Do You Work for Free?

Musicians become musicians because they have a passion and a talent. They also have high levels of self-discipline and perseverance. To become a professional musician takes a lifetime of work. Most will have started playing by the age of ten: at that age, you might practice half an hour a day, but as you improve that soon becomes an hour, then three, then five hours (that’s per day, not week, on top of your schoolwork). By the time you’re at music college – if you’re one of the very tiny minority who make it through the highly competitive audition process – you are likely to be practising six or seven hours a day, in addition to a daily schedule of rehearsals and classes.

The pressure is relentless and doesn’t end with your graduation recital. Except for the most utterly exceptional, the life of a musician is a perilous journey, through small gigs and bigger gigs, auditions, competitions, rehearsals, more practice, and the gradual acquisition of teaching experience. In due course, the most persistent piece together a career, which is likely to combine, in various degrees, performing, teaching, composing or arranging, and accompanying. Almost everyone I know couples this portfolio approach with ancillary activities such as writing and reviewing (as I do), bodywork (such as Feldenkrais or Alexander Technique) or, indeed, pretty much anything ranging from software design to child-minding.

Like everyone else, along the way musicians acquire families and mortgages. We need to eat, run a car, and educate our children. For musicians, music is not a hobby – it is a job. When I was at the Academy, the most useful piece of career advice that I ever received came from the eminent clarinettist Georgina Dobrée, who told me: “never work for free. Not even in a church concert or community event (unless it is for charity). Do not do it even if you think it will promote you or give you good exposure. By working for free you are undercutting your own future as a fee-earning musician, and doing down your colleagues in the process.”

So why do so many event promoters expect musicians to live on nothing but the joy of music?

This week the musical world is united in fury over the blatant and widespread escalation of expectation that musicians will work for free at this big summer’s big events, the Olympics and the Jubilee celebrations. The Evening Standard started the debate with a leader item suggesting we should be proud to showcase our talents on the world stage. Social media is alight with anger. Perhaps, as one colleague said, we could suggest that the plumbers who will keep the stadium systems operational might be pleased to showcase their own sanitation expertise to the world? Or even better,as Andrea Vacari, Professor of Jazz Piano at Trinity, suggests, that the politicians (who really ARE showcasing themselves) should forgo their salaries for the month while they revel in bigging up Britain.

LOCOG entered into an agreement that professionals who provided services to the Olympics would be paid as professionals and explicitly differentiated from event volunteers. So why is there a perception that musicians are exempt from this contract? I believe it is because music, which everybody loves and most have dabbled in in some way during their life, is perceived as a leisure pursuit, an enjoyable sideline to the real business of life. The warm memory of the camaraderie at school band practice or those three-chord strummings in a teenage bedroom give music the glow of a happy hobby. At the same time, the get-famous-quick culture promoted by shows like the X-Factor encourage audiences to believe that musicians get in front of their audience by not much more than luck and the ability to look good holding a microphone. And if it’s so easy and so much fun, why should we be paid?

We should be paid because we have practised and studied for decades. We have served gruelling apprenticeships under rigorous task-masters. We produce music that people want to hear because we’re good and we can, not because Simon Cowell happened to walk past our house one day and hear us playing. We should be paid, and paid properly, because music is our job. But let us leave the last word with this classic from Craig’s List, currently doing the rounds, and ask yourself: do you work for free?

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Soft Money and Mad Professors

Working with inventors and entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of their profession is exhilarating. To be given insights into new, possibly world-changing, developments before they’ve barely made it off the drawing board is a rare privilege. And yet so many of these projects fail, their initial promise almost predictably heading for heartache. All too often I have seen astonishing developments scuppered by the twin demons of greed and vanity, their demise hastened further by the inventor’s inability to express the essence of the project in a way that is comprehensible to the layman. These revolutionary inventions die a painful death, unappreciated, under-funded, with patents going to the wall while mad professors bemoan the failure of the world to recognise their great idea.

