London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

Winter has arrived

No, this isn’t a post about Game of Thrones (of which I have not seen a single episode, despite having played two different string quartet arrangements of the theme, using it regularly in busking sets and quoting it in my improvisations on Kindred Spirit‘s song about a dragon … ). No, the winter in question is the voice and face of my new job, Winter sings Streisand.

Winter and her MD / pianist Simon have been doing duo shows of the music of Barbra Streisand for a few years, and they did one previous outing of the combo, theatre setting version last summer. However, Saturday 26 January was my first show with the project.

While the musical atmosphere and the shape of the arrangements are very faithful to Streisand live, film or album versions, this is not an ‘acting’ show – Winter is full of personality as a fan and the show flows through informed (sometimes récherché!) anecdotes and biography, but there is no attempt to adopt the elder singer’s persona. Given how much Streisand acted (acts, rather – she is still an active performing presence) her songs it would be rather pointless anyway, and certainly a step backwards in terms of taste.

It makes absolute sense in those terms to have a live band, allowing the stretching and squeezing of time so characteristic of the style to be done in reality rather than following one set of nuances with a backing track. And this Winter certainly does, keeping me on my toes with timings and rubato that are confident and well-judged but also daring! Streisand’s accompaniments have varied from a jazz combo up to a symphonic Broadway orchestra, so there is inevitably some creativity involved in arranging the show for a viable touring band of violin, piano, bass and drums (I particularly enjoy the number where I get to step into the shoes of a big-band lead trumpet!). But is it bad of me to say I think some of the 1980s repertoire gains from replacing the masses of spacey synths with slightly more acoustic, or less era-specific, timbres?

In theory, this is the ‘same show’ each time – same set list, same personnel. But, on the other hand, the freedom of many of those performances and the fact that the linking narration is prepared but entirely unscripted means each performance is unique and genuinely responsive to that night’s audience. (Plus, Simon, Winter and I had a very productive session honing the violin arrangements yet further this week, so the next audience gets another ‘premiere’ version!)

A very nearly sold-out and highly enthusiastic audience at Basildon’s Towngate Theatre clearly had a great time (and had to be denied a second encore) on the 26th. The next show date is 6 March in Bury St Edmunds, but we have bookings almost all across the country up to the end of the year and new dates being added all the time, so check my gig list for one near you. And don’t miss it!

Hatches, witches and dispatches

January, or rather a ‘short January’ lasting from New Year’s Day to the Thursday before the last weekend of the month, is traditionally blocked out in working musicians’ diaries as ‘No gigs – catch up with everything else’. I got my tax return done rather earlier, but did fit in restringing two of my instruments (the acoustic violin seems to have been last done in August so can wait for some months for a new set) and getting my good violin and viola bows rehaired. However, exceptionally, I also had three paying gigs during ‘short January’ (besides a gig last Saturday and some career development activity, which can have separate posts).

First up was a winter wedding, on the 5th. This was my first quartet job with Giardino Strings but without maestro David Giardino leading or indeed present – though with such a busy organisation such performances are not actually unusual, and in high season there are often two or more separate ensembles working under the Giardino brand and oversight. Thankfully there was no outside component to this wedding! It was in a hotel from which I suspect you could have seen the Bank of England by leaning out of a front window. And which was also probably the most imposingly (to my socioeconomic unrootedness, terrifyingly) posh place I have ever been inside. I arrived and was asked by one of the front of house staff ‘Are you with [the gypsy jazz combo playing in the lobby / restaurant] or the wedding?’. Resisting temptation to try and get on the jazz gig, I was directed to the lifts and fifth floor. Where there was another permanently manned reception desk in case anyone had got lost on their way up! And so it continued …

Scheduled for later on the 5th, but eventually put back a fortnight, was my return booking to freestyle electric violin over liquid drum’n’bass at the Sacred Moon Parties run by self-proclaimed witch Sharmayne (Wicca or pagan are probably the terms I’d be more likely to recognise). Next time I am definitely booking myself in for a mini head massage if the therapist is there again!

On Monday 14th, Kindred Spirit Duo had a first for, I think, both of us in terms of actual paying work – a funeral and wake booking! A very elderly Irish Catholic lady who loved music and dancing (and by the sounds of it getting up to mischief … ) had finally shuffled off and her daughter, organising the funeral Mass and wake, had decided – and stuck admirably to her decision – to have a celebration of her life rather than a mourning of her death.

