Six days to go…

This time next week, I’ll be in the Scottish Borders with CLOUDS Harp Quartet, preparing for the first gig of our Summer Tour 2017.

We have launched a kickstarter to ask for your support towards our travel costs, and there are just six days left.

If we don’t reach our target, we get nothing.

The reason we are asking for support is that we absolutely love the music that Esther Swift writes for us, and we want to bring it to as many people as possible. Over the course of the tour we will be driving 1,500 miles each. That’s 6,000 miles of fuel we need to cover. In real terms, that’s £2,700 we need to make just to cover mileage.

We are literally driving the length and breadth of the country to play for as many people as we can. Just keep your fingers crossed that our cars can survive!

Thing is, we can’t really afford to do this if we don’t make any money from it. Of course we are passionate about the music but we need to support ourselves too during increasingly uncertain times.

This is the biggest tour we’ve undertaken since the quartet formed in 2008 and we are SO EXCITED to get out there and release this new music to you. Even if you can’t support us via kickstarter, please have a look at the concert dates and come along if you can.

Our kickstarter page can be found here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cloudshq/clouds-harp-quartet-summer-tour-2017

As ever, thanks for reading, we’ll hopefully see you very soon!

A x

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Britten – Interlude from Ceremony of Carols

My exam piece project has reached Grade 6. We’re getting into the higher grades now and the music leaves plenty of room for interpretation and individuality.

I often hear this piece performed very slowly, but if you look at the metronome mark it should actually move along a bit.

First thing’s first, you need to be confident with your harmonics in this piece. Really make them as beautiful as you can. You’re in all flats so they should ring really nicely – Britten knew what he was doing.

The rhythm is tricky but exceedingly important, spend some time looking at the music away from the harp and really work out where each right hand chord should be played. In my opinion the entire first page is a slow build up to the climax of the piece at the top of the second page, so really play as quietly as you dare at the beginning.

There’s a section in which the left hand plays straight chords while the right hand is playing spread chords, I remember this taking a long time to master! It’s an important skill though and well worth the time invested.

The final line is also open to interpretation, some harpists stick to Britten’s exact markings in terms of the right hand glissandi, while others gliss more freely. I think this performance falls somewhere in between, trying to stick to Britten’s markings but also keeping the gliss flowing as much as possible.

If you haven’t heard the rest of the Ceremony of Carols, listen to it immediately (if you can listen to Christmas music in May). It’s atmospheric and very moving.

Do you play or teach this piece? Please leave any tips for students in the comments.

Thanks for reading.

Chat soon,

Ax

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I was so ill!! Vlog #6

Sometimes, as musicians, we are reminded of the fact that we do not get sick pay. It’s not possible for us to pull a certain number of sick days and know that we’ll still be paid our salary.

This has been my story this week, last Wednesday I literally could not get out of bed because of achiness and fever. The following day, I had to play for a wedding. Leaving a couple without music on their wedding day is not an option – so I had to go and do it.

It’s now a full week later and I’m still not 100% but I’m much better than I was. Thank goodness!

 

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February on #YouTube

It’s been another month of regular YouTube uploads! Thank you to those of you who have subscribed to my channel. We are slowly growing and already I’ve had a surge in enquiries so that’s absolutely brilliant.

The first video to be uploaded onto my channel in February was a tutorial giving a basic overview of how to sit at the harp and how to actually play the harp:

Next up, Vlog #5:

This was a big week as it was the first week of being completely freelance after quitting my part-time ‘side-hustle’. So give it a watch and follow along for a week of musical adventures. This was the first time I’ve attempted a weekly vlog and I had no idea how long it would get! I had to cut out a lot of footage to keep it a reasonable length. Let me know what you think.

I’ve talked about this next video in a previous post but didn’t want to miss the opportunity to share it again – I made another CLOUDS video:

CLOUDS are going on tour in June and we are very excited to be bringing you a whole new programme of music (I’m sure some old favourites will be in there too). We’ve been busy rehearsing and learning all the new music that Esther has written ready for summer. Tour dates are up on our website so check those out.

Last but not least, I couldn’t let the month slide by without uploading a classic wedding favourite. Here is my performance of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. I get asked to play this very often, and it’s particularly fitting for the couple’s exit from their Wedding Ceremony:

I had the bright idea of recording these videos from memory. I know this piece so well and yet it still took ages to get a full take! I think it’s definitely worth the extra work to have memorised performances, but what do you guys think? Also, I’d like to say a big thank you to my housemate Chris for letting me use his fancy DSLR to record this last video. I love the quality but still need to learn how to use the camera properly (beyond just zooming in and pressing Record).

