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!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Tips for Freelancing (Part 1)

I'm still pretty new to the whole freelancing game.  In no way would I consider myself an expert on how to do it successfully.  However, I have been freelancing for just under five years now.  And that's enough time to make some significant mistakes.

There are a lot of important things which nobody tells you in school about being a freelance musician.  And so, over the last few years, I've often had to learn things the hard way - through screwing up, falling on my face, and generally being an awkward turtle.

But fear not!  You don't have to learn things the way I did.  I've decided to compile a list of freelancing tips, based on what I've learned through trial and error.  Think of these as the ground rules for gigging.  I originally intended this to be one post, but as it turns out, I have a lot to say on the subject.  So let's begin now with part one of... well, many.

1. Don’t just be on time, be early!
Especially if you're travelling to a new venue.  Many are the times I've found myself running around in a confused panic, searching for a church or a concert hall in an unfamiliar neighbourhood.  

"Where is the venue??  WHERE IS THE VENUUUUE????!!!!"

Granted, I have a terrible sense of direction.  But even if you were born with an infallible built-in GPS, it's always a good idea to leave in plenty of time before the rehearsal or performance begins.  Expect the unexpected – leave extra time in case there's a delay on the train or bad traffic, or, yes, in case you get lost.  Even if there are no delays, it's always good to have a nice window of time between arriving at the venue and beginning to sing.  This way you can get your bearings and relax a bit.  Nobody works well when they're feeling rushed, disoriented, or stressed out.

2. Leave your problems outside of the venue.
Whether you're annoyed with your landlord or just had a fight with your wife, your colleagues don't want to know about it.  Sure, artists are emotional creatures.  But if you want to be a professional artist, you need to learn to control when, where, and how you vent your feelings.  Your personal life and your changing moods should not affect the quality of your work.  Your problems should not become your coworkers' problems.  Work on maintaining a pleasant and professional attitude, no matter what you may be feeling on a given day.

3. Never take any work for granted.
It's a great feeling when someone is hiring you on a regular basis.  Congratulations  they like you!  But unless you're on a full-time, permanent contract with them, you should never assume that they will continue to call you for every gig.  I hate to break it to you, but as a freelancer, you should always feel at least a little bit insecure about your work.  This means you should always aim to impress with your musicianship and professionalism, and remind people why you're the best for the job.  It also means you should always be hustling for new work.  Remember: complacency is the enemy.

4. Watch your money.
Probably the hardest thing about being a freelancer is the cashflow.  One month you might make thousands, and the next month might be a big fat goose-egg.  In the meantime, most employers expect you to pay your own travel costs up front.  And as a younger musician you'll be investing a lot of your earnings back into your career with things like lessons, recordings, website building, and travel to auditions.  You have to spend money to make money.  So it's important to learn to be careful with your cash.  Always be looking ahead.  If this month is more lucrative than the next one, try to pinch your pennies while you can.  You may find yourself eating ramen noodles while you desperately await your next paycheque, only to spend it all at once in a rush of relief and euphoria when it finally arrives.  It's a dangerous financial trap to fall into.  But with some planning and budgeting, you should be able to stay on a more even keel.

Don't do this on payday.

5. Keep it respectful.
This goes without saying when you're dealing with other professionals.  But I would say it's especially important when you're helping out at an amateur gig.  Maybe these people aren't as musically educated or sophisticated as you are.  Maybe they're out of tune and can't count to save their life.  But while this is just another gig to you, it probable means the world to them.  Chances are they've been rehearsing for this concert for months, and it's the big musical event of their season.  So please, have some respect.  Don't make snide, snobby remarks or give exasperated sighs at their mistakes.  These people are making music for the joy of it, to connect with people in their community.  Can you imagine a cause more noble than that?  Amateur musicians deserve your respect just as much as professionals – if not more.

6. Be nice to your management.
I've often seen animosity develop between artists and management, and it can create a very unpleasant atmosphere.  Most of the time this comes from misunderstanding and a lack of empathy on both sides.  From the artists' side, I'd say it's important for us to remember that people in arts administration often deal with an enormous workload, long hours, and a high-pressure work environment – and all for very poor money.  They care a lot about their job, and they are doing their best to take care of the musicians.  Perhaps you're annoyed with a mistake they made in your paperwork.  But while you are only dealing with your own paperwork, they're dealing with the paperwork for all the musicians involved in this project.  So when communicating with your management, try to come from a place of compassion and understanding.  Always give them the benefit of the doubt.

