London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

Janus-facing

Controversially, happy Christmas! Yes, Christmas Day is over, but the season continues until (and including) 5 January – and started on 24 December (I’m considering christening 1-26 December ‘Cokemas’, but that’s another story). So enjoy the rest of it.

In any case, this in-between time between Christmas Day and New Year, when some business gets done, some things are tidied up from one year that feels over and some things prepared for the one that is about to start, seems a good time to reflect on the equally confuddling and Janus-faced process of career advice / planning / progression. Besides the fact I’d got up to a careers advice and networking event before Christmas.

On Tuesday 11 December, I went along to an event organised by the Young Classical Artists Trust – choosing to set on one side the facts that my career is only very partially classical, at 32 I’ve superannuated most professional definitions of ‘young’, and I have no real history or aspiration of being a ‘name artist’ or soloist. But I could still do with all the career help I can get.

The organised part of the event constituted a ‘speed dating-style’ session, 3 minutes (literally, by the clock) with a number of advisers on different fields in succession. Of course, there was a limit to what could be achieved in that time; sadly, the timetable-crunching of the organisers and the number of attendees meant we didn’t get a slot with every panellist. I will have to seek advice on good uses of / approaches to social media for freelance musicians who work for fixers or other musicians (what used to be called ‘session musicians’), rather than as artists recording or performing their own music, being named at events and having a distinct audience following, another time or place.

At least one of the five people I did speak to simply had no real overlap with my career. The specialism of artist management was presumably there chiefly to give prospective soloists, conductors etc. insight into what having management is like, the benefits, costs, setup – all highly relevant if you are, again, an aspiring or emerging name artist. Also highly relevant if you are on the point of giving up on a performing career and casting round for alternative arts work options. But little use to me.

For similar reasons, I was only going to be asking the classical record executive about session-type work. His response, in summary, fitted with a lot of my impression of the music business where it becomes significantly profitable: There is work there and it pays; and if you get in you’re usually in for good. But none of the people doing it are giving it up voluntarily, so the only way to get in is to be socially, professionally and literally in the right place at the right time when the supply of people established doing what you do runs short of the demand. So you have to keep doing grim and grotty gigs in hopes of getting lucky. Useful to know, perhaps even an encouragement to keep plugging away at the bottom end of the music career coal face, but perhaps not very actionable.

Both my ‘speed dating’ slot and more informal chat with other attendees concerning fundraising tended to confirm one of my suspicions. Viz., there is performing arts funding out there to be applied for, if not necessarily to be had; but one of the big stumbling-blocks, besides funding organisations always having priorities set down in their charitable objectives which are therefore non-negotiable, is that you have to submit full plans and financials in your application – there are no ‘go and create’ grants, you have to show what money you need, for what, and then account for it afterwards. The off-putting part about this is that you have to basically plan your entire project before submitting the application, let alone finding out whether you are going to have any money for your advance backroom work. Nothing for nothing is, I think, the rule here as in so much else musical.

Two people I spoke to were giving more general career progression advice, within the context of this being a classical-oriented event. The second, I’m afraid, fulfilled one of the stereotypes created by the chip on my shoulder about not having a conservatoire degree. I swear I could see the shutters go down behind her eyes when she had to try and engage with a career path that didn’t start with university-level performance study; she didn’t show any interest in what I might have done (including earning significant amounts of money for over 4 years) since leaving university (in 2007!) and instead pushed for whether I had pro musician contacts from Oxford. For the record, I have some, but I have a lot more, some better placed, and several better disposed towards me, from freelance work since 2014. So I think I won’t actually follow up the advice to make a list of every single person I know in the music industry and email them all, though it’s a good indicator of how aggressively the business expects networking to be carried out. Seemingly (if it’s given as advice) this won’t make me more enemies as an annoying demanding upstart than it will gain me paying clients …

I have left the first session, both the most helpful and in some ways the most frustrating, until last. It also feels like the one in which by far the most information was exchanged in the 3 minutes (maybe being first it was allowed to overrun). The advisor in question was keen to push me to sign up for her on-screen musicians’ agency (whether miming, as extras, recording live etc.) – which is a line of work I’ve done some of commercially, would be perfectly willing to do more, but is once again (particularly with a distinctive appearance) a question of signing up, filling in lots of details (I know how far round my head is in inches now) … and waiting to see if any suitable enquiries come in. Doubtless bearded, optionally bespectacled violinists, violists or mandolinists (?) are wanted from time to time, but they’re probably a niche group.

By some way the most appropriate piece of advice came to me from bothering to think about short-term goals and current situation. Very concretely, therefore, my biggest (though not quickest) take-away from the event: in order to get bookings with freelance pro orchestras (or even as a dep / extra with contract ones), have consultation lessons with said orchestras’ section leaders. Not because I necessarily need to learn lots of technique from them (whether I do or not), but as in effect auditions and interviews – to see whether I can play with them and also more generally work with them, potentially indeed tour with them. Chatting to other attendees confirms this is indeed normal.

So full marks to the adviser there. But even though this is accurate, actionable, appropriate advice, it is also frustrating. Partly because it seems ridiculous that there is an informal but established and sector-wide career progression system that relies on pretending you want a lesson (and pretending you are having a lesson, or putting up with being taught when it’s not really your goal), when really what you want is for someone to get to know you personally a bit and effectively audition you.

Secondly, because this is very much nothing for nothing. As a musician, I still occasionally take jobs down to £50. Generally my classical work will start at more like £70 a time, and I have a fair slew of recent and already booked gigs above £100 through to £150 a night (or indeed £200, but generally only where there are unusually high travel and/or accommodation expenses involved). Pro orchestra principals, especially if they have conservatoire posts, will organise their teaching time in large blocks, and they will charge for the shortest available block (which may well be 2 hours) probably £100 to £150. So even if I forego the desire to have pairs of lesson-auditions to demonstrate I can go away and work on instructions in my own time, the price of being de facto auditioned (with absolutely no guarantee of work arising therefrom) is the gross takings for one of my better gigs. I would only have to see a section leader I hope to sit under about 5 times a month to probably wipe out my entire musical income in the exercise.

But, because musicians are fairly crazy people, I’m going to do it to some extent anyway (not like I’m likely to increase my current tally of 3 gigs booked in January anyway, I might as well try and advance my career while it takes its annual 3 weeks off). And if you’re reading this having googled me after I asked you for a consultation lesson, no of course I’m in it for what I can learn from you as a violist, not the gigs you might be able to help me to …

Less wild than weary

Nothing new about a Saturday night Kindred Spirit gig. I went to the right venue first time on 8 December! However, there were some unexpected features.

This particular gig was in High Wycombe, at the Belle Vue where we have played annually in December for as long as I’ve been in the band. (It is traditionally our last gig of the year, but not this time!) Wycombe is a 30-minute train journey from London Marylebone, and in that half an hour I must have heard the bunch of middle-aged and upwards drunks heading home from some Christmas do discordantly bawl out verse 5 of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ at least a dozen times. I pity those who had to stay on that train to Banbury or Leamington Spa, as apparently there were going at least that far. Earplugs stayed in the whole time, but being musicians’ ones they’re supposed to let you hear everything, just quieter. They did … sometimes I wonder if ordinary commuting would be any worse.

Kindred Spirit in full flow.

As you can see, the Belle Vue is a bit of a tight fit for a five-piece. Also, you see that behind me? Yes, that is a chimney over an open fire. At previous December gigs here, it’s had at least the dying but far from cool embers of a log fire on it, leaving me sweating like a roasting pork joint (and feeling like it too). I accordingly dressed for anything but winter (as you can, again, see) … to find this time the fire had not been lit and it was actually a little cool inside for shirtsleeves. Never mind.

