How do musicians handle jealousy or are they just accustomed to vulnerability on stage?

This one’s a tough one demanding detail and taking in a few things I’ve been pondering over the past few days. 

The first bit you need to know is what went on yesterday morning. 

I was making my sandwiches for a day of filming. Mid way through mashing the hard-boiled eggs, I started thinking about a journalist who irritates the hell out of me. Nearly everything she says or does makes me annoyed. We’ve spent barely 30 seconds in one another’s company. I’m not especially proud of my feelings towards her. Truth is, the feelings I have about her are essentially a projection of my own insecurities – a reminder of all the things I know I can’t be in order to get to the top. Rather than being OK with that, my go to place (because we’re all wired to follow the path of least resistance) is to be irritated by her. At the risk of falling back on a phrase I actually despise, that’s my bad not hers.

I deployed a bit of rational thinking in the moment to get to me to ‘a better place’. I moved on to buttering the baps accordingly.

I then started thinking about the equivalent in the classical music world. What would it be like for a soloist to experience a similar emotional reaction, powered by similar thought process fuelled by a similar momentary lapse in self-belief. They must experience this, surely. They’re not super-human. They may risk sharing that with their peers or with journalists like me, but they must surely experience it even privately.

I know of musicians who do. People paralysed by their own self-criticism. It’s a difficult thing to observe in the moment. Why? Because for good or bad I do elevate musicians by virtue of them being on stage performing for me. And the reason it’s difficult is because I don’t want to reconcile the reality of the experience in the moment with what I perceive from my place in the auditorium. I want my musicians to be normal human beings, but I don’t want them to be that normal. 

Fran Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist writes about vulnerability from a performers perspective in this excellent blog post.

In the concert I filmed last night I saw the white heat of live performance, in the gloriously revealing acoustic of a school hall. It is in these surroundings where the elite accomplishment of the orchestra is laid bare, observed by an eager community audience for whom this concert performance is a genuinely heartfelt high point. A sense of occasion exuded. Those doing the work were only a handful of metres away. It was an electrifying experience.

From my position behind the camera, I was most aware of the cellos. There were three of them. Only three. But there was so much energy coming from them in even the overture that it sometimes felt like they were doing the work of a sixteen piece section. One player in particular – the number two – clearly demonstrated her unequivocal enthusiasm in the moment with appetite, grit, and joy, on both her face and the way her bow hit the string. It was a magical split-second thing to witness. I wish I had a longer lens to have captured it.

Thoughts have been swirling around today. And, following a recommendation from a friend earlier this week, I’ve re-watched Brene Brown’s captivating ‘Call to Courage’ – a powerful evocation advocating the need to be vulnerable. 

Reflecting on Brown’s call to arms for the second time this week, I wonder if I’ve arrived at a conclusion about musicians and their work. 

Yes, they are subject to the same thinking as the rest of us. They’re not wizards or magicians. Their achievements are not some kind of sleight of hand. Perhaps they are people – the ones who create electrifying moments – who know how to be vulnerable, people who thrive because they have learned how to utilise those insecurities. Perhaps they are individuals who learned long before the rest of how to be and how to benefit from being vulnerable. 

My feelings about that journalist are changing by the way. But you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a work in a progress. More on that story a little later. 

About that Guardian letter

The classical music industry is working together to shout the cause of music education. But we should remember that its newest cheerleaders are still in development.

Saxophonist Jess Gillam’s letter to the Guardian. It’s a fundamentally good thing. The message is strong.

It’s not an especially new message. Plenty of others have been saying the same thing for a long long time now.

Set in the context of the ISM’s recent State of the Nation report Jess’ letter is prescient too, though I’m not entirely convinced the timing is accidental.

There are a number of other necessary bandwagons on the road to reinstating music education in the curriculum, the wheels of which are still turning, some slower than others, some considerably more squeaky.  

The letter to the Guardian refers to some of those other campaigns, along with Jess’ appearance at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Music Education established and maintained by the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

What impresses me is the way it appears that the industry is collaborating, marshalling resources and messages, timing their dissemination to support one another’s endeavours.

