London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

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.


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!

Long live positivity

Busking tends to be a pretty draining experience. The nature of the beast is that about 90% of the people passing by do just that – pass by and ignore you. Which is, of course, a bit of a nightmare for the immediate responses of any performer. And those that do respond can be worse than blank. All the people who smile but don’t give you anything, for instance. Or, with a busking repertoire based largely on Irish fiddle tunes and classical pieces, all the people who might be enjoying it – but look a lot like they’re taking the piss. And one downside of going electric (though I think it’s pushing up takings by effectively increasing the range from which I can be noticed / enjoyed) is the occasional person walking very close by while I’m, say, engaged in the impassioned middle section of the Thaïs Meditation with their fingers in their ears…

All too often, the only way to measure success and motivate myself to keep going, by myself, for usually two hours on the go with only sip-of-water-and-a-stretch breaks, as the aches start to build up and I can usually hear my fingers playing less well by the end of the session, is by the financial results. Which, while on average well worth the having, are individually unpredictable and usually determined by many other factors more than the quality of my playing.

So it’s gratifying to get the occasional written-down testimonial that can be come back to in search of slightly more solid affirmation that I’m actually being a musician when playing in train stations with usually about 20 seconds to reach someone – by definition, while footfall is high, people are all on their way somewhere else and only comparatively few find themselves with even the length of a number to kill between incoming and outgoing trains or before the person they’re meeting arrives.

As fluke would have it, one recent session produced two such affirmations. I was at Clapham Junction, at ‘thank God it’s the weekend’ o’clock – Friday evening rush ‘hour’ (this being London in the era of flexible start and finish times partly to spread out the commuters, I reckon each peak actually lasts at least 3 hours; I played for 2). In general, I’ve had bad experiences with that time of the week: people are tired, or relieved at getting away from the stress; they’re either intent on getting home to their family and dinner (chippy run perhaps) or headed in a posse to the workplace pub (every office and workshop has one) for that pint-and-breathe because it’s the weekend. Paying attention or parting with cash are unlikely.

But, seemingly some people were going against that flow. A few people said nice things at the time, which is more humanly and emotionally connective but easier to forget. A chap with an acoustic guitar stopped to listen for quite a while and made very sure he had my contact details between numbers before leaving; he turned out to be a freelance children’s storyteller and musician, and we had a quite wide-ranging and useful conversation by text message later. He also forwarded to me a text he sent to the Metro, though I haven’t picked up a copy to see if they printed it:

Some wonderful Irish violin music at Clapham Junction station today. We should all have been dancing on the overbridge! Then down the Tube tunnels  to some great jazz clarinet and jazz saxophone. Lots of classical music too, on a variety of instruments. Cost of these wonderful concerts? Anything from zero upwards. Long live the London buskers!

Rather more unexpected was a comment on my homepage – even with considerable efforts I can’t succeed in remembering a compelling candidate for who this might be from, though it appears from the email address used to post her first name is probably Giulia:

I just heard you playing at Clapham Junction. Thank you for brightening my Friday afternoon!

Sometimes that’s all it takes to bolster the self-estimation of a performer with several borderline chips on their shoulder.

Much to be written about recent and upcoming non-busking performances, but it will have to compete for my time and attention with rehearsals and practice (for the same reason!).

Buy now, play later

Let me let you in on some insider music industry secrets:
The age of record companies taking a chance on anyone with less than 50 000 social media followers has gone.
The age of anyone below massive superstar level, even who have a record contract, being paid a big fat advance just for recording has gone. Labels pay for the upfront cost if you’re lucky, then pay a royalty on sales (paying themselves back out of the majority of the price paid for the music, which if it’s downloaded or – especially – streamed is very little to start with).
The age of record labels and recording contracts having a monopoly on good-quality recording has long gone.
The age of self-funded and crowdfunded albums being pro quality – with all that implies for studio time and equipment, attention to detail, producer expertise and finished product presentation – and a normal route for ‘grassroots’ artists has most definitely come.

Two prospective albums dear to my heart are currently seeking public funding to complete, and I think you should get involved. NB this is not a charity appeal, it’s an advert – start off by agreeing to pre-order the album, then start considering whether any of the add-on rewards appeal enough to part you from extra cash (or rather extra bank balance through the medium of typing … ):

He was Eaten by Owls: Inchoate with the Light go I

This is already recorded – I should know since I played viola on it, in an intensive few days of string tracking that also featured once and future freelance colleague Maria Kroon on violin, my then girlfriend Stevie Mitchell on cello and Robin Breeze on double bass (straddling classical and jazz roles). I’ve even heard a fairly final mix and it’s excellent – starting from a 60s folk-originals background (think Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and so on), Kyle, the core creator of this album, has moved on through post-rock, a serious injection of Steve Reich minimalism, and significant enough involvement in art music composition and the capacities of ‘classical’ instrumentation – harp, piano, clarinet and trumpet as well as the strings – to justify the ‘chamber music fusion’ label. This album also runs to pipe organ and chamber choir recorded at Union Chapel, and has melodic invention enough to give accessibility to its shifting time signatures, loop / phase structures (not throughout) and largely instrumental conceptions. Crowdfunding is only covering physical CD and LP duplication here, various funding including the PRS Foundation and Kyle’s back pocket having covered studio and performer costs (and Kyle having mixed himself, painstakingly!). It would be a shame if it could only be released in (basically profitless) streaming after being so carefully musically honed!

Deadline: 4 October
Still to raise: £1 520
Previous form:

Lauren Lucille: second album

Lauren goes into the studio with producer Troy Miller in a couple of days and I’m not musically involved, so I can’t tell you as much about this album as Inchoate. However, I do know from seeing her live several times that Lauren is an effortlessly flawless songwriter (yes, I am massively jealous) and a charming and technically assured singer with a remarkable line in natural vocal improvisation. I don’t know exactly which songs are going on this album, but it seems safe to say from current live sets it will incorporate some more serious jazz stylings and proper throwback soul vibes as well as the jazz-inflected pop-singer-songwriter line of her debut album. The money is needed for making the album at all in this case!

Deadline: 31 October
Still to raise: £4 739
Previous form:

Thank me when you enjoy the new albums …

The cashless economy

Caravan Circus were out and about on Saturday, playing the opening set of a broadly jazz-themed night at Luna in Leytonstone.

(No, not just drinking, despite apparent photographic evidence.)

