Friday, 18 October 2013

On being a freelancer...

I used to love the word "freelance."  It sounded so exciting, so daring, so full of possibilities.  I was thrilled when I was finally able to attach the title "freelance" to my own name.  I thought "freelance" meant freedom.  It meant following your passion and not being tied down.  Life was a big adventure.  The sky was the limit.

In reality, being a "free"-lancer doesn't feel very free at all.  If anything, it can feel more stifling, more difficult, and more oppressive than any full-time job ever could.

Freelancing is a special kind of stress unto itself.  First of all, there is the insecurity.  You can't really count on anything.  Even if a company is giving you regular work, they have no long-term commitment to you.  They could change their mind at any point and start hiring someone else instead.

Then there is the irregularity of work - it hardly ever comes in a steady flow.  Sometimes you may be extremely busy with various gigs and contracts, and other times, well...

So you have to always think ahead.  Save in times of feast to survive in times of famine.  And to make things even harder, you don't always know when those times of feast and famine will come around.  Life is ever-changing and unpredictable.

I was recently reading an article on the daily habits of creative geniuses.  As I read on, something began to dawn on me.  I am not a creative genius.  I don't have any of the right habits: I don't get up early, I don't go for long walks, and I haven't kept my day job.  I'm also not really into substance abuse - but then again, that's probably a good thing.

Does chocolate count as substance abuse?
This is what the article has to say about artists forming regular habits: It was William James, the progenitor of modern psychology, who best articulated the mechanism by which a strict routine might help unleash the imagination. Only by rendering many aspects of daily life automatic and habitual, he argued, could we "free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action".

It sounds great, doesn't it?  Except - wait a minute - how can a freelancing musician form regular habits?  We may be masters of our own hours between gigs, but then we have days, weeks, even months at a time where we are completely at the mercy of someone else's rehearsal schedule.  You can't get up at 10 every morning when your call is at 9:30.  And good luck having the exact same thing for breakfast every day when you're travelling and living out of hotels!

Still, travelling around and following a rehearsal schedule is not the worst of it.  I think the most challenging part of freelancing is the time between gigs - the unstructured time, when you have to make your own work schedule.  At first this freedom can feel like a luxury, but that feeling doesn't last for long.  The problem is that there are no boundaries between work and free time: the two constantly morph and bleed into each other.  When you're working, you want to be doing something else.  And when you're doing something else, you feel bad for not working.  It's impossible to designate a chunk of time for "just relaxing", because there's always this vague notion at the back of your head that you should be doing something.

The guilt trip running through every musician's mind.
Every night feels like a Friday night and a Sunday night all at once.  On the one hand, you don't have to be somewhere the next morning; theoretically, you can stay up late and drink beer like there's no tomorrow.  But on the other hand, you have to work the next day.  Because, well, you always have to work the next day.

Lately, I've begun to look forward to a week of booked work with an urgent kind of desperation.  Not because of the money (although money is nice).  But because I know someone else will be creating boundaries for me.  Someone else will be giving me a schedule, and drawing clear lines: this is when you work, and this is when you don't work.  It can be such a massive relief when someone else has the responsibility of deciding that for you.

So how do you cope with this time between gigs?  How do you avoid letting the lack of boundaries drive you crazy?  Well, I think it is possible to use this time productively if you approach it the right way.  Give yourself some focus: set a goal for yourself, like learning a new role, or preparing for an audition, and use your time between gigs to work on it.  Create a schedule for yourself, or write a to-do list.  Find consistency and regularity wherever you can: try to always practise at the same time, or in the same space.  Personally, I like to practise away from home.  I find that it helps me to focus on my practice and draw lines between my home space and my work space.  This way I know when I am practising and when I am not - I get distracted less, and I don't feel guilty when I'm not practising.  It is possible to use your unstructured time to create some positive habits like this.  You may not be able to stick to these habits every day, but if you stick to them when you can, you will find it easier to slip back into them after each gig.

