Sunday, 5 July 2015

On signing the contract...

Another season is coming to its close, and, as my friend has been saying, change is in the air.  It seems these days almost everyone I know is on the move.  Some are going away to study, some are beginning new jobs, and some have won places in young artist programmes.

As for me, I am preparing for my fourth move in six years – and this time, my new home will be Austria.  I've just signed a two-year contract with the opera chorus in Innsbruck. 

My shiny new workplace

In a way, this turn of events has felt very sudden.  In another way, I sensed for a while now that it was going to happen.

You may have noticed I've been blogging a lot less lately.  The fact is, I've been too busy singing!  In the past six months or so, things really began to cook, and I had a very full calendar.  Lots of projects, lots of travel, and lots of performing.  It would seem, as a freelancer, I was doing pretty well.  Some people might even go far as to call me successful.

There's just one thing.  And I feel like I’m committing some kind of cardinal sin by saying this.  But here it is: freelancing made me unhappy.

I was exhausted by the constant travel.  I hated being away so much, and never feeling like I had a steady home base.  I was sick of airports and hotel rooms.  I worried constantly about money.  And I really struggled with the extreme emotional highs and lows.  Performances could make me feel on top of the world – but as soon as a project was over, I would crash into a post-performance slump, and feel like it was impossible to recover.

"Help!  I've fallen and I can't get up!"

I felt bad complaining, because I knew I should feel lucky to be making a living doing what I loved.  I knew some people might even see the work I had, the places I was seeing, and feel jealous.  I didn't want to seem ungrateful, or come across like I was having "first world problems".  But the truth is, freelancing made me feel anxious and exhausted all the time.

Some people love freelancing.  They love the adrenaline and excitement, the novelty of exploring new cities and working with new colleagues, the feeling of being a free agent and answering to nobody.   I have friends who thrive on the freelance life, and it's a beautiful thing to behold.  As for me, I've never managed to get past the feeling that I'm barely coping, struggling to survive.  It has never felt like a safe or sustainable way to live.

As my calendar got fuller and my "success" continued, I felt like the walls were closing in on me.  Something had to give.  Something had to change.  And then it did.

As I went from project to project, I continued to do auditions.   Nothing new there.  I've been doing auditions since I arrived in Germany.  It's become a predictable sort of routine.  I get invited, I prepare, I travel, I sing, and they say no.  Rinse and repeat.  The no's get less shocking every time.  I know it sounds twisted, but I've actually come to expect them.  I sigh, shrug my shoulders, pick myself up and start preparing for the next audition.  That's just the way it goes.  As it was, is, and ever shall be, world without end Amen.

But as I continued to audition, some small, almost imperceptible adjustments were taking place.  My German was improving.  I was settling into a more comfortable, confident attitude with audition panels.  I was more relaxed.  I felt more like myself.  I even began to – shock, horror – crack the occasional joke!

Perhaps most importantly, I was always busy with work.  Which meant that I was too busy to overprepare, overthink, or put too much pressure on myself to succeed in any one audition.  I had just enough time to practise my arias and sing them for the panel.  No more, no less.  In short, I stopped caring so much.

One day, I went to sing for a government agency in Stuttgart.  I had already sung for this agent a year ago, and it was completely fruitless, so I wasn't expecting anything.  To my surprise, they took me on, and immediately started advising me on some upcoming jobs.

I didn't really know how to react.  They said… yes?  That couldn't be right.  Surely it was some kind of mistake?

Who, me?

Once I got over the initial shock, I realised that, somehow, I must be doing something right.  I decided to keep the momentum going and audition immediately for the government agency in Cologne as well.  This time, the agent told me there was a job I'd be perfect for.  Could I audition in Innsbruck before the end of the June?  The next day the theatre phoned and asked when I could come and sing.

I couldn't believe it!  It seemed like everything was happening so quickly, so easily.  I was so used to hearing "no".  I was so used to struggling for everything.  Now suddenly I had taken a turn, and everything was falling effortlessly into place.  "Well," said my singing teacher, "it sounds like the universe is telling you that you're on the right path."

"That's right, this way, just keep going!"

Sure enough, a week later I found myself at the theatre in Innsbruck.  The audition went well, and they hired me on the spot!

This all happened over a month ago, and it still feels pretty surreal.  I've since signed a contract, had my first costume fitting, found an apartment in Innsbruck, and applied for my Austrian visa.  I've also gone through the business of informing employers and colleagues, and cancelling other upcoming work.  And yet no matter how many people I tell, somehow I still can't believe it.

Change is in the air, as my friend says.  And this change is a big one.  I'm still struggling to wrap my head around it.  Not only because I'm moving to a new country.  Not only because my fiancé and I will – once again – have to adjust to a long-distance relationship.  In fact, the very idea of having a job is blowing my mind.  It seems as if the whole definition and purpose of my life has changed.

For as long as I can remember, I've been practising so that I can perform well in auditions and win a job.  That was always my focus, my motivation, my raison d’être.  Now suddenly, I've got that job.  It's everything I've been working towards.  I'm finally safe, and I know I'll be able to stay in one place and receive a monthly salary for my work.

Strangely enough, as much as I’m happy and relieved by all this, it's also opening up some deep existential questions.  What do I sing?  Why do I sing?  Why do I exist, if not to work towards the next big audition?  What can I strive towards, what can I struggle with, now that this big question mark has been removed from my life?  How will it feel, no longer living on the edge?  Who is Diva on a Dare, when she's no longer Daring?

As I prepare to begin this new phase of life, I'm looking forward to more security, more stability, a better quality of life.  I'm sure I will feel much happier and healthier than I ever did as a freelancer.  I'm also sure that I have some soul-searching ahead of me.  It's time to discover who I really am, and why I really sing.  Once I stop struggling to survive, once I remove this relentless worry about what-comes-next… what will remain?