Our requested contribution to the funeral itself was ‘Lord of the Dance’ as the coffin went out. Readers familiar with my church musician family will be amused that when Elaine and I ran a couple of verses beforehand for the sake of security, she thought I was counting in ‘double time’ – though I did actually have to reduce my initial tempo somewhat to avoid the song becoming a tongue-twister! (both of us sang, it being difficult enough to lead a congregation without a vocal mike anyway; though in practice I think a lot of them were somewhat startled by my fiddle sawing and foot-stomping and not very committed to joining in … )

For the wake we were doing fairly standard Irish folk song / fiddle tune / standard cover material. While it was a fairly small gathering rather than the monumental debauches of Irish Catholic wake legend (I was a little disappointed no one danced, though it looked like they might at some points!), we were very well appreciated and gave out countless business cards.

Available for parties, weddings, funerals, bar mitvzahs …

Keep ’em wanting more

Being briefed as background music to a sit-down meal usually means decent money, not much attention, not much pressure; though mind you the last time Elaine and I did one of these as the Kindred Spirit Duo it involved a significant exercise in finding out how low we could turn the volume on the PA!

However, appearances or booking notes can be deceptive, and were for our waving of the calendar over the line into 2019 at the Thames Court in Shepperton. In principle, we were largely there as part of the ‘package’ for those celebrating the turn of the year with a four-course banquet. The money was certainly excellent for pub work, but we were in practice playing at least as much to the pub ‘side’ as the restaurant one – and the latter were eating less, drinking more and listening at least as much and more noisily. By our second set we had clearly got people’s attention enough for them to notice (and applaud!) when we finished a number; by midnight there wasn’t much ‘sit-down’ about anything:

Everybody loves a good conga chain. Especially if they get to watch it instead of be in it.

Requests for ‘one more’ (and then another … and so on … ) are not unusual at full-blown Kindred Spirit band gigs, but inevitably rarer at pub / function background duo performances. Though the organisers of Fleet Beer Festival (the full band are there again this August), where our shows arguably sit somewhere between the two, did recently claim:

The crowd love em. Can’t recommend them highly enough. First band to ever get an encore!

On this occasion, the pleas for more (after countdown, midnight, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and conga-inducing ‘500 Miles’ … ) were sustained and energetic, and even after having resolutely declined (we had played around 3 hours of music already!), we managed to get this impressive plaudit from a customer (of Irish parentage and therefore clearly impeccable taste in music, particularly involving fiddle):

We didn’t know what to expect from the band playing here tonight, but you were 100% better than anything I anticipated. I thoroughly enjoyed everything you played.

Someone had even complimented us on our harmonies earlier, which those who know of my history of struggles as a backing singer will agree really counts for something as musical progress!

So, book us now! Your customers will love us … and so will my finances.

Wrapping up

The last Kindred Spirit gig of the year was a return to our semi-regular haunt the Cross Lances in Hounslow, which has played host to various duo and full band performances over the last couple of years.

Elaine and Cat have attached festive tinsel to their instruments and Mike seems to be wearing a Christmas Rolling Stones T-shirt; I’m using my very Christmassy all-black violin.

While we’re now going to be hitting the rehearsal hours to polish up not-quite-finished songs, and perhaps work on a couple of completely new ones to make up the track list of the forthcoming album, Mike’s comment that ‘It helps having a few gigs close together’ is very true; gigging is always much better rehearsal for a band than actually rehearsing, and we had got not only tighter but more intuitive and more relaxed onstage (both of which are harder achievements for a band with complex structures and quite a lot of improvisation!) over the December run of gigs. Next live date for the full band is currently back at the same venue in June, without me as I’ll be off playing Barbra Streisand material (of which more anon); but I’m sure we’ll improve on that. Elaine and I are next out as a duo tonight! at the Thames Court in Shepperton for New Year’s Eve.

My last gig of the year with Giardino Strings, on 15 December, wasn’t their last 2018 gig (a different lineup is doing a different new year event). However, it did call for a more literal kind of wrapping up! We were playing for the ceremonial wedding of two City analysts, one of Indian heritage, at a country house near Saxmundham – a very glam crowd, though I shall refrain from quoting the aspects of the groom’s father’s speech which suggested he either had a very deadpan sense of humour or was still living in the 1950s. In general this has been a very mild winter so far, but that day in Suffolk at least was bitterly cold and the female half of the quartet could be heard (from my seat in between them, I’m sure the guests didn’t notice!) gasping every time the enormous door opposite us opened to admit some more arrivals. Even official photographs (clearly the most important part of any contemporary wedding) were taken in the hall rather than outside. David and I were doing fine in dinner jackets and bow ties; black dresses were proving less practical, and violinist Sabina (who was at this point between rehearsing and performing the gospel extravaganza described in the previous post with me, and must have been sick of the sight of me at the end of 3 days running playing together) was particularly suffering for her sartorial art.

