So the Gallery now looks rather more like it belongs to someone who gets paid (or even who gets invited back for a second paying job!). Check it out!
There are a lot of events in life in which there aren’t really any prizes for coming second, let alone any further back. Job interviews, for instance. Room / house viewings. Bidding for dep / last-minute gig openings. One person gets it, some others might be assured their details will be held on file in case of another vacancy / dropout, but that’s nearly always a dead letter. The most you can do is try and use the experience to improve what you do (or at least do less things wrong!) next time – and in a lot of cases that is sheer guesswork. I can’t really email one of Stornoway back and say ‘OK, so you picked someone else as your new housemate and I respect that, but what things would have made me more likely to get the room?’ It’s OK for long-term job applications and I often do it, but you can’t really do it as a freelancer or outside of work.
The thing is, despite me previous post on being only as good as your last gig, there’s no necessary connection between how the last one, twenty, a thousand applications went and how the next one will go. Likely, but not necessary. It’s like flipping a coin: on average, you get equal numbers of heads and tails eventually. But within any finite observable number of experiments, it is possible to get any combination of results, up to and including all of one and none of the other. And however many heads you’ve had, it doesn’t make getting a tail next time ‘inevitable’; in fact, it doesn’t change the odds of getting a tail next time at all: 50%.
Now, you can rightly argue that none of the situations I’ve mentioned above, some of which are really frustrating me right now, are random and invariant in the way that flipping a coin is. Surely the better and/or better-promoted musicians get hired; surely the more likeable people with more compatible interests and schedules get picked as housemates. Which is true of each instance. But the pools of applicants in each case are so large and potentially different that you can argue there is a large element of randomness involved. And in the meantime, my standing in most of those stakes does not significantly change. In the house case because my work, personality and interests aren’t changing from one room viewing to the next (!); in the music one as much as anything else because new promo material is slow to come through and my experience is the same until someone hires me, which isn’t happening. So if you consider the pools to average out similarly, then I’ll be in a similar standing relative to them and the situation is replaying only small objective differences (except perhaps taste of the person getting to choose).
As I’ve already uncovered a certain amount of my old maths studies in this post, let’s grab another one: Fibonacci numbers. These occur in lots of places in nature, they have relevance to flowerheads and spiral shapes and numbers of petals and they’ve been used as inspiration from music to architecture. The underlying principle is very simple: you get each next number by adding the last two together: so 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8 and so on.
Did you notice how I started there? Of course, for most advanced mathematicians you don’t start anything at 1. You at least want to be able to trace back what it would be at 0. But 0+0=0, and 0+0 carries on being 0 to infinity. The way you get the sequence started is to arbitrarily sling in a 1; so the normal version of the Fibonacci sequence goes: 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 etc.
I think this freelance music lark may be a little like that. Someone will have to more or less arbitrarily sling something (or more likely there will need to be a handful of somethings – the metaphor is creaking here) my way, in order for me to list the experience and look more like a pro where it counts, in order to make contacts and be taken seriously and get hired more, etc. etc. And until that happens, arguably all the effort – even the hundreds of pounds and tens of hours I’m anticipating putting into a showreel, and all the time, money and effort I’ve already put into the website, demos, photos and sheer hustling, is only trying to very slightly imbalance the coin my way – like rubbing at it on one side with a cloth.
So much for independence and autonomy.
How close to (in some sense) ‘the stars’ do you have to get to feel like you might arrived ‘in the same circles’?
The six degrees of separation theory – based on somewhat dubious original studies but which successively longer-distance and to be honest less rigorous experiments have only tended to support – does of course pack extra weight within a relatively small and close-knit community – like, say, acoustic instrument-oriented non-classical musicians in the south-east of England. So it’s not that much of a surprise, perhaps, to find myself at only a couple of removes from name-droppable pro bands: the last time I was in a studio with a band, Mumford & Sons had left their drumkit set up the night before (honestly, they don’t even have a full-time drummer, why make so much mess? the bass drum only style seems to work pretty well live … ); I’ve just had to shift a planning meeting for a professionally made video showreel because the slot I originally had has been gazumped by Steeleye Span. Slightly more surprising was last night’s house viewing, but I think I’d better not jeopardise a not-yet-made decision on someone else’s part by scribbling on the open web about the situation.
