Tag Archives: creativity

And…. Action!

Inevitably at the start of the year, we look back on what was, and start to think once again about what might be.

2014 was a pretty transformative year for me. I set myself some monster targets running and cycling wise, and achieved all but the very last one of them.

Everything else was left more fluid. For the first year in a while, I had just a small handful of harp gigs in the diary and I played much less than normal. This was deliberate, for reasons I’ll talk about another time. At the start of last year, I was in a brand new relationship, in a temporary job, with no commitments beyond demolishing a serious debt mountain, looking after two big black furries, and working my way through a long-held list of places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do.

I tried mountain biking for the first time.

I deliberately flung myself face first down a Munro in the snow to practice self-arrest with an ice axe, on my first day of proper winter hill walking (under supervision I should add).

I ran my first ever marathon. On Easter Saturday, I had a brilliant run on the West Highland Way with a favoured running buddy. A few weeks later, I ran my first ever ultra marathon.

I put myself forward as a support runner for the West Highland Way race, potentially running through the night in the Scottish wilderness with someone I’d never met, to help them achieve their goal. I wasn’t needed in the end sadly, due to them becoming injured, but the fact that my offer was accepted was wonderful and a huge honour! Instead, I spent my second Summer Solstice at the top of Meikle Bin, and this time I ran almost to the top.

I cycled up a truly brutal, epic Tour de France climb, in horrendous conditions, again to help someone else achieve their goal. Two days later we did it again.

I took part in my first ever club cycle race.

I had a minor tantrum in the middle of my second ultramarathon and was rescued by crystallised ginger and kind people, and the combination of both enabled me to finish the race.

I spent my birthday weekend in a forest just outside Aviemore, getting rained and hailed on, running/staggering round in circles, and sleeping for approximately 2 hours, to support someone through a big race.

I got my revenge the next week by dragging him up Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis (along with a fab guide) for my alternative birthday weekend.

I ran 38 miles in a day, 20 of these through the most extreme conditions I’ve ever encountered. The first 18 miles were horrendous for other reasons, but somehow when the weather turned, something magical happened. Then the day after, I DNF’d in an event for the first time.

I spent an incredible week exploring the north west Highlands, somewhere I’d wanted to visit for almost twenty years.

I bought a new-to-me harp, and signed up for an online course with an inspirational teacher.

Somewhat unexpectedly, my harp journey started again.

I’ve been to some incredible beaches.

I’ve had lots of time and space to think about lots of things.

I achieved a lot in 2014, and I am incredibly proud of all of it. I’m particularly of getting up Mont Ventoux.

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Photobombing the Buchaille Etive Mor in Glencoe – 12 miles out from Bridge of Orchy with 12 miles still ahead on the first truly hot day in months.

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Thanks to Nicholas Beckett from Edinburgh Sports Photography for the above fab photo, taken along the bonny banks at the Highland Fling.

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Looking surprisingly glam given how knackered I was here – second ascent of Mont Ventoux in three days (Malaucene route this time)

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This was the first time up Ventoux. We could see…. nothing. Both very tired and very cold but full of beans.

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Spidean Coire nan Clach – Beinn Eighe, November in Scotland. Who’d have thought it. Blue, clear skies.

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I think of these words often now – the Tom Simpson memorial on the Bedoin ascent of Mont Ventoux

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Getting to the top of the big hill at Loch Katrine, for the first time.

But there is more to come.

2014 was really about trying to escape from previous failures. I can confirm that if you run far enough and cycle up enough big tough hills, you will find some answers. They probably won’t be what you expect but you definitely won’t forget them if you learn them the hard way.

When you find the things you truly love doing, it becomes ever more important to make space for them in your life.

The fact is that now, there are not enough hours in the day for running, cycling, hill walking, motorcycling. Let alone looking after pets, seeing friends and family, earning a living.

In my previous life, I didn’t know what to do with myself much beyond working.

As a result of a lot of thinking while covering a serious amount of self-propelled miles last year, I have everything I need in terms of ideas and plans for the next step of the journey.