7. Take responsibility for yourself.
As a freelancer, you are your own boss.  This means that nobody else is going to motivate you, hold you to task on important goals, or keep you on any kind of regular schedule.  It all comes down to you.  So man up and take charge.  Be proactive.  Be disciplined.  Be the captain of your own ship.

If you want to feel like a real bad-ass, pretend it's a pirate ship.

8. Take care of yourself.
Your well-being is your livelihood.  So do whatever is necessary to make sure you're happy, healthy, and in good singing/playing form.  Eat good nutritious food, get plenty of sleep, and don't forget regular exercise.  It's extremely important for you to be in good physical shape.  After all, performing is very physical work.  You need good breath support and muscle control, as well as the ability to move well on stage.  But beyond that, you'll find that being fit just helps you feel good. I joined a gym a couple of months ago, and it's been a real revelation.  I find that I have more strength and energy in my day-to-day life.  Travelling is much easier – I bounce back more quickly from long journeys and jetlag.  Furthermore, going to the gym adds a bit of structure to my routine – which tends to be pretty chaotic most of the time.  If you need more good reasons to exercise, check out my post about it here.

Let's get physical!

9. Rest when you need it.
I get it.  You're young and ambitious and you want to do everything NOW.  But taking days off is an important part of your practice.  If you don't have the discipline to not practise right now, you may run into serious physical and technical problems in the next few years.  I try to have one non-singing day every week.  This is not always possible, but I find it's a good guideline to aim for.  Regular rest is essential if you want to stay in top form.

10. Get a life.
I always hear people say "music is my life", as if it's something to be proud of.  But if music really is your life, you're setting yourself up for trouble.  You can't let all your happiness depend on one thing.  You need other dimensions to your life in order to feel balanced and fulfilled.  Get a hobby.  Join a club.  Buy a pet.  Or just make friends with people who aren't musicians.  Anything that adds to your life and isn't connected to your music will make you a happier, healthier, and more well-rounded person.

That's all for now.  Stay tuned for more tips soon!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Asian Tour - Korea and China

It's been a week now since I came home, but the memories of my great Asian adventure are still fresh in my mind.  I was on tour for two weeks with the Lübeck Choir Academy, singing Orff’s Carmina Burana and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.  It would be impossible to capture everything I experienced in one blog post, but I'm going to try at least to paint a good picture.

After a long journey, we arrived tired and disoriented in the city of Tongyeong, South Korea.  Although it was the middle of the afternoon (Korea is 8 hours ahead of Germany), to us it felt like very early morning.  And unless we were lucky enough to possess the freakish ability to sleep on a plane, we had missed a night's sleep.  Now, I know in theory that at this point you're supposed to combat jetlag by powering through the afternoon and going to bed early.  But really, who can resist the siren call of the afternoon nap?  Sure enough, I regretted my nap later, when I found it impossible to sleep at bedtime.

 It didn't take long for me to realise Korea is not a great place for vegetarians.  My Korean friend had kindly written out a little card for me, explaining that I couldn't eat meat or fish.  But when I presented this to waiters in restaurants, I was usually met with blank stares.  My first night in Tongyeong, I subsisted on beer and kimchi – a favourite Korean appetiser of spicy pickled cabbage.  As the week continued, I didn't fare much better, although I was delighted to discover the delicious variety of meat-free snacks at the local convenience store.  It was a revelation when I discovered the Italian restaurant outside our concert hall.  Much pizza eating ensued.

Korean appetisers - just about the only Korea food I ate.

Two vegetarians saved by the power of pizza!

But while I missed out on the wonders of Korean cuisine (apparently the barbecue is something special) I really enjoyed meeting the people.  Everyone I came across seemed very open and friendly, and it was easy to connect with them despite the language barrier.  I'll never forget the funny little lady who served us at a restaurant our first night.  One of us asked if they served chicken, to which she replied "chicken NO", making a cross with her arms for emphasis.  When it was getting late and she saw more singers looking into the window, she closed the blinds on their faces, making it humourously clear that the restaurant was closing.

Chicken NO!!!

