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Frozen under Ice, Nova Scotia in January 2022 

 

This is our new pup, Mochi.  The expression on his little face is exactly how I am feeling these days. At the best of times, Nova Scotia in January is a hard place to be because of the weather, which is usually FREEZING, and this winter has been no exception. Despite all the global warming warnings that things are warming up, they certainly aren't here at the moment!

Add this to the pandemic going into it's third year, and words like bewilderment, depression, and isolation come to mind.  The other day, my son Eli came home from school and said:

"Mum, I'm really feeling the weight of this pandemic now, and I'm really sad.  When is this going to end?"

This is the $64,000 question (could be any random number, but this is the number used in my house growing up).

As a performing musician whose career has suddenly been thrown on ice again, I too would like to know the answer to this question.  But no-one knows the answer.  There is no answer.  All we can do is try to adapt and make the best of things.

This is pretty challenging to do in Halifax at the moment.  Advice all over the map is to "get outside, and relate to nature".  As a Victoria BC girl at heart, doing this in -15 or more degree weather has its limits.  I spend my days trying to keep my kids sane, feed them and keep the house organized to some degree (HA)- I am no Mary Poppins let's just say.  Being a homemaker mum (and believe me, this really is a job) has never been high on my list of priorities.  But now when I wake in the morning I ask "what should we have for dinner tonight??"  If I could afford it, I would just hire my own personal chef!  I'm sure many mums out there can relate.

My skillset is so niche and specialized I am constantly wondering if I should now just re-train and find another more practical job to pay the bills.  After all, paying bills as a musician before the pandemic was challenging enough, now it is potentially looking impossible. Symphony Nova Scotia has laid me off due to pandemic concerns, so I am collecting EI right now.  I'm lucky to have this, but can I seriously continue down this path as a 52 year old symphonic musician with a family???  People have suggested that I try and make my living as an independent artist, doing nyckelharpa stuff.  Ummmm....I think I shall have to write a separate blog post for that.  What you see on social media does not make a career let's just say.  Social media is the biggest of all deceptions.  No wonder we are in such a deep hole of confusion and mess right now.  

I get that many independent artists have figured out the social media thing, and are "getting a following" from fans around the world.  But the amount of time you have to spend at a computer, or on a phone actually doing this is MIND BENDING.  I'm at home tending to kids, a house and a puppy.  Finding time to do this, (and having the know how) is not gonna happen till I'm 60!!  "Who wants to support a crazy 60 year old nyckelharpa nut of a woman, living in a remote place in Canada?" I ask myself. Perhaps this could be possible if I could travel and make contacts elsewhere, but there is none of that going on right now, that's for damn sure.  This pandemic has completely crushed the Performing Arts, no ifs ands or buts.

So I'm taking advice here: Do I wait it out?  Or do I start brainstorming for a new career in something else?

I quite fancy becoming a maker of whisky, as this is my drink of choice these days.  I'm loving my whisky cabinet. It's one of the few things keeping me sane.

 

 

 

 

Conversations with Leah 

Today I did a fun thing and did a ZOOMTUBE  interview with my friend and colleague Leah Roseman, a first class violinist who plays with the NAC Orchestra in Ottawa. Leah and I went to McGill together, and I always remember her brilliant playing and really supportive nature.  It was a treat for me to talk to her about the nyckelharpa and my obsession with it ;). She has started this new podcast series on her YouTube channel called “Conversations with Leah”, a series devoted to musicians and the intricacies and discoveries in music making.  What a great idea! 

After doing the interview, it got me thinking about WHY I really did this: start to learn a completely different instrument and tradition at the age of 45- MADNESS surely!  I think it’s because there were parts of my musical persona that just weren’t satisfied.  Don’t misunderstand, I do love Classical music and I have experienced some momentous music making during my orchestral career.  But I also love listening to and playing all kinds of different music from different cultures, as I find it fascinating and can learn a lot.   Part of me has always wanted to “do my own thing” and when I met the nyckelharpa, I knew that was it. 

It’s been humbling to learn from the great players, especially those in Sweden.  Learning to play more convincingly in that style will be something to strive for as I continue on this path. There is still an attitude amongst some of my Classical colleagues that playing Trad music is easier than playing Classical and “it all sounds the same” to them.  After trying on some Trad shoes for a while, I have to say I completely disagree.  It’s like comparing apples and oranges- two completely different things.  It’s all about what you are really listening to I think.  Ask a modern orchestral musician to groove on a tune, most of the time finding that groove is tricky, particularly in a section.  It’s something I struggle with when I switch from classical violin to playing polskas or any groove tune on my nyckelharpa.  In Trad music, rhythm and groove are key, something that is often overlooked by orchestral players because they are relying on someone else’s groove, the conductor’s!  Ahhh yes…conductors:  I think another blog post! 

I have real admiration for any musician who decides to take the independent route and manages to eke out a truly creative career.  It’s a tough business and you not only have to play well (well I think you do, there is also a lot of questionable stuff out there) but you also have to have smarts: business know how, great communication skills, recording skills, social media skills and fantastic organization skills on top of it all!  You also have to have dogged perseverance if you want to “make it”, whatever that means. 

To all my new Trad friends and colleagues out there- YOU ROCK!!  Enjoy the interview

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The Grass is a Different Colour : A Glimpse of Life as an Independent Musician. 

