London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

New new news

Welcome to 2020! But that isn’t really what this post is about.

One of the things I do very rarely, by the standards of freelance musicians and especially classical ones, is perform under my own name not as part of a group name or somebody else’s backing ensemble.

In fact, when planning for Thursday’s concert finally started getting to concrete details, I realised this will be my first public recital (it’s a duo with pianist Jo Giovani, but still kind of as a soloist) in London. I have played a couple of lunchtime recitals since moving to London, but for reasons to do with opportunity, timescales and contacts they were actually in Chelmsford.

Which makes this an exciting event for me of itself. All the more so as this is a rather particularly appropriate context for me to be doing a concert; one in which more of the terms are the ones I would like to set, rather than the conventions of ‘classical’ performance I sometimes chafe against (most often by pointing out that they didn’t coalesce until Mahler after 1880, later than most core ‘classical’ music was written … ). So there will be a small enough room to play even viola below maximum volume most of the time, and to talk to the audience without a microphone – and talk to the audience I most definitely will, and if I do so instead of providing written programme notes, it’s partly because I think that’s better, partly so people watch us rather than staring at their laps and rustling bits of paper, and partly because it’s less work (for me) to talk off the cuff than typeset and print programmes … No serried ranks of numbered and lettered seats differentiated by price and sightlines, rather a sort of shabby-chic living-room-cum-Parisian-pavement-café assortment of sofas, coffee tables and chairs, in a basement room (of an actual café) that only 40 tickets are sold for, and that would be quite a squeeze.

A certain well-known London recital venue, which I’ve been to several times because it has a discount scheme for under 35s which is almost the only one I’m eligible for, projects (among other more conventional messages) a request for audiences to avoid coughing during the music. If there are song words and translations sheets, they never run one piece / movement over a page turn, and the bottom of each page has an entreaty not to turn the page until the item and its accompaniment have finished. That may give a very pure experience of the music – acoustically it certainly does. But personally I find it psychologically distracting (vastly so if I have a sore throat!). And it seems to me that all our (‘art’ musicians’) claims about the value of our music are heavily enfeebled if it can’t still be vibrant and compelling in an environment where people might turn pages, clear their throats or even applaud between movements. Or, for that matter, if the music itself can’t reduce an attentive audience to silence (I appreciate it’s almost impossible playing background music, but why would you want or expect people to shut up for background music?).

So I’m glad that Fidelio’s usual practice with concerts is not only for audiences to be free to bring food and drinks from the café upstairs into the performance room, but also to encourage orders to be placed upstairs to be brought to the audience in the basement. I’m positively looking forward to playing some relatively uncompromisingly ‘art’ music for an audience with wine glasses, coffee cups and knives and forks in their hands – hopefully experiencing some kind of culinary-musical Gesamtkunstwerk happening …

But back to firsts. This isn’t just my first London recital outing. It also features a number of new, or in some sense new, pieces of music. I believe it is the first London performance of my friend Heidi Cottrell’s ‘Wilderness’ (though I know it has been used as a church service closing voluntary, probably 20 years ago!), and probably the UK premiere of Paweł Łukaszewski’s ‘Aria’, either in its cello and piano original or the composer’s viola and piano revision – certainly I got it from a Polish source close to the composer. Colin Touchin’s ‘Movement’ is a parallel but even odder case; it was written for cello and piano back in spring of 1970, when he was a late teenager. Colin has dug it out and adapted the cello part for viola in discussion with myself (and I think Jo may have done some streamlining of the confessedly clunky piano part), and at nearly 50 years old this will be the piece’s world premiere in any form (the cello version remains unperformed, if any cellists want to call dibs!).

Finally, this is my début as a London recitalist, but also as a ‘classical’ composer full stop. We will be closing the concert with the broadly neoclassical sonata for viola and piano I wrote (and revised, always a big part of my creative process) in fits and starts from late 2018 to early last year – the first time, as far as I am aware, a public has had the chance to hear (and enjoy, or not), any ‘art’ music written by me (my occasional forays into songwriting hardly seem connected, even when gigged and indeed recorded for paying audiences).

So all in all quite a ‘big deal’, and I’m very happy that a substantial body of friends and music colleagues will be there to share in, or indeed constitute, it. But there is still definitely space for some more before you have to start sitting on the floor or each other’s knees (unless you want to of course!) – so if you’re free Thursday evening, consider spending an hour with good food (optional), company and music. No tickets on the door I’m afraid but any last-minute deciders should be able to buy them online right up to the start time from https://fideliorchestra.art/whats-on/modernism-and-more-recently-music-for-viola-and-piano (and if you’re a student, under 18 or over 65 do take advantage of the concession tickets!).

Hope to see many familiar faces (and perhaps a few personally unknown ones) there!

Some old things in review

Everyone is doing this, it seems. Which must be my pretext for doing it controversially …

2019 was, objectively, a good year. It included being part of my best friend’s wedding (and a truly lovely wedding it was too). It was also a year of many steps forward in terms of my music career:

  • A working relationship with Miracle Cure meaning I worked most weekends of the summer (often more than once, and beyond the usual bounds of ‘summer’) at wedding rates
  • Touring the UK with a high-production-values tribute act
  • Arranging, fixing and MDing (as well as playing) for a certain well-known London events company, with good reason to believe that will be the first of many jobs with them
  • Playing mandolin seriously, thanks to dep opportunities with Pogue Traders, adding it to my arsenal with Kindred Spirit Duo and most critically Zoe Wren‘s trio (both live and on record)
  • Adding another ongoing working relationship to my portfolio with the 145s

But I don’t believe in sugarcoating. This was also the year in which I felt, the vast majority of the time, that I was treading water due to chronic fatigue syndrome, and waiting for a credible degree of recovery from that to do anything significant voluntarily rather than because it fell under my nose. It was also the year in which many really good things were felt as burdens not advances because of the intensely toxic combination of fatigue, depression and diabetes, and in which I continued to feel lonely and isolated in London, while far too stretched and drained to do anything about making or strengthening friendships, let alone venturing into the dating maelstrom.

The 2010s could have several posts to themselves. But maybe I can try to outline a complex and incoherent narrative – if you get the impression of complexity without pattern, that is probably more important than grasping the details.