Of course, being tall and white with blonde hair made me something of a local curiosity.  I don't think they see many foreigners around Tongyeong, and people made no bones of pointing, staring, and even taking pictures of me and my European companions.  At times it felt like being an animal at the zoo.  But it was never meant badly – it was simple curiosity.  When my friend and I – both fair-haired – sat in the back of the concert hall for a schools concert, we were anything but inconspicuous.  All the children turned around to look at us, and one brave boy even started a small conversation in English.  It was obviously an exciting novelty for him to speak English to real foreigners.  He managed to ask our names and where we came from before dissolving in a fit of giggles.  Mostly though, the children just waved at us.  There was a lot of waving.

In our free time we explored the city of Tongyeong and the local islands.  Tongyeong is a colourful city, with hills of houses and shops sporting impressive murals on their sides.

One of the many murals in Tongyeong

The city also boasts an extensive fish market, with tubs full of live squid, eels, octopus, stingray, sharks, and… other sea things.

Do I even WANT to know what these are??

Those of us who were out and about on a Sunday noticed there was some kind of shamanistic festivity taking place.  Nobody was really able to explain to us what this was.  All we know is there was some praying and incense and a lot of dead pigs involved.

I don't get it.

A small group of us explored the insides of the big sturdy "turtle boats" in which the Koreans once fought the Japanese.  We then travelled by boat to the beautiful Hansando island, where there was a temple dedicated to the commander of one of these battles.  The island and the temple were beautiful, but I was surprised to see a lot of extremely drunk middle-aged men riding the ferry.  Apparently this is a thing people do in Korea.  Get drunk and go to the temple.

Many of the men wanted pictures with us, while the women were fascinated by the tall German baritone in our company ("handsome!").  Some of the drinkers were quite determined to share a swig from their bottle – "Korean whisky!"  It took some convincing before they finally gave up on us.

Exploring Hansando Island

Our visit culminated beautifully with our final concert.  As we finished the final chords of the famous O Fortuna, the Tongyeong audience didn't wait a millisecond before bursting into uproarious applause!  I had never seen such a warm and open-hearted response from an audience before, and I couldn't help being moved to tears.  As we began our second encore – a well-known Korean folksong – the audience smiled and clapped in appreciation.  It was a beautiful moment of connection.  I think right then we all felt the power music has to join people's hearts together.

The next day we flew to Shanghai, where we were joined by more singers and began rehearsing Elijah with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, as well as preparing the fully orchestrated version of Carmina Burana with their conductor Long Yu.  The orchestra welcomed us in their new state-of-the-art concert hall, and it didn't take long before we felt right at home.

Shanghai is an incredible city.  The word "cosmopolitan" doesn't even begin to cover it.  It's like the whole world has gathered to live in one place.  Name any food or retail chain in the world, and you can probably find it in Shanghai.  If you're visiting China, I would highly recommend starting here.  Due to its colonial history, the city feels very European, and people are well accustomed to seeing foreigners.  So while it definitely feels Chinese, you don't experience quite the same culture shock.  It's kind of like China Lite(TM).

Shanghai is full of contradictions.  You'll see amazing juxtapositions of new world and old, such as an ancient Buddhist temple nestled amongst skyscrapers.

The Jing'an Temple in downtown Shanghai

And in the middle of this supposedly communist country, you'll see rampant displays of capitalism.  I've never seen more consumerist culture than I did in Shanghai.  The main shopping street, Nanjing Road, is something like Times Square on crack.  Everything is bigger, louder, brighter, and faster than you can imagine.

One of the favourite things I saw on Nanjing Road was the "dancing aunties" – groups of older ladies who get together and do choreographed aerobic-style dances in the street.  Imagine walking down the street and seeing a big group of women dancing in unison.  This is a totally normal occurrence in Shanghai!

Trying to keep up with the dancing aunties' moves

Outside of the pedestrian shopping streets, things get a bit crazier.  I've never seen such blatant disregard for traffic lights in all my life!  Back in Canada, people rarely honk their horns unless they're being extremely rude.  Most of the time they follow traffic lights with a quiet, polite obedience.  In Shanghai the street is a messy cacophony of honking horns, speeding motorcycles and deadly juggernaut buses.  If you're crossing the street, you better pray to God you'll make it safely to the other side.  Because nobody here cares about your safety – or your right of way.

The streets were worth braving, however, because there were some amazing sights to see in the city.  From the lights of the towers on the Bund to a wall of flowers, to the friendly local bars with resident cats and novel cocktail recipes, Shanghai was full of pleasant surprises.

Oscar, of Oscar's Bar, surveys the cocktail menu.

