This article on the LitHub website caught my eye We Need To Treat Artists as Workers, not Decorations. In summary, the author challenges the entrenched notion that because artists (and by extension musicians) do what they do for “love”, they are not workers, in the sense of being gainfully employed and receiving a salary or payment, and that discussing art and money in the same breath somehow compromises or trivialises the art. 

We really must get over the romantic idea of the starving artist – or musician – living a bohemian existence in a shabby-chic garret in Hoxton. 2020, the year of the global coronavirus pandemic, has revealed some hard truths about the day to day lives of artists, musicians, and indeed other freelancers, as well as some unpleasant, prejudiced attitudes, particularly from politicians who have inferred that such people, because they love what they do they do, are “not viable” (i.e. they do not contribute sufficiently to society and the economy), should look for employment elsewhere, and do not need proper financial support.

Musicians need to eat. They have bills to pay and families to support. Let’s stop being coy about talking about money in relation to music. This seems to apply particularly in the classical music world (when we talk about “the music business” we are nearly always referring to the world of popular music), where discussions about entrepreneurialism, marketing and business plans are regarded as unbecoming, almost taboo, in a profession which is devoted to sharing some of the highest, most wondrous and sublime creative achievements of mankind with others.

The trouble starts early on. Having observed from the outside, and, briefly, the inside of the conservatoire system in the UK, and having talked to many musicians – students and professionals – and others in the industry, it is quite evident to me that trainee professional musicians are not being equipped to cope with the realities of the working life of a musician. The focus is largely on performance, in a rarefied atmosphere which discourages talk of “career” or “job prospects”, and instead encourages student musicians to believe that they can sustain a life as a performer when they leave college. Few music colleges offer courses on the business side of being a freelance musician; thus, musicians are often naïve about money because they’ve been told it cheapens their “art” to talk about it. It’s a high ideal, and one which is quickly shattered when students enter the real world. 

Add to this a prevailing attitude that because you do something you love you don’t need to be paid for it – nor should you ask for money. For goodness sake, let’s stop telling musicians that unpaid work is “an opportunity” and that they should be grateful for “the exposure”. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills!

When artists assert that they ought to get paid, and paid fairly, it’s because they want to make a living, not a killing. They want enough to keep doing it. Artists are like other professionals who work from a sense of commitment—teachers, social workers—and who opt for satisfaction over wealth. They still have bills to pay. You don’t have to be doing something for the money to want to get money for doing it. You just have to be alive.

William Deresiewicz (author of The Death of the Artist)


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Composer Thomas Hewitt Jones releases his latest Christmas work, ‘The Shepherd’s Tale’ and offers the chance to join an online singalong with the Choir of King’s College London on Saturday 12 December, encouraging choirs who are unable to sing together during COVID-19 to be able to take part in choral singing at home while spreading some good-humoured seasonal cheer.

Thomas is making the music available as a singalong video complete with an ANIMATED BOUNCING SHEEP which newcomers to his music can follow along with the soundtrack. 

Originally commissioned by Battersea Choral Society for their 20th Anniversary celebrations in December 2018, ‘The Shepherds’ Tale’, the latest collaboration between composer Thomas Hewitt Jones and poet Matt Harvey, is a warm-hearted retelling of the Christmas story from the perspective of the shepherds and is among Thomas’ most directly appealing choral works to date. Straightforward to learn and a joy to sing, the music moves from dismay to celebration in its kaleidoscopic fifteen minutes’ duration, broadly laid out in five sections that follow the emotional pilgrimage of the shepherds in all its doubts, longings, and final affirmations. ‘The Shepherds’ Tale’ places centre stage the wonder of these lowly observers of the earth-shattering events, more often recounted artistically through the eyes and ears of the Magi and the Holy Family.

The COVID-19 pandemic has massively affected choirs around the UK and choral singing is currently only permitted in distanced form until vaccines are fully available to the general population, yet the Christmas season is normally the focal point of the year for many choirs.

Thomas Hewitt Jones says “2020 has been a difficult year for many of us, so to
spread some joy at the end of the year I wanted to make something that has ‘feel-good’ factor while respecting and celebrating the best of seasonal tradition. In normal times, choral singing is one of the most inclusive areas of our culture and I wanted to bring a smile to the face of singers everywhere this Christmas, even if they can only sing at home. My hope is that this online singalong will spread some Christmas joy for people of all denominations, celebrating the universal message of hope & rebirth while encouraging musicians everywhere to practice their sight-singing!

