This week I want to talk about singing and the struggle I have with time management.
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Last week I was on the bus from Cuenca in Spain to Madrid Airport, driving through thick snow (!) when I got an email. I was supposed to go on a tour to Moscow leaving on Easter Sunday but the email said the trip was cancelled at the eleventh hour. I’d never been to Russia so I was a bit disappointed – mostly I was concerned as we may not get paid a cancellation fee. Secretly, I was relieved as this past moth has been non-stop.
I’ve not written a blog post for quite a while (much to my sister Nicola Cairncross‘ consternation). I’ve been so busy that I’ve not had a clear space in my head to think of something interesting to write about. Normally I do a singing job that reminds me of an anecdote from a previous tour. Perhaps somebody mentions a place or incident which triggers me into writing. Those of you who have read my blogs before will know that stopping writing once I start is my main problem.
In the lead up to the release of my first solo album At Last I had plenty to write about, as the physical process of getting it out there was a voyage of discovery. I tried to document it in order to help anyone else out there that was going through the same process.
Leading up to the Launch Party, I had left a couple of weeks free in my diary to do all the jobs that might need doing. One night I received a phone call from a fellow alto (of the male variety) called David Bates. About three years ago he founded a marvellous new group called La Nuova Musica which he conducts. They were about to do a series of concerts of Dixit Dominus by both Vivaldi and Handel. The music would then be recorded at Air Studios in London (owned by the famous George Martin who produced the Beatles). A singer had let him down and he needed a last minute replacement. David and I had met in the Monteverdi Choir and he is always great fun to work with.
Being a freelance singer is a tricky business. Some things are in the diary for over a year beforehand – solo concerts with orchestras for example. More often tours are ‘penciled’ which means you have a period penciled in your diary but it is very likely to change and is certainly not confirmed. It’s a constant juggling act trying to fit in conflicting projects. Of course, rather like buses, jobs all arrive at the same time. It’s a constant round of begging for NAs (days when you’re officially not available) for diary clashes and spending ages on the internet trying to find trains or flights to get yourself from one country to another in time for a 10am rehearsal.
Another problem about being a freelancer is that you’re always worried that this will be your last job and you stare at big white spaces in your diary for the year ahead and wonder how you’ll ever pay the mortgage. Work does seem to come in at the last minute, but the past two years have been rather lean as the recession bites into Arts funding. This is particularly noticeable in countries like Italy and Spain where the Euro crisis is hitting hardest. The people there love classical concerts and we have traditionally toured a lot there. The other fear – which has proved to be a very real one, is that if you have to say no to a couple of jobs then you slip off the radar of that particular fixer.
All this meant I felt I couldn’t say no to David. He was in a spot and I wanted to help him out and I was also very keen to be involved in this vibrant new group and to see him in action as a conductor. The old fear of saying no kicked in and I accepted.
When he emailed me the schedule, I realised there were quite a few morning only rehearsals and time-consuming traveling to Cambridge and Harrow to be done. I live in Brighton and the train prices vary from £13 for an off peak travelcard including the underground, to nearly £45 if you have to get into London for 10am. If there is only one morning rehearsal in a day, then the train fare can wipe out almost all of the three-hour rehearsal fee (which is approximately £63). This usually evens out if you take the tour as a whole, but it certainly doesn’t live up to the glamorous, well-paid perception of being a professional singer.
So that left me with my Launch party preparation time cut down. I then received an email from a film fixer, asking me if I could do two sessions on the day before the Launch for a new film about Snow White called Snow White and the Huntsman. There are two films about Snow White coming out soon as, apparently, ‘Fairy Tales’ are the new ‘Vampires’ in Hollywood!
I accepted, but a couple of days later the fixer came back and offered me another two on the actual day of the Launch. I bit the bullet and said no, but was very mindful that the fee I was losing would have easily covered the venue hire, bar bill, sound engineer and musician’s wages. Ouch!
In the same month, I also had a few solo engagements to spice things up. A Duruflé Requiem, a Mahler song cycle with orchestra and a Mozart Requiem; as well as other miscellaneous sessions including one for the tenor Russell Watson’s new CD and a recording charting the life of poet John Clare! The week of the party, I also had to sing at a benefit for my friend Lynne Hazelden’s Cancer treatment.
The following week I was heavily involved with another concert I was doing for a another friend.
A few years ago, Dee Palmer was commissioned to write a Cantata to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the ill-fated night of 1,000 bomber raid on Nuremberg in 1944. Ninety six British aircraft were brought down by enemy action, resulting in a huge loss of life. On a personal note, KM-C was the 44 Squadron call sign of one of the Lancaster bombers lost in the raid. The pilot was Dee’s cousin. I had attended the premiere at the Arundel Festival where it was performed by a Tenor soloist, orchestra and an amateur ladies chorus.
I jokingly said to Dee, whilst congratulating her after the performance, that all it needed was an alto solo towards the end to sooth the audience after the harrowing depiction of the raid. Dee took me at my word and wrote just such a solo. Somehow, at dinner one night, I volunteered to fix a professional choir for the second performance and also (foolishly, for I had no idea of the enormous task) to check and revise the existing score, copy the new aria and print the parts for choir and orchestra. I had some experience of the score-writing programme Sibelius, as I already do my jazz charts with it but I have never done an orchestral score. What was I thinking?
The Monteverdi Choir were invited to sing at Windsor Castle to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Queen Mother’s death. Of course that was the very same day as Dee’s Cantata so I had to turn that one down.
I also had to fit in a trip to Guildford to be interviewed by Joe Talbot on BBC Radio Sussex as well as sending out press releases and invitations to the Press trying to publicise the CD Launch, not to mention trying to drum up all the guests. (Click on the link to listen to the interview).