In early 2010, I had quit a terrible job (my first ‘real job’) for a badly-run publishing company in Newcastle, and mistaken my disappointment with that experience for disgust with the private sector as a whole. I was moving to Oxford (back to Oxford, where I had studied, rather) to do an internship [Ed.: unpaid job] with Oxfam in search of a third-sector [Ed.: charity] career.

The voluntary work would land me part-time, fixed-term jobs; many repeated failures to get full-time, permanent work; the hellish experience of doing two part-time jobs for the same organisation; and the realisation that my third-sector ‘career’ was both going nowhere and failing to make me happy.

I ended up getting a full-time, permanent job with a certain well-known chiefly educational publisher in autumn 2012. Within a month, I had developed the symptoms which, after eliminating other possibilities, would lead to me being diagnosed with clinical depression; but it wasn’t until 2014 that an occupational health doctor put it to me, after 15 minutes of our first appointment, that the job was keeping me mentally ill.

Cue the single biggest change in my life certainly since going to university: the experiment with making music pay, a prospect I had not engaged with since my mid-teens (when my family, chiefly, talked me out of A-level Music, let alone any further academic study of the subject). Initially in favour of part-time desk work, progressing as my music earnings have continued to rise, this is both the most exciting and the most stressful story of my work life by far – and continues to be just as unpredictable, over 5 years in. What no one could have predicted, in the absence of a clinically established cause or it running in my family, was the additional complication of developing type 1 diabetes. Furthermore, I was to find counselling (abruptly terminated by the centre going bust), two courses of guided computer-based cognitive behavioural therapy and a long and expensive period of private psychotherapy ineffective in treating my depression, and medication only effective in keeping it in the background after several worsening crises climaxing in a self-harm episode (admittedly one which did more psychological than physical harm).

That said, and while I cannot envisage going back to a non-music desk job, I loved Oxford as a professional, and my life since owes a tremendous amount to the churches I was a member of, the open mic nights that allowed me (begrudgingly or not) to experiment with blues, folk, improv and vocals, and the very brave bandleaders that recruited me to the gigging scene for the first time (Mark Atherton, Lewis Newcombe-Jones and Rachel Ruscombe-King, yes I am looking at you).

I would have liked to stay in Oxford; but practicalities had other plans. As a musician, I was travelling to, or through, London almost every weekend for work, and discovering that Oxon, with its plethora of gifted amateurs doing something else for a living, was not a good hunting ground for paying gigs. And then there came (through a gig with the most enduring, high-profile and high-energy of several not-really-money-making originals-oriented bands in this period) the lass I met on Twickenham station platform (after the most fortuitous get-drunk-and-crash-at-the-drummer’s ever).

It became abundantly clear, after some months of long-distance mostly-at-the-weekends relationship with Stevie, that my future lay in London. Which was the kick I needed to quit my desk job altogether and (with very little reluctance) go full-time self-employed. Unfortunately, a comedy of errors and displacements was to follow: a flatshare with another couple utterly unsuited to share their home, a move out on my part which she was unable or unwilling to accompany (even if that did mean I shared my home with four adorable cats, a rather sweet puppy, some other lodgers and an utterly wonderful crazy artsy cat lady fashion design lecturer for a few months), a successive move on her part, a disastrous move into a flat together and our temporarily acrimonious breakup.

It won’t be much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the behaviour of young males in relationships to hear that I had adopted Stevie’s friendship group (she is a Londoner born and bred, albeit migratory between south-east, south-west and most recently far north) and neglected to form one of my own. The breakup, at my initiation I admit, left me effectively trying to start again from scratch in this particularly overwhelming, oversized and unfriendly city – and having moved for the fourth time in 18 months to yet another quadrant of the city.

Six months in to the progress of recovering from the breakup and trying to find my social and psychological feet, I instead developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Of which the only good things that can be said are that my brother having gone through treatment with him already, I was well-positioned to seek help from Raymond Perrin (who, unlike the official line of the NHS at present, has an evidenced medical theory of the causes of the condition, and a corresponding treatment plan for chronic fatigue itself rather than its psychological side-effects); and that it pushed me to ditch the continuing freelance editorial / publishing work with which I was increasingly unenamoured. At which point, more or less, we can return to the first section of this post to look at 2019.

Meaning that I enter 2020 hoping to actually pay my way through music alone, with exciting if not necessarily intentional professional opportunities in that field taken or opening up; and with the prospect of returning to approximate normality as far as fatigue is concerned, albeit the diabetes will never go away and it is likely the depression will not either; and still in search of a better social-communal-relationship ‘settlement’ in the face of intransigent social isolation, loneliness and disproportionate craving for physical affection.

Doubtless, just as 2010 seems invisibly distant now, so too will this situation seem almost beyond the reach of empathy, never mind memory, come 2030. Such is life, and we should watch our step not our ten years’ or even one year’s past.

Never Enough, but still rather satisfying

It has been a very busy month. Here’s another project I was working on alongside the subject of my last post (sleeping was something I didn’t work on much at all for 2 or 3 weeks).

Firstly, let me introduce Myriam Cavalli – singer, actress, model, from southern Italy but studying musical theatre at the London College of Music – possessed of near-perfect pitch, seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm and (fun fact!) degrees in fashion design, chemistry and environmental microbiology (you didn’t see that coming, did you?). This is primarily her project and absolutely her initiative.

It starts with a message – would I be interested in doing a voice and violin collaboration for YouTube? It rapidly turned out Myriam had the song picked – a number from The Greatest Showman called ‘Never Enough’. I’m not going to get side-tracked into a discussion of the film or the musical, not least to avoid annoying the many people with a significantly higher opinion of it than my own! However, one of the strengths of the song as a performance number is that it is a song within the show – I believe the opening number of Jenny Lind’s tour promoted by Barnum – and therefore does not require mangling to disentangle it from dialogue or other characters’ singing on the one hand, nor knowledge of the plot to be made sense of on the other.