Lyricist Matt Harvey says “It was a pleasure to work with THJ on A Shepherd’s Tale. It’s always worthwhile to revisit and reimagine the old stories. And to interrogate them from a contemporary perspective.“

Publisher Antony Kearns, MD of Stainer & Bell Music Publishers, says “This wonderfully warm, good-humoured new work for choir and small orchestra is the latest from the Hewitt Jones/Harvey writing stable. Lasting 15 minutes, this through-composed retelling of the Christmas story from the shepherds’ perspective offers an unashamedly tuneful yet emotionally complex journey, which is sure to delight performers and audiences alike.

Get into the festive spirit! Follow the bouncing sheep and sing along with King’s College Choir, London.

Listen to The Shepherds’ Tale

The sheet music is published by Stainer & Bell

Part 2The problem with perfectionism, and releasing expectations


 

In my first article, I discussed how musicians can judge when it’s time to ‘let go’ of a piece of music and decide it is ready for performance or should be put aside for awhile.

In this second article on ‘letting go’ as a musician, I will explore how criticism and negative feelings can hold us back as musicians, and how ‘letting go’ allows us to cultivate a greater sense of acceptance, self-reliance and confidence.

Musicians are by nature highly self-critical, a habit which is often inculcated at a fairly early point in one’s musical study, by teachers, peers and one’s self.  Self-criticism is important: the ability to self-critique is a significant aspect of productive, intelligent practising. It also encourages musicians to become independent learners who are able to make informed judgements about their progress, technical facility, artistry in performance, and career development.

Alongside this, there is also the need to seek feedback and endorsement from others – teachers, mentors, peers and critics – which also help support one’s musical development.

Music is a world where there is much judgement and criticism (both positive and negative); it is also highly competitive, and such competitiveness can lead to questions such as “am I good enough?” and toxic feelings of inadequacy and failure, which can impede one’s musical progress and even seep into one’s daily life, affecting self-esteem and confidence.

Letting go of such feelings, the need to seek approval or endorsement from others, stepping away from competitiveness, is not always easy, but the ability to recognise, confront and manage them can make us better musicians – more confident, resilient, centred and motivated.

Letting go of perfectionism

The notion that one must play every single note perfectly is, in my opinion, one of the most significant contributors to feelings of failure and inadequacy as a musician. Unfortunately, the musician’s training still places an undue emphasis on perfectionism, which can lead to anxiety, stress and injury, and encourages unhealthy working habits. Perfectionism can destroy our love of music and rob us of joy, spontaneity, expression, communication and freedom in our music-making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook.

Instead, it is far more healthy and productive to let go out perfection and strive instead for excellence in everything one does. Excellence is realistic, quantifiable and attainable. Excellence develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

Letting go of the fear of failure

Hand-in-hand with perfectionism goes the fear of failure – failure to play the music “correctly”, failure to achieve that grade, diploma, competition result, failure to secure that job. We fear that we will appear foolish, weak or inadequate, or that we will be embarrassed, or an embarrassment to others, if we fail.

Fear of failure may also lead one to take a “what if…?” attitude to one’s music-making. “What if I make a mistake in a performance?”. Will my teacher/peers/colleagues think I’m a lesser musician because of it?

Let go of the fear of failure by recognising that “to err is human”, and that mistakes and failure are a crucial aspect of learning. A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing, and all errors and setbacks should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and, importantly, progress.

In a performance situation, letting go of the fear of failure allows us to play our music “in the moment”, creating a concert experience that is spontaneous, communicative and enjoyable – for performer and audience.

Fear of failure is also related to ego, and letting go of ego makes us better musicians, and human beings.

Letting go of external validation

Throughout one’s musical study, as a child, teenager and adult, one seeks and receives approval, endorsements and validation. While such feedback can be extremely helpful – and outward signifiers of achievement such as good exam results or positive critique from, for example, a respected musician, teacher or critic can encourage greater motivation – it can be all too easy to place too much emphasis on negative feedback or to “read between the lines” of critical commentary.