Payment at the Belle Vue is partly by ‘jug’, passed round for audience contributions. I do think this is an interestingly direct insight into what the audience think of you – in a bar gig like this where they haven’t paid to get in, and may just be in their local anyway rather than having chosen to come to live music. It was a rather thin crowd even for a very small pub – there can’t have been more than a couple of dozen punters in – so the fact that we got £10 each (by 5) from the jug suggests most of them significantly enjoyed what we were doing. Not bad for a part-time band playing about 80% originals, with an unusual line-up and sitting across several not particularly mainstream genres!

There used to be a just past midnight train from Wycombe to Marylebone that I could make by taking a very quick stride out of the Belle Vue as soon as I had packed up. This has evidently been got rid of, as the last train known to National Rail this time was halfway through our last set. Cue lift to Hounslow, night Tube (Piccadilly) to Green Park, night Tube (Jubilee) to London Bridge, night bus (the last train having long since gone) to Lee. It takes about 2 hours.

Hence, the following day, in order to make my 12:30 rehearsal to bump SELO‘s Christmas concert, I had had something like 6 hours’ sleep – a bit insubstantial for sight-reading an orchestral programme to perform it shortly afterwards! Not that there is anything much to worry about in Leroy Anderson viola parts, but the Malcolm Arnold that opened the rehearsal was rather a different matter. Fortunately (especially in a section consisting of one regular player, two who had come to one prior rehearsal, and two (including me) who were only there for concert day) I warmed up as the day went on.

Ordinarily, I would complain as a diabetic about the meal disruption created by a schedule of 12:30 rehearsal, 4pm concert. However, on this occasion I hadn’t had breakfast till something like 11am, so lunch at about 3 seemed perfectly reasonable!

Come back next post for more evidence of my December not having slowed down, including reflections on a career advice and networking event before reaching the last two weekends’ gigging of the year (we’ll disingenuously count New Year’s Eve as falling into 2019. Well, the audience probably will be (falling into 2019 that is)).

Wild weekends, episode x+1

Oh yes, I wasn’t kidding about this title series…

December should have started easily enough gig-wise. A Kindred Spirit gig in a venue we’d played before, and while we have some fairly new repertoire, there’s none of it I haven’t gigged at least 2 or 3 times by now. What could go wrong?

Lesson for life: if you think you have the postcode for a job, check it is the right postcode. I haven’t had the guts to check where I copied down this postcode from, but it was the code for the wrong Home Counties village social club. As I realised when I got off the bus having followed my carefully planned public transport journey, and found myself very definitely not in Ottershaw but in Binfield.

At this point luck of the draw clearly decided to play with me a little. I resigned myself to the fate of disorganised or forgetful people, namely, to spend their money undoing their errors, and got an Uber to the correct venue. Now I did get there with 10 minutes to check settings before we started playing, but I would have had rather longer, and a lower blood pressure, if I hadn’t chanced to hire the only non-aggressive taxi driver in south-east England. In the motorway sections of the roughly half-hour journey, he calmly pootled along at 55mph in the crawler lane, keeping in the shadow of the articulated lorries, while I sweated in the back and held in the impulse to yell at him to go faster.

Second lesson for life: do not believe device descriptions which tell you that you can simply plug and play. After a succession of battery, battery contact, battery compartment and battery lead dramas and failures, I have invested in a new wireless system for doing silly rock violin jumping around. This one is of the ‘digital’ type (whatever that actually means), and so both is cheaper than getting another old-style one, and consists of a transmitter and receiver each with internal phone-style rechargeable battery and only the size of a largeish keyring, with flip-out jack plug. Supposedly, stick one in your guitar and the other in your amp and away you go.

In my case, stick the receiver in the overdrive pedal input, fine; stick the transmitter in the violin and get a continuous high-pitched whine. A jack extension enabling me to keep the transmitter in my pocket turns out to be the solution; some piece of the instrument electrics, probably a switching power supply on the active pickup, causes the interference. So plugging the transmitter straight into a Strat should be fine, but not recommended for anything active (including any electroacoustic instrument that takes a battery, which is most of them) without literally giving it some space.

Perhaps surprisingly, our performance with these unpromising starts and the not always inspiring context of a social club bar gig with an average audience age of about 60 and some overt requests for ‘something we can dance to’ won us some of the warmest plaudits we’ve ever received:

(the photo is from a more recent gig by the way … spot the wire leading to transmitter in pocket!)

Lifts back to London are much appreciated after late-finishing gigs even slightly outside TfL’s reach. However, I much less appreciate the logistical problems of trying to get to Lee by TfL after midnight! In this case, the nearest compromise was a night tube from Hounslow to Green Park, then another one to London Bridge (where I spend so much time these days, as it seems to be the gateway to south-east London), then a protracted hunt for a bus stop around the multi-level surroundings of that defeater of cartographers, fortunately successful shortly before the arrival of a night bus that took me to a mere 10 minutes’ walk (with instrument and sundry other gear) from home.

In the morning, I was up – well, I was up while it was morning. First stop was Archway, for my second outing with an iteration of Buswell & Nyberg’s pop-up orchestras. One for the borough council (I think it’s Islington, but I’m not Londoner enough to really grasp the geography of the boroughs) at a space-themed event had been impressive enough to lead to a repeat booking for a Christmas market / light switch-on / etc. (yes, on 2 December. But at least it was within Advent (by the narrowest possible margin)).

The deal with these is to gather whoever is willing, produce or adjust arrangements for the forces thus available, have a brief optional run-through and then perform on a one-off basis (most of the group probably sightreading most of the music in performance). In this case, an unusual abundance of violas (well, 3, out of about 18 players) and total lack of cellos (we had bass guitar) led to a split viola section underpinning the relatively normal violin cohort, together with flute, 2 alto saxes, horn, tuba and keys, bass and percussion; fronted by male vocals where applicable and with a great deal of work being put in by a conductor who was also sight-reading! Great fun if cold, windy and with occasional panics induced in more highly-strung or well-equipped players by rain blowing onto the portable stage and some of the very valuable and delicate string instruments thereon…

One particularly revealing Christmas-musical moment occurred not in performance but in rehearsal. Running through an arrangement of ‘Away in a Manger’, without vocals, the conductor urged the strings to stop rushing: ‘Imagine you’re singing it, not playing it.’ At least two of us (yes, including me) responded that we would definitely sing it faster than that! Personally that is one I just like to get over with as soon as possible … but I also literally grew up with having no patience for wallowy sluggish approaches to hymn/carol singing.

Once we had finished (about half an hour after the ‘final’ schedule, which had already been pushed back half an hour from the original schedule) I picked up music stand and viola, bought a portable lunch and headed back into the tube and suburban train system to cross most of London diametrically, for a concert with St Bartholomew’s Orchestra in Norbury. Plus as much of the rehearsal as was left by the time I was able to get there (I had warned the conductor this would be the deal!).

See, I do formal-dress classical concerts sometimes … Sometimes I’m even photographed at them.

I do a lot of bumping amateur orchestras for concerts, as regular readers will have realised, though this fell more under the heading of ‘favour to a friend’ than ‘meaningful contribution to the rent’. This was the second one I have done in a few months where the entire viola section was made up of ‘extras’, there being no violist members of the orchestra actually active at the time of the concert.

There seems to be a uniting factor between these and the three concerts I’ve done with SELO (where they had respectively three, two and one of ‘their own’ violas), albeit a rather alarming one: motherhood. I hear the odd account of someone leaving the country, or just mysteriously disappearing from the orchestra; and an awful lot of ‘we had violas, but they all seem to have gone off to have babies’. In the case of one of SELO’s violas, she gave birth between playing one concert on a Thursday night and not playing the next on the following Sunday! I think I’m relieved it would be very difficult indeed to get me pregnant, otherwise I might feel such life plans as I have were precarious in the extreme. In the mean time, whatever gets me bookings, right? Right? … Maybe not.