I got back from the Snow White session about one in the morning. Later that day, I went down to our old stomping ground, the Brunswick Pub where we were holding the party. I wanted to do it there as I hoped I could get a good crowd and my friends could come. Nicola was streaming it live on the internet on Ustream so that people who couldn’t come could watch – also we’d then have the video to use later. (Click on the link to watch the video).
David Newton arrived from Bath and we had a quick sound check while both sisters, Nicola and Sarah tried to sort out the technical stuff – all went swimmingly at the launch and over eighty people turned up. I sang five songs and declared the CD open for business on iTunes, Amazon and even Argos online – though not the catalogue disappointingly. The thought of queuing up with my little blue pen and waiting for my number to claim my CD had tickled me when I discovered it on their online website. It was a really fun night shared by all my friends and supporters which went without a hitch (amazingly) and the next day I was head down and straight into copying and printing music for Dee’s Cantata.
Another week went by fitting copying around trips to London for jobs (annoying other people on the train as I worked away on my computer dropping large sheets of Dee’s A3 handwritten manuscript). Wednesday night after three hours printing out the parts at my long suffering partner’s work (thank heavens for the use of their double sided printer!) Dee and I sat and stuck together all the band parts so I would have a day to check everything – which was good as I spotted a few mistakes and had to re-print pages. When the concert day on Friday came, I spent the morning looking at my aria and the choir parts. I’d been so busy with all the other preparation that I simply hadn’t had time to practice the Cantata and my singing had taken a bit of a back seat.
At eleven thirty, I delivered music stands and parts and stood at the church entrance with my clipboard, checking the choir in and handing out scores – I hoped I’d remembered everything, even checking the parking machine prices for the choir. In fact, the notices on the machines had been altered the previous night in preparation for prices going up the following Monday – so that caused a bit of confusion. My good friend and Monteverdi Choir colleague, Katie Thomas was conducting. We had an hour for the choir call to cover the geography of the piece and correct some mistakes in the choral scores. The girls all went off to lunch and Katie started rehearsals with the orchestra.
She had a huge amount of music to get through before we could start on the Cantata. The first half had a great mix of pieces including Dee’s excellent arrangements of Mars (from Holst’s Planet Suite), Warlock’s Capriol Suite, Intermezzo (from the 1939 Ingrid Bergman film Escape to Happiness) and finally The Warsaw Concerto (from the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight). Dee was playing the fiendish piano solo in this piece and it had a great deal of rubato in the solo part so it was a tough job for Katie to keep everyone together.
When she reached the parts in the rehearsal that I had copied, I was on eggshells – trying to hear any mistakes, so that I could quickly correct them for the musicians. We’d did have a sticking mistake on one movement and the brass had each other’s parts. I leapt up when I saw the Trombone wasn’t playing and it sounded like the horn was playing in the wrong octave…..fortunately I had the parts in the extra set which I had printed just in case. They swapped music and it was quickly sorted out, but it did mean that Katie had to waste valuable time going back. I understand now what a really difficult job the copyists on big films have – working through the night to get revisions done and being responsible for mistakes in parts that can cost a huge amount in studio time.
My choir ladies and tenor Tom Raskin were brilliant and I had one run-through of my aria before Katie had to crack on to get to the end of the Cantata. The percussionist wasn’t happy and when I tried to placate him and ask if there was anything I could do to help him, it turned out that his main problem was that he was struggling to see the music. The light in the church was not very good in the place he had set up. I quickly drove home to get him a couple of clip lights and to get changed and was back before the beginning of the first half. We managed to rig up the lights on some microphone stands and we were ready to start.
There was a good audience and the first half went off without a hitch. Katie did a great job conducting and held the concerto together magnificently. After the interval we started the Nuremberg Cantata and later as I stood up to do my solo, I thought “blimey I’m a bit too tired to do this”. I think the lesson learnt is EITHER sing OR copy, fix and stage manage – being responsible for all of those things is just too much if you only have one rehearsal to sort everything out.
We were all mighty glad to get to the end of this mammoth concert and after collecting the music and stands, went for a celebratory drink to the pub. Some bright spark suggested we go to a late night Jazz club run by a good friend of ours from The Brunswick Jazz Jam, Paul Richards. Katie had her parents down from Wales and we all piled into the club. There was a fabulous singer called Zee Gachette who started off her second set declaring that we were all going to get up and dance – who were we to argue? The Welsh contingent stormed the dance floor and we finally got home very tired but happy at 3am.
If you’ve got this far – well done! – When I started writing I had no idea what I was going to talk about – ironically the original title was Writer’s Block! What I really wanted to say was that I’ve come to that difficult point in a creative project.
You have the idea, it takes months to bring it to fruition, all the hard work pays off and you finally launch your CD. Then I’ve been left with a creative lull and also, I find, some feelings of self doubt.
As sister Nicola was very clear in an email to me in the week after the launch. The hard work starts now. She advised me to print out a notice to pin on the wall in front of my desk which reads: “no, I’m sorry I can’t do that, I have an album to sell”
Obviously I have to make a living, prepare for tours, learn music, teach etc. Alongside that I have to organize my time better and re-focus to make time to concentrate again on my own project. Not let myself be distracted.
Launching this album is rather like having a baby. It can be a bit difficult to conceive, hard to hold onto, carry and give birth to. Everything leads up to the excitement of that moment and then suddenly you’re sitting at home with that strange bundle thinking what the hell do I do now? You love it, but not everybody else will. From now on is the really hard work.
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