New season

Tags

, , , ,

Last week the Spring tour finished in the Swansea Grand. The new season is now upon us, bringing new opera repertoire; the rehearsal period also brings a necessary adjustment to the body clock. With evening performances, I get into a rhythm where I’m more alert in the evening – I tend to go to bed later and get up later. Getting used to being alert enough for rehearsals in the morning can be rather difficult for a week or so once we switch – it takes a while to get your body clock to realise you need to go to sleep earlier to compensate for the shift in work pattern!

However, before the new opera season begins, there’s a concert to prepare. We don’t do many of these a year – and they are always welcome variety. It’s a chance for the orchestra to be on stage, to dress up for the concert, which tends to be tails for the gents and anything more glamorous than pit black for the ladies – lots of us take the opportunity to wear dresses and get out the pretty high heels. It doesn’t happen very often that we’ll wear that sort of thing in the pit.

This week the repertoire includes Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, which I’ve played many times but never learnt properly before. Generally it tends to be the sort of thing played at muddy field gigs – those outdoor gigs where there are loud fireworks, and the audience is usually watching those rather than listening. The music is in those cases secondary, an excuse for the fireworks; often it’s pouring with rain, as is the norm with summer concerts outside… So it’s going to be an interesting experience to play it “properly” onstage at a concert. The other thing that I’m looking forward to is that we are performing a version with chorus – our chorus together with a community choir that has been put together for the occasion. I don’t know if we’re getting the cannons though….

Did I leave the gas on?

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Opera brings a particular challenge that isn’t often found in an orchestra that plays symphonic repertoire. Concert programmes by symphony orchestras are usually only performed once or twice, and with less rehearsal time than can be comfortable, especially if you’ve never played the repertoire before. It leads to performances where your mind is very firmly concentrated on what you are doing, and usually at the end of the concert I think it would be nice to perform that again now, as I know how it feels in performance!

However, operas are usually on for a run of anywhere between 5 and 18 performances, depending on the season and the show. So when I was asked recently “Are you lost in the music – or wondering if you left the gas on?” I thought it was an interesting one to answer.

Of course, there’s the old adage that audiences have only seen the show once (usually!) so even if we’ve done it ad infinitum we have to find some way of making it sound fresh, as if we were performing it for the first time. It’s not as easy as that though; at the end of a long tour it can be particularly difficult to keep your concentration. A colleague of mine once came in rather loudly with a spare – a spare is a note in the wrong place – when I asked him afterwards what had happened, he admitted that he had been thinking about what size battery he needed for his camping torch, which had run out the previous night.

All sorts of things can help avoid a loss of concentration;

  • a conductor who is always engaged in what he or she is doing, no matter what performance number they are on.
  • I personally like when performances aren’t exactly the same, so there is absolutely no chance of playing on autopilot, because something might be different. There was a conductor who performed a run of Wagner operas that I played for that every performance would put in the tiniest of rubatos at a particular point in a first violin moment; every week somebody would miss it, and he would smile and the next week there it was again. The week after everybody nailed it we got to the moment, I looked up expectantly and he left it out – went straight through instead, and then winked at us.
  • An affinity for the particular show you’re playing – if you like the opera, it helps a great deal!
  • Different things to concentrate on. I find that over the course of a 4 hour opera (sometimes longer) that it can help in maintaining concentration if you are focussing on one particular thing that performance, perhaps intonation, playing well with your desk partner, creating the right sort of sound.

I have to admit there have been moments in the past that I’ve caught myself thinking about what to have for dinner, or dreaming slightly about the next caffeine intake. There does come a point, particularly in long operas, when the brain just goes “No, I’ve had enough” and shuts down for a while. Hopefully it will happen at a time when your desk partner is focussed and you can rely on their help for a while until you get your second wind. Otherwise, putting in an embarrassingly loud spare can help concentrate the mind remarkably quickly!