Coming up next time: another Kindred Spirit gig and another amateur orchestra concert. Because variety is the spice of life.

As per the record

Some people (mostly either outside the music business, or who play their own non-classical material and rarely make much money at it) still refer to what I do as being a ‘session musician’. It’s very rarely true; recording has ceased to generally be profitable with the advent of downloading and streaming (yes, this is the reason even DJs now do stadium tours) and so the budgets and work are mostly in live, except for a few people who got in with the right other people and now certainly aren’t keen to give up any work to anyone else. However, towards the end of November I was on a rare paid recording session job.

We were recording string orchestra scores that were going to become bedrocks (presumably as there were no click or rhythm tracks) for parts of Phil Braithwaite’s solo album (yes, the guy not holding an instrument above. How did you guess?); apparently a side-project from mainly working as Vanessa Mae’s touring guitarist. This session became rather illustrative of several battlegrounds in how the music industry / putting music in front of a public works, or doesn’t work, at present.

You can’t see this from the photo above, but the entire session was in fact filmed, presumably for insertion into music videos and/or behind-the-scenes making-of documentary-type footage, probably for YouTube. Not only were there several cameras overlooking the whole group, but there were also a couple of GoPros on players’ music stands (changing places between takes, of course), and during the numerous and extended breaks some of the film team were wandering around taking artsy panning shots of things like instruments left in open cases. My only personal objection is that this could be a little distracting (somewhat to my surprise, I hated having the GoPro on my stand and definitely played worse than the rest of the session), and we did actually sacrifice a noticeable, though ultimately not critical, amount of audio recording time to video setup, camera battery changes, etc. etc.

Is this common? Yes, absolutely, though it’s fairly recent. The internet / digital era has brought about a particularly intense desire to experience everything in visual form, not audio alone, and also rewards having lots of spin-off content to drip-feed and tease and remind your audience you’re there frequently, rather than unveiling the main act out of nowhere. So an awful lot of recording time is filmed, friends who work in studios confirm. Those of us who aren’t very visual and so don’t get very enthused about film-making will just have to accept it as part of the job! (and perhaps start thinking more carefully about wardrobe choices)

The second area of tension was more complex, and emotional, by far. Yes, you guessed it, it’s partly money – but also unionisation, contracts and legalism, and indeed to some extent personal vendettas.

Phil had asked a contact to fix his string players for this – not with any control over arrangements or finance, but simply as possessing the right contacts and, I suppose, some quality assurance. The fee was not career pro rate – but it was a Thursday afternoon, there’s never normally any work going at that point, and there are plenty of players like myself who will sign up for anything up to the whole afternoon, within cheap travelling distance of home, for £60 and feel that we aren’t getting exploited (or at least no more than usual).

However, commercially successful and prolific musicians tend to attract envy – and the internet means few musical dealings are private and it is easy for the envious to take action. Some party, probably with a grudge, reported the session to the Musicians’ Union for underpaying. I should say at this point that while the MU issue general guideline rates and campaign for decent pay, there is no obligation on fixers / clients to follow them unless it is a specific employer, or a member of a professional body, with a separate and concrete agreement with the MU – very much not the case here. So nobody had to do anything, and as I say the players were probably largely fairly indifferent, though of course we would all like the market rates to move northward in general.

In any case, MU staff and the fixer discussed this session and the upshot was that nothing changed in practice, but the fixer was asked to get all the players to fill out standard MU recording session permission forms. This either was never communicated to Phil, actually running the session, or he was too busy to look into the detail of the forms. However …

The forms function by tick-boxes where there are standard MU rates. This includes rates for short (2 hours), medium (3 hours) and long (4) sessions. The rate for a short session is £60, the fee offered for the job, and that box had been pre-ticked in the form provided. But, we were actually recording (with breaks, but they were at Phil’s choice and are supposed to be included) from about 1pm to 4pm: 3 hours. We had in fact been told we would start at 12, so 4 hours on site even if we were standing around for the first hour (it’s not like we could do anything much else; we weren’t told ‘oh, actually we’ll start at 1. This sort of lag is common, especially in recordings, but still constitutes time we are effectively ‘on the job’). And we had been asked to make ourselves available 12-5: 5 hours.

Secondly, there are options for recording audio, video, or both. Audio was pre-selected; I though nothing of this until turning up and finding that everything was being filmed – the only advance warning of this was being told ‘dress code: informal casual’, but that could have been simply to make sure people didn’t feel they had to dress for a classical concert to record audio in a cold church (it wasn’t actually cold, but many churches used for recording are and it was bitter outside).

Thirdly, the MU form is predicated on musicians following the union’s advice regarding selling rights to recordings; which is to agree only to part with rights to the product for which the session is being done. So if you play on an album track and then it gets remixed and the remix released as a single, or the track is used in an advert, film score or TV background music, the producers have to come back and agree that use separately, presumably with an extra fee or royalty share for the players.

I emphasise this is the MU advice because it’s certainly not the only legal option; and remember communication did not seem to be seamless here! In practice, one of Phil’s team was going round in one of the breaks distributing payment, and gathering signatures on a single form contract with phrasing along the lines of ‘I assign to Phil Braithwaite rights to all audio and video material recorded in this session to use for whatever purpose he may see fit’. Which is perfectly legal, and a written expression of what is probably the assumption behind most relatively low-budget recordings; but I have no idea where any of this would end up legally if someone tried to put spanners in all the works by bringing both sets of contracts and all the correspondence and real-time events before a court.

In general, I love the MU, I’m proud and glad to be a member, I’m pro-unionisation in general and I think the situation (whether you want to talk about rights or privileges) of working musicians in the UK deserves significant improvement. But in this case, whatever the motives for involving them were, their involvement achieved no practical benefit, nothing illegal was prevented and really the upshot was confusion and unproductive admin. Non-union-scale jobs happen, everyone knows it and anyone with any sense deals with the situation, even if they resent it a little. We just can’t have it all.

Wild weekends, episode x

Yes, I know, I’m about a month behind. Well, besides trying to make sure I have something music-related to do in January (gigging musician readers will appreciate how little of a joke that is), we can put that down to borderline self-destructive levels of busy in places and borderline medical levels of fatigue for much of the time in between. Hence, not much writing (and I apologise to anyone who may feel my Christmas efforts verge on the tokenistic this year – believe me that the effort they felt like they cost me has been anything but!).

Anyway, I was up to the weekend of 24/25 November, and this was one of the several weekends lately that took so much out of me I needed most of the following week to get myself together for, er, the next weekend’s gigging.

First up, Saturday afternoon / evening: final rehearsal and concert with local to my new-ish home amateur orchestra Harmony Sinfonia, who I’ve ‘adopted’ (partly as a bid to avoid feeling I had no roots whatsoever in and around Lee when I moved here from about 140° round London). So for once not an on-the-day-only ‘bump’ job; I had actually been to about half the rehearsals for this concert. Though the ones I had missed, and a certain sense that Shostakovich’s 9th symphony was the real challenge of the programme, did mean I sight-read several substantial chunks of the viola part to Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto the previous Wednesday; the only rehearsal prior to concert day with soloist Dinara Klinton. Apparently the orchestra have worked with her before, but nonetheless she (all about 5’2″ and girlishly built of her, the sort of person offstage I feel slightly scared I might trip over without realising, but a both monumental and headlong pianistic presence) drove all of the concerto along at significantly faster paces than we had rehearsed it – not only too quickly for the camera, above, to freeze her fingers in flight but also straining our conductor’s ability to follow the solo part in full score; in fairness from the size of conductor’s score staves and the busyness of much of the figuration, I imagine Rachmaninov concerto parts rather resemble the trail of a millipede that has got drunk, fallen into a bottle of black ink and then managed to climb out again.

