London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

An unreasonably melodramatic 24 hours

(this interrupts chronological sequence but is too bizarre a story, or collection of stories, to not tell while I think of it)

So last night (Saturday), I was playing a bar gig with Kindred Spirit Duo. Nothing unusual in that, though more gigs would always be welcome! Ruislip Royal British Legion do ask for a lot of music though – 2 x 75 minutes in effect, as against the ‘industry standard’ of 2 x 45, even if the pay is pretty much in proportion. And one of the bitter ironies of being dependent on public transport is that the later into the evening you get, the longer your journey takes. We ‘finished’ at 11:45, on schedule more or less, and did an encore. Having consulted Citymapper for options on getting home, I made it out the door at midnight and route-marched to Ruislip Tube station in under 10 minutes. However, part closure of the Metropolitan line and the extreme slowness of night buses (even though I got lucky and only had to wait, sheltering in a doorway out of the rain, for 4 minutes, for one) meant I got home just after 2am.

It seems to be getting more and more common for amateur orchestras and choral societies to have Sunday concerts, often late afternoon or early evening start rather than the traditional 7:30; so I should probably not express surprise at that either. I had been hired (my second job through MAS) to reinforce the viola section for one of these; but 3:30 concert meant 11:30 rehearsal downbeat, and it was in Harlow.

I duly hauled myself back out of bed after less than 5 1/2 hours’ sleep, and was on a train before 9am (yes, today, a Sunday). Train to London Bridge, Northern line to Bank and walk through the financial district to Liverpool Street were all straightforward. But as I entered the station, with a quarter of an hour to spare, there was an announcement on loop about trains being disrupted towards Cambridge due to an overhead line problem (I believe either it blew down or a tree was blown over onto it) near Bishop’s Stortford. Guess what line Harlow’s train stations are on? However, my train was showing as on time and not cancelled albeit without a platform indicated for boarding, so I waited. When it was due to leave in about 4 minutes, the departure time started to shift back, in sync with the passage of time so it was basically always expected to leave in 4 minutes. I checked for alternative train routes, and established there weren’t any. Eventually, the station list for my train was abruptly curtailed, stopping way short of Harlow.

At this point I dug around the Web to find a public transport route to Harlow without taking the train, and came up with taking the so-called Central line to Epping (basically the north-east corner of the TfL empire, beyond the M25 even; so as near to Harlow as you can get on an Oystercard!), and then a bus, followed by another bus across Harlow (I thought I’d probably replace the last bit with a taxi given I was going to be late).

To Epping, so far so good. Bus timetables said I had 15 minutes here; which was good, as my plan for the day’s timings and blood sugar management called for a second breakfast somewhere en route (it would originally have been in Harlow), since I didn’t know when I would get lunch with a rehearsal starting at 11:30 but I knew it wouldn’t be early! I found a lovely independent cafe; unfortunately, it was tiny, crammed full of people getting cooked breakfasts out as a Sunday treat, had only two staff on doing everything (not that there was room for more), and service was correspondingly long-deferred. I emerged just in time to see my bus disappearing round the corner, 3 minutes early (a real risk of buses at quiet times – essentially they make quicker progress without traffic or having to spend much time picking up and setting down). I was relatively little exasperated, there being another one due in 8 minutes (followed by an hour gap) and having sent a message through MAS warning I would be delayed, since I had no direct contact details for nor had received any direct contact from the orchestra.

The second bus did not show up. By the time it was nearly 10 minutes overdue, it was evident it wasn’t coming and I resorted to the demon Uber. Rather to my surprise, there was a driver available a couple of minutes away and the journey to the venue only took 15 minutes; so instead of arriving at noon, I actually walked in at almost exactly 11:30. (This isn’t the classical definition of ‘on time’ however; orchestral start times are always ‘downbeat’ times, meaning you are by that time in your seat, with your instrument unpacked and set up, with a music stand and music in front of you, ready to tune as a group and then play.)

The conductor was pleased to see me only a little late having been told I would be later, and cheerfully but with no indication of this being unusual waved me to the front right chair of the viola section.

