Fergus Black

music teacher and performer


On a light-hearted note

Cartoons and snippets that appeal to my sense of humour


The Dandy

Fergus Black reading The Dandy comic
FB relaxes with the Dandy at the break of a Peterborough Young Singers' rehearsal


If I was Tony Blair's adviser, I'd tell him to take up the piano. What someone in his aloof position needs is swiftly bringing down to size, which is what happened to me last week when I attempted my grade one piano exam. Nothing has reduced me to a gibbering bag of nerves more than the 10 minutes I spent trying to play the piano in front of an examiner without making it sound like a Roman execution. I've never felt less like a grown-up in my life, and that includes that part of my life when I was a child.

I've made speeches, bought a house, been asked to write for a national newspaper and driven a car into things, but none of this adult experience mattered when I walked into a strange room, sat down at a strange piano and played what in the end turned out to be completely strange music.

The reason the music was strange was because, for some reason, my hands had been suddenly replaced by two packets of fish fingers, neither of which could be controlled by signals from the brain. Sounds came out that have never been categorised before. Imagine the noise an emperor penguin would make if it fell into a piano. Then treble it. Now have the whole thing detonated in a controlled explosion. That's still not as bad as the sound I was making. A Shetland pony could have played better.

At the end of perhaps the longest 10 minutes of my life, during which I decided I hated all instruments and all music, I did make a salutary discovery. Which is that all of us, especially those of us who have a particularly high regard for ourselves (for example, Tony Blair), would benefit from being thrown into a short, relatively trivial but deeply embarrassing situation over which we have no control and throughout which we are mercilessly judged.

Armando Ianucci in The Observer Sunday 26th March 2006

Sheep Choir

Sheep Choir cartoon

Living with a singer

Q: How do you know when you are living with a singer?
A: They take the wrong key and never come in on time.

Stuart Hannay first told me this

Mr and Mrs Santa

Mr and Mrs Santa cartoon

Fish gotta swim

fish gotta swim cartoon
Here's a card my wife sent me!

The Alto's Lament

(by Heisler/Goldrich or Bob the Organist, depending on who you believe)

It's awful being an alto when you're singing in the choir,
Sopranos get the twiddly bits that people all admire,
The basses boom like big trombones, the tenors shout with glee,
The alto part is on two notes, or if you're lucky, three.

And when we sing an anthem and lift our hearts in praises,
The men get all the juicy bits and telling little phrases.
Of course, the trebles sing the tune - they always come off best -
While altos only get three notes and twenty-two bars rest.

It doesn't matter what we sing, from hymnbooks or from psalter,
The choirmaster looks at us - our voices start to falter;
Too high! Too low! Too fast! Too slow! You hold that note too long!
It doesn't matter what we do, it's certain to be wrong.

Oh! shed a tear for altos: they're the Marthas and they know
In ranks of choral singers they're considered very low.
They are so very humble that a lot of folk forget 'em:
They'd love to be sopranos, but their vocal chords won't let 'em.

And when the final trumpet sounds and we are wafted higher,
Sopranos, tenors, basses, all will form the heavenly choir.
When they sing Alleluias to celestial flats and sharps,
We altos in the corner will be polishing our harps.

Learning the Violin

Only the most sadistic child would insist on learning the violin, but encourage them lest they fulfil the sadly unexploited musical promise of Uncle Joe, who was a whizz on the recorder. Violins are £70, bows £14.50. Music stands are £9.99, beginner’s music books £3.95 and a teacher to explain them £23 an hour. Making your prodigy practise will cost you blood (yours, metaphorically), sweat (theirs) and tears (everyone’s) but will be easier if you wear some £1.99 ear plugs, particularly during the hours of scale practice, which will poison domestic harmony quicker than a teenager. Family therapy (£150) might help you all come to terms with your newly discordant existence but, realistically. the only solution is to call a halt to this ill-advised £323.43 stringed- instrument experiment, plug the merits of the flute and tell your thwarted little Menuhin that Uncle Joe would never have amounted to much anyway and was probably far happier as a plumber.

Hilary Rose (from the Times 25th January 2003)

The Telephone

Hello — you have reached Fergus’ automated answering service. Please listen to all options before making a selection.