Past concerts have apparently been disappointing in terms of audience turnout; we certainly couldn’t make that complaint this time:

the neo-Gothic / Oxford Movement barn of St Margaret’s, Lee Terrace being as near full as it can really get without putting in a mezzanine floor. What was done differently that tipped the balance has not yet been ascertained definitely enough to be shared with the membership, though not clashing with the England men’s football team’s first World Cup quarter-final in decades probably helped. Either way, while the monumental provision of cake comfortably held out, and no church premises are yet known to have run out of tea (this seems to be one of those less-investigated rules of matter, like the gravitational attraction of rain clouds towards English barbecues), the turnout did succeed in entirely draining the stock of wine by about halfway through the deliberately extended interval.

Afterwards the audience were much too busy being impressed by Dinara (or the wine and cake?) to worry about occasional slips of orchestral timing (and the conductor and front desks of strings were conveniently hidden behind the piano lid, making responding grimaces invisible). The orchestra acquitted themselves extremely well in the Shostakovich, and newly appointed (to the new post of) assistant conductor Sophie Carville equally did so in Borodin’s ‘In the Steppes of Central Asia’ – if she could do with searching for a silent way of shushing the cellos, well, all those of us who work in orchestral music find ourselves regularly frustrated by not possessing a means to quiet some section or other. Compositionally, incidentally, and having travelled to the outskirts of central Asia, I would want to suggest that the only problem with Borodin’s piece is that too much happens – but given the reminder numbers of how many bars of ‘rest-plunk-rest-plunk’ (on the same note) the violas have played at one point reach towards 20, perhaps artistic creativity should be preferred over depictive accuracy.

Having fuelled up (by the standards of a type 1 diabetic) on cake and coffee in the aforementioned extended refreshment break / interval, I packed up as quickly as humanly possible and hurried off to get a bus, a Docklands Light Railway train and another DLR, taking me to Stratford. Where it took me quite some time to find the right bus stop for my remaining bus, and a fair while of waiting in a freezing gale before it showed up to take me to gig 2 of the weekend.

A first for me and a first in its own right, this was a celebration night seeking to be as little like clubbing as possible; marking the full moon, run by a self-identifying Wicca, with UV face paint, dress code: yourself, bring your own booze and some fantastic-smelling aromatherapy candles in the chillout room. My role, a new one as I say, was the not so unusual one of freestyling electric violin over DJ (or in this case playlist) – so all the work is improvisation, and ‘finding’ each track by ear; a long way from the sheet music of my classical and hymnody roots! It is certainly a testimony that the very laid-back and friendly punters were impressed with what I was doing; it could have got messy when one musically-inclined reveller took over control of the music choice in a bid to stretch what I / we could do, but fortunately I think it only got interesting in a good sense.

Oddly enough, the Sacred Moon Party is repeating at lunar month intervals; the next is in early January (when, let’s face it, there’s nothing else on), so if you’re near Hackney I highly recommend coming down, if only to watch me walk on a musical tightrope again (and for those scented candles): https://www.facebook.com/events/593211764482028/

One respect in which this wasn’t that far off the club night it emphatically was not, was the running hours; I got there by 9 I think, things really started picking up well after that, and I didn’t get away till certainly gone 2am. Even with Stratford within if-needs-must walking distance (a good half an hour I think) and the Jubilee line through the night at weekends, I resorted to Uber (apologies to black cab drivers) for the leg home from Greenwich. Priorities must be picked sometimes.

On Sunday 25th, I had to get up within the morning in order to meet a fellow violist and travel to a choral society rehearsal and concert in Essex. (Sunday concerts seem to be a rising trend for amateur ensembles, vocal and instrumental; inasmuch as it means I can work on Saturday and Sunday nights (sometimes Friday too) it increases earning potential, but does add to the sense of a seven-day job.) I was in fact woken somewhat earlier than I had intended to stir, having had something like 6 hours’ sleep (and I am FAR too well into middle age for working on that much) by a phone call from the conductor. Intended to check that I was travelling with Catriona, this conversation rapidly revealed that he had mistaken her use of Tina as a contraction for another player and was therefore even more pressingly short of a violinist after the latest in a succession of dropouts (I think yet another occurred in the following couple of hours). I eventually managed to find him another, but not before I had secured and then had to drop someone by putting the wrong place in my advert. See? I should not work on 6 hours’ sleep.

The concert itself (once we had penetrated to the depths of rural winding roads in the midst of which the village was found) posed me challenges in its own right regardless of sleep deprivation. The main item, making up one half, was Fauré’s Requiem. Choral aficionados will be aware that this was originally written for the Paris church of which the composer was organist and musical director, for choir, a couple of vocal soloists, and a rather unusually balanced small orchestra. When its reputation spread after a handful of uses in large funerals, Fauré’s publisher (back in the days when publishers of classical music expected both to make a profit on the business and to be able to shape the music towards profitability) persuaded him firstly to publish it, and secondly that it would be a much safer bet commercially to orchestrate it for conventional forces. This version was the only one available for about 80 years, until John Rutter (himself a not accidentally commercially successful composer of church music) reconstructed something like the original. This version has gained substantial popularity; indeed by now I would say it has displaced the revised one as a performing edition. It calls for organ, harp, two horns, a solo violin obbligato, double basses, and violas and cellos each divided into two sections.

The numerically astute will realise this creates problems for concert planners who do not possess a superfluity of cash for players. The solution, or at least amelioration, has generally lain in securing several violin-viola doublers who can play viola for the Requiem, and violin in something more conventionally scored. So it was in this case, and I was of course forewarned to bring both instruments. So far, so moderately challenging, but I have used both in the same performance before, even if not generally classical ones (where the issues of getting my left hand to readjust to play both in tune are somewhat amplified).

However, the wisdom of the organisers had decreed that when I was playing violin, I should lead the second violin section. Section of all of three people, nothing really to get worked up about there. Except that a substantial work by one George Dyson (no, not the hoover / hand dryer / apparently magical fan bloke) called for string orchestra plus solo string quartet; and I had been allocated, by logical extension, the second violin part in said quartet. And I knew nothing of this – had never even heard of the composer – until I arrived and was handed my stack of music. Dyson, I should say, at least in this piece, favours a rather Vaughan Williams-esque line of harmony, with semi-modal (I had nearly said quasi-modal, but the effect is certainly not ugly) tonalities and added-note chords that make it quite possible to think you are on the right note when you are actually one degree of the scale out … Suffice to say that while I believe I did a perfectly creditable job in the concert, I did have to both spend a little time in breaks working out how to tackle some of the part and attract some attention for the seeming pretension of needing to warm up on the applicable instrument before each half – a genuine necessity to make sure my pitching was going to be reliable, since at no point did I have anywhere to hide!

I should issue a vote of thanks to Felsted Choral Society, however. Orchestral bookings involving (only) an afternoon rehearsal and an evening concert are extremely common. Generally, the hired hands are left to fend for themselves in the gap (often while the local players / singers go home for some time, have dinner and change into concert gear, and the ‘bumpers’ change in church hall toilets and eat at Starbucks faute de mieux). I have at least once before seen the orchestra provided with a cold buffet between rehearsal and concert, which is a grand improvement over having to seek out what can be found; but Felsted definitely win my approval for having booked a pub room for us and block ordered fish and chips in advance (with check, and catering, for vegetarians, naturally). Of course, ultimately this is factored into what fee the client can afford to offer; but it is a much appreciated gesture and makes what are often complicated and uncertain days that little bit easier. Feed your musicians, please!