Standing in front of the wall of flowers (which had rather unfortunate lighting choices)

The Bund at nighttime

Basil drop cocktails - made with vodka, lemon juice, and crushed basil.

The food in China wasn't much better for me than in Korea.  I was delighted to find a tofu dish on one menu, only to find there were big chunks of sausage mixed in.  Apparently the Chinese don't see tofu as a meat-substitute the way we do.  Nevertheless, simply by nature of being in a bigger city, I was usually able to find something I could eat.

The exchange rate from euros to Yuan is pretty generous, so many of us felt some degree of financial release.  It was kind of like being rich for a week.  I splurged on a massage and a manicure – luxuries I would never allow myself back in Germany.  And at the markets were full of a variety of inexpensive quality goods – once you argued the price down, that is.  Many of us became adept at haggling, which could turn into a very dramatic exchange.  I often saw people walk away, pretending to lose interest, only to be chased down and dragged back into the shop by the salesman "no wait, I give you best price.  Cheap-uh cheap-uh!"  I suppose it was very good practice for contract negotiation (although with contracts you would want to argue the money in the other direction).  Some people had jackets and concert dresses custom-made at the textile market, while others bought excellent imitations of brand-name items at the "fake" market.  I bought a wireless "Bose" speaker for my boyfriend, and had a beautiful set of concert jewelry made at the pearl market.  And all for less than 35 euros!

Custom-made dresse at the textile market

There was one less glamorous aspect of Shanghai though – the toilets.  The toilets in Korea had ranged from the pedestrian to the extraordinary.  Some of the toilets in the concert hall had looked like something out of science fiction, and offered various options on an attached remote control (I was not brave enough to sample these myself, but I heard they were rather.. exhilarating).  In Shanghai, however, most of the public toilets were holes in the ground.  These are probably more hygienic in a way (who wants to sit on a seat when so many butts have been there before??).  But when you're not used to squatting, it's quite an unexpected workout for your thighs!

The squatting didn't bother me so much.  After all, like any red-blooded Canadian girl, I've done my share of peeing in the woods.  What really bothered me was the lack of flushing.  Most of the toilets – even the ones in our hotel, which were conventional Western toilets – never really flushed properly.  So instead of throwing used toilet paper in the toilet, most people simply throw it in the bin.  Now, don't try to tell me that that's more hygienic.

Moving on to more savoury topics, both our concerts in Shanghai went very well.  It was thrilling to perform Carmina with a full orchestra, and our conductor was full of energy and intensity.  His enthusiastic counting to the orchestra ensured we all knew how to count to three in Chinese – ee ar suh, ee ear suh, ee ear suh!  And we were joined by an adorable children's choir, who looked absolutely angelic in their white-and-gold sailor-style uniforms.

Performing Carmina Burana with the SSO and our angelic children's choir

While Carmina ran pretty smoothly from the get-go, Elijah had a few hiccups in the beginning.  The alto soloist had learned her part in English.  Luckily, thanks to some coachings from one of our basses, she was able to re-learn it pretty quickly auf Deutsch.  Meanwhile one of our altos helped her out by jumping in as the Königin, a very dramatic and wordy part which would have been rather difficult for a non-German speaker to learn at the last minute.  We were all stunned by the Königin's intense and skilful performance.  It was awesome to see one of our own get a chance to shine!

The hall was less full for Elijah than for Carmina – I suppose German oratorio is not really Shanghai's thing.  But we still had a good-sized audience, and following a successful performance from orchestra, choir and soloists, we received a very nice standing ovation.

Finally it was time to go home, and after picking up some last minute souvenirs at the markets we headed to the airport for a midnight flight to Frankfurt.

Everyone's settled back into their respective homes now, and we've been making up for a week without facebook by posting millions of awesome photos and videos from the trip.  My jetlag may have faded, and my suitcase may be unpacked, but I still feel as though a part of me remains in Asia.  I certainly hope I'll get the opportunity to visit again.

Monday, 20 October 2014

On finding clarity...

It's been a while now since I moved to Cologne, and dare I say it, I'm starting to feel pretty settled.  I have a flat here with my boyfriend.  A real flat, with our own lease and our own furniture and our own names on the mailbox (trust me, this is exciting).  I have teachers and coaches who I enjoy working with regularly.  I have some employment – enough to pay the rent, at least.  I have a gym.  I have a phone plan.  I even have a favourite café.