Record labels, membership organisations, and broadcasters are supporting one another to send out a clear message to politicians: music education needs to be reinstated in the curriculum.

But there’s grit in the tank.

Jess, like her BBC Young Musician cohort cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, is in classical music terms hot property. Since signing to Decca they’ve cropped up in all sorts of places on TV and various public events, usually coinciding with an impending album release

Both Jess and Sheku are valuable assets to record labels. Whilst we applaud their achievements and how they’re helping raise the profile of an artform and music education, they are valuable to record labels because these altruistic acts provide an opportunity to drive business.

And whilst that in itself isn’t a bad thing, there are some implicit messages surrounding Jess and Sheku’s appearance on-air and in-print which we should as a community remain vigilant about.

Both musicians are hugely talented and have come to prominence just at the time when pressure has rightfully increased to tackle various social justice issues head-on. What both musicians are able to achieve in raising awareness, influencing, and driving change is incredibly important. But to be clear, such endeavours on their part also help content distribution organisations drive streams and raise revenues.

What worries me (and this be me being over-protective here) is the way in which they are projected: as musicians who have completed their journey and ‘made it’ just by virtue of having won a competition and made various TV appearances. These musicians are are still in development as performing musicians. Had they not signed to a record label or won BBC Young Musician would their voices still be heard?

Jess’ letter to the Guardian is a positive message. It’s necessary. But I’m uncomfortable seeing it only in the context of music education. I see Jess’ letter as part of a much broader marketing and PR strategy to raise profiles that in turn increase revenues, drive advertising sales, and importantly allows a large-scale brand be seen to align itself with a common cause.

And that raises ethical questions for me about the way in which artists in development who could themselves be struggling to come to terms with the attention they now receive, at a point in their lives when they’re still developing their practise.  

Think like marketers

I’ve been doing a lot of listening this week. Interviewing necessitates that.

There’s little point in preparing a list of questions to ask an interviewee, asking them, and then not listening to the responses.

Its the responses that offer the more tantalising opportunities for follow-up. The follow-up will always surpass your original expectations. It is the follow-up that yields the insight.

Peter Donohoe

Four such interactions this week.

The first, a 90 minute conversation with pianist Peter Donohoe up in Solihull for a podcast.

Donohoe was an open, warm and willing contributor. He shared all sorts of things about performance that deepened my understanding of piano music. He put me at ease, unwittingly legitimising me as a reasonably knowledgeable punter. Ninety minutes of conversation that closed the gap I sense between auditorium and the stage.

It was also a conversation where I felt so completely ‘in flow’ that the previous ruminations about invoices, payments, and impending bills seemed like a world away.

Interviews then – the necessary process of listening – helps me refocus attention on the now. Not only are these experiences an opportunity to create meaningful content and demonstrate skills and services to those with a budget, but they’re also moments to deepen thinking.

Realising I’d fallen into a listening and questioning habit only really became apparent when I attended the Philharmonia concert on Thursday (review to follow). It was the conversation with a marketing type afterward in particular which brought things into focus for me.

The content of the conversation is of course off limits, but its impact isn’t.

The questions came easily.

It was an exchange which reminded me that the classical music world I occupy in my mind’s eye both here on the blog and in the podcast, has a different vista from that seen by those who seek to generate business in the art music world, for example.

The core classical music audience isn’t as large as I might picture it in my imagination. It also doesn’t represent the biggest ticket-buying awareness-raising opportunities. Those opportunities are to be found in those who don’t consider the concert hall as their go-to location; those who don’t seek out classical music experiences or who don’t come very often.

Concentrating on the wrong people

This valuable perspective shook me a little.

I am a content producer – sometimes paid, sometimes not. My ability to pay the bills is, through choice, directly linked to my content production strategy. And the success of that strategy is dependent on it being in concert with the strategies of marketers and PRs.

There is no point in striving to create content that seeks the validation of or satisfies those who already know about the genre, because those individuals aren’t representative of the kind of audience the wider industry needs to attract. Such an inward-looking strategy doesn’t really help me nor the industry I’m seeking work opportunities from.

