Orchestral Etiquette: how to get conductors to like you

You think being excellent at your instrument automatically makes you an asset to your orchestra?

Well… not necessarily.

I started playing with orchestras as a child, going away for week-long orchestral courses for IAPS and NSSO. These early experiences of playing in an orchestra are absolutely fantastic and get you into some great habits. As a young harpist, I was lucky to receive guidance from many amazing harpists – all of whom I still know and respect today (Honor, Gabriella, Eira, Rachel, Georgina and Anita to name just a few).

The following is a list of some of the things I’ve learned about playing in orchestras, if you are new to orchestral playing, following these tips will certainly help you make a good impression. 

If some of these seem stupidly obvious, please forgive me, it’s my attempt at being thorough. Please know that this isn’t me being ‘holier than thou’ – believe me I’ve often fallen short of these standards. But I believe this is what we should all strive for.

Being on time is not good enough

First thing’s first. If a rehearsal starts at 10am, turning up at 10am means you are late and inconveniencing the conductor. I’d recommend if you have a large instrument (harp or percussion), aim to arrive AN HOUR before the starting time of the rehearsal. Everyone else, half an hour. 

Hear me out here.

Arriving sufficiently early means you have time to find somewhere to park, unload, sort any potential disasters, find where you are going, settle in and tune before wind and brass start warming up, and maybe even grab a coffee too. By the time 10am rolls around, you’re relaxed, warmed up, caffeinated, and good to go. Plus, with traffic and the (very real) possibility of getting lost, we often arrive later than we expect – so this plan at least gives a good margin for error

No chatting, NO PHONES, no reading, unless the orchestra is rehearsing a movement you’re not in.

I get it, you’re not playing for a hundred bars and you need the gossip from last night. Maybe just send a quick text to see what’s going on. 

No.

Conductors see everything and being on your phone in a rehearsal is unprofessional and rude. Just don’t do it. If you’re not playing for a whole movement that’s perhaps different but in general, keep in off, in your bag, away from you so there’s no temptation. Personally, during movements I’m not in a prefer a good book or a crossword/sudoku.

Whispering and chatting to your deskie while the conductor is talking is also a no-no, it’s obvious and distracting to others.

Tune quickly and quietly, when it’s your turn, and stop playing when you are in tune.

Oh, the joys of getting an orchestra in tune. Harpists, sit back and hope that you tuned to the same A that the oboist is now playing – personally I prefer 440 Hz but different orchestras might do things differently (441 or in some places even 442 *shudder*). Everyone else, tune when directed to do so, but please do it as quietly as you can (so as to be considerate to the players around you who are also tuning) and stop playing as soon as you are in tune – to make it easier for those still tuning.

Practise the music beforehand

I hope this one is obvious, particularly for harpists. If you can get your hands on the music in advance, do it! What helps me a lot is finding the score online (try imslp.org) and then listening to it on spotify. Notice any tricky or solo passages and work on those. Mark up your part as necessary. The better you know the music, the better prepared you are on the day. Preparation is key and no one wants to get caught out.

Be prepared

Have a specific bag that you bring with you to rehearsals, or keep these bits in your instrument case. A couple of 2B pencils (darker lead and easier to rub out), a wire stand in case there aren’t any at the venue, and a folding light just in case the light is poor for the concert. 

Depending on your instrument of course you will need other bits and pieces, for me, I take my gig bag, the contents of which I list here.

Having these bits with you just puts your mind at ease that you won’t be caught out. It’s embarrassing to not have a pencil when you need to mark important instructions (cuts, repeats etc.)

Always, always, count.

So you’re not playing for a hundred bars, cry me a river and just make sure you count. All the time. SO many times I’ve been counting for what feels like hundreds of bars only for the conductor to stop just before I come in. Classic. But it’s still useful. You learn and can note down any important cues and get so much more of a feel for the music this way – and ultimately – that will add to your confidence when it comes to the performance. You’ll know exactly where to come in – and the conductor will love you.

Never rely on getting a cue from the conductor.

I say this with love, I really do. Conductors have so much to think about I don’t know how they do what they do. They won’t always be able to bring you in for your entry. This is why you need to count 100% of the time. Still WATCH the conductor at all times, but don’t be afraid to come in if they don’t give you a cue.

Harpists and other lone instruments: if you are not sure about your entry, come in anyway, if it’s wrong, it can be addressed, if it’s right, great work! Have the confidence to just come in, even if you’re not completely sure where you are. This comes with time and experience.

