Jay Stapley

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Tubular Bells Anniversary Shows 2021 Part 1

Rehearsals Day 1.

This morning, I woke up (always a bonus!), had a shower, threw the wet towels onto the bathroom floor, ate breakfast (which I neither paid for, had to prepare or clear away) on the sun terrace and went for a walk around the town. This is the first time I’ve done this for over a decade, but it used to be a major part of my working life. Yes: I’m back on the road (slightly misleading as we’re in the same place for a fortnight…) rehearsing for the Tubular Bells Anniversary shows at London’s Royal Festival Hall. I’ll spare you the pictures of the bathroom, but as I’m advised that adding pictures to my blog posts increases their interest and attractiveness despite that fact that I’m a crap photographer, here’s a picture of my breakfast…

It is in itself a rare treat to have this for breakfast: since my (thankfully minor) stroke last year I’ve been avoiding such cholesterol fests but this was all that was on offer.

Yesterday was the first day of rehearsals for the show. Everyone had done their homework so we were able to play this complex piece straight through with no major problems. The music will be accompanied by a modern circus acrobat troupe from Circa Contemporary Circus (cue much clutching of pearls and breathless outrage among the social media Oldfield fan-groups.)

I’m using a Kemper Profiling amp as I need a wide variety of sounds from full-blown Mesa Boogie MkV overdrive to D.I.d and compressed clean Stratocaster tone and all points in-between, and the presence of orchestral instruments (cello and grand piano for example) means we need as quiet a stage as possible. Guitars used are my 1986 Japanese Strat with Vintage Gold Lace Sensor pickups + TBX electronics and a PRS SE Standard 24. I bought the PRS specifically for the many Oldfield-based projects I’m involved in and like it so much I’m going to upgrade to a top-end model soon. My Strat has been with me from new and is a part of my body. 

A couple of expression pedals for volume, silent tuning and wah (one of Mike’s most used sounds was the PRS with a Wah pedal in a fixed position) complete the rig and we’re all using in-ear wireless monitors. These are a mixed blessing. I’ve used them before in stadium shows and hated them because there was no sense of the weight of sound in the room and one of the major skills of playing amplified music live is the ability to find the sweet spot at which the hall sings rather than swims. The crew assure me that they will feed in some of the room mics when we are in the concert hall.

It was a joy and a relief to finally play the piece with an ensemble of live musicians and I can’t wait to do it in front of a real living, breathing audience. I’ve played it at home in my studio pretty much every day for the last two months and have it fully committed to memory and internalised to the point where I don’t even need the sheet music as a road-map anymore, but in the heat of (pre-)battle I had a couple of those “Is this 3 times or 4 times round this riff?” moments. All I can do is trust my autopilot. It’s actually a relief when I make my first mistake as I know that it is likely to be my last and I will never make that particular error again.  The same applies to the live shows. I hope my first mistake will be a minor one rather than one of those horrible moments when I am completely exposed and effectively solo.

Day 2: Rehearsals in a time of Covid.

Another good day, though I let the seed of doubt be sown and once sown, it proliferated with frightening speed. We were approaching the transition from the A minor Tune into the Blues tune, a guitar duet. My task at this point is to continue to play the A minor tune right up until the start of the blues section (not easy as it requires me to maintain the 4/4 meter of the A minor tune against the underlying 12/8 groove of the Blues which starts on the bass 4 bars or so before the Blues proper starts.) Someone near to me shook their head and motioned for me to stop, which foolishly I did. The result was that we guitarists both missed the start of the Blues and had to jump back in as soon as we knew where we were. That seed of doubt then pervaded the rest of my afternoon. The mental aspects of playing and performing are rarely explored, most educators focussing on physical matters, but what goes on in a musician’s mind is vastly more important than what their hands are doing. At professional level,  it’s a given that you can play the instrument physically, but what makes a musician successful and employable is the ability to make the sequences of notes mean something to the listener. To do this requires a mind that is at rest, peaceful, uncluttered and unencumbered by doubt or pride. Musicians and associated educators would be well-advised to address this, although there is hardly any literature on the subject ( a notable exception being “Kato Havas – Beyond Stage Fright” http://www.beyondstagefright.com/kato-havas/) Her work is full of invaluable quotes, of which this is a favourite: “I realised that people are so anxious [to be] playing well, that they forget the music. They are so anxious not to forget things, not to make a mistake.”