Now, they need action, and commitment, and confidence and the drive to see them through.

But the last year has taught me that if you are brave and keep trying enough big bold things, sometimes they will work out after all.

PS just to prove it’s not all highs and happy faces, here’s me remembering just how much I hate chossy damp dark slimey chimneys! Thanks to guide Dave Chapman for the photo and a brilliant day despite a few squeaky bits.

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At last …. some Strings!

Given the title of this blog, you could be forgiven for wondering what on earth had happened to the harp. As it happens, the harpist has been pretty quiet too, but the world of full time work has been something of a shock after almost a year away from an office of any kind and it has taken a while to adjust to a different pace of life once again.

I left the RCS at the end of October. It was a horrendously stressful time for all manner of reasons, but finally the final bowline was thrown off and the house down south was no longer mine. In its place, a lot of debt and still far too much clutter in the current abode. But the weight had well and truly lifted. January 1st/2nd/3rd came and for the first time in 12 years, no mortgage payment left my bank account. I had made huge sacrifices each month to pay my bills, and it was very hard adjusting to the fact that financially, I had made some dreadful mistakes that I will be paying for for some years to come.

But. I have a supportive family, brilliant friends both old and new, and the constant that is a pair of furry but windy greyhounds.

I’ve had a long break from the harp. I played in a Remembrance Day concert in the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, an experience both good and bad for reasons that are not to be shared here. I vowed never to work again for nothing. I promised myself I would never again play orchestral music I didn’t love.

A couple of weeks later, I played the beautiful harp cadenza from the Ravel Piano Concerto with a local orchestra. I had studied the cadenza as part of my first year technical exam at the RCS, and had struggled with it. After  a few months in the pot though, it had matured and felt much more breathy and effortless, which is exactly how it should sound. Nerves on the night got to me a little, but I did a reasonable job and it was wonderful to hear the concerto in its entirety. The harp has a very small part and so I could relax and really listen to the piano. This is one of my favourite pieces of music and was a very special experience.

I then had a late request to play Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio in mid December. This is a gorgeous piece for small ensemble and choir, and was performed in a traditional Scottish kirk on the Southside of Glasgow in an area I had come to know very well. I was dreadfully nervous and unfortunately didn’t play as well as I had hoped. However, it was followed by a good singalong of some carols afterwards and then curling up in front of Match of the Day with company for the first time in many years, so turned out to be a pretty special night.

I’d had high hopes of videoing a couple of carols for friends and family as a Christmas present, but after the Saint-Saens, I was pretty much done for. The harp spent some time wrapped up safely, and I went running and climbed hills a lot.

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The harp didn’t emerge until the middle of January, when he went on an extended holiday to a very smart house again in the south of the city. I was knocked for six by the green eyed monster as I wheeled my harp into their music room which was bigger than the whole downstairs of my house. But I was glad that I was able to help another harpist out of a predicament, and very glad my harp was being played and enjoyed.

There has been much musing on whether to continue playing at all. If I continue to play, at what level? What do I play? Who with? Am I professional? Semi-professional? Amateur? None of the above? Most importantly, do I keep the object worth a five figure sum that I will be paying for for another three years, that takes up a whole room in my house and dictates the car I drive?

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You can probably guess some of the answers. Mostly, they are along the lines of I don’t know. But this is reason enough not to sell my harp. I do want to play, and play regularly. Listening to some brilliant music and great radio programmes keeps me in touch with something that is a huge part of me, and reminds me I have a talent that I enjoy sharing in the right ways for me.

Most of all I love playing with others. I love quirky, off beat, different, unexpected. In my old town I was lucky enough to find a bunch of musicians I adored playing with, and who pushed me in directions I never could have imagined.

Back to reality

 

Back to reality

I have struggled without them, and the time has come to begin the search for some others to join in with. This is a scary prospect, and I’m not quite ready to jump right in just yet.

I’ve been inspired by revisiting some of my favourite albums and songs, listening to the radio in the car on the way into work and on the motorway on my way to visit my family.