Of course, there are ways that you can your use flexibility to your advantage.  The fact is that some days you will feel more or less motivated to work.  The unmotivated days are the worst.  You feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall.  I think it's best on these days to just do some work - the bare minimum - and not beat yourself up about it.  It's only natural that motivation will come in waves, not in a steady flow.  But when the motivation is there, use it!  "Ride the wave" to get more done when you can.  For example, last week's blog post was written almost a week in advance.  I had a sudden burst of motivation, and wrote the whole thing in one coffee-fueled Sunday afternoon.  It felt great to press "publish" a few days later, knowing the post was ready-made, and all my hard work had been done well in advance.

Ride that wave, baby!
Another advantage of this flexibility is that you can choose your own hours - find your own rhythm, and figure out which times you work best.  I used to try to practise every morning, first thing in the day.  I felt good about "getting it done" before lunch - I thought I was being proactive and productive.  But in time I realised I wasn't doing myself any favours.  The truth is that I'm not a morning person.  I have a much better practice session if I work in the afternoon or the early evening.  Once I changed my routine to practise in the afternoons, I found that I was doing much better quality work in the practice room.

Freelancing can get lonely.  You don't have a regular boss or set of colleagues, and often it feels like you're the only person looking out for yourself.  This is why it's important to network and find allies.  Just paying more attention to others can make a big difference: you learn a lot from watching how someone else builds their career.  And don't be afraid to reach out to people and ask for advice.  Other freelancers can be an invaluable source of information, and you can really help to motivate each other.  When I first moved to Cologne, I started meeting a friend for coffee and "application blitzing".  We would sit with our laptops and egg each other on as we sent our CVs to various companies, suggesting contacts to each other as we went.  I found that I was really motivated by having a colleague there who was doing the exact same thing.  Then again, maybe it was all the coffee.

"I'm feeling r-r-realllly motivated!!!"
Some freelancers thrive on chaos, and like to take things as they come.  Others need to plan ahead and set their lives in a rigid structure.  Most of us fall somewhere in between.  The trick is to find your own rhythm, your own balance, and work with it.  I'm still pretty new to being my own boss, and I have a lot to figure out.  But I do think I'm starting to find work patterns that work for me.  Freelancing isn't easy, but it's certainly never boring!  Once you get used to the balancing act, discover your own working style, and surround yourself with colleagues you can trust, freelancing can become an exciting and fulfilling way to live.

Friday, 11 October 2013

On working out...

Some people may be surprised to know that I work out.  After all, I don't exactly look like a shining example of physical fitness.

Not me.
Nor am I one of those people who posts on facebook and twitter every time I go for a run.  Nevertheless, I do make exercise a priority in my life.  Ideally, I try to do something physical every day.  If I can't manage every day, I aim for 2 or 3 times a week.  Even if it's just 10 minutes of yoga here or there, I always try to fit something in.

Why do I think exercising is important?  I have many reasons.  Mainly, I think it's an important part of my work.  I think that exercising makes me a better singer.

I'm not talking about how exercise affects my physical appearance.  Yes, exercising can make you slimmer and more toned, and (sadly) this can increase your chances of landing a job.  But that shouldn't be the reason you exercise.

Soprano Heidi Melton recently gave a fantastic interview about what it's like to be an opera singer.  And what she said about fitness really resonated with me:

"I just want girls to be healthy. I want everyone to be healthy! To me, opera is first and foremost about voices. It is about incredible voices that have taken a lifetime of devotion, sweat and tears to train. It is about voices and bodies being able to communicate with the audience. Trust me, I have seen and heard plenty of horrible skinny opera singers. I’ve also seen a lot of fantastic ones. All humans are capable of portraying, expressing and communicating. There is the argument that we have to modernize and make opera more believable and relatable and appealing to the masses. First of all, I wasn’t aware that only thin people fall in love or have interesting stories to tell. This is news to me. As a woman who is not categorized by the rest of society as “thin,” I can tell you that men have fallen in love with me, and that I have fallen in love with men. The fact that I have some wobbly bits hasn’t made that experience less real or less important to me or to them. In addition, I think talent is HOT. Really hot. Sexy comes in all sorts of different packages and what is sexy to me, may not be sexy to you and that’s the way it should be. That makes things interesting and dynamic and HUMAN. I think our boundaries need to be expanded. I don’t think we need to conform to what we are supposed to think sexy is or isn’t. Can’t we come to those decisions on our own? Opera needs to showcase talent. If it comes in a thin package, fine. If it comes with wobbly bits included, also fine. Just sing the crap out of it."

Heidi is absolutely right - singers shouldn't all be thin.  Singers should be whatever shape and size is healthy for them.  And honestly, all this crap pressuring us to look thin and fit doesn't motivate us to take better care of ourselves.  It just makes us feel bad and reach for the cupcakes.  So I thought I would write about some good, positive reasons to exercise - reasons that have nothing to do with your dress size.

1. It boosts your energy.
Have you ever woken up feeling groggy and lethargic?  Exercise is like a big cup of coffee.  It gives you a burst of adrenaline that help you get through the day.  When I start the day with a run, I always feel like I have so much more energy to bring to the practice room and the stage.  It's the difference between starting with a full tank of gas or running on fumes.

Ready and raring to go!

2. It's great stress relief
What singer doesn't need stress relief?  Between auditions, performances, travel, and heavy rehearsal schedules, we are stressed up to our eyeballs.  So blow off some steam in a kickboxing class, or do some relaxing yoga.  I promise that the exercise will help get the stress out of your system.  It will probably help you sleep better too.

3. It makes you happy
Feeling bummed out about a bad audition?  Go to the gym!  Endorphins give you a nice boost of that happy feeling, which we all need every once in a while.

4. It helps your mental focus
Many people come up with their best ideas when they're on a walk.  Why is this?  Exercise helps you to focus your mind.  I often go through music in my head when I run - I find the physical activity really helps me think clearly.  It's the best way I've found so far to memorise music.

5. It warms you up
Singing uses your whole body.  If you come into a practice room "cold", without having done anything physical that day, it will take a long time to warm up.  Exercising warms up the body, and prepares it for singing.  I always find that it takes me far less time to warm up if I have already exercised that day.

6. It keeps you fit
The days of "park and bark" are over.  Modern directors want singers to run, jump, climb, and dance onstage.  If you want to be an opera singer, you have to be fit enough to do all of these things and still have the breath control to sing beautifully.  This may have little or no relation to which size of costume you wear: I've known some very unfit skinny people and some very fit fat people.  Fitness is not what you look like, it's what you can do.  And fit singers can do some amazing things.

Cartwheel on a high C?  No problem!

7. It keeps you healthy
Your body is your instrument, and you have a responsibility to take care of it.  Exercising can increase your lifespan and decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.  A healthy body means a healthy voice and a longer singing career.

8. It improves your body awareness
I was recently having a lesson with a new teacher, and he was doing some work with me on breathing and support.  He was very happy with how well I responded to his direction, and said it was great that I was so "in my body".  I think what he was noticing was the effects of regular exercise.  Singing involves controlling and coordinating specific groups of muscles, and you need to be connected to your body to do that.  These days with TV and internet, we're more sedentary - we often lose our connection with our bodies and become floating brains.  Exercising helps you stay aware of your body and how it works.  This is essential if you want to learn a new technique, or follow someone's stage directions, or just assess what is happening with your voice today.  You need to be highly sensitive to every movement and change in your body.  You can't do this if you're always stuck in your head.

"Bend my knees.. which ones are my knees again?"
9. It boosts your confidence
Exercising helps you feel good about yourself.  Again, I'm not talking about what you look like.  I'm talking about what you can do.  Whether it's because you added 5 minutes onto your run, or because you added 5 pounds onto your weights, or because you just motivated yourself to go to the gym at all today, nothing beats that smug feeling you get after a workout.  And why shouldn't you feel smug?  You're doing something good for yourself - go you!!