# To fib about why your child has missed their music lesson, press 1

# To make excuses about the lack of practice last week, press 2

# To tell me that the scale book reported stolen has turned up in the airing cupboard, press 3

# To complain that you did not get any information about the concert and rehearsals which was included in several newsletters posted to you over recent weeks, press 4

# To request a further change of lesson time, having asked for it to be moved twice this week already, press 5

# To ask Fergus and Helen to adopt your child, press 6

The Choirmaster

The Choirmaster stood at the Pearly Gates
His face was worn and old
He stood before the man of fate
For admission to the fold.

'What have you done,' St. Peter said
'To gain admission here?'
'I've been a Choirmaster, Sir,' he said
'For many and many a year.'

The Pearly Gates flew open wide,
St. Peter touched the bell:
'Come in,' he said, 'and choose your harp,
You've had your share of hell!'

Who wrote Ol' Man River?

“Oscar Hammerstein suffered the same lack of recognition as a lyricist as Lorenz Hart. Jerome Kern’s wife was being introduced at a social function. “Her husband wrote Ol’ Man River,” announced the hostess. “Oh no,” interjected Hammerstein’s wife, “my husband wrote Ol’ Man River”; her husband wrote ‘da-da-da-da’.”

(from a letter to The Guardian, June 2008, by John Wurr of Kingsbridge, Devon)

BONO interviews Eddie Izzard

The Independent on 16th May 2006.

BONO: How is Mrs Badcrumble?

EDDIE: Mrs Badcrumble... well, she's good. Were you ever taught by a Mrs Badcrumble?

BONO: Yes, well I know she is sort of your... kind of music teacher/mother of God.

EDDIE: Music teacher/mother of... yes, exactly! Well, there was this thing that if you wanted to learn an instrument you had to do the lessons thing. And the lady who teaches you is beyond the age of comprehension, like 140, and the music you learn isn't sexy, and you play it and no one will shag you.

I learnt non-shagging music. If you play that sort of "Snug as a Bug in a Rug" stuff, with those scales going up and down, no one's going to come near you.

BONO: Maybe I wasn't deprived of a musical education after all.

EDDIE: No, I think you had that "thing"... precisely because you didn't have one.

BONO: Punk rock was like my Mrs Badcrumble.

Eddie: Exactly. Punk rock is Mrs Badcrumble with a fag...

BONO: Mrs Goodcrumble!

Happy Birthday to Who?

Illustration accompanying the article Happy Birthday to you

by Marc Abrahams
The Guardian, Tuesday 6 January 2009

Despite everyone's carefree joy in singing Happy Birthday to You, this simple song puts you in legal jeopardy every time it exits your mouth. A considerable amount of money flows to the corporation that owns the copyright. But ... maybe that company doesn't own the copyright, and maybe you are in no legal peril. Professor Robert Brauneis, of George Washington University law school, took a professional, long, deep look into these questions. This Happy Birthday matter, it turns out, is a murky mess.

Brauneis published a 69-page disquisition called Copyright and the World's Most Popular Song. Before plunging into the legal history, evidence and arguments, he examined the history.

In 1893, Patty and Mildred Hill published a song called Good Morning to All, which has the now-familiar tune, but different words. Brauneis characterises it as "the product of a highly focused, laborious effort to write a song that was extremely simple to sing, yet musically interesting and emotionally expressive, undertaken by a composer and an educator who happened to be sisters".

The birthday lyrics appeared years later, from some now-unknown source. Between 1915 and 1935, the song rose to near-universal birthday party popularity. By the late 1940s, it was pulling in copyright revenues of $15,000 (£9,800) or so a year, rising to the current approximately $2m.

But Brauneis reckons that the copyright probably expired, for various reasons, decades ago. Nevertheless, nominal ownership passed to a succession of individuals and then companies, which did and do aggressively collect fees.

The story comes with plenty of evidentiary paperwork and audio recordings. These include: filings in four federal court cases in the 1930s and 1940s; litigation filings over the management of a trust that was created to receive royalties; unpublished papers of and about Patty and Mildred Hill; probate court records in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Chicago; and records from the US Copyright Office.

Brauneis has put more than 100 items online at
http://tinyurl.com/6p3ygk for you to peruse and sing along with.