And episode x+1? Oh, that definitely needs another post.

Odd rock out

Sorry it’s been a while. Classic British winter colds may not stop you typing in the way they stop you talking, but they certainly interfere with the creative process. And in fact with getting anything done that doesn’t seem pressingly urgent at the time. I think I’ve more or less caught up with trivial things like paying in gig fees, invoicing and immediate desk work deadlines, so writing can be allowed to rise to the surface.

The first big news since I last wrote is of course Kindred Spirit‘s trip to HRH Prog 7.

When I eventually internalised, a few weeks beforehand, that this was a festival gig in Wales in November, I was rather worried. Would ‘accommodation provided’ mean freezing to death in some glamping tepee? Would the audience potentially all disappear to a bar tent in search of mulled wine or at least a good beer jacket if (as is generally likely in North Wales year-round) it rained through our set? Would we be on an open stage and would that mean the flute changed pitch in one direction, the violin and guitars in the other and my fingers simply locked solid by halfway through the set?

Luckily, while this was definitely a festival setup, it wasn’t canvas on grass – and I think the organisers had actually been very clever about this one. They had block-booked a holiday park for the weekend, including accommodation they could sublet to punters and two big spaces to use for performances. Sadly the water park seemed to be closed!

Why do I think this was such a good idea? Well, it means a festival can practically be held well out of normal season (May to September, roughly), when people’s wallets may have recovered from the summer but not yet plunged into pre-Christmas budget-stretching – and there’s much less competition. At the same time, if the stages, and audiences, are indoors, and default sleeping arrangement is those mobile home-chalet things that have actual beds, walls, heating, hot water if you can figure out how to work it, showers and the means to make yourself real coffee in the morning, that has a distinct appeal to those who may have, shall we say, outlived the thrill of roughing it (or the notion of planning in advance to be so drunk and/or drugged up you just pass out from 4am to noon regardless of the conditions). Rock audiences in general are largely middle-aged and upwards, except for the subcultures, and most people that choose to see something with ‘prog’ in the event title are probably at least just about old enough to remember Pink Floyd before the split from Roger Waters. You’re likely to get more of them turning up if they can live in middle-class holiday conditions rather than penniless teenager ones.

Anyway, after about 5 hours in a car (well, two cars between band members, video and sound crew and guests), a couple of satnav fails and many many hairpin bends, we got ourselves to Pwllheli and – what was more of a navigational challenge – the right two chalets (I think they were numbers 137 and 138. But there may have been more hundreds than that) by mid-afternoon Saturday. We had been put flatteringly high on the bill – second to last on Saturday night, albeit on the slightly lesser of the two stages – but had a radio interview to fit in before setting up.

In fact, we ended up with another radio interview to fit in before the radio interview. We showed up dutifully punctual (unlike everything else at a rock festival and contrary to organisational assumptions) to the ‘artist area’ to be shown to the Midlands Metalheads trailer – to find that of the two conflicting times we had been given, the half an hour later one was when we were expected (of course!). There were then some confused mumblings about maybe fitting in an interview with someone else instead of us just waiting around. I think that ad-hoc interview eventually started about 5 minutes before we were supposed to head to our other one! No matter though, as even after substantial hilarity (how do you interview 5 people simultaneously?), picking questions at random out of a deck of cards, and being awarded and consuming lollipops, biscuits and jelly babies according to the quality of our answers (Pavlov lives!), the second interviewers, who had booked us first, were still glad of the wait as they had to format new SD cards for recording more vast amounts of audio and video.

This is clearly one of those moments where we question the wisdom of letting the bassist (Mike, second from right) talk publicly. Though I seem to have appreciated whatever he said more than Cat (flute/sax/vox, second from left).

Personally, I appreciated the tea on offer (I’m very rock-n-roll before performing) but was disappointed the interviewer’s very large black guide dog was being kept on the far side of the room. It’s not like there would have been space for him to jump on the sofa even if he’d tried …

One downside of being organised and punctual is most rock organisers expect everyone, even the genuine professionals (perhaps especially them), to turn up somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour after they’re told to. So we had taken all of our equipment to backstage, unpacked things, established that there was no point tuning till the instruments had come down to the freezing temperature there (onstage under lights was much warmer of course, though better than a lot of band gigs I’ve played) and got a little bored … by early in the set before ours.

Being further up the bill at a festival than you expected is great – but if it’s a multi-stage affair, it may mean you clash with acts in a completely different league to you. I could have tried to catch some of Strawbs’ set on stage 1 while waiting to actually change over for ours, but was leery of not noticing when it got to changeover time (especially if things didn’t run to schedule) given their set time ran over the start of ours by a few minutes. Instead, I stayed at stage 2 and watched the previous act, Exploring Birdsong. Like (I gather) a lot of the acts before us, these were on the heavy side of prog, leaning to math-rock or symphonic metal. A lot of their songs started with delicate vocal harmonies followed by exploding into extended heavy instrumentals, usually in complex additive time signatures, but unusual instrumentation at least meant they didn’t feel like a template band – three female vocals, the leader also playing piano, backed up by drums and second keys doubling bass. Yes, you read that right, no guitar at all (though of course the bassist, using a long-necked five-string, played some riffs well up into guitar register and even a few full chords on the instrument. Prog innit). I was particularly struck by one short number which was simply a cappella harmony for the three voices, wordless.

This gig was certainly a pleasure to play. Monitoring was perfectly adequate without being (through my MU-funded fancy earplugs) deafening, there seemed to be no problems with front of house sound either. Most of the space was set out with chairs (told you rock audiences aren’t where you find the young music fans – though also who wants to stand / attempt to dance through a 7-minute guitar solo in 13/8? It’s hard being a prog fan), but there were a gratifying number of people standing round the edge even when we started overlapping Strawbs. A few more filtered through presumably when that set ended, but the thing I really relished (besides lots of space to move around and the wireless kit behaving itself so I could do so freely) was that not that many left when Hawkwind (yes, really) started on the other stage. Plus apparently some of my bandmates chatted to punters who had moved over to Hawkwind’s set, got a taste of it, decided they had been having more fun with us and voted with their feet. Although in terms of my playing pleasure, I should perhaps have reflected that I’ve gained a little weight since I last gigged in those very tight white jeans a couple of years back. Changing was challenging, and even high-profile future audiences may have to put up with something a little less … fitted.

I think possessing melody, audible lyrics and dynamic range (so at least not everything is very loud!) can be a real advantage in a line-up where most of the acts are hard / heavy. Even tattooed Hobgoblin-drinking rockers like a change every now and then, and the fact we were different and memorable was positively commented on by lots of people afterwards, including a couple of radio presenters who are giving us airplay (actual FM play as well, not just internet-only). The gamble of putting our ‘prog-folk’ in the middle of a lot of black-clad hard math-rock paid off, both for us and for the organisers.

Of course, we don’t get to do things this glamorous all the time. As I write the next full band gig is at the Ottershaw Club (a sports and social-type club somewhere near Bracknell), and we have two pub gigs as a five-piece before Christmas. But that does mean you get to see the band that could steal audience away from Hawkwind for local gig prices (or even nothing at Wycombe’s Belle Vue and Hounslow’s Cross Lances). Don’t say we don’t spoil you.

Oh, and that cold? Well, one of the realities of a musician’s life, festival booking and token drink rider or not, can be having to spend 11 hours over two days in the same car as someone who’s already got one. Good job singing isn’t something I was being paid to do in the last fortnight!

Sleep cycle, what sleep cycle?