After a concert, sit when the leader sits, leave only when the leader leaves.

All this bowing, clapping, and standing after a concert has finished can seem silly, I mean, some of us actually have homes to go to, homes that are really far away. If in doubt, do what the leader does, when they sit, you sit, when they have left the stage, you can leave the stage.

Just don’t actually bow, you’ll feel ridiculous and you’ll be the only one. Smile at the audience and stand up straight, act like you are proud of what just happened.

Long Black is more professional that All Black.

Ladies, when it comes to concert clothes, let’s keep it decent. You don’t want the audience thinking you must be going clubbing right after the concert. This is less of an issue in winter, when church concerts make you want to put at least ten layers on as well as a hot water bottle and mittens.

But seriously, smart, professional, and long is best in my opinion. No miniskirts. ESPECIALLY if you straddle your instrument (I’m looking at you, cellists and harpists).

I used to love flouncing around in a black ball-gown at every orchestral gig I did. Nowadays I prefer smart black trousers, a black plain top and a black cardigan for smaller concerts and I keep the dresses for the bigger concerts halls and solo gigs.

So there you have it! Just a few tips to help make a good impression on your colleagues at orchestral gigs. Thanks for reading and I hope you find them useful.

Do you have any others that I’ve missed? Leave them in the comments below. 

What I’m Practising: February 2016

After the relative quiet of January, there’s a lot to be getting on with this month.

When I’m practising, I like to look ahead in my diary and see what orchestral gigs are coming up in the next six weeks or so, and then work on the music for those things. Background gigs don’t need specific practice unless there are special requests that I need to learn. Solo recitals will obviously need more than six weeks too.

I like to spend the first half an hour warming up. Typically this will involve exercises and Bach. I’ve been really enjoying revisiting the Fugue I played for my Final Recital back in 2011:

Bach Fugue

I find that starting my practice in this way really helps me focus and get into the zone before getting my teeth into new stuff.

The main concert I’m practising for is in March in Chesterfield. Lots of English music is on the programme, and a few pieces I’ve actually never done before:

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We are playing a different arrangement of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, which feels really strange! I know the traditional harp part so well that it seems weird to learn a different part to the same piece…

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I’ve also been getting back into the habit of daily piano practice

Up until recently the most piano playing I would do is sight-reading through duets with my dad when I visit my parents in York. I still do that of course but I have been loving getting back into regular practice.

I could do with ideas for new repertoire to learn on the piano, as I’ve been doing the same four Czerny etudes for about ten years! Please comment below with suggestions. Am really enjoying clattering through the last movement of Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D major and Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat.

I’d like to do more duets, and I’d like some piano lessons. I will investigate and report back next month.

January 2016 Gigs

Only a couple of gigs to report on this month. Both background gigs. The first was at Bolton’s Museum and Art Gallery – a drinks reception for KBL Solicitors. It got a write up online that you can read here.

http://www.theboltonnews.co.uk/news/business/14221652.Bolton_law_firm_celebrates_30th_birthday/

I have to say I was looked after so well in Bolton, I was given a plate of delicious canapés and everyone always made sure I had a soft drink of some sort. That makes such a difference. I often have to travel to somewhere totally unfamiliar, greet people I’ve never met or spoken to before so little things like food and somewhere to change my clothes really make a huge difference.

The next gig was down at Alton Towers Conference Centre. This was an unusual event. Firstly, I’ve never been to Alton Towers before. Yep. Never. I had no idea that it’s actually in the middle of nowhere! It was already dark when I arrived and I hadn’t seen another car for several miles (the same happened on the way home, quite spooky really). Oh, and the building seemed deserted when I arrived, walking down empty corridors in a strange building after driving down empty roads in the dark for ages is so weird!

Anyway, I did eventually find where the dinner was taking place and wow, it looked pretty cool:

Enchanted Forest dinner, Alton Towers.

The whole evening had an Enchanted Forest theme, and I wish I could have taken pictures of the guests – a lot of effort went into the costumes! Everyone was there, chimney-sweeps, Snow White, Aladdin, Captain Hook, it was crazy!

DSC00370harp in the enchanted forest. Alton Towers.