Study

Tags

, , , , , , ,

After starting to learn to play the violin with Suzuki, I went to Saturday music school at the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama when I was 7 years old. My parents would drive me to the City of London to the Barbican every Saturday for nearly 11 years. The Guildhall School is right next door to the Barbican concert hall; on the lakeside of the school opposite the Guildhall is City of London School for Girls, which I ended up at when I switched schools at 16 for my A-Levels; I loved that school and had many brilliant experiences there.

At the Guildhall, I would learn the violin until I was about 12 with Pauline Scott; I informed her very seriously on our first meeting that I didn’t like to shift positions, but that I wanted to play the Mendelssohn violin concerto and so would learn to play it solely in first position. There were string orchestras to attend early on, then later, the symphony orchestra to play in. Theory classes, and chamber group coaching. Concerts to play in. Some old programmes of concerts my parents came to watch me playing in have been discovered recently at home, and most of them I don’t remember. However, there are strange things I do remember; the crispy bacon and cheese toasted sandwiches I used to buy for lunch at the cafeteria are totally etched into my brain!

There were many opportunities that came with studying at Junior Guildhall like going to concerts next door at the Barbican. I went with a group to see Ida Haendel play the Sibelius concerto, it’s one of the first live concerts I remember going to.

After going to university, I auditioned for postgraduate music colleges. I auditioned for both the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. I had been studying with a professor called Howard Davis whilst at university, and after getting places at both colleges, I went to the Academy to continue my studies with Howard.

The Academy is on Marylebone Road, backing onto Regents Park. I initially went there for 2 years, extending it in the middle of the second for a third, as I felt I had more to learn before venturing out to try to begin a professional career. In my third year, I also studied with Marianne Thorsen, leader of the Nash Ensemble, who was at the time also the violinist in the Leopold String Trio.

The Academy was an incredibly packed three years; some of the most exciting things I’ve done took place whilst I was a student there. I was a principal player for symphonic concerts such as Sibelius symphonies conducted by Sir Colin Davis, played the first violin solo part in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and was, in my last year, Principal 2nd of the Royal Academy Soloists, directed by Clio Gould.

The Soloists are a string group made up of 13 players. We generally spent a week doing really detailed work on a string programme that we would then perform at the end of the week. I learnt a lot of the repertoire of string pieces that I came to know and love in those weeks. One of the most memorable was performing the Arnold Double Violin Concerto as part of a concert with them. The Soloists are a student version of the Scottish Ensemble with whom I went on to work with when I left the Academy.

Coughing

Tags

, , , , , , ,

There’s a lot made of audience coughing at concerts and their disregard for the musicians or the quiet moments, or any moments at all, for that matter. The general in-between hacking coughs or clearing of throats in the performances of La Traviata I’ve been doing recently made me think we had a whole audience of dying sopranos who all had TB, or who were coming out in sympathy. They all seemed to be competing with each other as to who had the worst cough. Then there’s the audience member who helpfully decides to unwrap a cough sweet in the quiet bits – yes we CAN hear you doing that, thanks.

However, today I’m thinking of the unlucky musician on stage who might own one of those coughs. I’ve had a particularly bad cold, one that, although I feel fine enough to work and would feel a right fraud sitting at home otherwise, now seems to have settled on my chest and caused the most lovely hacking cough. One that seems to arise at the most inopportune moments – in other words, just when I need to be quiet in a concert, and then decides to stick around and just not stop.

Yesterday was one of these occasions. There’s a fine line to be drawn somewhere, and I’ve never been sure where it is. My work ethic says that if I can hold my violin without dropping it, then I should be at work, unless something’s persisting so badly that the only way of getting it shifted once and for all is to take time off and sleep. There’s the rehearsal time to consider – if you’ve been at rehearsal, then a deputy (if one can be found for you at late notice) will have to virtually sightread. There’s your colleagues to think about as well and the fact that, to be blunt, I have a job to do and I get paid for it.