I’ve been to some brilliant gigs, and travelled to hear and play music in some incredible places. Music has changed me and continues to do so.

I know a few things for certain:

I’m not giving up.

I’m still a harpist, and a musician, and a good one at that.

I have a good tone and a good technique, and I don’t need to worry about not being good enough (whatever that means).

I love performing.

I have something to say.

If I put on a concert I can entertain an audience and they will come back again.

I love practising but am easily distracted when things become busy or stressful.

I’m not selling my harp. Unless it’s for a better one and even then I would struggle.

I love classical music.

I love pop music. In fact there is very little music I don’t love other than happy hardcore (blimey remember that!!).

I don’t have enough hours in the day. But who does.

Other than that, I don’t know. And I’m fine with that.

Mooching of an afternoon

(Written on a gloriously wi-fi free Thursday)

This afternoon finds me in Leiden in the Netherlands. A quick tot up on the plane revealed that this is my most visited country which both surprised me and made me happy.

I’ve been here before, on a school trip some 20+ years ago. I can’t remember why we came to Leiden, I think it was on the way to somewhere else. We didn’t see much anyway, other than a slightly strange artistic installation of wedding dresses in one of the canal basins.

This time I’m here for a rather different reason. This is my second visit to the Jazz Harp Academy. It’s a full-circle thing – the first time I came in 2010, it was in a bid to do something that scared me silly during one of the lowest points in my life.

It worked, and led to many wonderful things, including my move to Glasgow. I met a very dear friend and we have supported each other on our own individual musical adventures.

We are very similar and yet very different. Someone asked how they would recognise us to collect us from the airport once. I said we are both very small with big smiles and we will probably be the noisiest people there as we will be laughing so much.

My friend arrives this evening so I made the most of an afternoon in a different place. For all intents and purposes it’s a new place, as I don’t really recognise any of it.

It was raining heavily when I got off the train from Amsterdam. The windmill count was up to 2 within 15 minutes. I saw a museum and wondered about going in, but at 11 euros I decided against it. Not a huge sum but I figured I could make better use of the time and money.

I had a map but only used it to make sure I was heading in the right direction from the station to check out the venue for the next few days. Other than that, I just strolled, taking whichever street or canal I fancied.

It is so quiet here. It’s a mixture of old and new and they sit comfortably with each other.

The reason for the peace is the humble bicycle. This is Holland, where the bike is king. Near the station, bikes are all you can see wherever you look. There is an occasional car in the town but they are conspicuous by their sound.

I found a gorgeous cafe to have lunch in. I settled down with a book and enjoyed seeing the world going past outside. The cafe was quiet too – unusually in a world of piped music, there was no soundtrack at all, not even a radio. I enjoyed this. I’m a musician but there are times where silence is just what’s needed.

I’m reading Miles Davis’s autobiography and have just read about the first time he heard Thelonious Monk play. He was struck by the spaces left in between the notes as much as the notes themselves.

My harp has 47 strings and 7 pedals. As a classical harpist, when I’m improvising I often feel obliged to use as many of these as possible. (With some orchestral parts it is not so much expected as compulsory to use all of them at once!)

This often adds unnecessary pressure and complexity, and leaves no space for breathing (for me or the music) or thinking about what comes next.

My first time at the jazz academy taught me the importance of listening to what was going on around me, and thinking about bass, rhythm and lead. Now when I create music of my own, I try to use as few notes as possible, to leave room.

It’s hard to find space in everyday life, and today has been a great opportunity to sit, to breathe and to think before the next few days of full-on learning and bashing against my comfort zone in an attempt to push myself forwards som more.

My afternoon cost me considerably less than 11 euros, but was worth much, much more and I’ve probably learnt more than I would have done in the museum. It did have an awesome totem pole outside, though, so I’m off for a proper look at that tomorrow.

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Good things

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I had some bad news today. It was nothing I didn’t already suspect, but somehow seeing it confirmed in black and white made it all the more real. It’s big news and has a big impact on my the immediate future. However I am determined not to let it put me off course.

