not to ask!
There are many things that we take for granted in life. Perhaps a key factor of this, is that from one day to the next, our lives are so varied and busy, there is little if any time available in which to pause, take stock and consider what it is we are doing on the planet and why. For numerous reasons, this is the way it has to be. In a scenario where everyone was engaged solely in thinking, rather than doing, we would all be in a far greater mess than we already are!
Of course, if one is in possession of a naturally inquisitive mind, which I would like to consider most musicians are, then to have occasion to ponder the various circumstances of our lives and our moment in the universe, becomes rather enticingly absorbing and a pivotal part of our self development or journey as ‘artists’.
Nobody could have predicted what has befallen the human race in the past 15 months or so. From chugging along through the centuries somewhat relentlessly at an ever increasing tempo and seemingly blind to everything going on around it, mankind has recently been abruptly stopped dead in its tracks.
Covid-19 appears to be the latest global ‘débâcle’ and as with a disturbed ant’s nest, frenzied blind panic has been the overriding outcome. The wreckage caused in so many areas surrounding the pandemic is of mammoth proportions and it would be premature to conclude with any form of confidence that the end of this particular chapter in history is yet within sight.
With vaccination programmes now well underway, at least in some countries, there are rays of hope, but with the distinct possibility still of numerous twists and turns ahead, it would be ill advised for us to have faith that we are going to soon be on top of this current catastrophe.
Since March last year, when in the UK the crisis first erupted, apart from the unsavoury health hazards of the virus, we have all had further work related negatives to endure.
My constant touring days, which were not only thoroughly enjoyable, but equally financially essential, were struck off overnight. Already crippled by the uncertainties surrounding Brexit, plans to sell up and move out of London, in order to have more space for a dedicated work studio, fresh air and greater levels of silence and general tranquillity, were now scuppered.
With thoughts of moving, I was even becoming genuinely excited about the fact that for the first time in my adult life I would be able to have my wine collection all in one place. It just isn’t the same with all those bottles spread around the country, albeit in secure and temperature controlled storage, when they could be lovingly flirting with me every time I descended the stairs into the cellar, with the sole intention of releasing yet another cork back into the wild!
Although time has passed quickly since early 2020, in many ways it has stood still. As a result, with my previous activities of ceaselessly flitting about the globe severed for twelve months, there has without doubt been more opportunity and space with which to engage in thought.
So much of what I did professionally until March last year was not only mentally absorbing, but also time and energy consuming.
For example, I could have been in Japan giving classes and recitals, as indeed I was two years ago this month. To do so though, there would have been a considerable amount of administration to deal with before departure. These trips needed to be financially viable and in order to balance the books successfully, they tended to be on the long side. It was not uncommon for me to be absent from London for anything up to four weeks at a time.
Air tickets and hotel rooms had to be booked, programmes for concerts needed to be organised, schedules to be arranged, currency to be exchanged. The lists were long and naturally it took up space in the brain and multiple hours of the day, in order to make sure that all the pieces of the jigsaw fitted perfectly together before departure.
With the primary aim of covering costs and coming away with a profit, once in Japan, the work load was intense. Numerous days of classes and lessons needed to be packed in between concerts. All very enjoyable, but at the same time focus and energy consuming in the extreme, with no extra mental space for anything beyond what was listed on the schedule.
As a self employed musician, it was paramount for these trips to be as fruitful as possible on many levels, so that the new faces encountered on the way, at some stage, might wish to repeat the experience with me. To this extent and with a view to receiving further invitations, all thoughts after the working part of the day, were steered towards making the social aspects of the trip as interesting and as engaging as possible (the Japanese most definitely know how to party after an event or concert and love social gatherings). Although I was eating, drinking and socialising, I was still hard at work. Musicians affectionately refer to this part of their working activities as ‘nursing the gig’!
All of this required focus and thought. If I had just sat there in the bar or restaurant, staring at the ceiling and showing reluctance to engage, it is unlikely that they would have warmed to inviting me back again! Even with extreme language barriers, it was still necessary to at least attempt and be willing to interact. This wasn’t in the least bit arduous for me, but it did require intense concentration and effort.
