Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I Need More Practice

A curious melange of Contentment and Disappointment. That's what I'm experiencing this morning.

The night before I'd laid down the lead vocal lines for "Tiempo para el amor". Of all of the songs we'd written for the suite, this one has been the most reticent to reveal its character and potential (to me at least). Always in the back of my mind, I was thinking that I could make it better... stronger... and often I felt a tinge of guilt, if you could call it that, for not having spent enough with it to do it justice.

So in return for a sizeable chunk of the Christmas break, Tiempo got a stronger melodic line. And even though I didn't feel ready, I decided to damn the torpedoes and go for a take. I was right... I wasn't ready and that's where disappointment creeps in. The optimist in me expected to deliver a song I hardly knew, to recording standard, in one evening. Surely I was good enough for that?

What comes back from the recording process is always unforgiving. For me, it's often brutal and all too rarely for my liking is it beautiful. In the cold post-recording light, I had to admit that there was still a lot of work to be done. But as a world champion latin dancer said to me once, "honest feedback is like medicine, it tastes bad but it makes you better".

And now I've got a better idea of what I want, and what I need to do to get it:
  • I need to practice singing it in a higher key, so that there'll be enough headspace for me to sing onto the note from above;
  • the tone I'd like is a lightly supported head-voice;
  • the lyrics should be expressed with gentle subtlety but with solidity; and
  • there should be a greater sense of air around the vocals.
It'll help that I've got the new vocal melody on tape to use as a template. And although I would have much preferred to have gotten it right first-time, hindsight knows that it wasn't realistically so.

That there was no lack of trying, and that there is a clear path to doing better, I think that's good enough reason for a fleeting flirt with contentment.

Loo Yen

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Herculean Effort

That's the only way I can describe the challenge that faces York's larger-than-life salsa teacher Tony Piper every year in his administration of the 12th Night Extravaganza. With his steely-eyed glare, he must stare the task into cowering submission; and he must do so with increasing ease given that the annual salsa event of the North just keeps on growing from strength to strength.

The rest of the time Tony's sweetness and light (he'll hate me for saying that).

Now I'd heard a lot about the 12th Night over the past few years, in favourable terms and in increasing numbers, but somehow I'd contrived to retain my 12th Night virginity... that is until last weekend. You see several months ago, Nicolai (Fuego Latino are partners in the event) sounded me out if I would be interested in teaching a timing workshop. As usual, he's a real charmer. After drinks and discussion with Helena, Tony and Nicolai on a Sunday evening, I did the professional educator thing and submitted a workshop definition document for their approval. I also spent part of the Christmas break mulling over a lesson plan broad enough to suit the contingencies, yet targeted enough to be coherent.

And so the first Friday of 2008 proved to be a bit of a mad rush, but with the help of Dan Flower (fellow salsa teacher, friend and partner-in-crime) we wended our merry way up north on his wheels, where we checked into the Monkbar Hotel and walked the 200 metres or so to the venue: St. John's College on Lord Mayor's Walk. On entering Temple Hall, water bottles at the ready, we found that the lessons were still on the go. No matter... I love watching others teaching and yet more others learning.

Being a stranger to the York scene and this event, the evening dance was a sea of unfamiliar faces dotted with the occassional friend. Dan and I put ourselves about a bit and were never short for partners, which we took as a positive indicator of a vibrantly open-minded scene. The only thing stopping me from dancing more was the prospect of teaching the next day and the heat - that'll teach me for not dancing more whilst I'm in the tropics! The main draw that night was "Bourbon y Tequila" a north-and-south 9 piece salsa band based in Leeds. I'd heard a lot about them and was keen to watch them in action.

So when they came onstage, I put my music director's hat on.

They played two sets comprising current standards, the vast majority of their numbers were covers. They played tightly, which told me that they gigged often; and their strongest point was their horns, which were very well arranged and gave them a big brassy sound. The sound engineer Om got the balance right too, although I personally would have preferred a bit more cut from the bongó and more rounded open tones from the congas. I do feel that they suffered somewhat from the lack of backing vocalists, which meant a lack of harmonic timbre and a smaller framework for improvised lead vocals. This was most noticable towards the latter end of each song, where I got the distinct feeling whilst dancing to their music that they should have ended each one sooner instead of drawing things out. [I used to face a similar issue with 4de12, and opted then to do things the hard way: to keep the songs compact and increase the number of numbers in each set.] I think that this would have lent their sets more energy and texture.