On the plus side: we were given an hour to play in and allowed to overrun somewhat, the changeover times were hugely generous, and there were a reasonable number in the audience by the end of the set. On the minus side: We were told to start at 6:30, at which point there might have been more people in the band than the crowd (especially if you refuse to include the bar staff); and we were playing for two free drink tokens each plus a jug passed round to collect tips. Now there was something quite nice about playing a gig that didn’t have a door charge and opened onto the street – a certain sort of Continental café / boulevard culture rather than a rigid division between passing by and having paid to get in and hear properly (and then feeling effectively stuck in for the evening). And I don’t as such mind the playing for jug thing – it’s basically just busking with a PA, better weather protection if needed and a bar to keep punters around longer … However, thin audience numbers (and perhaps an ongoing squeeze on individual spending power?) meant we collected £35 between four of us, which is not exactly going to enable me to start paying into a pension scheme any time soon.

We were followed by another roughly jazz manouche band (I think the more loosely we can choose to define this term the better, in the interests of avoiding either stultifying stylistic slavishness, ethno-cultural exclusivity or cries of cultural appropriation … ), Hot Swing Bohème. I had barely started packing away when their vocalist-frontwoman Alisa, a petite blonde who I’m told is Dutch, though I didn’t pick up an accent at all, approached me with an opening gambit something along the lines of ‘You’re great! Can I steal you? put you in a car boot and take you away?’. This was to become a running gag as the evening progressed!

During changeover and their setup, I was hanging around, spending my second drink token, and buying a quality meal deal from the Tesco down the road (apparently we would have been fed as well as watered, but the manager who would have created the food was on the Continent – which also created an initial misunderstanding over timings that was down to the gap in time zone between her creating the calendar and her shift manager in the UK viewing it!), then deciding I would stay and watch / listen to the next set – it was still quite early, and I could probably do with keeping an ear out for jazz manouche tips and tricks in general!

Like us, Hot Swing Bohème had shed their drummer for the evening (it turned out they share him with the Tiger Lillies, to whom my old band the Filthy Spectacula are fairly regularly compared). That left them as a trio: Alisa on vocals, guitarist Ed (playing what looked like the very spit of a classic Maccaferri, but was apparently actually made for him), and wonderfully named Czech bassist Wratislav, using the most unusual bass guitar I’ve seen in use possibly ever: a fretless five-string semi-acoustic, with a bung clearly made with and for it to its unusually shaped soundhole, for avoiding feedback when playing plugged in.

Inevitably, their repertoire choices were swayed by being a vocal-led group (Caravan Circus, with vocals an optional doubling by two of the instrumentalists, probably do at least 50% instrumentals, mostly Django Reinhardt compositions led by guitar), both in the direction of the Great American Songbook and of significantly ‘hot’ interpretations of European chanson material, some of it of decidedly un-swing origin! It took me most of the way through their set to realise Ed was using what (see an earlier post) I’ll call the ‘Carl Orr’ technique regularly: playing a fairly neutral accompaniment during the vocal opening chorus, into a looper pedal so that it could provide harmonic (and indeed rhythmic) context for a guitar solo in another chorus. Of course, as he commented to me afterwards, it isn’t as responsive and flexible an accompaniment as a second guitarist reacting in real time to the lead lines; but then again after a certain number of gigs it takes less share of the band’s earnings than another musician…

Maybe it was just because the only seat I’d been able to find was pretty much front and centre of a small venue (and I do quite enough standing up busking, gigging, practising and on busy trains and Tubes thank you), or maybe it was my look of real attention, but the notion of carrying out some of the ‘stealing’ of me on the spot spread through the band. Wratislav had the most laid-back approach or the highest estimation of my impromptu abilities, simply miming violin playing and beckoning to me between numbers. Alisa, perhaps a little more intent on keeping control of the situation, instead rummaged forward through her folder during a guitar solo and held a sheet out towards me. Little did she realise that the number (‘Bist Du Mei Mir Schon’) was completely unknown to me, and my ‘sure, let’s do it’ nod was actually just directed at the fact she was working from a full lead sheet with chords and the melody notated, meaning I knew I could fudge it reasonably! Her forward planning gave me a few numbers to get the violin back out and ready (though I tactically decided to play forcefully rather than try to get myself plugged through the PA again) before squeezing my way onto stage for what I would call their last pre-encore number.

Note careful attention to the lead sheet, Ed’s headstock, Wratislav’s bass, and just how close the audience are! I had assumed that would be it, but also that it would be easier to defer unearthing the case from a huddle of people by the side of stage and putting the violin away until the band were packing away too, so I simply sat back down with it. Second and final encore was ‘Summertime’, and this time it was Ed and Alisa doing the beckoning up for a bit more playing, when the song was already well under way. I had thankfully by this time worked out they were doing it in the key I know (A minor if you’re curious), so no wedging myself in to peer at lead sheets this time!

I’m not sure of the chronology here, but in the course of the hour or so after the end of Hot Swing Bohème’s set (in which, remember, I had played on one and a half numbers out of an hour’s music), I was handed their two ‘extra’ drink tokens from having described themselves as a quartet and bought another two drinks on top of that by impressed and generous audience members. At London bar prices, it was probably more valuable remuneration than the full set I played, though as I didn’t buy anything all night in the monetary sense I don’t actually know what Luna’s prices are like!

Now I don’t want to end on too much of a downer, or to seem ungrateful. However, there are a couple of simple facts I would like to point out. Firstly, food is essential to life but alcohol is not. Secondly, musicians are notoriously unstable people, and plying a sector of society with such high incidences of depression, anxiety, mood swings, addictive tendencies, emotional or financial insecurity and frankly bizarre lifestyles with free booze may not be the best plan for their continued wellbeing or creative development. Thirdly, I would take £3 in cash over a free pint any day, because music doesn’t make much money and even more or less derisory amounts of money can be offset against rent, food and so on, which drinks on the house (or the audience) cannot.

So I do hope to sit in with HSB at another gig (they have a midweek residency apparently); but I also hope there will be payment in money, and ideally not in liquor. Watch this space!

All electric

Friday’s Dream Logic gig allowed me the first chance to use a new musical toy in anger:

No, I don’t have a new and better viola (I wish! though I am very fond of this one) – look closer.

Adam’s musical conceptions require the string quartet to be amplified – partly because we mostly play everything-through-the-PA gigs at much more than acoustic strings volume, but also because at times they, like the rest of the musical material, are fed through effect processing such as monumental reverb. Despite sometimes altering the sound, Adam is nonetheless the only one of my non-acoustic colleagues / clients to be sufficiently choosy about the quality of acoustic string tone to reject both electric instruments and contact pickups out of hand (I even tried the Fishman on my violin on him once; he wasn’t a fan!). Our first gig revealed numerous problems with playing into stand mikes, from massive spill if the front of house is filling the whole venue with sound to being unable to move to get a better sight-line without the level fluctuating wildly (most of these weren’t new to me). The acceptable compromise appears to be clip mikes, which at least move with the instrument, pick up far more of one’s playing than anything else, and if fixed on quite consistently are quite dependable.

