Application Fees

January. Time to take a look at the diary. And the accounts. Not too many surprises, except this: in November I spent £86 applying for three summer courses. What's worse is that they are all in the same few weeks of July/August.

Now, I understand that the people watching, reading and listening to applications need to be paid. And I understand that the arts are chronically underfunded - unlike many more traditional employers, most arts organisations don't seem to have a pot of money set aside for recruitment and HR. And, unlike standard recruitment, auditions are usually monitored by 'specialists' in the field, and specialists demand special fees. Hence, why even the conservatoires can get away with asking £100+ in application fees. At least when you apply to conservatoire (in this country, anyway) you are guaranteed an audition...

So there is a money problem. I accept that.

But why should the butt of it lie with us, the struggling, young (and not-so-young) musicians - so desperate for the opportunity to be heard that we will cough up 20, 50, 100 pounds for the privilege? Half the time our application is discarded before we reach the audition table, and even if we make it that far, what are our chances of making the final cut? And if we do - what's going to be the sting in the tail? Participation fees? No expenses? Buying our own costumes? Far too often we pay our application fee, only for the invitation to spend even more money

There are so many wonderful schemes set up to nurture young artists. In many ways, we are lucky to have such a wealth of opportunities to garner experience from people who have 'been there and done it'. And these wonderful mentors deserve to be paid, and to be paid well. But does anybody behind the audition table ever think about how we are supposed to earn a penny? Let alone save one...

So, in future what should I do? I could put all my eggs in one basket, pay one fee and hope against all the odds that I get lucky. Chances are I would be spending the summer back with my parents, but at least I'd be earning (and saving) some money. I could just go and do what singing work I can get now. Summer courses, further education and Young Artist Programmes are all, essentially, a luxury. But that doesn't say a lot for classical music and equality of opportunity, does it?

Or I could accept that there is no better solution, swallow my pride, and keep paying the fees. That sounds about right.

Focus

This time of year is always hectic. If I didn't say that every few weeks, I would almost think it was exceptional. In truth though - every time of year is hectic - and we must count our blessings for that because hectic pays the bills. 

I will be the first person to admit that I enjoy being manically busy, however I have to remind myself time and time again that busy and productive are not the same things. Sometimes you need a moment to sit back and... focus.

Modern technology has made it possible to not really focus on anything at any one time. You can watch the TV whilst texting and browsing Facebook. You can have Buzzfeed open on a hidden tab at work. It has become completely socially acceptable to scroll through Twitter whilst having a conversation with someone else. When did we stop giving our attention to one thing at a time and doing it properly? 

In no area of life does this become more of an issue than when trying to sit down and memorise scores. I often will try and squeeze fifteen minutes in while I'm making my packed lunch, or as I walk to the tube after a day at School. If I learn anything at all, it is at about a quarter of my usual speed and often with remarkably less accuracy. Furthermore, I make far nicer sandwiches if I just focus on the task at hand. 

Here comes the big "But"...

"I don't have time to sit down and just focus on memorising scores" - almost every day I have this tantrum, like a child who doesn't want to go to school. And every day I have to look in the mirror and tell myself that I am going to make time. There might only be 24 hours in a day, but you are the only person who can control how you use them (unless you have a dog or children, but that joy is yet to come...) 

Focus is not just important for work. I have found everything to be more rewarding; from watching TV, to having lunch with friends when I am in the moment and away from my screen. It is often not possible in this fast-paced world we live in, but an hour each day to exist in the moment is a luxury I would gladly pursue - however impossible it may sometimes seem.

Back to school

You'd think that you might grow out of back to school nerves by your 18th consecutive year of formal education. But no, every September they boomerang back around, bringing with them a freshly tangled web of illogical paranoia and loss of reason.

Will the other kids like me? Will I have forgotten how to write over the summer? Will my summer homework reflect the hours I put into it?

The worries of five-year-old Mimi Doulton translate pretty well into the worries of today. If you replace kids with whatever we are now. (Youths? Post-teenagers? ADULTS???) And writing with singing, summer homework with hours invested in trying to master new vocalises.

I count myself lucky that by the time you reach higher education, you at least have more autonomy over what you are studying. I can choose modules to reflect my strengths or to work on my weaknesses and I know that I have agreed to learn Webern's opus 14 by the end of October. Perhaps this is in some ways easier than returning to school aged seven and being informed that you have 10 weeks to learn all of your times-tables. At least I know what I have let myself in for this time. Granted, my seven-year-old self didn't have to juggle her times-tables with freelancing and a part-time job. But I am hoping that the intervening years have equipped me to be more capable than a seven-year-old...

