December is looming!

There are two gigs to report in the last week. Today is – scarily enough – the last completely free day in my diary before Christmas! This thought is terrifying. I made the most of it by eating seashells in bed until lunchtime (chocolate seashells – before someone carts me off to the nearest asylum) and then spending the afternoon practising with the aid of copious amounts of coffee.

Last Saturday was the same repertoire as the week before, Verdi, Britten, Wagner – we know all about it. The concert was in Knaresborough. Quite a long drive from Manchester but it meant I could pop home for a quick drink and a chat with my dad in the afternoon.

On Sunday morning I was singing with my church choir, before dashing off to Crewe for an insanely last minute gig. A Viennese Christmas Gala with the British Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. Luckily I enjoy sight-reading (adrenaline!) as there was no time for me to get hold of the music before the day of the concert. I knew we were doing to be doing excerpts from Merry Widow, hurray I thought, I’ve done that before! But alas, we were doing a different arrangement to the one I played in summer. So before I was happily doing my Lehar style um-chas but on Sunday I was relegated to counting bars of rest. Shame. We also played lots of Strauss, waltzes and polkas, think New Years Day in Vienna. There was also, I’m ashamed to say, Christmas music, it’s not even December yet! Way too early for Jingle Bells – although I did secretly rather enjoy it.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week have been free in my diary, yay! It feels like a weekend, which I probably need as my next gig-free day is a week today! Busy busy! Looking back to this time last year, I had hardly any gigs over Christmas at all – which ultimately led to me needing a part time job (and going home to cry to my parents and seriously considering a change of career). But here I am a year later, working like crazy! What’s changed?

So not much to report this week – but Christmas is looming on the horizon and there is A LOT to do before then!

Success

Even though I am busy with gigs at the moment, it still feels like the calm before the storm. It seems that every day I get calls asking for last minute gigs before Christmas, my diary is bulging at the seams – which is great.

Last Friday was slightly manic. I was performing some background music for the annual fundraising dinner and awards ceremony for Christians Against Poverty at the Royal Armouries in Leeds – there were about 400 people there and the place looked great…

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I had to dash off after the main course for a rehearsal with Leeds Symphony Orchestra. I felt slightly silly turning up to a rehearsal 20 minutes before the end – but the programme had lots of harpy moments so for the sake of the conductor’s sanity I thought it was important to go so we could chat about important entries, the speeds of different sections etc.

The concert was the following evening in St. Chad’s, Headingley. It started with Verdi’s Force of Destiny Overture. This is one of my favourite harp parts! It’s an excerpt that all harpists learn as early as possible so we can perform it at a moment’s notice without too much stress. In fact, the best thing to do is memorise it so you can just stare at the conductor and still hopefully get all the notes in the right place (the excerpt is fast triplets with lots of pedal changes but SO much fun). I will always remember performing it in Italy in 2010 with the RNCM Symphony Orchestra on the Piazza in Montepulciano. I remember the warm Mediterranean breeze causing the harp strings to sound, and the promise of ample Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for us all to drink each evening. It was a fantastic time.

The next piece in the programme was Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. I’m doing so much Britten this year due to the fact that this Friday would have been his 100th birthday. I feel a great affection for Britten’s music and am very proud and happy to be able to perform it so often (on the last count I am doing five performances of his Ceremony of Carols this year). I first did the Sea Interludes with the Yorkshire Youth Orchestra in the summer before I started at RNCM. Back when I was a sweet young thing of 18 – hitting the pub with the brass players every night for a week. There was no harp tutor on this particular course and I remember being really nervous about it! But actually it was a great introduction to a wonderful set of pieces.

The final piece I was involved in on Saturday was Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Now, Wagner has caused me a lot of stress these past few months (from beyond the grave – so rude). So he’s not my favourite person, but actually, I have to say the Liebestod is probably the most charming music by him that I have played, it’s not easy but it sounds nice – maybe you have to grow into liking Wagner and I’m just not mature enough yet. We shall see. Was it Edgar Wilson Nye that said ‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds’? I know what he means.

Saturday’s concert was highly convenient in that I wasn’t needed after the interval so I could dash off home… and prepare myself for Sunday.