It look literally one gig for me to decide I wanted one of these of my own! Not least, I’m reluctant to attach a pickup to the viola permanently because the majority of what I use it for is classical jobs, in which some people can be a little snobbish about non-classical work (or condescendingly curious and enthusiastic, which is almost as bad); but, it is good to have the equipment to back up the ‘acoustic or electric’ claim on all my serious instruments, and viola was the last piece of the puzzle. Perhaps having a recurrent gig where I could use it merely constituted a good excuse for getting something I wanted anyway. I’m sure I’ll find other pretexts to use it!

The set above – mike with built-in wire and separate adaptor to ordinary XLR connector; adjustable clip; carrying case – is a Thomann own brand under their T-Bone trademark, and cost me 70-odd quid (Thomann, while very useful, are a German supplier and their de facto prices vary both with the sterling-euro exchange rate and with what your bank charges for foreign currency transactions). They brand it as the ‘Ovid’ system, which given much of the works of that Classical poet are pretty disturbing as far as I recall I’m going to hope refers simply to its ability to ‘metamorphose’ an acoustic instrument into an electroacoustic one. It seems to me do everything it should, though it may be still a work in progress – in the few months between Adam’s research and mind, they expanded the ‘violin’ clip from one that wouldn’t go quite wide enough for the rather deep body of my viola, to a much bigger dimension with about a centimetre to spare. My only personal criticism would be the very thin and flimsy-seeming output lead, which would be long enough to take to a stage box or DI box if I trusted its robustness, ending in a mini-XLR connector I have never seen elsewhere (but which apparently dovetails with T-Bone wireless belt packs. See what you did there. Been studying Apple have we?). The effective result is a need to wear a heavyish metal lump at one’s waist (at least the adaptor has a belt clip!) with a long conventional XLR lead beyond it to whatever you are plugged into, and a bundle of unnecessary fine wire between it and the actual pickup. However, it’s a small price to pay for something that is significantly cheaper, and yet sounds better, than a piezo pickup, at fairly low stage volumes and without effects. I just won’t go jumping off stages with it! Apparently the next serious competitor up is a DPA product that costs a cool £500 for the mike alone, clip extra. I’ll pass, thanks.

Even better defended

Hearing loss, and its prevention, is a hot and still hotting up topic among musicians. Where concern was once limited to rock players and club DJs who were hitting middle age, now even classical musicians are being advised to get used to playing with earplugs in, preferably from the start of their career, and volumes in (for instance) opera house orchestra pits seem to be causing almost as much concern as monumental PA systems.

I found soon after going pro that a real rock band with a full drum kit and a high-energy drummer needs a lot of volume in monitor speakers to hear what they’re doing, especially in small spaces where the rest of the band might be practically sitting on the drums. Kindred Spirit use in-ear monitors when playing as a full band and supplying their own PA, which is really another story, though IEMs do effectively double up as monitors and earplugs. For all other purposes, I acquired a pair of off-the-shelf ‘guitarist’s earplugs’ – supposed to bring the volume down without cutting you off entirely or distorting what you hear too much. They have served me well for rock gigs, but I found that if I was being blasted by (say) an over-zealous trumpet section right behind my seat in the violas, I could only really play with one of them in – otherwise in really quiet passages I couldn’t hear myself at all, which is definitely a bad idea.

Since moving to London, I’ve also acquired some cheap block-everything-possible earplugs, intended for flights. I wouldn’t try and play with these in, but they are useful for making the intermittent screech of wheel and rail in the deep Tube bearable rather than torturing, and for slightly improving chances of, say, zoning out particularly annoying conversations on the train, or getting some sleep at a festival.

The gold standard, however, has always been something made for the purpose – earplugs not just designed to filter sound in the way a musician needs while playing, but specifically to the individual’s ear canal and current hearing response. They have been around for a while, but it’s not at all long ago that they only could be got by personally stumping up a couple of hundred pounds. This would have been another thing that just wouldn’t have happened till the mythical point my musical income rose, the proportion of it spent on music expenses fell, and I felt I could invest in music more freely.

Enter the Musicians’ Hearing Health Scheme. In partnership with a private hearing clinic and the Musicians’ Union, they provide very heavily discounted assessment appointments and custom-made musicians’ earplugs. It’s particularly cheap for MU members, but for anyone else who meets the criteria the total still only comes to £44 (including a £4 postage charge which remains hidden until relatively late in the process).

The criteria are important, and slightly opaque, though it boils down to having to be a professional musician (at a guess, MHHS is registered as a charity and its goals are limited to pros). In my case, I filled in a form with MU number, website, recordings / videos / social media and a referee contact. I got an email somewhat later announcing they had ‘been unable to assess your eligibility, based on the information you supplied in your application’. It therefore went down to my referee making a persuasive enough case for my professional status, which she evidently did (thanks Elaine!). Maybe they should have asked for my tax return instead (which, for some reason, they didn’t).

In any case, I progressed to the appointment in Camden (with a very private medicine non-urgent lead time of under a week from when booking to first appointments available). This had essentially three phases:

  1. A form-filling and check of general health exercise. Fortunately one of the few things neither type 1 diabetes, nor depression, nor antidepressants seem to impact is hearing.
  2. Capturing the shape of my ear canals to mould the earplugs to them. This involved big lumps of green waxy stuff (it looked just like plasticine) being pushed into my ears while I held my jaw wide open, and then pulled out, preserving two casts attached to remaining lumps of wax which hadn’t gone in. These sat carefully untouched on the audiologist’s desk, looking vaguely like implausible dog turds or half-melted erections, for the rest of the appointment.
  3. A detail hearing test. This was even more surreal than the ear fitting. I was closed into a sort of glass vocal booth, my ears encased in a pair of very expensive-looking closed-backed Shure over-ear headphones, and holding a trigger button. A succession of very quiet beeps at all sorts of pitches were played into first my right ear, and then my left; I had to press the button whenever I heard one. To start off with, I didn’t know the two ears would be done separately and had a significant panic that my left ear was seriously damaged as all the noises seemed to be on the right …

It turns out, in fact, that my hearing is pretty good – still within normal range, though that is no reason not to continue to be at least as careful as I have been. After all, I want to hear well enough to play classical music to a marketable standard for something like the next 50 years …

The plugs arrived a couple of weeks later.