So that’s pretty much it when it comes to gigs this month. Luckily I had loads of work in December, and because of the way I now organise myself financially I’ve been able to keep paying myself each week as usual. Looking back on previous January blog posts, it’s interesting to see how things have levelled themselves out now. No panicking if a gig doesn’t pay for a while, not too much stress if there’s a quiet time with not many gigs, hey, they’re pouring in now! I guess that, after freelancing for over four years now, I’m learning that it’s all going to be ok. There is work out there. There are jobs out there. There are opportunities out there. And I intend to grasp all of the above with both hands.

What I’m Practising: January 2016

January is a weird month.

 

As usual I seem to have very few gigs and end up praying that the money I made in December will see me through to February, when people seem to start doing stuff again, getting married for example.

 

So this year I’m making the most of this ‘time off’ by learning some new repertoire. Does anyone else find it hard to learn new pieces after graduating? Please tell me I’m not the only one! Without the regular weekly lesson and the fear of a bad performance in front of your peers, where is the motivation to learn something new from scratch?

 

Well, that changes in 2016. I’ve never properly learned the Britten Suite for harp. I can’t believe I allowed this fantastic piece to pass me by until now. I’m focussing on the first movement this month. It’s an awesome piece, and Britten is a real favourite of mine.

 

I have also started a new Bach-Grandjany Etude, with the ultimate aim of having mastered each of the 12 studies in the book. The new one is an arrangement of the Allemande from the second violin Partita and so far I love it. But what’s not to love? It’s Bach for crying out loud, arranged by Grandjany – arguably the forefather of modern harp playing. The ultimate dream team.

 

Lastly, as some light relief, I’m polishing Guitare by Hasselmans. I’ve started this before but never really polished it up to performance standard. It’s not the most challenging piece in the world, but it’ll fit nicely into my background music repertoire and is nice enough to listen to. It’ll be one that gets performed a lot as it’s very charming and ‘Spanishy’.

 

Having had quite a big break from the harp over Christmas and New Year, it’s refreshing to go right back to the start and jump in with some new pieces. The routine of doing each hand separately, in small sections, slowly until it’s comfortable has been the routine my whole life, as long as I can remember, since starting the piano at the age of three. I know I can do it, it’s what I do.

 

I used to hate practising. There, I said it. But now I love it. I think that change has to do with the fact that when I sit down at the harp, all I need to think about is the harp. Maybe it’s like meditating, or just being mindful, but it refreshes the brain and the spirit. Even if everything else in life is not going the way I was expecting, I can sit down and play and it feels normal, comfortable, predictable.

 

Musicians: what are you practising this month? Any musical goals or new year’s resolutions? How are they going? Let me know in the comments.
x

New ways to keep in touch…

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Hey!

So I’ve been pretty nervous about doing this, but I’ve taken the plunge and uploaded my first vlog to YouTube:

Check it out and let me know what you think. While you’re there make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel, I’m planning on posting lots of videos of pieces I love, wedding music ideas, and vlogging what it’s like to be a harpist on the road.

If you’re more of a tweeter or an instagrammer then you can always follow me on those platforms too @harpistangelina

Happy Friday everyone!

x

Music Business Myths #1 ‘you only get one shot’

As a new experiment on this blog, I thought I’d share what I think are some misconceptions about the big bad music world and us mere humans trying to navigate our way around it.

The first one I’d like to address is the idea that, you get one chance to really make your career amazing. It could be a big concert, a presentation, some sort of performance or audition that you feel could be a huge break for you, and if you fail or do less than your best, that’s it – career ruined, minimum wage job for the rest of your life – no more chances.

This, in my opinion, is a mindset that is so unhelpful that we need to put it to bed right now.

Sure, some gigs might lead to more work, better work, with influential people – fantastic! – but if those seemingly ‘more important’ gigs don’t go well, you can recover, you can regroup, you can carry on and learn from failures instead of thinking of all the missed opportunities.

In fact, some of my ‘failures’ have actually taught me way more than the concerts that went well. As musicians, we dedicate our lives to learning, and this is true of freelancing as much as it is true for mastering your instrument.

Having an important string break just before a big concert? We learn to always have spares of everything. Just in case.

Late to an important gig? We learn to leave enough time, even when we think there won’t be traffic.

Solo performance could have been better? We learn to evaluate our performance, see where we went wrong, practice differently, and do better next time.

Instead of looking at all our failures, all the times we went wrong, all the times we didn’t fulfil our potential, let’s look at what went well, what we can change for the better, how we can improve.