Workshopping the arrangement and rehearsing the song revealed rapidly that Myriam had quite a clear vision of the nature of the performance (as well as that she was already working within the framework of a video brief while we finalised the music), and one I’ll admit that wasn’t my knee-jerk reaction or my usual default. I admit this because I think it came out very well once I gave up my scepticism! The concept was essentially to treat the track as a cappella, rather than voice accompanied by violin, with the instrument duetting and mostly playing in the gaps in the vocal line instead of harmonising.

Also involved were reworking the lyrics, partly to introduce a substantial amount of Myriam’s native Italian, and partly to shift the emotional focus of the verses from a rather dependent romantic love to an unashamedly childlike rediscovery of enchantment with Christmas. This was definitely going to be our ‘Christmas single’!

Unsurprisingly, in the course of refining the arrangement, several details were bounced back and forth between us, but one major aspect of the ‘concept’ did shift rather late in the day – which was moving the instrumental part from violin to viola, and so moving quite a lot of material to a lower octave (not least because on that instrument, I could often avoid echoing the vocal notes directly by playing an octave below, whereas violin could only do so by playing an octave higher), but also changing the timbre and resonance of the sound quite significantly. I won’t comment on how much of the latter is intrinsic to the instruments’ natures, specific to the viola and violin I have and how I have them set up, or due to my playing of the respective instruments …

Listening to some crucial playback: which take sounds better in the second chorus? Photo courtesy Myriam Cavalli

Audio recording was done, without guide track, click, overdubs or ‘grid’ (of beats and bars over time, for editing facilitation – only feasible if recording to click track of course), by Dani Ricci at his converted warehouse home studio. We were miked separately but within the same audibly resonant live room, allowing for chamber music-style ensemble playing but meaning that while splices were fine, isolating one part from the other was certainly not.

All credit then to Dani for doing such a good job of editing, mixing and mastering a track without almost all of the usual reference points or shortcuts. A lot of this had to be ‘freehand’, and a lot more like a classical recording than a rock or pop one. And yet not only does it all come together fluently, it also has much more warmth, atmosphere and fullness than would generally be expected from a two-part arrangement with the parts mostly alternating rather than combining.

As soon as the audio was edited (for timing – before mixing, EQ or mastering were final), it was on to video shooting. This took most of three days in different settings, of which I was needed at two. Events took an interesting turn at the university filming studios (Myriam’s day two, my day one), where I turned up expecting to mime footage to the recorded audio. It turned out the large crew of students, and a few staff techs, who were doing the video side as an assessed part of their degrees were intending to record audio and video in live takes, Jools Holland style. Not a problem of itself, but had I anticipated that setup I would have memorised the arrangement rather more thoroughly (as not relying on hearing my part blasting at me), and brought my clip mike to facilitate getting some separated audio while allowing me to move without wildly swinging levels. Instead of which there was some hasty improvisation with a tieclip vocal mike, electrical tape cushioning and resting in the soundhole (no, tape cannot be stuck to the viola, I remain surprised by how much varnish is involved in the sound so it’s certainly not being partly pulled off!). Moral: communicate clearly in advance; students may have everything within ten minutes’ run and not care about overrunning, but I had come 90 minutes’ journey by train and two tubes from south-east to south-west London to be there and couldn’t go home for alternative gear! However, you can (in my unhumble opinion) always tell the real quality of musicians by what they can do live, rather than in the studio, and in the end we did a lot more rehearsals and restarts for set dressing, lighting rig and the four fixed-tripod and one moving-dolly (on a mini train track and everything! ‘Big boys’ toys’ … ) cameras than for musical glitches.

Looking pleased because we’ve just wrapped and can put extra layers back on. There isn’t sun-glare like that in the video I promise! Photo courtesy of Myriam Cavalli.

The final day’s shooting was outside and fairly high-concept – Myriam having loaned a bespoke dress from a designer to feature, and me in all white (sidenote: my white jeans now fit so badly, being formerly tight and now worse due to insulin, chronic fatigue (think about it: less exercise, less cooking from scratch … ) and perhaps the beginnings of middle-aged spread, that it took me 10 minutes to do up the fly and I have since despaired and charity shopped them). But bare shoulders or not and December in England or July in Rome, cinematographers will insist on trying to shoot outdoor footage in the ‘golden hour’ – a bit longer than an hour thankfully, but the particularly warm light at the ends of the day. Before-dusk was unavailable as we were shooting the same day of the Secret London performance (told you it’s been busy). So post-dawn in Gunnersbury Park it was – and dawn may be about as late as it gets a week before the solstice, but 90 minutes’ journey before dawn was still a very early start in professional performer time (I mean, I’m working at 11pm much more often than 9 or even 11am). Caffeine may be one of my demons, but it was a necessary friend that day!

So if you’re a Christmas pop person, vary up your Wham and Mariah Carey by getting this in your playlists while it’s not quite Christmas Day, and give us two the present of some serious play-count acceleration.

The right place at the right time

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.

This big. Photo: Haydon Perrior

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.

This took longer than it looks. Photo: Haydon Perrior

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:

Tut tut, spoiler – I haven’t got to it being that full yet (I don’t have any pictures of it empty). Photo: Haydon Perrior

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.

It was a swish affair. I mean, that’s the drink the punters got free, never mind what they paid for … Photo: Haydon Perrior

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:

A viola bow is a bit long for conducting, but at least they know what beat you’re on; marking time by wiggling around while playing was much trickier on both ends. Photo: Haydon Perrior

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.

Stef draws a smile from the crowd – and from Emily on horn, bottom centre. Can you see? Photo: Haydon Perrior

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).

The fabulous lady in green (whose rights I am completely infringing by posting this photo) loved that we included modern gospel carol ‘Mary Did You Know’ so much I assumed she must have been a guest or at least friend of Stef’s. But apparently not. Photo: Haydon Perrior

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 …

Thank you, good night … and see you next time! Photo: Haydon Perrior

Sick leave

It’s come up in offline conversation that I haven’t posted anything here for a while – in fact, my last post appears to have been nearly 5 months ago. While a lot of those who see me directly know at least roughly why that is, maybe I should put together a fairly full description. Even though this is the post I didn’t envisage writing, because broadcasting bad health to the world is hardly effective marketing copy. Here’s, for once, hoping my blog posts are read by more peers and supporters than prospective clients …

Rewind to September of last year. I was finding myself extremely tired even by the standards of a somewhat workaholic freelance musician. Of itself, that might not be that significant – I always suffer somewhat from the shortening days, and summer is always very busy for playing, so I was presumably cumulatively run down and would be likely to bounce back with a slightly quieter schedule over the autumn.