The principle is that they fit so snugly they block the ear canal entirely, the only sound reaching the middle ear coming through the filtered sound canal down the middle. I had opted to get mine on a piece of string (which itself comes with a crocodile clip) to hang round my neck if I need to take one or both out; anything that makes me less likely to lose the things is worth having! The carry case, ear lube (yes really, though it isn’t called that) and sound canal dewaxer (which sounds like a mythical Swiss Army knife blade if ever I heard one) are standard.

I’ve so far trialled them doing a bit of practice; busking for a couple of hours; and doing a gig with Caravan Circus last night. Not even the last of those was loud enough to really need them, but it’s generally recommended to get used to playing with them in, and the more likely problem is struggling to hear quiet sounds rather than loud ones still being dangerously so. In that sense it was a good trial.

The trickiest thing is probably actually getting the plugs in my ears properly! I’m getting there, but of course there’s only way round they will go in properly, and I think there are still two ways round the outermost portion might fit with my external ear cartilage. A certain amount of pushing, twisting, screwing and being willing to pull it out and start again is currently necessary, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon.

Once on, I certainly didn’t do any cringing from a relatively quiet gig (no drums, and a decibel meter set with a 100dB trigger, which is pretty quiet for an amplified gig). On the other hand, I could have a perfectly normal conversation, and hear what I was doing quite adequately. I did realise that when wearing the plugs, a particularly large proportion of what I hear of my own playing has in fact been transmitted through the chinrest and, beard cushioning notwithstanding, through my jawbone. The drop in apparent volume if I lift my head away from the instrument is perceptible! It also seems to me that they do stifle certain frequencies of the very complex bowed-string sound waves, giving the impression of a duller and flabbier tone quality than I usually create for an unfiltered listener. Unless I was having a particularly bad busking session, which given how much I earned seems unlikely.

In any case, a little more getting used to should see these become a valuable and fairly trouble-free part of my musical kit bag – and with a lifespan of 4 years before I’m expected to need to get another round of tests and see about a new pair, I can hardly complain of the value. I recommend having a try yourself!

Less Spectacula but less Filthy

The observant among you may have realised the gig list on my homepage has run out of gigs with the Filthy Spectacula. The super-observant might have realised I haven’t written about the several performances I’ve done with them this summer. There is a connection between these two things, and it isn’t by any means that the band is ceasing to exist.

However, the real news will, I appreciate, probably come as a disappointment to several highly enthusiastic fans, as it did to the rest of the band. I think I owe it to those people to offer some kind of public explanation (if only to save me explaining the same things repeatedly to different ones). It is simply that Saturday’s gig was my last with the Filthy Spectacula; I have now, bar a couple of bits of admin, left the band.

This is not the result of some epic rock-n-roll feud, involving torrid sexual liaisons with band members’ wives and communicating only through lawyers; nor of irreconcilable artistic differences that will see me release a solo album carefully opposed to the band’s idiom as soon as possible; nor of being in such a state of drug-addled collapse that I’ve been booted out in favour of someone who can actually turn up able to play. Rather more prosaically, I realised the band had been ending up further and further away from my musical needs and I probably should have got out earlier for my sake, even if it might not have benefitted anyone else.

Firstly, in case anyone needed reminding, I am trying to music my career or more importantly my job, and work towards (though I may well never manage this) making my income entirely from it. Certainly I want to drive the money I make from music up, even if it means being slightly less of an artist. The reasons for this are too lengthy to delve into here, but are largely tied up with observation of my mental health. Conversely, the Filth have always been a hobby for everyone else in the band. This makes a difference to how they go about business, and also the finances of the band. They aren’t always paid peanuts and don’t play for free or in general for door share, but the overheads are huge compared to the gig fees, and on thinking seriously about it I realised I was making a massive loss on the band. Hiring rehearsal rooms for frequent practices makes up one proportion (ten quid a time EACH), as does travelling to rehearsals and more importantly gigs – and this summer we have done a lot of far-flung gigs from my starting-point, including in Powys, Derby, Matlock, Hartlepool and Durham. Sometimes I have had to book accommodation overnight to be able to do the show, and there is always a bundle of takeaway or restaurant meals whose cost I don’t keep track of when I could be eating cheaply at home otherwise for 24 hours or so.

So if the band wasn’t going to help pay my rent, could I see it as a hobby like my bandmates? Plenty of pro musicians do some other music – often something they don’t get to do in their regular gig – on the side, because most of us are kind of music addicts. Well, besides my restricted finances to pay for an expensive hobby, this too has ended up being out of kilter with my needs – emotional rather than monetary this time. This next explanation may make for surprising, even disillusioning reading for people who only really know what I do on stage. When the Filthy Spectacula formed in late 2014, a point when I was desperate to be playing paying gigs and establishing myself as a musician and also was on a fairly high point of mental health in the range of the last 6 years, I developed a massively extroverted, hyperactive, irreverent stage manner. Partly because it suited the music; partly to act as a kind of banter sparring partner to Gary; partly in order to get a response out of crowds (and we started off, of course, playing generic original music unsigned band nights where it was pretty difficult to achieve that); partly because I do believe that if you’re going to play rock-n-roll you have to put on a show. It’s simply inappropriate (and perhaps pretentious, or perhaps just lazy) to play this sort of stuff standing rooted to the spot looking carefully at what you’re doing, as if either the playing took all your concentration or the music would, and ought to be allowed to, ‘speak for itself’. Hence why a fair bit of this schtick was transplanted to Kindred Spirit when I joined them 18 months later.

However, I also try really hard to be professional about music-making, whether or not I’m really doing it professionally in any real sense. So as my depression has deepened again, particularly over this spring and summer, I have maintained the act. It’s a significant part of what people, including the band, expect to see and hear from a Filthy Spectacula gig. But it has been done out of commitment and as hard work rather than from spontaneous joy in bouncing up and down, cutting little jigs and jumping off stages while playing. I have found that even with earplugs the gigs are very loud (I swear the worse I feel, the more hypersensitive my hearing becomes), and with earplugs and hastily-mixed wedge monitors I can only hear a very imperfect version of what I’m doing. Antidepressants mean I should (would that it were so easy!) avoid alcohol altogether, and Filthy gigs have always cultivated an atmosphere of inebriation even if it was always partly a pretence onstage (usually not at all from the audience). And the high-energy, slightly aggressive extroversion of those performances has gone from being partly the right-seeming way to behave in that context to a painful effort to do what I’m not feeling, leaving me drained, miserable and sociophobic by the end of most sets. At which point if the audience have ‘got’ us I usually have to try and deal with enthusiastic congratulations, when what I really want to do is pack up as quickly as possible, not deal with any people especially strangers, and run away to bed. Bed usually being a long way away by night-time public transport.