The thought of going back to Guildhall fills me with roughly the same mixture of excitement and anxiety as I have felt at this time every year. And in a way, I enjoy it. This is a feeling I associate with learning, with opportunity, and with the luxury of educating myself for a better future. If you look at it that way - if you look at it rationally - a little bit of nerves might just be a good thing.

Music and cats

The only escape from the miseries of life are music and cats - Albert Schweitzer. A man after my own heart.

At home, this last month has seen the death of Jo Cox, Britain's membership of the EU and the summer silly-season of politics. Abroad, horrors in Turkey, Nice, Orlando, Germany, Bangladesh - to name but a few. These are troubled times we live in and modern technology makes it hard to find a moment to switch off from it all.

Step into a concert hall. Turn off your mobile phone. Lose yourself in the music. This is the ideal time of year to be doing it - the BBC Proms are on until mid-September at only £6 a ticket and there are summer festivals up and down the country. You may choose to indulge yourself in the sorrows of a Requiem, or to try and raise your spirits being wow-ed by virtuosi. You may try and find the simplicity in a life that currently seems so complicated, listening to Schubert Lieder. I have tried all three in the last few weeks - each has offered its own form of relief.

Music has the power to transport us beyond the divide of politic, race, sexual-orientation, gender or belief. Perhaps my most memorable musical experience of this month has not been anything that I paid to hear, but watching the BBCSO open the First Night of the Proms with La Marsellaise in solidarity with Nice. That music said more than any speech, article or hashtag could ever say.

As a musician, I am very fortunate to be able to lose myself in the rehearsal room as well. I have greatly enjoyed starting rehearsals for a summer Lied studio and a French chamber music project simultaneously these last few weeks. I am very grateful to have colleagues who throw themselves into it with so much commitment and enthusiasm. In fact, there are few things that bring me more joy than working on music I love with musicians whom I admire, respect and enjoy the company of. 

Except stroking cats. Of course.

Human error

In case anybody was desperately waiting for the next instalment, apologies for a rather prolonged absence. Sometimes life happens at a pace where there is little chance to get everything done, let alone process the passing of time. Instead one must wait for moments such as this one to reflect, absorb and learn. In this instance, the moment is a post-performance adrenaline come-down at midnight in my empty apartment with a chocolate bar and a few Gerberas to brighten up the scene. The prospect of Sunday morning Eucharist looms, although is not quite enough to persuade my senses to sleep. So let's see what I can write...

The not-quite-end-of-year recital came and went - and with it a sinus infection, a large pile of new (and vaguely urgent) repertoire to learn and an unanticipated stint of understudying. In the space of two weeks I found myself performing music I had been studying for ten months, ten weeks and ten days - each performance bringing its own kind of pressure. After a certain amount of beating myself up over ugly top Cs, mumbled words or entries missed it slowly began to dawn on me that I must accept I am not above, below or separated from the phenomenon of human error. None of us are.

So much of the work we do in our training as singers is towards minimising these errors. After ten months studying King Harald's Saga and eight performances under my belt, I feel it is a reliable work in my repertoire, but nonetheless every performance brings with it the same fears about forgetting my words or accidentally skipping a movement. And although both these things are yet to happen (please, fate, be kind!), there is that very real risk every time I perform the work. Is this not the joy of live performance?

At the other end of the spectrum, I have recently had to go on for two shows as a cover after ten days with the score. It was definitely one of those situations where everything could potentially pass problem free, but there was also a roomy margin for human error. Each phrase brought with it a small adrenaline-rush, each page-turn was filled with apprehension. Mistakes were made. But as quickly as they happened the music continued and it was time to sing the next bar better. I soon realised that whilst there is time to dwell on mistakes after the performance - there is never time on stage.

For anybody else who has found themselves in this situation - how do we address these errors after the curtain has come down? It is important to work out what went wrong, why it happened and how it can be prevented from occurring again. But here the analysis must stop.

Put it down to a lapse in concentration, be glad that you were singing not driving the car, accept the wonder of your humanity - and move on.

Manic May

June is here, and while it may not bring the sunshine we were all hoping for, it does at least for me signal a brief lull in activity after a month of May that was jam-packed with exploration - from narrating Walton's Façade and the Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals to surmounting the very different challenges presented by Bartók's 8 Hungarian Folksongs and Berio's Sequenza III

One of the highlights of the last month has been having the opportunity to work intensively with instrumentalists - to embrace my role as a chamber musician, rather than a soloist. This began in my work on Mahler's 4th Symphony, as I tried my hardest to imitate the opening clarinet figures in 'Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden'. Working regularly with pianists, it is easy to forget to listen out for the instrumentalism in a line - something which our accompanists train so tirelessly to achieve! So it was good to re-tune my ears to this effect. The Walton was another work that encouraged me to look beyond my own music stand - although Sitwell's poems are hilarious the humour in the ensemble is not to be overlooked!

