Saturday 26 December 2020

Tablets for Singers

Changes to the way in which so many aspects of the world works recently means that, since September, I have had to use a tablet to replace sheet music when singing. Having done some research and tried a couple of options, I have now assembled what I believe is the most suitable equipment for me. There may be alternatives to aspects of the set up, but - obviously - I have not tried them all, so this is simply my personal experience.

The bulk of the expense of the set up is the tablet itself. The important thing for me was the size of the screen, which means that the selection was limited to the 12.9" screen of the Apple iPad Pro. My usual approach of buying a well-speced piece of technology means that I opted for the current fourth generation model, and I chose the 128Gb model as lots of scanned copies of music can start eating into storage.

Beyond the practicality of this application, the iPad Pro is a beautiful piece of technology which is a pleasure to own!

When singing, I like to be able to mark my copies, both to remind me in performance of the conductor's instructions and to help me next time the music comes round. With the iPad, there was no question but to add the Apple Pencil. I bought the second generation pencil, as it is designed to work with the fourth generation iPads. The pencil is pressure sensitive and, coupled with its ability to switch between pencil and eraser by a double-tap on the 'barrel' of the pencil and the iPad's palm detection, means that it is the closest I have ever coming to writing on paper when using a stylus on tablet. The responsiveness and accuracy of the tablet itself makes a big difference to the usability, and Apple's handwriting recognition feature works impressively well (although this is not relevant for rehearsal marks).

Initially, I was using Adobe's free Acrobat viewer to display my music PDFs, which worked functionally. However, my attention was drawn to forScore which is an Apple-only app written specifically for displaying music. The software itself is straightforward to use and contains a wealth of features which would clearly be useful in a variety of musical contexts, even if I don't have the need for them. The biggest selling point to me was the fact it was designed to work with the Apple Pencil for annotations and so there is no need to select an edit mode to make changes, and the experience becomes even more like writing on paper. forScore is also designed to work with Apple's AirPods, and while this is not something I have tested, the integration of the pencil suggests that it would offer helpful features to other musicians (the idea of being able to nod to turn pages thanks to their internal gyroscope is something which I would like to see in action!).

Realising it would be useful to protect the iPad, I purchased a procase slim cover based on the reviews of many of the cases and the fact it appeared to be relatively light-weight. The case itself is sturdy and the iPad feels secure in it. I have also found it useful that, as the cover folds to allow the tablet to be stood on a desk, the folded section acts as a more comfortable means of holding the tablet when singing.

The case comes with a screen protector too. While I've not installed this, it's probably one of the jobs I will get around to, although I do worry slightly that it will affect the efficacy of the pencil; if I do install it, I will update the post.

In terms of holding the iPad, even though its weight does not make it impossible to hold by hand, I have found it much easier to have a sturdy music stand to hold the tablet as it is much more comfortable and helps my posture.

I bought the final piece of the setup - an Air Turn DIGIT III Bluetooth Remote Control - when I was using the tablet as an auto-cue for a school assembly I had to video record and I needed some way to turn the pages of the text at a distance. (I had a large print copy of the text I was reading on the iPad on a stand just underneath the camera so I was able to talk to the camera.) The remote, like the pencil, is integrated within forScore, so it just works. With the tablet on a music stand, using the remote to turn the pages means that there is no need to reach up slightly awkwardly high (because of the useful height of the music stand for reading) and it is easier to maintain a good posture.

My setup has evolved to this stage over the past four months, but having been using it in this form for the past fortnight, I believe this is a really good arrangement for singers, but which would also offer a great range of flexibility to all sorts of musicians, for whom the only tweak might necessarily be the remote control for page turning, whether this is done via AirPods or a foot pedal.

The two drawbacks are ensuring that the iPad and remote are charged (the pencil charges automatically when magnetically affixed to the iPad), and the cost. The charging comes down to being organised (and/or buying a power bank), and the bulk of the cost is made up of the iPad; however, for the screen size (which I have found to be necessary) I fear this is unavoidable. Overall, I am pleased to have been able to invest in the technology to move my sheet music into the mid-pandemic twenty-first century world.

Thursday 30 July 2020

Travelling from LHR to PSA in the midst of a global pandemic

Yesterday afternoon, myself, my wife and our 5 year old daughter arrived back home from a week in the Tuscan countryside. I realise how lucky we have been to have been able to travel at present, and I wanted to write a record of what European travel was like this summer.

