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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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.

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April 18th

Last week I spent five days aboard the Saga Sapphire in Southampton:

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While docked, it acted as a hotel, allowing passengers to experience what Saga have to offer.  I was booked to play for them, but I had no idea what would be expected when I got down there.

I gave a lift to the trombone player in the band – Matt – and we set off from Manchester at just after 5am on Wednesday.  We arrived pretty much bang on time but had to wait a while before boarding.  I got numerous comments of ‘don’t you wish you’d played the violin?’.  One day I swear, someone will say that and I will respond ‘wow, YES!  Why did I not think of that before, here, take my harp, I’m leaving to find a better life!’

Basically, I had no idea what was going on, how long I would be playing each day, where I’d be staying (i.e. in a ‘crew’ room or a ‘guest’ room) or where I’d be eating.  Once on board I was told the lifts weren’t working and I was to take my harp to the 8th deck (are you KIDDING?!) they sent me down to 4th deck to find my cabin, only there was a man in there watching telly, so I trundled back up to reception and asked for another room.  They gave me this lovely room on 8th deck:

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Not sure why I got a twin room but at least my bags had somewhere to sleep.  The weird thing about it was, as it was an inside room (no windows) you can turn off the lights at any point during the day and it feels like night time!  Ideal napping territory.

I was told that I was to eat in the restaurant, with the guests, and oh my, the food was divine.  Wine was included with dinner (dangerous):

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The steak was also to die for, I had chocolate cake, lots of chocolate cake every day and it was amazing.  And yes, I may have gained a little weight while I was there but I was having such a lovely time it didn’t matter!

So my job on the ship was to play background music while the guests were having afternoon tea.  Every day we had different guests and every day they were really receptive and I got lots of applause (rare for background music) and I was also thanked by the Cruise Director several times, which was lovely.  So I would play for an hour, have some coffee and pastries, then play for another hour, have some cakes, then play for the last 45 minutes or so.  Dream job?  Yes.  Here’s my harp on stage:

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In the evenings, from around 6.30, there was a cocktail party in the lounge where champagne was on tap – uh oh – and the guests were welcomed by the Captain and the Cruise Director.  Dinner was after that (did I mention the amazing steak?)  Then at 9.30pm Steve Terry would sing his Cabaret set, Bobby Darin, Michael Buble, things like that, I loved it!  At around 10.30pm the dance troupe would start their Mo-town show, all singing, all dancing – I saw this maybe twice or three times while I was there and really enjoyed it, then at 11pm the UpBeat Beatles started playing and everyone danced.  They finished around midnight, when I would go up and listen to the cocktail pianist/piano entertainer Martin Orbidans play until around 1.30am.  Any song you can think of, he knows – he even managed to get me behind the microphone singing Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man – I was having a great time and no one walked out, amazing!  On the last night I managed to get a photo with Steve and Martin so here we are:

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So the evenings were pretty full, in the mornings I was either sleeping, or having a swim in the spa on the second deck, which I pretty much had to myself…

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So yea, had a lovely few days and didn’t want to return to normal life really – I wanted to stay on the Sapphire and sail to the Med!  Never mind, I would jump at the chance to do some more work for them.  It’s also got me thinking how much I’d love to travel and play – I’m discussing the possibility of going out to somewhere in the Middle East/Asia to play in a luxury hotel for 3-6 months.  I mean, it sounds too good to be true, all food/accommodation/flights/visas paid, I would get to stay in a swanky hotel and play every day – and I would earn good money doing it – more than I make now, working every day either in the shop or teaching or gigs.  I’m seriously thinking about it.  I turned it down last year, don’t think I’m going to be turning it down this time.  Watch this space!

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Decisions

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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Scarborough Symphony Orchestra

Last Saturday I drove up to Scarborough to play with Scarborough Symphony Orchestra.  My dad was free that day and so was able to accompany me and make a day of it, which was lovely.