In my opinion, there are several reasons for this. Firstly, the grant-aided culture of today’s scientific community results in waste that would dismay the general public, if it were generally known. University spin-outs are the worst offenders. I have seen (many times, in the business ‘hub’ of the University science park where I have my office) new companies move in, replete with funding and as excited as children with a new toy. They have finally made the big time! They take up residence, perhaps just three people in an eight-person office space (room for growth), in a flurry of ergonomic chairs and executive desks. They award themselves an impressive new salary – perhaps a little over the odds, but hey, they’ve worked for tuppence for years to get to this point.

But these nascent businesses are not really businesses at all – they are a huddle of scientist with a brilliant idea, a lab somewhere else in the city, data servers in some off-site cyber crypt, and no experience of how to grow a company. Within a week or two, the office becomes a ghost office. Still in business, yes, but the scientists are elsewhere – developing the science of their project, as indeed they should be. In the meantime, tens of thousands of pounds in grant funding has been blown on the vanity face of the venture – an over-sized, empty office full of expensive office furniture, fittings and neglected pot plants.

So what next for our inventive professors? They pop in to their office from time to time, they gather their team and work on the project. Perhaps a tantalising new development distracts them from the business (“The Second Phase”), and the grant money starts to dwindle. The cost of filing their patents starts to hit home, the burn-rate is in danger of becoming a conflagration. It’s time for the Three Fs – family, friends and fools – to come to the rescue with their chequebooks. And here is where the problems really start.

In gratitude for the starry-eyed donations of their loved ones and supporters, share certificates start to flutter around like confetti. One director after another is appointed as the small-time investors seek recognition or status in recompense for their goodwill and cash. And so the fledgling company limps on, until the point where it becomes evident that some outside funding is all that stands between the invention and oblivion.

So let us assume that our embattled scientists and engineers find their way to some relatively benevolent source of investment, perhaps a knowledgeable high net-worth individual with an interest in their technology, or an investment house that doesn’t include rape and pillage amongst its activities. That cap table is now looking like a problem: a couple of dozen investors, a thousand pounds here, 20 grand there, 15% to you and 1% to you (but you can have a directorship as well). People subdividing their shareholdings without due process, amateurs demanding to stir the pot. And the sight of real money on the table. Everyone is excited at the thought of getting their money back tenfold, but not a single one properly understands about dilution or that they are about to become plankton in the food chain of the reconfigured company.

How can our grant-aided start-ups do it better and ensure their brilliant ideas are the ones that change the world? The errors are so frequently repeated and so basic, it is easy to summarise:

  • Don’t sign a long contract on a fancy office. Find a small room or office to share, perhaps a room in a business hub or incubator. All you really need is room for a laptop and a filing cabinet.
  • Buy your office furniture from Ikea or a second-hand shop (or even Freecycle). Many companies in business centres just leave their furniture behind when they move out. Once you move in somewhere you may well find free stuff up for grabs.
  • You’ve just stopped yourself wasting the first £50K of your operating budget. Now nurture every penny of what’s left. Pay yourself just enough to live on; rewards come later. Cash flow is king, so guard what you’ve got vigilantly. The money WILL run out – it’s your job to make that later rather than sooner.
  • Don’t offer random equity stakes to every small-time benefactor. You are just storing up problems for the future. Investors must be rewarded, of course, but do it rationally and proportionally.
  • Don’t throw directorships around like encouragement awards. A directorship of a nascent company is a serious responsibility and should be reserved for people who understand the business, where it’s going and how it’s going to get there.

Follow through on these ideas, and when the investment house with the multi-million pound cheque book does come knocking, you’ll be in great shape to accept the money, work together and grow the business for the future.