Now the usual practice of amateur orchestras hiring professionals to strengthen their string sections is generally to put them at the back; on the grounds that even if they are perhaps better musicians in the abstract, the orchestra members have been rehearsing for several weeks and the extras are coming in, quite possibly sight-reading a few hours before the concert and certainly picking up tempi, bowings, interpretation etc. as they go along with effectively no time to practise between then and the performance, so they could probably do with a bit of cover and with having someone else to follow. Clearly Harlow Symphony Orchestra follow a different policy of bringing in pros to give them some leadership; I discovered that, at least, my desk partner and both front-desk 1st violins were also professionals hired in for the day (paying a pro to lead an amateur orchestra, attending all rehearsals, is not unusual, but Samantha had only been added today).

I should also explain for those who don’t play in orchestral string sections that the front-right player of each violin and viola section is usually the section leader – though in practice convention is that the violas defer to the violins or cellos if they are playing the same music (yes, violas really are bottom of the pile), I try not to be dictatorial about much especially when the time I have to master the notes is limited, and Olivia, next to me, was if anything sharper on copying in bowings and markings than me. Still though, if I’d have known I was going to be leading the violas before I arrived, I would at least have looked and listened through the music in advance, and probably like the orchestra leader spent some time on the tricky corners of Schubert’s 4th symphony (which I had played before, on viola, but apparently repressed the memory of the chromatic passage-work in the last movement). And/Or offered to swap places with Olivia…

In any case, rehearsal of the overture (Mozart’s to Cosi fan tutte) and symphony went more or less as they usually do on such jobs, except I had no principal viola to follow and had to do rather more copying uniform bowings from Samantha’s playing rather than the front desk’s copy! Unfortunately, it emerged that the soloist for the Brahms violin concerto (which I had not played before) had got caught up in the same transport snafu as me, with even less success escaping London. We rehearsed some of the tutti sections. (An aside: in concerti, only, the term ‘tutti’ (all) is used to mean the orchestra playing without the soloist, in distinction to ‘solo’ which is when the soloist is playing. This doubtless made perfect sense when the concerto as a form emerged in the mid-Baroque period, and in general the orchestra, apart from the basso continuo (17th-18th century rhythm section – the parallels with jazz instrumentation are strikingly wide-ranging), would play in alternation with the soloist(s) rather than accompany them. However, by the mid-19th century, concerto solos were being written with accompaniment of any part(s), or indeed more or less the whole, of the orchestra. It only struck me today how odd it is that in Romantic and later concerti, the tutti mark in fact tends to signify fewer people being involved (the soloist is silent) than solo!) The soloist eventually reached us 10 minutes before the scheduled end of the rehearsal. He and the orchestra regulars had apparently rehearsed the concerto at the previous rehearsal, and a good thing too since it was the first time he had performed it with orchestra and he had only started learning it 3 weeks earlier (you wouldn’t have known. Git. I’m so jealous.), but that was only of limited help to those of us who hadn’t been there then! We lucky few went into the concert having not played any of the first movement with the soloist, and indeed not played vast swathes of the piece at all except inasmuch as we had practised them in the green room between rehearsal and concert.

The last thing we ran in the rehearsal was the end of the concerto, which conventionally enough has some loud chords with double and triple stops in the strings. Literally a couple of bars from the break before the concert, the horsehair of my bow pulled out of the somewhat complex arrangement that holds it in place at the tip. It’s a professional job to put back together, though probably not a long or particularly expensive one – I’ll find out when I get it done, as soon as I have the time. Massive thanks to Olivia Volynkina for lending me her spare, though having to use an unfamiliar one (even after I spent most of the late lunchbreak getting used to it) and being told ‘Don’t break my bow!’ didn’t exactly make me more relaxed.

Rehearsal ended at 2pm; I certainly needed to get some lunch, so stepped out into Old Harlow to search for it. To find that it was sleeting. Unpleasant but perhaps not the weirdest of weather for a British March (after all, this time last year we had full-blown snow lying on the ground), but somewhat discombobulating coming a fortnight after 20+ degree heatwaves. At least the clouds had cleared by the time I came back from eating.

