On overcoming mental health issues to face 1,000 or so people at the biggest indoor venue in Cambridge – singing to a fast-tempo electroswing number. In French. And that was just my bit.
Just a small snippet filmed on a smartphone from the sound booth at the back by Meg who was one of our two stage managers on 10 Dec 2016 at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.
…You’ll have to wait for the official video medley by the excellent Paul Cook.
For those of you who are interested, this was my experience of the run-up to, and the Christmas Cocktail gig of 2014
It’s not been the easiest of terms for a lot of us – not least our music director Andrea Cockerton. “We are Sound” is the new name for what was the Dowsing Sound Collective – re-born following a legal dispute that meant the latter brand had to close. Fortunately the music did not. Cambridge is a place full of singing – I just didn’t realise how much until I had a look on The Big Sing’s website. Which makes me wonder if this supports the case for some more better and acoustically sound concert venues and affordable rehearsal spaces – something which I touched in an historical context in my Lost Cambridge blog here.
Being crushed by declining mental health
I wish I report that it has been getting better throughout 2016, but I’d be lying. I had an overnight stay in Papworth Hospital a few months ago to see if the cause of it was sleep-deprivation-related…
…but the study that saw me wired up like a circuit board proved inconclusive. Essentially it looks like an anxiety-based fatigue. I did ask for a further referral to a mental health specialist at my GP, but with nothing forthcoming so far, I’m back there tomorrow to ask again. Andrew Lansley’s botched reforms have meant that since my last GP retired – only my third GP in what was then 35 years, I’ve not seen the same GP more than twice as this ‘new model’ seems to mean I’m seen by one temporary/locum GP after another. i.e. lots of continuity errors.
This year, something with Cambridge’s air pollution has also broken my breathing – I now have to use both blue & brown inhalers just to step outside of my front door. Hence why a few of us are going to be taking this issue to Shire Hall on 14 Feb 2017 for a meeting of the full council of Cambridgeshire County Council: What legal powers do they have to deal with traffic pollution and air quality in urban areas, and which legal powers have they used to take action on this issue? We’re also linking it to poor level of bus services to young people at school and college, both in terms of quantity and punctuality of – the latter especially impacting on class attendance outside of their reasonable control. (Click here if you are interested in taking part – or forward the link on to anyone who is).
I’ve been fortunate this term to have one of our music group – Natasha, giving me a lift back from rehearsals. A couple of years ago, walking to and from rehearsals was fine. Not today – I have to catch a bus into town, walk to the Burleigh St towards Anglia Ruskin University’s music therapy school. As a venue it’s lovely. In terms of accessibility by bus, it’s awful. (It doesn’t have to be that way – many years ago you could catch a bus from my house that would go down East Road and stop outside the Working Men’s Club which is a 2 minute walk from the venue – but for whatever reason the Grafton Centre is being slowly starved as far as bus services go).
Crashing & burning at the dress rehearsal – in front of 100+ people.
F–k me that was painful.
It was exhaustion that contributed to my mind going completely blank – me not properly pacing myself in the run up to that rehearsal. I’d been commissioned to film 2 local council meetings in 2 days by my local democracy filming sponsors, the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations. As we have been finding out recently, the videos have helped local residents immensely to hold elected representatives to account, as this [*relatively – as far as #localgov meetings go] explosive clip demonstrates. It was shortly after filming that I had to rush back from Cambourne (who decides to schedule meetings that are ages away and off the public transport track?!?) to get to the dress rehearsal. The evening prior to that I was commissioned to film at a meeting covering issues in and around where the Corn Exchange is.
A chance to raise the issue about concert venues in Cambridge as well as plugging the gig too.
Having crashed and burned at the dress rehearsal at St Columba’s Church on Downing Street, I promised myself I’d get some proper rest before the gig.
Cambridge historians, the tablet below this large window is dedicated to Dr Alex Wood – a former Cambridge Labour Party councillor who has the current Cambridge Labour Party’s HQ named after him. A teetotaller and a bit of a firebrand preacher (who found himself in court in the run up to WWII) I found it interesting to note the wooden plaque given the presence of former and current elected councillors within our music collective’s ranks.
St C’s is one of Cambridge’s hidden gems which is just waiting for a refurb similar to that done to St Paul’s on Hills Road and Emmanuel URC on Trumpington Street.
‘Get some sleep, idiot!’
You know when you’re too tired to sleep and also when you’re too angry with yourself? That. Fortunately lots of people sent messages far more supportive and optimistic than I felt at the time. I simply went into video-editing autopilot to get the meeting footage up online as a means of forgetting what happened earlier that evening. The only way I was going to ensure a night’s sleep before the gig was with a sleeping pill – and I hate those things for obvious reasons.
What was frustrating was that the run up to this gig was the first time in ages I’d felt the positive nerves of anticipation – the ‘butterflies in your tummy’ combined with strange electric pulses in your chest. I didn’t want to be half-asleep or zombied out on medication. I wanted to feel something like this first rehearsal in Bury St Edmund’s in 2014 (Cambridge, we ***are*** going to get a concert venue with acoustics as awesome as The Apex!). The other thing sort of on my mind was the sheer exhaustion I felt at the 2014 Christmas gig – which I blogged about here. The reason why I rocked up at 4pm rather than 1pm was that I knew all day at the Corn Exchange would crush me. In my case with a chronic (ie long term) anxiety disorder, my brain continually reassesses everything and over-thinks everything to the point of exhaustion. The one thing that takes more out of me than most is…transport. In this condition, the most calming thing anyone can do for someone with my condition is to offer in advance to get me there, take me from A to B to C, and to get me back. Recall that for people with an anxious disposition, being out and about alone in [any] town late at night is not a nice place to be. That includes waiting for a bus or a taxi. I’ve lost count over the years of the nights out I’ve turned down simply because of transport issues. What I find interesting is how more and more people are raising similar issues – it’s now a matter of public policy.
