Will we always feel skint?

As my diary gets ever more full leading up to Christmas, there will be numerous gig reports coming so bear with me – this is the second thoughtful post in a row and I don’t want anyone to get worried.

In a world of buy-now-pay-later, credit cards with unrealistically low minimum payments and adverts everywhere telling us to ‘treat ourselves’, it can be challenging to budget effectively. Credit is so easily obtained, why save up for the things we want when we can have it now and deal with paying for it later? People living on credit gain an unrealistic expectation of the lifestyle they can actually afford while storing up trouble for the future and having to pay ludicrous amounts in interest every month – which is literally throwing hard-earned money away.

It’s an easy and slippery slope to find yourself on. It may also partly be caused by the fact that denying yourself things or saving up for things is seen by many as boring while getting them now is seen as exciting and fun. We need to change this to a more realistic view that saving for things is responsible and wise whereas buying too much on credit is unwise and reckless.

One of my targets for 2013 was to pay off my credit card and destroy it (done) and another was to get out of my overdraft (nearly done). But now that I’ve almost shaken off those debts, suddenly I have to maintain this level of equilibrium and live within my means.

It sounds slightly OCD and maybe it is, but for the past 12 months I’ve noted down every penny that I get paid, and everything I have had to fork out for. iPhone users can use an app called Budget – Back in Black, this app has helped me so much. You key in monthly expenses that happen every month, rent, gym memberships, subscriptions etc, then the income you receive. This is obviously easier for people with salaried jobs as income is very similar each month, but for me, when I do a gig or teach a lesson, I record it in the app. It then works out what you have left over after fixed expenses for normal spending on things like groceries or clothes. You can also set yourself goals, such as paying off a credit card or saving for a holiday – decide what you want to put aside each month then that gets taken out of your spending total.

It sounds quite time-consuming but it’s really not that bad, and if anyone else out there is feeling skint I’d fully recommend this app. Just the bother of having to key in purchases is enough to stop a certain amount of spending on things like take away coffee or taxis as these really add up without adding much value. The first few months I used it I ended the month in the red, naughty. So it really teaches you to be careful.

But this got me thinking, living on a modest budget means constantly being careful with spending, but will it always be like this for freelancers with unstable income? Will I ever be able to spend £8 on a cocktail without a certain amount of guilt? Maybe once I have some decent savings in the bank, but until then, it seems the price of living without debt is constant vigilance.

Living modestly has its advantages though, walking instead of taking the bus is extra exercise, cooking from scratch rather than ordering takeaway is so much cheaper and healthier, and putting on jumpers and wooly socks in winter rather than putting the heating on makes you feel like you’re doing the planet a favour too.

Before I finish this post, I’d just like to thank everyone who takes the time to reads these musings of mine, and for your comments and feedback. Please feel free to comment below with your own money-saving tips and tricks. Or join me and let’s start a debt-free revolution and cut up our credit cards!

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Festival No. 6 2013

Between the 12th and 15th September I was in Portmeirion playing for Festival Number Six.  This was a real experience and, considering I hesitated a little when originally asked to do it – I’m so glad I did.

The first day was chaos.  There’s no other way to describe it.  I thought I’d be clever and set off super early to allow for ‘getting lost’ time once we’d arrived.  I was giving a lift to horn player Joel Roberts – hi Joel! – and we set off around 8am.  The postcode we’d been sent to was an empty business park (later we realised it was only empty because we were so wonderfully early) – so we drove on to the main festival site – which I later realised I wasn’t allowed to drive on to … naughty me.

Anyway, fast forward about an hour of wondering if we’re in the right place we’d managed to find the Cassia String Quartet, fresh from driving up from the South of France, as well as our artist wristbands:

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After being given wristbands I was told there was no way I was getting my car on to the Festival site to drop off the harp.  Just no way.  They offered to take it by golf buggy – I politely declined.  I ended up having to put my harp into a Volvo four by four.  I couldn’t believe it fit!  The driver of the Volvo – Sid – was lovely and said they were there to give lifts to the artists when we needed them.  I think he somewhat underestimated how busy they were going to be over the next few days as I was only able to use a Volvo at the beginning and the end of the Festival.