Having said all of that, my bias towards live music will always ensure a positive critical attitude. Overall I think they acquitted themselves very well and many of the dancers there thought so too. Soon after they'd finished, I was off to bed.

First thing the next morning, Dan and I hit the hotel restaurant for our cooked breakfast and cups of tea. We were joined by delightful fellow-Sheffielders Mandy and Heather, who told us with bleary-eyed enthusiasm what a great time they'd had the night before, and that they were going to snooze again after breakfast. No such luxury for us, we were teaching in one of the morning slots.

All beginner and improver classes were located at the Students' Union building, and Tony was taking the first slot which differentiated (educator-speak for breaking up a class by student ability and experience) part-way between Tony and Mary, and Alfredo and Christine - all of whom are teachers of SalsaYork. Dan and I didn't need much coaxing to join in as man-meat lead-filler. I'm glad we did, as it gave me extended contact with the students before it was my turn to teach the timing workshop.

It's one thing to teach timing over three hours to a select group of trainees whom you've gotten to know over a period of several weeks. It's quite another to teach timing to a group of improvers with whom you'd only just met, in one hour. But I was not afraid. No. I had three major factors on my side: Dan on the decks who made the operations of the lesson run smoothly; Nicolai as a reassuring and familiar face to the whole class; and plenty of planning on my part. It went without a hitch, and we managed to preserve the course's 100% success record. Usually it's the men who struggle the most in conventional timing lessons so I use them as the benchmark. At the close, they were moving to time with that glint of certainty in their eyes. Magic!

The college is a school for the performing arts, so there are plenty of spaces for dance instruction - it's a genius place to hold this event. We moved the instruments into the staff room, and I got acquainted with a few more instructors before hunting down an unfulfilling lunch in the cafeteria. That proved to be a blessing in disguise as I attended Guillermo's rumba guaguancó class soon after (he's from Guantanamo). Boy, was it energetic! I wish I'd had pen and paper on me to write down all the exercises he put us through. With rumba being a long-time curiosity of mine, I'm right now figuring out when I can make a commitment to travelling up to attend his lessons regularly.

Since I was due to teach the evening session I made a break for the hotel to freshen up, where I caught up with Dan who was sneaking a power-nap. With no such time to spend, a shower and change later, and we were out in search of an early evening meal. York can be a bit of a tourist-trap for the unfamiliar, and I certainly fall into that category. We found a place with passable but overvalued Italian food before making it back to the college in time to set up for my second workshop.

When my charges walked in, I could tell that they'd had a long day, and I knew that they'd struggle to deal with the abstract concepts and the different teaching paradigm. They did try their utmost; no-one was there who didn't really want to be there so, credit to them, they really stuck at it all the way through the advanced material. We took the time to digress and talk about the various timings that pervade the salsa scene, which everyone seemed to get a lot out of (that flexibility is one of the benefits of a workshop format). I learned quite a bit too, about the landscape of the UK salsa scene, just from direction of the questions asked of me by the attendees. Then everybody scarpered to go and watch the dance shows because I'd overrun.

Although there were mitigating circumstances, I'm still slightly miffed with myself for delivering a less than scintillating lesson. Next time I do this, I'll have to plead with Tony to schedule my classes for an earlier time, and I have to tighten the specifications of this particular level of workshop.

I danced the remainder of the night, right up to the close. Lubi and Tony played great sets, and I sensed a more of a care-free attitude - people weren't consciously holding anything in reserve like they were the night before. I congratulated Tony, Helena and Nicolai on a great salsa weekend.

The next morning, there was just time for a friend to friend chat with Nicolai over breakfast before making tracks for home. It was a beautiful bright day.

Okay, I'm not getting any younger and it did take me a few days to recover, but that's the most fun I've had at a salsa event in ages. (Excepting the ones where I'm there as part of the band of course!)

If that's the shape of things to come, then 2008 could well be the big momma of all salsa years.

Yeo Loo Yen