Reflections from the Ruddigorchestra

Reflections from the Ruddigorchestra

My audition for Ruddigore got off to a rather inauspicious start. Having left my own trumpet in Reading, and borrowed one from the instrument store, I swiftly discovered that the valve-oil that came with the rather battered trumpet I was using had something of a predilection for spending more time on my face and hands than on the actual instrument. Somehow, though, this – along with a rather awkward moment when the valves hadn’t realigned properly into the trumpet – was overlooked by our lovely Musical Director (MD), Alex, and so here we all are, just before opening night, preparing to help bring to life the production, by Exeter University Gilbert and Sullivan Society, of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-loved pieces. With that in mind, I thought I’d try to offer a glimpse of how the show’s been coming together from the perspective of the musicians.

In the Northcott Theatre, where we’ll be performing, the orchestra sit in the charmingly-named ‘pit’ – basically a recess below the stage – with the MD, who conducts the orchestra, being the only person who can see both us and the cast members as they tread the proverbial boards. Our job, then, is very much a supporting one: as a general rule, we set the conditions for the cast to perform at their best. We’re often the ‘bed’ for a lot of the musical numbers, something that this recording, from Cambridge G&S Society’s production of Ruddigore, demonstrates very well. The orchestra isn’t given any significant counter-melodies, and has the primary job of bringing alive the actor’s voice by echoing his key melodic phrases.

There are, of course, a couple of occasions where the orchestra gets more of a prominent role, the most exciting of which is perhaps the Overture. As in many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, the Overture to Ruddigore consists of a ‘potpourri’ of melodies from throughout the piece, which gives us a real opportunity to manage the audience’s expectations throughout the show. It opens with a spectacular sequence, reminiscent of the theme from the Danse macarbre, that seems almost to scream ‘shut up and listen!’ at the audience. A little later on in the Overture, the trumpets foreshadow a piece that isn’t actually heard until Act 2 – the Ancestors’ When the Night Wind Howls – before the traditional rousing finale gives the violins a virtuosic opportunity to pick up the ‘Matter trio’. By the time the Overture finishes, and the cast first enters, the stage should be set (literally) for a memorable performance.

As for the trumpets, our role in Ruddigore, as in many G&S works, is usually a supporting one. There are many numbers where the trumpets are absent entirely, as they tend to be a little too harsh to function effectively with anything other than melodies (although note, by way of any exception, He Yields!, where we have a rather technically-challenging pianissimo passage underneath atmospheric vocals from the male chorus). This presents something of a challenge when it comes to managing entries when we finally do play again: trumpets tend to sound slightly flat when cold, so it can be tough to (a) hit the right harmonic and (b) not over-compensate! There has actually been some proper academic work done on the difficulties inherent to trumpets in G&S: John Christopher Schuesselin’s doctoral thesis, ‘The Use of the Cornet in the Operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan’, puts it nicely in analysing an excerpt from Patience: that ‘the most difficult part of executing this excerpt successfully is sounding fresh after this long break.’ (p. 16)

All that aside, though, I wouldn’t change that for the world. The libretto for something like Ruddigore offers a glimpse into a world that’s at once ridiculous and sublime, but adding in the music – orchestral and vocal – is what makes it memorable. If you can come and see Ruddigore this week, I’d certainly recommend that you do, and do make sure to pay particular attention to the orchestration while you’re there. As for the cast … well, they’re brilliant, but bear in mind that they do sing choruses in public. That’s mad enough, I think.



Teaching, Part Two (and Gilbert & Sullivan)

Teaching, Part Two (and Gilbert & Sullivan)

It probably won’t come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog (all one of you – hello, mum …) that I’ve been keeping myself fairly busy over the past few weeks. In fact, I’m currently writing this during an orchestra rehearsal for Exeter University Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of Ruddigorebook your tickets now! – which, funnily enough, is one of the few points where I have a little bit of time to myself. Gilbert and Sullivan’s attitude towards trumpets is somewhat conflicted. At any time, I’m likely to be doing one of the following:

Fig. 1: ‘tacet’ is music-speak for ‘sit back and write blog posts during this bit.’

Fig. 2: crotchet, crotchet, crotchet, crotchet …


Thankfully for our brains, the former is very much the most common, which has left me plenty of time to think about the other tasks I’ve been giving myself. Over the past few weeks, one of the major time-stealers has been the second ‘stage’ of the University’s Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (LTHE) course. I blogged about the first stage, a one-day course, a few posts ago, but since then, and in a fit of ‘do-all-the-things!’, I’ve completed the second part of the training programme. This was more in-depth than the first course, being designed for postgrads who will have a role in marking and assessment (as opposed to demonstrating), and involved four afternoon seminars. The seminars were all fascinating, covering topics from how to give constructive criticism (the so-called ‘feedback trifle’) to the ‘four lenses’ through which we can improve our practice as teachers.

The highlight for all of us, though, was the ‘microteaching’ session that we had in the third week. We’d all done this once before, as part of the Stage 1 course, but the next ‘level’ of the course saw us graduating to a longer format (10 minutes) and to correspondingly stricter feedback. I personally didn’t feel as if my microteach went particularly well: as usual for me, I poured an enormous amount of energy into it, but this time it seemed like I misjudged it slightly, and ended up stressing myself out in the process and trying to squeeze in a little to much. That’s not to sa  y it was a discouraging experience, though: far from it. In fact, I got to learn from some truly wonderful teachers-in-the-making, and began to appreciate – even after a year of teaching – the value of taking a step back and really focusing on what the students will get out of a given session. If I’m lucky, the coming year should give me some exciting opportunities to get involved with teaching (Old French reading group, anyone?!), and hopefully I’ll be able to channel my signature enthusiasm while also giving myself room to breathe.

Incidentally, the promised blog post on the PGR office (a.k.a. ‘the Bat-cave’) is very much in the pipeline: a temporary absence of anything with which to take photos has been preventing me from adorning the blog post with any visual evidence. It’s coming – and sooner than it’s taken for me to put this post together …

Cover image: an excerpt from Brookfield’s Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, pp. 14-15.