So Filthy Spectacula as hobby hasn’t been working either. And so it definitely seemed to be time I got out; and pursued things more appropriate to where my career and life has now led, 4 years after this story started. Do I regret having been in the band? No – I have had great fun at some points, have learned a lot about rock and stagecraft and many other things, have done a lot of playing and of effectively collaborating on arrangements, solos etc. (and even written a couple of songs that have entered the setlist permanently), and have acquired an assortment of startling onstage photos and videos which do seem to have pushed my career forward (especially in increasing the likelihood of Elaine taking me on for Kindred Spirit). But do I regret leaving? Just as emphatically, no.

Some people have asked me what I’m going to do now (as if I had just abandoned music altogether!). Of course, a large part of the answer is that my time and effort can go into projects I find less destructive and more profitable. For starters, I will have an extra dozen or more Saturday nights a year to try and fill with performances I will make significant profit on instead of loss. And even not having to pay for rehearsal rooms and Tube fares to rehearse on the other side of London will reduce the amount I have to do of the publishing work I really dislike (anyone in touch with OUP or Richmond, I didn’t say that). And extra time to practise my classical viola technique and try to push that angle, which I still see as perhaps the best hope for my career, further forward.

As if to illustrate the point, this weekend sees me gigging twice with very different groups. I may not be getting suddenly rich or famous, but I’m certainly still performing busily.
Friday 14th: Dream Logic at The Underdog Gallery, opening act of a bill of three
Saturday 15th: Caravan Circus at Luna, starting at the peculiar hour of 6pm
See you out and about!

Most of you will probably have read enough. If you really want to dig into the experience of the original rock music circuit, what follows is a sort of summary diary of the last few Filthy Spectacula gigs, so as not to waste the wonderful potential of tour disaster stories, an Eeyorish perspective and my raconteur inclinations. Times tend to be approximate recollections and a lot of names are omitted to avoid accusations of reputational damage.

19 May, Coventry

After a lift from west London, went first to the hotel, prebooked by the promoter. Rooms have been reserved but not paid for; collecting keys involves pre-approving my credit card, on the assumption I can invoice the promoter later.
Get-in and soundcheck scheduled for 5pm. We arrive and find the performance space is not a grand high-ceiling part of the art gallery cum museum where we are playing, but a small and rather featureless ‘studio’ room within the same building. Start setting up, but there is no sound tech and only half the PA until he arrives. A frazzled-looking member of gallery staff tells us yesterday’s event was too loud and they had to ask them to turn down because the vibration was starting to pose a hazard to centuries-old paintings and artefacts. Last night’s gig did not involve an acoustic drumkit, which usually forms the ‘floor’ for rock band volume.
One band member is lost and rings to get directions. Doesn’t know exactly where he is either, and keeps citing landmarks (eg pubs) we can’t see. Phone gets passed round the other three of us; lost bandmate gets frustrated and aggressive, particularly when I tell him the postcode is in the email (assuming he can locate the email and feed the postcode into a map app, all on his phone). By this point the support acts (we are headlining and so soundchecking first; everyone else will soundcheck in reverse order afterwards), who can’t do anything till we are set, have got bored and started bringing beer in from the off licence over the road.
Band eventually complete about an hour late, which is still rather earlier than the arrival of the sound guy (actually one of the performers from the daytime events) and his remaining gear. Soundcheck hasty (though he displays little sign of hurry), support acts effectively do not get one, job is finished as punters are starting to drift in.
We perform late, after a long cabaret-style sequence of acts including other music, circus skills and burlesque. Many audience have sloped off home by our set, and of the remainder only about half a dozen dance. However the room is small enough that that does not feel stupid!

26 May, Peterborough

We are playing 4 half-hour sets (to be timed pretty much when we choose) in a bar space at a hot-rod / custom car show and tattoo convention in the vast Peterborough showground. We are told start playing at 11. The bar doesn’t open till 12. At no point are we much more than background music to a bar queue or entertainment for other halves and children dragged along by car-mad attendees but who are bored or tired of walking around looking at motor vehicles.
Stay overnight in the least welcoming AirBnB – clearly effectively a guesthouse – I have ever stayed in, though it still has a comfortable bed, a shower, electricity and WiFi, so at the price I shouldn’t be complaining. Dinner and breakfast at Wetherspoon’s because coffee shops do not seem to exist in Peterborough (and, again, WiFi and electricity).

27 May, Crewe

Same organiser and sound man as Coventry. Once again sound tech arrives hours after the arrival time we were given, almost at doors time; on this occasion about two hours after we were told he had ‘just gone for something to eat’. One bandmate wanders off, we think just for a cigarette, and comes back having scored drugs. After we have line checked, I am mindful of blood sugar and diabetes and set off to find some dinner. Coming out of the door and not knowing the town, I can turn left or right. Left it is; I find no cafés or takeaways open, not even the Starbucks where I had lunch. Pub kitchens have closed for the evening (apparently no one here makes getting drunk more expensive by eating on weekend nights). Eventually I despair and my tea consists of a pork pie, a bag of crisps and a pint of porter (the latter probably having about one-third of the nutritional value). Fairly good set however, and a decent fee plus accommodation organised (and paid for in advance this time!). Vegetarianism unheard of at breakfast (included with room), but they are happy to simply remove the meat items from the full English and there is plenty of stuff left.

28 May, Hay-on-Wye

Long car journey to a festival gig. We are playing early evening at a philosophy and music festival. Exhausted so not doing much looking around at other acts and speakers, but this is the best treatment I’ve ever had as a performer – backstage area with deckchairs, haybales and a gazebo in case it rains, a container to lock up possessions while we are hanging around and then playing, and stewards, seemingly all walkie-talkie equipped young women, getting free entry by basically waiting on us hand and foot, including free drinks. In this area, I encounter a former Oxfam colleague in whose kitchen I once attended a jam session. I still have a book by her husband.
We are the first act in our particular outsize tepee construction, followed by Badly Drawn Boy and then some others. David Miliband, a late addition to the line-up, is doing a talk and Q&A at a marquee a hundred yards along that will overlap. He hears our soundcheck (once again set to the volume that will balance the unamplified drums) and protests to the stage managers we will drown out any discussion. After protracted negotiation, the entire schedule in our tent is pushed back by about an hour. However I think those who turn up to our set were ready for something less demanding than philosophy panels!
We had to wait about 6 weeks to get paid a couple of hundred quid for this performance.