The difference is, of course, these groups can expect to make money out of their time in the same place I’ll be in afterwards. In fact other people who run businesses can expect them to make so much money that they will lend them the cost of the project (I’m really really not looking forward to paying outright for this video) on the presumption it will turn enough profit for them to get their loan back.
So it comes, in a sense, down to marketing again – or in this instance sales. Anyone (that can find the cash) can go and record material in a pro quality studio, even do music videos and proper album packaging and duplication. There’s no quality / popularity / success bar (people might ask not to be credited to avoid embarrassment of association I suppose!). The separator is, can you get enough directly or indirectly back from it to be able to pay up to do it again? Or to not have to do another job? Or to only have to do your other job part-time? Otherwise it’s just an elaborate vanity project to make yourself think you’re a professional when you’re just an overproduced amateur.
So sang and mimed the Buggles (?) in the video that launched MTV. These days MTV may have found there’s more money in reality TV than music videos, but the statement is truer than ever, though the musicians with good faces for radio tend to be stillborn rather than ever becoming radio stars before being killed off.
As I’ve repeatedly commented here and elsewhere, and as emerges from my earlier post on gendered musician recruitment and the very interesting comment on it, image really matters to musicians now. Live music makes money; records don’t significantly; video streaming via YouTube (mostly) is arguably as important as radio play at the top of the professional game. And at the bottom of it (where I am!), it comes down to one of my key ideas about music as a career:
However good you are, no-one will hire you unless they get to hear how good you are.
And in order for them to hear that, you have to first get them to notice you and bother listening. And you will mostly get that done through the strongly visual media of websites, emails and letters. As Matt’s comment points out, people make advance judgments about your music based on visual, non-aural factors like (apparent) age, gender balance, visual style etc. If they don’t (semi-subconsciously) think you look like you sound right, the odds are they will never click through to Soundcloud and find out if you actually do. (And this is assuming a client not explicitly recruiting to fit a specific ‘look’.)
Don’t assume this is restricted to bikini-clad pop/RnB singers or glossily produced boybands; even classical musicians need to play this game, they just have to project a different image.
Well, I can’t do much about my actual face or body, but I can and have or will shortly deal with the following:
- promo photos, taken in a studio by a professional photographer with all the associated fancy lighting and plain backgrounds (and very conscious clothing choices!)
- since I have to submit some audition extracts as videos, getting someone with a proper video camera and who knows what she’s doing to do the filming, and dressing almost as I would for a desk job interview for the purpose
- putting together a video showreel
And I suspect if I had known in advance really what I was doing, I would have focused less on recording a succession of demo tracks and got started on these (well, the first and third anyway) earlier.
‘Classical’ performance practice has become a lot more varied lately. Traditional aspects – white tie, not applauding between movements of a long work, etc. – are not showing any signs of actually disappearing. But in the last perhaps five to ten years, other possibilities have become credible. Applauding after the first movement of a symphony or concerto is no longer necessarily a faux pas. All black, or even colour worn by non-soloists (gasp!), can be seen even on the professional concert platform.
It is, of course, Proms season. And this is often a good chance for the rest of us to get some snapshots of the current state of play in the top-end professional world. I’ve been making heavier use of the TV coverage (mostly via iPlayer) this year than ever before. And it strikes me that there is a slow change of mood going on which says that great music will speak for itself, even if not surrounded by an almost religious seriousness. I think the latter probably took hold as a reaction against the emotional extremes of 60s and onwards pop gigs (seriously, the screaming at Beatles live gigs is terrifying in recordings. The fans must have supplied the next general of metal screamers with throat haemorrhages pre-made). But one of my favourite moments of a very moving performance of Mozart’s Requiem was the conductor mouthing ‘Bravo!’ to the Scottish National Youth Choir at their first significant break from singing. And tonight I was watching Julia Fischer in Dvorak’s violin concerto (a new piece to me, incidentally), and this prompted several reflections on how musical performances are treated in this particular world.