I’d like to say a big thank you to all of you for reading, watching, and just generally supporting me along the way. I know some of you have been reading this blog since it started back in 2012 – that’s five years folks! Your support is much appreciated. I adore having a writing outlet and getting the chance to share my musings with you.

Chat soon,

Ax

p.s. I’d also like to ask you for some feedback. If you received this post via email, did the links to the videos work ok? Did you just receive the one email? I’m transferring my email list to MailChimp so please bear with me while I sort any niggles out!

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I’ve been spoilt rotten.

Musically speaking, that is.

This past week has been a week of inspiring, amazing music, and I wanted to share a little bit of it with you.

Firstly, I spent three days with CLOUDS Harp Quartet. We are learning a brand new programme for our upcoming tour in June (more details on that to follow). Spending time with CLOUDS is without doubt one of my favourite aspects of my career to date. Esther‘s music is challenging and beautiful and the act of learning it is making us all better musicians. Here’s a little video I made of a tiny snippet of the music that we’ve been learning:

At the end of the three days, Elinor and I went to see Swan Lake at Manchester’s Palace Theatre. Despite having a mild obsession with Tchaikovsky I have to admit that I’d never seen a professional ballet production in my adult life.

I absolutely love the music and it was such a treat to see the ballet as well. Although, hearing the harp cadenza being played on electric keyboard was a disappointment. Playing in a ballet orchestra is a huge dream of mine and when even Moscow City Ballet don’t think it’s worth having a real harp in the pit, it’s a little demoralising to say the least.

The following day I had a gig in Sheffield (my favourite). The drive over was a bit scary and involved fog, wind, and snow. Nevertheless, Hallam Sinfonia needed a harpist for their performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. If you haven’t listened to this work before, do it right now – especially the Adagietto – it is gorgeous and heart-breaking. Sometimes I can’t believe that my job is to practice and perform such beautiful music.

To finish off the week, I was singing for Sunday’s morning service with my choir at St. Ann’s Church, directed by Simon Passmore. Not only was the setting composed by one of our members – Dr David Liggins – the music for the anthem Lead, Kindly Light was written by our late director of music – Canon Ronald Frost – in the form of the hymn tune Loppergarth. I’m trying to find a recording of us singing this gorgeous and emotive piece, leave it with me… Ronald was a wonderfully kind and talented soul and all of us in the choir who knew him, miss him greatly. It’s such a blessing that we can carry on performing his music in his memory.

I have to say that I feel so grateful and lucky that I have such wonderful music and wonderful people in my life.

As ever, thanks for reading, and don’t forget to pop your email address in the box to subscribe and receive these posts in your inbox (never more than once a week).

Chat soon,

Ax

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10 Reasons to Love the Freelance Life

As you may have seen in this week’s YouTube video, I wanted this post to be a list of reasons to love living and working freelance.

Having recently quit my part-time retail job, I can now safely say that all the work I do is either self-employed, or, if it is employment, it’s still music related, it’s still helping my career.

If you have any additional points to add to this list – let me know in the comments, why do you love the freelance life?

  1.  Effort put in is directly proportional to Results & Success.

    When you’re working for minimum wage, it’s easy to feel like you’re just paid to ‘be there’. You get paid the same amount as the colleagues who perhaps don’t pull their weight, leaving you to pick up the slack. However hard you work, your hourly pay is the same.

    Not exactly motivating is it?

    What’s your incentive to work hard if you’re getting paid just as much as if you literally do nothing except stand there?

    When you’re working freelance, the amount of time and effort you put in is directly proportional to your success. You’ve gota put in the hustle, baby

    2. Financial freedom.

    You decide your pay at the end of each week/month. For example, I like to put all my earnings into a separate account (my accountant likes it that way) and then pay myself a set amount each Friday. That works for me because I like the feeling of having constant, regular income. If another way works for you, do that. We decide how it works.

    I also use what’s in my business account to reinvest in my career with new music, gear, and keeping my harp and car in tip-top condition. My profits go back to me and my business, not to a boss, CEO or shareholder. Imagine if more companies did that? Reinvesting the profits rather than lining other people’s pockets is just the sensible way to go and it increases your intrinsic value.