But all the evidence and legal analysis are "unlikely to make much of a dent in the song's income", rues Brauneis. "Revenues have always flowed from many, many parties - tens of thousands of ASCAP [the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] public performance licencees, and hundreds of licencees of other rights. For litigation to go forward, a substantial number of these licencees would have to be able to combine forces. Litigation costs would be steep and there is no guarantee that the challenge would succeed."

"Summy-Birchard and its parents Warner/Chappell and Warner Music Group will continue collecting about $5,000 per day in royalties on the song, and may continue to do so for more than two decades in the future, or even longer if Congress is persuaded to pass yet another retroactive extension of copyright."

Thanks to Roz Wilkin for bringing this to my attention.
• Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize

Theory and Practice

(originally this was written about computer programmers)

Theory is when you know something, but it doesn't work.
Practice is when something works, but you don't know why.
Programmers combine theory and practice:
Nothing works and they don't know why.

Long Echoes

A letter in The Spectator, 25th July 2009

Sir: My old friend Peter Phillips (Arts, 18 July) observes that 'St Paul's Cathedral in London has such a long echo that a composer might want to build in extra rests for the sound to clear', but uncharacteristically errs when he goes on to say: 'I can't think of a single piece that obviously takes this into account.'

There is just such a piece, by the 18th-century composer, cuckold and drunk Jonathan Battishill, who had been a boy chorister at St Paul's. His fine setting of Isaiah lxiii 15, O Lord, look down from heaven, was written for the cathedral and derives its most striking effect from dramatic pauses at the agonised entreaty 'Where is thy zeal and thy strength, the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me?' Readers who frequent quires and places where they sing will know that in today's parishes this. . . er, passage is usually. . . well, bowdlerised.

Richard Abram Wanstead Park, Essex


Most of us are familiar with the words and music of this great oratorio, but old Bill Jones from Golca, a little village in the West Riding, had never been to a performance, and he tried to persuade a friend to go with him to Huddersfield Town Hall to hear the famous choral society, but his friend refused.

“Nay”, he said, “That sort o’ music’s nowt i’ my line. Ah like a good comic song, or a lively jig, but ah reckons nowt t’this ‘ere sacred stuff, as they calls it. Tis bit beyond me an’ another thing, thi’ll be nun o’ oor sort there. ‘Till be mostly religious folk an’ swells dun up i’ boiled shirts an’ wimmen wi’ nowt much on, nay, tha go by thisen an’ then tha can tell me all abaht it sometime.”

So Bill went by himself and the next time the old pals met, the following conversation took place.

“Well, cum on, how did yer get on at t’Messiah? Tell us all abaht it, but wait ‘til ah lights me pipe, then ah can tek it in better.”

“Eeh well”, said Bill, “it were a fair champion, ah wouldn’t a’ missed it for all t’tea in China. When ah got theer, town ‘all were crowded, it were chock full o’ folk an’ ah ‘ad a job fitten a seat, but no wonder, it were all ‘em singers, they tuk up ‘alf of t’gallery. Anyway, ah managed t’squeeze in some ‘ow. There were a chap larkin’ abowt on t’organ. ‘E weren’t playing nowt in particular, like oor muther used to do when she started t’learn pinnana. Well, after a bit a lot a chaps cum in carryin’ fiddles, then they brung in Messiah, well, that’s wot ah tuk it t’be. It were biggest instrument on’t platform and it were covered in a greet big bag. Any road, they tuk bag off it, an’ then chap rubbed its belly wi’ a stick an’ yer should ‘ave ‘eard it groan. It were sommat like an expriring moan of a dyin’ cow. Ah were just thinking’ a goin’ when a little chap cum on all dolled up in a white weskit, wi’ a flower in ‘is buttonhole. Then everything’ went dead quiet. Yer could ‘ave ‘eard a pin drop. ‘E ‘ad a stick in ‘is ‘and, an’ ‘e started wavin’ it abaht, an’ all t’singers stared at ‘im. Ah reckon they was wonderin’ wot was matter wi’ ‘im. Then they started t’sing, an’ they ‘adn’t bin goin’ long afore they were frachin’ like cats. Ah reckon ‘e should ‘ave walloped one or two o’ them wi’ ‘is stick. First one said ‘e were t’King o’ Glory, then t’other side sed they were, an’ they went at it ‘ammer an’ tongs. But it all fizzled out so ah’ve no idea ‘oo wun.

