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What a strange time to be alive. 

It would be petty for an artist to complain about their loss of earnings during a global shutdown, when there’s people risking their lives at the front lines of the health services, so I won’t. Yes, it’s scary when you see every event you were scheduled to perform at for the next few months, from weddings to festivals, cancelled or postponed. But not as scary as being sent out to do your job anyway, knowing it’s dangerous. So massive respect and admiration to those that do. 

Not a lot of bright sides to this, but if there is one, perhaps it’s a new appreciation on the part of musicians and audiences alike for the value of live music. Performing music will probably always be underpaid, but the shutdown has helped to underscore that it can’t be done remotely, and it can’t be done by a robot. We all have different things we’re struggling without since the shutdown started; for me, the things I miss most profoundly – besides seeing loved ones in 3D form! – are playing with other musicians, and going to gigs (and pints, honestly, but that’s just the Irish in me). 

Luckily for me, there are two areas of what I do that can be at least attempted remotely, and those are teaching and choral direction. Teaching violin via Zoom is awkward, but it’s not impossible. Teaching choirs via Zoom, on the other hand….let me tell you a little about that:

Like many other conductors , I spent the first week or so of the shutdown chasing the ‘end of the rainbow’ software that would allow my choirs to sing together remotely. While I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how anyone could be working around the latency issues – and just to prove the point I even tried it on Zoom with one of my more advanced choirs, to hilarious effect – I kept hearing these marvellous tales of other ensembles….People would send links…’Have you tried this App? ‘You just need to adjust your audio settings’ ‘My friend’s choir is able to sing together on Zoom’ ‘What about a virtual choir’? So let’s put this to bed once and for all: there is no platform – not Zoom, nor Skype, nor Facetime – that allows for singing together, in real time, in an online choral rehearsal. If your friend’s choir claims to be doing that, good for them, but I’d be very interested to know how. They may be putting a Virtual Choir together, á la Eric Whitacre, with each singer recording their line independently and the director collating and mixing all the recordings (and, most likely, discarding some of them!) Which is impressive, but quite a different beast to singing together live, in separate locations. Incidentally, my deepest, deepest thanks to the person that put this together – it made me feel a whole lot better! 

So, how to continue with choral rehearsals in the face of these limitations? For me, it’s been about finding a solution that goes beyond giving homework – private practise is valuable, but in theory at least your singers do that anyway, pandemic or no – something that answers to singers’ need to connect with each other, even if they can’t sing together for the time being. Here’s the compromise I’ve come up with; I create rehearsal videos, covering everything from warm-ups to drilling that tricky area the tenors had been having trouble with, and post the links at our usual rehearsal time. I give singers about an hour to work privately, and then there’s a Zoom meet-up to chat about any challenges/questions arising from the videos, as well as some Choral Discussion time. For the latter, it’s useful to give themes to get the ball rolling e.g. ‘think of a choir whose sound you like and tell us why’. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement on the part of the singers with the private rehearsal videos – unless they’ve simply found some way to rig the YouTube stats! – and the feedback suggests they appreciate the connection provided by the Zoom meet-ups in the 2nd part of rehearsal as well. Is it anything like a face-to-face rehearsal? Nope. Would I want to do it indefinitely, or under any other circumstances? No way. But these are not any other circumstances, and this is better than nothing.

Footnote: Another bright side; it’s been a great time for conductors and musicians sharing resources and ideas, I’ve benefitted massively from some of the material shared by my choral colleagues in Online Teaching forums, as well as by the wonderful people at Total Choir resources. Thanks folks.

‘Ah, it’s wonderful to have the gift’.  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this I could buy myself a rather nice gift. It implies that it’s all just the luck of the draw; some of us got it for free and, for the rest, there’s no point in even trying.  And it’s that last part that makes the idea a little dangerous, in my view. It astonishes me how often students who are struggling with a tricky passage of, say, Bach, will exclaim upon hearing me demonstrate it ‘you see, some people just have it’……I’ve been playing for 30 years, might that have something to do with it perhaps? I think it’s a get-out for some students; much easier to focus on this nebulous idea of ‘the gift’ than consider, for example, how much practise they’re doing! Not making much progress? Not your fault, you don’t have the gift, right?!

The other side of this is that we do place a very high premium on things being ‘natural’, regardless of the end result – consider the difference in attitudes towards natural and bottle blondes, for example. And it’s certainly not unusual to hear musicians boasting of being a ‘natural’, as if that really makes any difference to their present level of musicianship. Personally, whenever I have the privilege of playing with a first-rate musician, I don’t waste any time wondering whether they came by their musicianship ‘naturally’, through hard work, or through prayer and fasting; I’m only interested in whether they can do it. I’ve been described as a ‘natural’ myself, chiefly because I come from a family of professional musicians – and indeed it does come naturally to me, now. Now that I’ve grown up in an environment where it was nurtured and supported, and now that I’ve put in my 10,000 hours. It’s rather like saying your accent is natural – it’s natural now, but you weren’t born with it.  The only part of whatever I have that I consider a ‘gift’ is the urge to keep doing it, to persevere in the face of failure. A perseverance that has resulted in a decent level of musicianship. 

Well, if that’s a gift, it’s the hardest-earned one I ever received.

I always get funny looks when I say this, but I’m oddly fond of January. If you’re somebody who likes eating healthily and working hard it actually has a lot to offer as a month 🙂 It’s also the time when musicians tend to get down to projects they want to work on but can’t make the time for the rest of the year round; there’s not many gigs going in January so many of us take to the recording studio around now each year. Early January was spent in Galway with the Lazy Band, a magical few days recording originals and covers in a series of live sessions with engineer Mike Nestor. 3 days, 17 tracks. Intense but rewarding.

lb pic galway1

jack mccarthy, stephen james smith, josh johnston at the Lazy Band recordings sessions, Galway

Next up was a session at Lamplight Studios  to put down some strings on Sive‘s new album which promises to be a stand-out collection of original music. Yes, she’s my friend and I can’t claim an unbiased perspective, but I can honestly say hers is a unique talent.Looking forward to hearing the finished product.

Then over to Jealoustown Studios for some video shoots with Don Baker. So, all in all, loving January so far. The one drawback? Recording studios, apparently without exception, are freezing in January.

Doing it for the love

Posted: May 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

As a full-time musician I do a lot of commercial gigs. No apologies for that. Do I love every note I play? Of course not, but who loves absolutely every aspect of their job? I certainly don’t enjoy the bits that outsiders tend not to realise are part of the job, such as lugging speakers in and out of crowded venues, or driving long distances in the middle of the night. But that’s another day’s blogging….

Here’s something I do love. Next week I’m involved in a singer songwriter gig featuring string quartet, a thing called the Bamboo Sessions. We rehearsed on Wednesday in the gorgeous setting of the Unitarian Church, Stephen’s Green. I sat down with 3 other string players, 2 of whom I’d never met before, and spent the day playing the music of several of Ireland’s finest songwriters, some of whom I’d likewise never met before. If it doesn’t sound self-important I think musicians are rather uniquely positioned in this respect, we can make creative connections with people we don’t know at all if the environment is right. Staging this gig has already been a huge amount of work; for myself, the other songwriters and several string arrangers who won’t be there on the night. We will not be paid a cent, indeed there’s a very strong possibility the event will lose money. But we do it for the love.

bamboo rehearsal pic