On Sunday I was to drive to Nottingham from York to take part in An afternoon of Britten – yay more Britten! The only annoying part of the day was getting to Nottingham and realising I’d left my purse in York – I won’t repeat what I said when my mum called to inform me of this. Suffice to say my wonderful daddy met me at Ferrybridge Services to drop off my purse so I could get straight back to Manchester in time for my planned evening of carbonara and wine.

The only piece I was involved in was the Ceremony of Carols. The cathedral was almost full, a really good audience. I want to know their secrets of such successful concert promotion. Maybe I’m not alone in feeling very proud of the English music being performed. Neil Page and Alex Patterson both conducted wonderfully, and the pianist, Peter Williams, was particularly good as well. The concert started with the Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury before going on to Ceremony of Carols. The next few pieces I had honestly never heard so this was a fascinating afternoon. First up was Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, for countertenor, tenor and piano – a really moving piece of music and excellently performed by Tom Williams, James Lister and Peter Williams respectively. Next were Six Metamorphoses after Ovid with Anna Williams playing the oboe.

The next piece was The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, which tells a grim tale of betrayal and adultery – the music of which was apparently parachuted into a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1943 where it received seven performances. The concert ended with the whole choir coming together to perform the Hymn to St. Cecilia – how fitting to end this wonderful, at times emotional, afternoon by honouring the patron saint of music.

So that was last weekend. There are so many gigs coming up between now and Christmas, things are going to get a little crazy! A friend of mine recently described my harp career as ‘taking off’. This was a really sweet thing to say, but, as musicians, what does a ‘successful career’ mean? Right now I feel successful if I can afford to cook myself decent food, run my car, keep warm in my flat and stay within my overdraft limit. I wonder, is it the number of gigs that defines success? Or is it the fee for those gigs? Or, more likely, the caliber and reputation of those you perform with? It’s not like there’s a promotion I can go for. I’m just ‘harpist’. But the best thing about doing lots of gigs is that it will lead to lots of gigs, this Christmas I’m also invading areas that I’ve never played in before (Bradford and Ilkley for example) so hopefully that will lead to more work for me in these areas. We shall see.

As always, a big thank you for reading these posts of mine, if you have any comments or feedback… get in touch!

Remembrance, York Minster and birthdays!

Last Saturday I was playing the Faure Requiem in York Minster with York Musical Society. I seem to be flitting over the Yorkshire/Lancashire border very regularly at the moment, but it’s lovely to get so many chances to visit York. I arrived just in time to nab the last parking space in the tiny Minster car park, and wheeled my harp into the building. York Minster is absolutely stunning, maybe I’m biased because I’ve grown up in this city, but I think it’s just gorgeous. It has a window the size of a tennis court!

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Before the concert we had a few seconds of silence for Remembrance Day. The silence was so different from the ‘silence’ you usually get at a concert – there was no shuffling, no coughing, just heavy, thick, silence. In that huge space this was absolutely amazing. Before the concert I had gone for some food with my dad, and afterwards I gave him a lift back to his car. Now, I know the roads of York… I do, honestly! So I have no idea what possessed me to turn the wrong way down a one way street. It was only the beep of a taxi driver that alerted me to the situation. So I’m sorry ladies, but I did nothing for our reputation as competent drivers that night!

This was also the week of my birthday! I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Some like it Hot where Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) laments the fact that she’s turning twenty-five – ‘that’s a quarter of a century, makes a girl think’. I celebrated with a gorgeous meal out followed by some quiet drinks in town. The following day I went for a walk in Heaton Park, North Manchester. I’d never been before but it is lovely! All the people walking dogs made me really really want one of my own, one day! We got the perfect autumn day as well – sunny, and feeling crisp but not too cold. I couldn’t resist taking some snaps:

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Next week is due to be another busy one, with gigs in Leeds and Nottingham. I have also added a new page to this website, ‘Upcoming Concerts’ – with details of where I’ll be playing over the next few months. Please also check out the updated site for my Harp Quartet CLOUDS as details are coming very soon of our exciting December concerts!

Doncaster and Fairfax House

So after the last couple of posts were becoming dangerously philosophical, I thought today’s post should be more harp-related. I am writing from the waiting room where my car is undergoing its MOT. It was this time last year that my beloved ford died and I had to spend every penny I then had to get a new car. I’m hoping history doesn’t repeat itself today. I’m secretly cautiously optimistic.

