Posts Tagged ‘working musicians’

In sheer financial desperation, musicians have taken to robbing banks to pay the bills….No, this is The Gospel Project playing our one and only wedding this summer.

If you’re one of the people celebrating the new world of remote working, you definitely don’t work in the arts. While I share the national enthusiasm for decreased commute times, and the long overdue realisation that it’s in nobody’s interests to have thousands of people sitting in traffic at the same time every morning + evening, it’s helpful if we also acknowledge that there is a lot of work of value that can’t be done remotely, and it can’t be done by a robot.

The concern among the artistic community right now is not simply that we’ve just lost 6 months of work, missing countless creative (and sometimes even remunerative!) performance opportunities during what is usually our busiest season. The scary thing is it’s not showing any sign of changing in the near future. Live performance as a concept appears to be cancelled, for the foreseeable. ‘Ah, but live streams’ I hear you cry. Ok, tell me long you actually tuned in for the last time you attended a live stream? And how much you contributed financially? We can’t pay the bills with positive feedback unfortunately.

I’m luckier than many in that 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 last March chasing the ‘end of the rainbow’ software that would allow my choirs to sing together remotely. 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 – but 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 the app that somebody you know is developing – 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.

So, how to continue with choral rehearsals in the face of these limitations? Some choirs I work with have managed outdoor rehearsals, though obviously that’s tricky to plan for in Ireland, even in the summer, and its days are numbered once the weather changes. Some of us are meeting in very small sub groups, with singers in ‘pods’ in each others homes during Zoom rehearsals. Even though they can’t hear each other, singers appreciate the connection provided by the Zoom rehearsal as well. Gardiner Street Gospel Choir is continuing with our weekly mass, albeit online and with pre-recorded music.

Are any of these solutions anything like the face-to-face choral experience? 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.


‘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.

You know how this one goes….. it’s a night out, everyone’s stayed up later than they intended to, sooner or later there will be a discussion as to what time everyone has to get up at the next morning. As people quiz each other as to what time their alarm will sound, it can get somewhat competitive, a bidding war as to who has the most onerous day ahead.  Now here’s the interesting thing; if you’re a full-time musician, this question will never, ever be directed to you in these scenarios. Example:

John: I’m up at 6.30, what about you?

Michael: Oh god, even worse, I’ll be up at 6. You Liza?

Eliza: I work so hard, I’m not even going to bed. It’s alright for you Cathy, you don’t have to get up in the morning

Don’t I? How did you come up with that idea, then? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve simply been informed of this,  I’d be a wealthy lady. Along with the equally common – and no more accurate – assumption that I’m on social welfare, it’s one of the casually insulting remarks I’ve learned to smile through when the conversation turns to what I do for a living. Why is it insulting? Because we have a strong association between moral virtue and early rising. We’ve heard a lot about this here in Ireland recently, when our newly appointed Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said he wanted to be a leader for ‘people who get up early in the morning’. So, presumably, he has no interest in representing those of us who are still working when those people are going to bed? It speaks very clearly to the belief that work happens between 9-5, Monday to Friday, and anything outside of that is a hobby. But isn’t this kind of assumption about other people’s work duties just bad manners?  So even if it were accurate, would ‘its grand for you, you’re not up in the morning’ be any less ignorant than my hectoring 9 to 5ers with ‘it’s grand for you, you’re at leisure every evening’?

I get the fact that outsiders are generally surprised when they come to realise how hard professional musicians actually work, and if you’re basing your ideas about musicians’ lifestyles on what you’ve seen in the movies, I understand why. The life of an ordinary working musician is something you never see depicted in cinema or television. Screen portrayals of musicians tend to come down to one of two types; the ‘rock star’, seen in such films as Almost Famous, or the deadbeat/starving artist model seen in such films as Inside Llewyn Davis, with drug or alcohol abuse a prominent feature in either case. For sure, there are such people in the music business, but few working musicians recognise much of themselves in these portraits. Self-employed people in any field tend to work very hard indeed, and musicians are no exception; days and nights filled with rehearsals, directing choirs, recording sessions, teaching, weddings, performances, lugging speakers into venues at anti-social hours, and all of the communication and paperwork generated by each of those things, don’t leave much time for guzzling champagne. Most of us do not lead the lives of Led Zeppelin. Why do screenwriters not concern themselves with documenting this? I imagine it’s because, like so many aspects of real life, it’s not very interesting to watch!

It strikes me that if this is true of musicians – that there’s a gulf between the reality of the job and the way it’s depicted on screen – it’s probably equally true of the portrayal of other professions, such as chefs or the police force. So when I meet people who work in those areas, I try not to come with assumptions. It’s just rude. Most jobs look different when you’re doing them. But if you are interested – for example, if you’d like to know what time I get up at – you can always just ask.