Towards the end of the month, I unexpectedly ended up working on Three Dots by Toby Huelin, a composition for two sopranos and two soprano saxophones which we premiered at Wigmore Hall last week. This piece presented somewhat different challenges - asking the performer both to listen and not listen simultaneously. I have enjoyed throwing myself into such a variety of musical environments and feel that it has made me more aware of the spaces in which I perform - not least when performing King Harald's Saga, where I have nothing to play off but the people sitting in front of me.

From this very intense period of learning and performing, I am hoping to now enjoy a couple of weeks absorbing this information and working out how to put it to best use in my end-of-year recital in three weeks. Although I thrive off the mania of running from one rehearsal to the next, it is essential that we take time to reflect - this is when the real growth can occur. 

I am hoping to keep a vague track of these quieter weeks of recital preparation here on my blog - so do check in and see how I'm getting on. Until then, M.

Berio encounters

I was introduced to Berio's Sequenza for female voice five years ago. As our music A level teacher demonstrated an array of vocal effects, I remember being largely unimpressed by these five sides of paper, which to me bore no resemblance to music, art, or in fact anything of any grand cultural significance.

Fast forward five years and I find myself in a practice room, highlighter and stopwatch in hand, poring over those same pages I scorned in years gone by. On Wednesday I will be back at my old sixth form college, performing this work to those same self-assured students amongst whom I was once numbered. We never thought we would have to perform this music. Our future was filled with Mozart, Purcell, maybe some musical theatre at a push. Yet here I am, locked in a concrete cell with Berio. His (or rather Berberian's) mania and despondency prickling the surface of my skin.

I have been living with this piece for three weeks now - each day bringing new discoveries. The learning process began with resistance. I am not sure whether this was due to my objection to the work's reduction of the female state to one of total fragility, or my reluctance to pursue the loss of control that is induced by Berio's ironically prescriptive dots and lines. However as my confidence grew I could not help but lose myself in the score

Whilst I am still unsure as to the contemporary feminist, or indeed musical merits of this work, I have discovered it to be a triumphant and insightful piece of performance art. It is a work that asks endless questions of both the performer and their audience. A score that, whilst prescriptive, also has countless possibilities in interpretation. Although at first Berio's emotional performance directions were an annoyance, it has been wondrous to explore the different levels of anxiety, doubt and, indeed, joy that can be portrayed. 

Wednesday's performance will not be the finished product (if such a thing exists at all with this work) but the bringing to life of Frankenstein's monster. I am both excited to be sharing my work and also slightly dreading the vulnerability it demands. What I am most interested to see is whether I will come out of the day with a new-found love for this piece, or with a passionate desire to never perform it again...

Growing

Another term done. Another 12 weeks of discovery and growth.

12 weeks ago I found myself in a rehearsal room surrounded by people I admired, respected and slightly feared. On a music stand in front of me - large sections of the incomplete score for Philip Venables' new Royal Opera commission: 4.48 PsychosisIt was definitely one of those moments where I wondered how Mimi - the small girl with small ears from Hampshire, who had been told countless times that she wasn't good enough (not least in the previous three months) - had got herself into this glorious mess. There was nothing to do but to throw myself into it. And I did. And I had the most wonderful week, discovering what it is to be genuinely creative - to help give birth to a new work.

That seems to be the way at Guildhall. I find myself in a situation I would never have imagined myself to end up in (or have even gone to great lengths to avoid) - performing Shakespeare, dancing in public, singing a piece of contemporary music that six weeks earlier seemed an insurmountable mess of dots and lines - and I have to just throw myself into it.

Through these experiences I have learned to appreciate qualities that I didn't know I had, and finally faced weaknesses that I have been hiding from since I was a ten-year-old in dance class with two left feet. This is how we grow as artists. By addressing our vulnerabilities we grow stronger. By discovering what we are already good at we grow in happiness and confidence. The moral? Don't hide from anything - only through addressing your fears will you find out what you are truly capable of.

Twitter 101

This week I want to write about how musicians can effectively use Twitter.

Why? Because I have heard a few too many people tell me that Twitter is 'not for them', or that they 'don't get' Twitter, or even that they are scared of Twitter. Trust me, there is nothing to be scared of. Nothing much anyway.

