Happy Advent

The season of Advent is upon us – or, at least, the uncomfortable gap between the beginning of liturgical Advent (i.e. the first Sunday of Advent) and the day Advent calendars begin (December 1st) has been bridged. This means that it is finally time to unpack and unveil my brand new Advent calendar…

…yes, I am aware that most people have new calendars every year (unless they close up the doors carefully so it can be used again), but mine is both new and eternal. In past years, my mother has sent me and my sister and Advent calendar – since Divine started producing Fair Trade chocolate, religious-themed calendars. [Until that point, chocolate ones were verboten because they were never religious.] This year, a mysterious parcel appeared in late September, and I was a little surprised to discover that it was a nativity themed reusable Advent calendar. [My mum, being sensible, ordered ones as soon as she spotted them, in fear that they’d sell out. Wise move – I can’t link to the product because it has, indeed, sold out.]

So on Monday night I spent some time preparing the calendar for me and the Norwegians. (Amusingly, I was a day ahead of myself, thinking that it was the 1st yesterday and knowing that Tuesday was busy. Ho hum.) The basic premise is that there are 24 felt Nativity characters, with 24 pockets in which to place them. Each day a new character is added to the stable scene above – with the added bonus of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange Segment in the pocket too. Simple concept, but I spent a not inconsiderable length of time pondering how it was going to work.

The inspirational catalogue image. (It’s from Lakeland, if you’re wondering.)

First issue – what character should go in #24? The obvious answer is of course Jesus, what with it being his birth that we’re celebrating, but the Biblical scholar in me was stuck on the true chronology of things – after all, the Wise Men didn’t meet Jesus until some time later. However a tweet from my previous Vicar’s wife assured me that Jesus was always the answer (as indeed it is in the under 6’s group we led), so into #24 Jesus popped. Then there were the Wise Men themselves – I appeared to have four:

I was puzzled and consulted Twitter. Not one but three friends responded with the glaringly obvious information that three had crowns and one didn’t. *Blushes* Anyway, the calendar is done, the Norwegians are excited, and it turns out Popping Candy Segments are rather fabulous.

Ready for the off.

In case you’re after some further Advent edification, I have two top recommendations:

1. The 24-7 Prayer podcasts. There’s a video released every day throughout Advent with a different focus for prayer. I used the first one (below) with the students on Tuesday and it worked really well – they especially liked the moment Pete Greig created a large ball of fire. Goes to show that we all have an inner pyromaniac…

2. The Swingle Singers Yule Songs EP. Released, appropriately, on Advent Sunday, it includes a beautiful version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel which also has an interesting video accompaniment. Plus, there’s the utterly gorgeous arrangement of O Holy Night that captivated me when I heard it live last Christmas and some new compositions. An appropriate addition to anyone’s Christmas playlist.

Happy Advent!

Friday Fun in a flash

The flash mob is a wonderful thing, as long as it’s done well. Fortunately, this week I have a couple that were done extremely well and are probably almost as fun to watch as they were to perform…

First up is one that was emailed to me by a friend’s mother who actually participated in it. Annoyingly, I could have experienced it in the flesh as it took place at St Pancras’ Eurostar terminal, but ironically, I had departed to vicar week from the very same terminal just a few days previously. I defy you not to do some air conducting as you watch it – it is quite literally a classic flash mob… (Though I imagine the orchestra was something of a give away.)

Because I like to show off my connections, I also know someone in the next flash mob – one that I believe went viral while I was in France. One of the singers is my sister’s best friend from uni (her partner in crime for many an inappropriate comedy routine – never go out in public with the two of them) and it’s quite honestly one of the most beautiful things ever to have happened on a train to Watford. [Plus, I am consistently amused that the acronym for the Adam Street Singers is ASS – did they think that through?]

On Wednesday I had an awesome evening with the Swingle Singers, a group who have become so famed for their involvement in flash mobs that they actually worked their set around them. (I am inordinately jealous of the woman who became the centre of attention during a flash mob rendition of Hello by the loveliest Swingle…) Although I know I’ve mentioned it a few times, I don’t think I’ve ever properly featured their original flash mob, so here it is:

And, while we’re on the subject of award winning a cappella vocal groups which involve people that I know, this is an appropriate moment to mention The Songmen, who won not one but two awards at the Tolosa International Choral Contest last week. [No, I hadn’t heard of it either, but this is apparently a big deal.] I highly recommend becoming their fan on Facebook and acquiring their forthcoming album – it has one of the most beautiful renditions of Bright Eyes on it and is generally rather lush*. There’s no video of that track yet, but here’s their interpretation of Mr Bojangles:

*In no way has my brother-in-law paid me to say this. It is purely my own opinion.

As far as I’m aware, The Songmen haven’t been in a flash mob, but it’s probably only a matter of time…

Finally, as we’re on the subject of interesting musical performances, how about a Lady Gaga fugue played on a 250 year old organ? I’m laying that one down as a challenge to church organists everywhere.

Further Friday Fun of an a cappella nature

Discovered on Tuesday, via a colleague’s hysterical laughter, is a video gem that is doubly fun because it includes comedy outtakes that are longer than the original feature. My colleague was whooping, shrieking and nearly crying with laughter, so of course I had to ask what she was watching. Soon I was shrieking too and let me tell you, such noises echo when you emit them in the balcony of a Georgian church. It’s good – really good – though you might not expect something entitled ‘a capella dubstep’ to be that funny:

Turns out Tuesday wasn’t the first time my colleague had seen this beauty – it’s so good that the funny just keeps giving!