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Upside down and back to front

Antoine Mahaut, in his 1759 treatise on the new way of playing the flute (the Nieuwe Manier om Binnen Korten Tyd op de Dwarsfluit te Leeren Spelen) has much indispensable advice for flautists, most of which remains as instructive now – at least for players of period instruments – as it was 250 years ago.  In amongst the pearls, though, lies this curious note:

“There are some people… who place the flute between their upper lip and their nose, creating an embouchure with their lower lip: this method of playing doesn’t prohibit one from playing well, but it is certainly not attractive.”

He goes on to suggest that if you haven’t yet picked your nose, so to speak, it might be better to avoid this less-than-graceful habit and follow other more conventional methods for forming an embouchure (which he supplies forthwith).  Now, what flute player reading this could pass such a suggestion by?  Forget about desirable; is it actually even possible to play the flute upside down?

Turning the embouchure hole downwards towards the floor and placing the headjoint to the area between my upper lip and my nose – in fact, against my philtrum (I had to look that word up) – I tried to focus the airstream and blew.  Nothing much ensued, and after a few more attempts it was evident to me that I would never produce a sound with the hole facing directly down.  A few adjustments inwards, and yes! It worked – sort of.  I practised for a while but without any discernible improvement to the tone quality, and certainly with no hope of the kind of embouchure flexibility that the baroque flute demands for good intonation.  Was Mahaut just flattering his customers when he wrote that it doesn’t prohibit playing well?  All I can say, is that I’m not surprised it didn’t really catch on.

On the other hand, when I was reading around the subject, I did come across a couple of fascinating footnotes to the topic (thanks to dystonia expert Ryan Thomson and flute beatboxer Tom Barsky).  Ryan Thomson proposes that playing the flute upside down could be a possible solution to musicians’ dystonia (a condition that causes muscle spasm in particular areas).  Answering a query from an affected flute player, Thomson writes:

“I had a sudden inspiration, and got out my flute and tried playing it upside down! Yes, I placed it between my upper lip and my nose and tried using my LOWER lip, rather than my upper lip to direct the air. In a few minutes I had a clear tone… and now I could finger it. Unbelievable. It really worked!”

There is no indication whether Thomson happened upon this idea without the help of Mahaut, but it’s pleasing that he was able to help his afflicted flute playing correspondent.

On a completely different note, Tim Barsky, in his flute beatbox FAQs, suggests that “the flute itself can be turned upside down and played with a trumpet embouchure”.  As I have never succeeded with a trumpet embouchure even on a trumpet, I am not going to attempt this one, though it might be fun to try on a modern flute, if you are after an unusual timbre.

Returning to the 18th century, Hotteterre, like Mahaut had a few thing to say about untutored flute players and their dodgy habits.  In his Principles of the Flute, Recorder and Oboe from 1707, he deals with the back-to-front rather than the upside-down, writing:

“There are others, who, because of not having had basic instructions, place the left hand below and the right hand above and hold the flute on the left.  I shall not condemn this hand position altogether, since it is possible to play as well in this manner as in another, and also because changing to another position would present certain difficulties.  However, those who have not yet acquired these bad habits should beware of their pitfalls.”

Quantz outs Blavet as a left-handed player, and Leonardo de Lorenzo in his book My Complete Story of the Flute: the Instrument, the Performer, the Music also counts Berbiguier, Sola and Zierer amongst the cack-handed.

Now, as a left-hander myself, I thought this position might be a little more achievable than Mahaut’s nose flute, and so, carefully repositioning the keyed joint for a left-handed reach I attempted to overcome the habits of a lifetime’s practice.  It hurt.  I struggled with my brain, my hands, and my arms.  I could do it, but not without some difficulty; simple fingerings were fine but cross-fingerings went haywire in a moment.  It was hard to produce as good a tone, too, probably because the embouchure hole is biased in the making towards a right-handed position.  Like Hotteterre, I cannot recommend this – but at least when young left-handed students complain to me now about their imagined shortcomings, I can honestly say I’ve tried it both ways.

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