We may also measure our progress against that of others, but comparing oneself to others is negative and counter-productive. Just because so-and-so can play Gaspard de la Nuit, it does not necessarily make them a ‘better’ musician. Stop trying to compete or compare: accept that we are all different as musicians, and instead focus on our own strengths and talents. Alongside this, release the notion that there is certain repertoire that we should play (for too long I felt trapped by this pressure, but when I let go of it, I found far greater fulfilment and enjoyment in my music making).

We develop and flourish as musicians if, instead of looking for approval from teachers, colleagues, reviewers or the audience, we self-critique and recognise the value of what we have to say. We should measure our personal success against the challenges set by the music, not by extrinsic aspects – the endorsements of others (except perhaps a few respected or trusted mentors and colleagues). As Schumann said, “As you grow older, converse more with scores than with virtuosi.” 

Remember why we make music

Above all, it is important to remember why we make music – because we love it and want to share our passion with others. Music is also a shared cultural gift, and one which gives pleasure to many, many people. This knowledge should infuse our playing and sustain us over the long term.

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

The similarities between my industry, classical music, and my son’s, hospitality (he’s a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant in west London) are many. In both industries, a specialist training or apprenticeship is required to learn and hone the appropriate skills and expertise to support and further one’s career. The working hours are long, often unsociable, and the pay is low, for performers and chefs alike (only a very few, in both professions, reach the dizzy heights of international stardom and the remuneration that goes with it). Both professions are inextricably linked to the general public by providing services which people want and from which they gain enjoyment. And both contribute a not insignificant amount to the UK economy. 

Live music and hospitality have been severely impacted by the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic (and let’s be clear, it is government policy, not the virus itself which has caused such damage in both sectors). The government has, in my humble opinion, displayed an alarmingly puritanical attitude towards hospitality in particular, and live music to a lesser degree, in its imposition of restrictions to limit the spread of the virus (hospitality accounts for a tiny fraction (just 2%) of infections in the UK and both hospitality and classical music venues have made huge efforts to ensure they are “covid-secure” to keep customers/audiences safe). Both industries have been unfairly scapegoated by government, and the result is that many hospitality and music/arts venues has suffered severe financial losses. Both industries rely on paying customers – buying food, drinks and concert tickets – and when customers are non-existent or very limited due to social distancing, these industries suffer, some irretrievably. 

In addition, both industries rely upon supply chains and “behind the scenes” workers: when a restaurant or concert venue closes, the knock-on effect is highly damaging to a wider group of people/jobs beyond those directly involved with the venue.

In recent months performers have protested outside parliament to draw attention to the plight of the performing arts, and in early October HospoDemo organised a similar protest to highlight the difficulties experienced in the hospitality sector this year. It was supported by a number of leading British chefs and chef-patrons, including Yotam Ottolenghi, Jason Atherton and Tom Aikens. The second HospoDemo is tomorrow, 7 December, and its aim is to protest the tougher tier-system restrictions, introduced in England on 2 December, which will cause many in hospitality to miss out on vital trade in the run up to Christmas, and will force many pubs, restaurants and hotels to close for good. 

Because I have a personal, and, if you will, vested interest in the hospitality sector – and before 2020, my son believed that being a chef meant a job for life because “people will always need to be fed” – I am lending my support to HospoDemo. I can’t be at the protest in person, but I shall be doing my bit in an act of solidarity for an industry which has, like live music, been horribly impacted by coronavirus restrictions.  

Read more information about HospoDemo and its aims here 

jason-atherton-hospodemo
Chef Jason Atheron (centre) at the first HospoDemo (image: gastromasa.com)

In these troubled times, it is reassuring to know that there will always be Christmas music – from the sublime Carols from Kings to ridiculous Christmas pop songs which are played ad nauseum in shops (though less so this winter, since most shops have been closed!). Whatever your taste in Christmas music, there is a wealth to satisfy musicians’ and listeners’ appetite for it.

Composer Richard Blackford, a recent recipient of an Ivors Composer Award for his choral work Pietà (the world premiere of which I had the pleasure of attending at Poole Lighthouse last summer), has written a short piano piece ‘Christmas Dawn’, released today by Nimbus Records, which, I think, expresses a certain wistfulness in keeping with both the spirit of this strange year and the turning of the season, but which also has a charming warmth and tenderness, and an uplifting sense of hope for the new year.