I felt fine, cough aside, and so off I went to work. I came prepared, generally being mortified and forever embarrassed at past coughs ruining lovely solos or quiet moments or soloists concertos; strepsils, lockets, halls soothers (yes all three brands), water, cough mixture, lemsip. I was a veritable pharmacy yesterday; usually, lining up the cough sweets (already unwrapped) and water does the trick. Usually… famous last words.

I was in the rehearsal and we were getting to the beautiful quiet middle movement of the soloist’s concerto; I don’t know whether it’s worrying about the fact that you might cough and completely ruin what somebody is trying to do, but it’s sod’s law. You end up holding your breath, shaking, hoping that you can manage to play and convincing yourself that you can hold your breath for 3 more lines so you don’t have to cough. And then it is always worse when you are forced into it by a body going… no, I want to cough NOW! I ended up leaving the rehearsal for a brief time, but it seemed likely that I’d have to sit out the concert or risk basically coughing straight through it. I don’t mean the odd cough, I was lucky to be lasting a minute between.

Frustrating business, because of course if you stop trying to do anything – play, hold your breath or any other activity, there’s no coughing, and everything settles down. The minute you try and do anything at all, and off it goes again.

In the end, I was rescued by our orchestral manager, who not only recommended a different cough mixture, but went off and got hold of it. Worked like a charm. Didn’t stop it completely but at least allowed me to enjoy a rather wonderful concert without collapsing into a coughing fit, or ruining the audience’s enjoyment or the artistic efforts of the musicians.

As a note to audience members suffering under these ailments… I took a duster and a paper cup with cough mixture onto stage. When I needed to, coughing into the duster muffled it a great deal, especially when timed with a loud passage in the brass! Might not have looked as professional as I’d like, as it wasn’t a black duster; I imagine drinking from a paper cup in between movements isn’t the ideal look either – but this was almost certainly better than the solution some of my colleagues suggested, which was taking the entire bottle onto stage in a brown paper bag and swigging from it…

Financial concerns

Tags

, , , ,

An interesting email popped into my inbox this last week. This particular email was from the Musicians Union, urging members to let them know if they were asked to play at Olympic or Jubilee events for free.

It went on to say ” Our understanding is that all other sectors involved in putting on these events e.g. security, staging, equipment hire etc. are being paid their usual fees but not the musicians.”

The following appeared in the Evening Standard.

It’s an interesting question. As a professional musician who does sometimes perform for free, whether one feels taken advantage of is generally the deciding factor. I try to give something back on occasion by taking part in charity concerts for free when I can. Indeed, last December I co-organised a concert in Cardiff in aid of Live Music Now www.livemusicnow.org , a scheme of which I am an Alumni, and the MS Society Cymru http://www.mssociety.org.uk/near-me/branches/ms-society-cymru . In September I am hoping to take part in a concert in Bristol for Cots for Tots.

I go to the St Endellion Summer Festival and don’t get paid, but that is in the spirit of the festival; it allows for the opportunity to rediscover the joy of playing music away from the inevitable politics of the “music as a career” world, and allows for different creative musical experiences.. These are priceless.

However, I started to play the violin at age 3, and am now 35. I studied until I was 25 to allow me to do what I wanted to do, and worked very hard for it. It’s my career, my job, a service, if you like. Why should I not get paid to perform?

I read recently in the papers about the tanker drivers who earn £45,000 a year and were going on strike because various benefits were in jeopardy. Whilst no doubt there is skill involved in their jobs and they have their own concerns which I can’t understand, not doing that particular job, I doubt they studied for over twenty years to perform it. I earn nowhere near that sort of amount. I want to be paid for my skills and paid fairly. I don’t ask ridiculous sums of money or expect them – unlike some sportsmen who get paid more money than I can imagine what to do with.