In reality, the only time that thought was possible, was the moment late at night when the hotel room door finally closed behind me and for the first time in the day, I was truly on my own. There was no need to be in further conversation with anyone. It often felt as though one had been centre stage throughout the day, ever since opening the door on leaving first thing in the morning.
Although I am extremely comfortable when engaging with others, this late evening golden moment of solitude was always a highlight of my day. The brain could shut down and at long last, in the few moments left with which to brush my teeth and get ready for bed, I could at least be my true self once again. However, weary from the day’s activities and happily gazing at the inside of my eyelids, the primary emphasis was not on thinking, but on getting to sleep as swiftly as possible, in readiness and to be recharged for the challenges of the forthcoming day. The nights often seemed to be rather too short and sometimes on awaking the following morning and going into battle with the alarm clock, there were elements of it feeling like yet another ‘Groundhog Day’.
A further complication on these trips was that other than to eat, I rarely sat down during working hours. I have always preferred to stand when I play (even in small chamber ensembles), because I enjoy the solid contact with the ground that this brings. It helps me with breathing, posture and composure and in any case, as I have long legs, Japanese lower chair heights, are decidedly uncomfortable and far from ideal. Sitting in them, I feel and look more like a baked bean!
Equally, when I am teaching I cannot sit down. If I did, the mental space and zone that I find myself in, coupled with my almost childlike enthusiasm about anything flute related, would mean that I would be up and down like a yo-yo! Far less exhausting just to stand.
All in all, taking into account the numerous demands, both physical and mental, by the end of the day on these tours, I was shattered and completely drained of energy.
Since March 2020, as we all know, seismic changes have taken place in our lives and these have included international journeying. Travel by plane for work has been significantly curtailed, with movement between countries becoming increasingly restricted and more complicated.
Apart from the freeing up of work that has occurred, as a result of the initial lack of and for the time being permanent termination of my overseas engagements, on the plus side, all of a sudden, much more time appears to be at my disposal.
In many ways, I have been busier than before, as staying in one place for such a long time has put a positive spotlight on the relevance and timing of the Simply Flute project that was started almost six years ago now.
Ever since that first day, my heart and soul have been behind this particular adventure, but the time and space to focus on it, for all the reasons listed above, has never been as available as I would have wished for. That was of course, until Covid-19 appeared in our lives.
These days, when not actively working on Simply Flute, having the opportunity and space to consider various aspects of my life as a flute player and musician, has been without doubt welcome.
The first eye-opener, is that it is extraordinary that I have been doing the same thing, day in day out, year in year out and for such a long time!
Baffling though this might be, the overriding conclusion is that I have also been more than immensely fortunate to have inadvertently fallen upon and then ceaselessly ventured along the ‘yellow brick road’ of such a magical profession and for my entire working life.
Of course, it hasn’t all been champagne and roses. I can assure you that performing a Mahler symphony for the sixty sixth time with a conductor who you neither admire, respect or trust and in rare moments might even loathe, comes significantly higher up the list of unpleasant experiences to be endured, than sitting in the dentist’s chair and being told that your teeth are fine, but that your gums need to be removed.
My chosen profession has without doubt provided me with a kaleidoscopic range of amazing experiences and interactions, that I strongly doubt would have been the case if I had opted to pursue a different, more stable and straightforward career. There can be no right or wrong to this, but I feel blessed that I unwittingly found a way of earning a living that suited my personality perfectly.
With any gathering of musicians and in particular if a glass or even two of wine is involved, once a convivial atmosphere is established, it won’t be long before the stories and anecdotes start to pour out. Unusual and more often than not amusing, they become the release and antidote to the enormous tensions encountered in the heat of a concert or performance.
When I began chewing over what I would be writing to you about this week, for reasons unknown, my thoughts landed on my early life as a freelance flute player, during those initial years, just after leaving music college.
As any regular orchestral work was scarce at this stage, various chamber music groups were formed and the then thriving music club scene in the UK, provided regular opportunities for budding musicians to ply their art.
Along with a harpist friend from my days in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, a duo was formed (no need for a piano!) and for several years throughout the winter months we would tour around the country, performing to various music clubs, invariably in freezing cold churches or village halls.