Richard Blackford explains how the piece came about:

In November 2020 I was asked by Em Marshall-Luck, Founder-Director of the English Music Festival, to write a piece for her Christmas Garland concert at short notice. Having promoted a successful two-day festival in St Mary’s Church, Horsham, Em’s belief in the vital importance of offering live music-making during the COVID pandemic was stronger than ever. I decided to write a short, atmospheric piano piece Christmas Dawn, in support of her….the festival and those who were willing to travel to Horsham to hear the music played live.

This attractive and very appealing piano miniature has a hymn-like quality, and begins with a simple lyrical melody over a chordal bass line. You can well imagine a SATB choir singing this, and I even found myself imagining words to fit the melody as I played it.

As the melody develops, the texture and figurations become more expansive. A brief contrasting section introduces ppp staccato chords in the treble, with an answering quaver figure in the left hand. Delicate and a little playful, it suggests snowflakes, the sparkle of Christmas lights or the excitement of children on Christmas Day. The main theme returns, this time richer and more joyful, and with a more florid accompaniment, before the music returns to the simplicity of the opening, closing with a prayer-like cadence and a brief, final sparkle in the last chord.

The piece has been recorded by pianist Simon Callaghan, who brings a persuasive warmth and spaciousness to the music. For those who would like to learn the piece, the sheet music is also available and I would say it is around Grade 6 level. There are a couple of tricky corners, including some large chords (which small-handed pianists could spread) and some passages of cross-rhythms, but the piece offers plenty of scope for expressive playing and I’m sure many amateur pianists would thoroughly enjoy it. In addition to its choral flavour, I particularly like the contrasting textures and some unexpectedly piquant harmonies and colourful modulations.

Recommended

Download the track

Purchase the sheet music

I hope the music and the video will give pleasure at a time when Christmas cheer is much needed. – Richard Blackford

Meet the Artist interview with Richard Blackford


Richard Blackford studied at the Royal College of Music London, where he was awarded the Tagore Gold Medal and the Mendelssohn Scholarship, then in Italy, on a Leverhulme Award, with Hans Werner Henze. He was subsequently first Composer-in-Residence at Balliol College Oxford and later with the Brno Philharmonic. He completed his Doctorate at Bristol University, where he has also been Lecturer in Advanced Orchestration. His music, which includes three operas, two ballets and many works for orchestra, chorus and chamber ensembles, has been performed and broadcast all over the world and has been recorded on Sony Classical, Warner Classics, Decca, Signum and Nimbus labels.

 

To coincide with the release of ‘Regards sur l’Infini’, with soprano Katharine Dain, pianist Sam Armstrong shares insights into his influences and inspirations, significant teachers and the music he’d like to perform in concert in the future.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My parents are not musicians but my strong will to play the piano emerged quite clearly early on (at the age of 4 or 5). My first serious introduction to classical music was through the Great Composers LP series (I remember Beethoven Sonata recordings of Wilhelm Kempff and a Grieg Concerto by Stephen Kovacevich). I was also quite bowled over at a young age by the passionate music-making of Jacqueline du Pré in a TV documentary about her life.

The most important influences have been my two main piano teachers, Helen Krizos and Richard Goode. Helen was my teacher from the age of 12 and I stayed with her for a decade. I owe her everything in terms of learning to play the piano. She really ‘rescued’ me and helped me rebuild my technique with a much less tension and more ease and was wonderfully thorough and present every step of the way for the entire time I studied with her. She was demanding and exacting yet at the same time extremely supportive and warm. The very important things she instilled in me were the importance of beauty of sound, a deep sense of musical integrity and the necessity to adjust to whichever instrument I am playing on.

Studying with Richard Goode at Mannes College of Music in New York for four years blew open the ceiling for me in terms of sounds I thought it was possible to make on a piano, in terms of learning how to decipher a score with a combination of intelligence and instinct, the importance of getting to the emotional heart of a work and the necessity of specificity in communicating that. Also, very luckily the year I began studying with him he was featured artist in Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives series. I was able to hear him across 12 (I think!) concerts performing a huge range of repertoire from Mozart and Beethoven Concerti to Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens, Janacek’s the Diary of One Who Vanished, Brahms Piano Quartets, Bartok’s Third Concerto and Schubert Lieder amongst other things. Hearing those outstanding concerts and witnessing his artistic range was an education in itself.

More indirectly I have been influenced by many others: masterclasses I had with Leon Fleisher and Pierre-Laurent Aimard were particularly illuminating.