So the Evening Standard snap judgement that we should be “glad to play our part” shows a lack of understanding and respect. Does this opinion apply consistently to all people performing their jobs during the Olympics? To the author of this particular paragraph? Of course in a performing career, there might be the odd opportunity that arises that is so once in a lifetime that some musicians would be prepared to perform for free or for expenses only to be involved. However, that’s a personal choice, and I imagine, would depend entirely on what that opportunity was; I think that’s likely true of any profession. But the idea that musicians should pay to be involved with the Olympics; is that how this writer wants Britain wants to be seen on the world stage? As a country that takes advantage of some of its most professional and skilled creative people?

Concerts to remember

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

As a musician, there are some concerts you perform in that you remember for years to come; they live on in the memory as moments that are special for both profound or simple reasons.

The first I want to write about is the one that is captured in rehearsal at the top of this blog. It was the St Endellion Summer Festival last year, 2011, the first Endellion festival I played at. The particular performance was the last night of the Festival, the third performance of Die Walküre by Wagner, the second part of the Ring Cycle. Never having played the Ring before, it was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to the Festival. This performance was somewhat different, as our original Wotan had sadly been struck down with illness. So the legendary Sir John Tomlinson kindly agreed to come to sing the role for the last night. With Sue Bullock as Brünnhilde, they were rather a formidable team.  There are some concerts which are unbelievably emotional, where you come out understanding something new about what you do and why you do it. This was one of those. The power of that performance in that little church in Cornwall with a full Wagner orchestra and Sir John in full flow right behind me as I played is not something I’ll forget in a hurry – and I loved playing Wagner before I went!

Photo by Phil Tizzard

Another night to remember was my first ever BBC Proms performance in 2001. If you’ve ever been to the Proms, you’ll know it’s a special experience due to the Prommers and the particular atmosphere. This Prom was with the EUYO – it was my first tour with them and I was playing on the third desk of the first violins. We were about half way through the five week tour, and we were playing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 and Elgar’s Symphony No 1.

So the Brits in the band were all excited to play on home turf, as we’d been rehearsing and performing in Europe up to this point. Being in London meant an opportunity to see family and stop off at home to pick up clean clothes and sleep in our own beds for a night after 3 weeks away. When the concert started, the atmosphere was electric. And then… within a page of starting, my E string snapped. Adrenalin kicking in, with everyone still playing around you, somehow you have to hope 2 things. That you remembered to put spare strings in your pocket before you went on stage, and that you can get it changed easily with as little fuss as possible! Going off the stage at the Albert Hall wasn’t really an option. The dresses the girls wore in EUYO back then did have a pocket buried somewhere in the folds of the masses of material – and thankfully I located the single string that was still in there from the last concert – an E. It was the most nervy couple of minutes – it’s remarkably difficult to change a string when everyone’s playing full pelt around you, with what feels like all the eyes of the audience staring at you! Breaking that string in that Prom had one major effect; ever since, I’ve always had a full set of spare strings to hand whenever I’m on a concert platform!

Favourite music

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

I’m sometimes asked what my favourite piece of music is; it can change quite a lot depending on what I’m playing at the time. I do tend to get rather obsessed about some pieces I’m playing, and have them on repeat ad infinitum, until I make a new discovery.

Then a friend who has recently returned to listening to classical music inspired me to put together a list of music that I often return to, no matter what that latest favourite might be.

I was going to try to do the Desert Island Discs thing and only pick 8 but it proved to be rather impossible cutting things off the list!