But something is missing.

Since moving to Germany, I've thrown myself wantonly upon the local music scene.  I've auditioned for anything and everything.  Agents, conductors, opera choruses, professional choirs and ensembles… you name it.  Some of these auditions were fruitful, some were ok, and some were downright disheartening.  But auditioning is an expensive and exhausting venture.  I can't keep on auditioning for everything like this – it's like shooting in the dark.  I need to start making smart decisions.  I need to find a focus.

And herein lies the difficulty.  What kind of career do I actually want?


I've reached an important turning point.  I can't go any further forward before I decide which direction I want to pursue.  Right now I'm making a living out of professional choir work, with occasional solo gigs.  If I follow this path to its logical conclusion, I will be aiming for a full-time choir job – possibly supplemented with some solo concert work.  And yet… I went to an opera studio.  I've always been aiming for a solo career in opera as well as oratorio.  Can I really just abandon this idea of myself as an opera singer?

If I do indeed want to keep pursuing opera, I need to work on a completely different skill set than the one I'm currently using.  And I need to start learning important "staple" roles for my fach – an area where I'm way behind compared to other singers my age.  On the other hand, if I'm happy with my current career path, I should be focusing on concert repertoire, auditioning for high-level ensembles and radio choirs, and pursuing solo concert work within the local church music scene.  So the question presents itself: should I be trying to re-model myself and push for the opera career?  Or should I accept that I'm a concert singer, and make the best of these talents and skills?

I've hit a real fork in the road.

It's a big question, and the answer will have repercussions on many other important decisions.  Who I choose to audition for.  How I write my biography and CV.  The way I present myself to potential employers and colleagues.

There are other considerations as well.  It's not just about what I want, or what I’m good at.  What would actually make me happy?  What kind of lifestyle do I want?  How much travelling do I want to do?  Do I want marriage, a home, children?  How much would I be willing to sacrifice in the name of professional success?

What people don't tell you is, the answers to these questions tend to change over time.  When I was younger, I thought the only thing I wanted was the career.  But as I've gotten older and done a lot of travelling, my values and priorities have changed.  Now I know I want to get married.  I want to have a home.  I want to have children someday, maybe even a dog.  And I want to be home enough to enjoy all of that.

Especially the dog.  Obviously he will be a Bernese Mountain Dog.

Choosing a career path is a difficult and loaded question for any young singer.  Attached to the word "career" is a huge amount of emotional baggage.  There are of course your own dreams, aspirations, and hopes for the future.  But on top of that there are the ideas of your parents, your peers, your partner, your teachers and mentors.  How do you separate all of this out?  How do you figure out what you actually want?  What you need, what you're good at, and what will ultimately make you happy?

The problem is, we singers tend to care an awful lot about what other people think.  We live for approval and applause.  It's a dangerous way to live.  We often find our own ambitions obscured by the ambitions of others.  The greatest obstacle in finding what you want is the idea of what other people think you should want.

I did my undergrad at a music school where opera was placed at the top of the singing food chain.  Every singer was supposed to want an opera career more than anything else.  Only the best singers were groomed for a solo opera career – any other type of singing was considered somehow inferior.  This was never explicitly stated of course.  But that was because it was so obvious it didn't need saying.

....but shh, don't say it out loud."

I remember one evening in my undergrad, speaking to a choir director who had taken a liking to me.  She asked me what my plans for the future were.  I proudly told her that I wanted to sing in the opera chorus and eventually get into the opera school.  She was disappointed by my answer.  "I always lose my best singers to the opera chorus," she lamented, "I don’t understand why".

I remember later recounting this to my friends, and scoffing at her reaction.  Of course she lost her best singers to the opera chorus.  Opera was simply the best, the highest level of singing.  Everyone knew that!

Fast forward to the present, and I still find myself weighed down by this value system – a value system which other people have imposed upon me.  And I find myself judging opera work as somehow better than concert work.  Even when I succeed as a concert singer, I find myself apologising for my accomplishments.  It's "only" a concert, I say.  It's "only" choir work.

"Oh, you know... just a litlle ol' concert somewhere..."

When I learn opera arias and audition for opera agents, I'm never sure if I'm living out someone else's plans for my future.  How do I know if this is really something I want?  How do I know it's not what someone else has told me to want?