Think like a marketer

I mentioned earlier that this insight shook me. Its initial effect was similar to the thinking I have indulged in the past and ended up succumbing to – that which usually ends up with me abandoning a particular path because of a sense of frustration or impatience.

But it went further than that for me. There are skills I have that are useful (ergo billable) to the industry I feel a part of now. That those skills aren’t getting snapped up yet is either because I’m not as good as I think I am (a possibility), or more likely because I haven’t found the right way to integrate them yet. And that means thinking from the same perspective as a marketer.

But 48 hours later I notice a slight shift in my thinking.

Digital natives who understand the positive impact an authentic digital publishing can have, are in the business of awareness-raising and community-building; we’re not contracted to sell tickets. What we say to raise awareness and who we say it too is what is important.

And that for me means looking wider that the world I consider home, recognising that classical music – whether it be live performance, recorded music, or the content that surrounds it – doesn’t exist in a bubble. It has to be considered alongside a great many other experiences.

If content producers are to raise awareness and build community around the subject they care passionately about, then they need to look wider than the subject itself. They need to think like marketers.

Generation Z

And by shifting that thinking and opening my mind to looking at classical music as an experience or product – from the perspective of sales and business – then the need for other information is necessary. As if by magic, Barclays Investment Bank on Twitter provided a useful primer on Generation Z, and today, Manchester Collective’s Adam Szabo writes on Medium about branding.

Paid for packages

The day after the marketing conversation began with an interview with Czech Philharmonic Education Manager Petr Kadlec about the orchestra’s work with Chavorenge and music director Ida Kalerova.

Chavorenge – a collection of Roma children given the opportunity to develop life skills through choral singing experiences – sang on the first day of the ABO Conference in Belfast a few weeks back. The paid podcast gig garnered some valuable material and useful introductions, of which this interview was one.

Twenty minutes on the telephone plus another two hours editing, and the finished product is pushed gently onto the internet. I finished around 3pm and started on a handful of household chores, not returning to listen again the finished product until the early evening.

Ulster Orchestra Managing Director Richard Wigley introduces Ida Kelarova and Chavorenge with the Czech Philharmonic. Chavorenge offers Roma children the opportunity to sing together in life-affirming performances that seek to challenge prejudice in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

What I find pleasing listening back to it even now is the flow of the exchanges and the storytelling that emerges.

I like the occasional splashes of personality in the contributors characterised by the laughs, contrasted with the sheer wall of warmth and love that emanates from the singers themselves. That I remember ruminating quite a lot about the bills at the same time as editing makes the finished product all the more pleasing.

Obviously, there are one two technical errors with it. But that’s just the perfectionist talking, I like to thin.

New discoveries

One of my musical discoveries this week really touched me emotionally. When I first met the OH, his classical music library was small but proud. I don’t lay claim to having expanded his tastes – he’s done that himself through personal discovery (I like to think because classical music has been part of our regular music experience).

Over the past year or so I’ve seen him introduce me to unexpected delights. It is almost as though the emphasis has swung the other way in the relationship in that respect.

Mitsuko Uchida

So, yesterday morning as the pair of us sit down to read, he puts on some piano music.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Beethoven, I think.”

“Who’s playing?”

“Mitsuko Uchida.”

“Why did you pick this out?”

“I like the picture of her on the cover – the one that looks like she’s hanging on to her ears in case they fall off.”

It was electrifying stuff. My right hand started to grip the sofa cushion. I sat transfixed throughout the last movement of Piano Sonata No.30 – agonising beauty in the initial theme, extrapolated in an epic series of variations, including one Bach-esque fugue that cycles through some eyebrow-raising harmonic progressions.

It was the first time I heard it. What I heard brought tears to my eyes. Listened to it this morning and the same thing happened again.

Edmund Finnis

After that, a brief scoot through Edmund Finnis’s collection of new works on NMC, this year marking 30 years of supporting new composing talent.