When Italy was added to the list of countries from which visitors did not need to quarantine, we took the opportunity to book a country house hotel at which we had stayed last summer. When we were feeling uncertainly about travel, knowing exactly where we were going and what to expect made a very positive difference in our feeling comfortable about the visit.

Our BA Club Europe flight to Pisa left LHR at 8.30am on 22 July, so we decided to stay at the airport on the Tuesday night to save a very early start. I booked one of the Bath Road Holiday Inn's 'stay and park' packages, as none of the official Heathrow parking options was available. We arrived at Heathrow mid-afternoon on the Tuesday, and took the opportunity to have a drive round Terminals 2, 3 and 5 to see what it was like. Unsurprisingly, I have never seen Heathrow so quiet. There was no traffic, very few people, and only the occasional plane landing or taking off. The airport car parks along the perimeter road were empty, and the hotel car parks only had a smattering of cars in them too. Describing the area as a ghost town would be a cliché, but...

We arrived at the Holiday Inn to find our car park pretty much deserted too, and that the Holiday Inn was closed. Our stay had been transferred to the Staybridge Suites which shares the building. We were given one of the larger suites for the night, and had an early supper alongside nine other people in the hotel. Apart from the lack of guests, everything about the hotel was as you would normally expect. We left before breakfast on the Wednesday morning, so were unable to see how that was offered, but we were each provided with a packed breakfast to get us to the terminal.

Despite the offers of a £17 taxi to T5, we took the free 423 London Transport bus which is a service I have never had the need to use before, but certainly one I would be very happy to use again. The bus was fairly empty, and we were the only passengers with luggage. The entrance to T5 was very quiet, and when we entered the departures area, the space swallowed the passengers queuing to check-in.

We made our way to the Club check-in area, where there was no queue at all. As we entered the usual rope path, we were asked where we were travelling, and duly given three copies of a form to fill in for all people travelling to Italy. When we had wound our way through the ropes to the check-in desk, the first question was whether we had had our temperature taken. While the form-issuer had been holding a thermometer, he hadn't checked our temperatures. He was duly summoned to the check-in desk where he took our temperatures, and our boarding passes note the fact that we had been checked. 

There was no fast track security, but families were directed through what would normally be fast track, and the process took as long as usual.

Once through security, there were more people in one place than I have seen for some months, but nothing like what would usually be expected on a July morning. The usual banks of chairs had individual seats taped off to stop them being used, and the distancing markers that are now part of life everywhere adorned floors and walls.

The Galleries Lounge was, as BA had announced, all table service. In practice, this meant finding a table, scanning a QR code and ordering from a menu. This worked well until a window seat became available and we moved. If you do this, you need to log out from the app and start again, scanning the new QR code. We were clearly not the only people to have done this, and there was also a sense that lots of the staff did not necessarily know where all the tables were: presumably, as this is new to them and staff will be coming back from furlough, there are lots of new processes for them to get used to too. There were more cleaning staff moving around the lounge, but we were not given and did not see the red/blue cards to indicate that an area was finished with.

Our flight was leaving from gate A13 so our movement around the terminal was minimal. The major difference at this point was that the flight boarded from the back in groups of five rows at a time. For a single cabin plane this seems so sensible, and something which I would not be unhappy to see maintained going forwards. As we boarded, we had the three forms which we had had to complete for the Italian authorities with name, date of birth, passport number, permanent and temporary addresses, and contact details, collected. Being in row 1, we waited until last to board, and even though the flight was full, this felt much more relaxed than having boarded and then having everyone else pushing past or queuing through the aisle.

As we boarded the A320, we were each given a sachet of hand sanitiser and an antibacterial towel. The safety briefing included the instruction to remove face masks before putting an oxygen mask on in the event of the loss of cabin air pressure, and an exhortation to remain seated as much as possible, and to avoid queuing for the toilets or congregating the galley area.

There were no special (including children's) meals, and we were served the new BA Club Europe lunch box, shown in much more detail here. Everything else about the flight and service was just as it ever is.

On arrival, everyone was instructed to remain seated, and four rows at a time from the front were invited to stand up, collect hand luggage and leave the plane. This was - apparently - an instruction from the Italian government - but we also did this to disembark back at LHR. Again, like boarding, this reduced the pushing and desperation to get off the plane and would potentially be a good thing to maintain going forwards.

