Sunday, 26 January 2014

On getting back to business...

Ah, January.  A time of rebirth.  A time of new beginnings.  A time of resolutions and personal growth.

Yeah, right.

The truth is, January isn't quite the inspiring time that it’s meant to be.  Despite all the fireworks and New Years hype, most of us greet January with a world-weary sigh.  The holidays are over.  It’s back to business as usual.  Christmas has left us overweight, overspent, and exhausted.  And now we have to haul our figgy-pudding-filled selves back to the everyday grind of work.  This is why the third Monday of January is known as "Blue Monday", the most depressing day of the year.  We’re like a horde of cranky children throwing a fit.  We just don’t want to go back to school.

You might think that returning to work is easier for a freelance musician.  After all, our work consists of doing what we love.  Don’t we spend all day making music, pursuing our deepest passion?

If only it were that easy.  While we do spend many hours making music, we also spend a lot of time doing non-musical work.  Sending emails, placing phone calls, booking flights, writing applications, and making out invoices.  This is the dreaded un-fun side of the job.  The never-ending list of administrative tasks.  The business behind the art.

In large-scale arts companies, this non-musical work is split up among a team of specially dedicated professionals.  The musicians deal with the music and the management deals with everything else.  Individual artists, when they are established enough to afford it, will also delegate their administrative work.  They might hire an accountant to do their taxes, an agent to book their gigs, or a personal assistant to take phone calls and manage paperwork.  But many of us don’t have the luxury of separating the business from our art.  We have to be our own agent, accountant, and personal assistant, all rolled into one.

The freelance musician: a Jack-of-all-trades.

If you're living in the UK, January means one thing and one thing only: the dreaded annual tax return.  Being self-employed can make your taxes more complicated than string theory.  You will have several different employers throughout the year, all with different tax codes.  And as if this messy hodge-podge of income sources wasn't bad enough, there's the matter of tracking business expenses.  Every penny you spend for your music should be accounted for.  The problem is, nobody is entirely sure what counts as a business expense.  Do you claim makeup and hair products, if you sometimes use them for auditions?  Do you claim heating bills if you teach or practise out of your home?  Musicians are constantly debating over these questions, and nobody ever seems to reach a solid conclusion.  The fact is that there are a lot of blurred lines in the music business.  Nobody knows quite where their business ends and their life begins.

If you work abroad, a tax return can get even more complicated.  The various tax laws and treaties between countries are enough to confuse an expert in international law.  Then again, your employer might decide to simplify things by charging a “foreigners tax”.  In other words, he will take a pickaxe to your paycheque and chisel off giant chunks until it's no longer recognisable as money.

This is your pay after foreigners tax.

When I first became self-employed, I was not at all prepared for the Gordonian Knot of paperwork that awaited me.  I hadn't kept track of anything.  When the time came to do my tax return, I was in for a nasty surprise!  Nowadays I’m fairly fastidious with my records.  I keep a diary of my income and expenses, marking down the date, location, and project for each receipt.  It’s tedious work, but I know it will make things much easier when I file my taxes.

Beyond the complicated world of taxes, there is of course the tricky matter of booking work in the first place.  This would be no problem if the work was regular, but it's not.  Music is a business of feast and famine.  Some weeks you will be inundated with offers, and other weeks you’ll be left twiddling your thumbs.  Music companies seem to have an irritating tendency of scheduling all their performances at the same time, instead of spreading them out evenly throughout the year.  Until Hermione's time-turner becomes a real thing, and you can actually manage to be in several places at once, you're left with a tough decision.  Instead of doing four projects in a month, as you would like to, you end up choosing only one.  Not the most exciting project, mind you, but the one which pays the most money.  And the rest of the month?