10. It balances you out
Singers have an intense career.  We spend countless hours practising, performing, and studying music.  Our schedules are irregular, and we travel all the time.  All of this time spent focusing on one thing is stressful and exhausting.  Which is why it's great to find something you love to do outside of singing - whether it's salsa-dancing, rock-climbing, or marathon-running.  It adds dimension to an otherwise singularly-focused life, and brings some regularity to an otherwise chaotic schedule.  One thing I love about running is that no matter where I am, no matter which piece I'm rehearsing, I can always put on a pair of running shoes and step outside.  It's one of the only things in my life that I can always count on.

It's all about finding balance.
Exercise is a great thing to have in your life.  It can keep you sane when everything else is insane.  If you want to exercise to lose weight or tone up, that's great.  But don't forget that there are so many other fabulous benefits that come with regular exercise.  Benefits which - in my opinion, at least - are way more important than the size of your waistline.  In the end, it's not about how you look - it's about how you feel!

Friday, 4 October 2013

On going the distance (part 2)

It's past midnight on a Monday, and I'm talking to my boyfriend.  It's been over a week since we've last been able to talk - he's been on tour with his orchestra, and they didn't have internet or phone signal at his hotel.  But now he's on a bus to Venice, and thanks to a German phone borrowed from a friend, we are finally able to have a conversation without racking up astronomical long distance charges.

The last week has been difficult.  A series of missed calls, Tolstoy-novel-length texts, and desperate searches for wifi.  We have both felt the absence of our regular Skype chats.  And every time I send an email or a facebook message, it feels like sending a message out to sea - I have no idea when or if it will be received.

Sadly, he would never get to see that hilarious youtube clip...
I don't have a perfect relationship.  I don't even have a perfect long-distance relationship.  In the perfect long-distance relationship, we would have bottomless bank accounts so we could jet over to see each other every weekend.  We would have limitless access to internet and mobile phone networks, so that we could constantly stay in touch.  We would have near-identical schedules, so that it would be easy to find time to talk.

But nothing, as we know, is ever perfect.  Especially when it comes to relationships.

It's been over a year now since my relationship became long-distance.  In the year since I last wrote about it, a lot has happened.  I have learned things about myself and my boyfriend, and about relationships in general.  At times it has been challenging, hilarious, heartbreaking, ridiculous, inspiring, and joyful.  And I thought I'd take the time to share what I've observed and learned.

I always knew that I was going to miss my boyfriend.  I expected to feel sad and lonely when he wasn't around.  And I was right about that.  I always miss my boyfriend - it's a dull kind pain that's with me every day.  What I didn't expect was that I would get used to this pain, that I would stop noticing it.  What I didn't expect was that we would both get used to being apart, and this was a much bigger problem.

In a long-distance relationship, as you spend time apart from each other, you both become more independent.  I mean, of course you do.  You have to.  If you spent all your evenings at home pining for your other half, you'd be on the short track to clinical depression.  So you go out, you make new friends, you find new hobbies.  You get used to doing your own thing, following your own schedule.  And eventually you fall into a rhythm that works for you.  Which is great.  Until of course, your other half comes to visit.

Suddenly, everything changes again.  You can't just follow your own schedule anymore - there's another person to consider.  You've spent all this time filling up the big gaping hole they left behind, and now you have to fit them in again.  Of course, they were a part of your life when they were away too.  But there's a big difference between an scheduled hour's chat on Skype, and being together 24/7.

And then there's the jealousy.  Not romantic jealousy, but friendship jealousy.  I've struggled with this a few times on visits to Sweden.  You see, my boyfriend has this whole social life apart from me.  Of course he needs this social life, and I'm very happy he has it.  But when I come to visit, I can't help feeling a bit left out.  I can't catch up on all the bonhomie these people have shared.  These are people who can take him for granted, who get to hang out with him every day.  They share banter and dance tunes and drinks and inside jokes with him.  They probably even get to hug him more than I do.  How is it fair that he hugs his buddies more than his girlfriend?

At this point, I'm sure a lot of people would love to chime in and tell me that I'm fighting a losing battle.  That long-distance relationships never work.  Well, as my brother says, scratch any cynic and you'll find a wounded romantic.  In my experience, most of the nay-sayers out there seem to be hurt, embittered, or angry about a failed long-distance relationship in their past.  I have also been in unsuccessful long-distance relationships.  Nonetheless, I do think a long-distance relationship can work.  Maybe not for every couple.  Maybe not in any given set of circumstances.  But it can work.