So I am thinking about good things. Counting my blessings if you will.

I’m currently watching Frontline to Finish Line – the Race2Recovery team’s incredible journey to compete in and complete the Dakar Rally. Simply amazing – the hardest race in the world, completed by injured servicemen.

I have a sleek black greyhound snoozing away either side of me on the sofa. These beautiful gentle creatures (well maybe not if you are a cat or a hedghog) are happy, healthy rescued retired racers who faced an uncertain future before they came to live with me.

I have a good education, plenty to eat, good medical care and access to clean water.

Every day I get to do something amazing when I pull my harp onto my right shoulder and play wonderful music with my friends. I have big plans on this front.

I’ve had some great feedback on my blog recently, including visits from some very important people and a comment (followed up with an email) from someone especially important. I write it mostly for myself, but I’m enjoying blogging so it has been a real boost to know that it is being well received.

Earlier this week I met a new harp buddy for coffee and we had a great mixture of harp and bike racing chat.

Every day I open my curtains and see the Campsie Fells behind my house.

Tonight I’m going to give my much loved jaffa orange KitchenAid a work out and bake some cakes.

I have a hugely supportive family who I love to bits. I don’t see them often enough but we are in touch regularly.

Some of my oldest friends have a new baby girl and I can’t wait to meet her.

Oh and I might just have reversed my run of seemingly endless rubbish luck on the man front…. And he’s a chef 🙂

The photo at the top of this post was taken outside the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh last Saturday – at first I thought it was rather glum, but I thought about it on my way across to perform in the Cathedral and felt differently.

Miracles rarely happen. I truly believe we make our own luck by working hard and putting ourself in the right places where ‘lucky’ things may happen. I thank Jennifer Crook for these words of wisdom some years ago.

Today demonstrates that bad times come, but I hope that by thinking of Good Things, I can keep myself on track and not get dragged down.

Across the road from the sign above, there was this sign

I couldn’t get my own picture as I was too far away  (this one is from the BBC News website).

Today, thinking back to it, I am reminded of John Lennon’s words as posted on my blog a few weeks ago.

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How does a harpist play the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

One of the modules in my first year at the RCS has been an Introduction to Collaborative Practice – the hot topic of ICP that has alternatively been much loved and loathed, often by the same people at the same time.

It’s a pretty unique concept – take the full first year of 200+ students, consisting of all artistic disciplines from classical/jazz/Scottish traditional musicians, actors, singers, dancers, film makers, stage managers, stage designers, to everything in between. Carve up the group into 21 groups of 10-12 people, with a range of disciplines in each group. Give them a starting point and ask them to create a short presentation/performance to deliver to the rest of the group. Then do the same thing again with a different starting point. Along with this, invite working professional artists to deliver lectures on various themes such as their own practice and collaboration.

It was one of the reasons I came to the RCS – because of the range of disciplines being studied here and the opportunity for some weird and wonderful collaborations.

The final presentations were an incredible experience to be a part of. We had been asked to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to choose one of the 30 articles to form the basis of our performance.

I’d never read it before. I feel more than a little ashamed of this.

We based our performance on Article 1 (and yes we did read them rather than choosing the first one we saw :)) which states:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Our 10 minute performance featured a contemporary dance choreographed by one of our group and performed by three talented dancers with a tableau featuring the rest of the group,  a monologue performed by an actress, a spoken word piece set to music which was read by a musical theatre artist and accompanied by five classical musicians, and a short protest set to Black Sabbath’s War Pigs. Our set was created in miniature by a theatre designer and then intricately shot and projected by a film maker as a backdrop to the performances.

It’s quite amazing to think you can get all that into 10 minutes. It’s even more amazing that this generated 20 minutes of passionate discussion by the audience, after both performances. Some people thought it was too provocative and in your face, others were inspired by our performance and felt compelled to take action, and some of the foreign students celebrated that we were able to express our opinions in this way at all.