Very few gigs are at a temperature that suits everyone. I was amused lately by a reliable source narrating that when crossover violinist Vanessa Mae tours, her tour manager has to go round the stage with a digital thermometer checking that it is a specified temperature (I can’t remember the figure), or she will refuse to play. Musicians on my level can’t afford to refuse to play more or less regardless of heat or cold, but would often like to! In general the men, suited up, stifle after a few minutes’ vigorous forte allegro if it’s anything from a normal room temperature upwards; and many women, in more or less formal / glamorous / non-covering outfits, are chilly most of the time but especially in long rests or slow movements. You’d be surprised how much of this remains true when there is a more relaxed, or no, dress code! Gender revenge is often enacted at orchestral jobs with an all-black (rather than black tie) code for men however, as a great many blokes then show up in shirt sleeves; a bad plan if performing in a largeish medieval, or even Victorian Gothic, church. I played one all-black concert in a theatre which came with the warning not to wear a jacket – this turned out to be good advice as the lighting was the old-fashioned incandescent theatre lights that might be better described as ‘stage heating with added dazzle’. I can only remember one job saying ‘all black, jackets encouraged’, and I suspect that was on visual rather than comfort grounds; but perhaps if my fellow male orchestral players continue chronically naive, the hint should more often be given for their own preservation (or at least to restrict their vibrato to the intentional). I also did one choral-orchestral concert in Warminster where I think we were in the minster, and it was not warm at all; the soprano soloist took advantage of a full-skirted floor-length ballgown to keep her jeans on under it, which is certainly easier than trying to wear extra layers under a dinner suit and be able to play.

On that note, my notes on 2018’s music-making are finally up to date. Startlingly, I have three gigs in the next week; after that, predictable January kicks in and I have no scheduled paid performances for three weeks. Time which I intend to spend living off busking and savings, and subjecting my housemates to viola and perhaps mandolin practice. Before you feel too sorry for them, they’re both trumpeters.

See you next year …

Of carols and joining in

I’ve jumbled up the dates in the last two posts of this year (catching the subject-matter up to Christmas while I’m at it) with the specific intention of being able to write one entitled ‘Wrapping up’ tomorrow – and yes, there is an atrocious pun involved. That is how shallow my blog writing is.

Anyway, on with a post largely about Christmas music, before the advent of the new year entirely prevents anyone engaging with the subject.

Through December, I added to my usual busking repertoire a selection of what I thought were well-known carols, some done with mildly folky delivery and some fairly straight up but often with Willcocks (Carols for Choirs / Carols from King’s) descants to give me some variation for stretching them out beyond changing octaves and double-stopping some harmony. Occasionally, more so as the month went on, this got a really good response.

However, I have a terrible truth to reveal to you from experiment: Hardly anyone in this country under 60 actually knows more than one or two carols. The circle of recognition has probably shrunk to pretty much those people who go to church more than once or twice a year, barring ‘Silent Night’ – and probably ‘Away in a Manger’, but I find that such a dull production that I refuse to choose to play it. It was bad enough making myself do ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, where at least I only have significant issues with some of the lyrics, which I wasn’t using. This may be the other point; given how many people are uncertain if I’m playing something they know well which is always instrumental but rearranged (eg the Game of Thrones title music, which really only has one tune and one additional motif), I suspect a great many of those who are mainly casual listeners to music rarely recognise a song without the words. Maybe I should have sung carols regardless of past experience that I get more donations busking without vocals …

On to literally warmer territory. I played for two carol concert-type events, put on by churches, this year. Sunday 16th was an ambitious production, in a purpose-built auditorium (ironically hired from the Quakers, whose style of worship could hardly be more different to this), with an audio production company brought in, two full evenings’ rehearsal, a soundcheck and setup substantially longer than the event itself, and the resources to not only not charge for entry but take a closing donation for a local children’s arts access charity rather than costs. It was put on by a gospel-style (indeed, the resident gospel band and choir were the core of the event, with ‘session’ strings and horns, guest singers and highly effective dramatic monologues added and interspersed) charismatic church of sufficiently predominantly Nigerian-origin congregation for it to be a question of cultural identity not merely ethnic coincidence.

