end of the week

Remember the post about how last week was really quiet?  This week has been the total opposite.

I’ve been to:

  • Harrogate
  • London
  • Stockport
  • Sheffield

and ended the week in my hometown of York.

The Stockport gig was fun.  Only instead of putting the church in my satnav I actually put the vicarage – so you can imagine my confusion upon arriving down a random street in suburban Stockport with no church in sight.

I swear I must be really thick to be able to get lost even with the assistance of my faithful tomtom.  I eventually found the church (maybe it was a miracle?) only to find there was one space in the whole car park – at the far end.  There was a line of cars jostling for it and the conductor – Jim Cooke – was standing in the space, reserving it for me.  How sweet!  I have no idea what I would have done had he not been there.  One of the basses from the choir very kindly paid for my parking as well, Stockport may not be the prettiest of places but it certainly was friendly.

The rep for the concert was Janáček’s arrangement of the Lord’s Prayer, and Howard Goodall’s Requiem (which, by the way, I’m also performing this coming Saturday in Harrogate – has everyone gone Goodall crazy?).  I had never played either of them and actually they are both beautiful pieces.  The arrangements were for harp, organ and choir.  I don’t envy the choir though some parts sounded challenging to say the least…

So that brings me to yesterday.  Mothering Sunday (Happy Mothers’ Day to my wonderful mummy).  I was playing in a retirement home called Brunswick Gardens in Sheffield for their Mothers’ Day Lunch.  A number of people came up and said they enjoyed my playing, and some even took my demo CD.  Upon hearing my rendition of the Welsh folk-song Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn a lady came up and requested a different folk-song, and I had to sheepishly say I didn’t know it.  How embarrassing.  Still, onwards and upwards.

As Sheffield is kind of in the middle of Manchester and York I decided to drive to York to see my parents, I went for a walk with my mum in the early evening sunshine and then, for some (rare) piano sight-reading practice, me and my dad worked our way through Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite for piano duo.  My skills are definitely getting a little rusty, I have now decided I’d like a piano with me in Manchester – the only question is how to get it there?

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Yesterday I spent the afternoon snoozing on the train down to London Euston.  I had a background gig in the Royal Courts of Justice with the lovely, talented, Esther Swift.  We form half of the harp quartet Clouds, I’m sure I’ll be writing lots more about us in the upcoming months but only two of us were available on this occasion so we were the Clouds duo.

Before smartphones, I have no idea how I found my way around London.  I love going to visit and see the sights – I always have to visit the Natural History Museum, that’s the geeky part of me – but I had no idea where to find the Royal Courts of Justice.  Google maps, what a life saver.  Also being able to google ‘nearest tube to courts of justice’ proved very handy.  All of which resulted in me arriving one and a half hours earlier than I needed to.  Luckily there was a nice looking cafe right opposite so I sat in the window and took some photos:

This was after the first attempt, a car drove past me at the wrong moment and it just looks like a nice photo of London cab:

Anyway, Esther arrives and we decide to make our way into the building, past the security checks and then we had to wait for the harps to be delivered.

A note here, thank you so much to Holywell Music for allowing us to hire a couple of lovely harps for the evening.  I’ve driven to gigs in London before with my harp – so not worth it – I had a run in with a traffic warden who made me cry (I was in a designated loading bay!)  And just finding parking that’s accessible with harp is so difficult.  London-based harpists… I salute you!

So hiring harps meant we could get the train down – very cheap – and I could have a drink after the gig!  Amazing!

We were provided with exceptional canapés, which looked so good I had to take a picture:

I’d like to add that that’s apple juice, not whisky.

We were playing on a balcony overlooking the Great Hall, the view was fantastic:

The whole hall was packed for the event, luckily we were mic’d up so apparently we could actually be heard.  It really did look fantastic.  I gave my card and demo CD to a man who organises weddings in Rhodes… what an amazing gig that would be!

Finding a stair-free way to get the harps onto the balcony was interesting, everyone was telling us different things and I don’t think anybody really knew if there was a way.  But we found one, unfortunately we found it after taking a harp up a lot of stairs, only to have to bring it back down – it would be comical if it wasn’t so annoying!

A big thank you as well to Ben Lloyd-Evans at Sternberg Clarke for sorting it all out for us.  We had a great time!

