How we can all support The Arts

We are living through an age of austerity. Spending cuts threaten the funding that major orchestras rely on. Cuts to school budgets mean that music and other arts subjects get side-lined in order to prioritise subjects like maths, science, and english. Yet it has been shown that actually increasing the amount of music in the timetable is hugely beneficial for students and increases their performance in all subjects. Check out what happened at this school in Bradford.

As the cost of living feels like it’s getting higher all the time and wages don’t keep up with inflation, people are feeling the pinch, and possibly not going to concerts or hiring live musicians for their events in an attempt to save money.

So what can we as ordinary citizens do to help support the arts? Here are a few ideas:

 

Attend more concerts

Perhaps this is the most obvious and immediate way we can help. If you live in a big city like London or Manchester, chances are there are free concerts all over the place. Here in Manchester there is a huge choice of free concerts, from organ recitals at St. Ann’s Church in the city centre to lunchtime concerts at Chetham’s and the Royal Northern College of Music. If jazz is more your thing, find your local jazz club, look on the website and find something you fancy.

Have a think about where you live, is there a local orchestra that perhaps does a few concerts each season? Could you perhaps consider attending one?

Of course, there’s more to the arts than just music. Many art galleries now allow you to look around for free, and theatres will probably have cheap matinee tickets on offer.

You could even set yourself a challenge of seeing something creative once or twice a month. Try to go for things outside what you would normally go to. Avid Handel fan? Go to a Gospel Choir concert. More of a jazzer? Go and see a Mahler symphony. Only ever seen Andrew Lloyd-Webber shows in the theatre? Try some Gilbert & Sullivan. You might find a new passion. At the very least, you’ll have more to talk about the following day than who got kicked off X-factor or what time your cat stayed out until. Going to see new things broadens the mind and you know that you are doing your bit to support hard-working, creative people.

 

Hire live musicians for your event

This may seem obvious, but having a live musician playing during your wedding/social function is far, far superior than having someone press ‘play’ on a cd player. It adds so much to the atmosphere that someone is there, playing just for you. Plus, you are supporting that person in a very real way. So please, hire musicians, pay them a decent fee, and perhaps give them snacks at your event? Maybe even talk to them at your event and thank them for playing for you? These things make such a difference – trust me.

While we’re on this topic, please, never, EVER, ask a professional musician to play for free (or worse, purely for the ‘exposure’). It’s insulting and completely undermines the fact that we have trained for years to play to a professional standard, and we deserve to be remunerated as such. For more details see the MU page http://www.worknotplay.co.uk/

 

Get invovled in the creative process

The internet really is an amazing place. Most of us are familiar with crowdfunding, where anyone can donate towards a creative project to help it get off the ground, and in turn they receive a reward and a glimpse into behind the scenes of the project itself.

As well as crowdfunding, there is a website called Patreon where you can support creatives on an ongoing basis – rather than for one big project as you do with crowdfunding. You can either donate monthly or per piece of content released (with a monthly cap so you don’t donate any more than you want to). Donations are generally much smaller (say $1-5 dollars) and patrons have access to a ‘patron-only feed’ of news and behind-the-scenes updates of the creative process.

My Patreon page is geared around making videos of harp pieces, both on and off the exam syllabus. Rewards include having your request played, recorded and uploaded, early access to videos and blog posts, and credits at the end of my videos.

 

Encourage your kids to get creative

Whether it’s playing a musical instrument, taking them to a dance class, or encouraging them to perform in the school play, encouraging kids to get involved with the arts will do wonders for their confidence and academic achievement (assuming of course that they don’t actively hate it – don’t force anyone here – keyword is encourage). Many musical organisations now place a lot of focus on outreach work, bringing music into the community and enabling people to get involved who normally wouldn’t be able to. See what’s going on in your local area, and if you are a musician and have the opportunity to get involved, do it.

Encouraging kids to learn an instrument may lead to them finding their passion in life, or at the very least, might improve their grades and give them an interest in music that they otherwise would not have had. Regular practise also encourages self-discipline and gives them time away from their phones, which we could probably all do with.

If there is not much music going on in your area, it might be time to…

 

Get vocal!

If you think your child’s school needs more music provision, tell them. If your local music service is desperately in need of investment, how about writing to your local MP to let them know how important this is to you? Would you love to go to more orchestral concerts but find that you can’t afford the ticket price? Write to them.

Musicians: see if you can join some sort of trade union (I’m in the MU but have heard lots of good things about ISM too). Get involved in the decision-making process and have your voice heard.

People aren’t psychic, and if they don’t realise there’s a problem, nothing will change.

If we value the arts in our society, we must look after them and invest in them. It makes all of our lives richer.

 

 

I really hope this has given you some ideas of ways we can support the arts and have our lives enriched in the process. I’m aware that this has been a bit of a long post! Thank you for reading and well done if you’re still here. A big thank you as well to those of you who contributed ideas via facebook and twitter. If I’ve missed anything, please do speak up in the comments. Let’s start a conversation.

Chat soon,

Ax

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Orchestral Etiquette: how to get conductors to like you

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

Well… not necessarily.

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

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

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

Being on time is not good enough

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

Hear me out here.

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

Practise the music beforehand

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

Be prepared

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

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

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

Always, always, count.

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

Never rely on getting a cue from the conductor.

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

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

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

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

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

Long Black is more professional that All Black.

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

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

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

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

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

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Tax advice for musicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got it? Awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back after a break!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here.  I have been insanely busy.  I knew this would happen – I’d get a job and lose all my spare time trying to juggle everything.

The income is great though, I’ve been on holiday with some lovely friends to Cyprus for ten days.  I’m starting to slowly climb out of debt (the pace of the climb has increased since the holiday) and there is light at the end of the tunnel!

What I’m focussing on now is the fact that I reallllly really want to do some travelling – or at least live abroad for a while.  Playing on the ship in Southampton that went nowhere has made me desperately want to play on a ship that does in fact travel with me on it.  I’m also chasing the possibility of doing some sort of residency in a luxury hotel in Dubai – the money would be great and the lifestyle would be fabulous. 

So I work in the shop four days a week, that means I have to squeeze the rest of my life into three days (plus evenings when I’m not in the gym/too tired to function).  It is so challenging – and this Summer is going to be busy.  I’m playing for Les Miserables in Runcorn, The Sound of Music in Newcastle, various weddings, as well as a tour with my wonderful harp quartet CLOUDS (more about that to follow in a separate post).

Juggling work + music is going to be very tricky for the next few months, but I daren’t hand my notice in because September, October and November are looking pretty shocking gig-wise at this stage.  I’m waiting for an email/phone call regarding a cruise or an international residency sometime in the next few weeks, until then I’m going to try and not act rashly.  Keep up with life admin (letters, emails, staying organised), practice (for gigs as well as various concerts and recitals coming up) as well as working in Long Tall Sally.  

Main challenge will be to hang on to my sanity.  It’s not going well.

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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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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:

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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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