5 July, Hemel Hempstead

This is effectively a homecoming gig for our frontman, who had his first band and played some of his first gigs living round here. We are even doing that band’s encore number (itself already a cover) with another of their old members as a bonus – the only cover the Filthy Spectacula will ever perform in my time with them. I’m rather proud of my violin part to a 60s surf song. I am massively delayed arriving due to chaos on the rather short train line from Euston – by the time I arrive I have spent considerably longer hanging round that station than actually on a train. One of the band is hanging around edgily and has already set up, another has left stuff and gone to a hotel room (I later discover he hates driving in the dark) to change, the drummer is nowhere to be seen. I haven’t really missed anything.

It eventually turns out the drummer had gone to the Oddfellows Arms in Watford (which also does live music), not the one in Hemel.

That sorted out and soundcheck completed, I remember this going rather well from an audience point of view but me feeling like death by the end. I leave as quickly as possible (would rather be on an empty platform than in a crowded pub), but have a long wait on a station platform followed by an unannounced platform alteration leading to a desperate sprint along, up and down a footbridge and a yell to the guard, fortunately heeded. When I get to London I’ve forgotten it’s a weeknight and so there is no night Tube. My phone is also dead so I have little chance of identifying a route home by night bus. I despair and shell out for a taxi from Euston to Lee. The first taxi driver takes a while to realise where I’m talking about and, when he does, changes his mind about taking me because it’s so far away, though he drops me by a taxi rank and doesn’t charge me.

14 July, Durham

Strictly speaking, not Durham but an outdoor adventure centre nearby where a small steampunk festival is being held (its first year). At least we get accommodation in bunk dorms and there is good value cooked food from the kitchen, so less fend-for-yourself than a traditional canvas festival. For reasons I forget, I arrive quite early in the afternoon and have effectively nothing to do for hours. I don’t want to spend money on steampunk-aligned clothes, home décor, accessories and craft stalls, let alone old-fashioned sweets, and should have brought a book.

We play after a rather interesting but totally not steampunk local band who have the elaborate arrangements, feature guitar solos and tight drilling of heavy metal, a lot of folk-derived rhythms (and their only non-original songs are traditional) and a social/eco sensibility, dress sense and occasional drops into rhythm from hippy reggae. Also an incredibly virtuosic bassist. Two people dance during their set closer of What shall we Do with a Drunken Sailor; one of them is me. Then an eccentric, middle-aged, gaunt American who invents his own instruments in decidedly Heath Robinson vein. Some things are highly effective, notably his use of a pocket electric fan to play tremolos (and tremolo chords, by moving it around all six strings) on guitar, which is atmospheric and ethereal and I actually want to try for myself; some are definitely comic gimmicks. We are politely received but the two people most consistently visibly enjoying the set are only prepared to do so from the back of the tent until our last number. I conclude most people are there for subculture superstar Mr B, who raps in a very posh English voice and plays banjolele, using backing tracks, loops and one startling solo on a purple plastic trombone. Steampunks would probably pay and show up just to see his striped blazer, horn-rimmed glasses and immaculately waxed moustache.

The following day, I take a bus into Durham and the train all the way down to London.

4 August, Matlock Bath

I have combined this gig with an early afternoon set with Kindred Spirit, at a beer festival in Fleet, Hampshire. Not the best idea for my energy levels and mood, but less of a whacking loss than turning down the relatively nearby gig. Trains towards Hampshire are disrupted by strike action, with last-minute cancellations, so I end up getting a train to Basingstoke (further away) which should enable me to get a slow train back to Fleet and arrive at a not disastrous hour. The Basingstoke train is delayed and I sprint through the station with instrument, assorted audio-electrical gubbins and an overnight bag to emerge onto the platform as the Fleet train is accelerating away. I talk my way out of the barriers (my ticket isn’t valid to go to Basingstoke of course), grit my teeth and jump in a black cab, watching all profit for the weekend evaporate. I text a comprehensive tech spec ahead and we are set up with enough time to spare before starting for me to tune, go to the loo and drink water (it’s a swelteringly hot day).

The beer connoisseurs really get into our set in the last couple of numbers and will not be denied an encore. Once I have done a speedy pack up, a moderate jog of the mile to the station enables me to catch the necessary train to London – just about. (I was going to get a later one, but it was cancelled due to strikes.) The Thameslink to St Pancras is also cancelled, but it’s quicker by Tube and I have a lot of time to kill there in the end anyway.

St Pancras has at least two public pianos – these in train stations have become a thorough fad, though I wish someone would donate money to tune them periodically. While I’m eating lunch, I have difficult in working out if someone nearby is operating a pianola or playing live. On walking past in search of the loos, I find that an elderly gentleman is indeed playing the same ragtime/early jazz-like number over and over again, in barely-varying arrangements involving the same set of variations; while his mate is playing a tambourine but without the combination of desire and ability requisite to actually stick to a beat for more than about 16 bars straight. They seem to be having so much fun that I force myself not to say something sarcastic. As soon as they are more or less out of earshot, I encounter another piano, this time with a toddler bashing it at random. Children’s sense of discord develops so late, and they have such delight in appalling noise at younger ages, that I am forced to conclude any notion of harmonious or unharmonious sound (as opposed to of rhythm) is purely culturally conditioned.

The train journey to Derby is actually rather pleasant – quiet, air-conditioned, comfortable and with phone charging, though WiFi is charged for. And I have a book this time. If I waited for a train to Matlock Bath I wouldn’t arrive until partway through our set (largely due to waiting time at Derby), but thankfully the drummer’s wife is giving me a lift.

The Grand Pavilion is a vast old space dating from when this was a spa resort. The stage is impressively large and very high; the body of the room appears on arrival dark, shadowy and containing very few people, which remains my impression. We are playing middle of three acts as part of the Matlock Bath Pirate Mutiny. When I arrive what seems to be the most numerous covers band ever are mid-set. Several women of varying ages are doing backing vocals and tambourine, but I think I can only hear one of them and suspect the youngest (slim, blonde and definitely inaudible) is there either because her parents are in the band or to up the sex appeal. Besides two guitars, bass, drums, keys and male lead vox, there is a three-piece horn section. When I start listening, only the baritone sax player seems to be playing and he can barely be heard, which given my love of the instrument I am inclined to resent. Later, I hear him and the trumpet and trombone clearly and wish I hadn’t – out of tune, ragged and with no blend of sound whatsoever.

