I was on my way to Bromeswell to play in a concert organised by my neighbours’ 11-year-old granddaughter, and planned to stop at Little Bealings church, near Woodbridge. I had done my research and was confident that my plan would proceed without a hitch, giving me plenty of time to practise before the concert.
But my confidence was misplaced. It was locked. I managed to find a phone number online, and my conversation with the keyholder proceeded thus: she didn’t have her key on her right now. It was locked because there were building works in progress. But it would be open two mornings a week if I wanted to come back another day. Despite my requests for clarification, I came out of the conversation unsure whether I couldn’t go in because she didn’t have her key, or because of health and safety. Still, I managed to force my brain out of its confusion and into logic quickly enough to ask when the building works were expected to finish, and say I’d return after that. The end of March, she said. Little did I imagine what a different situation we would find ourselves in by then…
My only other option, I concluded after a good few minutes of dithering, was to go to Woodbridge. Melton, a redundant church, was also kept locked and I hadn’t yet had a response from the Melton Old Church Trust about when I could visit. I worried that by the time I had found somewhere to park, and walked to the church, I would have very little time to do any practice. But the choice was between practising in a church I’d already visited, or going to Woodbridge. I chose Woodbridge.
St Mary’s, Woodbridge
It wasn’t too bad in the end. I compromised by paying for a car park not too far from the church – something I don’t really like doing, especially in a small town like Woodbridge – but it was a cheap one and a small price to pay for maximising the time available. The walk to the church was beautiful: a narrow cobbled passage from the market square took me down a flight of steps to a large, smart church. The interior was grand and beautiful: the kind of town church that, if I can’t love it with the intensity and intimacy I feel in small, rustic rural churches, I can at least admire it intensely. There were many beautiful historical details, including a Seven Sacraments font.
The acoustic was good, but I still felt I had to work quite hard, so I was grateful that the concert I would be giving that afternoon would be in a very small church. The pieces were hard enough without the addition of a large church acoustic to worry about.
A couple came in while I was practising, but otherwise the church remained quiet. I was able to practise, if not for as long as I ideally would have, then for long enough to feel that I would manage the concert well enough.
It was a lovely afternoon: Bromeswell church was full and the children played well. My own contribution was respectable if not outstanding. The problem, I realised, was not that my fingers hadn’t learnt where to go, but that their movements had not yet become automatic, and therefore the avoidance of mistakes relied on anticipation and intense concentration – a bit like when you are learning to drive a car. The failure of anticipation at a couple of crucial moments in the concert (caused, I think, by slight nerves) led to a couple of near crashes; but I suspect no one else would have noticed. Learning to cover errors – or ‘style it out’ as my friend Steve rather amusingly describes it – is just as important a performing skill as not making errors in the first place, and it is one that I am still learning, because it is only in recent times that I have taken on the challenge of performing pieces that take me to the brink of my technical abilities.
St Mary’s, Witnesham
The next morning I was due to visit Witnesham and Westerfield to play to the congregation before their respective church services. I had also contacted Tuddenham church to arrange a visit to all three in the same day, but, on this Sunday, the Tuddenham service clashed with Witnesham’s, so it would just be two churches. I was somewhat relieved by this outcome anyway, as I thought it might be too much to do three right after the Bromeswell concert, and I feared it would also involve sitting through three church services in one morning. I planned to play the same pieces I had played the afternoon before: a chance to rectify my mistakes.
As I turned into the lane where the church was, I came face to face with five peacocks sitting on a brick wall. I had never seen a peacock sitting on a brick wall before, and it made me laugh, helping to put me in a good frame of mind.
The church looked smart and clean, from which I could see that a building and repair project had recently been completed. I was surprised by how many people there were in the church: a larger congregation than most villages have, I am sure. But Witnesham is on the outskirts of Ipswich, perhaps with a larger population than many more rural villages.
I received a warm welcome from everyone inside and set about getting ready. I could tell the church would have a good acoustic, which would be of great assistance in playing the Bloch suite a second time. I had been asked to talk about my project as well as play, so I decided to do the playing first to avoid any additional nerves. I probably still find speaking in public more nerve-racking than performing, though I’m glad to say I’ve got much more used to it since starting to give so many concerts in Suffolk.
The performance, like the previous day, was respectable but not outstanding: perfectly adequate for a Sunday morning church service, I hope, but still wanting according to my own standards. Afterwards I gave, on request, a more in-depth than usual introduction to my project and how it had begun. I was glad to sneak away before the service began, at the suggestion of the churchwarden who had organised it, for which I was very grateful. I have nothing against church services in principle, but I have to confess I would rather not be present at them. My anti-religious tendencies have, perhaps ironically, become more pronounced in recent years. The correlation with the number of churches I have visited is, however, entirely coincidental…
After thanking Karen for inviting me and organising the two visits, I set off for Westerfield a few minutes down the road.
St Mary’s, Westerfield
Arriving at Westerfield church was a stranger experience than arriving at Witnesham: I was expected, but no one knew why I was there, and I didn’t meet the churchwarden. At least, she didn’t introduce herself, and I couldn’t remember her name in order to ask after her: I had only had direct contact with Karen. To anyone who asked, I explained briefly how my visit came about, and everyone was friendly and welcoming. It was just an odd feeling turning up in a situation where my presence was slightly mysterious, and I had to suggest the arrangements to the vicar and organist that I had assumed would already be in place: that I play before the service, and speak for a few minutes afterwards. I decided my introduction should be shorter than at Witnesham, in case they hadn’t been told about this either.
The church was small and cosy, with a hammerbeam roof and carved angels: a great contrast to the modern-feeling, bright and spacious Witnesham. I knew the acoustic would be challenging, with the carpet and lack of stone surfaces. After playing the Prokofiev sonata – no improvement on the previous day’s performance, unfortunately – and giving a brief explanation about my church project and why I had come, I walked to the back of the church to the modern extension where I had left my cello case. A gentleman sitting in the pews stopped me and asked, ‘what’s the story?’ I hesitated, not quite sure what he was referring to. ‘Do you mean the story of the piece?’ I replied. He nodded.
I was sorry not to have an answer for him; ashamed that his question took me by surprise. Immediately I started replaying the music in my head. But that wasn’t going to provide me with an instant answer, I realised: it would take time and thought to decide what the music was about, and even if I did, it would be my story, not the story, and not his story. Nor the composer’s, for that matter.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied after a pause. ‘I think the story can be whatever you want it to be’.
‘Good answer,’ a lady behind him said. I wasn’t sure: it was a bit of a cop-out, I thought; but it was the best I could do without having time to daydream about it.
When I went through to the other room, I saw to my surprise that it was raining heavily. I wondered whether I would have to come back to take outdoor photos, and regretted not having walked round the churchyard when I arrived. A lady chatted to me while I put my cello away, and it was with a twang of guilt that I said I wouldn’t stay for the service, if that was ok. I packed up slowly, and wrote in the visitors’ book, by which time it lightened up enough for me at least to attempt one photo of the church while shielding my camera from the rain.
A rainbow accompanied my ponderings on the journey home. What was the story of Prokofiev’s solo cello sonata?