I can't wait to find out.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

South American Tour - Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Peru

While most people were heading home for Easter weekend, I was on a different kind of trip.  Along with the ensembles of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, I embarked on a whirlwind tour of South America.  With a fantastic programme to perform – Bach's B minor mass and Handel's Messiah – we traveled to São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Lima.  Four countries in two weeks!  And now I'll try to sum it up in less than 2000 words.

We started in Brazil.  As we arrived in São Paolo, the first thing people told me was how unsafe it would be.  "Don’t wear any jewelry," they'd say, "lock any valuables in the hotel safe."  One person even told me that people would cut off my finger just to get my engagement ring!  My Brazilian friends later told me this was a dramatic exaggeration.  Yes, you should be careful, as you would in any large city, but it's not so extreme.

There are about 20 million people living in the metropolitan area of São Paolo.  To put that in perspective for me, the entire population of Canada is 35 million.  Imagine two thirds of Canada all living in one city!

The city just goes on and on and on...

On our second day in São Paolo, we were invited to an Easter breakfast at the German consulate.  The consulate was gorgeous – a veritable tropical paradise with white walls, palm trees and a shimmering turquoise swimming pool.  We were treated to a big beautiful meal, complete with gorgeous coffee, fruit so fresh it would melt in your mouth, and a glass of cool prosecco to finish it all off.  But we couldn't help but notice that all the buildings in this area were surrounded by high walls.  What was outside of those walls?  What made them necessary?

Although my options were limited as a vegetarian, I was determined to taste some Brazilian food and drink while I was in town.  For the most part it was delicious – I especially enjoyed the yucca fries.  There was however one major disappointment in my culinary adventures.  One day in the park I decided to try coconut water.  There were loads of people selling it fresh from the coconuts, and I couldn't resist.  It looked so tasty and refreshing – the perfect thing to drink on a hot day.  I'd also read a lot about the health benefits of drinking coconut water, so I couldn't wait to give it a go.  The truth is, coconut water is nothing like what you'd expect… it just tastes like dirty water!  I choked mine down on principle because I'd paid for it, but I would never drink that stuff again.

Coconut water - just don't do it.

The best thing I tasted in São Paolo was definitely the caipirinhas.  A strong punch of sweet and sour soaked in alcohol.  It's my new favourite drink!

Our hotel was in the posh bit of town, where it was not uncommon to see helicopter landings on top of the buildings.  Needless to say, it was beautiful.  We even had some furry visitors for the Easter weekend!

Our very own hotel Easter bunnies

When we weren't performing, we enjoyed exploring the busy city life, checking out the art gallery down the street, taking pictures from the top of the tallest skyscraper, or perusing the Mercado for food and gifts.

Now I would love to be able to wax lyrical about the beauties of Rio de Janeiro, but the sad truth is, I didn't see it.  We were only there for one day, and I was so tired from the flight that I slept right through the afternoon!  The most I saw of Rio was the rooftop swimming pool and bar at the hotel, which was lovely.  Some more adventurous souls went out at 6am the next day, so they could see the beach before they left.  I would have loved to join, but I loved my sleep much more.

From Rio we traveled onwards to Montevideo, which was a welcome change of pace.  After Brazil's big busy cities, it was nice to be somewhere more peaceful.  Montevideo is a laidback city on the beach, and the people all seem very friendly and open.  One guy in the market began chatting with us, and even invited us to smoke a joint with him!  Marijuana is legal in Uruguay, and is pretty easy to come by – as long as you are a Uruguay national and over the age of 18.  (We declined the offer by the way – after all, we had a concert that evening!)

Chillaxing in Montevideo

Like Brazil, Uruguay has a fairly meat-centric culture, and a lot of us enjoyed feasting at the local grill.  I myself stuck to pizza and salad, but enjoyed feasting my ears on the samba band which serenaded us over lunch.  They paraded all the way through the Mercado with high energy brass and drums, the men wearing voluminous purple silk shirts, and the women dancing in high heels and sequined bikinis. I've never had such a lively meal in all my life!

From Montevideo, we took to ferry to Buenos Aires.  Buenos Aires is often called the "Paris of South America", and it's easy to see why.  The many Victorian buildings lining the streets lend it a distinctive European feel.  But this city has its own character as well.  Shouting salesmen will hop on the subway waving around chocolate and ice cream, and buskers will serenade you for a few stops, accompanied by guitar and cajón.  If you wander around La Boca, a neighbourhood named for its local football stadium, you'll see plenty of colourful murals, bustling markets, and even tango dancers.

La Boca, Buenos Aires

By some strange coincidence, a lot of my friends were in Buenos Aires at the same time as I was.  Of course, I knew I had friends who were already living there, but there were also friends from Canada, Switzerland, and Scotland who all happened to be there on holiday.  What were the odds?  It seemed everyone wanted to be in Buenos Aires!  I managed to meet up with most of them while I was in town, and together we wandered the city and chatted, and enjoyed eating at the many delicious local pizza joints.  I was surprised at first when a friend ordered only one bottle of beer for the whole table... but then I saw it was a full litre bottle!

Look at the size of this thing!

On our free day, an orchestra member's friend arranged an outing in the country for us.  After riding the subway and the train, we boarded a boat on the Tigre Delta, and drove out to a remote cottage on the water.  It was just lovely!  There were friendly dogs, hammocks in the shade, and a garden buzzing with hummingbirds.  We enjoyed a generous meal in the sun, and were all very happy to enjoy some peace and quiet away from the city.  The friendly old man who owns the cottage told us he makes his living hosting guests like ourselves.  He enjoys his bucolic life by the river, and only ventures across the water once a week to buy supplies.