    3. Setting your own schedule – or not setting a schedule at all!

    Some people (and by some people I mean me) absolutely love working to a schedule. Other people work best when they can go with the flow. Some people do their best work early in the morning, for others 2am is ideal. When you’re freelance, you’re not bound by anyone else’s schedule and can work at a time that’s best for you.

    I’m currently experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique and will let you know how I get on with it.

    4. YOU ARE THE BOSS.

    Have you ever had a job where you hated your boss or a particular colleague? It’s pretty difficult to hate yourself to the same extent.

    I’ve worked for bosses before and luckily most of the time we’ve got on fine, but the feeling of being your own boss is pretty difficult to beat.

    5. The possibilities are endless – no need to convince anyone except yourself.

    If you have an idea for your business, and if you are confident you can pull it off, nothing can stop you going after your goals. Want to move in a different direction? Narrow down or change your niche? As long as you can convince yourself, go for it!

    6. You choose your clients and set your own fee, plus you only accept the work you are happy to take on.

    This may not exactly be the case when you’re starting out. But as you get more and more work you can start being selective with what you take on (if you want). If someone doesn’t want to pay your fee or says it’s too high, just let them go. If you believe that your rate is reasonable (and I hope that you do) then trust that if this particular client won’t pay your fee, then you can politely decline the work and leave the date free for someone else who is wiling to pay for the value that you are offering.

    7. You choose your own holidays.

    I’ve worked jobs before where there’s a flat-out rule of ‘no holidays in December’. I don’t really enjoy having my time dictated to me like that. When you’re freelance, if there’s an important event (a family wedding for example), if you have enough notice, and it’s important enough to you, you can block that day out and say no to anything else that comes in. You don’t need to worry about fitting your holiday in between those of everyone else at work – all you need to worry about is what’s best for your situation.

    8. The satisfaction of knowing that your success is down to YOU.

    When I pay myself at the end of every week, that money goes into my account and I feel so proud that I created that income. I found the gigs, I wrote the contracts and invoices, I spoke to the clients and got to know them, I did the practice, I performed, I handled any logistics necessary. Maybe I’m just fiercely independent and hate relying on anyone else, but it’s a great feeling to be steering your own ship.

    9. You’re never finished.  There’s always more you can do.

    Freelancing isn’t for those who just want to leave work ‘at work’. It follows you everywhere, it’s always on your mind. It’s a lifestyle. All you can say is ‘I’ve done enough for today’, and know that tomorrow, you’ll pick up where you left off. Let’s not even talk about how much more practice all of us musicians could be doing. I’m choosing to see this as a positive. If you’ve got the drive and the energy, nothing can stop you.

    10. FREEDOM.

    The idea of freedom encapsulates everything I love about being freelance. You choose the work you take on, you choose the days you take off, you have total control over every aspect of your business. From what time you get up to how much you get paid, it’s all up to you.

As ever, thanks for reading. Don’t forget to pop your email in the box to subscribe and get future posts in your inbox (never more than once a week).

Catch you in a bit.

Ax

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January on #YouTube

Recently I’ve been investing much more time into my Youtube channel. My aim is to upload videos weekly so make sure you subscribe (after you’ve subscribed to this blog of course).

My first video of 2017 is a short introduction to how the harp actually works:

I get so many questions when I’m playing and gigging about how the harp works and how it’s played, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to introduce the instrument and answer some of those questions.

Moving on, the next video is a firm wedding favourite and one that is often requested – Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight:

I’ve invested in some new lighting for my videos so do let me know what you think.

Next up: I’m continuing my project of recording pieces from each of the ABRSM grades. Here is my first offering from Grade 4:

I remember playing this for my Grade 4 back in the day (time to update the syllabus, perhaps?)

I’m one of those strange people that actually enjoys studies and scales. They are such a good way of measuring your progress, work on your sound, and hone your technique, which brings us nicely to my Grade 5 video:

This is another piece that I remember playing when I was doing my grades. A lot of harpists dislike Naderman but I’ve always found his music rather enjoyable – just the right amount of twee mixed in with some drama, and of course, plenty of scales and arpeggios to keep those fingers warm. This may not be the last piece by Naderman we see on this project.

So that was January on YouTube. Do you have any requests for upcoming videos? Leave me a comment and let me know. I’d love to have your input as I seek to grow my channel. I particularly enjoyed making last month’s CLOUDS video, so maybe there are more of these vlog-style videos coming up too.

