mechanics of art. Whatever the equivalent of musicological study is in art, I’d almost certainly get sucked into it. When something’s good you want to immerse yourself in it. And I’m curious about this piece of art’s context. I want to understand what it’s a product of, and see if others respond to it in a similar way. Although it is a singular experience, there’s an implicit communal experience too.

I could go on. I won’t.

My point is this, how could we apply the experience I had in a museum and specifically the one fundamental question which arose as a result of seeing Turner’s Regatta to the concert hall?

Why aren’t we, for example, encouraging people to listen in a mindful or attentive way to music? Because that’s all they are required to do. They need know as much about the music they’re listening to in the moment as I did about Turner’s output today (and art in general).

Why aren’t we asking them a very simple question in the programme rather than telling them (using jargon, dumbed-down language, or musical terminology) what to think or feel (there’s a lot of it about) when they listen to something?

We could be asking someone to reflect on why a piece of music resonated with them. What was it that spoke to them? What aspect of a work grabbed and held their attention? Liberate them from their own assumptions that they need to know something before they go into the concert hall, and just ask them, “How did it make you feel?”

But we’re not doing that. Noone’s asking that. We’re still thinking of this from the perspective of having to educate (or inform) the audience who have already bought their ticket and sunk into their seat.

Instead, we’re picking over the bones of the subject we all apparently profess to love, some because of its self-aggrandising opportunities, others just for the sheer joy of self-sabotage.

Newsflash. Everyone else is looking on and saying, “What the fuck are you all doing?”

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On punters, terminology, and the way we speak to one another

There’s been some debate today on The Twitter about programme notes.

The ‘discussion’ was started by Guardian journo Kate Molleson (previously spoken highly of on Thoroughly Good). There was a call for ‘plain English’ for the ‘punters’ for whom music analysis terminology like ‘sonata form’ and ‘recapitulation’ used in programme notes were seen as alienating jargon.

This is always a difficult subject to explore on a platform like Twitter because, rather like Facebook, Twitter has a tendency to create bubbles of ‘niceness’ such that when anyone comes along to challenge perceived or assumed truths, people tend to get a little worked up.

Then people get opinionated.

After which, people get a bit snarky.

Then that snarkiness gets ‘liked’ by all sorts of other people.

What might have begun as a fairly innocent statement soon turned into what at times felt like a bit of a grandstanding opportunity.

Like a complete and utter twat I waded in quite early. I really wish I hadn’t. Come three o’clock this afternoon I was getting rather sick of the damn argument.

Some thoughts arise.

  1. Referring to the audience as punters seems a little disingenuous. There’s a connotation with the word which only serves to reinforce the perceived hierarchy in the auditorium, meaning there are those who know and those who think they don’t know. It’s the audience. We’re all members of the audience.
  2. Was the quote from the programme note in Kate’s tweet real? If it was, does the author of the programme note quoted follow Kate on Twitter? Awkward. Excuse me while I just nip out to get some popcorn.
  3. There’s an assumption that the audience are stupid or lazy, and when confronted by a word they don’t understand they’ll either overlook it or storm out of the auditorium in a huff because they’ve been forced to buy a programme, and then tried and failed to read and understand it.Like composer Stuart Macrae suggested, people could for example look up the meaning of unknown words on say something like Google.
  4. Study, knowledge and understanding is yet again seen as a barrier to appreciating classical music as an artform – as though its something to be embarrassed about.One of the many appealing things about this art form for me has been the many different facets that continue to fascinate and delight. Studying for my music degree introduced me to some of those facets – I’m still discovering them now. I found the experience incredibly rewarding and fulfilling experience.That same knowledge and understanding – usually signposted by terminology more efficient than euphemistic phrases which end up unwittingly making understanding woolly – is decried as invaluable or unhelpful in reaching out to new audiences.
  5. In safeguarding classical music’s future and looking for new ways to appeal to a wider demographic, are we in danger of assuming the audience needs spoon-feeding everything?
  6. I sometimes listen to football pundits on Five Live. I nearly always have absolutely no idea what the fuck they’re talking about. At no point have I heard anyone bemoan the fact that pundits use terminology great swathes of the population don’t understand. I don’t want them to change their use of language – its all part of the theatre.
  7. I wonder now whether the discussion Kate was initiating was really about sub-editing. In my work at the BBC I used spend some considerable time editing blog post drafts many of which read like complete drivel. What was required was some judicious editing to improve them. That was my job. Is it not the responsibility of the programme book editor to ensure the copy commission is written in the house style?
  8. Was Kate looking for programme note work, or some freelance sub-editing work?
  9. I wish I actually knew Kate, then I could ask her and then I wouldn’t need to write this blog post.
  10. I was genuinely surprised by the vociferous of some people’s comments to the extent that at times it felt like there was some kind of competition for who could be the most revolutionary. There was a kind of inverted snobbery in amongst of all this, a sense that if you were someone who wanted to hang on to any conventions at all then you were part of the problem classical music faces.