The quiet life on the Tigre

Later that day, we were invited to give a small concert at the German consulate, after which we were served a beautiful three-course dinner with wine.  Having dinner at 9 or 10pm is pretty standard in Argentina, it seems.  Over dinner we enjoyed chatting with the guests, who came from all sorts of professions and backgrounds.  But again, as in São Paolo, I couldn't help noticing the walls around us, and thinking of what they represented.  It seemed there were two sides of Buenos Aires, and we were being kept safely on the manicured, comfortable side.  I'm sure I wasn't the only one conscious of the walls – my German friends would certainly be familiar with walls and their meanings.

We had many fantastic concerts in South America, and the theatres and concert halls were all truly beautiful.  But for me the most memorable concerts were in the gorgeous Teatro Colón.  The acoustic in this theatre has to be one of the best in the world.  We could go so small and so quiet, and the tiniest musical details would be heard throughout the audience.  It was truly magical.

The Teatro Colón

Our last stop was Lima.  My first impression of Lima was the extreme heat bearing down on us as soon as we left the airport.  You could burn to a crisp in a matter of minutes under that sun!  After the heat there was the traffic.  Loads and loads of cars, buses and taxis, all beeping and squashing together in the streets.  It was absolute chaos!

Navigating the traffic in Lima

Amongst the traffic, we could sometimes catch small glimpses of life in Lima.  Clowns running out at a red light to perform to drivers for spare change.  Big prestigious football academies, where uniformed children flocked together to play ball.  And sunny parks with people taking siestas under the palm trees.

But for the most part, I didn't see very much of Lima.  It was the last two days of the tour, and I was tired and starting to look forward to home.

I did however get the chance to try the famous Peruvian cocktail: the Pisco sour.  Made with pisco, lemon juice, and egg white, this drink was pretty delicious – but I must say, the caipirinha still holds the highest place in my heart.

The caipirinha - pure deliciousness.

Finally, after a long bus ride through traffic and an even longer wait for our boarding cards, we began our sixteen-hour journey back to Germany.  We had an amazing trip to South America.  I hope it won't be too long before we visit this beautiful continent again!

Sunday, 29 March 2015

On learning a foreign language (Part 2)

It's been a year and a half now since I last wrote about learning a foreign language.  A lot has changed since then.  I'm starting to get the hang of this German business now, and for the most part I get by.  I'm certainly nowhere close to being fluent, but somehow I am managing to function every day auf Deutsch.

Of course, it does help that I finally sucked it up and hit the books.  Last spring I signed up for an intensive B1 course at the Volkshochschule in Cologne.  (For those of you not in the know, the Volkshochschule is a German institute for adult education: a much more affordable route for learning German than Berlitz or the Goethe Institute, although you won't get any official accreditation).  The course gave my German skills a major boost.  The biggest difference I noticed was my grammar.  Before taking the course I would often just throw random words together into a sentence, and pray it made some kind of sense.  Now I'm much more conscious of things like cases and word order.  The rules haven't yet become automatic, but at least now I think about them and try to correct myself.

I have progressed.  Really, I have.  And people are noticing.  But no matter how good my German gets, it never feels real.  The truth is, most days I feel like a big fat fraud.  It's like I'm putting on an act for everyone.  I don't really speak German – I'm just playing the role of someone who does.  I'm constantly acting, pretending, struggling to "pass" – and hoping that people won't see right through me.

There are days I'm so sure that someone will turn around and call my bluff.  "YOU don’t belong here!" they'll say.  "You don't REALLY speak German!"

"RAUS, du Lügner!!!"

I always knew learning a new language would be an intellectual challenge.  What I wasn't prepared for was the emotional challenge.  The feeling that you never really fit in, and you never really know what's going on.  The frustration that comes with being unable to express yourself fully or accurately.  The intense homesickness of missing your native language.  The loneliness and isolation that comes with realising you're the only person in the room who speaks it.

All of the feels.

When I first moved to Germany, I used to play it safe.  Surround myself with English speakers, and only speak German when it was absolutely necessary.  It was like I had this safe little English bubble to float around in.

Lalalala.... bubbling around...

But I couldn't stay in this bubble forever.  After all, I wouldn't always have English-speaking colleagues around.  More and more, I began to find myself in situations where nobody else spoke English.  It was overwhelming, and it scared me half to death.  But it left me with no choice.  I had to sink or swim.  If I wanted to survive, I would have to do it auf Deutsch.

How can I explain the discomfort of constantly speaking a language which isn't your own?  It's like an extra layer of challenge has been added to every single part of your day.  Imagine if you could never see things clearly, but instead had to peer through a screen all the time.  You never get a full picture of reality.  You're always squinting and craning your neck, trying to piece together what on earth is going on from what you can – just barely – see.  That's what it feels like speaking German every day.  Some days the screen obscures a lot, and sometimes it's more transparent.  But make no mistake, the screen is always there.

"It looks like... they're saying something.. about..... a bicycle?"

Perhaps the most difficult thing is that, in German, I can't really be myself.  I'm far too self-conscious and slow on the uptake.  I must seem like the most boring person in the world in German.  I hardly say a word aside from "ja" or "stimmt".  Usually by the time I've understood someone and formulated a response, they've moved on to another subject entirely.

One-on-one conversations are fine, because my conversation partner can always slow to my pace.  But group situations are the absolute worst.  As the talk gets lively, everyone starts talking a mile a minute and interrupting each other.  Meanwhile I'm sitting in silence, looking for all the world like a dull and humourless idiot.  It probably seems like I have no thoughts or ideas in my head at all.  The truth is that my head couldn't be busier!  While everyone else is nattering on, I'm making a bunch of complicated linguistic calculations and mental back-flips just to get a basic grasp of what they're talking about.

So much.... translating....

Any friend of mine can attest to the instant transformation I undergo when I switch from German to English.  As I move to my native tongue, all hesitations fall away, and my true self emerges.  One minute I'm dull as dishwater, and the next minute I'm the life of the party.  Hey, who knew it?  Turns out this girl actually has a personality!