With work being so irregular, cashflow is often a problem.  When you get booked for a gig, you may think your bank account can heave a sigh of relief.  But it's not that simple.  Many companies will require you to book and pay for your own travel and accommodation, only to reimburse you later.  You have to pay a lot out of your own pocket before you see any money from your employer.  This is on top of the many other expenses which you regularly invest in to advance your career: lessons, coachings, masterclasses, young artist programmes, accompanist fees, headshots, website development, recording sessions, and the list goes on.  You tell yourself it will be worth it in the long run, and it usually is.  But it can take a long time before you see any tangible monetary results from your investment.  The fact is that most musicians have to go into a large amount of debt before they get paid.

A lot of musicians address this problem by applying for extra funding, whether it's a grant, a scholarship, a bursary, a loan, or a line of credit.  And what does that mean?  Surprise, surprise.  More paperwork.  

Send help.  Please.
Now if you're anything like me, you hate this non-musical aspect of the job.  The money, the logistics, and the piles upon piles of paperwork.  It’s the kind of stuff that makes me hate being a grownup.  But it’s a necessary evil.  Some days I can’t face it, and I let the paperwork and emails pile up.  Other days I get a burst of motivation and decide to tackle everything head-on.  I make up my mind: today is the day!  I’m going to be proactive and professional!  I’m going to sort everything out!  I send out a blitz of emails, and I fill out every application form I can get my hands on.

Oddly enough, not much seems to change after my monumental decision to Get Things Done.  As it turns out, just because I've decided to be super-productive and organised, it doesn't mean that everyone else has.  And so my emails sit unanswered in someone else’s inbox.  By the time I get a response, my burst of motivation has ended.  I let the work pile up, and the whole cycle begins again.

Sometimes, however, by some magical alignment of the stars, another person has decided to Get Things Done at the same time as I have.  They get back to me right away, and everything gets sorted out.  We both bask in a shared glow of smugness and relief, knowing that we've managed to accomplish yet another boring unsavoury task.  It’s pretty much the best feeling in the world.

When you think about all the petty administrative work and bureaucratic battles that musicians have to tackle, it's amazing that we ever get around to making music  And yet, somehow we do.

We do this non-musical work as a labour of love.  We love our music.  And we know that without the administrative work, the musical work would never happen.  So we soldier on, and we fill out more forms.  It may be tedious and stressful and unnecessarily complicated.  But it's essential work, and somebody has to do it.

And on that note, I have some more applications to fill out.  Happy January, everyone!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

On being German...

By now I've become pretty familiar with German culture.  And for the most part, I like it very much.  After all, I wouldn't be living here if I didn't feel some kind of affinity with German-ness.  Nevertheless, there are some aspects of German culture that continue to elude me.  Little quirks that leave me completely perplexed.  Here are ten of them, in no particular order.

1. Everything is on time… except Deutsche Bahn.
Germans value their Pünktlichkeit above all.  Or so it would seem.  When you live in Germany, you learn that there is one major exception to this rule: Deutsche Bahn.  For Deutsche Bahn, schedules are meaningless.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that Deutsche Bahn employees spend their spare time sitting around laughing at the so-called schedules and the customers who are naïve enough to actually believe them. 

"And then I said.. the train will arrive at 10:30!!"
If there is one rule in Germany, it’s that the trains are never on time.  After a couple of train journeys, you learn to expect the familiar announcement: “Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren…” followed by a verbose explanation about why your train is going to be late.  At this point I’ve learned to adapt to the tardy trains.  I book my trip so that there's a window of at least two hours before I need to arrive.  And then I pray.

2. Jaywalking is a cardinal sin.
If you come from Canada or the States, you know that it’s *technically* against the law to cross when there’s a red light.  But this law is more of a guideline, to be followed within reason.  If there are no cars on the road, of course you’re going to cross.  Why should you waste time waiting for a light to change colour when it’s perfectly safe to walk?  Why, you may ask?  Because you’re German.  To the Germans, the Ampelmann is an emissary of God, to be followed austerely with a fervent devotion.  Any transgression against the command of the Ampelmann will be viewed as a cardinal sin.  You will be punished severely with hellfire and brimstone.  Or at the very least, you will be chastised sternly by any nearby Germans.

