Suppose you was a little cat…


I have performed many songs, but if there’s one I’ve performed more than any other, it has to be ‘Mr Cellophane’ from Chicago.  It’s my party piece, the number that gets pulled out when I’m asked to sing outside the context of a musical, and as such has had outings in Darley Dale, Bakewell, Elham, Postling, Canterbury, Whitstable, Newport Pagnell, Dover and possibly other places I’ve forgotten about.  Each time is different, as the circumstances change.  Sometimes it’s a capella, sometimes there is musical accompaniment ; sometimes the audience is largely friends (or at least friends of friends), sometimes they’re complete strangers.  And each time is different because I’ll put a slightly different spin on things, bring out different aspects of the song.

Needless to say, I love this number (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb).  It strikes a difficult balance between being funny, being sweet and being terribly sad.  It is the lament of an ‘invisible’ man, who gets passed by in life, feeling that even those people he sees every day don’t notice him.  When I first performed the song (over 10 years ago now), I felt very much like him and I found that singing his story was cathartic.  These days, when I take on the properties of cellophane it is out of choice – there are times when it can be quite useful to fade into the background.  As a performer, part of the song’s appeal is that is builds gradually from a tentative start, taking on more force and power as the character gets more frustrated with the way people see (or rather don’t see) him.  Then, in a stroke of songwriting genius, it drops off again sharply, half way through the final line, ending with a completely appropriate moment of bathos as the man’s normal state of quiet transparency returns.

A little cat

Last week, Mister Cellophane made his most recent appearance in my repertoire. Bearing in mind how many times I’ve sung the song, it ought to be possible for me to perform it in my sleep. However, this was not to be. Having completed the first verse and chorus, I began the second verse. “Suppose you was a little cat…” Then…nothing. A complete blank. My thought process ran something like :

  • “Suppose you was a little cat,”
  • Oh. Oh no.
  • What on earth comes next?
  • It must rhyme with “cat” and…there’s something about scratching ears, but that’s not yet.
  • Don’t look panicked – look sad, look meek.
  • It’s very quiet…
  • Oh, that’s because P won’t carry on playing until I sing something.
  • I am so embarrassed. What happens if I never remember the line?
  • I ought to make something up.  Something about what the cat does.
  • What do cats do, anyway?
  • !!!  Got it!
  • “Residing in a person’s flat.”

The whole thing can only have taken moments, but it felt like forever. I’m told that it was barely noticeable (the musical director thought I was simply ‘acting’ and other members of the company either didn’t notice or said it was a second or two at most, though that’s still an age in performance time), but those moments were absolutely terrifying.  I’d like to think I’m never complacent when performing, but this was an excellent reminder – no matter how well you think you know what you’re doing on stage, you could know it better and you still need 100% concentration, every single second.

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Reasons to be fearful?


Crocodiles, speeding cars, noises in the dark.
Thunderstorms, ghosts and ghouls, shadows in the park.
Things unseen, facts unknown. Lions! Tigers! Bears!
Everywhere in life, fears can catch me unawares.

Supermarkets, aeroplanes, being underground.
Fireworks, bubble wrap – unexpected sound!
Do they like me? Am I mad? Have I broken laws?
All around, so much to fear. Thoughts to give me pause.

Making calls, networking, trying out a song.
On the job, on the stage, have I done it wrong?
Making friends, each new step, panic hard to shake.
A simple fix, so hard to do – give myself a break!

Concert season


It’s the summer, so the population of Great Britain has both umbrellas and barbecues at the ready, anxiously peering at the sky.  In addition to outdoor meals and disappointing weather, the summer tends to bring a whole bunch of concerts with it.  The Proms are on in London, and the prospect of warm weather seems to get music makers and music lovers going.  Over the last two weekends, I’ve taken part in two very different concerts.

The first was with Reach Out Gospel Choir, a group which was formed in January.  I started going because it’s organised by a good friend, and I carried on going because it was so enjoyable.  We’ve been having fun singing a mixture of traditional gospel music and pop songs, with this being our first public performance.  The choir performed diverse material from ‘Steal Away’ to ‘Can You Feel It?’, all in 3-part harmony and mostly with broad smiles on our faces.  My personal favourites to sing were ‘Magnify the Lord’ and ‘I’ll Be There’, encompassing the range of our repertoire.  The first is very simple, a short and catchy piece which shifts up a key after every chorus, and the second is just a joy to sing thanks to my friend’s fantastic arrangement.  I also sang a solo, stepping out of the musical theatre world to have a go at Michael Buble’s ‘Haven’t Met You Yet’, which was brilliant fun to sing.  I may have to delve into his songbook again!