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I left my car on the football field in the photo above – unfortunately due to the crazy weather this field turned into a muddy mess – it took me ages to get my car off the mud and onto the safety of an actual road.  Getting off the field involved taking a ‘run up’ to the curb in order to get up the muddy slope and onto tarmac.  There were three Welsh car park attendants egging me on telling me to go faster – I was so not in the mood for that.

My harp’s home for the next few days was the Town Hall.  It wasn’t until later that evening that we (the ensemble) found our home for the weekend.  ‘Artist Camping’ – when we eventually found it, was about 15 minutes walk from the main village, and completely devoid of showers/toilets.  Not to be deterred though, we set up our tents in some sort of circle – some quicker than others.  Joel had the unpleasant experience of a drunk festival-goer tumbling into his tent in the middle of the night, who somehow managed to crawl in between the inner and outer part of the tent… how?  I have no idea.

So the camping part of the trip was cold.  I won’t lie.  It was cold, windy and damp, but I had my inflatable mattress and memory foam pillow, as well as lots of layers for the night.  We’re talking strappy top, t-shirt, long-sleeved top, hoody AND blanket as well as sleeping bag.  The weather got progressively worse as the weekend went on (Saturday – lovely then rain, Sunday – rain and so windy I saw three tents blow away).

The playing part of the weekend was great.  The Cassia Quartet, formed of Amy, Tori, Laurie and Josh, as well as horn player Joel and percussionists Delia and Graham, along with myself we formed the Festival Number 6 Ensemble directed by Joe Duddell:

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The ensemble was to accompany a few different acts during the festival. Daughter, Jackie Oates, and Cathal Mo Chroi (aka Chas Smash from Madness).

Working with Cathal was certainly fun. He did a set of six songs: Love Songs No. 9 and 7, A Comfortable Man, Do you Believe in Love? Goodbye Planet Earth, and The Wren’s Burial. The harp was needed for everything, yay! There’s also a youtube video of my favourite, which can be found here.

I remember during one of the breaks, Cathal met up with us in the cafe and showed us some poetry he’d written and recorded – very amusing and well written (and naughtily rude). The overall vibe I got from working with Cathal is that he’s very chilled out, and definitely doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s so nice when the people you’re playing for actually make the effort to hang out and talk to you backstage. It doesn’t happen all that often.

Playing with Daughter was amazing as well – not only were they incredibly professional, punctual and efficient in setting up all their equipment – they also had a pleasing attention to detail in rehearsals.  As well as that, they are absolutely lovely people, a real pleasure to work with.

The Daughter gig was on the Saturday night, which was followed by some drinks and dancing – loads of fun.  On Sunday the weather turned really nasty.  I was so worried my tent was going to blow away – I actually saw several tents blow over in the wind.  It turned out that I wasn’t actually needed for any rehearsals or sets that day so I set about trying to take down the tent and pack all my things.  By some miracle I was allowed to bring my car back on to the festival site to pick up my harp.  Hurray!

On returning to Manchester, I had a new-found appreciation for lots of little things: getting dressed standing up for example, rather than awkwardly lying down in a confined space.  The first night back in my bed was amazing!  I think my harp was very happy to be back – I’d booking it in for a service the following day as a much needed treat.

So, lots of good things from the Festival, fun music, lovely people in the bands and the ensemble – but the weather could have been better/less muddy.  Definitely an experience I’ll remember.

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Week 4

This last week will in the future be thought of as the-last-week-in-which-I-had-any-free-time.  I start my new job tomorrow and I am so excited!

So being offered the job totally changed the feel of last week – it went from being just another week in which to chip away at emails/admin/looking for gigs to being the last week when I can get up when I want to, have my own schedule, go out for several cocktails with friends, play Monopoly til 2.30am and then watch a DVD with friends and beers and just generally making the most of my freedom.

It’s been amazing!  And the weird thing is, now I’ve relaxed somewhat regarding my income, gigs are now pouring in!  I have gigs for the next four Saturdays, a solo recital in March at church (more about that later) and a huge pile of Wagner to mark up and learn for a concert in exactly twelve sleeps, Arggh!