Sleep when you can; eat when you can. Instructions for emergency medics and the military. Musicians have one more: Work when work is available. Here’s five days of going to bed late, getting up early and never working the same hours two days running:

Thursday 8 November

Leave the house early afternoon for a rendezvous on one of the many other sides of London at 3:20. Quartet of Giardino Strings travelling from there to a military base to play for a function dinner. Before we’ve cleared London, the leader’s car blows a front tyre, and it turns out the other one has a puncture too. Not only do Ford Galaxies not come with spare wheels (apparently this is now an optional extra!), but it seems their tyres are a funny size or hard to get hold of, as we only succeed in finding somewhere that has the right ones on the third try. This unsurprisingly absorbs most of the contingency time. Then there is a multi-car crash in front of us on the M11, further delaying the journey and leading to some rather testy text messages from the clients about when we are actually going to arrive. A very quick setup and ready to go, all of us I think struggling a little to get into musician focus after the journey saga. However, the sergeants and warrant officers of this particular REME unit seem to thoroughly enjoy what we do and only wish they could have more of it. Departure somewhat delayed by trying to fit removing equipment and packing up around speeches and toasts, eventually getting everything out as the assembled blokes are starting on what appears to be a team drinking game based on the old TV show Gladiators. Glad I didn’t have to actually witness that being played. Journey home much more trouble-free, but still not in bed till gone 2am.

Friday 9 November

Out of the house before quarter to ten (on about 6 hours’ sleep, as breakfast, showering and meditation are all arguably more important than an extra half hour in bed when you have type 1 diabetes and clinical depression) to get to an advance soundcheck for an event at the tail end of this month in Hackney. Sadly access issues (bluntly: another event’s organisers ran off with the key) mean it becomes a meeting and the soundcheck itself will have to wait; however, sounds like a really great concept. No time to go home between engagements, so electric and acoustic violins and assorted other gear travel on via lunch on the hoof to a rehearsal for an orchestral flashmob with Top Secret Agent and – I last saw him about 14 hours ago – David Giardino. That finishes at 4; I’ve spent longer out of the house than I did in bed, quite a lot of it on my feet, by the time I get home.

Saturday 10 November

Morning available to do other things for a rare change. Then out before 12 to get a succession of trains taking me to Reading, and then a bus to the university campus. Bumping viola section in a light and magic themed concert including a short tone poem entitled ‘Song Under the Stars’ by a composer I haven’t heard of (it turns out to be more or less a diversity decision having committed to 50/50 male and female composers, evidently on number of titles not running time! Nice enough but decidedly lightweight piece); the Nutcracker suite; and the concert suite from John Williams’ score to the first Harry Potter film. (Williams concert suites have definitely caught on in recent years – I played the Star Wars one a good decade ago – and for my money they are as musically substantial as many of the concert suites put together out of ballets, operas and theatre incidental music by ‘canonical’ composers; but concert organisers need to realise their ambitions, and their demands on the players, are analogous to the latter, not to children’s orchestra film medleys!) Some other pieces for winds only (the tone poem is for strings), including oddly the entire Peer Gynt suite (#1); however it turns out on arrival we are only actually playing one movement of the Nutcracker. It also turns out the viola ‘section’ consists of one player actually a member of the ensemble, and two hired extras including myself; and a substantial number of the items on the very detailed performer briefing never take place. However the university-based community music organisation have managed to sell a good couple of hundred tickets; I wish the same could be reliably achieved for the amateur orchestras I know playing arguably better music to an indisputably higher standard! A 2:30 rehearsal and 5–6 concert (very short!) at least mean I get home early and can have an early night.

Sunday 11 November

Up early again, and on my first train of the day at one minute to eight. This time I’m headed to Hatfield and (via one of the most circuitous bus routes I’ve ever experienced, which is saying something) to the University of Hertfordshire. The de Havilland Philharmonic Orchestra who have booked me to (again) strengthen the violas turn out not to be a university orchestra as such, but more of a high-standard amateur orchestra in residence. This is my first booking through MAS, and so at least represents starting to get return on the investment of the subscription, though I will have to get another booking this quarter to come out in profit – the fee is good for bumping an amateur section, but some way short of the union rates I’m hoping to get from that connection. A programme of composers who were at the front in WW1: Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow, a subtle piece that undercuts its overt gestures towards innocent English pastoral with dark twists perhaps suggesting something was rotten in the state of the 1913 England in which it was written (Butterworth would be killed on active service in 1916). Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody arguably a more straightforward piece of post-Elgar Albion music, and I agree with today’s conductor a less finished piece of art (Gurney survived the war, including being shot and gassed, but the experience probably heightened existing bipolar disorder which eventually led to him being confined to a lunatic asylum). From Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending which requires no introduction and the third symphony, the so-called Pastoral – but a response to the war and intended to evoke more of the eerily silent fields of immediately post-war France and Belgium than England in the springtime (RVW was, at 42 in 1914, too old for the army but signed up to drive ambulances instead and did so throughout the war).

I have been wearing a white poppy for a few Novembers now, having grown increasingly uncomfortable with the interpretations some people place upon the red one – this is not the place to discuss that subject in detail. I’m slightly irked, therefore, by the message that everyone playing has been asked to wear a (read: red) poppy for this concert. I go and buy one specially, while feeling that the possibility of ordaining they be worn is precisely among the things that make me ambivalent about them.

Each movement of the symphony is preceded by a WW1 poem and accompanied by a live painting (carried out from where a concerto soloist would be, next to the conductor, with a video camera streaming to a screen at the back of the stage). The painting evidently strikes a lot of people; it is impressive work, but I would have to say my old Oxford friend Merlin Porter does this sort of thing with more responsiveness to immediate surroundings, more ‘liveness’ so to speak: the four finished products here are certainly finished, but seem more like illustrations to the poems than engagements with the music. The choice of poems rather goes with the required poppies: Brooke’s The Soldier (‘If I should die, think only this of me … ‘) to start, Macrae’s In Flanders Field (the poppies grow … ‘) to end, in between a simple, heartfelt but rather sentimental piece by a horse-handling NCO to the effect that he would rather go to Hell with his horses than to Heaven without them, and another I forget. No Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, and so none of the more hard-hitting or descriptive poetry written out of experience of the front (it is no fault of Rupert Brooke that he died of illness before reaching the conflict zone, but it should be considered in reading his poetry; it is not the same kind of ‘war poetry’ as that of those on active service); it felt somewhat unbalanced, somewhat inclined to whitewash.

A 10:30 rehearsal and 3pm concert, so not too late a return home though a substantial journey once again (Sunday trains both slower and less frequent than those with no choice but to use them would like).

Monday 12 November

Again, not working in the morning. However, plans to achieve anything more than food shopping and paying in the cheque for yesterday’s job are stymied by sheer inability to move – in this instance as in around half (this happens far too often for my peace of mind) not unable to get out of bed or wake up but to stay out and awake. Hasty late lunch then out to St Pancras station for the orchestral flashmob rehearsed on Friday.

These events always involve a lot of walking through and standing around immediately beforehand (the standing around is comparable to a video shoot, but of course it is all building up to a five-minute performance!). This one seems to be particularly disorganisation-prone: the station staff, who have to give us security approval and safety briefing, were expecting one person not 20 musicians and a video and audio crew that must have been another 8 or 10; they also agreed to move one of the public pianos into a more useful place for us, but it is still chained to a handrail when we arrive, but gets moved after movements have been choreographed and walked through based on its normal position; a hotel room has been booked to use as a green room, but the hotel staff were expecting 6 people and get more than triple that many; the sound team have changed their minds from putting pickups and wireless belt packs on every player to acoustic sound and documentary-type mikes for recording on the afternoon of the event. Notwithstanding, we are able to (eventually!) sort out expected ‘choreography’ and clear out of the space before the arrival of numerous VIP-type guests of Tiffany’s, who are sponsoring the station Christmas tree and lights this year – we are playing for the lights switch-on and however many passing train passengers guess something is going on, the party of ‘influencers’, Tiffany’s management, etc. in a champagne bar above the concourse must not be forewarned! We are too far away to know what they are thinking, but the passing public mostly seem enthused and the photographers certainly love it.