The irony here for me is that as a classical music devotee myself my expectation was that there would be a discernible camaraderie amongst fellow devotees. Instead there was a hostility, perhaps even a toxic atmosphere. I didn’t experience that last week at the ABO Conference, which leads me to wonder whether the problem classical music is facing isn’t the music, the auditorium, or the programme notes, but the devotees themselves.

I don’t especially feel as though classical music and the many people who love and benefit from it, put on the best show. The strings were a bit screechy, the brass were all over the place, and the woodwind were a bit chippy.

If classical music is to be seen as inclusive and welcoming, then it might be worth starting with the way we talk to one another about it.

Listen: Herbert Howells’ Oboe Sonata

Thoroughly Good Listens are first time-listens. They’re the thoughts that emerge when I hear a work for the first time. Special treats.

I was first introduced to Herbert Howells oboe sonata last Saturday afternoon in the Southbank Centre.

It was the perfect introduction. Unassuming. Throwaway. Blink and you’d have missed it.

“The Herbert Howells is amazing,” said Jess. That was the moment I was hooked in.

There was something in the way Jess talked about the work – an unequivocal enthusiasm – that made me want to listen to it as soon as I got home.

That’s what I’m most attuned to at the moment. When people mention works or composers in such a way that I’m taken by surprise. I don’t need to gasp or articulate that surprise. It’s more subtle than that. It’s more like someone flicking a switch and a beam of light cutting through the darkness. It demands attention. It promises everything.

Herbert Howells’ sonata doesn’t disappoint. It’s complex. An epic tale. A tussle between two characters. Once they’ve first reconciled their differences, then they become unified. After that they embark on a journey in the outside world, only to discover that together they face something far darker than what they thought they were confronting in the first place.

I’m not entirely sure whether that’s what the composer actually intended. To a certain extent I don’t really care.

Especially compelling is the sense of resolution – tentative and fragile – at the end of the second movement. If we’re talking in Dahl-esque short story terms, then the composer could have easily brought the work to the end of the second movement. Leave us hanging Herbert. Leave us wondering what happens next. But instead, we do hear what happens next, and what we discover is that there isn’t a sense of triumph over evil. No. That would be a little simplistic. The real world is, accordingly to Herbert Howells, a little bleak.

That third movement is the daring pivot point. From this point on, instead of chasing and reacting to the piano, the oboe takes the lead. From the third movement on, it’s the piano that chases the musical material. Power reassigned.

But it’s a pyrrhic victory for the oboe. The epilogue is bleak.

Instead there’s a sense of resolve: however grim the world actually is, at least both oboe and piano have each other’s backs.


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Thoroughly Good fundraising progress

Just before Christmas I wrote about how the Thoroughly Good Blog is changing in 2018.

New content, new writing, and a commitment to experimenting with different styles of post formed the backbone of my thinking. Seeking financial support from readers was central to this year long experiment.

Nearly one month on, I wanted to report back on progress, and share some thoughts which have arisen as a result.

What’s been raised so far

£80 out of a total goal of £400. That’s 20% in a month.

This may surprise you to read, but I feel phenomenally proud of that sum, not just about the money itself but the impact it has on how I regard this blog.

By people supporting the Thoroughly Good Blog in this way, the platform and the activity on it is given a legitimacy I hadn’t previously anticipated. That legitimacy provides me with momentum to press on further with developments. It shifts the blog from spare-time-passion to an awareness building activity.

The goal

I’ve been quite cautious about setting the goal too high, but seeing that people are supporting it, its worth outlining what the goal represents.

£400 is the total need to cover running costs for the blog, and associated podcast hosting, plus a little extra for travel to two important festivals this year: Aldeburgh and Edinburgh.

Not having the support won’t necessarily stop these activities, it just helps oil the wheels at a different point in my career.

Tar very much

So for those who have supported so far, take a bow and accept a firm handshake. It means a tremendous amount.


  • Read how the Thoroughly Good Blog is changing in 2018

Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts.

If you’d like to define your level of support please use this PayPal.Me link.