Let's start at the beginning. Why get Twitter? Well, it's a great way to see what your colleagues are up to and to make new connections with people in the profession. It is also a good place to find work, or at least auditions and depping notifications. Believe it or not, it is also possible to find funding on Twitter - if you don't ask, you don't get, but if you do ask, who knows what will happen...? 

People say that Twitter is dying. Perhaps it is, I am not in the know about these things. What I do know is that it currently has 320 million monthly active users, and that they're not all about to stop using the platform at once. So while they are still online, I suggest you join them.

So, how does one get started on Twitter? Simple: create a username and password, upload a profile picture (easy for us musos - we have headshots), follow a few hundred people and get tweeting. The following bit is really important, hence the bold text. By all means follow organisations and celebrities, but also follow actual human beings who are doing the same thing as you. These are the people who will interact with you and follow you back - they are the kernel of your success on social media. Remember to interact with them too.

Next question: what to tweet about? Or rather, how does one tweet successfully? Tweet about what matters to you - let your personality shine through. I often tweet about food and cats, as these are the two things I spend most of my time thinking about. And then there's the business aspect of things - you need to self-promote! Be arrogant about it, be annoying. Use hashtags that will get you noticed (but are still relevant) and if you can tag venues, or companies who you are working with - tag away. 

When you go to a show, find the right accounts to tag when you tweet about it afterwards. And make sure you get the hashtag right. For example, if you go to something at the Royal Opera House, the hashtag will usually be #ROHtitle eg. #ROHTosca, or #ROHTrittico. It's not rocket science, I promise. 

Once you've tweeted, start finding things to favourite and re-tweet. Search for topics that you are interested in - personally it's often arts education and mental health. Find unusual articles and hit re-tweet. Maybe sometimes add a personal opinion using the quote option. Make your Twitter profile a multi-faceted channel of communication - it should not be all me, me, me - nor should it be filled solely with the opinions of others. 

Next, download Twitter on your phone so that you can write on the go. Once you get used to it, it takes less than ten seconds to compose a tweet, hashtags and all, and send it out into the Twitter-sphere. It isn't as time-consuming as you may think. 

If you want to take a more commercial approach, then check out Tweet-Deck, where you can schedule tweets for the coming weeks and months and then forget about them. I personally find this a rather detached user-experience, as it lacks the interaction of re-tweeting and joining conversations with like-minded people, but it is a practical and effective way to maintain an online presence during busier periods.

My final words are this: be bold, be brave. Just go for it. Twitter is a space for everyone to have an individual voice. It is a great audience-building tool, it is a great networking tool. And with a little common sense and discretion, you really can't go that far wrong.

Good luck, good tweeting, and when you join us, make sure to follow me @MimiDoulton! 

Mental Health Day

This Thursday it will be university mental health day. So it seems a good moment to remember the healing powers of music, but also the high density of mental health issues amongst musicians and other creatives.

In times of trouble, we turn to music. After the twin towers fell, they sang at Ground Zero. And after the mass shooting in Charleston, President Obama sang. On a less serious note, how many great pop songs are a product of grief and heartbreak?

Music heals. It heals broken hearts, and ‘broken’ minds. It has even been used to heal divides between countries - take Daniel Barenboim’s Western-Eastern Divan orchestra as an example.

But the act of making music, or rather the pressure of learning to consistently deliver quality performance, can also be so damaging. I have lost count of the number of friends and colleagues who suffer from anxiety and depression to varying degrees. This is particularly evident in conservatoire - I remember hearing in my first week at Guildhall that around 70/80 per cent of students go for counselling at some point in their studies. This is partly due to the wonderful atmosphere of openness - it is OK to admit that you are not OK - and partly due to the daily pressures we face to perform and deliver; and the criticism that faces every step we take.

To perform is to offer a piece of yourself to your audience. It is an intensely personal experience. You are not just asking an audience to like your performance, you are often asking them to like you. Or so it can feel. As performers and creatives, we often feel pressure to go above and beyond what is deemed normal or necessary to deliver the ultimate experience to our audiences - but at what cost?

Music is awesomely powerful. But that power goes both ways. This Thursday take an extra moment to be kind - both to those people who you know to struggle with their mental health and those who may keep to it to themselves. And after that, take a few minutes to listen to your favourite song - not on the tube, or walking down the pavement - actually stop and listen. And let the music do its work.

Find out more about university mental health day here: http://www.studentminds.org.uk/uni-mental-health-day.html

Gratitude

Not a long post this week. Just a little note to say that life has come full circle. After all the struggles of the first few months, I am back to a state of sheer giddy ‘I can’t believe I really go here’ excitement.