For this reason, I still socialise a lot in English.  Most of my friends are other native English speakers, or Germans with very good English (there's a lot of those).  I may be able to make small talk and friendly chat in German, but this always comes with a certain level of awkwardness, and a lingering feeling that I'm doing my math homework.  It's one thing to go through this effort when I'm on the clock, but why would I want it in my down-time?  Only in English can I truly relax.  Only in English can I feel natural, and be myself without worrying about whether I just used the right pronoun.

"Ahhhh.... this is the life."

And so a real dichotomy has developed.  German is my work language, and English is my leisure language.  It's like I put on a German hat to go to work, and take it off as soon as I get home.

I often wonder when this language will become second nature.  When will I be truly fluent?  When will I speak German with bravado and ease?  When will I form a sentence without thinking, is it der, die, or das?

Years later, Joe still wonders if it was "die Birne" after all

One sure sign will be the day I have a real German friend.  I'm not talking about a German friend who speaks English with me.  I'm not talking about a friend-ly German, who speaks simple German with me so we can make superficial chitchat.  I'm talking about a German who speaks to me in German consistently, using sophisticated language, and discusses deep and important issues.  I'm talking about someone who can be real with me in their language, and not have to constantly worry about dumbing things down.  If I can reach that level of understanding with a native German speaker, I'll know I've really made it.

But I have to be patient.  Learning another language is a slow process, and nobody becomes fluent overnight.  It takes years of repetition, immersion, and trial and error.  Sometimes your progress can be so slow it's imperceptible – and other times you'll make a huge leap and completely surprise yourself.  It will be years before I can feel completely comfortable in German.  In the meantime I'll have to be kind to myself, and trust that I'm moving forward.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Ten Tips for Touring

As you may have noticed, I've been doing a lot of touring lately.  As well as travelling around Germany for various projects, this season I've been in a concert tour of China and Korea.  I just got back from a trip to Spain, and I'm now gearing up for a big tour of South America in April.

Being on tour is an intense experience.  You are with the same group of people, repeating the same programme and travelling together for days on end.  It takes a lot of energy and focus, as well as patience and good humour.  Here are some important things which I've learned about what it takes to be a happy touring musician...

(Psst... You might want to start by getting a bigger suitcase)

1. Stay on top of the paperwork

Touring is rarely as simple as flying from point A to point B.  Often you will have to travel to several different locations, and apply for all of the relevant working visas.  Take it from me – you should start on this as early as possible.  Usually your employer will tell you what you need and which forms to fill out, but you may also need to look into some of this stuff on your own.  And even when you think it's all sorted, there can always be further complications and delays.  I recently had to apply for a temporary second passport at the Canadian embassy, and I'm glad I started early.  As it turned out, they needed English translations of the letters from my employers.  This inevitably took some extra time.  Imagine if I had left all of this until the last minute.  I would have never got the passport in time for the tour.  I would have been landlocked, and lost out on ten days of work!

2. Be prepared for anything

Sunshine, rain, snow, plagues of locusts – you need to pack for every possibility you can imagine.  You'll be kicking yourself if you get to a cold concert hall and realise you've forgotten your long sleeves at home.  Never say never.  Anything can happen on tour.

Betty and Jim really wished they had brought their locust repellent with them to Egypt.

3. Bring along a piece of home

Travelling from hotel to hotel can be stressful and exhausting.  So it's important to make your temporary residence as comfortable and home-y as possible.  Everyone has different things which make them feel at home.  Whether it's a cup of tea, a pair of fuzzy slippers, or a favourite movie on their laptop, these things can transform a cold soul-less hotel room into your home away from home.  Don't underestimate the importance of these small creature comforts.  They can really help you negotiate the stress of long-term travel.

Fuzzy slippers are really important, you guys!

4. Find some regularity

Another way to handle the stress of touring is to create your own regularity within the irregularity.  Having some routines and habits can help everything feel a lot less chaotic.  I have a bit of a ritual when I arrive at a new place.  I unpack my suitcase in a particular order, I have a short nap if there’s time, and then I warm up before heading to the venue.  It's important to me that I unpack right away, so that I can feel settled as soon as possible.  Aside from my unpacking ritual, I am also a member of a gym which has locations all over Germany.  This means that no matter where in the country I'm working, I can always go to my gym and know my way around.  These may seem like small details, but they really help me feel comfortable on the road.

5. Do some forward planning

When you’re travelling for work, there isn't as much space for being spontaneous as there would be on holiday.  Your sightseeing time is limited, and you can't just wander aimlessly hoping to run into something cool.  So research the places you'll be visiting.  What is unique there which you absolutely must see?  When might you have time between rehearsals and concerts to go and see it?  I'm not saying you have to make yourself a detailed itinerary, but it helps to have a rough idea of what you will see when.  I had an amazing visit recently to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  I was particularly inspired by the exhibit of Niki de Saint Phalle.  I'm so glad I put some time aside to go and see it!

Seriously, how cool is this??

6. Pace yourself

Touring requires a lot of energy and endurance.  You have to think of the long game – this is a marathon, not a sprint!  It is of utmost importance that you conserve your health and energy through to the very end of the trip.  Know your own body and be sensible enough to rest when you need it.  You may feel a bit blue about missing a night at the bar or an afternoon of sightseeing, but it's better to make that sacrifice than to end up sick for the rest of the tour.

"Ahhhh.... made it."

7. Keep it fresh

One of the toughest things about touring is that you're usually performing the same piece, over and over.  But just because the music is old news to you, doesn't mean it should sound like that to the audience!  This is the first time they're hearing your performance, and they want to hear something fresh and inspiring.  So don't let yourself coast.  Keep looking for new things in the music, and trying to outdo yourself.  Could that phrase have a smoother legato?  Could that high note have a better approach?  Remember – the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.

This is also a very big room.