I emphasise the latter because the scope of the project, and the quality of the musicianship and the music produced, did not prevent there being a great deal of waiting around, for people to either arrive or stop talking, during rehearsals or the 6-hour tech setup process overrunning by nearly half an hour (leading to that much delay in starting the event itself). I watched the ill-concealed impatience of my classical / function-background desk partner with great sympathy, being only inoculated from the same by having done the same gig two years ago, and learned to distinguish cultural difference from unprofessionalism (not to say, to simply keep my mouth shut and focus on my job and my fee unless I’m in charge) by ill-advised snapping at the room in general to shut up when the musical director was trying to run a number – and getting predictably slapped down for it by, once again, the room in general.

The difference is highlighted by observing the cheery indifference (and indeed tendency to simply socialise and do their own thing) with which the ‘audience’ greeted the delay in starting, and the interruption near the end produced by the computerised master audio desk crashing – which cannot be blamed on ‘African time’ or suchlike. It merely takes a while for the average hypertensive self-employed young white Londoner to mould into that groove; and we do so at our peril, since the moment that job ends, we go back to having to live at what I might term Jubilee Line speed if we want to actually make any money. Suffice to say I brought a book and earplugs to soundcheck.

Saturday 22nd, my last paying gig before New Year’s Eve, was a very different event. Northolt Seventh Day Adventist Church had squeezed (without actually having to resort to standing room) into a smallish room in their local community centre. Donations were solicited towards hopefully securing a building of their own in 2019. There were congregational carols, a children’s item, a couple harmonising syrupy Christmas gospel arrangements over backing tracks, and a gaggle of disengaged-looking teenagers whose awkward shuffle up to the front (no stage and, bar the backing track duo, no amplification) gave no hint of the remarkably accomplished retro a cappella spirituals they delivered – my highlight of the evening. A small group of us classical musicians (one to a part strings and trumpet) had been brought in to do a handful of Handel movements from the Messiah and elsewhere, either instrumental or with solo singers from the church.

Besides the a cappella group, two things seem to me significant about this event (both, in their own way, have elements of sadness, but so it goes). The first partly concerns (having grown up with amateur, classical, musician parents and brother and as a very active player myself) ‘how the other half live’. These aren’t quite the terms she used, but I was startled by the de facto MC (well into middle age) stating she had never heard classical music live before and did not know if she would ever get to again. I mean, this is London in the 21st century! It feels like you can hardly trip over without landing on an orchestral concert or a lunchtime recital, though probably less so as far out in the suburbs as Northolt. And while even amateur orchestral concerts can be eyebrow-raisingly expensive, most lunchtime recitals are free or by donation, and you can still queue up and Prom for a fiver in about 4 months of the year.

Desire to reduce shuffling and changeover time (probably) meant the classical players were sat up the front the whole time, with other performers taking their place between us and the audience. This meant we were both present and exposed during the three congregational carols. At the earlier event, with a much more ‘performative’ atmosphere, there was no real question of deviating from the stated charts and roles – even while a gospel group and choir should no be expected to feel constrained by arrangers’ structures and repeats! Here, however, it was a much more all-in ‘flat-floor’ spirit, and, unlike most of my confrères (or rather consoeurs, I being the only male of the classical group), I wasn’t going to sit solemnly schtum while everyone else sang. Again, there is a case of what people know here – between Romanian, Spanish and Russian, that left only three of us likely to have grown up with the English carol canon and I must make an honourable exception for the double bassist who also got involved. But for me, ‘Joy to the World’ is incomplete without the male-voice echo phrases in the second half, and ‘Hark the Herald’ and ‘O Come’ are always better with the last-verse descants, even when draped over the normal harmonies – and I confess to being surprisedly smug I managed to memory-transpose the Hark descant down a tone. But surely it’s worth it for the joy of it and the smiles it brings to other people’s faces?

Maybe it’s down to genres after all. The purebreed classical player obeys the instructions more or less verbatim; I have enough literal and metaphorical ‘busker’ in me to want to join in (and usually succeed) whether it was prepared or not. Suffice to say a lot more people seemed to know ‘traditional’ carols when I was busking them in a carol concert than at Clapham Junction.

Janus-facing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less wild than weary

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

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

Kindred Spirit in full flow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild weekends, episode x+1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As per the record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild weekends, episode x

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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