 

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Sight-reading: Tips & Tricks

Sight-reading. Just saying the word aloud is enough to strike fear into many musicians. But, you can learn to become more confident at sight-reading, it may even become enjoyable!

Like anything else, it just takes practice. But isn’t it hard to practice sight-reading? I mean, you have to find new things to sight-read, but apart from that, it can be practised just like anything else.

I’ll split this post into two parts: tips for learning how to get better at sight-reading, and tips for while you’re in an exam and a piece of sight-reading is put in front of you.

Learning to sight-read

Start off easy:

Find something you know you will find easy to play, and off you go! Just have a go. Don’t let mistakes bother you.

Always look ahead:

Imagine someone is covering the bar you are actually playing with their hand and all you can see are the next few bars (or get someone to do this for you!) Don’t worry about what you’ve already played, just keep moving on to the next bit.

Try to not look at your hands and just stay focussed on the music:

Have you ever tried to play with your eyes closed? Give it a go! The more confidence you have letting your hands find the right notes means the more you can look at the music you are trying to play, which gives you a better chance of doing a good job!

Remember that the notes are only part of the end product:

There is so much more to sight-reading than getting the right notes. What is the performance direction? Do you want it to sound happy or sad? What speed should it go? These things are just as important as the notes themselves, so even if the notes aren’t perfect, try to get into the spirit of the music.

Keep going:

Don’t stop to correct mistakes, ever!

Find someone better than you and play duets together:

My piano sight-reading is better than it ever used to be and it is because I love playing duets with my dad! Duets are a fun way to improve sight-reading and playing with another person forces you to keep going no matter what.

If in doubt, leave it out:

It’s better to leave a few notes out here and there if it means the music will be more fluent and the dynamics and performance directions will still be there. If you spot a tricky passage looming, try and pick out the melody and the bass-line. As your sight-reading improves you’ll be able to put a higher percentage of the notes in.

Sight-read music you have heard before:

Who is your favourite band, singer or songwriter? Buy some of their sheet music and use it for sight-reading practice! The options are endless, there are musicals, shows, tv theme-tunes, even hymns if you’re into that sort of thing. Literally anything you enjoy. Knowing how it’s supposed to go will also make you want to keep going and at least get the melody correct.

Lastly, try not to think of sight-reading as something you have to do to pass your exam. It is so much more than that. It is a fun way to improve your musicianship and play with other musicians, it is so rewarding to put a piece you love on the stand and be able to have a go immediately.

Having said that, here are just a few extra tips for when you’re in the exam and faced with sight-reading.

In the Exam

Leave it until after your pieces:

I find it helpful to leave sight-reading until near the end of the exam, then you know you’ll be fully warmed up, and if you feel like the sight-reading goes badly it won’t affect your confidence for your scales and pieces, because they’ll be done already!

Notice the key signature!

A simple thing, I know, but please make a mental note of the key signature and stick to it! Forgetting your accidentals is frustrating and embarrassing.

Practice tricky bits:

You may only have 30 seconds, but have a go at any difficult passages, separate hands if you want. Don’t just stare blankly at the music for half a minute, have a go! The more you play during this time, the better (in my opinion).

Confidence!

Play it like you’ve played it lots of times before. If you make a mistake (and let’s face it, we all do) just act like nothing happened and carry on. Pretend that’s how you intended it to sound. Sight-reading is still a performance, so make it look and sound like one.

Dynamics, Rhythm, Performance Directions:

These aspects are just as important as the notes so bring them out as much as you can. Convince the examiner that you can do it.

I really hope these pointers are helpful for you and/or your students. If you have any other tips, please do leave a comment and share the wisdom. Personally I quite enjoy sight-reading but I realise that probably makes me a bit odd.

Duets anyone?

Ax

p.s. Don’t forget to pop your email in the box to subscribe to this blog and receive future posts in your inbox (never more than once a week).

p.p.s. Infographic made by Tim Egerton

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2017 Intentions

By the time I hit Publish on this post, it will be 2017. But for now, as I lie in bed with Spyder the cat sleeping on my lap, and a glass of Shiraz and various chocolate baked goods next to me, I’m enjoying the final few days of 2016.

But as well as relaxing and switching off, I’ve also been looking ahead to 2017 and thinking about what I’d like to achieve in this coming year.