8. Set a budget

You can spend crazy amounts of money on tour if you’re not careful.  The last thing you want is to come home to an empty bank account!  Many employers will pay you a per diem for your meals, which can provide a good guideline for your daily spending limit.  However there are some companies who don't provide a per diem, and if you're not careful you can eat up most of your fee before you've even been paid.  I like to take out a set amount of cash every week, based on a daily spending limit.  Some days I might go above or below this limit, but I always make sure it averages out in the end.  As long as I don't need to take out more cash before the week is out, it's all good.  This trick is even easier if you're visiting a country with a different currency.  If you only buy so many pesos from your bank, you will only have so much with you on tour.

Benito Juarez is judging your spending habits.

9. Do it like the locals

Why go all the way to Japan only to spend all your time in Starbucks?  You have a unique opportunity here to explore a new country.  Get out there and enjoy it!  Check out the local food, the local wines, the theatres, the museums, the festivals and marketplaces – everything which makes this place unique.  You may never have a chance in your life to do all of this again.  So seize the day!

10. Schedule some time to crash post-tour

You will be tired after a tour, especially if it's a week or longer.  So for the love of God, don't plan an important meeting the day you get back!  Sometimes these things can't be helped.  But if you have any control over your schedule (which freelancers normally do) make sure you have an empty day or two when you get home.  You'll need this time to rest, recover, and tackle that giant mountain of laundry sitting in your suitcase.

"Send help!"

Touring can be a real hoot!  It can also be a gruelling nightmare if you're not careful.  In the end, it all comes down to how you approach it.  So be smart and organised, plan ahead, and try to keep a healthy balance between work and play.

I hope these tips will help you make the most of your next tour.  Happy travels!

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Interview with Rory McLeod

Check out Rory's Kickstarter Campaign for Pocket Concerts here.

I first met Rory when I was born.  I wasn't sure what to think of him at first...

Me and Rory, circa 1986

...but over time we grew to be friends as well as siblings.  I'll make no bones of it – I think Rory is awesome, both as an older brother and as a mentor.  Over the last few years our friendship has strengthened over common ground as we've both pursued freelance music careers.  He often provides me with invaluable advice and perspective on my chosen line of work.  A few months ago, as we walked through Toronto's High Park, Rory talked to me about his career path, and his new chamber music series, Pocket Concerts...

Rory McLeod (photo by Bo Huang)

We grew together up in a musical family, but you didn't immediately pursue a musical career.  How did you eventually come to be a professional musician?

When I was 17 and applying for university, like most 17-year-olds, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  And I hadn't really taken music all that seriously up to that point, so I honestly didn't think of it as a career option.  I applied for bachelor of arts programmes and some arts and science mixed programmes, because I wanted to keep as many doors open as possible, because I had so many different interests.  And then when I was living in Montreal I was paying for my own violin lessons and I just – as I got more and more serious about practising and worked harder at it, over time I realised it was the most interesting and fulfilling and challenging thing in my life, and that was what made it so attractive to me.  So that's when I decided to study music and try to make a career out of it.

You were originally a violinist.  What made you switch to playing the viola?

Alex, our older brother, was a violist.  So I always knew that it was possible to switch from violin to viola.  And I'd always been a bit curious about it, but I didn't really try it until I was 19 and my violin teacher went away for the summer.  I wanted to take some lessons because I had more time than when I was in class, so I called up a viola teacher and borrowed a viola from the shop I was working in, and I really fell in love with the sound.  Then I started playing some chamber music on viola, and I really enjoyed playing the role of violist – the middle voice.  I had always played second violin, so the role of playing viola came naturally to me.

Rory playing his viola (photo by Vuk Pantovic)

When I was living in Montreal, there was this strange and very upsetting event when my violin was stolen from a car.  I thought it was safe and that nobody would see it covered up by a blanket in the back seat, but it got stolen.  And at first I was really upset, of course.  But then eventually the insurance money came through, and I had been playing enough viola at that point that I started to consider maybe I should replace my violin with a viola.  And I started trying out violins and violas, and I discovered that I liked the sound of every viola I tried better than every violin I tried.  So I figured that was probably a sign.

After finishing your musical studies, you got a job with Symphony Nova Scotia.  You left the job after two seasons and came back to Toronto to freelance.  What motivated your decision to leave the orchestra job?

Well there was a combination of factors that led to that decision.  One is that Toronto is home for me.  My girlfriend lives here, and we were doing long-distance for two years, and I was starting to get tired of only seeing Emily once a month.  Also, Halifax is really far away from a lot of other places, and it starts to feel isolated after a while.  The musical community is full of wonderful people there, and the Symphony is a very good orchestra, and I really enjoyed my job.  But the job alone was not enough to keep me there.  So I decided to try my luck in Toronto and keep stretching myself artistically, and have a bit more of a varied career combining chamber music and teaching and orchestra.

And how are you finding it now, working as a freelancer?

Overall it's great.  For the most part I've been pretty steadily employed since I came back.  I've been really lucky with the combination of coming back at a time when work was available, and knowing the right people who could get me that work.  And I'd done well in a couple of auditions – that helped me to secure some orchestra sub work.  The first year I came back I knew by the beginning of the season I would have enough work to survive on, so that was quite a relief.  I had thought it would be much harder than it was, to be honest.  And then over the course of that first year, I started to realise that just subbing in orchestras was not enough for me.  I wanted something that I could connect with more.  I’d always loved playing chamber music and wanted to play more chamber music, and I wanted to find a way to make that happen.  That was when I came up with Pocket Concerts, a home concert series.  I also started teaching during my second year in Toronto, and so now the combination of teaching and running the chamber series and orchestra sub work provides a really good balance of different kinds of work… and it pays the bills!

Tell us about Pocket Concerts.  How did the idea first come up?