  • Schubert String Quintet in C – this actually was my first CD of my own; the recording played by the Alban Berg Quartett and Heinrich Schiff.
  • Elgar’s Symphony No 1 – I was lucky enough to play this with the European Union Youth Orchestra www.euyo.org.uk in my first BBC Prom in 2002 with Sir Colin Davis conducting.
  • Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. I performed this in a run a few years ago, and I’m just about to get to do it again; it’s in my top two favourite operas. Fabulous music, both to listen to and to play.
  • Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. This is the other opera. It was a real pleasure to be playing one of the solo string parts when I did this. The music for the Composer at the end of the Prelude and some of Ariadne’s music in the opera are just heartstopping.
  • Strauss’ Four Last Songs. I thought about leaving these out, as I’ve already got one set of Strauss, but these are just divine, the violin solo being pretty close to the top of the music “bucket list”!
  • Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia – this is my favourite piece of strings only music.
  • John Williams “Star Wars” music. Definitely one of the reasons I thought it would be cool to be a musician, just to play this..
  • Bach B minor mass. This is one of the pieces of music I used to walk to school with playing on my tape Walkman. The other was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 2.
  • Finzi’s Dies Natalis. If you don’t know this, it’s the most divinely beautiful piece of music for strings and tenor.
  • Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. This reminds me of my time studying in London, as not only did I play it there, but there was a student dinner party once where we sight-read the sextet version through, and it was rather..approximate!
  • Brahms Bb Sextet. I felt I had to have some Brahms on this list – could easily have been the first Symphony (I always wanted to play the timpani at the beginning) or the Violin Sonata in G major. But playing first violin in a concert at the Conway Hall with other Royal Academy students on a rather nice Andrea Guarneri violin that I’d just been leant (and would play on for the rest of my time at the Academy) was definitely a highlight.

The audition process

Tags

, , , , ,

When my friends apply for a job, they write a CV or fill in an application form. They get invited for interview, perhaps get shortlisted and invited back for a second round. At the end of that process, they either get the job or they don’t.

Applying for an orchestral job in the UK is rather different.  The process looks like this.

  • See the advert on a website or in the paper
  • Apply with an appropriate CV or application form
  • Audition (or the thanks but no thanks letter)
  • Trial period – this can last for a long time if the orchestra is interested in you or has a lot of applicants who have made it through to this stage.
  • Offer of the job, or the rejection

When a job is advertised, it used to be that you would see adverts in the Saturday Telegraph, but now it’s more likely that you’ll find them online at a site such as www.musicalchairs.info .

Whether you make it to audition stage is down to how you’ve written the CV you send in, whether you have the necessary experience, or if not, whether you have something on your CV that makes you an interesting prospect to hear. Having been on the other side of the desk now, as a member of the panel, you learn very quickly how important it is to tailor your CV for the particular job. Sounds simple, but not everyone does it. Opera highlighted for opera jobs. Symphonic for symphonic. Principal work for principal jobs.

The other thing to bear in mind that there are hundreds of applicants for one job and sifting through CVs can sometimes need to be done extremely quickly. Making your CV as easy as possible to read – in other words, not more than a page or two and with the salient information as obvious as possible – the importance of these can not be underestimated.

CVs for these jobs should be very different to, for example, office jobs. Whether you can bake or you run in your spare time, there’s time to show that later at trial – you do need to talk to your colleagues then! It makes you a rounder personality, yes, but it clutters an orchestral CV. The only things that should be on there are your personal details, education, and your experience. And another thing I learnt – don’t leave off your teachers – some panellists are rather interested in that!

After the audition, which I’ll write about another time, if the panel sees something in you that makes them think that you would be a possible fit for the job, and you play well, then they’ll give you a trial. Both things are important in my mind, it doesn’t matter if you play stunning Paganini if you can’t show the potential to play in a team.

A trial is a bit of a movable feast. It can be different things with different orchestras. It can start with a few days to start with, when you’re being tried out in a small way, a fairly non risky way. Then you might be invited back for a larger patch of work if it goes well. It shouldn’t be just one way though – a desk partner of mine told me once that trials were the opportunity not only for the orchestra to try you out, but for you to try them out. Not every orchestra fits every player. I was on trial with lots of very fine orchestras which didn’t feel right to me before I got my jobs, and no doubt it was the same for them, given I didn’t get those jobs! Sometimes these trials can last for years as the field gets narrowed down and the shortlist grows shorter… They are basically open- ended and the nice letter that says no could arrive at any time. Patience is very necessary, and rather difficult to cultivate in this situation. On the other hand, sometimes trials can be really short. I did 9 days in the job I now have before I was offered it.