On the other hand, much as I love the concert repertoire, much as I enjoy making music with other singers in a choir, I can't help but feel this is the path of least resistance.  I've always been naturally good at concert singing, whereas opera stretches me and pushes me out of my comfort zone.  If I choose to pursue a concert career, am I choosing not to change and grow as a person?  Am I playing it safe?

A few weeks ago, overwhelmed, I wrote a long email to my teacher.  I detailed all of these doubts and conflicting emotions, and asked him what he thought I should do.

His answer was brief but illuminating.  "Read your email again," he said.  "Look at your own words – it's obvious what you want to do."

And he was right.  When I wrote about concert work, my words were passionate and heartfelt.  When I wrote about opera, my words were clinical and ambivalent.

Opera is an amazing art form, full of amazing music.  I know a lot of people who are truly passionate about it, who want to throw their heart and soul into it.  The thing is, I'm not one of them.

It's incredible that it's taken me so long to realise this.  In fact, if I'm being honest, I think I've known it for quite a while.  I just wasn't ready to accept it.  I was so caught up in seeking approval, in fearing judgement, in looking sideways at other singers' accomplishments, that I couldn't recognise my own truth.

The truth is that I love to make music with other people.  The truth is that I get a buzz out of sitting down and doing detailed, nuanced musical work.  The truth is that I feel way more comfortable and confident on the concert stage than I ever would on an opera stage.  And it's time to stop denying who I am.

Once I realised this, a wave of relief flooded over me.  It was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  The weight of other people's beliefs and expectations.  The weight of thinking I should be at an opera house, or I should be getting an agent.  The weight of pursuing someone else's definition of "success".

And everything clicked into place.  Suddenly it was clear exactly what I needed to do.  Which repertoire to sing, and who to sing it for.  Everything made sense like it never had before.

Finally - the right path for me!

Finding clarity can be hard.  Sometimes you can't hear your own heart's desire over the noise of everyone else's.  But once you find the path that's right for you, trust me – you'll feel the difference.  And then there's no looking back.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

On happiness...

Whenever I go home to visit my family, I find myself taking stock of my current situation.  I reflect on my decision to move to Germany, and the life I've built for myself there.  And the same question keeps coming back to me.

Am I happy?

It's a funny thing, this word "happy".  We're all taught that it's something we should want.  The Americans even go so far as to put it in their Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Happiness is something we chase, covet, and put on display.  But what is happiness, really?

A few months ago I joined this online project called 100 Happy Days.  The idea is that for 100 days, you post a picture every day of what makes you happy.  People who've participated in this project say that it's helped them to feel joy and gratitude in their life.  To appreciate the little things.  To notice the things they were taking for granted.  Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

When I started 100 happy days, I was in a bit of a funk.  The freelance lifestyle was really grinding me down.  I was tired, frustrated, and burnt out.  I thought something like this might improve my day-to-day life.  Maybe it would help me feel better about the world and myself.

And at first, it did.  Having to choose something positive in every day can really change your outlook on things.  I noticed things like sunshine and good cups of coffee.  I felt grateful for cute dogs and long walks.


It didn't just change my outlook – it changed my whole approach to life.  You see, these days my life seems to take on a sort of all-or-nothing approach.  When I'm on a project, I work and socialise very intensely.  But when I'm at home between projects, I become something of a recluse.  I sit at home drinking tea and watching terrible German television.  Of course, a bit of rest is necessary after long weeks of travelling and singing.  But then that bit of rest always tends to drag out a little too long.  And before I know it, my time at home becomes a long string of "nothing" days.  I do nothing special or nice.  I do nothing memorable or worthy of notice.  I get up, I practise, and I rinse and repeat.  And the time ticks away, meaninglessly.

Once I started 100 happy days, I couldn't have any more nothing days like that.  Every day I had to take a photo of something that made the day special.  And there are only so many photos you can take of the television screen, or your favourite pair of slippers.  So I had to get out there in the world.  I had to be kind to myself, and seek things that made me feel good.

All in all, the project seemed to be good for me.  I was appreciating little things, and finding little things to appreciate.  Surely that would make me feel happy, right?  If I kept looking for happy things, and pointing out happy things, then I must, by default, feel happy myself.

The only problem was, I wasn't happy.  At the time, I was frustrated with my career, which seemed to be going nowhere fast.  I was putting in long tedious hours of rehearsal for very little money.  And I had crippling back pain which just wouldn't go away.