Well it started really by doing a couple of house concerts through people that I knew.  I had done a couple of concerts up in Owen Sound through a personal connection, and I went up there with my brother's quartet – the Ton Beau Quartet – and performed a concert there.  And Alex (our brother) and I got talking about how it would be great to make more house concerts happen.  Because we loved playing them so much and we could tell that the audiences loved it as well.
There's sort of a funny story around the beginnings of Pocket Concerts as well.  I was undergoing a steroid treatment for my inflammatory kidney condition.  I was on Prednisone – a high dose of Prednisone – for six months.  One of the side effects of Prednisone is that you become incredibly energetic.  And so I was an insomniac for five months.  Not only was I waking up in the middle of the night, but I was waking up with this feeling that I gotta do something, I need to make something happen.  So I just started sending out emails and brainstorming like crazy.  And I had a lot of face-to-face meetings with people who I thought would be interested in the idea and could help me develop it.  And I spent a lot of sleepless nights sending emails to artists to see if they would be interested in performing, and trying to make connections with potential hosts.

It's been a year now since you started Pocket Concerts, and it's already turned out to be quite a success.  What do you think the appeal is of this concert format?

I think there's a combination of factors that are appealing to people.  The first is that this is really how chamber music was meant to be heard.  Most of these pieces that we play were written to be played among friends in a small room – hence the name "chamber music".  So we're really bringing chamber music back to its roots.  And there's something really authentic about that.  But there are a few other factors as well.  I think there's a movement nowadays back towards live music and live performance, because people have realised that sitting at home and watching videos on YouTube just doesn't give you the same feeling.  But also the involvement of our hosts – by basically asking them to donate their homes and food and wine and chairs for our concert, we're involving them on a much deeper level than we normally do in the classical music world.  It takes away that artificial separation between performers and audience and the people providing the venues.  What we've discovered is that we're building up a community as we go, and those connections last.  People who've hosted become devoted fans of the series.

The audience applauds a Pocket Concert featuring Rory, Rebecca MacLeod (no relation),
and Rory's girlfriend Emily Rho - photo by Vuk Pantovic

How do you see Pocket Concerts fitting into the musical scene in Toronto and in Canada?

I think it has the potential to really change the way that people relate to classical music.  I think people, when they experience chamber music in that intense environment, they feel a deeper connection not just to the music but to the performers and to each other.  And by strengthening that sense of connection, I think we make it possible for people to find a new passion for classical music.  So I see us as part of the overall landscape of the classical music scene in Toronto.  You know, the symphony is there and the opera is there and the ballet is there and we've got many great early music groups and other chamber music series going on – but we're offering something a little bit more personal, and something that might be more appealing to young people who haven't heard a lot of classical music.

What are your future hopes and ambitions for Pocket Concerts?

We have several ideas in the works at the moment.  We'd really like to expand our private concert series, so we're working on a targeted marketing campaign to try to get the word out to our potential customers.  But we're also talking about outreach programmes, one of which is to offer little mini lessons online, called Pocket Lessons.  Three-minute lessons done by our performers, just giving tips on how to practise, how to work on certain technical aspects of their instruments.  And we would offer that as a resource and also as a way for people to find out that we're around.  We're also talking about starting an office concert series.  We'll probably call it something like Pocket Concerts: Music at Work (our tagline now is Music at Home, so it's sort of adaptable).  We want to offer either early morning or noon hour concerts to people in their offices who just want to fit something in to their day.  So we're really trying to incorporate music into people's daily lives.

What one piece of advice would you give to a young freelancing musician?

Say yes.  Say yes to every opportunity that comes your way, and try everything until you find what really resonates with you.  Don't be afraid to take a risk and do something you've never done before.  Because that's how you learn and grow as a person.  And if you have an idea, do it!  If you think something could be great, don’t just sit there and say "wouldn’t it be nice"... Every musician I know has an extensive personal network that can help them if they actually tap into it.  One of the things I've realised while doing Pocket Concerts is that people really want to help you.  If you're passionate about something, it's really easy to get people on board.

Thanks for chatting, Rory!

Friday, 12 December 2014

Tips for Freelancing (Part 3)

Welcome to my third post of freelancing tips!  These are mostly things which I've learned the hard way, "on the job".  I'm posting them here in the hopes that some of you can avoid making the same mistakes.  At the very least, you can enjoy chuckling over my blunders with a mixture of recognition and Schadenfreude.  If you've missed my past posts, you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

21. Be prepared.
This is one point I have to say I've never struggled with.  I have always been very conscientious about learning my music.  But unfortunately I can't say the same for all of my colleagues.  I have seen people show up at the first rehearsal not knowing a single note of the score.  And it is REALLY annoying.  Any musical endeavour is only as good as its weakest link.  And when someone doesn't know their music, everyone else has to slow down their progress to accommodate them.  This is an extremely unfair burden to place on your colleagues.  Not only is it unprofessional, but it shows a complete lack of consideration and respect for others.  And don't think that your colleagues are the only one who will notice you don't know what you're doing.  The director, the conductor, and any other management present at rehearsals will certainly take note.  You can be sure that no matter how talented you are, they won't want to hire you again.

Scar makes a good point.

22. Dress the part.
I'll never forget my first Messiah.  It was at a cathedral in Paisley.  I wore a beautiful sleeveless sapphire-blue evening gown.  And I almost froze my tits off!  If I had put any thought into my attire (aside from the vanity of wanting to wear a pretty frock) I would have remembered that the Scottish winter is pretty cold, and most churches don't use central heating.  I would have worn thick woolen tights, and a dress with sleeves.  At the very least I would have covered my shoulders with a jacket or a shawl.
Any time you are performing at a new venue, or with a new company, make sure you do your research on what to wear.  Do they have a dress code?  How conservative is the audience?  Are bare shoulders and cleavage frowned upon?  Are women allowed to wear trousers?  And most importantly, how hot or cold are you going to be on stage?  It is essential to dress appropriately if you want to avoid being embarrassed or uncomfortable.

23. Make sure you're on the same page.
Here's another fun anecdote, again from Scotland.  I was hired for my first Vivaldi Gloria.  I immediately got a score from the library, and began preparing my part.  On the day of the concert I made a horrifying discovery: there are two versions of the Vivaldi Gloria, and I had prepared the wrong one.  The edition I had prepared had a considerably shortened version of the duet with the soprano.  We were performing the longer version, and there was a big chunk of music which I had never seen before!  After some panicked photocopying and note-bashing, I managed to get through the concert without disaster.  Needless to say, though, it was not ideal.  This is how I learned I had to check exactly which edition to use.  Don't make the same mistake I did!

24. Check, double-check, and check again.

To Do:
-Make List
-Check Twice

Make sure you're absolutely certain about every last detail.  The repertoire, the fee, the timing of the rehearsals, the address of the venue – anything which risks getting confused or miscommunicated.  Be meticulous about this, and do it well in advance of the gig.  Read and reread any information you've been given.  Make sure there's nothing missing, and if there is something missing, ask.  There is nothing more embarrassing than showing up at the wrong place, or at the wrong time.  There is nothing more uncomfortable than having a misunderstanding with your management about scheduling or money.  So make sure you know everything and are ok with it.  This is what contracts are for.  Which brings us to…

25. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
I know, I know.  Paperwork sucks.

"Um... a little help..?"

But most of the time it's there for your sake.  And if you don't pay close attention to it, you could land yourself in deep trouble.  Like any job, freelancing involves important financial and legal considerations.  So get your reading glasses out and protect yourself.  Make sure you're registered for taxes as self-employed.  Educate yourself on which expenses you can claim, and how to prepare and file a tax return.  Get insurance, and if you can, a savings plan.  In Germany we have a wonderful thing called the Künstlersozialkasse (how's that for a mouthful?).  You make monthly payments based on how much you're earning, and in return they pay your health insurance and put money into a pension plan.  This is an invaluable resource for any freelancing musician.  Most importantly, pay careful attention to the paperwork your employers send you.  Any time you get a contract, make sure you understand and agree with everything before signing it.  Remember: you're usually the only one looking out for yourself.

26. You don't have to like everyone, and not everyone has to like you.
This is a hard enough lesson to learn in life, but it's especially painful to acknowledge when it comes to music.  I know we all like to think that music-making is a magical process, and everyone involved is brought together in peace and loving harmony by the beautiful sounds they make.

"Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya...."

Let's get real though.  Music attracts all kinds of personalities, including the difficult and unpleasant ones.  Don't get me wrong here.  I hope the majority of your employers and colleagues will be lovely, kind, and friendly people.  I hope you will have lots of things in common, and enjoy each other's company.  But the fact is, not everyone is going to become your new bestie.  In fact, some people might be downright mean to you.  The sooner you learn to accept and cope with this, the better.

27. …But you do have to get along.
You don't have to have go for chummy beers together after rehearsal, but you do have to be civil to each other.  No matter what you might think of someone personally, at the end of the day they still are your colleague.  You have to be able to work with them in a pleasant and respectful way.  And this may not be the last time you work with them.  So stay on good terms.  Don't burn any bridges.

28. Learn to manage your diary.
As a freelancer, your diary can look pretty crazy – especially in December.

What the Christmas season looks like for most of us.

But until you get your own management or can afford a personal assistant (sure, that'll be the day) managing your diary is up to you.  Before you accept another gig, take a good long look at your calendar.  Are you sure you're not double-booking yourself?  Are you sure you're not taking too much on?  Think twice before accepting new commitments.  As for the time between gigs, that's important to manage too.  You'll likely have a long to-do list and a lot of unstructured time in which to tackle it.  Learn to prioritise.  What's urgent?  What's important?  What can wait a bit?  Pay attention to your energy at different points of the day, and try to schedule your work accordingly.  Ideally you would want to do your practising when you're feeling the most energetic and focused. You can save your paperwork and emails for when you're feeling more mellow.

29. Know Yourself
Everyone is always talking about how you have to "sell yourself" in this business.  But how can you sell yourself if you don't know what it is you're selling?  Before you start "getting yourself out there" – auditioning, building a website, networking with prospective employers and so forth – you have to do some soul-searching and answer a few important questions.  What are your unique talents and skills?  What kind of musical and performing personality do you have?  What kind of repertoire suits you best and why?  What kind of work do you want to do?  Your answers to these questions will inform a lot of decisions, such as how you market yourself and who you audition for.  It will also help you feel more focused and confident as you continue to build a career.

30. Add some strings to your bow.
Very few musicians make a living doing just one thing.  It's tough out there, and work is hard to come by.  So if you are going around looking only for work as a concert pianist, you are narrowing your possibilities considerably.  How about being a concert pianist who also accompanies, teaches private lessons, and composes arrangements for their own ensemble?  Now we're talking.  Everyone has their own variety of skills and talents.  So find out what else you can do well, and capitalise on that!  The more diverse your skills, the better your chances of survival.

The most important thing to remember?  Freelancing is a tough business.  And despite all the anecdotes and tips I've tried to share with you on here, you will probably make your own unique set of mistakes.  Don't sweat it too much.  Mistakes are normal.  Just make sure you learn your lesson and move on!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Tips for Freelancing (Part 2)

And we're back, with more tips for freelancing!  If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.  Trust me when I say, I've learned each and every one of these from personal experience.

11. Respect your elders.
It seems these days the music industry is getting more and more age-ist.  Everyone is fascinated with the emerging artists, the rising stars.  The newest and hottest young people to hit the scene.  Whatever happened to the respect and awe we used to hold for experienced professionals?  The truth is that older musicians have a LOT to teach you.  They've been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt.  And if you take the time to listen, they'll have some amazing advice and anecdotes to share.  Don't write someone off because their age doesn't begin with 2 or 3.  They may become an amazing friend and mentor for you.

