Friday, 6 July 2012

I am a bank

I am a bank.

Honest, I really am. This is not a joke.

You see, I lend people money. Or, more accurately, I allow them to run lines of credit, which I create for them out of thin air.

Let me explain. My day job is teaching singing, much of it to teenagers in secondary schools. These teenagers' lessons are paid for by their parents. I invoice them for 10 lessons at a time and they are supposed to pay for the whole series of lessons before the series starts.

In practice, hardly anyone does. About half will have paid by the 5th lesson and the remainder have to be chased. The vast majority do pay by the end of the series of lessons, but there are a small minority who have to be cajoled, threatened or even prosecuted. Some negotiate with me for payment in instalments and then forget to make those payments.

No doubt because of their own financial difficulties, the proportion of people who pay late is rising, as is the proportion of people who don't pay at all. In the last year I have prosecuted two people at the County Court, one of whom didn't reply and has had default judgement served against them - but I still haven't been paid. The other has offered to pay off the fees and associated charges at £20 per month, which is all she reckons she can afford.....but if that is true then she couldn't afford the lessons in the first place, because the fees for 10 lessons between January and March were £135. In effect she is expecting me to extend her an interest-free loan.

But she is not the only one. In fact every single one of the parents who pays late is expecting me to provide them with interest-free credit.

Which is why I say I am a bank. But unlike a normal bank, I am expected to provide this credit interest-free - parents get very angry if I start imposing interest on late payments, although the law does allow me to do this and even recommends a rate. If I upset parents, they may take their business elsewhere - and student numbers are falling at the moment because poorer parents are finding it difficult to maintain their childrens' musical activities at the moment. So I could end up even worse off if I insist that parents have to pay up front.

I am by no means alone in this. Most small businesses are forced to extend lines of credit interest-free to customers, particularly large and rich ones who have the leverage to squeeze them out of business if they complain. The majority of small businesses, therefore, are unofficially acting as banks.

And they do it at considerable cost. Like most micro businesses, I rely on the fees from my singing lessons to meet my personal living expenses. Because parents routinely breach my terms and conditions that clearly state that payment must be made in full within 14 days of the invoice, which is sent before the start of term, I have no idea when I will be paid - but my own bills still have to be paid. Unlike my parents, I have no access to interest-free credit: I can only borrow from the bank, and if I go over my overdraft limit that funding is at a penalty rate. And as I said above, it is difficult for me to pass these costs on to my customers.

There has been considerable discussion recently about trust in banking. People are understandably angry that banks have betrayed their trust and behaved disgracefully. I have no doubt that the parents who fail to pay my bills on time (or at all) are among those who are angry at the fraudulent behaviour of banks. What a pity they can't see that their own behaviour is just as bad.

Businesses like mine depend absolutely on trust - trust from the parents, that their child will be properly taught: and trust from me, that parents will pay in accordance with agreed terms and conditions. If one side fails to abide by their obligations, that trust is broken. I already feel as if I should, for my family's sake, seek employment with a steady income, but I resist that pressure because I love the work I do and believe that I deliver real value to my students. But if the present trend - increasing volumes of late and failed payments - continues it will not be possible for me to continue.

This article is cross-posted at

Friday, 24 February 2012

Things aren't always what they seem to be

The other day, I was coaching one of my GCSE students for her final performance. She's singing Memory from Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, a standard - and very well known - musical theatre number.

We've been working on this piece for a while. One of the problems with singing musical theatre numbers for a GCSE performance is that the marking criteria require the song to be sung accurately with respect to the published music, but the published music may differ significantly from the best-known recordings. Different editions of the music may also differ musically - I have three copies of Memory, all of which differ in details of rhythm and dynamic markings, all of which have different accompaniments, and one of which is in a different key.  The challenge for the teacher is to select an appropriate performing edition and ensure that the student sings accurately in relation to that edition, ignoring everything else. The challenge for the student is to learn the song from the sheet music, rather than by listening to a recording. The trouble with Memory, of course, is that everyone has heard it sung by Elaine Paige (or possibly Barbra Streisand), and it is very hard to airbrush Elaine or Barbra out of your head and learn the music from the dots on the page.

Anyway, my student has succeeded in doing this. At her lesson she sang the rhythms accurately and did all the marked dynamics in the printed edition we are using. But it was boring. I felt she had not really understood what this song is about, and she had not connected with the emotions of the character singing it.

On the face of it, Memory is a nostalgic song about past glories sung by an elderly cat (Grizabella) who is evidently lonely and longing for physical affection. But when my student sang it like that, it didn't work. So I began to wonder if there was more to this song than it appeared.

The key phrase comes in the third verse: "When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too, and a new day will begin". I asked my student whether that was a statement of hope or despair. She thought for a minute and then said, "Hope".

I don't think so. You see, Grizabella looks forward to dawn with both fear and longing. The Cats legend is that at dawn, one of the cats will be selected to be taken up to "cat heaven" - what Grizabella earlier in the same verse describes as "a new life". This looks much like death, doesn't it? So Grizabella looks forward to dawn in the hope that she will die - and she both longs for death (because of her belief that it is the gateway to a new life) and fears it.  And suddenly we have the key to our character: this disgusting old alley cat with a very nasty nature was adored when she was younger, because of her beauty. Now she no longer has beauty, she doesn't have love either.... and without love there is nothing left to live for, so she longs for death. Dawn may bring hope, but her basic existential position is despair.