As we entered the terminal and before we got to Passport Control, each passenger had their temperature taken by a ceiling-mounted thermometer underneath which everyone had to stand individually. After this, the rest of the airport procedure was as always.

Outside the airport, the shuttle bus to the car rental area was not running, so people had to walk the 400m to the rental area. Some rental companies were seemingly closed completely, and others - like Avis with whom I had booked via BA - had their desks in the office closed and only a couple of members of staff available in the car pick up area. 

Avis never seems very fast when it comes to collecting cars, but having to queue to have my booking number and a mobile number taken for someone to call back from head office to arrange the contract (and attempt to do all the usual up-sells), for the contract to be emailed back to the office to be printed out and to be given the keys seemed a somewhat cumbersome process. In the end, it took just over an hour to get the car, and the number of other people sheltering from the sun in the make-shift tent indicated this was very much the new normal for now.

Having got the car, and got to our accommodation, the holiday was very much as we had anticipated. The strangest thing was - again - how quiet Pisa and Lucca were (there were no queues for the tourist attractions, although I did have my temperature taken as we entered the Cathedral in Lucca), and the absence of tourists from continents other than Europe was notable. 

Returning home yesterday, PSA was very quiet, with only one entrance available for departures. It transpired that this was because passengers had their temperature taken on entering the building and had to walk through some sort of disinfecting misting machine. As we checked in, those aged 6 or over were given forms to fill in with contact details and addresses, which were collected as we boarded; these were also for the Italian government. The lounge (which is always a shared, non-BA, lounge) was closed, but there was no offer of vouchers for food or drink from the terminal. Boarding was, again, from the back, and the flight was the same as the outward trip, and we disembarked in groups of rows again.

Heathrow Border Control was busy as - apparently - lots of staff are not being unfurloughed until August. Family groups (as always) are not able to use the eGates, so the queues were long. A member of Heathrow staff was very generously taking pity on families with young children and let them out of the queue early to a desk on the side. Apart from the hour's queue, we - like several other travellers - also made a mistake here. We were not told at any point that we needed to complete a Passenger Locator Form for the UK government. Yes, there had been small signs on the ropes of the queue (but there always are, and you never read them), and there was a line in the sixth paragraph of the pre-flight email from BA saying it needed completing (ditto). The electronic form is several sections long, and each adult needs to complete it. We were able to do it on our phones huddled in a corner, and duly sate the Border Control officer. I suppose I had assumed we would be specifically given something as we had been when we arrived at the airport, and then assumed the form we had filled in in Italy was the information that was needed, or that - as UK citizens - it was connected to our passports. Whichever, it was our mistake, but we were not the only people who had made it. It can be completed in advance, and you can download the form immediately to show it on your phone, but a copy is also emailed to the address provided. All adults have to do their own form, and children can be attached to one of the adult's forms.

Another nearly empty 423 back to Newport Road with no other travellers, and a still-empty car park at the Holiday Inn/Staybridge Suites greeted us before we headed home for the first decent cup of tea in a week.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Thursday 14 May 2020

David Dew

When I was at school, David Dew was a member of English Department, and he was also a stalwart member of the school's choirs and of the CCF. His particular musical passion was the music of the Victorian era, and he tried - valiantly - to introduce me to some of the more obscure composers of the era. While I failed to appreciate them to the extent he did, I would acknowledge that he did make me more aware of the merit of Arthur Sullivan's work.

When sorting out my sheet music the other week, I came across some things which he had written and had passed copies to me. I remembered reading in the school news that he had died prematurely some years ago, and a quick Google revealed the details and provided a little more of his life in an obituary from his Oxford college.
Tony Lemon, Fellow in Geography, remembers David Dew (Mansfield, 1972-78) in the 2006 Autumn/Winter edition of 'Mansfield', the college's magazine.

David Dew, who died of cancer in March 2003, spent seven years at Mansfield College, Oxford, reading three degrees — first degrees in Law and English and a postgraduate degree in English — before going on to train as a teacher. He entered into all his academic work, and everything he did outside it, with gusto. 

David was a college institution: a fount of wisdom and a witty commentator who contributed to almost every aspect of college life. He was an intellectual whose appreciation of the classics once expressed itself in a Greek ballad that managed to include in its dramatis personae a significant proportion of both JCR and SCR members, carefully re-named but clearly recognisable! His passion for Victorian music was allowed to unleash itself upon a chapel congregation when one of his organ compositions was performed. With these distinctive interests he combined qualities one might less easily have guessed (reflecting determination as much as natural talent), rowing several times in successive College First Eights, some of which won blades.