I didn’t. I carried on staying in bed until mid or late morning, frequently going back to bed for daytime naps (completely out of character), finding myself worn out by or unable to face fairly minor exercise like walking half a mile to get my food shop or biking a similar distance, sometimes losing whole days to just being ‘zoned out’ and unable to concentrate even on watching on-demand TV. My coffee intake soared as I tried to keep doing what I had been – busking, publishing work, gigging, working on my viola technique.

At this point I consulted my GP (at least having multiple long-term illnesses already means I tend to discuss potential health problems … ). They ran blood tests, found a couple of borderline deficiencies (vitamin D, B12, folic acid) and were able to correct them with a 3-month course of supplements and some diet shifts. My blood results returned to normal; my energy levels didn’t.

We were now up to something like January (with no improvement from my annual trip back to my parents’ and crash out for a few days around Christmas). Instead of seeking another diagnosis within the NHS, my next port of call was Raymond Perrin. His analysis of, and technique of treating, chronic fatigue syndrome have succeeded in vastly improving my elder brother’s health (even to an extent I can observe!), which is more than I have yet heard anyone say for the NHS-approved approaches. (Two sidenotes: NICE are currently in the process of planning trials which, if successful, will lead to NHS funding for the Perrin treatment … in something like 2030. Also, a musical acquaintance is being seen by my/our local NHS CFS clinic, and it seems that since the official withdrawal of the definitely harmful Gradated Exercise Therapy for CFS, the NHS, at least in Lewisham, now basically leaves the fatigue itself alone and simply offers Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to try and enable people to get less depressed about being so limited.)

It was March by the time I was able to get a diagnostic appointment with Perrin (he is based in Manchester but does a couple of days a month in London). His diagnosis was unambiguous: I ticked all the boxes for his understanding of CFS, albeit in a milder form than the average patient who comes to him (the personal connection presumably explains looking earlier).

If you want to go through the medicine of the Perrin diagnosis (which I am tempted to say should really be called something like self-aggravating cerebral lymphostasis, since chronic fatigue syndrome is just a description of symptoms with implicitly little understood cause), I would definitely suggest starting from his website and/or his book (available on Amazon). However, here’s a highly condensed version as far as I recall it (total accuracy far from guaranteed):

  • The lymph system drains large-molecule toxins from the body (including the central nervous system) to the liver for detoxification and removal
  • In CFS, toxins build up in the central nervous system
  • They tend to sink to the bottom of the brain
  • This includes the area which controls unconscious processes like circulation (including of lymph), which is therefore effectively poisoned
  • Lymph circulation is disrupted – the ducts become varicose, do not flow or flow in the wrong direction
  • So the central nervous system is not drained of toxins
  • This becomes a feedback loop

The Perrin treatment is not a quick, easy or (as only available privately) cheap fix. The initial estimate was I might get as well as I would get (normally something like 70-80% health) in the space of 15 months. Through that time, it was made very clear, I would need to ‘pace’ my activity to my available energy – trying to improve by pushing myself gradually harder would, in this case, worsen matters.

For the initial 3 months at least, treatment would involve a substantial dose of supplements (vitamin B complex, fish oil and milk thistle extracts); minimising caffeine intake and avoiding alcohol altogether (both of which have been struggles); three times daily self-massage and exercise routines, plus application of hot and cold packs to my back; and weekly sessions with a specially trained osteopath, for massages aimed at re-starting the lymph circulation.

One of the initial effects of the treatment working, of course, is to drive those built up toxins out of the parts of the body where they have been sitting not impacting the rest of the system much, into the wider system, to be processed by the usual mechanisms; which means the body feels that it is being poisoned, and feels correspondingly worse before starting to get better as the relevant nervous areas are detoxified and circulation starts to improve.

In my case, they were driven out unusually slowly or there was more built up there than initially estimated. Either way, by the time of my 3-month checkup I had got worse, but not really started to get better. Cue continuing the same level of treatment for another 3 months (rather than moving to something less intensive as improvement gets under way and the process becomes more self-sustaining), and a more or less open question mark over how long the total process might take.

As for the ‘pacing’: I dropped all publishing work more or less immediately (with financial, especially while buying supplements at true cost and paying £200 a month in treatment fees, but little personal, regret). A little while longer revealed that busking 2-3 times a week had to go too. It hasn’t been health optimal, but I have done almost all the gigs I was booked for – notably, a dense early summer of weddings with Miracle Cure. For one thing, those were the most pay for the amount of work (even with all the travelling, taxis to country venues, overnight stays etc.!). Also, I knew that if I started pulling out of gigs wholesale, there would always be someone else to take them on (such is professional music at present) and there would be no motive for a booker to get rid of the replacement and swap back to hiring me when my health eventually picked up again. I say that with no prejudice, it’s just the most pragmatic decision for the boss to have minimum disruption.

So I’ve spent most of June and July doing two gigs a weekend, between Miracle Cure, Kindred Spirit, the Mechanics and some bits of classical work – and essentially spending the intervening five days recovering; getting food delivered so I don’t have to carry it, eating quite a lot of oven pizza, stuffed pasta or even takeaways when cooking is beyond me, sleeping in the morning and afternoon and struggling to get to sleep at night, and certainly not blogging. Or doing technical viola practice.