Violin concerto soloists are in quite an unusually privileged position as classical musicians go. They don’t have to sit at or with their instrument (unlike, say, pianists or cellists), and tradition demands that they perform in general from memory (unlike the orchestra or, today, the conductor). Therefore, they are actually at liberty to move and perform visually as well as aurally. This notwithstanding, tradition (which, incidentally, in art music almost always goes back only about as far as the first world war) has seen all soloists positioned effectively behind the conductor, facing out into the audience (unless pianists, who face sideways because the instrument is easier to fit on stage that way) and unable to so much as make eye contact with any of their fellow musicians. Fischer had, I am very glad to say, decided to forego that. She didn’t have much space – maybe five feet by eight – but she certainly made use of it in a manner that would befit many a rock lead guitarist, swaying with her phrasing, at times playing almost under the conductor’s nose when particularly wishing to lock in on timing, emphasising mood with gesture and posture, and even in the second half of the piece allowing herself an occasional unconcealed smile of satisfaction.
The notion that the visual aspect is part of classical music performance would probably actually upset some older aficionados. There was a very substantial period when it was assumed that audiences did not watch but listen, and any visual interest was really a distraction rather than an enhancement. This period of playing arguably optimised for radio or record may have coincided with the some decades where musicians made the backbone of their money recording … However, for classical musicians as for anyone else in music, the money has gone out of recording and into live performance. The music industry may not have fully caught up with this, but essentially the position has swapped back round to what it was in about the 1920s: recordings are a means of promotion of the live performances that make people’s bread and butter, not the other way round. And this does mean, for classical musicians as all others, that there has to be something about being at a concert that is distinct from listening to any of half a dozen recorded versions of all the same repertoire for free and at whim (albeit compressed and interrupted by adverts, which is another story). The notion that it helps, rather than hinders, to engage with the audience, visibly be emotionally engaged with the music you’re playing, and be interesting to watch as well as listen to has arrived back after what is really, in art music history scales, a very brief period out in the wilderness as disrespectable.
Some closing thoughts: I’d rather Beethoven symphonies didn’t have to go back to being interspersed with sonatas for violin held upside-down and using one string only (as the premiere of no. 7 was). But I’d love to see an orchestra with the unselfconsciousness to mosh along to the last moment of said symphony as it clearly deserves. And I feel bad about myself for being put off by one violinist’s diamanté mute in one of the Proms performances I was watching this week …
A long-standing rumour has it that professional classical guitarists don’t do washing up because the warm water would soften their plucking fingernails too much (presumably destroying their carefully-honed tone and precision, to say nothing of upping the risk of the ultimate fingerstyle guitarist’s nightmare – a broken nail … ).
My first attempt at a practice session today was scotched by my hands shaking too badly to do any serious work on audition excerpts clearly chosen largely for speed of notes and factors that combine awkwardly with that. I wonder therefore if professional violinists and violists avoid using strimmers and hedge-trimmers (this seems, to be honest, quite likely) in order to keep their fine finger-control? Rather more hypothetically, do they avoid stressful situations such as *ahem* having nowhere to live in eleven days, and perhaps going cold turkey on any addictions they have acquired (caffeine and alcohol included), in order to keep that precision and shake-free hand movement? I mean you want to be able to do rapid and wide vibrato, unless you’re a real early music specialist, but unless you’re a real late-Romantic specialist you also want to be able to turn it off …
I’m aware I’m revisiting dead ground here, having written about focus and priorities before, largely to do with technical music practice and househunting. But whatever the specifics are, I don’t think life is ever as straightforward as ‘I put [x] first, and everything else has to come second’ – even if we ignore how you might rank everything else second, third etc.! Some things are simply necessary though undesirable and in a sense unimportant to us – like finding somewhere to live that we can afford, actually has a shared living room of some kind and hasn’t already been nabbed by someone else.
It’s quarter to ten on a Thursday. I guess I’m not really going to get more emails about houseshares tonight. I should probably go to bed and see if I can get up early tomorrow without having the shakes again.
‘ … your last gig,’ so they say. But it’s not necessarily as straightforward as that. Listeners don’t in practice tend to distinguish between members of a group, so unless you perform solo – really solo, regardless of what the credited act name is – then you’re only as good, for everyone in the crowd that hasn’t seen you do another performance quite recently, as everyone in your band. If one of your bandmates has a crisis of confidence in the middle of her feature solo, or messes up the words to a song he arranged, then that failing attaches to you almost as much as them.