A career like this is a journey for us. A huge learning curve. Nobody starts off knowing everything, we learn by experience. If something doesn’t go well, as Taylor would say shake it off and remember tomorrow is a new day. It’s a big world out there, don’t be afraid to jump in and move forward.

Tax advice for musicians

Having been freelancing for about four years now, I’m about to complete my fourth tax return. It can be daunting when you first graduate but it needn’t be scary. I thought I’d write this post and give some pointers and help.

Please do bear in mind that I am not an accountant or a financial expert, this is just coming from my own experience of doing my taxes for the past few years. There are lots of different ways to do your taxes, this is just what I do on a yearly basis.

The very first thing you need to do (if you are earning money from gigs and private teaching) is register as self-employed. This is straight forward but very important as if you don’t pay your National Insurance contributions, it might affect your state pension. So head on over to the relevant gov.uk page for registering as a sole trader and fill in the forms. Simple!

Ok, done? Now for the slightly time-consuming bit.

You need to keep a record of your business income and outgoings. I like to keep a file for each year, with a divider for each month, fees from a gig? Keep a note. Had to buy food at a gig? Keep the receipt and make a note. I also make sure to file away any contracts, pay & display tickets, restaurant receipts, invoices (sent and received) and anything I receive from HMRC in there, which makes it much easier to compile my accounts for the year.

As a very important side note – in order to complete your tax return you will need a P60 form from any employment you’ve undertaken with an organisation, do you have a part time job in a bar/shop/school? Without these, your accountant won’t be able to complete your tax return and you’re kind of stuck.

Got it? Awesome.

Let’s say you need to drive to your gigs. For each gig you do, make a note of how many miles you have travelled, maybe keep a monthly total.

For the first 10,000 miles of the year, you can charge 45p/mile as travel expenses, anything after that can be charged at 30p/mile. This theoretically covers fuel, insurance, car repairs and servicing, so the mileage should be the only car related expense in your records.

What about music, strings, concert clothes? Yep, keep the receipt in your folder and add it to your expenses when compiling your records. Concert clothes are a little tricky as they should only be for concerts, so if you intend to wear it on a normal day you shouldn’t really include it as an expense. If in doubt, keep the receipt and ask your accountant. I might ask mine about costume jewellery…

Then, at the end of the tax year I make a spreadsheet, one column for the type of expense (e.g. sheet music) then in the column next to it I’ll put the amount to the nearest pound (e.g. £15). A few columns later I’ll do a similar thing for income (e.g. Sheffield Wedding 10th October – £200). Then I’ll go chronologically down the spreadsheet in months.

Each month needs total values for Income, Expenses, PROFIT (Income minus expenses) and Total Miles Travelled.

Once you have compiled all twelve months – give yourself a big pat on the back and pour yourself a glass of something – you can work out your TOTAL Income, Expenses, Profit, Miles Travelled, and Mileage. If you have geeky tendencies like me you can also work out monthly averages by dividing the total values by 12. So you have a monthly income to aim for each month.

Press save, take to your accountant and the rest should sort itself out. You can also put accountants’ fees on your expenses and do bear in mind that many accountants offer cheaper services the earlier you see them. So a tax return in May or June might cost you £100 but leave it till January and you could be staring down the nose of around £250. Being organised pays off!

And that’s it! If there’s anything I haven’t explained very well do let me know in the comments and I’ll try and be more clear.

Also, it’s the time of year when students are graduating! Congratulations to everyone graduating from RNCM in particular – this post is written with you in mind. If you have any questions about life in the ‘big wide world’ so often talked about at college, leave me a comment and I will do my best to help.

Porto!

I’m back! Freshly tanned and totally refreshed from ten days staying in Porto with some of my lovely friends. So I thought I’d post about it and let you know what we got up to (and make you just a little jealous).

As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, Porto is beautiful. Not only that, the food is amazing and the people are super friendly.

We sampled the local delicacy known as the Francesinha – basically shove as much meat as you can into a sandwich – sausages, steak etc, top with a fried egg, cover the whole thing in cheese, drown it in a sauce – the main ingredient of which is booze, then add fries.

Yea, don’t eat these every day:

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We drank a lot of red wine, and a lot of port – it’s rude not to, right? We took a tour of the Cockburn’s port cellars and tasted some of their port afterwards.

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Everything is so cheap out there. In a supermarket you can get a lovely bottle of wine for €2.50, a bottle of nice port for €8 – and a proper meal out in a restaurant can be between €5 and €10. It’s ridiculous! Apparently in England we just get ripped off when we buy anything.

