Well, anything but literally really.
Firstly because you can’t reach an island by road. There are ferries to the Channel Islands, but they take quite a while and leave from south coast ports that aren’t that easy to reach from London by public transport. So from the start it was always going to be flying to Guernsey to play, and in practice that means from Gatwick with Aurigny.
So far, so much the orchestra fixer had anticipated. However, my survival / paranoia brain kicked in at this point. I contacted Aurigny to make sure I could take my violin with me in the cabin. (For the uninitiated, even much more robust and slacker-strung instruments such as electric guitars stand a fair chance of not surviving a flight in an unpressurised, unheated aeroplane hold. I’ve seen more photos than I can remember of snapped necks, usually when someone is getting up a petition against an airline who refuse to admit responsibility.) Their response: if it’s bigger than regulation hand luggage size, you’ll either have to put it in the hold or buy a seat for it. The largest dimension of the hand luggage constraints is 48cm, and a short session revealed the violin by itself is around 60cm long; since the case has to accommodate the bow, which is rather longer, the whole thing is more like 85cm. Wanting to be very sure of not being denied my flight, and not showing up to work without a working instrument (regardless of questions of insurance, difficulty of replacement and personal attachment to the particular instrument), I gritted my teeth and paid up for the second seat. Credit to the Guernsey Choral and Orchestral Society for paying for that as part of ‘reasonable travel expenses’.
However, I was to discover that this was really rather unnecessary. Someone (I never found out anything else about her because she didn’t turn out to be playing in the same concert!) was carrying a violin as hand luggage on my flight out. A bassoonist who was also a hired hand was on the same flight home, and her bassoon case (pretty similar size to my fiddle; certainly over 48cm) went in the overhead lockers with no questions asked. One of my immediate neighbours in the first violins makes the trip on a fairly regular basis and said she has never had trouble taking her instrument as hand luggage on those flights. So this reveals one characteristic of the successful gigging musician I hadn’t thought about too much before this job other than in a purely musical context: brazen self-confidence. If I work in the Channel Islands again, I will certainly just show up with the instrument case and face it out, thereby either saving myself some money or being less of a pain to my clients.
Another quality I wonder about is whether this is essentially a young person’s game. The final rehearsal (only one for the hired hands) was Friday night for a Saturday concert; together with small airport flight schedules, this meant two nights on the island for the hired extras, which the organisers sensibly dealt with by putting us up with volunteers from the choir and orchestra membership rather than shelling out for B&Bs. Massive gratitude to my hosts Caroline and David here, with whom I had a great time and who did a fairly comprehensive job of spoiling me rotten; but whether it’s just coincidence of ages (we were twice asked if they were my parents, and the numbers would be about right despite how embarrassing that question was!), I couldn’t help feeling that this felt like the sort of thing you do when you’re young and relatively footloose, even if I’m 30. Do people still get put up by volunteers in order to work when they’re in their 40s and 50s? Maybe this is just one of those things that is shifting, like how my generation are (fairly) calmly renting and sharing flats after a decade of full-time employment.
Just one essentially musical reflection makes its way into this post. I mentioned above that the rehearsal (definite article from my point of view) was the night before; unusually, since most jobs of this sort that I do (or, put it another way, most of my orchestral playing) have an afternoon rehearsal with not much more break than is needed to eat and change before an evening concert. Of course, this means just one set of travel expenses and just one day blocked out; there’s even the possibility of another job on the previous night. But it does severely restrict options for practising, if the parts aren’t available online (probably because they aren’t out of copyright) or you aren’t sure which one you’re playing. Both applied to The Wasps in this instance, and I had some trouble sightreading it due to ottava notation (see rant in yesterday’s post), besides it having a reputation as a moderately tricky piece in general; but the day’s gap meant I could do an hour’s practice on it the following morning and be really quite happy with how much of it I got right in the concert. I’ve been known to fit in half an hour’s note-bashing in a Saturday teatime rehearsal-concert break, but it’s a slightly desperate game and depends how long it takes me to find and eat some dinner (diabetic priorities: food even before music). Just possibly, the tide may be turning against the sightread-and-go afternoon plus evening model, or it may be fluke of what’s in my diary at present: the concert with La Folie a couple of weeks back had morning as well as afternoon rehearsals on the day (and I imagine the repeat appearance with them, booked for 8 July, will do the same), and I have a choral-orchestral job booked for next month which involves an extra rehearsal two weeks in advance besides the afternoon rehearsal on the day. Adding an extra date definitely puts the cost of hiring musicians up, but there must be repertoire and even slightly more picky performers and audiences for whom the improvement in standard of allowing for some serious personal practice time on technical tight corners makes a perceptible improvement; one rehearsal and no practice time is definitely austerity preparation for serious repertoire, even if that does correspond to the budgets available to most hirers.
Finally, I was surprised on many counts by being asked (before we played at that) to stand and be acknowledged as a guest player (polite term for hired bumper!). Firstly because it’s never happened before and I don’t expect to get used to it; while the other players are usually touchingly grateful even for having their string section stiffened, if they are short enough to bother hiring in extras, let alone for having missing wind and percussion lines finally covered, it’s rare to assume the audience will really be interested who is a permanent member and who a paid helper so long as the combined result is up to scratch. And after all, I was getting paid quite well to be there doing what I was doing! Secondly, though, because the programme required essentially a small Romantic symphony orchestra: harp, two or three percussionists, four horns, double woodwind, and so on. And out of those forces, with only an island of population about 63,000 to draw on (and the university students away, and everyone in the last 3 years of school in the middle of exam season), they had only had to hire in two violinists and a bassoonist (as I was very aware – not much safety in numbers in standing for applause there! And when do we get to sit down again? … ). They are clearly a musical bunch on Guernsey! – and their local society clearly is able to attract and retain players, which does not go without saying.
Back at going on the road though … not many bands really do this in the sense of piling into a van and doing gigs in rapid succession as an actual tour, these days. If you’re below the level of playing the O2 Academy circuit, then you probably can’t make any money on it (I know a punk band who could all fit in one big estate car, lived like students, but still went collectively something like £5000 into the red when they toured in the UK last summer. Admittedly they may have spent a lot of that on drugs and booze). But without the van or the continuity, the never-ending UK tours of my two home bands finally get going again this weekend, after a couple of months off (for me – Kindred Spirit played two weekends ago, but I was already booked for Elijah in Lincolnshire by the time the call came through). Kindred Spirit get in first, doing a full-length performance with local support at the Belmont Conservative Club on Saturday (27th). I’m assured you don’t have to pledge allegiance to strong and stable government to get in and door charges will not fund the campaign bus. Then on Sunday (but it’s a bank holiday weekend! You can stay up late and sleep in on Monday!) The Filthy Spectacula emerge from hibernation to play as part of Crewe Steampunk Convivial, sharing the stage with a positive royal selection of steampunk acts: Professor Elemental, Victor and the Bully (fresh from American success at the Steampunk World’s Fair) and the Wattingers (who I certainly thoroughly enjoyed at Steaminster last year). Tickets available here. It’ll be good to get back to the band gigs, much fun as the recent run of classical performances has been, and to play some material I haven’t learned in the preceding few days specifically for that event! See you there!