It’s slightly embarrassing, especially when I accidentally fan-girl one of my friends, but I cannot believe how lucky I am - how lucky all of us at conservatoire are. Yes, the surroundings are not particularly inspiring, the days are often long, and criticism comes more readily than praise. But the reality is that I spend the majority of my days listening to music being performed to an incredibly high standard. And sometimes I have the privilege of making music with these phenomenal musicians myself. 

If that’s not enough, this week, we went sock-sliding. Giddiness personified.

At myself I will begin and end

I have just finished reading The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble and this statement by narcissistic actor David rang particularly true: 

“I do not look… Who went before me, nor who shall follow me. No, at myself I will begin and end.”

During training, it is all too easy to fall into a trap of constant comparison against others. Day by day, we work and learn alongside one another, and thus we progress together - in tandem. Or so you would assume.

However, it is our failure to do this that makes us so gloriously human. One of the most important lessons that I am learning at Guildhall, is that I have nobody to compare my progress against except myself. I am probably the only person on the planet to have studied with Diana, Paul, Julie, Ryland and Gary - my singing teachers - in that order, each for a specific length of time at a specific stage in my life. And probably not many people have been influenced by exactly the same performances and recordings that have left their mark on me. Indeed, how many singers at Guildhall have had my education, musical or otherwise? The answer is not very many. So, how can I expect to progress at the same rate as any other person, when each of us has such an individual history, learning style and set of influences?

This isn’t a matter of making excuses for my short-fallings - another easy mistake to make - rather it is a matter of rationalising and celebrating our individuality. Whilst it is important to learn from the great performers of the past, and equally to admire the talent of your peers - none of us has a true likeness in this profession against whom we can compare ourselves. 

I do not yet boast the self-assurance of David Evans and so for now I will take the quote and stick it on my bathroom mirror. And of course, on my blog, where I hope it may be of some help to others.

This post contains bad language...

(The F***er)

Call it what you like: nerves, stage-fright, the voice in your head, or as the actors at school call it… the f***er. As performers, we all spend a proportion of our lives harangued by the same nagging anxiety. The anxiety that we are not good enough. The anxiety that we don’t know what we are doing. The anxiety that we will make a fool of ourselves and be shunned from society. Make it as catastrophic and ridiculous as you like - someone, somewhere will have thought it before a big performance or audition.

However hard we may try to look at the bigger picture, the f***er gets us all at some point. And one of the most important things we have to learn, is how to tell the f***er to f*** off.

During my awkward early-teenage years I let my f***er rule the roost. Then one day, a singing teacher persuaded me to stage a revolution. And so, for the last five years my f***er and I have been at war. Much of this war is fought ‘cold’ - more tactics and strategy than all out warfare - but occasionally he rears his ugly head and cries his hellish battle cry…

We all have our own demons in this world. Mine is my f***er. Although he can bring out the worst in me, my f***er also acts as a constant reminder to be kind to others; for until we become mind-readers we will never know the battles being fought within one-another’s heads.

“Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about”

A week in the life

It has occurred to me that a ‘master’s in singing’ may seem a rather obtuse occupation to anyone outside of the conservatoire bubble. And so while I do not possess the ego, or status to justifiably write about ‘a week in the life of Mimi Doulton’, I do hope this might be enlightening to those of you living in the ‘real’ world. So, here it is - a week in the life of… me:

Monday: This week kicks off with a 9.45 am singing lesson at school - fortunately not every week does. I’ve been at home ill all weekend so am in a practice room (translate to concrete cell) by 9.15 testing what voice is there. Everything seems OK, so at 9.45 I head to my singing lesson to go through some exercises with my teacher, Gary, and get the full doctor’s report on my vocal condition. Thankfully, it’s a green light for the week ahead. 

Lesson over it’s time for a quick meeting at work. I have two part-time jobs to help pay the bills, and fit them in where I can during the week. Next, I’m off to a two hour Italian repertoire class. I’m not singing this week, but there is always much to be gained from watching your colleagues and hearing their language, musicality and, sometimes, technique, being corrected.

Next up is my vocal coaching for the week. At Guildhall we change coach every term, and this is my second session with the lovely, but meticulous, Sandy. The role of a coach is to bring the music alive, and Sandy is brilliant at this - helping me make the best out of the words and notes on the page, despite my vocal limitations.

To end my day, I go to support my friends in a concert of Russian Song at Milton Court Concert Hall. I always find it so inspiring to enjoy the talent of my peers - and this is a seriously classy concert.

Tuesday: On Tuesday morning I have a luxurious few hours at home, which I spend translating new repertoire, researching composers and poets, and reading up on my Shakespeare for stagecraft later. Although this time to think and research is rare, it is immensely valuable for developing interpretation, and something I try desperately to schedule into the week.