3. Speeches are sacrosanct.
Germans looooove to make speeches.  Long, long speeches.  You cannot expect to attend any event and not have to listen to at least two self-important Germans make a speech.  And don’t expect the speech to be clear or concise either.  It will be as long-winded as possible.  Full of flowery overly-formal language which is unnecessarily difficult to understand.  I think this is why Germans eat so many cold cuts and potato salads.  This way they don’t have to worry about the food going cold while they listen to the speeches.

Sehr praktisch.
4. There is no concept of queuing.
Where I come from, queuing is kind of important.  It’s polite to line up, and Canadians pride themselves on their politeness.  The last time I was in Toronto, I looked on in wonder as people at the bus station formed two perfect lines where the bus doors would open.  The bus hadn't even arrived yet, and people were already thoughtfully anticipating how they would board it in an orderly fashion.  It was truly a beautiful sight to behold.  Here in Germany, however, people don’t queue.  They swarm.  There is no concept of waiting your turn, or first come first served.  The idea is that you push and shove, and if you have sharp enough elbows you will get where you want.  This is particularly disconcerting when exiting and entering trains.  You would think that people would wait for you to get out before pushing their way in, but oh no.  It’s mayhem, I tell you.  Total mayhem!

Trying to exit a train in Germany.
5. Everything is dead on Sundays and holidays.
So I've been living in Europe for a while now.  I've gotten pretty used to things being closed on a Sunday.  I understand this is not a culture of speed and convenience, like the one that I come from.  Sunday is not for shopping and consumerism – it’s for quiet reflection, reading, gardening, and spending time with family.  I get it, ok?  In fact I think it's kind of a nice idea.  So I think ahead, and I make sure I have everything I need from the shops on a Saturday.  What has come as a total surprise to me, however, is the way things shut down on holidays.  For example.  Christmas Eve is a day of hustle and bustle, right?  The day that everyone goes out to do their last-minute gift shopping and buy more butter and flour for Christmas dinner?  Not in Germany.  This year, to my shock and horror, I discovered that everything shuts down before 3pm on Christmas Eve.  And I mean everything!  Want to enjoy one more merry glass of Glühwein at the Christmas market?  Forget it.  The Christmas market is already shut down and packed away for the year.  On Christmas Eve, a busy German city will transform into a ghost town.  It’s actually really creepy.  The same goes for New Years Eve, New Years Day, and a bunch of random local holidays which will probably take you by surprise.  Basically, don’t expect to be able to get anything from the shops.  Ever.

Germany on a Sunday.
(People still wait for the light to change before crossing.)

6. Fresh air is important, but drafts are dangerous.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wrap my head around this one.  Germans are often opening their windows or going on little walks for some "frische Luft".  At the same time, they have a pathological fear of drafts.  The most common complaint you’ll hear from a German is “es zieht”.  Why are drafts so dangerous?  Well, apparently Germans believe that drafts will make them sick.  Colds, flus, pneumonia, arthritis, the bubonic plague – you name it, and the Germans will most certainly blame it on a draft.

"It vas se draft."
7. Air conditioning is also deeply suspicious.
Like drafts, Germans have a deep-seated suspicion of air conditioning.  They believe that the artificially circulated air will make them sick.  It doesn't matter how uncomfortably hot you are.  It doesn't matter if you are suffocating or fainting from heat stroke.  Apparently it is healthier to remain cooped up in a stiflingly hot muggy room than to turn on the air conditioning and – God forbid – allow your body to return to a regular temperature.  I have no idea where this superstition comes from.  All I’m going to say is, I've spent many summers in air-conditioned Toronto not getting sick.