After all of which, I should probably put on record that Ionel Manciu’s Brahms concerto was jaw-dropping, and a near-capacity audience were very appreciative of the whole concert. Lest you forget why all this was happening to me.

However, my day was not over. There was no indication the train service to London had been restored, so my journey home would be more or less a mirror image of the outward one. Except there was no way I was paying up for another Uber back to Epping, even if it had been cheaper than I feared on the way out.

A map search revealed Harlow bus station, nearest connecting point to the buses to Epping, to be just under 2 miles away; with it being still light and dry (at around 5:30), walking seemed preferable to a probably long wait for a short bus ride. After a walk in the course of which a freezing wind did more to restyle my hair than my first girlfriend’s experiments with various products ever achieved, an on-the-ground search revealed that Google Maps marks Harlow bus station in the wrong place; all that stands where the map points you is a petrol station and a hospital car park. Some muttered swearing and head-scratching eventually led me to the discovery that the bus station was actually on the other side of a shopping centre.

The sleet / rain returned to falling by the time I got on the bus; by the time I reached Epping, the cars emerging from the station car park had a good half-inch of actual snow coating their rooves and bonnets. A mad world my masters.

I finally reached home about 8:45pm, so a 12-hour work-plus-travel day. My to-do list now contains ‘get viola bow fixed’, ‘seriously, buy a spare viola bow dammit!’ and ‘claim refund for train ticket’; but, for reasons that may eventually become apparent through future posts, it’s quite likely I won’t manage to tackle any of those things tomorrow. Here’s just hoping for less drama and more things going to plan …

More strings to my … plectrum?

I spent most of Friday 22 February at Piraxa Studios, recording some new promo material. I’d decided around the turn of the year it was time I had some demo material to show on all my serious instruments. Not least because a couple of agencies approached me in December about a job that might (though might not) have come off had I done this before then.

So while Matt Norriss patiently yet energetically shifted mikes, cameras, lights, DI feeds, headphones and music stands, triggered audio and video recording of multiple takes and repeatedly clapped in front of the camera for audio-video sync, I was (mostly) – playing mandolin.

(‘Mostly’ because I was also changing clothes, retuning (those unison pairs of strings, coupled with frets and high tension meaning you stand no chance of playing an in-tune note on an out-of-tune string, really show up if the instrument is still reacting to the new temperature and humidity!), tightening a loose pickguard screw, adding accompanying guitar and foot tambourine, and most importantly trying to see how many of the four resident cats would let me cuddle them. Although I had difficulty telling three of them apart.)

I reckon there are four likely genre / style areas where my mandolin skills might be hired:
country / bluegrass / Americana (realistically, in the UK the distinctions are rarely solid)
Italian traditional music
Irish folk and folk-like standards

So I had put together a set of four excerpts to cover all of them, and then set about trying to record (and to some extent finally use) little enough of each to be an under-five-minute showreel. Because it needs to be watched by busy people looking to make a decision quickly!

Impressively, just 11 days after recording, Matt has single-handedly completed editing, syncing, mixing, mastering, colour grading and sorting out the things I didn’t fully make clear in my written brief … which is credit to his work ethic. That it sounds and looks so good is credit to his combination of technical skill and musical perception and understanding.

So voila:

Also serves as a good demo for my general hirsuteness, if anyone particularly needs a bearded or just downright unkempt video extra …

Also findable from my Demo recordings YouTube playlist, which is itself linked from the Playing page of this website.

Hire Matt for production, and me for mandolin (and viola and violin, and arranging). Simples, as apparently people from all walks of life say now!

Allow me to introduce…

…my new band, Finezza Strings!

If you know my instruments, answers on a postcard to why this is not a string quartet as we know it.

Not my baby as a project (that would be Hannah, cello and concentration face above), though I’ve been involved sourcing music, editing website copy, brainstorming and eating ‘business meeting’ curry and falafel as well as playing. But certainly a major new feature on my musical / professional landscape.