(Tiffany’s, incidentally, insisted on no branding of any kind and no visible jewellery of any kind on performers for this. They also have a pop-up shop next to the (white and sort of teal-coloured and utterly un-tree-like) Christmas tree with the slogan ‘The holidays, by Tiffany’s’, illustrating the common fallacy that the US and the UK have a common set of cultural references: in the US, where most people get 10 days’ leave a year and many do not take all of that, ‘holidays’ signifies Christmas (perhaps when there are most bank holidays? I don’t know); in the UK, where it’s very much the norm to take substantial time off in the summer and go away for at least a week, and children generally spend the long school holiday with their families not away at camp while their parents carry on working, ‘holidays’ tends to imply summer, which is not the association the company were going for!)

The flashmob was at about 7:15; it lasted a literal 5 minutes or so, but by the time we have done extra photos, packed up and I’ve got home, what remains of the evening ends up being taken up by admin required by emails and messages received while I was kicking around St Pancras with only a phone to work on.

 

The remainder of this week only involves busking and rehearsals, until Saturday when Kindred Spirit venture into north Wales for a late-season prog-rock festival (I’m personally so glad the accommodation comes as chalets, not under canvas as for so many of the summer’s festival gigs). More unusual doings next week too!

Things that have happened lately

Stuff I want to tell someone or the world (everyone and therefore no-one) about, but I don’t have the will to work any of these items up into the sort of post I normally write.

Busking at Charing Cross yesterday had a frustrating start. You have to present yourself to the station manager, usually show ID, and get issued with a security pass before you can set up. The manager had a backlog of other people working on the station being signed on and off and kept me waiting outside the office for 10 minutes as it was too crowded. Then he requested a letter of introduction, which buskers don’t need (it’s presumably something the employer provides for employees working in stations); when I told him I don’t need one, he told me off in truly stereotypical schoolmaster fashion for telling him what to do ‘on my station’. Then he managed to misread my passport so as to be searching the database for James Martin, rather than Martin (James) Ash.

On the other hand, I have lots of positive feelings towards the South Asian-descended bloke who came up and asked if I could play something he was playing off his phone; when I didn’t know it, he managed to google sheet music for it and stood being a human music stand (and stopping the phone going to sleep) while I sight-read a Bollywood song in very small display and odd transcription and his (presumably) wife filmed. They seemed to feel it was £10 well spent. More requests with written music please! And maybe I should memorise some Bollywood melodies …

The Musicians’ Union are running a campaign for universal free music lessons for children, after research showed a similar proportion of children are interested in learning an instrument across socioeconomic position, but twice as many of the wealthiest kids are actually learning as the poorest. Now it is obviously to the good of music that it draw its talent from as wide a pool as possible; and I fully support the right of everyone to engage with music if they want to. But there is a slightly different problem tied up with this one. As far as I can see, the only way performing music can continue to be a sustainable profession for anyone is if the number of people seeking to enter it declines significantly; the supply of actual and would-be professional musicians already heavily outweighs the demand for their services, with obvious consequences for underemployment, low wages and undercutting, and qualification inflation (as everyone in classical music has a conservatoire undergrad degree so orchestras reduce their enormous piles of applications by only accepting applicants with masters’ degrees; which makes them normal, adding 2 years’ full-time education and thousands of pounds of student debt to the typical career-start burdens). So yes, we must try and ensure unfettered access to learning, appreciating, making and participating in music; but equally it seems little short of a necessity to contain the number of people performing professionally. A conundrum.

Back in my mid-twenties, I remember a friend talking about a list of indicators of being ‘a proper grown-up’ another friend of hers had proposed (the notion of extended adolescence, with genuine adulthood deferred until well after leaving university, is one often applied, almost always pejoratively, to my generation). As I remember they included:

  • have a ‘proper job’ (this is, I think, intuitively comprehensible for most people)
  • own a car
  • own a house
  • be married
  • have children

This probably returned to my mind with the realisations that at 32 I am self-employed – deliberately and with no current intention of returning to being employed, let alone working a full-time ‘career job’; have given up on my repeated, fruitless and not improving attempts to pass the driving test; am single; live in a rented houseshare; and will quite likely only ever be able to afford a mortgage (assuming no housing crash and that music work continues to keep me in London) jointly with someone else. This may explain why I’m a little touchy when people assume (usually when I’m playing low-paid orchestral concerts) that I am a conservatoire student. I left university over 11 years ago.

This afternoon I was biking up the slight rise to my home, and probably making slightly heavy weather of it due to some weight on my back and my blood sugar having dropped lower than it should be allowed to. A middle-aged woman, wearing a hi-vis vest over a woollen cardigan, helping a primary school trip cross a side road, called out with a hint of a laugh as I passed ‘Come on! You can do it!’ I suppose I am touchy, but I certainly felt mocked. Harassed by an older woman in the street for riding a bike.

Here’s the thing with asking if everything is OK, or how I’m doing: I have type 1 diabetes and chronic clinical depression. Plus, at present, insecure employment, vitamin deficiencies and various factors contributing to significant loneliness. But the diabetes and depression alone mean everything is never OK, and an even vaguely honest answer to ‘how’s it going?’ is far too complex (and personal) for oiling-the-social-wheels small talk. So I have to either make a mouth noise that literally conveys nothing about my actual state (and is quite likely actively misleading) to keep up social equilibrium, or go into friends-and-family levels of talking about emotion and illness and so on.

Abridged

Regular readers may remember a post last year narrating narrowly-averted disaster with my acoustic violin and its pickup, and singing the praises of Ruschil and Bailly, who did the averting, significantly improved the sound and projection of that instrument, and also led me to discover it’s worth triple what was paid for it about 16 years ago.

Last night, I had what felt like a middle-of-the-night appointment with Antoni Ruschil. 7pm can feel very nocturnal, conspiratorial even, now that it’s dark by 6:30, in a large room with vast unshaded windows on two sides itself in a huge ex-warehouse or something similar converted into workshops which have mostly closed up for the day – they have moved since I last dealt with them, but only a couple of miles to Cockpit Arts in Holborn.

The main thing I wanted to discuss was the bridge of my viola. It’s gradually come to my notice over the last year or so that this was unusually high, particularly on the A string side; this of course means there is simply more work involved in pressing that (highest) string down to the fingerboard, especially as you move higher up – which I’ve being doing more with technical study and more advanced playing. The particular compromises chosen by this viola’s makers also don’t work much in favour of easy access to the higher registers – it’s slightly smaller than the largest ‘normal’ size in terms of body length, but the string scale length is slightly shorter again. What this means in practice is that although I don’t have to stretch my fingers that far apart, the body makes up more of the string length, and the neck less, than in conventionally ideal proportions – which means more body to reach round in order to get to notes high up on any string. So I’d been considering, but definitely wanted an expert opinion on, having that side of the bridge shortened in height very slightly (abridge the bridge, geddit?).