Most educators rely on approaching instrumental skills as a branch of competitive sport, using notions such as  “striving” or “maximising your potential” without acknowledging that playing in a musical ensemble requires humility and co-operation,  the very opposites of “striving”. I’ve shared the stage on a few occasions with musicians who “strive”, and their mental noise pollutes the atmosphere making it impossible to play properly with them. Happily, there is none of this in the current ensemble.

The limitations of gathering a group of musicians together in the current pandemic are becoming clearer. The intelligibility of human speech relies on the listener being able to hear the higher frequencies produced by the speaker, but the ubiquitous face-masks required for health reasons mask those very frequencies. We are also all wearing in-ear monitors, which exacerbates the problem: by the end of the day you start to feel as though you’ve spent the whole time underwater and the return of high-frequency sonic information in human speech when the in-ears come out is as startling as it is welcome. Our excellent sound crew have done their best to mitigate this problem by supplying us all with microphones with which we can speak to each other but conversing in close physical proximity (or as close as the current regulations permit) is extremely frustrating.

The day was also complicated by the presence of the acrobat troupe rehearsing their routine in the centre of the stage mock-up. Their skills are extraordinary, and it’s as well to get the distraction over and done with in rehearsals rather than on the first live show.

Day 3: Phew!!!

After yesterday’s doubt-ridden trudge through the material, today was a joy.

The working environment has taken a bit of getting used to: the production company specialises in theatre production and everything is much less “loose” than in rock’n’roll. When it is lunchtime (or even tea-break time), the rehearsal is stopped (even if we are in the zone and rocking!) and the usual creature comforts of rock show rehearsals, notably: in-house catering, are absent. Start and finish times are rigidly adhered to. The company’s staff are highly professional and problems are solved quickly and with good humour, but there is a sense that the musicians are junior members of the operation rather than the reason the operation exists in the first place. This is maybe no bad thing: egos can’t run riot and I suspect that any star tantrums would be given short shrift. The situation is also unusual in that there is no “star”: no artist’s fragile ego to tiptoe around, no sudden whims to cater to. 

So why was today a joy? Simple: it was given to us to play the main piece really well, with everything gelling despite the sonic challenges of playing in a giant tin can. I say “given to us” because that’s how it feels when it comes together out of the blue. Obviously, we have all put in a lot of hard work individually to be on top of both the material and our own equipment and sounds, Robin Smith’s arrangement wasn’t slung together in an afternoon, and the sound crew has been tweaking the mix (both the monitor mixes in our ears and the front-of-house mix) to the point where the limitations of the room have been addressed as far as is possible, but that alone doesn’t account for why we should suddenly deliver a rendition of such quality while doing nothing different from what we’ve been doing for the last two days. I believe that the best performances come through the performers as opposed to the performers being actively responsible for them: we are just tools in the service of the material and one of the main skills of a musician is to be able get out of the way of the performance. The harder you try, the less likely you are to deliver one of those great shows where the music flows effortlessly.

As a performer, believing that “I did  it” invites hubris and is dangerous: Hubris because you will go on stage believing that you can “do it” at will, turning “it” on like a switch and dangerous because when you can’t turn “it” on at will you’ll start looking for reasons to blame for “it” not happening and that way lies madness, abuse of substances and colleagues, disappointment  and frustration. The only realistic option is to avoid doing the things that will stop “it” from happening (such as going on stage thinking “I’m going to be brilliant tonight.”) and throw yourself off the cliff every night, trusting in your technical competence to get through the show in case inspiration doesn’t strike. The older you get, the more you learn to trust that “it” will happen to some degree more often than not.

I even finally conquered my bete noire, my nemesis, the octave-up guitar entry which has bedevilled me since I started preparing for the show. It’s like a sentence which, although I know all the words in it, I can’t parse. I can’t find its logic or imbue it with any emotion: it’s an exercise in pure mathematics for me. Having messed it up in every run through to date and completely missed it once because I was watching the acrobats, I nailed it today. Phew!

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