Maybe the only thing I needed to get more work was, well, work.  It’s going to be pretty crazy trying to fit all this in as well as working four days a week, but I can’t wait to get busy and work hard for a living – it’s going to be so satisfying to see my debt get smaller each month.

A new chapter starts tomorrow!

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Week 2

So it has been 2013 for a week now!  I still haven’t decided whether to say two-thousand-and-thirteen or the slightly more concise twenty-thirteen.

So I want to post every week this year.  During this week I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to write and sort of formulating the ideas in my head so I can just write it and it’s done!

This isn’t the post I thought it was going to be.

I thought I’d be writing about how getting up early really impacts on the whole day, about how I feel much better and much more organised.

I do still believe that getting up earlier results in these things – I feel as organised as I could be, the flat is clean & tidy, I’ve had time to cook healthy and somewhat interesting meals, I’ve even been running a few times.  But I think what I was looking for is a sense of control.

Control over how I organise my time, control over the money that comes in, and the gigs I’m offered.  But I’ve been really unsettled at just how out of control I have felt recently.  Take for example, a pupil who, for whatever reason, no longer wants lessons.  Fair enough but I then have to find that money from somewhere else – usually just as I’m reaching some sort of equilibrium between income and spending, something happens to tip the balance, having to buy a new car for example, or suddenly receiving a bill I’d forgotten about.

There is also the fact that I’m still owed money from gigs I did over Christmas – I hate that I have to nag to be paid in a reasonable amount of time.  I’d actually rather they give me a cheque on the day which is dated in the future – at least then it’s in my hands ready to be put in the bank.

I hate living from month to month like this – it’s only half a life!  Only just making enough to get by – I need something else, a part time job somewhere – just something during the day, during the week while I’m not really doing anything apart from pottering around trying to sort my life out.  I have no money for socialising or clothes or anything really that’s not a bill or rent or a car payment.  I know people younger than me who have bought their own property – wow – that’s just amazing.  I wish I was in that situation.

I don’t want to put a downer on anyone who reads this!  But posts like this are important – this is not an easy career to go into – I’m still deciding if it’s one I even want to stay in for the long term.

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Happy New Year!

Firstly, I’d like to wish everyone who reads this a happy and prosperous New Year.  And, I also want to thank those who have been reading my blog, and a big thank you to those who leave feedback in the form of comments – or in person.

On New Year’s Eve I decided to take a very last minute trip down to Hampton-in-Arden to see my sister.  I’d already had a gig – performing at Sunrise Senior Living Retirement Home in Bramhall as part of their holiday celebrations.  I had what I thought was a clever idea that we could sing some carols for a bit of audience participation.  This was not met with much enthusiasm, or indeed, singing.  Never mind!  I tried.

I was actually in Hampton last New Year’s Eve too, in the same pub!  That led me to ponder the things that have changed in 2012 for me and my career.  My bank balance is probably pretty much the same, I’ve had to change my car (rest in peace Bertie), but what I have gained is experience in terms of gigs and teaching.  I just hope it’s all heading somewhere – and that I’m heading in the right direction.

Anyway, moving on!  I’ve made a few resolutions – some of them will only begin once I get back to Manchester later this week:

  • Start running regularly, 3 times a week – I didn’t go for a single run in December so I’m looking forward to getting back into it.  I also have the target of the Great North Run to aim for.
  • Get up earlier Monday-Friday, days are ridiculously more productive if I drag myself out of bed earlier, every day needs to be like that.
  • Get out of overdraft and start saving – this will be huge if I manage it.
  • Write in my blog more often!  Once a week – even if it seems like nothing noteworthy has happened!

So, what are your resolutions? How long will they last? Do let me know!

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This has been a week of choices.  Isn’t it weird how they all seem to come at once?

After a mad couple of shifts in the bar at the RNCM for freshers week, I decided that, if I really don’t enjoy working there that much, I should just quit.  I need to be earning money doing things that take me in the direction of my dream.  It isn’t my dream to work in a bar forever, so I decided it was time to take the plunge and lose the safety net of having that bit of extra cash each month – in favour of pushing myself to do more for my music career.