8. Everything must fit neatly into a category.
If it doesn't, people will react with panic and confusion.  Germans like to sort everything into boxes.  They like everything to fit into one box, and one box only.  Anyone who’s familiar with the fach system in opera will be aware of this, but trust me, it goes much further than that.  When I opened a bank account here, I was interrogated about the nature of my work.  Not only did they want to know that I was a freelance singer, they wanted to know exactly what kind of singer I am.  Do I sing opera, oratorio, lieder?  Do I sing as a soloist or in choirs and ensembles?  When I replied “all of the above” the lady at the bank looked horrified.  I’m pretty sure she almost had an aneurysm.

"I can't fit her into a category!  WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!!"
9. You have the right to offer your complete, uncensored opinion to everyone.
It doesn't matter if they’re a total stranger crossing at a red light (see above).  They should still hear your opinion.  Germans feel they have the right to judge everything openly – and with no sugar coating.  Sometimes this kind of blunt honesty can be refreshing.  One could argue that it's better than being dishonest for the sake of being “nice”, as people often do in Canada.  But sometimes you’re minding your own business, not asking for an opinion, and a German comes up and assaults you with it anyway.  I mean, come on people!  That’s just plain rude.

10. Cake hardly ever tastes as good as it looks.
I cannot count the number of times that I've ordered a beautiful piece of cake at a German cafe, only to be sorely disappointed.  It looks like it should taste glorious, but it's just a bland lump of flour and butter.  What gives, Germany??  Are you not allowed to use sugar in your baking???  The weirdest part is that these cakes, as well as being completely tasteless, are extremely fatty.  Talk about a waste of calories!  If I'm going to break my diet, I want my tastebuds to at least enjoy the experience!

German cake: not to be trusted.

Germany, I love you dearly.  But some of your oddball traits will puzzle me until my dying day.  At the very least, I can congratulate myself on taking things lightly.  While many of these things used to make me cringe with frustration, these days I’m able to brush them off with a chuckle and a shrug of the shoulders.  After all, aren't we all a bit weird? 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

On seeing the big picture...

I've been pretty quiet on here lately, and the reason is that I've been very busy.  I spent most of December doing choir work.  I was very grateful for this work: after all, I was earning money by singing, and not by doing data entry in an office or scanning items in a grocery store.  I also really enjoy singing in choirs.  I get a real sense of satisfaction out of making music with a large group of singers.  And the choral repertoire is full of stunningly beautiful music.

The thing is, I don't want to sing exclusively in choirs.  I want to have a solo career.  And taking on lots of choir work makes it difficult to keep working towards that goal.

It's a tricky situation, and one which a lot of young singers struggle with.  The reality is that most of us don’t earn a living with our singing right away.  So we take a “day job” to make ends meet until we can get our careers off the ground.  The trouble is, a day job is often so draining and demanding that you can lose sight of your long-term career goals.

You need the "day job" to survive, whether it's teaching, choral singing, or temping in an office.  But you also need to work on your long-term career development.  Let the day job slide, and you have no money.  Let the career slide, and you'll be stay the day job forever.  So how do you keep the balance?

The balancing act: it gets pretty crazy!

I have been struggling with this balance a lot lately.  My problem is that I look at my work through a zoom lens.  When I'm working on a choir project, I focus on that project and nothing else.  I work hard in rehearsals, but the rest of the time I usually act as though I'm on holiday.  Drinking coffee, shopping, having a few beers at the hotel bar... It's an easy trap to fall into, especially when I'm surrounded by a fun group of colleagues.  Of course I need some downtime to recover from work, but if I treat all my "free time" as free time, I won't make any progress as a soloist.

I have arias to learn.  I have my technique to work on.  I have applications to send off and auditions to prepare for.  So why am I frittering away my free time like this?  Am I just being lazy?