As a listener, I have been hugely inspired by the conducting of Antonio Pappano being an avid fan and regular attendee Royal Opera House performances. Also the artistry and boundary-less repertoire of soprano Sonya Yoncheva is very special indeed. I will never forget solo recitals I heard from pianists Earl Wild and Aldo Ciccolini as well as a truly heartbreaking rendition of Schumann’s Dichterliebe with Christoph Eschenbach at the piano at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think the one of the greatest challenges has been to maintain internal self-belief through the inevitable peaks and troughs of a career in music. In particular, to avoid feeling that how busy one is or not at a given moment is not necessarily reflective of how your career is going overall. It is important to acknowledge the role of circumstance and timing as well as work you have put in to constructing projects and laying the groundwork for things to happen. Also, it has been a challenge to learn not to expect a particular external result from a performance that you feel very happy with or hoped might take you forward in terms of career.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

This is NOT because it has just been released, but my album ‘Regards sur l’Infini’ with soprano Katharine Dain is something I am proud of as we had a very unusual situation in terms of preparation because of the pandemic. We chose to quarantine together starting in March and we ended up having months to fully prepare the rather complicated programme with no limits on how much we rehearsed. Normally rehearsal time is very short in professional life, so this felt like a real luxury to be able to explore the songs and poems so deeply, change our minds and give the music space to settle and breathe. Also, to prepare Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi (the main work on the album) with Pierre-Laurent Aimard was a huge privilege and totally game-changing in terms of understanding the codes to this complex music.

In terms of a performance I am proud of, my second Wigmore solo recital in 2012 is a performance I felt quite close to happy with – particularly in Schubert’s B flat sonata – a piece that is so vulnerable and hard to grasp and so much already in another world.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’m not sure that musicians are very objective at judging themselves, but I am told by others that I have a strong connection with Schubert and Brahms (composers whose music I love deeply).

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Listening to inspiring performances, long discussions with friends and colleagues and reading (I just finished a wonderful biography of Debussy by Stephen Walsh). Also, time in nature.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I found the Kleine Zaal (small hall) of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to be particularly magical. Perfect piano, perfect acoustic, presented with flowers by the hall as a matter of course. It doesn’t get better than that.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think that a growing conversation between performers and public about composers as the vivid, colourful flawed humans they were/are rather than dusty abstract figures is going to be necessary to engage and grow audiences. Also that classical music is a beautiful mirror of all of the emotions and experiences of life.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience was my solo debut recital in New York at Weill Hall in Carnegie Hall. It was one of the very few concerts where circumstances meant that a large number of friends and supportive colleagues were able to turn out in force.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think my definition of success as a musician is to maintain the will to get better, to improve and to get closer to get to the heart of this extraordinary music we are all lucky to play. On the other side, I think another type of success is to avoid becoming jaded by certain non-musical aspects of the music industry. Above all though is to keep searching for truth and equally to stay open to changing your mind and to other points of view.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

That you never arrive. That we are always chasing something elusive. Also to learn to enjoy the process, as music will present new (and sometimes the same!) challenges every time you begin a new piece.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I hope still to be playing the piano for a living. I would like to have more autonomy over certain programming choices and to have the ability to convince promoters to get larger numbers of people together for certain repertoire (Janacek The Diary of One Who Vanished, Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire, Ravel Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarmé or the Chausson Concert for example). Also budgets that would to make it possible to bring people from different countries for fantasy football style chamber collaborations (which feels even more decadent and luxurious in these pandemic times) would be wonderful.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A small house on the Greek island of Hydra with a good piano and a excellent espresso machine.

What is your most treasured possession?

My hearing.

 

‘Regards sur l’Infini’ was released on 27 November 2020 on the 7 Mountain Records label. With this album of French songs centred around Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain and British pianist Sam Armstrong have constructed a meditative programme that also includes Claude Debussy’s complete Proses lyriques as well as individual songs by Henri Dutilleux, Kaija Saariaho, and the little-known Claire Delbos, a violinist and composer and the first wife of Messiaen. More information


Hailed as ‘a major new talent’ International Piano and a ‘pianist of splendid individuality’ Arts Desk English pianist Sam Armstrong has made solo recital debuts at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in New York as well as at the Wigmore Hall in London, and as concerto soloist with the National Symphony of Ecuador.

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