Of course, this doesn’t mean my other chronic woes have taken a holiday while I deal with this, hopefully actually temporary, one. The changes in level of activity, disruption to any semblance of routine (anyone for getting up at 11am, then feeling exhausted after breakfast and going back to bed till 4:30?) and I suspect actual slowdown in metabolism have playing havoc with trying to manage my blood sugar (you all know I’m type 1 diabetic right?). Simultaneously, the amount I can’t do, so to speak, and the amount of time sat around at home, mostly on my own (we aren’t the most sociable houseshare in history – even before both my housemates spend most of August away!), plus sheer lethargy, has all been worsening the never-entirely-goes-away depression. Almost certainly not helped by spending more time foggily scrolling on Facebook – and so being dually more exposed than usual to comparing my actual life to the curated picture on social media. Most of my social media feed is other people’s music careers, leavened with other people’s relationships and children (also not exactly a field in which I’m progressing very well for my time of life). What music I am doing being largely stripped back to well-known rock/folk/pop covers, with an occasional gig of (someone else’s) original rock music that has tended to be extremely poorly attended, hasn’t exactly helped either in that sense. I thought the money in and out were more or less balancing with the wedding gigs and not doing perhaps as much spending – till I realised I had a few hundred pounds of tax bill to pay by the end of July. (Since sorting that I’ve also made some hopefully either necessary or ultimately good investment but definitely expensive purchases, so trying to keep track of what’s going on has largely gone out the window as I’ve restocked my current account at the expense of my most accessible savings.)

At its worst, the tiredness is effectively emotionally stultifying – which can actually be a good thing in terms of depression; if you just want to sleep and are kind of numb, you aren’t that actively miserable … I think it does go with a slight improvement in energy / fatigue that I’ve been feeling musically and socially frustrated (is that a thing?) much more obviously as July’s gone on, as well as (unfortunately) correspondingly more depressed. There isn’t much leeway for doing any more about any of those things though, as I’ve found by experiment; I still tire a lot very easily. The only reason I’m going to experiment with going back to 1 or 2 busking slots a week is because my diary seems to thin out to generally one gig a weekend, not 2, in August and hopefully the energy drain is similar and more spread out (two busking sessions won’t make me what I’d get from one wedding gig, but they might make what I’d get from one other job).

And there, more or less, you have it. I’ll know more about progress come my second check-up in September; my best guess is that I’ll still be in (gradually lightening) treatment and still feeling (gradually less) ill for at least a year from then, but estimates have already been wrong once so I make no guarantees. In the meantime, if you want me I’ll probably be in bed. As I am while typing this.

Same same but different

The weekend before last, 30-31 March, was largely made up of two orchestral concerts (and respective rehearsals) as far as I was concerned. They were very different, and yet shared some surprising (or perhaps not that surprising, once you think about it) similarities.

First up, and by far the more important in my musical biography, playing with Jeremy Backhouse, Vivace Chorus and Brandenburg Sinfonia at Dorking Halls. Now this wasn’t the first time I had played with a freelance professional orchestra (past concerts with Kent Sinfonia and Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra fall squarely into that category, besides some borderline student/early-career pro ensembles); but it was the first time I had done so with a London one, and the first time of being booked for a professional ensemble as such through diary service MAS. So there was potentially a fair bit riding on the gig reputation and career-wise, besides a significant fee.

(A note on professional orchestras, in case of confusion: professional orchestras as we know them, including all the ones anyone outside the business has actually heard of, are referred to in fixing as ‘contract’ orchestras. Working with them is like a fairly ordinary job; you have a defined role, are assumed to play all the rehearsals and concerts to which your role is relevant unless you take holiday, etc. Freelance orchestras still pay (in general) union-agreed rates to all players, and have a frequently recurring core of musicians, but no one is actually bound to do every concert or guaranteed to be asked to do every one. Instead, self-employed players (hence ‘freelance orchestra’) are contracted on a concert by concert basis, usually from semi-fixed lists of preferred players but including filling out the ranks with others if they run out of list for a given performance.)

I had only been booked for this Saturday concert on the Wednesday; and the Thursday had been spent doing the Rugby School gig (see previous post), which meant I basically had a day and a half to prepare for this job. Preparation involving borrowing a tailcoat and an evening-dress waistcoat (I am so glad of living with two male pro musicians! Also of Oxford’s exam dress code meaning I already own a white bow tie); and doing some preliminary work on the music. I had been offered the choice between two Brandenburg Sinfonia concerts, only one of which had a known programme; I went with ‘better the devil you know’, only to eventually find I had turned down playing an evening of Mozart in much nearer-by Streatham! Instead, I went to Dorking and played Howells’ Sir Patrick Spens (a substantial setting of the Scots ballad for solo baritone, choir and orchestra; early, not well-known and somewhat more aggressively modernist than his more famous choral compositions); Britten’s Four Sea Interludes (orchestra only; famous for being difficult in various ways, and like the Howells I hadn’t played them before); and Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony (two solo singers, choir, orchestra; has definite tricky sections and is a fairly monumental piece; I had played it before but only on 2nd violin). Spotify at least supplied me with recordings of all three; Westminster Music Library, a fantastic resource I hadn’t previously discovered, has a score of the Britten (which is far too well within copyright to be worth googling for scans of, even for private practice); but no written copy of the Howells could I find. So I was still going to be doing a lot of work on the Saturday afternoon.

Few concert venues really have enough space to fit in a symphony orchestra and a large chorus; and while Vivace are not the hundreds-strong Northern choral societies or enormous combined Three Choirs Festival forces of Victorian legend, they are certainly on the larger end of the choruses I’ve played for. Them and us on the stage of Dorking Halls was not a very comfortable fit; positively crowded in fact. I had been booked to play #4 viola (of a rather undersized section, relative to winds and violins, of 4); but #2 pulled out at last minute, his even more last minute replacement didn’t make it to the rehearsal till a little while in, and with one thing and another I got bumped forward one to partnering the principal viola. At which point I was practically under conductor Jeremy Backhouse’s nose, literally in danger of thwacking the vocal soloists leaning forward for page-turns, and (when not relying on my own counting and listening) endeavouring to follow someone sat essentially beside me, without taking my eyes off the music and conductor of course! This is fairly standard orchestral stuff, but may be less predictable if you haven’t played in a symphony orchestra … Also, I imagine white tie and tails would be great for a cold medieval (or Neo-Gothic) church in winter, but it’s stifling in a concert hall with theatre-type lighting on an unseasonably warm March day with about 150 people on the platform.