As appears to be a running theme with my contact with Antoni, I got more and better than I bargained for! I’d thought (as I need the instrument again for a rehearsal tonight and a concert tomorrow) that I wouldn’t be able to get anything done until I could find a few days to leave it in the workshop and come back. Actually, everything was done on the spot in the space of about half an hour. I say ‘everything’ because shaving down the bridge under the A and D strings (one of those by hand and eye, thoroughly ‘craft’ processes that I, with bad eyesight, intermittently shaky hands, no natural working-with-materials ability and a definite need to measure things and programme computers if possible rather than acting directly, remain fascinated by and somewhat in awe of) was in the end just step 1. There also followed a replacing of the bridge (more squinting from different angles, muttering ‘not quite right’ and moving with precise taps of a small metal hammer), and some moving of the soundpost, mostly in order to bring more resonance and projection on the top end by way of compensation for the reduced tension, and also to get back to an even transition of tone and volume across the four strings, as the lower two were unaffected by the bridge lowering. I have no idea, by the way, how one produces changes as subtle as the latter by moving the soundpost around millimetrically – obviously advanced physics of resonance and acoustics explains the effect, but for practical purposes the adjustment of soundposts and their role in string instrument sound seem almost thaumaturgical.

I’m still playing the viola back in a bit (not least getting the strings to resettle in tune after having the tension taken off and put back on again) and getting used to it. However, I can definitely establish that it’s not only easier to play the upper register full stop (which was the original, limited, hope of the exercise!), but also easier to get a better sound from it – ‘freer’ (I’m poaching Antoni’s term because I can’t think of a better one) and more matching the resonance the low register of this viola has always possessed. In general, reducing the overall amount of tension in the instrument seems to make it even freer-vibrating, with less of a tendency to an ‘angry’ tone when loud as well as an easier response to light bow movement. It also seems the upper register is easier to play in tune now, which does seem conceivable given that lower action means less extra tension from pushing the string down to the fingerboard and so less of a ‘bent sharp’ effect (think blues / jazz guitar).

I really can’t recommend these guys enough, if you need bowed string-related work doing and it’s something where expertise and attention to detail (and a genuine, and wide-ranging, love of the instruments and their wide possibilities – Antoni always asks after my folk and jazz violin career!) will make a difference to the result. Plus the offer is always made to get in touch or come back if something isn’t panning out quite right after being worked on the first time.

I’m going to get a few opportunities to compare the revitalised viola with its previous self (I’m so close to a Doctor Who metaphor here!) over coming weeks, though rather fewer of them will probably involve enough solo exposure for an audience member to judge. Tomorrow night (Thursday 18th) is the second performance of a satisfyingly substantial programme with South East London Orchestra in Sydenham. I can confirm from the first outing (Sunday evening) that Elgar’s Froissart concert overture and the overture from Schumann’s opera Genoveva (strangely missing from the web page) are both given to the ‘heroic’ evocation of medieval chivalry (which is largely mythical of course) without falling over entirely into the jingoistic, and the Schumann contains a degree of 3-against-2 cross-rhythms that must have been fairly daring for the time. Ethel Smyth (undergoing a substantial revival of popularity this year, presumably with the centenary of votes for (some) women in Britain, as she was an active Suffragette and composed what became their anthem) could easily have called her Serenade a symphony, it is certainly substantial enough by modern standards, though perhaps not 1890 gigantism – or she may have wished to avoid gender-based criticism by not overtly attempting the prestige musical form of the day. The more tricky, fast, and/or just hard to read corners of the piece should benefit from my having played it through continuously once before (plus in sections in my only rehearsal, and some feverish practice between rehearsal and concert) this performance! I’m not going to offer a ‘review’ of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, but I will say that soloist Fenella Humphreys is something really quite special – technically assured and adept, playing with audible and visible feeling, not a little cheeky humour and seemingly overflowing energy. Highly recommended.

I was also out (literally – under a gazebo) with viola last week in one iteration (and every iteration is deliberately unique) of Buswell & Nyberg’s pop-up orchestra project, sightreading everything from Richard Strauss to David Bowie (yes, it was space-themed). But I only managed to make my Cadogan Hall début with Orion Orchestra in Shostakovich’s first and last symphonies (both cathartic, exhausting and draining!) by depping for a colleague in the second violins. Thanks James! Looking further ahead though, more Shostakovich – the 9th symphony – plus a Borodin overture and Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto in November with Harmony Sinfonia. I should have a pretty good idea how I’m getting on with the viola adjustments after that lot!

Fiddling frantically

As I write (type) this, my collarbone is still actually aching from the amount of time it’s spent pressed against a violin (specifically violin – the viola is feeling a tad neglected) in the last few days. Let me go back and explain.

On Wednesday (the 3rd) I was playing a corporate gig – background music to a hotel shindig with drinks, buffet, speeches etc. – primarily on violin, with sister duo Mia and the Moon and their effectively-bandmate percussionist (playing a fairly typical ‘acoustic mini-drums’ setup of cajon, snare and hi-hat strictly with brushes only, tambourine and shakers). This was a rare instance of me specifically being told ‘no, it’s fine for you to not learn the set, you can just busk it and make things up as you go along’! Don’t tell the clients; the other players seemed quite impressed, despite me floundering on a couple of unusual keys, reharmonisations and songs I didn’t know at all.

When we finished, about 11 I think, I had time to kill while waiting for an Uber to take me from the semi-country-estate hotel/resort/spa to Ascot station to get back to London (you think I had it bad? The band drove back to Leicester). I found an email asking if I could play two concerts (same programme) on viola with an amateur orchestra: Thursday 14th and Saturday 18th. Ooh yes please. Fixer very happy to confirm pretty much straight away. Then found on Facebook an ad from a violinist acquaintance: something has come up last-minute, can anyone dep for him for a semi-pro orchestral project, Shostakovich’s first and fifteenth (last) symphonies, rehearsals 7th and 8th (this was on the 3rd remember!) and concert on the 9th at Cadogan Hall. That only involved ditching one busking session, and my profit margin should be more than I’d make in 2 hours even after travelling to and from 3 calls and buying a couple of meals out. Plus, add Cadogan Hall and an ‘early career ensemble’ to my CV. Contacted the chap in need of a dep directly, who jumped at the offer I think and passed on my details to that fixer. All of this took place well before I got home! I was relieved to later discover I was taking over a seat in the second violins, given I admit to viola being my main orchestral / classical instrument these days and violin being occasionally rusty. At least working on parts for the Streisand project (more about that another time) has renewed my acquaintance with the very high registers!

Thursday: an hour’s busking.

Friday: two hours’ busking, plus listening to the two symphonies through with scans of the parts in front of me.

Saturday: two hours’ busking, plus (besides various other admin, desk work, correspondence etc) fitting in about 90 minutes’ practice on the difficult bits of the parts – which are comparatively few, especially in no. 15, but often very difficult, though some turn out to be more horrible on the page (lots of chromaticisms, enharmonics etc. and the first symphony has never been typeset – the part is a facsimile of a handwritten copy, despite having a reprint or possibly ‘new edition’ date of last month on the cover of the hired copy) than under the fingers.

Today (Sunday): rehearsals from 10:30 to nearly 6, albeit with a total of 2 hours in breaks.

Hence the aching collarbone. Of course, there is another rehearsal tomorrow evening (4 hours), then a brief warmup / run-through / top and tail early evening Tuesday followed by the concert. And then other projects from Wednesday (not joking)!

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Also, do you have plans Tuesday evening? These two symphonies are perhaps among the least monumentally pained of Shostakovich’s, and actually make an interesting pairing; the standard of musicianship is really quite high; it’s my first time playing at what is definitely one of London’s prestige venues and I’d like it if the place wasn’t empty; apparently the parts cost an absolute bomb to hire (Shostakovich is still in EU copyright for another 28 years or so) and the more Orion Orchestra make in ticket sales the more quickly they’re likely to pay me; and it’s a Tuesday night, you know? Information and booking here (or if you’re a student contact me and I can get you a comp – amazing!).

More posts to be written about other, currently upcoming, orchestral performances, theatre work, and perhaps some more about the function gig that introduced this post. Now for a bit of unwinding though!