I think it’s more complicated than that.  It's a matter of limited resources.  There is only so much energy and focus a person can put in on a given day.  If you spend all day poring over a spreadsheet or sitting in three-hour meetings, it’s not so easy to concentrate on learning a new aria in the evening.  It gets even harder when your "day job" uses your voice, as it does in teaching or in choral singing.  There's a limit to the number of hours per day in which you can healthily sing.  And you want to preserve the best of your voice for when it's important - that is, when you're getting paid.

But beyond practicalities, there's the matter of perspective.  It’s just so easy to get sucked into small details and forget about the big picture.  You end up living from day to day, thinking about what you need to do now in order to survive.  

"I just need to keep my head above water.  That's all."

The trick is to think beyond your day-to-day survival. Think bigger.  Check your map.  Where are you now?  Where do you want to go?  How are you going to get there?

Everyone has an ambition for the future.  A goal towards which they believe they are working.  But are you really working toward it?  You can tell people your goal all you want.  You can shout it from the hilltops and post it all over facebook.  But unless you are taking regular steps to achieve it, your goal is nothing more than a delusion. 

"I am going to start my own company!!!
You can tell I'm serious about it because of the sunset!"

It’s important to keep working on your big picture, even when the smaller picture may be limiting your time and resources.  The trick is to avoid burnout by working smartly and efficiently.  I've discovered a few things that help.

First of all, you need a bare minimum.  Something you can commit to doing every day.  This should become a daily habit, as routine as brushing your teeth.  My bare minimum is a good warmup.  Warming up every day is very important for many reasons.  It keeps my voice healthy and sets me up to sing well for the rest of the day.  It also serves as an M.O.T. – a chance to check in with my voice and see how everything is working.  Is my high A a bit thin this morning?  Are my low notes a bit wobbly?  How is my coloratura running along?  Warming up helps me check in with my voice and be aware of anything different I might have to look out for later in the day.  Even if I’m in rehearsals all day and have no time for individual practice, I make sure I start the day with a good warm up.

Warming up: your daily vocal M.O.T.

Secondly, you need to set smaller goals for yourself each week.  These goals should be realistic and achievable.  Some weeks you just won’t have time to get as much done.  But making small progress is better than no progress at all.  You may not be able to learn a 10-page aria this week, but perhaps you could work through the first two pages. 

Thirdly, motivate yourself by keeping track of your progress.  Make a to-do list.  Enjoy ticking off tasks as you finish them.  And keep reading the list to remind yourself of what still needs to be done.  Checking your to-do list is like checking your compass.  It reminds you of where you are and where you’re going.  And it alerts you when you're veering off course.

Uh-oh.  My career should be heading northeast, not southwest.

What about those days when you come home from an eight hour rehearsal and you have no voice left?  Can you still use your time productively?  Absolutely.  There are a lot of things you can do without singing.  Listen to recordings to hear how other singers interpret your repertoire.  Listen to recordings of your lessons and coachings, and take notes.  And practise mentally.  Go through your music in your head, imagining in detail exactly how you want to sing it.  You’ll be amazed what a difference you’ll hear the next time you sing the piece.

Finally, don’t dismiss your “day job” as a mere money earner.  See it for its full value.  What can you learn from this job which you can use in your career?  If you teach, can you learn something from the way you've addressed a student’s technical problem?  If you sing in a choir, can you work on improving your breath control, or your pianissimos?  If you work in an office, can you learn some important tips on running a business?  Remember, you are pursuing a challenging career which demands diverse skills and knowledge.  You can find learning opportunities almost anywhere.  So think outside of the box, and try to see the full worth in every experience.

The hills are alive with the sound of learning opportunities!

It’s hard to remember the big picture.  We all have days when we get home from our day job and just want to collapse on the couch.  But do this every day and you’ll be stuck on the couch forever.  Your time may be limited, but you can still use it smartly.  Remember that quality is more important than quantity.  It doesn't matter how many hours you can put in today.  As long as you are investing thoughtful, focused work towards your long-term goal, you will make progress.

Your dream can remain a dream or it can become a reality.  It’s up to you to decide.