My harp is very happy at the moment. Nicely busy without being too frantic (yet). A week last Wednesday I had a lunchtime recital in Doncaster’s Museum and Art Gallery, which went very well with a cosy audience of about forty (that’s forty people – I think their average age was somewhat older). They actually booked me for another recital in December 2014 so I must make a note of what I played to make sure I don’t play the same programme again. I thoroughly recommend the art gallery, I wish I’d had more time to look around but straight after the recital I was whisked away for coffee and crumpets at Woods Tea Rooms with the concert organiser – Philip Scowcroft.

Instead of returning to Manchester I decided to go and see my parents in York as I had a gig there a couple of days later. On Friday night I was booked to play 45 minutes of background music for a drinks reception in York’s Fairfax House. A beautiful Georgian house right in the city centre near Clifford’s Tower. As it happens, the guests were a quarter of an hour late so I only played for about half an hour. In any case, it was very well received. My playing was followed by a tour of the house, which I would also recommend if you are ever in the area.

Lastly, on the Sunday of last week I did something I hardly ever do. I played for free. Actually you can hardly call it a gig because I volunteered to play. The church choir that I sing with was performing Faure’s Requiem. I am completely in love with this piece so I asked if they wanted me to play the harp for it. If I was going to be there anyway I may as well bring my harp. Also it’s good practice for this Saturday’s gig, which is the same music, except this time in York Minster – exciting!

Will we always feel skint?

As my diary gets ever more full leading up to Christmas, there will be numerous gig reports coming so bear with me – this is the second thoughtful post in a row and I don’t want anyone to get worried.

In a world of buy-now-pay-later, credit cards with unrealistically low minimum payments and adverts everywhere telling us to ‘treat ourselves’, it can be challenging to budget effectively. Credit is so easily obtained, why save up for the things we want when we can have it now and deal with paying for it later? People living on credit gain an unrealistic expectation of the lifestyle they can actually afford while storing up trouble for the future and having to pay ludicrous amounts in interest every month – which is literally throwing hard-earned money away.

It’s an easy and slippery slope to find yourself on. It may also partly be caused by the fact that denying yourself things or saving up for things is seen by many as boring while getting them now is seen as exciting and fun. We need to change this to a more realistic view that saving for things is responsible and wise whereas buying too much on credit is unwise and reckless.

One of my targets for 2013 was to pay off my credit card and destroy it (done) and another was to get out of my overdraft (nearly done). But now that I’ve almost shaken off those debts, suddenly I have to maintain this level of equilibrium and live within my means.

It sounds slightly OCD and maybe it is, but for the past 12 months I’ve noted down every penny that I get paid, and everything I have had to fork out for. iPhone users can use an app called Budget – Back in Black, this app has helped me so much. You key in monthly expenses that happen every month, rent, gym memberships, subscriptions etc, then the income you receive. This is obviously easier for people with salaried jobs as income is very similar each month, but for me, when I do a gig or teach a lesson, I record it in the app. It then works out what you have left over after fixed expenses for normal spending on things like groceries or clothes. You can also set yourself goals, such as paying off a credit card or saving for a holiday – decide what you want to put aside each month then that gets taken out of your spending total.

It sounds quite time-consuming but it’s really not that bad, and if anyone else out there is feeling skint I’d fully recommend this app. Just the bother of having to key in purchases is enough to stop a certain amount of spending on things like take away coffee or taxis as these really add up without adding much value. The first few months I used it I ended the month in the red, naughty. So it really teaches you to be careful.

But this got me thinking, living on a modest budget means constantly being careful with spending, but will it always be like this for freelancers with unstable income? Will I ever be able to spend £8 on a cocktail without a certain amount of guilt? Maybe once I have some decent savings in the bank, but until then, it seems the price of living without debt is constant vigilance.

Living modestly has its advantages though, walking instead of taking the bus is extra exercise, cooking from scratch rather than ordering takeaway is so much cheaper and healthier, and putting on jumpers and wooly socks in winter rather than putting the heating on makes you feel like you’re doing the planet a favour too.

Before I finish this post, I’d just like to thank everyone who takes the time to reads these musings of mine, and for your comments and feedback. Please feel free to comment below with your own money-saving tips and tricks. Or join me and let’s start a debt-free revolution and cut up our credit cards!