It’s also an unsurprising consequence of there having been two Brandenburg Sinfonias out that evening (by the way, this is not an uncommon or considered unethical practice, lest it be thought I’m condemning it) that the orchestra were a little more freelance, so to speak, than would otherwise have been the case; that many fewer of them had played together frequently before, and so there was that bit more difficulty gelling in one rehearsal under an unfamiliar conductor and with an unfamiliar choir.

Ironically, we all had over 2 hours to kill (and I’m afraid there is not very much to do or anywhere very much to go in Dorking late afternoon on a Saturday; even the cafés were mostly shut) between the rehearsal and concert. I did use a fair bit of that time for green room practice, but it is easy to say that it could have been more beneficial to the players’ confidence at least to have spent some of it rehearsing. However, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. Singers, in particular, usually wish to minimise rehearsal on the day and maximise the gap between rehearsal and performance so as to have their voices in as good shape as possible in the concert. And on the other hand, if you have hired a professional orchestra, then it is no longer a safe option to ask them to indulge you in an extra half-hour’s rehearsal without paying overtime. Three hours is a standard session; union scale rises thereafter and is of course (and reasonably) considerably higher if you want a second rehearsal, or for one of them not to be on the same day as the concert (basically because musicians are definitely compensated for having to travel to work, as most of them do substantially most of the time). So, with budgets tight for all the arts, even generally subsidy-privileged classical music (and even with large choir subs coming in every concert, though most amateur ensembles lose money on all their concerts), it’s hardly surprising if 3 hours in the afternoon is what you get regardless of the difficulty of the programme.

In a spirit of cautious self-assessment, I’m only going to commit myself to saying that I never got thoroughly lost in the concert, started and finished with everybody else, and I don’t think I struggled more than the average. The odds are that given a similar chance again I would do better, if only because the odds are that the music would be easier to play!

Had I been booked well in advance by Brandenburg Sinfonia for the Saturday, I admit I would probably have pulled out of playing with St Bart’s Orchestra on the Sunday in order to give myself a recovery day. However, it didn’t feel right to do that on four days’ notice when I knew violins and violas had already been cancelling, so I stifled my yawns and stuck with it.

This was bumping an amateur section, moving from the high-level uniform of white tie to the standard-crossing one of all black (confusingly, black tie seems to be exclusively espoused by amateur orchestras and scratch ensembles accompanying amateur choirs) and from mid-20th-century repertoire to, mostly, early 19th (Mendelssohn and a late Haydn symphony, with a premiere confusing matters). The main point of similarity is that there were numerous extras supporting the amateur regulars (in the strings particularly), and so they and the soloist in Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto were being integrated in one rehearsal on the day. And the budget this orchestra possesses certainly does not run to getting extra players for additional rehearsal, or giving them strong incentives to look at / listen to the music in advance … Once again, three hours was avowedly tight and I did some practice between rehearsal and concert (mistakes are so much more obvious in Haydn and Mendelssohn than most music from the late Romantics on!); though this time I think I had ironed out pretty much all the technical problems by the concert. But the addition to my fatigue from the Sunday’s work was much smaller than the load inflicted by the Saturday’s!

I did yet another orchestral concert the following weekend (last Saturday), and I have another choral society performance coming up this Sunday. However, in between I have a wedding to play for with Miracle Cure and have been recording with Finezza Strings, so watch this space for different musical exploits as wedding season starts springing!

The future is _ _ _ _ _ _

Not that I can see the future of course. Otherwise my career would be much less stressful and rather more successful …

The most recent number of the Musicians Union magazine contains a photo of the CBSO in action, being conducted by a woman. This is not significant; what is, far more significant than it should be though still a sign of progress, is that the female conductor is not the reason the photo is there, and in fact no one in the image is credited. I would be the first to agree that representation of women among conductors is still poor. Controversially perhaps, I think it is actually worse than gender equality among working composers (regarding commissions or getting performances of new works); there is a whole different situation involved in selection (or not) of works by dead female composers for performance and recording. It is certainly not controversial to state the situation gets worse the higher up the conducting profession you look.

All of which said, I spent Wednesday evening renewing my acquaintance with Harmony Sinfonia, after a concert clashing with an existing Kindred Spirit Duo gig meaning a term I didn’t go. This was a one-off evening, allowing Maria Marchant to do some symphonic conducting with an orchestra but without the pressure of getting to a concert performance. We then did something similar, with Beethoven 5 instead of Brahms 4, with our assistant conductor Sophie Carville! The significance being not just two rising conductors who are both women, but that both are being coached / taught (and were being coached in this session) by our musical director Lindsey Ryan; therefore an evening of not just women learning conducting but women teaching it too.

On Thursday I was at Rugby School (yes, that one, with the game), playing for a concert of concerto movements, arias and other solo features by particularly able pupils with orchestral accompaniment. I hadn’t bothered to research the school before leaving (I have higher priorities for preparation, even when I haven’t been booked for a much more high-stakes job at short notice, of which more in another post), and so arrived not even knowing whether it had at some point ‘gone mixed’.

All the kids performed excellently, even if they were clearly a little awkward being onstage in a concert hall (yes, of course Rugby has one of its own) as soloists with an orchestra of adults and conducted by one of their teachers, and showed it in different ways! Particular credit I think to the three virtuoso pianists who took a movement each of the second Rachmaninov, second Shostakovitch and Grieg concerti without showing any signs of struggle with the demands of them; and to a tuba soloist displaying great technical control without a need to ‘compensate’ performatively for the fact of playing that instrument in particular.

To return to my point, though: of 8 soloists featured, 7 were girls. Assuming that for any leading public school pupil money is hardly an object to music lessons, and that competition for their time and effort with academic work is universal (any posh school you’ve heard of will be substantially academically selective, even if the current wave of right-wingers suggests Eton could perhaps do with revising the way their exams work), it speaks volumes for the desires and commitment in action among that particular body of teenagers that the genders were that skewed. Not that stereotypes are dead – the girls numbered a cellist, a singer, two flautists and three pianists; the boy played tuba. (In, by the way, the first movement of the Gregson concerto, which deserves to be better known if only as a companion piece to the Vaughan Williams one in demonstrating tuba does not have to be a comedy instrument when given any limelight at all!)