Practicalities

Tags

, , , , , ,

UK weekly touring has been a big part of my working life for about 8 years now. This type of touring is a different experience to touring with large orchestras abroad, where the hotels and travel arrangements are usually booked for you.

The week usually runs from Tuesday to Saturday with evening shows. The ballet company I worked for also did 2 matinees on a Thursday and Saturday as well, but that’s more unusual for an opera company; operas are vocally challenging, and doing two shows a day is too much. We would need a double cast of singers, which would be very expensive.

I travel from home to the venue usually by car – sometimes sharing and sometimes not. As an orchestra member I’m responsible for being in the venue in good time for the show on Tuesday night, and I can leave after the last show. On a Saturday night a lot of musicians take to the road to try and maximise the time at home before leaving for the next venue. There are other members of the company, for example, members of stage management and crew, who need to be in the venue for longer due to the get in and get out – in other words, the setting up in the new theatre, and the packing away to move to the next one.

I’m often asked whether the company members all stay together, whether it becomes like one big family. The short answer is no, we don’t all stay together. To be honest, we’re working colleagues, and some of us are friends and would choose to stay together, but it’s like any working company – you are thrown together with people you  wouldn’t necessarily be friends with if you met them outside of work. Once you find your friends within the orchestra or the company as a whole, you do tend to travel together, and perhaps book cottages or caravans together. However, you might book your own hotel room, because sometimes it’s nice to be able to go back to your own space, and shut work outside.

However, that being said, there is generally a social drink at the local pub after the show, or people meet for food, or to go to the cinema to while away the free hours. You’ll inevitably run into people pottering around the shops, or in the dressing rooms at the theatre when you go in to practise the repertoire that’s coming up.

I think the bottom line is that touring is best done whichever way you find that’s best for you. Some people will like their own hotels, some will share cottages. Some will drive, some will get the train. Some will go to the pub, some will go home for a cuppa. Some will practise during the day, some will shop, or go on long bike rides. Pretty much, it’s whatever you can do to make sure you are ready for work in the evening, and to help fill the time whilst you’re away missing your family and friends.

Touring

Tags

, ,

This week I’m in Plymouth performing at the Theatre Royal. I’m staying in a caravan park on the coast just outside of Plymouth. I can see the sea from the lounge window, and it’s a rather pretty place to be staying, if a little chilly this week!

Plymouth has some nice things to offer, in particular there are a few restaurants found on previous tours which I’m looking forward to revisiting this week.

The first is the Ship Inn at Noss Mayo http://nossmayo.com/index.html which does lovely food by the water. The car park is actually covered by water at high tide, so sometimes a leisurely lunch can turn into a scramble to rescue the car!

The other restaurant is run by the Tanner brothers. Anyone who is a fan of Saturday Kitchen might recognise James, who has been a regular on that programme. I really enjoyed visiting the Barbican Kitchen http://www.barbicankitchen.com/index.html for lunch last year when we were here.

Even though it’s Easter week, we’re still performing shows, apart from on Friday. We are doing the regular Tue-Thu shows, and then Friday we’ve got a day off in Plymouth before doing our last show on Saturday night. Some people who have families will be driving home on Thursday night, and driving both ways on Saturday. However I find long distance driving very tiring, and as I’ve no particular reason to go home for the day on Friday, it’s easier to stay; also saves petrol!

However, this is the last week I’ll be staying away from home on this particular tour. The weeks coming up are Bristol and Swansea; they are commutable from home, so it’s quite exciting that this is the last week that I’ll be living out of a suitcase for a while.

On Friday I’m going to answer a question I’ve been asked; What is touring like? Is it like one big family or seriously dysfunctional?