Then there were a bit o’ bother abaht some sheep as were lost. Ah don’t know ‘oo they belong to, but they must ‘ave bin champion fond o’ mutton, cos they kept singin’ “all we like sheep”. Ah couldn’t ‘elp sayin’ ter t’chap next ter me, sheep’s alreet i’ moderation, but ah like a bit o’ underdone beef mesel’. ‘E looked daggers at me, an’ said shhhhh, so ah shushed.
Then chap stood up an’ sang by ‘issel’. They must a bin ‘is sheep, cos ‘e said ivery mountain an’ ‘ill should be laid low. Ah thoot they should be sure ter find ‘em if they did that, as well as findin’ jobs for unemployed. Then up jumped another chap an’ ‘e did look mad. Ah wondered if they’d tekken ‘is sheep ter mek up fer them as were lost. ‘E said they’d imagined a vain thing. ‘E was in a reel state ah can tell thee.

Then t’organist started bangin’ an t’rest o’band was just as bad cos the way they was sorin’ them fiddles, ah thought they was goin’ ter sore them reeyt through. Ee, ah bet ivervwun was reet glad went t’chap sat down.

A lot ‘o wimmin’ stood up after that, an’ all o’ them looked as if they were, well, gerrin’ on a bit. Some o’ them mustah bin 65 if they wus a day. They sang “Unto us a child is born”, an’ chaps shouted back “Wunderful”. Ah thought, Wunderful? It’s a bloomin’ miracle. After that they sobered down a bit, an’ sang abaht a lass called Joyce Greatly. Ah’ve nivver ‘eard a ‘er misel’, but t’chaps ‘ad, cos they all looked mighty pleased abaht it. Then another chap got tup an’ said ‘e were t’King ‘o Kings an’ another said ‘e were, an’ then if they didn’t all start arguin’ abaht that. Ah were gettin’ a bit fed up, then iveryone got up ter see wot was t’matter an’ suddenly shouted “Allelujah, it’s goin’ ter rain furiver an’ iver”. Well, after that ah jumped straight tup an’ made fer t’door. Ah’d ‘ad me munneyswuth, an’ ah were thinkin’ if it were goin’ ter rain furiver an’ iver ah’d better get ‘ome afore floods cum. Ee but it were reet grand, tha should a’ cum. But ah do ‘ope they find them sheep.”

From the North Billingham Church Magazine - with thanks


Rhadames was the son of Badile, the locksmith, whose real name was Hernani Gniffa. Obviously an operatic family. Badile had a good ear, and when he had tucked away a bottle or two of wine he sang with a powerful voice that was a pleasure to hear. When Badile’s son, Rhadames, was six years old, his father brought him to Don Camillo and asked to have him taken into the choir. Don Camillo tested the boy’s voice and then said:

“The only thing I can do is set him to blowing the organ bellows.” For Rhadames had a voice as hard and cutting as a splinter of stone.

“He’s my son,” said Badile, “so he must have a voice. It’s still tight, that’s all. All it needs is loosening up.”

To say no would have meant giving Badile the worst disappointment of his life, so the priest sighed and said, “I’ll do my best.”

Don Camillo did everything he could, but after two years, Rhadames’ voice was worse than ever. Besides being even harsher than before, it stuck in his throat. Rhadames had a magnificent chest, and to hear a miserable squeak come out of it was really infuriating. One day Don Camillo lost patience, got up from the organ and gave Rhadames a kick that landed him against the wall. Where singing is concerned, a kick may be more effective than three years’ of study of harmony: Rhadames went back to the choir and came out with a voice that seemed to emerge straight from La Scala.

the opening of the story Rhadames (from The World Of Don Camillo) by Giovanni Guareschi

Vuvuzela Concerto in B flat

The Royal College of Conducting

Year Four - Final Examination Paper (Sample questions) To all candidates
Please read this sample paper thoroughly as it will help you through the final and most rigorously demanding stage of your intense training to become a world class conductor. The questions contained within this paper will be typical of the type and variety of questions you will encounter in your final examination while covering every aspect of the work and pressures which you, as conductors, will be expected to deal with on a day to day basis. Explanatory text is provided to help you through the complexity and diversity of decision making which you will be required to address both in the examination and in your future careers. Having reached thus far in your studies, and having survived the elimination process that is part of the rigorous training at this college, it merely remains for me to wish you luck in your final year, and the sincere hope that you will go forth into the world of symphonic music upholding the honour and traditions of this great seat of learning.