At first I thought putting a smile on things would help.  Finding something to be "happy" about, even though I wasn't able to walk that day.  Isn't that the kind of stuff motivational posters are made of?

[Insert cheesy you-can-do-it quote here]

But it didn't help.  In fact it seemed to make things worse.  On days where I was feeling miserable, the last thing that I needed was a reminder that I was "supposed" to feel happy.  The 100 happy days project began to feel like a guilt trip.  Look at this wonderful thing – shouldn't it make me feel good?  Shouldn't it make me feel thankful?  How could I possibly stay unhappy despite its existence?

The answer, it seemed, was that I must be ungrateful.  I must be spoiled.  What kind of miserable person would refuse to feel happy in a world full of sunshine and kittens?  Surely I had to look on the bright side.  Surely I had to see the good in everything.

And so this project – which was supposed to help me enjoy my life – became a burden.  It was an annoying daily chore.  I resented it.  I dreaded it, the way I used to dread doing my math homework in school.

And yet I kept pushing myself to do it, every single day.  Why?

Like many people in our society, I was obsessed with the idea of happiness.  I believed in positivity and "looking on the bright side".  And I felt an immense pressure to present a smiling face to the world at all times.

"I'm... so... happy!"

After all, nobody wants to hear about unhappiness.  Nobody wants to hear why your life sucks.  Why would I unload that kind of emotional baggage onto other people?  People like to hear about the funny things, the exciting things, the enjoyable things.  They certainly don't want to hear about doubts, anxieties, frustration, sadness, anger, or loneliness.  I felt I owed it to the world to stay bright and cheerful.  To avoid polluting the air with my discontent.

And of course, there was an element of pride in there too.  If I admitted I was unhappy, it meant I was weak.  It meant I was a failure.  I had taken big risks moving away from home and pursuing a singing career.  And I so wanted to prove to others that I was right.  I wanted to be a success story.  I wanted to show that the risks I'd taken had been worth it.

Like many people, I often used social media to present a skewed, overly-positive version of my life.  And in return, I saw skewed versions of my friends' lives.  I felt a need to measure up, to show off, and to out-happy them.

The crazy thing is, for the longest time I thought this was healthy.  I thought that positivity and optimism, in any measure, at any cost, had to be good.  And if I just kept "looking on the bright side", my life would improve.  I could make myself feel happy.

"Always look on the bright side of life..."

It took me a long time to understand that I was playing a game of deception.  This kind of relentless "positivity" was not good for me.  It was a toxic lie which I was trying to sell to myself and others.  And dishonesty is never healthy for anyone.

The truth is, not all days are going to be happy ones.  Some will be good, some will be bad, and some will just be "meh".  And that’s the way it's meant to be.

Can you imagine if every day was wonderful?  It would get pretty boring after a while.  In fact, it wouldn't feel wonderful at all, because you wouldn't have any point of comparison.  You can't appreciate happiness if it's the only emotion you ever feel.  It would be like living in a world where the only colour is yellow.

"...Dave..?  Is that you...?"

Instead of holding every day to some impossible standard of "happiness", why can't we just accept where we are at the given moment?  Maybe you're feeling a bit sad right now.  That's ok.  You're also allowed to feel angry if you like.  Sometimes life really does suck.  And it's important to let yourself feel that, just like it's important to let yourself enjoy life when it's good.

At some point, the 100 happy days project fell by the wayside.  Party because I didn't have internet in my new apartment, and it was too much hassle to post every day.  But also, it didn't sit right with me anymore.  I didn't want to force myself to feel one emotion all the time.

The strange thing is, once I stopped being so self-conscious about being happy, I felt happy a lot more.  I still had my ups and downs.  And some days still passed by with nothing really special happening.  But when the good times came, I really enjoyed them.  And when the bad times came, I didn't worry that I wasn't enjoying them.  I let them pass over me.  I let myself feel what I was feeling.  And everything was ok.

What is happiness?  It's what happens to you when you stop trying to chase it.  The minute you start wondering "am I happy?", you can pretty much guarantee that you won't be.  Happiness isn't meant to be pursued, or examined, or gripped onto.  It's something that arrives without warning and leaves just as unexpectedly.

Happiness: the ultimate ninja.

It's been over a year now since I moved to Germany.  And yes, I am happy.  I'm also sad, angry, confused, pensive, anxious, and many other things on top of that.  And you know what?  I think that's ok.