Posts Tagged ‘working musicians’

‘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.