We had a day trip to see a Medieval Festival, which was fabulous.

Lunch: 1 rabbit.

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Wine: 1 Euro.

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I got the chance to read some books that I’ve been meaning to get round to for ages.

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I (finally) finished Stephen King’s Needful Things  – very creepy. Then I read Life of Pi which was fantastic, one of those books that you just can’t stop thinking about after finishing. I then started Solar by Ian McEwan, which is very good so far. I intend to keep reading as much as I can now that I am back. I so enjoyed not having my phone at all for those ten days, and only sporadic internet access to check for emergency emails. It meant that the group spending time together meant conversation, playing cards, cooking, and just enjoying each other’s company as you can clearly see here:

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We played the card version of Monopoly – Monopoly Deal – for hours and hours. It is so addictive and well worth checking out if you haven’t seen or heard of it.

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I also finally learned how to play poker! With Monopoly money of course…

So all in all, a fantastic trip. Big thank-you to Artur Pereira for hosting us so generously – we love you! Here’s to the next time 🙂

The Summer so far…

It’s been a busy summer so far. I can’t remember when my last free weekend was  – which is very good news for a harpist. Since getting back from Denmark I’ve had at least one gig every single week. Usually weddings.

I’ve also received some lovely feedback from the happy couples and their families to let me know they appreciate my playing – I love getting reviews like this! You can check them out on my lastminutemusicians.com profile here.

I’ve realised that there are benefits to arriving at wedding gigs early: Sunbathing.

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I’ve had the opportunity to go and play in my old stomping ground – the RNCM and its new concert hall – my harp looks so small from up at the back:

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I also had a concert alongside the choir that I sing with – the choir of St. Ann’s Church in Manchester city centre. This was of course followed by the usual trip to the pub, where some of us stayed out way too late – I won’t mention names at this point:

Choir concert

As well as the frequent gigs, I’ve managed to find some time here and there to chill. Marten’s birthday was lovely, we went for a long walk around the Edale Valley – it was so nice to see some green and get some fresh air!

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There are lots of changes happening at the moment, lots of new ideas in the pipeline. I will keep you updated of course! But in the meantime, you can always subscribe to get my posts in your inbox – I recently changed website hosts, so if you are used to getting emails from me you may have to re-subscribe – sorry about that!

You can also follow me on twitter and instagram @harpistangelina for updates on my adventures. Send me a message and say hi! I love hearing from you.

The Weekend.

One of the things I love about playing for weddings is that it usually doesn’t take all day – I can be home for dinner. Last Saturday’s wedding at Hilltop Country House in Prestbury was no different. I was only playing for the Ceremony itself, plus a little background beforehand, so I was done in just over an hour.

It may now be officially summer, but there was lots of rain, luckily, the venue was prepared:

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However, the rain did mean that the ceremony had to be inside, and due to the number of guests, the harp wouldn’t fit in the ceremony room itself and I was positioned in the next room in the hope that the music would ‘waft through’. I’m assuming it did.

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I was back home in time to catch a film with some friends – Jurassic World – I’d highly recommend it. Very entertaining if slightly predictable (hey, it’s the fourth Jurassic film, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it etc.) It did make me feel old to think that I remember the first film coming out over twenty years ago and I found the references to the original Jurassic Park completely adorable (who remembers the awesome night-vision goggles?)

After the film we visited HOME before going home.

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HOME is a new development in Manchester, involving a cinema, a cafe, a bar and probably lots of other things I haven’t had the chance to explore yet. It’s lovely though. There are deckchairs outside for sunny days. We stopped for a quick drink before heading back.

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On Sunday morning I was singing with choir, as usual. Then in the afternoon I was invited to a barbecue at my teacher’s house. It was so good to see her (hi Eira!), and the current harp class of RNCM (a little worse for wear after the previous night’s Summer Ball). But nevertheless we ate lovely food (thanks Steve!) and drank a few glasses of Prosecco and sat outside until it got too cold and we decided to make a tactical retreat to the living room.

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I was also introduced to the concept of putting Pringles on a barbecue and eating them with melted camembert (also from the barbie) – delicious! Try it! Thanks for the fabulous idea Bec Mills.

I don’t think the North of England has quite realised that it’s supposed to be summer now. The weather at the moment is definitely not what we ordered, send it back.

So all in all a pretty good weekend, lots of good food and good wine with good friends. I hope the summer brings many more like this (only sunnier).