So that’s it!  I never have to pull a pint again.  I’ve worked in one bar or another for my whole student life, and now I feel like the time has come to move on.

And doesn’t the universe work in mysterious ways, on the morning following my final shift, I got a phone call from the Chethams School of Music asking if I’d be interested in doing some harp teaching there.

Of course I was!  I taught my first lesson there last Friday and loved it, hopefully it will lead to working there regularly.

The day after the phone call day, I got an email from a hotel asking if I’d like to stay with them and provide background music for a few months… in DUBAI!  Sounds too good to be true and the money is exceedingly tempting (enough to invest in a lever harp and take lots of the financial pressure away).  But it would mean being away over Christmas and New Year, and I’d miss a certain trip to Lanzarote in December as well as various gigs and family commitments.  So basically, I’ve said I’m very interested but maybe another time.

I had to think about it so carefully, but I need to be here, in Manchester right now.  I need to be gigging and building up my contacts and getting better gigs.  My dream is to be an orchestral musician, and while the money from providing background music is fabulous, I’m not sure I would want to do it all the time.  What I love about my career so far is the variety.  Every day is different and brings its own challenges.  Not going to Dubai was a really tough decision but hopefully I will look back and be glad I stayed.

Maybe I could have gone to Dubai and could have stayed working at Brodsky.  Had I done so my bank balance would definitely thank me.  But at the end of the day, maybe I’m choosing the less profitable choice right now, but maybe it will pay dividends in the future?  I have noticed that each day since turning down Dubai I’ve been contacted about doing a gig in the next few months.  It’s going to be ok.

Maybe there is no right or wrong decision.  But I’ve made mine and now my job is to make the best of my situation and keep moving towards where I want to be in the future.

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Mahler 2

Last weekend I had a gig in Sheffield, with Sheffield Symphony Orchestra.  The only piece on the programme was Mahler’s Second Symphony.  Now there are two harp parts for this epic piece, however, it seems I was the only harpist that could be booked for this day.  Mahler’s writing for harp (that I have experienced) is lovely.  Sometimes it’s quite sparse, but you can hear 95% of the notes.  And that, for what is usually an instrument buried underneath more forceful instruments – looking at you, brass and percussion – is unusual.  But it left me in a little pickle.  Both harp parts are important, how on earth do I set about putting them both in?

Should have got double the fee in my opinion but apparently that’s not how it works.

Anyway, there were a couple of places that I had both parts on my stand and was piecing it together in what I hope was a convincing manner.

The Symphony is nick-named ‘The Resurrection’, the fourth movement includes a solo voice, and the fifth includes an entire chorus – I’ll include the English translation of the text, it really is as uplifting as the orchestration:

Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.
To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.
—Friedrich Klopstock
O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!
—Gustav Mahler
I must say a massive well done to Dane Lam – the conductor.  He did a marvelous job of this epic piece – I would imagine that conducting Mahler 2 is a big dream of any aspiring conductor.
While I am dishing out mentions, I must say a big thank you to Simon Passmore.  Not only did he keep me company in the car, he got out in the rain to reserve me the most ideal parking space, bought me lunch, dinner, and snacks (I think he’s trying to fatten me up) and just generally was a massive help on the day.  Thank you!
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Outdoor Concerts

Outdoor concerts, are there any two words that strike more fear into a harpist’s mind?  This weekend has been crazily busy – apparently something has been going on – a national holiday of sorts, something to do with the Royal Family.

Anyway, Friday I had a wedding in North Yorkshire, very questionable weather, under a marquee.  Wonderful.  Saturday’s wedding was extremely lavish.  In a gorgeous hotel near Ripon, not only had they booked me, there was also a string quartet, singing waiters, and a pianist.