In fact, to the average punter, there isn’t really a separation between performers and technical setup either. So if your guitar is cheap and has a nasty tone; or the PA at that gig has a duff level control on the channel that had your bassist going through it; or the guy riding sliders simply ran with typical guitar rock band assumptions and left the violin so low in the mix the solos were inaudible over the rhythm strumming; all of that still reflects back onto you, any one of the performers, more or less (partly because any non-human element, and almost equally the sound engineer in the dark at the back, is invisible and the performers are very visible).
And if you do a performance which you think didn’t sound good – or you reckon the audience didn’t think sounded good – regardless of whether you personally did anything wrong or could have done anything better, this can be disheartening.
But you’re ultimately not only as good as your last gig; you’re as good as your ability, dedication, stagecraft and experience multiplied together. And if you don’t consider that to be the objective truth, there’s no way to pick yourself up and try your darnedest to make your next performance better reflect how good you are.
This is what I keep telling myself anyway.
There’s nothing quite like seeing an advert you replied to – and got no response – has been reposted. Trying to decide whether to apply again is exquisite.
Another wonderful experience is practising an excerpt to making-significant-progress accuracy at what seems a reasonable speed – then checking the metronome marking and finding it’s much, much faster.
Or having so many things you want to practise that your left hand actually starts seizing up because you haven’t played at that intensity for about a decade.
First-world problems, true. But they still demand a lot to keep going through them (almost as much as sheer absence of anyone apparently looking for what you think you have to offer right now!). Here’s hoping for perseverance, or maybe – just maybe – for a few signs of results. That would be nice.
A little while back I spotted a Facebook musicians wanted ad, which I think was already old then, for singers for a gospel choir – specifying they had to be black. There was an attempt at defending it with a clause number from the Race Relations Act, but the (fairly predictable) response was a storm of criticism and the impression you probably couldn’t do that without good non-musical reason (eg a Supremes lookalike tribute act, or perhaps a piece of historical stage or screen drama).
But here’s the unexpected bit. There are quite a lot of band member / dep / last minute freelancer ads that specify female performers. (In the interests of truthfulness, I have seen one I can remember, within the constraints I’m about to describe, that specified male.) Now I’m not talking about vocalists; male and female voices are for most musical purposes effectively different instruments and of course you may very well specify which you’re after. But I’m thinking of adverts for female drummers / bassists to join rock bands (presumably all-female groups) and saxophonists or violinists for one-off solo engagements or to fill spots in things like wedding string quartets.
And I kind of think that shouldn’t be OK, because in that context gender makes no difference to your musical ability, and I question whether it’s really ethical to say you want a woman instead of a man on visual grounds. I mean I know men are a lot less historically badly treated than people of African ethnicity (to put it comically mildly!), but what’s ultimately the difference between ‘I want my string quartet to be all women’ and ‘I want my gospel choir to be all black’? It’s a little bit ironic that in my observation to date a definite majority of the string players working outside long-term orchestral contracts or top-end solo careers are women anyway, but also irrelevant. No, I wouldn’t say it’s a major cramp on my career – I get more rejections from finding someone before I applied, or better, than I have to ignore ads because of my gender by some way – but it’s still closing doors. The principle of the thing seems flawed.
Have you seen About a Boy? Do you remember that scene where the rich waster (as I like to think of anyone who doesn’t have to work a lot to maintain life security, being essentially a Merseyside inverted snob) is trying to chat up a girl and she asks him what he does?
‘Oh, I’m taking some time off right now.’
‘Time off from what?’
‘From – nothing much I guess.’
(or words to that effect – I saw it once about 8 years ago and can’t remember exactly)
It feels a bit like that with freelance working. I mean, thanks to all the prep / promo / schmoozing stuff I’ve been doing, I probably really could do with a break in September. But September is when I’m likely to have done a lot of marketing and be starting to run down on ideas, I’ll only be in my desk job two days a week, and I’ll be very lucky if any significant number of bookings has started to arrive. So taking time off to rest and recover at that point seems a bit like ‘Time off from what? Checking your emails? Practising? Neither of those sound wise things to drop.’ But I know from much past experience that if you don’t rest, you break. The concept of a Sabbath – of days off and other breaks over longer periods of time – is one of the most perceptive things the Abrahamic tradition has to offer the world, and in the increasingly secular-materialist West, possibly the most counter-cultural. It’s just less straightforward when ‘work’ isn’t going to a specific place to do specific things there, and any viable definition of ‘work’ really has to include looking for and soliciting the actual paid activity.