In reality, we were the ‘cheap’ act of the season, the music club or society funds having initially been splurged on a solo pianist, then a string quartet, a soprano or two and finally us. I didn’t have a problem with being an ‘also ran’, as any form of income was welcome.
However, I was always amused by the fact that at the inevitable cheese and wine gathering at the end of each concert, music club secretaries would tell me how much they had enjoyed the previous concert and how much they were looking forward to the next one, without once mentioning the concert that had just been given!
On another occasion, the President of one music club, excitedly came up to me at the end of the concert to tell me that I reminded her of that famous Irish flute player, James Gallsworthy.
Thankful acknowledgements were made, with straight faces hopefully maintained!
QUESTIONS BEST NOT TO ASK! – ONE
From my flute and harp days there are two stories that have flooded back and glued themselves to the forefront of my memory. They have done so, because completely unplanned, they turned out to be more in the way of life experiences than just stories and as such, have reached the status, in my mind at least, of being unforgettable and worthy of retelling.
Part of the joy of being a young musician, fresh out of music college, is that having spent so much time in solitary confinement learning how to play your instrument, once released from the chains of an institution, you are eager to get on with your new found trade, anytime and wherever possible and pretty much irrespective of any fee involved. The drive of enthusiasm is exceptional.
My harpist friend and myself were no different. We would go anywhere to play. You can therefore appreciate our delight and relief (with regards to work, the telephone didn’t ring so much in those early days!) one winter evening, of receiving an invitation to perform at a music club on the outskirts of Glasgow in Scotland. Hardly a local date, above 400 miles away and more than 7 hours in the car, a whole day would need to be set aside to get there. We travelled in her estate car to accommodate the length or height of her instrument. Harps are not exactly light creatures and with my spine and neck immediately in front of the pillar of the beast, containing its long solid steel rods, I was always slightly nervous of the potential outcome of any head on accident. If anything had happened, it would most likely have been referred to afterwards as a head off collision!
In order to arrive in time, eat something and have a brief rehearsal before the evening concert, we departed from London early in the morning.
All went as planned until north of Preston on the A74(M), with about an hour remaining of the drive to Glasgow. The road unexpectedly became quite dangerous, with rather too many potholes appearing on the surface. Even though harps are sturdy, their mechanisms are not so partial to sudden jarring movements, which seemed to be the theme of the series of large, gaping holes in the road ahead of us. From here to our final destination it was an uncomfortable and decidedly bumpy drive.
We arrived at the house of the music club secretary, who was truly Scottish, charming, but also one of those people who never stops smiling. At first, that constant glow of happiness, as though all is well and there is nothing to worry about, can be quite alluring, but after a while you realise that in the long term, in particular when faced with a dollop of seriously bad news, it could be severely irritating!
Our hostess showed us to our bedrooms and then told us that her husband, who had already been ill in bed with influenza for two weeks, was sadly not yet well enough to attend the concert later in the evening.
I seem to remember that the concert was well attended and deemed to be a success and afterwards we returned to our lodgings for the night.
‘I expect you’ll be wanting a wee drinkie’ our hostess proffered as we walked through the front door. Thoughts of a few large gin and tonics with plenty of ice and preferably in huge glasses, sprang instantly to mind. Playing the flute for close on two hours is thirsty work. My day was looking up.
‘Will it be tea, coffee or a hot chocolate you’ll be after?’ she asked. If ever a face could sink a thousand ships, but for all the wrong reasons, this was the moment, as a look of total desolation gave away the fact that I was needing to consume something significantly more powerful than a hot drink before retiring.
Even at that early stage of my career, I had already realised that on engagements where staying the night after the event would be necessary, it was always advisable to pack an emergency bottle of wine. On this particular evening, after a long drive followed by a taxing concert, my colleague and I definitely required something stronger than what was on offer from our hostess.
Behaving like naughty children, once we had all said goodnight and retired to our rooms, the floor boards could be heard creaking in the dark as my shoeless feet gingerly made their away along the corridor. I was armed with a bottle of wine, a corkscrew and a bit of a party in mind.
At breakfast the following morning I arrived to see our hostess, still smiling of course, stirring a large saucepan on the stove, bubbling with that well-known Scottish start to a winter’s day, porridge. As I sat down, the door opened and there was her husband. He looked truly dreadful.
