It was a predictably exhausting but hugely rewarding weekend to take part in the BMG (Banjo, Mandolin & Guitar) Federation Annual Rally, held this year in excellent premises at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, Bristol. The focus of the weekend was the school’s hall where, with The Mandolinquents, I took part in the opening Friday night concert. Enjoying a large stage, some professional lighting and an ambience considerably more inviting than many (this one obviously didn’t double as a badminton court), the hall filled with a mixture of BMG members and the general public. It was difficult to tell what the proportions were, but despite the undoubted high number of musicians there, there was never any way this was going to feel like an exam! It was an audience that needed no warming up (contrast the time we once played an after dinner cabaret spot to a bunch of music examiners!), and after all the serious and semi-serious material we decided we could encore with Duellin’ Banjos and The Parrot Song, one of the many songs Hilary James and I have written for children. Everyone sang – and squarked the chorus. Very silly!
Saturday was filled with workshops on various themes for all instruments concerned. Many, including my own, were fully subscribed in advance; it was a packed day. Organiser Dave Griffiths had asked me if I could think of a workshop theme a little different from straight mandolin technique. I’d suggested I could talk about playing by ear and the basics of improvisation and Dave immediately warmed to the idea. Because it was about general musicianship, it would have been suitable for any players, but it was mostly mandolinists who faced me when I entered the room. Having given some thought beforehand to what I was going to say, I’d realised that actually these are two distinct topics. Someone with no background in musical improvisation can be taught how to apply their knowledge of music theory, using various scales and arpeggios, to ‘jam’ over a chord sequence, and in that respect I hope I succeeded for at least some who were present. But getting someone to play even a simple tune like ‘Happy Birthday’ without music is not something that’s going to happen overnight, particularly if all they’ve ever done is read the dots. Training the ear to hear intervals of pitch can take time.
It made me realise what great training I’d had as a child, when my father, who had learned to sight sing from Tonic Sol-fa (Doh, Ra, Me, Fa, Soh etc) when he was young and sang in a church choir, had taught me to do the same. We’d sing songs – absolutely anything we knew – in Tonic Sol-fa for fun, and I never realised at the time just how beneficial this would be to me as an adult.
Saturday evening we all decamped to the nearby Mercure Hotel. The drinks were priced outrageously but the roast beef was very acceptable and it was a comfortable room. The BMG scratch ceilidh band did an excellent job of keeping the rhythm going as we (mostly English I assume) conspired to mess up The Gay Gordons, and we had some excellent instrumental spots between the dances from various duos and trios. My baby zebra skin winklepickers had caused something of a stir at the previous night’s concert and Ian Steel, not to be outdone, had nipped out to Asda or somewhere and found similarly patterned furry carpet slippers. I was brimming with jealousy! I thought my find on the reduced rail at T K Maxx in Leeds had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Sunday was competition day, and with so many categories! It had obviously been a timetabling nightmare to make sure that both judges and participants could fulfill all their obligations, but things proceeded smoothly.
The last time I had judged was quite a few years ago, and I was amazed at how the standard had improved. The classical mandolin competition had contestants playing challenging pieces by Calace, unthinkable on my last visit. The standard was similarly high in the folk section, but most gratifying was the high level of professionalism and musicality present in the fretted instrument orchestras. For the most part, gone was the ‘plinky-plonkiness’ associated with massed plucked strings, the unpleasant clicks of flamming plectra. Instead, we heard orchestras who had worked hard on achieving a homogenous sound, made up more of the vibrating string itself than of the plectrum crossing it; we heard excellent ensemble playing too, and great use of dynamics.
The most wonderful part of the weekend was to witness how young players were now balancing older elements of the BMG. The Federation, let’s face it, has had a bit of a dusty image, but here was young blood in abundance, and some very fine players too.
For me, the feel-good factor just built and built as the weekend progressed. Full credit must go to Sandra Woodruff, Dave Griffiths and all from the Bristol arm of the BMG for their organisation, and for making us all optimistic for what the plucked, fretted future holds!