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Majestic Hotel, Harrogate

This is probably the last thing any harpist wants to see upon arrival at a gig:

Was there a lift?  Of course not!  So I do my usual thing of asking to get a small team together to carry the harp up the stairs.  The man who seemed to be in charge walked straight up to my harp and grabbed it before asking ‘is it heavy?’  Cue one huge heart attack.  The man was busy telling me exactly what the best way to lift it would be until I managed to get a word in edgeways and remind him that I move my harp on a daily basis and maybe, just maybe, have a little more experience in that area than he does.

Long story short, the harp got up the stairs, my way.  I win, harp is fine.

I’m amazed that, when I called the hotel earlier to ask about parking near the door, I asked ‘are there any stairs?’ and got the answer ‘no, just a couple to get in the door then you should be fine.’

Slightly misleading don’t you think?  See above picture.

Anyway, the gig was background music for a dinner.  I was playing with a lovely flautist Jenny Dyson – in her first year of a Masters course at RNCM.  We did a mix of Welsh folk songs (all of which are still dancing happily away in my brain and will continue to do so for some time I’m sure) and popular serenades (Mozart, Beethoven, Bizet etc.)

It was so nice to have some company in the car to and from the gig, especially the journey there – battling rush hour traffic on the M62 is never fun, so at least there was company, good conversation and an assortment of confectionery items.

This week is crazily busy, this post will have to be cut short as I’m about to rush off to London to play a gig tonight at the Royal Courts of Justice with the lovely Esther Swift.

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the quiet weeks

This week is almost completely empty in my diary, scary!

With the exception of a bit of teaching on Saturday and working at the bar on Sunday night, the rest of the week is my own.  It’s hard to believe it’s already Thursday, without the structure of gigs/places I have to be, it’s a challenge to actually schedule myself to, you know, do stuff.

While it is great to take it easy for a few days, get up late, stay up late, go shopping, watch films, I’m finding that this is the best time to do all the admin type stuff that comes with being a freelance musician.  Emails, wow I wonder what it was like when everything happened by letter?  I get so many emails to sift through on a daily basis – not that I’m complaining – once upon a time my business email account was something I checked every so often, while my personal account was the one I always checked.  These days, my personal account has become the place where spam email goes to die.  I live my life through my business account.

Sorting out the diary is another big job, making sure I have all the details of upcoming gigs, checking that I haven’t forgotten to get some vital piece of information like the venue for example (it has been known).

And now the nice bit – I have time to practice nice music!  I have time to practice solo pieces!  It’s just so nice to sit and play without any sense of not having enough time or being in a hurry or under pressure.

It can be tricky organising myself to stick to a schedule, especially when no one will know if you stick to it or just decide to laze around – not that I ever do that *cough*.  Tell me, what are your tips for staying motivated to get all those little jobs done?

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Background Music

Yesterday evening I received a phone call asking if I was free this evening to play some background music for a dinner.

It is so unusual to get gigs this late notice (thank you to the lovely Alice Kirwan for giving my number to the guy sorting it out).  The fee was less than I would charge for background music at a wedding, but, still half a month’s rent so I went for it.  And here it is:


The dinner was at The Midland Hotel – right in the centre of Manchester.  It’s an absolutely gorgeous hotel.  Only problem was there were fifteen steps (yes I counted) to the room where the dinner was taking place.  Nowadays all hotels have to be super-duper accessible so this surprised me.  The staff were very enthusiastic in helping me though so I can’t complain.  They also got me a diet coke and didn’t complain when I immediately spilt it all over the carpet (oops).

Background music is just so different to normal performing.  In lots of ways it is a lot freer, as no one is listening that intently you can put in lots of repeats to err, pass the time (don’t tell anyone).  But after about half an hour I realised that this was as calm as I’d felt all day.  Just playing beautiful music to set the atmosphere.

Considering the fact that I’m a musician, I spend a large proportion of my time ‘sorting things out’, posting contracts/invoices, getting hold of music, replying to and sending emails, it feels good to chip away at these things but sometimes it feels as though for every little thing I get done, three more suddenly need doing.  So it is actually very therapeutic to just play.  Not to worry about the ‘to-do’ list that day or what I have to get done, just enjoying the sensation of making music allows my brain to be quiet for a few minutes, almost like meditation.

It’s a chance for the voices in my head to just be still and quiet… not that I have voices in my head, you understand…

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End of February…

Phantom finished last Saturday.  It was a really fun week and all the performances were completely sold out – and most got a standing ovation at the end!  I was particularly impressed with the lad playing Phantom, must only have been 16 or 17 but he improved so much as the week went on…

I feel like the most important part of the whole week was the post show trip to the pub down the road.  A lot of the players in the band asked for my number and mentioned that they knew someone who needs a harp for something or other.  So I made lots of new contacts, which is great!  All the internet-networking I do pales into insignificance compared with the work I get through word of mouth recommendations.