No accommodation with this gig and no joy whatsoever with local B&Bs and pubs (those that weren’t fully booked when I tried only take bookings for the whole weekend, not Saturday night alone). So I have booked a room in Matlock proper through AirBnB and warned them I may be somewhat uncivilisedly late arriving. When I come off stage and have packed up (about 10pm on a Saturday), I google ‘Matlock taxis’ and try the numbers that come up. Most do not pick up the phone and those that do say they are already busy for the night. Eventually I walk, with luggage, already exhausted and drenched in sweat, two and a half miles, the last half steeply uphill, to my room.

My hosts, on the other hand, are lovely, their house immaculate, possessed of stunning edge-of-Peak District views and over-equipped for my needs. And for less than every B&B going I get a fridge full of water, tea and coffee equipment, WiFi, an Alexa had I wished to use it, and a good-natured telling-off for not ringing to ask to be picked up. In the morning, breakfast to die for (fruit salad, cereal, toast, orange juice, a home-grown egg) and a lift into town to get the train. I feel myself relaxing after the previous 24 hours and wish I had stayed an extra night to get a mini-break out of it.

11 August, Abingdon

The night before, Elaine and I had played a Kindred Spirit Duo gig on the Isle of Wight and been put up overnight. However, Elaine wanted to catch some of Cropredy (north Oxfordshire), and so barely had to go out of her way to drop me in Abingdon with plenty of time to spare before our afternoon set at a scooter rally. I have time for a coffee and phone charging / internet using burst and a leisurely though pricey pub lunch before wandering along the river to the rugby club.

Timings seem to be extremely approximate here and I think we eventually play about 90 minutes late. Most (NOT all) of the crowd are a little too sober, dozy and probably hungover at 4 in the afternoon to enter fully into the spirit of things, but we / I individually make some enthusiastic new fans anyway.

18 August, Rhayader

Earlier this day, I played a late-afternoon set with the Mechanics at a wedding near Henley. We aren’t starting our festival set until midnight, so I reckon this ought to be doable. I should have looked at a journey planner before making that assumption.

Taxis have to be taken from Henley station to the wedding, and then on from there to Reading station in order to make a reasonably timed train further west. I meet a bandmate at Bristol Parkway about 8. He has been having car trouble, and has eventually had to resort to borrowing a car from one of his dog-walking clients. He only picked it up that morning and it’s a left-hand drive Audi TT, a little dome-shaped sports car designed for two people, two small children in the rear seats and minimal luggage, with the speedometer only marked in km/h. It already contains himself, bass guitar, a tent, overnight luggage for two and his girlfriend (who comes to all our gigs though he lives with his wife), before we add my violin, mandolin, tent and rucksack (I had asked about accommodation and been told ‘you’re welcome to camp’; I had to buy a tent specifically as my old one seems to have moved to the permanent possession of my ex-girlfriend). After a very stressful night drive through Welsh country roads the driver has never seen before, plagued by his glasses not allowing him to focus on night roads and a satnav without moving them (I navigate after a while), undipped headlights coming the other way and a Range Rover parked on the wrong side of the road with full beams on that nearly kills both of us with belief we’re about to smash head-on, we eventually reach the festival site about 10:30pm. We pitch tents (pop-up thankfully) by the car headlights and find our way to the stage. Our set is enthusiastically received by a willingly engaged audience who are smoking so much weed I smell it on the same jacket wearing it weeks later. Sleep is deferred by being able to hear the last main stage set perfectly clearly through my earplugs from my tent, and considerable bickering and canoodling from the other two in their tent about five feet away.

In the morning, we are clearly not going to get breakfast on site until much later, so we wrestle the pop-up tents back into their bags (an exercise for which they were clearly never designed) and agree to eat on the road. Not long after breakfast, we encounter a road closure and diversion the satnav refuses to comprehend or adapt to. By the time we’ve gone round the diversion the wrong way and then I’ve found a way out by looking at Google Maps without any computer navigation, we are so fed up of the car that a stop to stretch our legs (literally in the case of the poor lass stuck behind me in the just-for-show seats) becomes a stop for lunch. When we set off again at about 2pm, we haven’t even got as far as the south Wales motorway to the Severn Crossing!

31 August, Isley Walton

Another genuine green field festival. Therefore, of course, in the middle of nowhere. Driving looks increasingly like it will be coming from the wrong direction or some such, and so I work out I can get to a couple of miles away by dint of a train to East Midlands Parkway and an advertised shuttle bus to the same-named airport (I only know about this because it was announced on the train to Derby for the Matlock gig). I arrange to be there well within daylight hours to avoid subjecting last time’s lift-giver to night driving, and to minimise the distance with me in case he is driving the TT again! In the end he doesn’t pick me up because he can’t leave London till after work on Friday and so will be travelling much later, but I reason that getting a taxi for 2 miles from an airport can hardly be difficult.

Shuttle between station and airport is not free (must be wishful misremembering of the announcement!), it is £6. Notionally a bus, usually operated by a Transit van turned into a minibus, I am the only passenger for this trip and it is taken in one of the same company’s ordinary taxis. The driver drops me off at the taxi offices in the airport penumbra and points me towards the main complex.

East Midlands airport rivals, for smallness and depressingly faded air, many of the places I flew in and out of on my backpacking gap year. I have lunch from Greggs. Wandering round the buildings, attempting to follow one sign and eventually asking an employee establishes that there are no black cabs here and one taxi firm has a de facto monopoly on the place. I grit my teeth and book at the desk inside Departures; the fee is a predictable leveraging of absence of competition, £15 for just over 2 miles.

At the festival, I have arrived with hours to spare before there is any music, let alone our set. I pitch a much better tent borrowed from my housemate, unroll a sleeping mat, blow up a neck pillow I reckon I can use as an ordinary pillow, and generally set myself up – no artist camping even here, just a free-for-all in a field. I wander around, decide not to buy somewhat expensive clothing or hats in a style that wouldn’t really suit any of my performance environments, get some food and have a reasonable amount of fun watching some of the earlier acts. I make a point of seeing almost as much as possible of the two acts on before us in the same barn. Both get crowded audiences and play originals-heavy music on the Americana side of ‘folk’ (whatever that means in a context of writing your own music). I reason we have been put here because of my violin in the line-up.

For some reason there is no house drum kit or backline (and the previous band were using cajon not kit), so we have to set up our drums from scratch, with (unnecessary) miking and together with miking up guitar and bass amps. The sound engineer spends 10 minutes working on the bass drum sound, leaving him with about 5 for the rest of the band.