David's whole teaching career was at Oundle School in Northamptonshire. His career choice was perfectly suited to his personality and talents. He was the quintessential public school master, devoted to the school and those in his care and taking a very active part in many aspects of school life, as he had at Mansfield. He was especially active in the school CCF (a school CCF prize now bears his name) and both the school's and the town's musical activities, taking part in four choirs including the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society: fittingly, Oundle marked the sad death of one of their most loyal and respected teachers with a performance of Verdi's Requiem.

Many generations of Mansfield students will remember David with affection and — if sensitive enough to his intellectual qualities or the barbs of his humour — some awe. 
I looked at his compositions for the first time in 25 years, and while his settings of the canticles may be cliche-riddled, I rather enjoyed them. The copies I had were old photocopies and difficult to read. I therefore took the trouble to typeset and edit them, correcting some errors and tweaking moments of awkward underlay, and as I have been unable to find any details of his family, I present them here for posterity, and for anyone who might enjoy wallowing in unashamed Victoriana. If anyone does have contact details for his family, please let me know.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Sous Vide Vanilla and Chocolate Ice Creams (and crème anglaise and chocolate sauce)

I have always preferred making my own ice cream (and love a home-made crème anglaise), but aspects of the method I use are possibly a little unconventional, as I use a chamber vacuum packer and water bath. As I always have to work out quantities, temperatures and times, I thought it was useful, if for no-one other than me, to make a note of my method.

Equipment Required (beyond basic kitchenware)
  • Liquidiser or blender
  • Chamber vacuum packer
  • Water bath
  • Ice cream machine

Vanilla Ice Cream

Ingredients (makes approximately 1 litre)
  • 200ml double cream (straight from fridge)
  • 200ml milk (straight from fridge)
  • 150g sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste (or 1 vanilla pod halved lengthways)
  • pinch of salt
  1. Heat the water bath up to 82°C.
  2. Blend all of the ingredients together in the blender. If using a vanilla pod, do not blend this, but put straight into the bag for the next step.
  3. Pour the mixture into a vacuum bag and seal. (It is important the mixture is as cold as possible to get a better vacuum on the bag, i.e., the contents will not boil so quickly under pressure.)
  4. Cook in the water bath for 20 minutes.
  5. Chill the cooked crème anglaise in an ice bath, and agitate the contents of the bag while it is cooling.
  6. Pour the custard into your ice cream maker and follow the instructions to freeze to ice cream.
This method also works to make a perfect crème anglaise which can be kept in the fridge for up to a week. The creme anglaise can either be used as a sauce during this time, or turned into ice cream.

Chocolate Ice Cream

Ingredients (makes approximately 1 litre)
  • 200ml double cream (straight from fridge)
  • 200ml milk (straight from fridge)
  • 150g sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 150g bitter chocolate (approximately 70% cocoa) broken into small pieces (callets work well)
  1. Heat the water bath up to 82°C.
  2. Blend all of the ingredients, except the chocolate together in the blender.
  3. Pour the mixture into a vacuum bag and seal. (It is important the mixture is as cold as possible to get a better vacuum on the bag, i.e., the contents will not boil so quickly under pressure.)
  4. Cook in the water bath for 20 minutes.
  5. Chill the cooked custard to approximately 38°C using an ice bath, and agitate the contents of the bag while it it chilling.
  6. Put the chocolate in a large (metal) bowl, and pour the warm custard over it stirring constantly to melt the chocolate. If the custard is too cold, gently warm the chocolate/custard mixture in a bain marie. However, make sure it does not get too hot, otherwise the chocolate will have a very gritty texture.
  7. Pour the chocolate sauce into your ice cream maker and follow the instructions to freeze to ice cream.

This method also works to make a perfect chocolate sauce which can be served cold, warmed up gently in a bain marie, or turned into ice cream. It will keep in the fridge for up to a week.

For me, the water bath method of cooking the custard (whether or not it ultimately becomes ice cream) proves to be a life-saver in terms of avoiding that horrible moment when you scramble the yolks when trying to make it in a pan. Not only is this method much less labour-intensive, it is much more reliable. The simplicity of the method also means my 5 year old daughter is able to help me make her own chocolate ice cream without risk of error. She just needs to learn to separate eggs now...