This, coupled with the realisation I was the only male of 6 violas, intrigued me sufficiently to (eventually!) do some head-counting on the orchestra, composed of a handful of school staff but largely freelance players like myself.

(going on the orchestra list, which had a few tbcs still on it:)
Total number of players: 46
Male: 21
Female: 25
Although, interestingly, principal 1st and 2nd violins and cello were all male, despite the overall string ratio being 8:21.
And a male conductor.
(But, yes, read those string numbers again. As a male professional classical string player, or a male pro violist, I am quite definitely a minority; on Saturday, with a fully professional orchestra, I was (after one late dropout and replacement) again the sole male violist, though admittedly in a section of only 4.)

Of course, the correct answer to the subject line, based on these observations, is (depending on what slang seems familiar to you) ‘minted’ or ‘loaded’ (‘rich’ and ‘wealthy’ have the wrong number of letters). 8 public school pupils, and a conductor who can afford to pay an orchestra, even an amateur one (Harmony did come away with extra money in their coffers; Heaven knows they need it!), to further her professional development. Maybe at some point that will actually seem more significant than the numbers of each gender involved in any part of the musical profession.

Observed at a concert

To start a little before the beginning: Having walked from Egham station to Royal Holloway, Google Maps could do with revising the algorithm that states a walking route is ‘mostly flat’.

Getting a medium-sized orchestra plus in effect a piano trio of soloists (including full-size concert grand) onto the stage of what is really a large lecture theatre meant I was some of the time pretty much next to the 2nd bassoon, who I later worked out was a hired extra like me not a student member of the orchestra. She not only had a newspaper crossword on her stand for the long rests / periods where the conductor was only rehearsing the strings; but was doing the cryptic side not the comprehensible-to-the-uninitiated one.

Very good to see the (professional) conductor of a student orchestra insisting on the importance of ear protection for classical players, and to be able to see some of the nearer players are using earplugs, even if pretty basic ones. Massive step forward since I was a student 12 years ago, even if this orchestra is a lot better than most of the student ones I played in.

Oboe 2 / cor anglais not only has stickers on his containers of reeds to distinguish which instrument they are for, which surprises me not at all; but also a label saying ‘cor anglais’ on one of the instrument cases. Is the size difference not big enough to tell externally?

A cellist (clearly orchestra member and resident) tells me that it is possible to get a cooked meal onsite, without being a college member. I take this up, having already had a meal on the hoof en route in order to make an early afternoon rehearsal start, and am very grateful for her navigating the buildings and corridors to the dining hall! The bewilderment and faffing produced in the till staff by my paying cash and needing change is comparable to that I expect when handing over a £50 note in a supermarket. The young bloke apologises, ‘Sorry, we don’t get much cash.’ Nonetheless, the fact remains about half my gigs are paid in it …

Same cellist somewhat later confesses she ‘couldn’t find any heels’ and is doing the concert in her ballroom dancing shoes (probably competitive; it’s still quite a big deal in student circles, where these days dancers compete on behalf of their institutions and so are effectively fielded as teams). Leaving aside the question of why flats would be infra dig (maybe it would change the geometry of holding her cello, and so mess with her technique? This is not a serious suggestion I hope!), the only significant difference I can see about the shoes is that they have those floor-protectors on their stiletto heels (which is a common requirement of venues with wooden floors, even when not being worn for dancing). Of much more interest to me is that even, or perhaps especially, wearing about an inch and a half of heel, she has ‘dancer’s gait’: the weight is visibly carried on her toes not back on her heels. I imagine this, under these circumstances, to be something confined to ballroom (if we stretch that to include all Latin styles) and tap dancers.

First bassoon’s idea of fun in the empty last minutes before going onstage includes playing bugle calls. I point out to him that really using the keys of the instrument to do so is cheating, and am rather disappointed when he informs me that playing bugle calls on harmonic series alone would involve being unfeasibly high in the instrument’s range. Consider that a challenge laid down to woodwind players.

For some unknown reason, the green room contains a smart whiteboard / TV thing. During the interval, for some equally unknown reason, it is showing rolling BBC News focusing on Brexit developments. One of the students starts chalking up odds of various possible events on the ordinary whiteboard next to the swanky digital thing …

Being sat roughly equidistant between the trumpets, timpani and bassoons, I was certainly not going to forego earplugs (though I only had one in for the Beethoven concerto; hard enough to listen attentively to a cello soloist facing away from you with the entire string section in between as it is). However, the only point I didn’t have them in and wished I did was when the concert finished and some wisecracker student put George Michael on the smart screen at party volume. My case, bag, etc were right in front of it and I had just started packing up …

I still don’t know why the Beethoven triple concerto goes on for so long by means of so much repetition of material.

Finally, if you’ve reached this far – for my money, notwithstanding Britain’s biggest protest today (I went on the previous record holder, the Iraq war march of 2003, and that achieved, er … ), the most nearly plausible current avenue to avoiding a long walk off the Dover cliffs is to get the number of signatures on the government ‘revoke article 50’ petition higher than the number of Leave votes in the exit referendum. I believe that was 17.4m, and the petition is currently up to about 4.5m, so keep spreading the word to everyone you know who has an email address and is a UK citizen…deadline to do anything about it 12 April remember.

A very Irish weekend

I’ve seen some pubs advertise ‘St Patrick’s Week’ in the last couple of years. While I’d certainly be minded to dismiss that as a cynical bid to raise English Guinness sales, it seems to be already-embedded tradition to not confine Ireland’s patron saint to one day – on the other side of the Irish Sea at least; especially if his actual saint’s day falls inconveniently on a school night.

Elaine and I played effectively St Patrick’s themed – certainly overtly Irish – nights as the Kindred Spirit Duo on not one, not two but three evenings running last weekend (the last, Sunday, being St Patrick’s Day itself).

Rather appropriately, the cash fees rose as we worked towards the actual date (which I would guess is the one musicians are most booked out for, adjusting the usual supply and demand disproportion); although this bizarrely meant I was paid the most for the gig with the lowest travel expenses. Credit to our Friday night client, West Surrey Golf Club, for being the only one to think of feeding us though, as well as having the most people dancing before our last number. Interestingly, we accommodatingly started off playing quietly and slower numbers as most people were still eating; but our music must have been more interesting than a lot of the golfers’ conversation as half the nearest few tables were turned round to watch us within a few notes!