Sunday, oh my, Sunday.  I was called upon to play for ‘Proms on the Pitch’ at Macclesfield Football Ground.  It would have been such an amazing gig had the weather been ok.  But as it was, it poured down all day and yes we were under cover but it was exceedingly cold. We went to a lovely Michelin starred pub/restaurant for dinner called Sutton Hall if I remember correctly.  Excellent food, shame as usual I couldn’t enjoy a little glass of wine but nevermind.  I worried a lot about my harp as very cold weather causes the strings to contract, increasing the chances of cracks in the soundboard – eeek – having said that, it was great fun playing Proms-style classics, 1812 Overture, Entry of the Gladiators, Pomp and Circumstance etc.  But what shocked me more than anything was the fact that we had an audience!  People had come out in the rain and wind, to sit outside and wave their union jacks for us to celebrate the Jubiliee.  I just thought it was absolutely amazing and very heart-warming – even though I was in fact probably a few degrees away from contracting hypothermia.  At least the audience could dance to keep themselves warm (they did).

Then Monday rolled around, hurray, third outdoor gig in one weekend – my poor harp.  But – who’d have thought it, it was bright sunshine in Liverpool!  A very nice man arranged for me to park for free all afternoon – bonus – and I could get from car to stage using only lifts and ramps – amazing.  So that was a really nice day – a mixture of Debussy, Vaughan Williams and Stravinsky for Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s contribution to ‘Proms in the Park’  – at Chavasse Park – to a large audience, soaking up the sun on deck-chairs and eating ice-cream.

So I ended the weekend feeling very patriotic and as though I’ve made my small contribution to the Jubiliee celebrations, but I was absolutely exhausted.  I will admit my harp has been in its covers since Tuesday evening – I need a few days off to refresh my brain!

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Black Dyke Band in Sheffield

The easiest part of yesterday was the rehearsal and the concert.  I was lucky enough to be playing with the Black Dyke Band in Sheffield City Hall.

I say that was the easy bit because I had learnt the music (Philip Whilby’s ‘A Bronte Mass’) and it was fine – actually it was more than fine it was lovely.  I’ve never played with a Brass Band before and they are loud compared to little old me on harp.  I was eventually placed right at the front of the stage so the audience had a chance to hear me (prima dona moment).

There was a teeny weeny panic just before the concert, my stand and music went missing.  I was amazed that someone would have moved a stand with my name and my music on it!  But, the matter was resolved, the stand was found on the other side of the stage, and I found my music, ummm, in my bag *sorry*.

Another nice bit of the day was going for dinner in between the afternoon rehearsal and evening concert.  I figure I’m in an unfamiliar city and a meal is on expenses so why not have something nice?  AskItalian was my venue of choice and the meal was amazing.  Goats cheese and fresh bread for starter and then pasta with chicken, mushroom and white wine sauce – no desserts as I’m being a good girl at the moment.

So there, that’s the nice part of the day covered.  Now for the nightmare.

Driving + unfamiliar one-way system + Saturday night revellers + useless satnav = Lots of tears + about an hour spent driving in circles

I had to get my harp to the loading bay at the city hall, which is impossible to find as it’s all pedestrianised and you can only get at it by going a really long, convoluted way round.  I eventually found it before the rehearsal, only to be told I couldn’t have a parking permit and would have to find my own parking.  Gee thanks.  I found it unfair that other instruments who had to load and unload i.e. percussion seemed to be allowed to stay the whole day but apparently harpists can manage.  Grr…

Perhaps it’s due to my lack of geography skills/sense of direction but when I went to pick my car up after I’d finished playing, I couldn’t find the concert hall again.  Simon was very sweet and got the train from Newcastle down to Sheffield to keep me company on the drive back to Manchester (awww) and if he hadn’t been there directing me, calming me down and thinking of new routes to find the *expletive deleted* loading bay, I would probably still be there now, crying and driving round in circles trying to get to my harp.  I have no idea what it cost me in petrol and wrinkles that I didn’t have before, but I feel it’s unfair that I should have to go through that and it spoilt the otherwise great experience of playing with an amazing band.

I jokingly said that next time I want a parking permit, and the reply came ‘ha, wouldn’t we all’.

I think my need might be greater than most?

Anyway, enough ranting.  Apart from the car troubles it was a great day, playing good music with a lovely conductor (thank you Darius Battiwalla) and a great ensemble, I hope I get the chance to play with them again soon.

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