A better night’s sleep this time, though the large group across a walkway from me seem to spend half the night arguing about the little bonfire they have built. It sounds as if they would have been happier without it. In the morning, wanting to get home, I pack everything up, consider getting a taxi to the airport and shuttle, and instead ring a taxi direct to the train station. It comes out cheaper than shuttle and taxi outbound did.

8 September, Hartlepool

Travel looked increasingly complicated for this, so as it’s urban and there should always be means of getting around I decide to take the train (and break journey to visit friends in York). The return ticket costs £40 more than the fee for the gig, although we do get accommodation as well.

On arrival in Hartlepool (it’s further north than you think – check a map), it turns out I’ve been on the same train as one bandmate. He prefers paying for a taxi to the booked accommodation (one mile south of the station, whereas the venue is over two miles north) to getting the bus, and for a free ride I’m not complaining. On arrival at something that looks like the set of a B&B rival to Fawlty Towers and smells of gas, the sour woman at reception checks with her husband before telling us the bookings were cancelled because the promoter’s card was declined, and by the time he showed up in person to pay the previous day they had let all their rooms to other people.

The two of us retire out of the County Durham drizzle to the nearest bar to regroup and replan. We do not have a phone number for the promoter and I know he doesn’t check emails while he is away for events, so I decide to book accommodation on my credit card for as many as need it (one bandmate and wife booked their own accommodation anyway) and invoice the promoter, hoping this will work as smoothly as in Coventry. Some googling and a text conversation with the fourth bandmate and his partner later, I have booked online two twin rooms near to the station. Another taxi back to where we started ensues, followed by collecting keys and a third taxi to the venue.

Of course, when I arrive the first thing I encounter is the promoter telling me the hotel has changed and trying to give me a card for where we are now booked in. I have to sheepishly explain I’ve gone over his head for the whole band.

The town of Hartlepool rivals even Crewe for rundown post-industrial shabbiness. Half the businesses of any sort appear to have closed. Almost all the shops are shut on a Saturday afternoon, and options for eating between soundcheck and set are a couple of low-end takeaways and a pub-hotel (which I opt for). Pubs seem to be mostly thriving, though some of those have shut too, but they only provide alcohol, no coffee or meals, as far as I can tell. The hotel place has an extensive menu, of which the only vegetarian main is lasagne. Our teenage waitress comes back after taking our order to inform us the lasagne is all gone but there is vegetable curry. It was probably better than the lasagne would have been.

Hartlepool Borough Hall is a grand place, set up with a theatre stage and a vast sprung dancefloor, clearly dating from a point when industry and trade up here were making lots of money and establishing a public-minded urban middle class. It is set out tonight with round tables and chairs ‘cabaret style’, and we have been told it seats 420 in that format. I would be very surprised if more than a tenth that number of tickets were sold. By the time we took the stage past 10pm, a few of the mostly elderly audience had already melted away. I watched in the first couple of numbers as about half the rest seemed to decide we weren’t for them and followed suit; only one table group turned out to have gone to the bar. I don’t think more than two audience members danced: the drummer’s wife and the burlesque artist who had been on earlier.

In the morning, I headed out fairly early. It was abundantly clear that I wasn’t going to get breakfast on a Sunday by wandering around looking for somewhere, and the station café turned out not to open Sundays either. I resigned myself to overpriced train food. Actually, the prices were fairly reasonable, but the hot water had broken, denying me coffee, tea or porridge, and they had run out of orange juice. I had apple juice and a croissant. Matters improved significantly when I got off at York and moved from gig trip mode to visiting friend mode – which is perhaps a remarkable statement considering Kim has an 11-month-old baby.


I can just about remember the frisson of excitement the first time someone dropped a note (a lowly fiver of course) into my case while I was busking. It felt like I had graduated from being unsure if I was largely a pity case, to definitely providing a performance that was worth something.

That was probably an illusion. While there has largely been a gradual rise in my busking take, and getting the odd £5 or £10 note has become a gratifying extra bit of income rather than a memorable event, the vast majority of what I make from busking still comes in the form of pound coins, followed by £2, 50p and 20p; there has never become a steady flow of banknotes (as my back often reminds me when I pick up my violin case, with the session’s take bagged up for counting inside it, after two hours’ solid playing!).

I do have one vivid memory concerning a £10 note, though I very much doubt it was the first. I was playing in Victoria station, and halfway through the ‘Meditation’ from Thaïs that seems to be Massenet’s only living compositional legacy. An elderly gentleman came up to me brandishing a £10 note. He was clearly concerned that it would blow away, or be lifted by some opportunist, left in the open case. (This is a common concern, and one I share as well as concerned punters and donors; I resolve it by keeping a very sharp eye on donated notes to the end of the number (because in general some inflated sense of musical integrity prevents me interrupting one to deal with money) and then tucking them away in a pocket out of sight, wind and harm’s way.) However, I was unwilling to interrupt the continuous flow of the classical (or rather, Romantic) piece’s emotional melody. The donor resolved this dilemma by carefully tucking the note into my left (fingering hand) jacket sleeve while I continued playing …

The above increasingly blasé attitude to specific donations did not prevent me being pleased and surprised, even shocked, during yesterday’s busking session outside Clapham Junction (with National Rail’s blessing). It was warm and dry and I was essentially serenading the de facto smoking area, besides people arriving and leaving, over Monday rush hour. Several people had time to kill (and perhaps cans of lager to finish, as well as cigarettes, before getting on trains where they could consume neither) and were hanging round and actually paying some attention to the music, which makes a nice change. I was vaguely aware of a bloke wheeling a bike more or less behind me – I had the impression he was on the phone or checking messages or something. Anyway he can’t have been there more than 10 minutes when he completely blindsided me by dropping a £20 note into my case and hurrying off to catch his train. I make a point of thanking everyone who pays me when busking, along with the ‘customer service smile’ approach and catching the eye of as many of the people evidently watching me or enjoying the music as possible (yes, you attempting a couple of jig steps to make your mate laugh, I can see you!), despite the mental gymnastics sometimes involved in doing so without breaking step on playing; on this occasion I am very sure the ‘Thank you!’ came with rather more of a gasp and genuine emphasis than usual, but he responded with no more than the classic English ‘don’t mention it’ wrist wave.

Of course, it’s still an outlier and doesn’t indicate my busking income is about to reliably move up a gear and allow me to drop another way of keeping the rent paid. If I have a point (besides finding something to hang another blog post on and therefore drive my website a little further up the search rankings), it is simply that in busking, or perhaps in music work in general, you never know what will happen next.

To be continued …