“What about the gig itself?”
I made sure I properly slept off the sleeping pill so didn’t get up till about 2pm – by which time it was raining cats & dogs. But it also meant I could eat properly before setting out rather than tanking up on sugars during the afternoon. So I was much more calm about what was coming up than I’ve probably been for any musical performance I’ve been in during my adult years.
Our drummer Paul Richards posted the above photo on FB just before the start of the final run through. I was on the second row on the right, standing closer to where Paul was rather than towards the audience.
The photo above doesn’t do justice the scene that greeted me as I walked into the main concert hall – the collective in full voice to the opening number: “Kiss the sky” in the final run through. It was positively ***thumping***. I jumped up to join them in a final, essential but tough final run-through.
My view of some of my fellow singers – I was left-of-centre looking from the audience to the stage. The reason why being here was important was that in an emergency I could make a relatively sharp exit without many people noticing. Ever since being diagnosed in 2001, one of the banes of my life has been working out where best to sit in public places that allow for the quickest and quietest of exits.
For our quartet bit, I had in my mind: “Don’t f–k it up like last time” going through my head, and could feel that scowl etched on my forehead. It was only after the gig that I realised why the track (have a listen here) was so difficult to master:
- Foreign language
- Very fast tempo
- Complex arrangement (but one that made it more fun to sing)
- Relatively short time period to learn that alongside lots of other tracks
But that’s what makes taking on and overcoming such challenges so much more enjoyable. As a male tenor I’d been invited to join other local choirs & groups when they found out about me being part of the We are Sound group. The reason for declining those ones fell into themes of:
- Too religious: – I had a bad experience going to church in childhood so now can’t stand religious music, no matter how exquisitely performed. Too much dogmatic baggage.
- Too small scale: – As with my dancing years in the last decade, I wanted something that had a real ***wow!*** factor – an energetic buzz pulsing through the veins of the people taking part.
- Too complicated: – The groups that require you to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of music along with the exam certificates to go with them. My finals were called finals for a reason.
- Too simple:– Too unchallenging a repertoire.
Fortunately for a city like Cambridge, there is room for all of us. (Have a look at the range here – which we’re not listed in). With a civic history that we have, there will always be religious-based choirs – not least because several of the college chapels were designed with music in mind. There will also always be room for community choirs – some of Cambridge’s having roots in the history of areas that in centuries gone by were villages outside of the centre. Given the intellectual talent in the city, there will always be those pushing the boundaries of musical complexity. And given the growing city, there will always be a need for groups to be a gateway to people who have never sung collectively before. It just took me a few years to find one that suited me, that’s all.
“So, what was the performance like?”
I’m going to let the official videos do the explaining as and when they come out, but my highlights included:
- The start – Kiss the Sky. Not a fan of the lyrics but musically it’s wonderful, & set the stall for the rest of the gig
- Matt Moss’s “Blue Christmas”
- Lauren Thompson taking on a Bassment Jaxx number from the late 1990s
- Winter got lost by our Tuesday section (I’m part of the Monday section)
- The cover of Shake sung by the men
- The cover of It’s oh so quiet by Bjork, sung by the women. (How is that song over 20 years old?)
We were blessed with the support of one of the best sound designers in the music business – Bobby Aitken. Have a look at http://www.mamma-mia.fi/en/the_show/creative_team/bobby/
And he liked us 🙂
As did Alessandra Caggianno who supported me on Be the change – Cambridge in 2014/15.
…as did Sue Marchant of BBC Cambridgeshire.
Of our quartet, it went by in such a blur. One second I was walking on, another second I had this big white light shining at me, and then suddenly it was over.
Comparing the audiences of 2013 (when I was in the audience), 2014 (on stage) and 2016, the middle one was clearly the most raucous and loud. 2016’s was more subdued – but understandably so because everyone got soaked by the rain before they got indoors. It was only with our final track (A combo of “Go Back” by Darlingside and “I will wait” by Mumford & Sons) that I sensed we had broken the ‘reserve’ of the audience to get them as loud as the 2014 audience, but we did it.
One of Cambridge’s other problems is that it hardly has any venues that cater for an over-30s audience. There’s still anger in the city in some quarters over this planning refusal – essentially those of us in favour didn’t have our s….tuff together to fight for it. I dare say that if such a proposal was resubmitted, there would be enough of us willing, able and organised to drive it through.
The only place available for an after-party was one of the city’s over-priced trendy bars that insisted on scanning everyone’s ID irrespective of their age. (I’m 40 in a few years time). Then charging people for entry. What struck me other than being like a fish out of water in such a place (I stopped going to trendy bars in 1999) was how men’s fashions for a night out on Friday/Saturday night in Cambridge had not changed in 20 years. Where are the futuristic garments we were promised in Back to the Future II?
Other than a great performance and a happy audience…?
All of the profits from our concerts go to The Dosoco Foundation – this event probably raising several thousand pounds for them. Have a listen to Andrea here:
So a big ***Thank you*** to everyone that got me through this term and the past few days.
We’ll be back again in late spring/summer 2017. See you soon.