Our group was quite a mixed bag, not unsurprising given the range of disciplines, and there were some big personalities to deal with. It was quite fraught at times, but after our first performance, we were all surprised to realise that we had at last become a unit, and this was a really special feeling. I also felt incredibly glad that all the content that we had presented had been received as we hoped. Our message was about taking action and not just sitting back saying “oh oppression, how terrible” and moving on. Some of the audience referred to some text at the end of the performance which came from a suggestion I had made and I felt really proud of this.

Watching the performances from other groups, several things happened. I genuinely enjoyed sitting back at the end of the project, knowing all the hard work was done, and being able to really appreciate the work that everyone had put into their final pieces. I was now watching from a more artistic perspective, as we were being encouraged to give feedback to the performers, but I also loved the sense of magic and wonder of being an audience member and not knowing what is coming next.

I was simply awestruck by the level of talent in our year, the creativity that was displayed in putting together a performance in response to the articles, and the standard of the performances, both individually and as groups.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as a slave driver burst onto the stage on stilts. I got goosebumps when hooded figures appeared from within the audience to silence and then abduct artists as they were performing. I felt an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism watching a performance by a dancer dressed as a young child, which was being videoed and played back as she danced. The audience were drawn to watch the film of the dancer, rather than the actual dancer, and there was a gradual realisation of how creepy this was. A piece on the article about privacy asked us to leave our phones on full volume rather than switched to silent, and various musicians played all the common ringtones over and over again – a trombonist and violinist were particularly effective. Various texts and phonecalls were received by the audience throughout the performance, which added to rather than interrupting what happened on stage. Original scores had been composed to accompany live action on stage, and these were astonishing in almost every case.

As well as being awestruck, I also felt quite intimidated – the feeling of comparing your own talents against those of others mostly younger than you is not necessarily a pleasant one. However this gave way to a sense of feeling very fortunate to be studying in a place where the standard is so high that you can only be influenced and pushed on to improve your own work even further.

The week of rehearsing and performing left me feeling inspired as to how I could develop my own creativity and my own performances, both in terms of the material I perform, the people I work with and the settings I perform in.

As a (mostly) classical harpist, I struggle with the common image of my instrument. I truly aspire to play the ‘big’ pieces from the available repertoire in traditional solo recital context, but I’d also love to tear it up a little and try working with some spoken word performers and with some visual art, be it photography, fine art or moving images. I feel really glad that I’m in just the right environment to explore these – as well as the RCS, Glasgow School of Art is just around the corner.

As well as my thoughts of the impact on my own work and life, I was also forced to think about some political thoughts and feelings. I’d hesitate to say I am now a radical, but some of the contributions from the foreign students who spoke so passionately about their own experiences of protest and oppression in their own countries really affected me, and I was reminded how lucky I am to live in such a free country, despite the amount of people who moan about it.

I am so grateful to be able to pursue my ambitions and to be able to study, especially being female, and I am lucky to have the right to travel and see the world and express my opinions.

I also realised just how much I value having artistic/creative freedom. Oppression has contributed hugely to developments in art, music and film, particularly in the twentieth century, and I feel strongly that I should consider this and how I can reflect this in my own presentations of my work.

The masking and abducting of the artists in one of the performances provoked probably the strongest reaction I had to any of the groups and I was amazed at the strength of this reaction and how it could come from a piece of theatre. I’m struggling to express how I felt during this, but it was something along the lines of, “If they come for the artists, who really aren’t harming anyone and are just expressing themselves, where on earth does that leave us?”

My head is still spinning when I look back on that week, but in all the right ways. When choosing my sign to wave around for our protest piece at the end of our performance, I was immediately drawn to the word Spirit, and have kept my sign to put on the wall at home in my practice room.

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It really sums up the week for me as I feel that my creative spirit has really been awakened and pointed on a new path which I can set out on with a new energy and sense of purpose. This was further strengthened by my post on the aftermath of the Boston Marathon here.

So, with a Bernstein quote in my head and a Spirit sign on my wall, I’m looking forward to what comes next…