The opening track, The Air, Turning  is a tantalising collection of textures that brings me alive, holding my attention throughout by presenting something that feeds curiosity with an imaginative world constructed with fascinating colours.

I want to spend a little more time paying closer attention to the release as a whole. It has a 70s concept album feel to it, the idea of which excites me a great deal. But in the meantime, be sure to listen to the gloriously eery Elsewhere. My current squeeze.

No names no pack drill

I’ve been doing a whole lot more reading this weekend.

There’s a lot to catch-up on. There’s a lot of words to cover in each copy of the New Yorker. The delivery schedule is as relentless as it is reliable.

Reading is – this won’t come as a surprise to anyone – a gratifyingly mindful process. Thinking is slowed down to a nostalgically heady pre-2005 era. The heart rate plummets. New connections are made.

It hasn’t all been a pleasurable pursuit.

In amongst the comparative definitions of aspiration and ambition, a potted history of journalism, and a remarkable account of a lifelong journalistic inquiry into the life of Lyndon Johnson, Tom Yarwood’s long read on the Guardian has been in comparison quite harrowing.

It reminds me of a conversation with an old pal from school I had in Edinburgh after watching a play about male rape, staged in a chain hotel that triggered memories about similar experiences I’d struggled with as a teenager.

It was a tough time. I went to the GP. I went to see a psychiatrist and everything. It all got quite dark at one point.

I recognised what Yarwood said about shame and a sense of responsibility. Unlike him however, I don’t have to see the person responsible for the initiating act listed on concert hall programmes.

It’s a tough read, but a thought-provoking one. The ethical expectations on the industry are as a result very high. Appropriately so.

How do composers sleep at night?

There’s a link I’ve identified between web designers and composers.

Britten’s diaries, letters and various biographies document the emotional roller coaster of the creative process.

I remember first reading about Britten’s inner-most thoughts back in 1997 and feeling slightly voyeuristic. I rolled my eyes at the diminished self-belief and the strained relationships. I rather liked that. I liked the way the comparatively banal detail of his everyday life afforded me the opportunity to puncture the loft reputation post-humously bestowed on the composer.

Just so we’re clear, I’m a Britten fan.

Last night, an unexpected thought. I was looking at a website I’ve been working on over the past few weeks for a client. It has been a hugely pleasurable process. Distracted from the usual office politics, I’ve been able to focus on the articulated need and the detail and complete on the contractual promise.

When the website finally goes live, the feeling is something odd. That’s the moment in time when the ship has left the berth. Sure, I can keep tweaking and correcting (that’s how Web 1.0 works after all), but the moment the website goes ‘live’ is the moment when as a creative individual you feel most exposed.

The paradox is that the period prior to putting a website live – building the website on a ‘test server’ – invariably involves using a web server which is available to anyone who happens to possess (or find) the necessary website address. It never concerned me that people might see what I was doing when I was ‘building on test’, yet the moment it’s moved to a difference public webserver suddenly I’m incredibly self-conscious.

It was late when I looked at the finished product ‘on live’ last night. True to form (at least I’m aware of it) I immediately zoned in on the margins and gutters – there’s really nothing worse than a misaligned block of text – and descended into a spiral of self-loathing.

I mounted a personal intervention and stopped proceedings before clambering out of my pit of self-induced despair and turning my attention to Witless Silence on BBC One.

Come the morning, my view on the very same website was … entirely different. The tweaks necessary were inconsequential and swift, and when complete triggered an unexpectedly overwhelming sense of pride.

It got me thinking about composers. How did they deal with the exact same creative process? Would any of them past or present dare to admit to tiredness-induced self-doubt? Would they dare to describe in such intimate terms the experience of crafting a new composition (in itself a battle of conflicting internal dialogues) and what interventions they mount to right the metaphorical ship? Would they dare to reveal the emotions experienced in the run-up to and during the first rehearsal and subsequent premiere?

There are a couple of podcasts yet to be published with composers about which I have this vague recollection I may well have asked the question. I hope so. Because I think anyone who gets the opportunity to have their work realised by a whole other team of professionals has a far more stressful working day. I’d like to know how they deal with it.

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash