Thursday, 29 August 2013

On surviving the summer...

Summertime and the living is… easy?  I wouldn’t be so sure.  For the freelance musician, summer can be a dead time.  Orchestras, ballet and opera companies finish their seasons, and most students go on holiday.  You could go on holiday yourself, but without a fulltime salary that holiday won't last very long.  You need some income to survive.  So what do you do?  How do you cross this virtual gig desert?

Must... get to.. September...
Summer is always a tricky time for musicians - even when you’re a student.  Most students spend their summers hanging at the beach, or working a boring retail job, or melting into their sofa watching reruns of Family Guy.  But music students are more dedicated than that.  As classes end, we see the entirety of the summer stretching out between us and the start of the next school year, and we realise we have two options: stay locked up in a practice room for 2 months, or find an opportunity somewhere for further training.  Most of us choose the second option.

Although, this man spent three months in a practice room with no social contact, and he looks perfectly well-adjusted...
I remember as a student in Toronto, it was only a few weeks into the winter semester before I started hearing the dreaded question: “which summer programmes are you applying for?”  Summer programmes are a booming business, making money off of music students everywhere.  You can find a course in anything from baroque chamber music to contemporary opera.  Some courses may offer scholarships or cover your expenses.  Most come with a price tag.

If you want to improve your ensemble skills, you can also spend the summer in a youth orchestra or a youth choir.  Some of these organisations pay their musicians.  But many of them require a tuition fee – especially if their definition of "youth" leans toward the younger side.
So what happens to the young musician with no money to burn?  How can we gain important skills and experience without breaking the bank, or slowly going crazy in the confines of the practice room?  Enter the summer music festival.

Many summer music festivals, particularly in Germany, are looking for cheap labour.  And they find the answer in young musicians.  Here’s the deal.  You spend the festival singing in their choir or playing in their orchestra, gaining professional experience and learning new repertoire.  For the duration of the festival, you are completely taken care of – travel, meals, accommodation, and the odd free drink or two.  If you're lucky, you may also receive a small scholarship or a per diem.  In exchange?  Well, they pretty much own you.

"My real name is Ted, but for now you should call me 'Sponsored by Lufthansa'!"

As I’ve mentioned before, I used to spend every summer singing in a festival in Stuttgart.  It was my introduction to Germany – and to hundreds of friends from around the world.  In the last few years I’ve been too busy to participate in any summer festivals.  But this year I found myself at a loose end.  I was just finishing my opera course and about to embark on a freelance career – with no work in sight until September.  I couldn’t hang around Belgium practising all summer: first of all it would be incredibly boring, and secondly I wouldn’t be able to afford rent.  So I was delighted when a festival choir asked me to participate for 6 weeks.  They offered a scholarship, plus food and accommodation for the duration of the festival – but more importantly, I would be able to save a month’s rent by subletting my flat while I was away.  My summer was sorted!

So in July I packed my bags and headed to northern Germany.  The festival I was singing for was founded by a famous composer and conductor, and its alumni often go on to win top orchestra jobs.  The festival choir has only been around for 10 years, so it’s not as prestigious or well-known as the orchestra.  But there is a very high standard of singing, as the choir director auditions emerging artists from around the globe.  We were a choir full of soloists: an interesting concept indeed, and with so many strong voices and personalities, there were bound to be some sparks flying.

Working in a summer festival is a surreal experience.  Basically, it feels like summer camp for musicians.  If that sounds like fun to you, I might suggest you get your head checked.  Seriously though, it is very intense and a lot of fun.  For the duration of the festival, you form a small(ish) community with several other musicians from around the world.  You rehearse together, eat together, sleep together, and party together.  Unlike the professional world, there are no days off.  Every day you are working with the same group of colleagues.
It’s an island, a world unto itself.  In a way this feels lovely, like a break from the normal adult world.  No bills to pay, no groceries to buy, no errands to run.  Everything is taken care of, from your bus to the venue to your water bottles for rehearsal. 

No, actually.  We had a ridiculous amount of water provided by sponsors.
But at times it feels isolated.  You're likely to be put up in a college residence in the countryside – idyllic surroundings, but miles from civilisation.  A simple errand like fetching something from the pharmacy can become a major trek.  And then there’s the lack of independence.  On the one hand, someone else is making all of your meals.  But on the other hand, someone else is making all of your meals.  You have no control over what you’re eating for lunch, or what time you eat it.

My middle school music teacher used to have this expression, “fat dumb and happy”.  This is a perfect expression for what can happen to you at a summer festival.  After a while, you get lulled into a false sense of security.  You follow the schedule every day, and you start to coast.  You stop thinking about life after the festival.  You might stop working on your technique and sending out CVs.  Even basic maintenance work, like warming up every morning, can go out of the window.

"Warm up?  Nah, I'm gonna take another post-breakfast nap.."
As for the “fat” part?  Well, let’s just say that 6 weeks of cafeteria meals, late-night eating and post-concert drinks are not kind to the waistline.  After being very well fed - and well-watered - we all gained a few kilos.

While summer festivals take very good care of you, the schedule can be relentless.  After a while, it stops feeling like summer camp and starts to feel more like boot camp. Eat, sleep, sing, rinse and repeat.   In my entire 6 weeks of the festival, I had two days off.  The first one was right after we arrived, and the second was… well to be honest I don’t remember anything about that day because I spent it being hungover in bed.

I was very sensible about taking care of myself and getting to bed early (except perhaps for the night that resulted in that hangover) but despite my best efforts, by the end of the festival I was completely run down.  I had a nasty cold that wouldn’t go away and my voice was barely there. 
Phew!  Time for a rest.
So what does it all add up to?  This marathon of singing, partying, and travelling?  First of all, there is the music.  In this festival, amongst other things, I got to sing in Mahler’s 2nd symphony with Christoph Eschenbach conducting, perform Carmina Burana for an arena of thousands, and work with composer/conductor Eric Whitacre.  I also got to sing in beautiful concert halls in Lübeck, Hamburg, and Berlin.

But beyond the music, there's the people.  This summer I met so many friends from around the world - amazing people who I’ll never forget.  Like the Nigerian tenor with a musical laugh, or the Estonian mezzo with a talent for elaborate hairstyles.  The Armenian soprano with a golden high C, and the Lithuanian baritone with a passion for beatboxing.  Old friends from Scotland with new banter, new friends from Brazil who taught me to samba, and three girls from Dublin who really knew how to party.  Together we shared inside jokes, nights on the dance floor, bottles of wine, long bus rides, and beautiful musical moments.
Singing in the festival has been an intense experience – it's been beautiful, crazy, inspiring, exhausting, and most of all unforgettable.  As I recuperate from the last 6 weeks and recover my voice (and hopefully my former dress size!) I know I will always carry this summer with me.  I will never forget the wonderful people I met, or the music that brought us together.


  1. Great piece, with a nice touch of humour!

    I wish I was there, especially for Mahler’s 2nd, and Carmina Burana.

    Thanks Brynne!


  2. I can't believe how talented you are! So many talents in one beautiful girl :)

    love and miss,

  3. Oh Shira, you sweetheart! How I miss you! Hope you are enjoying your travels in London(?), or wherever you are at the moment. Much love <3

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