If that’s a little too crazy for you, or you want something calmer as you get your breath back, how about some lovely Peter Hollens? A friend of the Swingle Singers (and previously featured in Friday Fun), this is actually less calm (and certainly an assault on the eyes given the amount of neon clothing featured) than I may have initially suggested, but it’s definitely fun…

Any friend of the Swingles is a friend of mine… [Incidentally, they have a gig in London next month – anyone want to join me?] In fact, another musical gem is their performance as backing vocalists for Labrinth & Tinie Tempah on Radio 1’s Live Lounge yesterday:

[Ok, yes, I may still have a teeny-tiny Swingle crush…]

Earlier this week the Swingles also posted a special ‘Welcome Back’ video for troops returning from Afghanistan (including one of the Swingles’ brothers) which I only just got round to watching as I wrote this post. It’s rather lovely and also includes a brief glimpse of a couple of friends from church, which is always slightly exciting. (In fact, the presence of my wise friend’s husband Juan would suggest it was recorded in their studio which I’d have visited a couple of weeks ago were it not for a small car versus motorbike incident that wise friend got us involved in…)

If none of that musical fun floats your boat, how about a complete tangent and some photos of dogs in Star Wars costumes? It made me giggle heartily, and long to own a dog that agrees to dressing up. Megan the Labrador has sadly always considered herself above such things – she removes the bow I place on her every Christmas with enormous haste. Spoilsport.

Sticking with Friday Fun

You know what’s always fun? Stickers. When I was young, one of my first excursions without parents was to travel on the bus with my best friend to go sticker shopping so we could add to our vast collection of shiny ones, furry ones, sparkly ones… (yes, we had sticker categories – you think that collection sounds nerdy, wait till I tell you about the years I spent collecting sugar packets).

Sometimes, stickers are also very useful – like on the tube when a correction needs to be made on a map. Although, it does irk that when correction stickers are placed over tube line maps, people don’t always ensure that they’re straight – believe me, when you’re looking a the same map over and over again, this gets irritating. If you’ve not got a clue what I’m talking about, here’s an example:

These correction stickers are a perpetual sight on the underground, in fact, I wonder whether there’s a rule on how many stickers it takes to justify a re-print of the entire map? Occasionally, people manage to have some fun with them, moving them around and being otherwise hilarious. However, recently some people have taken it to a whole new level… 
‘Stickers on the Central Line’ is utter genius. A stealth campaign to add comedy stickers to the line of red began last week and the results are fabulous. Here are a couple of favourites: 

If you’re in need of some calm and serenity having got all angst-ridden from tube journeys, wonky stickers or simply the fact that we actually have to go to work for the first Friday in weeks, then how about some beautiful music? I know I’ve raved about them many, many times but this version of Poor Wayfaring Stranger by Peter Hollens & the Swingle Singers is rather lush – perfect for a spring morning.

If that’s not quite enough musical medicine for you, I also highly recommend the wonder that is the PS22 Chorus. A couple of weeks ago when I shared ‘Choirs covers make me cry’ I highlighted one of their songs, not fully realising that they’re a major internet phenomenon – they even performed at the Oscars this year. Their YouTube channel is full of gorgeous and uplifting versions of songs and you can’t help but be in awe of their teacher Mr B and his determination to see that the children in this Staten Island public school are able to recognise and make the most of their musical talents. More schools need to do this!

Here’s to a tranquil, stress free Friday…

Making noise (and cake) on a Friday

As I am back at work, there is no escaping the fact that today should be the first Friday Fun day of 2011. My Friday revolves around two things (ok, three – if you include work) – firstly, that this weekend’s the London A Cappella Festival and I’m off to see the Office Choirs of the Year (including my singing chum Annabelle) perform with the fabulous Swingle Singers tonight. Secondly, Friday is cake eating day.

So, the first bit of fun is something to watch, listen to and try out for yourself. It could become a bit of a new year’s project for you. In the previously mentioned T Mobile ‘Welcome Home’ advert, the Swingles (and other similarly talented a cappella people) demonstrated a variety of their skills. Subsequently, the producers of the ad decided to produce a few videos showing these skilled people trying to pass on their talent to (of all people) The Hoff.

First up, we have Jo demonstrating a vocal violin:

Then we have Tobi teaching The Hoff how to sound like a muted trumpet:

There are a few other (non Swingle) lessons, including ‘gorilla bass’, and beatboxing. There’s got to be one of those that captures your attention – surely?

If you’re really not interested in making weird noises with your vocal chords, could I interest you in some cake? Over the holidays I discovered a considerable number of new blogs (it’s amazing what you’ll read when lying in bed with only your laptop for company). One that’s proved to be a mouth watering hit is The Caked Crusader, a blog of recipes for all levels and palettes. Its most recent post tickled me so much that I figured it could count as fun enough for Friday.

Yes, the recipe in question is for a prune cake, but I was less interested in the cake and more intrigued by the recipe book it had been found in. Entitled What’s Cookin’?: A Teen Age Cookery Book, it appears to be something of a 1940s gem, combining Enid Blyton escapades with Mrs Beeton and etiquette lessons. The photo below gives something of an indication of the book’s content, but do check out the original post to hear more gems from its pages.

One final cake tip, faithful friend the Hummingbird Bakery launched a new daily specials range last week – reviving some old favourites. As I’ve been on a post-flu recovery diet I felt entitled to two cupcakes in five days, and can therefore recommend both Friday’s Pumpkin Spice and Tuesday’s Nutella – especially the latter, as it has a gooey Nutella centre. Yum.