I’m not over chronic fatigue by any means, though I am a lot better than I was. But some things are too big not to blog about.
The best and worst music career advice I could give, if ever asked, would be ‘be lucky’. Or failing that, ‘keep trying everything that won’t actively hurt you until you are lucky’. About a month ago, I saw a Facebook ad for half a dozen orchestral musicians for an event – it was in a group I don’t check or get notifications from, in fact I think I only saw it because two of my friends had replied (it turns out knowing half the freelance musicians in the home counties has its benefits). I attempted to work strategically by posting asking if they had arrangements, as you can’t just feed classical players a set list the way you can a covers band (not unless it’s a pre-existing function string quartet or similar anyway).
What I got was a fairly open-ended email inviting me to say more about ‘what I might be able to provide’ for an event on 15 December (it rapidly turned out an arranger the client worked with regularly had pulled out due to a clash). I rapidly responded plugging myself as a fixer (again – knowing half the freelance musicians … ) and arranger (besides player), with a sense of nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The scope of the ‘ventured’ and ‘gained’ were to grow very rapidly over a couple of days. Essentially to:
- Event in 3 weeks or so
- Already advertised and selling tickets under the (very widely recognised round here) brand Secret London
- 80 minutes of stage time, and you’ll play all of that twice on the same day – classic Christmas pop songs basically, exact set list open to discussion
- If we let you have a budget of £x,xxx [better not give that away I think], can you find a lead singer and 9 instrumentalists, arrange the songs, rehearse and coordinate the performers and make all payments out of that lump budget?
I said yes. Because as a musician or as an entrepreneur (and all artists have to be entrepreneurs today), you take the opportunity and then worry about being able to meet it.
I thought the first problem would be finding musicians – I’ve been through long cycles of slow responses, eventual declines and late dropouts in the past. It turns out that if you can offer £xxx [nope, you’re not getting that information either], ask people you already know and who you think like you, and the performance happens to be on a Sunday, you might well get your first pick and they might just prioritise you over anything else that comes up!
Arranging was a bit of a different matter.
By the time we were starting to get bits of a set list together, and a vocalist had been found (I’ll come back to that), I remember calculating that at my usual rate of five minutes’ stage time per song (this assumes applause and chit-chat – obviously it’s less for background music), I would need to average a little over an arrangement per day.
Which didn’t seem too bad. But. The musical style steer from the events company was ‘orchestral’ – the musical forces and handling to be kept differentiated from their jazz, soul etc. events. So I suggested a kind of minimised chamber orchestra – if you’re an instrumentation nerd, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, bassoon, horn. I had access to doublers, so on some numbers asked for alto flute instead of flute and/or cor anglais instead of oboe. Very orchestral – but notably lacking in a rhythm section to rescore Slade, Wham or any of the various Christmas crooner / jazz standards like ‘Winter Wonderland’.
And then it wasn’t like I had a convenient three-week hole in my life to wall myself up and arrange music all day. In fact, over those few weeks, I:
- Devised, rehearsed, recorded and filmed a YouTube collaboration (coming out very soon! It’ll have to have another post to itself!)
- Played a wedding gig in Ely (I should really blog about my wedding band too)
- Rehearsed and performed a stage school Christmas show near Southend
- Depped on a symphony orchestra rehearsal of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, on violin (argh!)
- Spent three days in Beverley, meeting up with friends and playing background music in the Minster, followed by two in York more solely as time with one of my closest friends
- Played a choral society concert the day before the Secret London gig
I’m not saying I’m proud of this, but a significant fraction of that arranging got done on my laptop on trains, in spare bedrooms, on sofas … I’m getting quite good at rendering a piano score onto a Sibelius one without needing to check much on an instrument or even change a great deal after listening to playback. In time-honoured deadline-chancing fashion, I came to the evening before the rehearsal (about 4 days before the shows) with one-and-a-half arrangements still to write, and didn’t start the last one till after 10pm.
Perhaps remarkably, after only a couple of questions to players which largely confirmed what I’d thought already, the arrangements attracted very positive noises and no one complained about ranges and registers to my face!
My sense of the scale of the undertaking underwent a substantial bump upwards again going on a site visit to Banking Hall (not actually part of the Bank of England, but you can see it from the door) with my contact at Secret London. Imagine walking into this space empty, and yourself unprepared for the sight but heavily committed to particular music for it:
Followed a few minutes later by the revelation that they were selling 300 tickets for each of the two shows, and expecting the earlier one to sell out, the later probably a little short of that.
I won’t deny that we entered into show 1 less well rehearsed than I would have liked, having been predictably victim to teaching schedules, delayed public transport, late-running medical appointments, illness and the travel-time-inducing size of London. I was, partly for that reason and partly because of quite how much of this was ‘my baby’, frankly more stressed than I have been about any performance in years. And I did have to direct significantly as well as play:
However, even if I could perhaps have done with even more copious notes on cues to give pencilled in my parts, this was a moment where being able to fix as well as arrange / MD, and working with effectively a large chamber group, came into its own: even when the structures of the songs varied slightly from the written arrangements (and they did a couple of times!), everyone stayed both well enough together aurally and confident enough in appearances that the audience could pass it by. Big thanks to the band! – but even bigger thanks to the singer.
Stefania Morosini is an arranger, MD, fixer and musical businesswoman in her own right, but also proved an absolute gem to front this gig. I wanted her mix of gospel, covers and ‘legitimate’ singing skills and experience, but got into the bargain a funny, engaging, confident frontwoman who kept the punters attentive, amused and upbeat, had no trouble filling the set times and managed to get both audiences on their feet almost unanimously. And also singing ‘White Christmas’ a cappella. Stef played a huge part in me getting a lot less stressed as the day went on, so forgive me for gushing (regular readers know I don’t do it often).
All positive feedback is always, of course, welcome to the perpetually fragile egos of performers, and musicians are no exception. But the more money the person giving the feedback may be able to choose to throw your way, the more you take it to heart (or is that just unromantic me?). So I’m particularly pleased to be able to say that as well as many audience members stopping to tell us how much they enjoyed the music, and rapturous applause (even when Stef gave me an individual credit, which I might not have let her do if she’d given me the chance to refuse), Secret London have already broached the subject of doing more events on a similar theme. Watch this space …