Pierre here could teach you a thing or two about the accordion.
Also, beards and looking stern.

12. Be curious.
When I'm chatting with a friendly colleague, I always try asking what they've been up to lately, and what's coming up next.  Oh, who's the conductor for that again?  And how might I get in touch with them?  This can be one of the best ways to find new professional contacts and eventually get more work.

13. ….But know where to draw the line.
At the same time, you can't expect your colleagues to spoonfeed a career to you.  Some people can be incredibly generous and forthcoming with their information.  But even the most helpful colleague will have their limits.  If a colleague feels like you're just using them for all their contacts and tips, they'll get fed up with it pretty quickly.  Nobody is going to begrudge you a couple of email addresses and tips, but you can't expect them to hand you all of your work on a platter.  You have to do some of the research yourself.  Why would you want to copy their career anyway?  It's their career, something they've tailored over the years to suit their particular skills, talents, and personality.  If you want to be a happy freelancer, you have to build up a combination of work which is right for you.  You have to find your own way.

Back off!  Get your own career.

14. Choose your projects wisely.
One of the toughest freelancing dilemmas is when you get offered two different contracts which conflict with each other.  Sometimes you can negotiate with both parties and find a way to do both.  But usually you're faced with a difficult decision.  Which project to choose?  As someone notoriously bad at decision-making, I know just how stressful this can be.  When faced with a choice like this, I often spend ages agonising over my options and their various pros and cons.  (Seriously, just ask my friends).  There are a lot of factors to consider.  Obviously money is important, but it isn't always the tipping point.  One project might pay less, but still offer a unique and career-building experience – for example, the chance to sing an important role, or work with a well-respected mentor, or perform for important agents and managers.  Perhaps this is a project you know you would really enjoy, because you would get the chance to work with great colleagues, or travel to a country you've never seen before.  In the end you always have to decide what is best for you, right now, at this point in your career.  Is it time to think of your long-term career trajectory, and invest in some professional development?  Can you afford to earn less in the name of fun?  Or is it time to buckle down and do some (perhaps less glamorous) work, so you can pay the bills?

Decisions, decisions...

15. Honour your commitments.
Once you've made your decision, stick with it.  It's important to stay on good terms with an employer, even if you don't think you'll work with them again.  And nobody likes getting the shaft – especially at the last minute.  Sure, sometimes cancelling is unavoidable.  Illness, accidents, family emergencies – these are all justifiable reasons to cancel.  But if you're given the choice, you should always opt to be a loyal and reliable artist.  You can only back out of so many contracts before you start getting a bad reputation.  People talk.  What they'll say is up to you.

16. Pay your dues.
I see a lot of young singers coming out of music college with big heads and starry eyes, thinking they're going to be the Next Big Thing.  And who knows?  Maybe they will.  But they're probably not going to get the big contracts right away.  Everyone has to start somewhere, right?  A lot of the work you do at the beginning of your career will be exhausting, boring, and badly compensated.  It sucks.  I know.  But have courage – you're just at the bottom rung of the ladder right now.  If you do a good job and behave professionally, you'll be on your way up in no time!

Time to get climbing!

17. …But know your worth.
When I arrived in Germany, I accepted some work for very low pay, only to find out that colleagues of the same age and level of experience had negotiated up to a considerably high fee.  Now every time I work for these organisations they'll expect me to be ok working for peanuts.  Why did I agree to work for so little?  I'm a well-educated, well-trained musician with valuable skills to contribute.  And I need to pay my bills just like everyone else!  I've learned this lesson the hard way.  Negotiating fees is a tricky task, but you need to learn to advocate for yourself if you want to pay rent.

18. Keep the big picture in mind.
The problem with gigging around is that it can make you a bit myopic.  You only focus as far as today's rehearsal, or perhaps next weekend's concert.  But what about the bigger goals?  What do you want to accomplish as a musician this year, this decade, this lifetime?  How do you want to build your career?  How do you want to express yourself as a performer?  How do you want to grow as an artist?  If you don't keep thinking about these big questions, you won't have any direction.  Before you know it your whole career will have flown by, and you won't have accomplished half the things you wanted to.

"Remember: we're going THAT way!"

19. Keep getting better.
I know this sounds obvious, but when you're going from one rehearsal to the next, it's easy to get lazy and complacent about your technique.  Maybe you forget to warm up today, or don't bother scheduling a lesson for next week.  Before you know it your sound has gone down the toilet and nobody wants to hire you anymore.  Never take your technique for granted!  You should always be trying to build and maintain it.  After all, that's what's great about being a musician, isn't it?  You never stop growing.  So even if you have a super-busy day, try to take at least 20 minutes to do some technical work and make sure everything is working as it should.  Take pride in always striving to be the best you can be.

20. Fuel your passion.
Sometimes a freelancer gets stuck in a rut.  Shuffling from project to project, never really doing anything they care about.  Everything they do is for money and nothing else.  Not because they love the music, not because they enjoy working with the conductor – only because they need to earn some cash.  This is an incredible demoralising way to work, and if you're not careful it can turn you into a bitter, jaded, and passionless musician.  Ok, so life is not a fairytale.  Sometimes we have to do work that's just that – work.  But we also need to do things which inspire us, which drive us, which feed our musical soul.  Otherwise we may forget what made us choose music in the first place!  So make an effort, on a regular basis, to do a project which really matters to you as an artist.  You may not be able to make money from it.  You may have to set up the whole concert yourself, from the marketing to the venue and reception.  But it will pay off in the long run, because you will be a passionate and inspired artist.  Keep nourishing your love of music and reminding yourself why you do what you do.

Fill 'er up!

I'll be posting more tips soon.  In the meantime, good luck and happy gigging!