In the afternoon I’m in school for the weekly stagecraft and movement sessions. We start with movement - an hour and twenty minutes of intense core strength and flexibility exercises. Whilst this kind of fitness is a must for singers, it is gruelling, agonising work that can be felt for days after the class. Stagecraft is gentler - we are currently being coached on how to develop character, using Shakespeare monologues as a starting point. I enjoy stagecraft and movement sessions as these are the moments when people are pushed completely out of their comfort zones - thus in these classes great friendships have been formed.

Tuesday evening I’m off to a film premiere at my old job - a nice evening off and an opportunity to be immersed in a different kind of art.

Wednesday: Wednesday morning I’m back in the practice room for 9 am, and on my way in to school I spot people leaving who have been practising even earlier than that! Practice rooms are a highly contested commodity in any music school, and early at morning/late at night is the prime opportunity to get a decent space to work in. 

After an hour of exercises I’m off to watch the London Symphony Orchestra rehearse Mahler and Berg for three hours. One of the many perks of being a Guildhall student is that we get LSO rehearsal passes once a month, and this rehearsal is fascinating - taken by the extremely diligent conductor Francois Xavier-Roth. It is wonderful to see soprano Camilla Tilling in the more personal setting of a rehearsal, and to gain some insight into how she works.

The afternoon starts with an English song class, which is similar to Italian, except different repertoire. A quick French coaching is followed by platform - essentially a short recital opportunity for anyone who wants to test some repertoire. Another practice session (we do a lot of that), then dinner with a school-friend - because although food has largely been exempt from this blog post, it forms a very important part of my life!

Thursday: Guess what? Practise.

After a quick cup of tea at a friend’s flat I’m in school for 2.5 hours of rehearsals with three different pianists. First, for Friday’s French song class, next for a pianist’s exam in accompanying, and finally for my own mid-term exam which is coming around the corner fast. I love one-on-one rehearsals - there is the opportunity to throw musical dialogue back and forth in a way that can’t be done with larger groups of people. If the pianist is right, it’s more fun than hard work.

At 2 I’m off to watch a German repertoire class. This is followed by a masterclass with Amanda Roocroft, who is currently doing a series of classes at the Guildhall School on opera arias. I leave the class inspired and return home to three more hours of translations and concert planning. Then a couple of hours of ‘work’ work, and its time to call it a night.

Friday: Surprise, surprise… Friday morning starts in the practice room. In fact, the entirety of Friday morning is spent in a practice room. Fortunately, the afternoon involves a little more human contact - lunch, of course, and then a French repertoire class which I am singing in. We are working on some Gounod that I am singing for my mid-term. It’s a great opportunity to put the piece ‘on stage’ for the first time, and also to pick up some new interpretative ideas.

In the evening it’s the first of the six master’s opera scenes nights at Milton Court Concert Hall. Another chance to watch my class-mates and be inspired… and entertained! 

Saturday: Saturday is a blur of sleeping, eating, studying, working… basically anything but practising. School is taken over by the Junior department on a Saturday - I like to think of it as an enforced day off! 

Sunday: When I get lucky, Sunday mornings begin in church - it may not be everyone’s idea of luck but it’s a good way to get another £50/60 in the bank and work with some brilliant musicians. This Sunday I’m at the journalist’s church on Fleet Street and a rather famous journalist is in the congregation with his new beau…

Back home for a couple of hours to catch up on the ‘day-job’ and then into town again to practise and support my friends performing at the Barbican tonight.

And that’s me done for the week. I hope. If you made it this far, congratulations. If you skipped to the end, I’ll sum it up for you: I watch, I listen, and I practise. And just sometimes, I do sit-ups.

Just a word on the page and there is the drama

4.48 Psychosis - Sarah Kane

After a week of reflection I finally find myself with the words to write about Philip Venable’s new setting of the Sarah Kane text, 4.48 Psychosis, which we were workshopping at the Guildhall School last week. Philip is currently composer-in-residence at the Royal Opera House, and as part of their partnership with the Guildhall School six of us were invited to spend a week exploring the work with the musical and production team, including Philip himself, conductor Richard Baker and director Ted Huffman.

The aim of the week was to allow the team to hear sections of the work live before final scores are printed and it goes into production. We were visited by the cast, members of the ROH marketing team, and various production designers - all of them there to capture a sense of the piece that they will be creating themselves in a few months’ time. As the ‘guinea-pig’ singers we were able to say what we thought did and didn’t work, and explore how best to create and describe certain vocal effects. 

