Why Kittiwake?


Robin in an apple tree

“The woods would be very silent if no birds sang but those that sang the best.”

I love this little quotation so much I’ve got it on my business cards. It sums up what I’d like to convey to people about singing in particular, and music in general.  Just because someone else does it better is no reason for you to give up – or never start.  Birds sing because they want to tell other birds they’re alive.

Sometimes I go on courses and I’m in a room with a whole bunch of other people who earn a living through music.  One of the most noticeable things – every time – is that during the introductions a lot of people will say of at least one area of music “I’m not very good,” and admit during the tea-break that they feel very aware that other group members know more, play better, or have nicer voices.  Music is such a vast ocean of experience – all the genres, the instruments, the technology, the different cultures and histories – that even if you do nothing else for years you can only paddle in a small corner.  Sometimes it seems that the more you learn, the more you become aware of the size of the ocean you know nothing about – so the most skilled musicians are often the most humble.

Kittiwakes in Durham

Kittiwake is the name of my business.  Kittiwakes are one of the gentlest of the gulls – not aggressive like herring-gulls and the vicious great black-backed.  They have a call which is incredibly distinctive but not praised like the lark or the nightingale.  They live on the wild edges of Britain, laying their eggs on the narrowest of cliff-ledges.  There are kittiwakes colonising the Tyne now (thank you to Eileen for telling me about them), finding little ledges on buildings like these in Durham, and they call from underneath the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle.

In Pembrokeshire they thrive alongside pilgrimage birds like puffins and Manx shearwaters, birds that people travel hundreds of miles to see, and nobody notices the kittiwakes very much.  But they sing their individual song and without them the whole seascape would sound completely different.

Some birds are lucky enough to be born a nightingale, or a lark, whose songs we humans like the sound of.  Some are like the great tit, which sometimes produces really tuneful little scraps of song but spends most of its time sounding like a squeaky wheelbarrow. That’s not going to stop it singing.

Some of us humans have the genes that give us a melodious voice, or a wide vocal range,  or the sort of brain that learns tunes quickly.  We all have a voice which is individual, unique to us, and precious.  And we are lucky enough, like the mocking-bird and the parrot, to be able to learn other people’s songs too.

Rocking Under the Stars

Christmas comes but once a year  – thank Santa and all the angels for that, most music teachers would  say.  Not that we’re particularly Scrooge-like or miserable, but we are worn out from the intensity of so many performances in a short time.

Last Thursday I went to the Under the Stars Christmas nightclub, where two of the bands I coach were performing.  Sparkle Sistaz  made their live debut in front of 450 excited clubbers, and it was wonderful to see how the girls shone in the spotlight.  It was a shame that two of the band members couldn’t make it so we two tutors had to fill in.  On the recorded track the girls play all the instrumental parts and sing, and they wrote the song too.  

This group has only been running since February and has had a few changes; they have really developed and can now perform independently and we wanted to show that.  It’s a minor consideration, really; the crowd loved the show and the band loved being stars.  I hope someone took some good pictures of our musicians’ fabulous smiles.

Clubland Detectives have a few performances under their belts now, although we’d not done a nightclub gig at the Hubs before (only at the City Hall, darling). When we set up the group two years ago we only had four people and now we have ten.   They chose to do only two songs this time, the oldest and newest, and it was an excellent set.  We had been doing a lot of intensive rehearsal, not just of the music, and the words, but the changeover from one song to another, talking to the audience, swapping instruments and so on.   This really paid off, resulting in a much tighter set and great audience response.  It’s a band full of people who like jamming together, which is brilliant, but performance requires a different attitude.