Imrich von Worstenbeat
College Principal

Part One: The use of the Baton (Choose all applicable)

1. When conducting in 4/4 time do you beat:
  1. Up, down, Left, Right
  2. Down, Right, Left, Up
  3. Right, Left, Up, Down
  4. Round and Round,
  5. Down, Left, Right, Up

* It is vital to get this question right. The correct answer is of course 'E'. However, in a sense there are two correct answers. Many of the great Maestri both past and present with the best will in the world can either get lost or forget which beat of the bar they should be on (especially in a bar containing more than four beats). Should this happen to you, the standard emergency procedure as quoted in 'LETS BEAT IT' by Hans Vericlever (see 'year one reading list') states that it is quite acceptable to go 'round and round' as long as you stop when the music stops. You will not lose marks for choosing this answer.

2. If you make a mistake with the beat during rehearsals do you:
  1. Stop and apologise to the orchestra.
  2. Pretend you were going to stop there anyway in order to make a point about something.
  3. Pick out some kind of 'rhythmic problem' (which was probably just about to happen anyway).
  4. Pull a pained face and politely suggest we really should take another 'A'.
  5. Choose any woodwind player who was reading a book at the time, and ask them whether they noticed the problem with that particular bar.

• With the obvious exception of ‘A’, these are all right answers. The choice would largely depend on what was going on in the music at the time. Also an experienced conductor would never use the same excuse twice in a row, as that would arouse suspicions. In the unlikely event that any player were to notice you making an error, be sure to find a suitably difficult passage for them to rehearse on their own. This usually ensures their silence on future occasions. • One point regarding making faces. The 'year three' course on 'Sucking Lemons in front of a Mirror' will have developed the facial muscles to a peak of fitness. You will undoubtedly be glad on these occasions that you persevered. • Another valuable point regarding players who read when they are not playing, is that this should always be strongly encouraged. The reason being that if they are reading then they are not listening, and if they are not listening they will always feel guilty when disturbed by a conductor who asks them a question to which they don't know the answer. Hence they will be all too eager to agree with anything, however damning the conductor might say about their colleagues. It is always worthy to get the players on your side in this way.

3. Which baton techniques (as described in 'Die Kunst Der Battontechnik' by Eric Battonstikkenbittenbürg) should you employ for: (choose one only):

1. Syncopation:
  1. Twitch
  2. Jerk
  3. Lunge
2. Subito Piano:
  1. Slash
  2. Crouch
  3. Wobble
3. Accelerando:
  1. Choo Choo
  2. Hop Hop
  3. Shake Shake
4. The Final chord:
  1. Double handed side slash
  2. Single handed upthrust
  3. The ‘Atherton’ manoeuvre
5. Slow, quiet opening:
  1. Eyes shut with shrug
  2. Double pearly quiver
  3. Suck lemon with wobbles
6. Tragic Passages:
  1. Shoulder hunch with claws
  2. Head back posture with eyes shut
  3. Knee bend with wing flaps
7. Scherzando:
  1. Double hop with stab
  2. Tickle with skip
  3. The Flying toupé
8. The Up beat:
  1. Skip and twitch
  2. Two handed jab
  3. The Tennis serve
9. Rallentando:
  1. Row the boat
  2. The Snake charmer
  3. The Knee bend
10. Waltz time:
  1. Knit-pic-flick
  2. Hup-two-three
  3. Hop-scotch
11 Crescendo.
  1. Fast skiing
  2. Standing up in a hammock
  3. Canoeing the rapids

Faculty of Musak


as if

as if cartoon

Liszt - Happy Birthday 2012!

teddy bear

Grammar Nazi

Grammar Nazi