Phantom of the Opera is in fact coming to Manchester next month… I wonder who is sorting out the band for that… I’m pretty Phantomed out but I’d definitely get over that for a chance to play for a professional show!

Yesterday I was in Liverpool at the Liner Hotel for an audition for an agency that sends musicians on cruise ships, and to luxury hotels and corporate events etc.  As I do lots of background music anyway I thought I’d give it a go and see what comes of it.  Most of the acts auditioning were singers, songwriters, magicians or comedians.  I was the only harpist, and I have been invited to take part in the agency’s ‘Showcase’ in October – which is a brilliant chance to play for the people who book musicians for cruises, corporate work etc.  Personally I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there’s a luxury hotel in the Maldives that needs a harpist all Summer, that’s the dream anyway.

When I think about the place I was in a month ago, the difference between then and now is like night and day.  In January, I went home to my parents and cried my eyes out – I was worried about work, money, where to live, if music was really what would make me happy.  I had applied for a full-time job in arts administration and had two bar jobs.  I had hardly any gigs in the diary and had no idea what I was going to do and if I’d be able to succeed.  My parents have always had faith in me and are totally behind me, ready to fight my corner, they just told me to have faith and trust that things will pick up – no matter if it’s hard right now it will get better.

Now, my diary is filling up very nicely and there’s always something I’m working towards, something going in the diary.  I am so happy that I’m doing what I love, and so happy that my life cannot be pigeon-holed into an everyday 9-5.  I can sleep in when I want to, going to the pub can be justified as networking (brilliant!), I am my own boss and in charge of my own finances, I can never get fired!  I hardly ever have to battle through rush hour traffic or be up before 8am, plus I decide how much to pay myself.  I feel so free!  I have a career that is interesting to talk about and I have no idea where it might lead, or what I might be doing in a year, two, five, ten years time.  Sure, money is still tight, but I am getting by and I truly believe that if I keep doing what I love, the money will come.

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Phantom of the Opera

This week I am travelling to St. Helen’s to play for a youth production of Phantom of the Opera.  I have been really excited about this as it’s one of my favourite musicals, and the film adaptation with Gerard Bulter and Emmy Rossum is one of my favourite films.

There are four performances, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday evenings and Saturday afternoon – and by the looks of things they are all virtually sold out, which is great!  The band is made up of about a dozen of us and we are on-stage as opposed to being buried in a pit.  It’s really refreshing to be able to see what’s going on on the stage.  Last year I played for a rather more jazzy musical – 42nd Street – it was a lot of fun but the only action I was aware of was the sound of thirty tap-dancers pounding the stage.

The strange thing about Phantom is that, as well as a band, there is a backing track.  Andrew Lloyd Webber obviously leaves nothing to chance and provides the tricky-sounding organ part on a ready made CD as not all theatres come with built-in pipe organs.  It definitely adds to the texture of the music, which can sound quite sparse without a string section.

The Phantom’s mask for the Masquerade scene is particularly scary.  Although it was made less scary by the fact that the cast had to sit in the auditorium in full costume to hear the director’s notes before the dress rehearsal.  There it was, very scary skull mask, listening attentively to stage directions, resulting in hilarity and most of the band in fits of laughter.

Playing for shows is one of my absolute favourite things to do as a professional harpist.  There’s the camaraderie of being in a band that meets several times in one week.  The music itself, and lucky for me the harp often gets the most beautiful music to play – ‘All I Ask of You’ springs to mind – plus several glisses to add that extra sparkle.  And don’t get me started on the pre, during and post show drinks on offer…

We’ve had the technical and the dress rehearsal now, so fingers crossed it’ll all be alright on the night…

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This lunchtime, my flute, viola and harp trio played in a lunchtime concert at Manchester University.  We performed Debussy’s Trio Sonata – a beautiful piece and definitely a classic for this ensemble.

Our trio is relatively newly formed, and it involves myself, Matthew Howells on flute and Joe Bronstein on viola.  We get together about once a week to rehearse.  Chamber music is something I didn’t do too much of at college, but I’m finding it can be a really refreshing way to make music and get to know other musicians… it’s almost like socialising!  Even though this was unpaid, it was definitely worth doing for the experience of playing this beautiful music.