With more than a hint of five o’clock shadow on his face coupled with a grey, dry and pasty complexion, it was clear that the ‘flu had put him through the mangle over the past fourteen days. He had not been at all well and this was the first time he had managed to crawl from his sickbed in two weeks.
After brief introductions had been made, he asked me which way we had driven up from London. I went through our route, finally arriving at the nearby stretch of road named the A74(M).
‘And how did you find the A74(M)?’ he enquired in a very broad Glaswegian accent.
Under most normal circumstances, I would probably consider myself to be a fairly placid and mild mannered type of a person, inclined to walk away from any potential confrontation or conflict as and when possible. Much better to stay calm and distant. However, if something does ruffle my feathers, there is a sudden rush of blood, I roll up my sleeves and have a tendency to wade in, both barrels of my gun merrily blazing away. My experiences of the driving conditions of the A74(M) on the journey up to Glasgow the previous day, were now most definitely ruffling my feathers.
I began by expressing my disbelief at having to drive over the surface of a road riddled with so many large and deep holes. It had been far from ideal and potentially disturbing for the mechanism of the harp and I had never experienced anything quite so lacking in attention and maintenance on a main road ever before and certainly not further south.
The more I spoke, the more I could sense a steady crescendo taking place in both my voice and body language. I was now circling for the kill! I continued. The A74(M) was a disgrace, very dangerous and someone should be held responsible for allowing such a major road, that is a critical artery between England and Scotland, to fall into such a state of disrepair.
At this point, without further comment and now looking even more like a ghost, the husband walked out of the room.
From the stove, still stirring the porridge and without looking around, our hostess spoke quietly,
‘Och, I don’t think you should have said that. You see, my husband is the chief structural engineer for the A74(M) and all those wee holes you saw in the road are his immediate responsibility’.
She was however, still smiling.
You won’t be surprised to learn that on our departure, the husband was nowhere to be seen.
QUESTIONS BEST NOT TO ASK! – TWO
The other memory, comes from another music club visit made with my flute and harp duo, this time to Herefordshire, in the heart of beautiful and tranquil countryside, on the border between England and Wales.
There are some truly breathtaking areas of the UK and this one, with its never ending rolling hills and winding lanes, is most certainly one of them, in particular in spring and early summer, when the various shades of green turn almost electric.
Once again, with it being a long and tiring drive back to London, we had been invited to stay the night after the concert at the house of the club secretary.
We arrived at her picturesque cottage, which stood alone, hidden away at the bottom of a valley. Although quite small, it really was picture perfect and could have appeared in any television programme or film about escaping the city to live an idyllic life in the countryside.
Our serene, calm and very pleasant hostess showed us around the house and prior to tea, sandwiches and cake, took us upstairs to show us where we would be sleeping.
At the top of the stairs, it was clear that there were only two bedrooms, one for the harpist and one for me. However, that night, there would be three people sleeping in the house. This didn’t seem quite right to me. Our hostess should not be overly inconvenienced as the result of two strangers turning up at her house. Of course, she should sleep in her usual bed.
In the lounge downstairs, there was a large and comfortable looking sofa and I decided to raise the matter of who was sleeping where with our landlady.
‘I couldn’t help but notice that there are only two bedrooms in the house, but with the two of us and yourself, there will be three people sleeping here tonight. It really would be much better for you to have the bedroom you usually sleep in upstairs and I will be very happy in the drawing room on that rather inviting sofa’, I said.
‘Oh no, don’t worry’ our hostess exclaimed. ‘That won’t be necessary. I don’t sleep in the house anymore, I sleep outside.’
Not the most common of answers and one that I wasn’t expecting, so I naturally followed it up with the obvious question.
‘Really!’ I asked. ‘Why is that?’
‘Well’, she stated in quite a matter of fact way, ‘since my husband shot and murdered our son in our home a few years ago, I haven’t been able to spend a single night inside the house since, so every night I sleep outside in the garden shed’.
At that precise moment, I genuinely wish that I had not asked the question.
Whilst this story of trauma is devastatingly sorrowful, at the same time, it also happens to be one that has contributed in a deeply touching way to the experiences and tapestry, that has been and continues to be, the life of this particular musician.