It has been an immense privilege to be a small part of the genesis of this work, and I have found it fascinating to experience the fluidity of this creative process. There is no music other than the newest of new music, with which one can experiment in such an extreme fashion. In some instances, the notes on the page were literally being re-written as they were played. That is what the workshop process is for - to experiment, to play, to go on a musical adventure - to explore the work and to find the best way to achieve a total fulfilment of the composer’s intention; to breathe life into the notes and words on the page. And most excitingly, to do all this while the composer is sitting in the room with you. You can only wonder whether Mozart, Verdi and Puccini all enjoyed the same privilege. 

The greatest challenge for me was living with the text in the weeks leading up to, and in the week of the workshop. It certainly redefined the meaning of ‘January Blues’ and also made me aware of, and grateful for, my own sanity and support network at school, at home, and also within the 4.48 Psychosis rehearsal room.

Readers who know the play, or the general style of Sarah Kane, will be aware of its brutality and this is particularly apparent in the context of 4.48 Psychosis - which some believe to have been Kane’s suicide note. If audiences find it hard to hear the words ‘I fucked small children while they begged for mercy’, I promise them that it is infinitely more difficult to say (or sing) them. In writing this text Kane may have been aiming to provoke shock and discomfort, but I also find the text a desperate cry for attention, and more importantly, for understanding.

In an age where mental illness still needs to be better understood, I think it is important to surface works such as this. I have heard people say that the subject matter is overdone, but these words must keep being said until somebody listens. I found its realisation in music shone a different light on the text, finding humour and light relief where I might not have read it myself, but also reinventing its anguish in a completely compelling and agonising way. It will be fascinating to experience it from the other side, as an audience member at the Lyric Hammersmith in May. Readers, I urge you go. Only take a friend. And maybe a bottle of wine. Possibly a counsellor too.

http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/448-psychosis-by-philip-venables

Our children need the arts

As I’m technically on holiday now, I hope you will grant me the liberty to write about something close to my heart that is not conservatoire life.

Today I went to the Christmas concert at Gallions Primary School, where my flatmate works, and I was bowled over by what I experienced. I’m sure Charlotte could provide you with the exact numbers, but here I found 100+ children under the age of ten singing and playing string instruments. In a state school, in what is purportedly one of the most deprived areas of London. The children were happy, and clearly took pride in what they were doing. Furthermore, they all listened attentively to their friends and classmates as they took their turn to play. If you think music in schools is only for the financially privileged, this would make you think again.

But why should this be such an unusual and exciting experience? The sad truth is that music, and arts, education in this country is in a sorry state - and is being pushed lower in curriculum priorities by the day. Thus, often it is only the most privileged that get access to the arts - either at school or through junior academies, Saturday schools and youth groups.

Why doesn’t every child get access to a rounded arts education? What is it that teachers, parents, and ultimately decision-makers are missing?

The Gallions concert demonstrated so much more than a few kids who could hold a violin correctly. What I saw was a hundred or so children who had been gifted with the confidence to perform in public, who had learned to respect one another’s talent, and who had the chance to experience what it is to take pride in their work. On top of this, these children were inspired to create, communicate and express. These skills will stay with them for life. They cannot be taught, they cannot be quantified and nobody can know where this experience will take them. The arts have mental health benefits. The arts develop a whole side of the brain that is barely touched by maths and science. The arts are what make us human.

If we want our children to be the next generation of leaders, problem-solvers and innovators we must give them the chance to learn to perform and communicate, to respect and be respected, and most importantly, to create.

You can help to perpetuate the brilliant work of Gallions Primary School by clicking here: http://gallionsmusictrust.org.uk/support-us-2/ 

Challenges

“Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” - Joshua J. Marine

How apt that this came up as quote of the day as the most challenging three months of life thus far draw to a close. One term down, eight to go. Apparently it gets better from here.

It would be a lie to say adapting to life at Guildhall has been easy - in truth there has not been a single ‘easy’ day. But that does not mean it has been a negative experience; a steep and intense learning curve, yes, but one that has only highlighted the warmth, kindness and generosity of my friends and colleagues. Every day has brought both challenges and inspiration, often tears and laughter, and sometimes all-consuming frustration. But every day I have learned something new, not just about singing but about myself and other people.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned is that most people want you to be good as much as you want it for yourself. It is no fun being poorly prepared for a class, it is certainly no fun watching a friend be torn to pieces in that situation and I imagine it’s not actually that fun to be the person inflicting the misery. Which brings me onto the next thing…

Music is an art of precision. Musicality may spring from inspired spontaneity, but such magic cannot usually occur without hours of study and practice. 'Winging it’ only gets everyone so far in life, and for me this is the moment where I have to take my wings off for good and do some work. With about twenty different people at Guildhall all driving me to work harder, I don’t have to dig particularly deep to find motivation - rather it is thrown in my face on a daily basis. 