Next was West Side Story From Scratch, which was (as the name implies) put together with a minimum of rehearsals.  In an outdoor venue, we got the audience to join with us as the Jets, the Sharks and their girls as we sang through the score with the help of two very accomplished pianists.  My part in the concert was pretty mad, even by the standards of a year where I’ve been a wolf and sung a song in my underwear!  For the ‘Tonight Quintet’, I sang the part of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.  I then got to play the Jets (all of them!) in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, a feat that involved four different accents and a workout for my falsetto range.  I think I can safely say that it was a unique version of the song, and it certainly got a very warm reception from the audience.  The Quintet, on the other hand…  well, let’s just say that it could definitely have gone better.  But I suppose that’s a “From Scratch” performance for you.

I have the possibility of one more concert before the summer ends.  In many ways, I prefer doing a fully staged show, partly because I do like to have a character to hide behind, but concerts are a lot of fun and I think the audiences generally feel more a part of proceedings, even if they aren’t being asked to join in with some of the songs.

Belonging


A short while ago, I had a dream with a surprisingly complex plot, a dream which surprised me, when I reflected upon it, with what it revealed about me.  I am now a few months into my new job, and this was the second work-related dream I can remember during this period.  The first thing that transpired in the dream in question was that there was to be a protest – in the current climate of cuts to higher education, rising tuition fees and changes to pensions, this is not exactly unusual on university campuses, but this one would involve both staff and students.

In my dream, I said I couldn’t join the protest because I’m not a union member, so would be continuing to work in the library (which the protest was right outside) for the benefit of those students not protesting.  However, things soon escalated and the protest grew volatile.  I had to ensure that some students on the roof didn’t cause damage to the building, and I had to quell some violence in the car park, where some cars were being attacked.  My dream self confronted rioting students and persuaded them not to vandalise the staff cars there, as they may well belong to their fellow protesters.  Things continued in this stressful and frightening vein for quite some time, until the protest was finally over.

For slightly unclear reasons, I felt terrible about what had happened, and when the other staff members were returning to the library, I went and hid.  However, when I came out of hiding, a group of them (including more senior members of staff) were waiting for me to say that it didn’t matter.  I was presented with some sort of membership card which proved I was now truly a part of the team there – they had even brailled it, so that I could show it to both of my housemates.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that my subconscious mind was/is clearly wrestling with the question of belonging, and whether I fit in at the new library – it appears that my mind is telling me that yes, I do belong there. However, it has struck me since that the dream has wider application than the obvious one, as I have a tendency to worry and wonder whether I belong in other environments. In some of my performing contexts, my awareness of my lack of training makes me doubt whether I fit with the others in the cast. In some social situations, I feel on the sidelines and wonder whether that’s OK or not. Recently, I’ve been in this position more frequently than usual, so it is no surprise that the issue of belonging has been bubbling away in my subconscious. Perhaps I need to take my lead from the dream’s conclusion and start telling myself that I am not an outsider. I belong.

Standards and abilities


Today one of my friends retweeted something tweeted by singer-songwriter Aimee Mann – “My standards are higher than my abilities.” I know what she means. Or at least, her tweet strikes a chord with me.  It’s part of the reason why I needed to write the posts named Changing my mind and I can do this last year.  It’s the reason why I probably ought to read them every day.  It’s the reason why I’m very rarely pleased with the work I’ve done on stage or in a workshop in the library.  I have high standards for myself, standards which I’m extraordinarily unlikely to achieve.  Mistakes that the audience would never notice are a reason for self-criticism.  Workshops where anything goes wrong are obviously my fault.  I feel the need to meet and exceed any and all expectations which might have been placed upon me, and then there are my own expectations on top of that.  And add all of those together, and you have a target I cannot reach, for I am not the actor, educator, singer or person I want me to be.  My abilities are not enough to meet my standards.

So should I lower my standards?  I think not.  If I stop wanting to get better, then I’ll simply stop getting better, and possibly stop caring.  Perhaps I need to recognise more that my standards are high, and go easier on myself for not meeting them.  And who knows, maybe one day my abilities will grow enough to meet my standards.  And that will be a most wonderful day.  And knowing me, I’ll raise my standards the very next morning!

Voting ‘yes’


On Thursday, the UK goes to the polls for a variety of matters.  There will be elections to the Stormont Assembly in Northern Ireland and to the Welsh National Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.  There will be many local council elections, a smattering of mayoral elections and a by-election.  And across the nation (or is that nations?) there is the referendum on our electoral system.  And in that referendum, the Singing Librarian will be voting ‘yes’, because he would like our system to be changed from “First Past the Post” to “Alternative Vote” (AV).  Actually, that’s not true.  There are many better options than AV, but these options are not being presented to us, and AV is the better of the two on the table.

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What does a librarian do all day? – revisited


Some months ago, I wrote about what I actually get up to at work.  Since then, I have had a major change of job, though still within the world of higher education librarianship, so I thought it was about time I updated this to reflect my new role.  My job function is known by many different names in many different universities, but essentially I am a subject librarian, with my particular subject specialism being health.  This is a surprisingly broad area at my place of work, encompassing various branches of nursing, along with medical imaging, dental practice, occupational therapy, midwifery, speech and language therapy, cardiology, operating department practice, paramedic science and (soon) minimally invasive surgery as well as health administration and other areas of professional practice.

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