We are a chamber group, able to work as anything from a duo up to an octet (double quartet), though most bookings will probably be as a quartet (which means we can send regular members if someone is already booked, rather than being dependent on deps if four diaries don’t align for the event date). While functions and weddings will be the commercial backbone, we are keen to play ‘real’ chamber music in a concert environment as well, and discussions have tentatively begun about possibilities like exploring some of the piano plus strings repertoire.

I spent a thoroughly enjoyable January morning (it was freezing outside but thankfully not in the studio) with the group and engineer / producer Kim Halliday (highly recommended by the way, technically and as an all-round generous and lovely person), recording and filming promo material for our function showreel. When that’s finished editing we’ll launch the website (mostly already built), but for now you can keep up to date by liking and following our Facebook page:
For the more social media keen than I, I’m assured Twitter and Instagram feeds are also imminent!

Musically it might seem like I’m stretching a point to talk up a wedding quartet showreel, but having played a number of weddings with a number of quartets this did really feel out of the ordinary in terms of sheer class of delivery. Pachelbel’s much-derided and abused Canon actually sounded like Baroque music (dare I say abandoning arrangements in favour of me swapping from viola to violin may have helped reduce the usual gloopiness?); the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs would not have sounded out of place on the concert platform (all credit to Marian Givens, first violin for this session, since this piece is very much a violin solo with accompaniment nobody really notices or remembers); and I could practically see the lighters waving in Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’. Once the website goes live, a look through the biogs other than mine might well explain why this was musically a cut above much of my function quartet experience! In the meantime, we await your call (or Facebook message) to demonstrate our abilities for real …

I look much more atmospheric and creative with the focus elsewhere in the photo and in monochrome. Might get a new set of portrait photos done in this style actually.

Working week

For the last five evenings, and tonight still to come, my workplace has been the Questors Theatre Studio in Ealing. Musical engagements rarely last that long, so it won’t take much guessing to know I’m playing for a musical:

Yes, I know the day of the last night is a bit late to repost marketing material …

A rather unconventional one however.

The Last Five Years is a two-hander, the halves of a couple. Jamie’s timeline moves straightforwardly enough forward through the relationship; Kathy’s backwards, from separation to first date. They only get one actual duet, in the middle of the show, though in some other numbers one is talking in gaps between the other’s singing (and they are where their timeline has got up to, not at the same point – even from the band, this is a tad confusing!). That minimal cast are accompanied by a small and unusually-textured band for musical theatre: piano, guitar, bass guitar, violin, two cellos. The show is of course being MD’d from the piano, directing from the keyboard appearing to be as normative in the theatre today as it was in the concert hall in the eighteenth century.

Stylistically, there’s a lot less of the Broadway grand gesture too, with punch lent by Latin, rock-n-roll and piano-led gospel-funk styles, humour from Sinatra-and-Basie swing (seriously, I’m sat next to the guitarist and his part is marked ‘à la Freddie Green’), mannered pseudo-klezmer (Jamie is Jewish) and country, and emotion from an unexpected near-Riverdance minor key gig, some surprisingly artful referencing of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ and an all-too-rare ability to handle recitative-like singing and drone / pedal point-based rather than chord progression-derived harmonic structure. All six instrumentalists are worked hard though (I wish someone censor telling orchestrators about false harmonics, and make double stops sound a lot more difficult), and there is of course musically nowhere to hide with such small forces. Visually too in this case as we’re located at back of stage in plain view of the audience (though at least as the run’s progressed I’ve been able to watch bits of the show in some of my rests, themselves much shorter than usual in pit work!).

What with this and renewed recent work on the Streisand show (see previous post), my violin technique has been unusually thoroughly drilled lately! However, back to more familiar territory soon as I learn a few more Irish covers and fiddle tunes for a wedding at the start of March – and they should hopefully be free from harmonics, double stops, awkward key signatures and tricky rubato timings, though not necessarily from extended fluid runs of fast notes!

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.


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 …