A couple of things happened that are worth recording.  Getting the harp there was a little fiddly as Manchester Uni don’t let humble musicians park at all.  So my morning was spent doing the following:

  1. Pack up harp watch that velco!  Remember, you are wearing tights.
  2. Load harp into car
  3. Drive car to uni
  4. Unload harp and find someone to guard it
  5. Drive back home
  6. Contemplate the ridiculousness harpists have to go through sometimes
  7. Walk back to uni
  8. Unpack harp careful with the velcro covers near tights! – be ready to start rehearsing.

This process can be reversed to describe accurately what to do after the concert.

The playing actually went really well, the audience was enthusiastic but sadly quite few in number.  I guess you can’t have everything.  Better to have a small welcoming audience than a large, hostile one.

I did manage to put the piano stool on my dress as we were setting up during the concert, only to try and walk away and find myself rooted to the spot.  I finally freed myself and tried to push the wrong door to get off-stage.  Slightly embarrassing – but nothing compared to what happened after the concert.

So there I was, getting changed out of my dress, and I’m told that I need to move the harp now,  the hall is needed for another rehearsal.  Cue me, trying to get dressed allegro molto only to be told by Joe a minute later that I’d forgotten to fasten my skirt!

I think ‘mortified’ covers it pretty well.

The things we do for our art…

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Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day.  For girls like me who aren’t in a relationship, it can be a tricky one.  Do we pretend it doesn’t exist and try not to be insanely jealous at all the romantic things guys are doing for their girlfriends?  What do we do when the evening draws in?  Luckily for me I had plans months in advance this year: playing the harp to set the mood in a romantic restaurant in Chorlton, Manchester.

I remember thinking this morning sure, I set the mood for the restaurant, but who sets the mood for me?

The restaurant was The Lead Station in Chorlton and I would thoroughly recommend it.  It was beautifully decorated and very romantic.  Lots of candles and roses.  The harp was placed right in the middle of the eating area – and as you can see from the picture I think it looked lovely.  The staff were also lovely and very helpful with my harp and its covers.  Finn, the manager and Nick, the owner in particular were really welcoming.

Background music is a funny one.  As a harpist, I’m frequently called upon to play background music for events like this, or weddings, plus the occasional corporate function or fancy office party.  We sit there making (hopefully) beautiful music while the party happens around us, with nobody really listening.  But tonight was different, the restaurant was really quiet and I got applause.  Applause!!  For background music.  This was quite radical.

I also was given a complimentary meal from the special menu for the evening.  So I chose beetroot and spinach risotto with goats’ cheese (I can hear my mum’s mouth watering at that) followed by a beef burger – and I’m  not kidding, this was the best burger I’ve ever eaten in my life!  I asked for it medium cooked because I was so shocked they gave me a choice!  But seriously – excellent food and free drinks all night, shame I had to drive home.

Yes, it can be hard not having that special someone to spend Valentine’s Day evening with, but just because you’re not being taken out, doesn’t mean you are not loved.  It was a really good feeling to know that I was adding something to numerous couples’ Valentine’s Day – but never mind that, I earned some much-needed cash!

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Brit Idol

Today, I had an audition for ‘Brit Idol 2012’ – a nationwide talent show with a prize of £1000 plus performance opportunities.  I came across the competition through starnow.co.uk.

As I live in Manchester, which is quite a large city, I was expecting the audition to be packed.  I was also expecting to be sitting around for hours.  So I took a new book with me, Stephen King’s The Stand, I’ve only just started it but I can tell I’m going to enjoy it.

So anyway I turn up at the Zion Arts Centre and the place is … well … pretty much deserted.  Eventually a man comes out with a clipboard and calls a register.  His register is only about a dozen names but half of those hadn’t turned up – luckily there was a friend of mine from RNCM also auditioning so we could sit and chat while we waited for our 5 minute audition.

I had arrived at 11.45am, by the time they start taking people in for auditions it was already 1.15 and I’d had to sneak out to buy a sandwich.  They didn’t call me in until 3.55pm!  I went in and did my thing (will post a video as soon as I work out how to transfer it from my phone to the internet).  The judges were a singer, a cellist and a pianist, and the only piece of constructive advice they gave me?

Smile more.

I waited around for FOUR HOURS and you are telling me to ‘smile more’ ? ? !

I could not believe what I was hearing, the piece I chose was jazzy and light-hearted, but what do they want me to do – grin like the cheshire cat because I’m playing happy music?  So frustrating…

So I’m just going to chalk it up to a learning experience – still can’t believe I paid £10 and waited all afternoon to be told that I look too intense when I play.

Nevertheless, onwards and upwards as usual.  I’m going to a friend’s house for dinner tonight so I can forget about this waste of a day…

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