Not so much credit to the relevant train operator for cancelling the train I had carefully timed my departure to catch, leaving me waiting a little over an hour on Milford station platform. For your information, there is nothing else at Milford station. Nor for the delay to my train to Woking en route to Saturday’s gig in Ottershaw, apparently down to high winds (which I think must be this year’s wrong kind of snow), which meant I waited 40 minutes in a bus shelter for the bus after the one I had meant to get.

Ottershaw saw the classic pattern of some stationary approval through most of the set and then several people getting up to dance when we struck up Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ as our ‘last’ number (we ended up doing a La Bamba/Twist and Shout mashup as an encore, which kept most of them on the floor). I sometimes wonder what would happen if we put that song earlier, say second in the second set. Would all those over-60s who clearly remember it first time round dance for longer, or sit down again?

This gig also produced a most unusual testimonial to my fiddle playing (presumably directed chiefly at the speeding-up reel and hornpipe in the set and/or the group of jigs I take at a fairly no-prisoners pace, since I do very little ‘rocky’ soloing in this sort of folk-heavy covers gig):

‘I just couldn’t take my eyes off your fingers. They were going like maggots on a hot shovel!’

Clearly I’ll be using that on my next order of business cards.

Apparently there weren’t any high winds between Lee and Streatham Vale on Sunday, as the trains were undelayed. (Between ourselves, I’m not sure there’s anything between Lee and Streatham except houses, fried chicken shops and buses full of MLE-speaking teenagers. But maybe I’m wrong.) This gig was notable for two ‘firsts’, both by the same very vocal audience member, who had a battery-powered fan somewhat larger than the usual hand-held plastic device and the endearing habit of singing along into it a la stereotyped hairbrush:
+ I think the first time I’ve heard someone publicly admit to liking the Corrs (at least since I left school).
+ Definitely the first time I’ve seen someone reduced to tears by Molly Malone’s death in the song of the same name, even if assisted by substantial volumes of Guinness or, I suspect, Jameson. Clearly those hot-footed maggots have powerful emotional expressiveness.

I carp but I shouldn’t. In three days, using more or less the same set list and without doing any actual rehearsal (this must be at least the third year we’ve done St Patrick’s together, as well as an Irish social club one New Year’s Eve), those jobs brought in … well, I’m not going to name figures out of professional prudence, but let’s say about as much money as all the orchestral concerts I’ve so far played through my diary service.

Like all good Englishmen, I just hope the trains run on time next year.

A small Miracle

On Saturday 2 March, I played for a wedding reception in Frome with Miracle Cure.

The remarkable thing here is not going to Frome – though the town centre is very pretty and I spent a very civilised couple of hours there, and money I didn’t entirely have in the excellent independent record store, the following morning before heading back to London.

Nor is it that I was playing fiddle with a function band for the drinkin-n-dancin portion of the day rather than either instrument with a quartet for the ceremony and/or drinks and canapes; being something I have done before with The Duffys, even if not regularly, and roaming acoustic work with The Mechanics comes much closer to this of the two.

More important is that although this was in principle a one-off gig, it went well enough to also double as a kind of live audition. I think we all (band and revellers) had fun (except the band having to tour most of the vicinity of the house to find the celebration and a way to get gear into it at the start! Orchardleigh House is very big). Certainly the young drummer and bodhran player who confessed, giving me a lift to my AirBnB afterwards, that he’d never actually played with a fiddle player before, reacted to me breaking out the ‘cheeky speed up’ style of performing Irish dance tunes in the first half with initial shock followed by glee – and by beating me at my own game on a reel in the second half. I’ve never removed so many ornaments from a tune in the course of the performance in my life! Equally, leader and lead guitarist (unusually – most function bands seem to be run, unsurprisingly, by a vocalist/rhythm guitarist) Tristan was glad of my relieving him of the interlude melody in Dire Straits’ ‘Walk of Life’. Though I think the general response was (pleasant!) sheer surprise when I more or less seamlessly dropped in the much-repeated ‘lead’ line to Avicii’s ‘Wake Me Up’, shortly after it had segued from another song I didn’t know that uses exactly the same chord loop … The core of what I was there for may have been to play Irish fiddle on folky songs and especially a handful of trad dances, but I enjoy playing, and dislike being restricted by things like genre and instrumentation, too much to not get involved in the more straight-up ‘function’ side of things when I’m confident of having something to contribute.

In any case, the long and short of that was a follow-up exchange of emails with Tristan, asking firstly which of basically their current unfixed gig diary I was free for, and then booking in a total of 14 dates – I was evidently not just being asked to cover dates their ‘main’ fiddler is unavailable. Sadly they don’t show on the gig list on my homepage because I’m pretty sure all are private functions, but other than that I have absolutely no regrets!

I mentioned in passing above that I stayed in an AirBnB room after this gig; they are very much my go-to option for gigs where I can’t get home afterwards (which, given my currently-paused struggles with the driving test, is annoyingly more than it might be). Partly, this is because experience has found them to be reliably a cheaper way of booking a single room for a night than B’n’Bs, Travelodges or the like. Partly, because individuals letting out a spare room tend to be much more flexible and sympathetic about performance hours than hotel check-in staff (a typical arrangement is for me to pick up a key and drop off stuff I don’t need for the actual gig when I arrive in the town, as I will come in at something like midnight or later after playing and endeavour to pad silently through a strange house in the dark to bed!). And not least, because both the houses and the hosts letting out a spare room to strangers on the strength of an online rating system tend to be more interesting and welcoming than most, and certainly a darn sight more pleasant than a budget hotel room and receptionist.

What is interesting is that I had a few conversations about AirBnB shortly after the 2 March gig; and there are some fellow working musicians who love it at least as much as I do and would always use it as default option; and some, on an almost equally tight budget, who find the idea offputting, have never used it and say they only sleep easy in their own home or a hotel, not a stranger’s or near-stranger’s house. There must be psychological roots to this, but for the moment I’m just glad, with that string of far-flung weddings coming up and train fares what they are, that I find the cheaper option congenial!