Upon arrival I found the gates of the car park were padlocked – I guess that’s the reward for arriving early and in plenty of time.  I managed to find the caretaker and asked him to unlock the gates for me.  Once inside I then had the task of finding some guys to help heave my harp up the stairs into the main part of the church (Methodist Hall, Queen Street).

I saw several other freelancers that I know from other Yorkshire gigs, not surprisingly they all knew my dad who has done a lot of conducting in and around York over the past 40 years.

The concert began with Brigg Fair by Delius – the same piece that I played the week before in Lincolnshire – coincidence??? yea, probably.  Although this year would have been his 150th birthday if my maths is correct.  It’s a lovely piece.

This was followed by Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Bass Tuba, played by Shaun Matthew – the conductor of the rest of the concert.  I’d never heard it before and tuba concertos (concerti?) are very rare.  It was as virtuosic as I’ve ever heard a tuba played and obviously showed great skill – what else would you expect from an ex-RNCM student?

After the interval was William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 2 entitled ‘Song of a New Race’.  It is believed that this concert was in fact the UK premier of this work, despite the fact that it was first performed in America all the way back in 1937.  I’d never even heard of the composer and yet it is argued by some that, while Gershwin was studying under Still, he allegedly pinched the melody of ‘I Got Rhythm’ from one of Still’s compositions.  Now that’s good gossip.

The Symphony itself was really enjoyable, well written in terms of the harp, and also fun to listen to.  Especially the upbeat third movement.

I can’t really describe the composer better than in the concert programme, so here I am quoting Frank James:

“He was a remarkable man, who achieved a whole series of ‘firsts’.  He was the first Afro-American to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra, the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the States … as well as the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the ‘Deep South’ and the first to conduct an all-white radio orchestra in New York.  He was the first Afro-American to have an opera produced by a major company in the US, and the first to have an opera televised over a national network.  All this was back in the 40s and 50s, at a time when strict segregation was still the rule in the States…”

So I feel honoured to have played in the first UK performance of this piece, and I hope it will be the first of many.  There are recordings available on Naxos and it’s well worth a listen.  Trust me.

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Market Rasen

Last weekend was unusual.  My gig was with Market Rasen Choral Society, over in Lincolnshire.  I had practised the music and was really comfortable with it, I knew parking would be no issue, I was staying overnight with a member of the choir who has a B&B and had already invited me out for an indian meal after the concert.  So there was really nothing to worry about.

This of course made me worry that something truly dreadful would happen.

But no, smooth sailing all the way, there wasn’t so much as a single step to move the harp up or down – perfect!  I also got paid on the night, hurray!!

The repertoire was Delius’ Brigg Fair (I actually drove through the village of Brigg to get to Market Rasen, such a beautiful part of the country) and Rowland Lee’s Requiem.  Rowland was present at the rehearsal and the concert, it’s always a bit nerve-racking when the composer is actually sitting there, score in hand, ready to point out what he’d like doing differently.  But actually, he was lovely and received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of what turned out to be an unusually long concert.

But it was ok, there was curry to look forward to.  I sat opposite a very interesting man and we spent the evening chatting about where we went to school and things like that.  I didn’t realise it was Ian Hogg – a quick glance at his IMDb page shows that he has been in lots of TV and Shakespeare plays http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0389707/

After dinner it was time to go back to the B&B, which was about seven miles away.  It’s in the middle of the countryside and when you breathe in you can just tell immediately that you’re not in a big city any more.  And you can see the stars!  What a treat.  It was midnight when we got back and, as I was leaving first thing in the morning I decided my harp could sleep in the car.  Midge very kindly provided a nice thick duvet to tuck it in.  I found out later that Midge (Thomas) is a published author.  She wrote a recipe book of jams and preserves for the WI that has sold over 100,000 copies!

So that was that, lovely trip, lovely part of the country that I hadn’t been to before, met some great people, and got paid to do it!  Brilliant.

May is literally jam-packed with gigs (excuse the pun) so lots and lots of posts to come I’m sure!  Watch this space.

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