An Inspiring Young Lady

In around 2007 I was working as a musicianship tutor at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. Part of that employment was working with very musically advanced children on Saturdays (I am privileged to do similar work today at the RCS in Glasgow). One week, I was invited to teach musicianship to a girl who had been blind since birth. I was comfortable with this challenge as I already had some experience in this area, and so I met Rachel. From the first class, I was captivated by her amazing passion and deep love for music. She had an incredible ear and was able to memorise repertoire at a frightening rate. We had a game where I would play a random CD (in any style) as she entered my room with a helper, and she would immediately, grinning from ear-to-ear head to the piano and rattle off what she’d just heard pretty much note-for-note. The helpers usually fell over in disbelief.

As time passed I recognised that Rachel’s musical gifts were utterly extraordinary – at times inexplicable. She was always reliant upon her amazing memory and ear to learn repertoire, so colleagues and I thought it would be wise to teach Rachel to read music. Together, Rachel and I learned the basics of reading Braille sheet music – a process which was pretty torturous for me but which Rachel picked up admirably. There was no doubt though that using her ear and memory would always be her primary technique, and why not? It is an art of the ear after all.

With colleagues, we tried to direct her through A Level music many years early. The content of the course was almost too easy but the accessibility issues created many frustrating barriers. I’m still uncertain as to whether visually-impaired musicians face an even playing field when it comes to assessment today.

So you can imagine my surprise and sense of joy when I saw that Rachel had posted a recording of her final degree recital on Facebook (available here). Kirsty and I watched much of it last night and I confess to being deeply touched by what I heard and saw. I was thrilled to see that Rachel and her teachers had had the courage to allow Rachel to present improvisations in the style of certain composers as part of the concert. This is a practice which was commonplace in the 17th and 18th centuries but is dying today. Please understand that we are talking of multi-voiced, modulatory, structured improvisations here rather than jamming a blues scale over a few chords. Rachel achieved a near-unprecedented mark of 96%. It is richly deserved and I am both unsurprised and thrilled to bursting point for her.

It is important to say that I have played a very tiny part in Rachel’s musical development – the vast majority of the credit belongs to Rachel herself and her piano teachers. Rachel had an incredible energy and joie de vivre which all part of the package of her as a musician. As I consider her story, I feel that I was taught more by her about the art of teaching and the question of developing the inner ear.

When I talk of this experience with fellow musicians, I am often faced with statements such as ‘she was so good because the ear compensates’, suggesting that in the absence of one sense, another develops at an increased rate. The problem with this is assumption that there is no evidence whatsoever to support it. I think that what we are witnessing is something slightly different. I believe that the ear and memory have been required to work harder. The development is not a compensatory gesture put in place by the body but has happened through sheer hard work. The key point here is that such accelerated aural and memory skills are probably available to all, sighted or otherwise, should we choose to train ourselves in a balanced manner.

Whatever the truths of such things, there is one definite. Rachel, you richly deserve what you have achieved and you continue to be an inspiration to many. Now a joyous career of music awaits and I for one look forward to hearing more from you!


Giving Concerts in Rural Areas of France

During my life as a student and concert performer in the UK, I soon learned a clear code of conduct for audience and performer alike. Concerts billed to start at 7.30pm started at 7.35pm; a first half lasted for 45 minutes, the second half a little less; a 15 minute interval lasted for about 20 minutes; an audience did not applaud between movements; an audience applauded whether they enjoyed the performance or not; an audience requested at least one encore, whether they enjoyed the performance or not.

This was an altogether pleasing state of affairs – everyone knew where they stood, meal times, babysitters and restaurant reservations could be made with reassuring predictability and reliability., ushering staff would get home on time,  and the stability gave the performer a sense of routine and confidence.P1000465 Cropped.jpg

Concerts are not like this in rural areas of France. In the summer of 2018, I performed ten concerts in France and one in South Wales. The first thing a Northern European musician must understand is that the starting time will habitually be at least an hour later than that to which they are accustomed. Furthermore, if your concert is billed to commence at 8.30pm, this is actually a cue for the audience to gather at that time for a chat, drinks, nibbles, more drinks and to allow children to climb up trees. In the Dordogne, they talk of the ‘quinze minutes Perigordine’ (the Perigordine fifteen minutes) which is to say that any meeting of people, albeit a concert, a business appointment or a council meeting is susceptible to a certain flexibility of timing. I have frequently started a concert nearly an hour later than the billed time (yes, this means 9.30pm) and have sometimes felt like an unwelcome intrusion in a convivial social gathering.

The reverential silence one experiences in a British concert is notably absent as well. Children will attend concerts and will make, within reason, some noise. They will often gather at your feet and watch your every move from a distance of six inches. As the pre-, mid- and post-concert drinks are key to the mutual enjoyment of the evening, expect to hear a table being dragged into to hall about ten minutes before the close of the first half (just as you approach the fast movement of that tricky sonata). During one concert, a gentleman taking photos for the local paper approached me mid-Bach and took some snaps, complete with noisy shutter, polyphonic beeps and a robust flash, at a distance of sufficient closeness so that he nearly knocked over my music stand mid-snap.

In the UK, some performers choose to speak about the works they are about to play. In the French countryside, this act is almost as important as the music itself. Often, concert organisers will employ a local character to act as a raconteur at strategic moments during the performance. He/She will tend to use a microphone to read information already printed on the programme at the kind of volume that would have made the late Lemmie wince.  If you are a second-language French speaker and you introduce a piece in French with a charming British accent, you’ll be a triumph before you’ve even plucked an open E.

The French are very forgiving regarding repertoire.  Have dropped in the odd musically-challenging piece and it has usually been received with warmth and open hearts. The French adore Celtic repertoire. If you play something familiar (La Paloma, Cielito Lindo, The Water is Wide, Arrangements of songs etc) you can expect to hear your audience singing along. That is something I find truly beautiful and touching.

At one concert in Egurande et Guardedeuil this year, I was invited by Monsieur Le Maire for a pre-concert light meal. We finished the performance well after 11.00pm and was then invited, along with the luthier Daniel Jarvis (who had loaned me a guitar) and his wife for a post-concert get together. We entered the local salle des fetes and were seated at a table. As an aperitif and starter were brought out, I soon recognised that this was to be a full meal. I got home after 2.30am. Were I not driving, I would have been pleasingly plastered given the rich array of wines which were pushed in my direction.

Concert giving in France is refreshing, rewarding and has a certain sincerity which perhaps we’ve lost. If you can be open-minded, flexible and humble, it is a deeply rewarding experience. I can’t recommend it enough.

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, keep your ear to the ground for my book Extracting Goats From Jean-Claude’s Kitchen which will be published in the next few months. It tells of my seven years of musical and family life living in a sleepy French village.


L’Ensemble Arisan – Le Maine Meunier

Dan Jones – Guitar

Kirsty Jones – Violin

Stephane Secher – Accordion/sax

Charlotte Secher – Bass


The quartet revisit one of their favourite venues! Paula and Mike will undoubtedly be serving up a fantastic menu to the accompaniment of music from Spain, Scotland, Ireland & France given by L’Ensemble Arisan.