I think a big key to making a long-distance relationship work is to fight the two romance-killers: routine and lack of communication.

I know you're probably sick to death of hearing how important communication is in a relationship.  Well I hate to break it to you, but it's true.  Almost any problem in a relationship is surmountable - if you talk about it openly.  If you don't talk about the problem, it will only get bigger, breeding resentment and misunderstanding.

Now I know what you're thinking.  It's really, really hard to talk about relationship problems when you hardly ever see each other.  The problem is that you want every visit to be nice.  You want to make the most of your time together, and leave with lots of happy idyllic memories.  Memories of strolling down the street hand-in-hand, visiting the zoo, or having a snowball fight.  The kinds of things couples do in a romantic comedy montage.  You don't want to leave with memories of having long, emotional discussions about your relationship problems.  And so it's very tempting to just stick on a smile and pretend that everything is fine.

Yes, everything is just wonderful!

But trust me on this one.  It is always better, if possible, to talk about these things face-to-face.  No technology in your way.  No sketchy wifi connections or crackling phones.  Just the two of you, looking each other in the eye and speaking honestly.

It's also important to communicate with each other about the relationship as a whole.  What kind of relationship is this?  Where is it going?  What do you both want?  You need to be on the same page about these things.  Otherwise you'll discover - far too late - that you are in two completely different relationships.

"Monogamy?!  I thought you said mahogany!"
Which brings us to the second romance killer: routine.  Yes, things can get routine, even when your significant other lives on another continent.  Maybe it's not the routine of ordering in Chinese every Friday, or quibbling over who makes the coffee every morning.  But even routines like talking on Skype every night can put your relationship in a rut.  You start to think of your conversations as an obligation.  You start to let your attention wander, and do things like checking facebook mid-conversation.

I will never forget a particularly cathartic conversation in which my boyfriend and I finally told each other how sick we were of talking on Skype.  Not that there's anything wrong with Skype per se.  It's just that after a while, anything can get boring.  And after all, what is natural about sitting down to speak to each other at an appointed hour, for an appointed period of time?  This should be a relationship, not a business meeting!

So what did we do?  We took away the pressure of talking on Skype all the time.  Instead, we tried talking more through instant messaging, spontaneously, when we felt like it.  And we got creative.  We looked for other ways to reach out to each other.  Whether it was writing romantic texts, sending silly photos, or composing the odd limerick, we found millions of little ways to say "thinking of you".  One of my latest discoveries?  You can send a video message up to 3 minutes long over Skype.  It's a great way to send a message when the other person is offline.  And if you happen to be under the influence of alcohol whilst recording your message, I assure you that hilarity will ensue. 

I am not at all speaking from personal experience.  Nope.  Not me.
Some people will tell you that a long-distance relationship is not a real relationship.  It's just a delusion, a fantasy.  In a way, these people are right.  A long-distance relationship can never be the same as a real relationship.  There is no replacement for being together in person.  Of course, your feelings for each other may be very powerful and very real.  But most of the time, your relationship is more like a promise of a relationship.  A promise of what will be the next time you're together.  This is why it's important to always look ahead.  Plan your next visit.  Get excited about it.  And more importantly, have an end point.  Know that at some point, one or both of you will move so you can be together.

Like any relationship, a long-distance relationship takes work.  You can't just sit back and expect things to run smoothly.  The Beatles say that love is all you need, but I don't think it's that simple.  You also need honesty, trust, kindness, and respect.  You need to never take each other for granted.  Keep showing each other how you feel, whether with romantic surprises or small everyday gestures.  And you need to keep the lines of communication open - if you're not happy, for God's sakes talk about it!

Am I a hopeless romantic for believing in long-distance relationships?  Probably, yes.  But so what if I am?  I'd rather be a hopeless romantic than just plain hopeless.  Call me crazy, call me naive, call me deluded.  But I think that when two people really love each other, and they really want to make it work, anything is possible.