As a general rule, I think New Year’s Resolutions are bad news as a ridiculously high percentage of them fail, which makes us feel like failures.

Not a good way to start the year.

I believe any day is a good day to set some goals and intentions for the future, but hey, it’s the new year, so instead of strict resolutions that are guaranteed to make me feel like an idiot when I fail, here are some intentions of things I’d like to work towards this year.

Quit my minimum wage, part-time job

So last August I freaked out about money, and started working in retail, part-time. Now, I want to schedule this post for Thursday, 5th January, that means I will be handing in my notice on Wednesday, 4th January. Scary! But (and I will probably dedicate a future post to this point) time is worth so much more than £7.20 an hour. Please know that I’m not saying my time is worth more than anyone else’s – everyone’s time is worth more than this.

I could teach a few more hours a week and make more, and I would be so much happier. Even just looking for other work would be a better use of my time. Don’t get me wrong, I love my coworkers, but I am not cut out for retail. I am a musician, and while I have this safety net I will always feel like I’m not doing myself justice.

I refuse to stay simply because I’m too scared that I need it. I will find something better. I will. I have to.

Practice the harp 7 hours every week

This may seem pathetically low to my musician pals who probably do two or three times that, but I’m starting easy so I can increase the hours once I’m back in the swing of it (see my above mini-rant on New Year’s Resolutions). Due to the nature of freelancing, daily practice targets don’t seem to work for me any more, I’m not going to practice for two hours before heading off to a gig to play background music all night. Instead I find it much easier to schedule in practice for the whole week, so I can see what the next seven days are going to look like at a glance. See also my previous post: How to Practice: Schedule it in

The trap I fall into (and please comment if this is you too!) is, if I don’t have many gigs coming up, or, if I only have background gigs for a few weeks, I ease off the practice.

That has to change in 2017.

As well as practising for upcoming gigs, I will be investing much more time into my YouTube channel and to generally building up my repertoire ready for competitions/auditions/potential recordings.

Watch out 2017 – I will be upping my game!

Keep hunting for more work, even in the good times

I may have mentioned this before, but it’s tempting to lay off looking for work when you have plenty of things in the diary. But what happens when empty months loom ahead and you don’t have any sort of safety net to fall back on? Pupils cancel, gig organisers find other players and suddenly your income dries up.

Potential nightmare.

In 2017 I will keep hustling, even in the busy times. Gigs and teaching will be my main focus. I’d rather sometimes be crazily busy if it means I have enough to see me through slower periods.

Sure, freelancing can be hard, but it’s also amazing and I am completely in love with it. I love being my own boss, having the power to find my own work and decide how much I earn. I’m not ready to give that up yet.

Here’s to a prosperous, exciting and rewarding 2017!

Ax

p.s. what goals and intentions are you setting for 2017? Leave me a comment and let me know. Also, pop your email in the box to subscribe and receive future posts in your inbox (never more than once a week).

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HARP DIARY | Mytholmroyd & Stockport

Last weekend was another packed weekend with gigs on both Friday and Saturday. This December is proving to be one of the busiest ever and I have to say that I’m loving being busy with harp-related activities:

Friday’s gig was so last minute – but I suppose that’s often the case with funerals. The church was in Mytholmroyd and was flooded last year, so has had a complete re-furb and is all pretty new. My job was simple: a touch of background music while friends and family gathered, and then Debussy’s Clair de Lune during communion. I do find funerals difficult to play for though – they are never easy are they?

Saturday meant Stockport Symphony Orchestra, and a lot of notes. And I do I mean a lot! I’d been sent the music a week or so before the concert with a little note from the other harpist saying ‘impossible bit! Play what you can!’ I personally hate being told something is impossible so dutifully worked on the notes until I could play them, only to find that once I was in the rehearsal it went about triple the speed I had been practising. Oops. It was unfortunately a case of ‘grab any strings you can’. You can see from the video that the inside of the Town Hall is very pretty  – and the orchestra had made it suitably Christmassy by putting tinsel on the music stands and several instruments. Christmas hats also featured in the second half of the concert. Unfortunately I missed that memo.

So another busy weekend! Do check out the video and subscribe to my YouTube channel for more videos of my harpy adventures. Please also sign up to receive these posts in your inbox by popping your email address in the box when asked.

Watch this space for next week’s video and post – it’s going to be a good one!

Ax

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