So I asked my student to sing the song from a position of despair rather than hope. This is quite advanced emotional expression for a young singer and I wasn't sure she would be able to do it. To my astonishment the song absolutely took off: she sang with commitment and real feeling, and Grizabella's desperate cry for physical contact at the end gave me goosebumps. I really hope she sings it like that in her exam.

The lesson from this is that songs aren't necessarily what they appear to be, and if we don't study the words, the character and the context, we may fail to connect with the real meaning of the song. And if we miss the point ourselves, so will our listeners. This is particularly true in musical theatre and opera, where it is essential that the context of the song and the motivation of the character is understood. When Susan Boyle released her version of "I dreamed a dream", from Les Miserables, I didn't like it - and I still don't. She turned it into a sad personal statement of lost ambition, whereas in the show it is a rage-filled despairing outburst from a dying woman about the abuse and abandonment that has left her destitute.

But it is also true in another genre - the art song. I've been working with students on musical settings of two poems by great English poets: John Ireland's setting of "Spring Sorrow", by Rupert Brooke, and Eric Thiman's setting of "To Daffodils", by Wordsworth. Both of these poems are, on the face of it, about nature: "To Daffodils" containing a vivid description of a swathe of daffodils beside a bay, and "Spring Sorrow" depicting the early signs of spring. But actually, neither poem is really about nature at all.

The key to the Wordsworth piece comes in these lines:

 "For oft when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils".

The memory of such a beautiful sight is enough to lift the poet out of his habitual depression.  Really it's the same sentiment as in "Favourite Things" from the Sound of Music:

" When the dog bites, when the bee stings,
When I'm feeling sad,
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don't feel so bad."

Would you ever have thought that Rodgers & Hammerstein and Wordsworth would have had so much in common?

Turning to Spring Sorrow, this is a deceptively simple, almost naive poem.  I reproduce it in full here.

All suddenly the wind comes soft
And spring is here again:
And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green,
And my heart with buds of pain.

My heart all winter lay so numb,
The earth so dead and frore,
That I never thought the spring would come,
Or my heart wake any more.

But winter's broken and spring has woken,
And the small birds cry again;
And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
And my heart puts forth its pain.

The greening of the earth at the start of spring becomes a metaphor for the reawakening of feeling after a long period of numbness following deep hurt. Pain returns - but that is a sign of healing, and of new life.

Exactly when Rupert Brooke wrote this song I don't know, but it may have been during WWI: even if it was not, it is so clearly about the start of recovery from grief that I am sure Brooke must have been writing about personal bereavement.  John Ireland's setting of it dates back to 1918, not long after Brooke's death, and I wonder if the two men knew each other: certainly Ireland's setting - also deceptively simple - perfectly captures the bittersweet nature of this poem.  Because of its simplicity, the Associated Board set it for Grade V: but for me, this song requires far more emotional maturity than a typical Grade V candidate will usually have. A simple song it may be, but it conveys complex and difficult emotions.

So songs should never be judged by appearances. And actually, nor should students - despite what I have just said about Grade V candidates! I am constantly amazed by the ability of young singers to understand and communicate emotions that are not yet, and may never be, part of their life experience. Imagination is truly a powerful tool for a singer.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The price of greatness

Tonight, we mourn the passing of a great singer. Whitney Houston was found dead in her hotel room at the age of 48. In the last few years, her life had been marred by personal problems and drug abuse. Along with her wonderful voice and extraordinary talent, it seems, went emotional vulnerability and an addictive personality.

                                      Whitney Houston singing Run To You - YouTube

On 23rd July 2011 we mourned the passing of another great singer and songwriter.
Amy Winehouse was found dead at her home at the age of 27. She had a history of personal problems, drug and alcohol abuse. The inquest reported that she was more than five times over the drink/drive alcohol limit when she died.

                                        Amy Winehouse singing Back to Black - YouTube

On 25th June 2009 we mourned the passing of an extraordinary musical talent. Michael Jackson died in his bed at his rented mansion. He was 50. He had been addicted to prescription drugs and painkillers for a long time and died from an accidental overdose of a hospital anaesthetic administered by his personal physician. 

                                             Michael Jackson in Thriller - YouTube

Many more great musical and artistic talents have died young, and a high proportion of those have been from some form of substance abuse or another form of self-harm. Jimi Hendrix (27), Janis Joplin (27), Jim Morrison (27), Hank Williams (29) and Elvis Presley (42) all died from drug overdoses. Kurt Cobain shot himself after taking a lethal amount of heroin: he was only 27. Charlie Parker died aged 34 from pneumonia and an ulcer brought on by drug abuse. Karen Carpenter died from anorexia at the age of 32.

It seems to me that their greatness came at great personal cost. Do people with such talent suffer because of their talent? Would they have been so great if they were not so vulnerable? Perhaps it is their very vulnerability that makes them so able to connect with us. What makes them great is not just their wonderful voices, their great musical and artistic talents. It is their ability to express for us the feelings that we dare not experience. And in expressing those extreme emotions, they are caught themselves by the pain. Even I, a much less talented singer, must experience to some extent the emotions I wish to convey through my music. Perhaps these much greater singers, because they communicate those emotions so much better than me, suffer much more than I do - and when the pain becomes too much to bear, they numb themselves with drugs, alcohol and self-harm......

Whatever the reason for their vulnerability, it is certain that many of the greatest artists are not with us for very long. They burn out quickly and are gone, and we are left only with the memory of someone who was able to touch us deeply. Recordings and images are but a feeble reminder: the heart is gone, and we are bereft.