And digesting all the criticism is not easy. Whilst manageable in small doses, twelve weeks of seemingly constant attack is more than a little wearing. I have no doubt that I will leave Guildhall with a thicker skin than when I arrived, but there is also a need to filter useful comments from those that are ultimately destructive. Unfortunately these comments sometimes come at an overwhelmingly faster rate than they can be processed.

This segues nicely into my final point - we are all in this together. Very few 'war-wounds’ have been inflicted by my peers, and I thank them for this. At first this surprised me. Arriving at conservatoire I expected hostility and heated competition from classmates - instead I have experienced only kindness and compassion. The truth is, that the only people who know what you are living are the people living it with you. These are the only people by your side every second of the working day, they are the only people going through the same mental battles, and consequently they are often the only people who can find the right words to inspire perseverance.

This is why the highlight of my first term at Guildhall has not been drawing inspiration from watching my wonderful peers, or finding a new physical freedom in movement classes, or even fulfilling a dream I thought impossible at a certain concert hall on a rainy November day. The highlight of my first term at Guildhall was encountering friendship and kindness in the most unexpected of places. Bring on term two.

Nerves and the nether regions

I want to start this post with an apology to the continuo cellist seated behind me in this morning’s Messiah rehearsal: sorry, for farting in your face during ‘Rejoice Greatly’. It was a glorious combination of propulsion through the runs, chicken & garlic soup… and nerves. I would like to say that this has never happened before, but I would be lying.

In case any of you are lucky enough to have not experienced this, yes, nervous poo is a thing.

If you think about it, it’s not a particularly remarkable phenomenon; stress and the digestive system have never been the happiest bedfellows. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, a bit of poo is nothing in comparison to stomach ulcers, acid reflux and other stress-related conditions. So why write about it?

Well, for several years I thought that there must be something wrong with me. Our culture encourages us to keep our bowel movements private (perhaps with good reason!) and it was not until I became sufficiently friendly with a few other singers that I discovered how common this problem is. If you’ve ever wondered why the toilets smell so awful at auditions, remember you are not the only person whose nerves take revenge on their nether regions.

It can be a particular issue for singers and wind players, as our breath support system requires a certain level of tension in that area. Put bluntly, tricky passages of singing can feel like you are having a shit, which is not great if you actually need one. Nothing in a concert is quite as terrifying as wondering whether it will just be a fart…

There is not room in one post for my collection of poo stories. Needless to say it ranges from the hilarious to the disgusting: highlights including the friend who farts constantly on stage, to the five-shit-day Wigmore Hall debut. What I have found is that no matter what you eat, your digestive system will play up - just embrace it and laugh. And maybe don’t eat a Phaal the day before an important concert.

Audience members: next time you’re at the opera spare a thought for the soprano who desperately needs to fart whilst singing a top C. And spare another for the tenor standing next to her.

Pork pies

Yesterday I went out to Northwood for a concert - Schubert Mass in G and Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. I had a wonderful time. Aside from the fact that it was a lovely concert, with lovely people here’s why:

1) They gave us food between the rehearsal and the concert. Pork pies, funnily enough. Maybe I’m just unlucky, but usually what happens is you turn up to a church that is relatively in the middle-of-nowhere, meet some relative strangers, rehearse and then get locked out the church and left to fend for yourself for 2/3 hours. Fending for yourself usually involves spending a portion of your fee on food - sometimes pork pies.

2) The church was warm. OK, there is not much people can do about cold churches in the winter, but if there is heating it doesn’t hurt anyone to put it on for a few hours does it?

3) There were clean toilets and a dressing room with a mirror. I have not yet reached levels of diva-dom where I would expect my own dressing room, and am not childish enough to be much fussed about male/female changing space - it was blessing enough to have a space to change and leave belongings in that was not then going to host the interval drinks! 

4) The rehearsal was super-efficient. No crying organists (this has happened unfortunately recently), no arguing about lighting, no debate about where to seat the soloists. Everything ran like clockwork, to schedule and stress-free.

5) I was trusted to dress myself. That sounds ridiculous, but so often people say ‘DJs for the men and something sparkly/glamorous (etc.) for the ladies’. We know what is expected, we have done this before. And please, please, please nobody ever again tell me to ‘make myself look sexy’. Especially not if the concert is in a church.

Honestly, this is not really a rant. When I do any concert I am happy just to be working. But a warm welcome, a little privacy and some common decency goes a long way.