Today my friend and colleague Alex Kehler and I released a couple of tunes on Bandcamp that we worked on last summer while we were in confinement.  It was a bit of an experiment to see if we could work remotely, as he lives in Sherbrooke Québec, and I live in Halifax, NS.   Since then Alex has worked on having a proper recording studio in his home, and has invested in good gear in order to be able to do this.  I too have bought a couple of good mics, and an audio interface, in order to record in my home.  Let me tell you this equipment is not cheap!   I thought the end result was pretty good considering we don’t live in the same city and that we were basically using our living rooms as our studios.   This trend will be here to stay I think, once the Pandemic subsides.  Just working on this little release opened my eyes wider to the Independent Music world.  I always thought the grass was greener on this side of the fence.  It turns out it is a totally different colour. 

Symphonic musicians train their entire lives to work in an orchestra.  You have to have mastered your instrument to an extremely high level of playing, be able to read at sight ( as a musician with kids, boy do I rely on my sight reading!!! )  learn music incredibly quickly, adapt to what is going on around you on stage at all times, and be willing to take orders from the conductor, the concertmaster and your section leader.  I practise my part, show up to work and try to do my best from what is asked of me.  It is a pretty regimented life I would say.  I do not have any say artistically, or have a hand in the production side of things.  This is all taken care of by the Symphony staff, who work extremely hard to keep the Organisation humming along. It is a TOTALLY different life from that of an Independent Musician. 

The Independent Musician has artistic control of what is being produced, and as a result more  creativity happens for this type of musician.  I’ve really loved writing tunes, and arranging how I want them to sound with no one else telling me what to do :):):). This is the great part of being in charge of your artistic goals.  But then, there is the production side of things, where the Independent Musician has to wear many hats, and juggle many balls: the sound recording hat, the grant writing hat, the networking hat, the press release hat, the social media hat ( this is a BIG HAT), the website hat, …I’m sure the list goes on and on.  Oh, another one!  Keeping track of the number of streams you have hat.  In order to apply for some grants, one needs this information.  I guess if you have a lot of streams, this proves that people like your music!  But does this make you a great musician??  Enya has a lot of streams, but …… 

I shall say no more. She obviously hooked into something that worked for her. 

I find it staggering the amount of time it takes to promote oneself!!!!  I find myself spending more time doing self promotion than actually playing my flipping instrument!  Is this normal?? I was always taught that this kind of “look at me, aren’t I great?! ” behaviour was not becoming, and it should be avoided- yes I come from a British household.  So having to constantly be “putting stuff out there” to keep the public’s attention, and to stay relevant does not come naturally.  There’s a real finesse to this self promotion business I am learning.  You have to be incredibly organised to get into this groove of self promotion, for it is a FULL TIME JOB.  How could you do this if you had young children??  But people do!  This part of the Independent Musician life  I don’t like so much, but it is clearly a necessary evil.  All I can say is that I continue to admire the musicians who have the production side of their business figured out.  Well done guys! 

I’m still at the baby steps stage.  Maybe I’ll never get there, I am 51 after all.  Still, it’s been an incredibly interesting journey thus far. Below is the link to Alex’s Bandcamp page. The track is called “In the Mist” and it’s a great bargain at $3 Canadian. 

There, some shameless self promotion! 

https://alexkehler.bandcamp.com/album/in-the-mist?fbclid=IwAR3YevKM3sdCOAyyfDTsGG2ruKTwT-x935HMzitN9w1b62CHNHXNifZdIrw

“Out of the Absolute” – A Year of Coming In and Out of Focus. 

Two weeks ago I bought my second painting by my friend and Symphony Nova Scotia colleague, First Horn player David Parker.  Since the Pandemic started people have been doing different things to keep themselves sane.  David has turned to painting, and as you can see, he’s a very talented fellow.  This painting immediately spoke to me with its colours, texture, and image of looking at the Dartmouth shoreline from Halifax.  It reminds me that this year I have been moving constantly in and out of focus.  The title of the painting “Out of the Absolute” reminds me that what I thought was my absolute life, is actually just an illusion: life is never absolute, and boy has this year ever taught me this. 

At times I have found myself able to focus and concentrate for short periods of time, and actually feel like I am making some sort of progress with my goals.   But more often I just feel like my life is a blur, when things smudge into one another, and I can’t seem to get anything done, or make ANY progress!  Then I ask myself…”well, what is progress??  Do we need to make any during this Pandemic??”  I feel this pressure to still try and get things done, even though professionally I am severely handicapped because of the virus.  Often I will make a progress list at the beginning of the day and try to hack away at it for the week  Here is a sample list: 

  1. Do taxes (O M G) 
  2. Make sure Kyla has sent in all her university applications. 
  3. See if I can improve my website photos 
  4. Sort out my TFSA 
  5. Plan next summer (?? will I be able to get home again??) 
  6. Get contracts sorted out for the gigs at the end of March and in April, which in the end may get cancelled. 
  7. Get the artwork sorted out for my new album with Jude 
  8. Keep editing the album with Jude. 
  9. Try and set up a video game schedule with Eli (an on going battle I can assure you) 
  10. Practise for the upcoming online captures coming up next week. Practise always comes last it seems! 

This is just a small list, and usually there is a lot more stuff on it.  I find the less busy I am in my professional life (I have done a total of 3 concerts this year, one streamed and two live), the less able I am able to get stuff done!!  You know the old saying, “if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.”  Normally I have an average of 2 to 3 different concert programs to play in ONE WEEK, and I admit that was CRAZY.  Now, I am at the polar opposite end of the scale in that there is more space in my life (like, extreme space) where I find myself in sloth or blurry mode a lot of the time. This Pandemic has taught me I don’t do well with absolutely NO schedule.  I can’t see me going back to my insanely busy symphony schedule once we finally crawl out of our rabbit holes, but I also know that doing relatively nothing isn’t good for me either!  I have gone from “out of the absolute’ to “into the liminal life”. 

Last weekend I left my liminal life to do a live concert with my nyckelharpa syster, Binnie Brennan, also a good friend, and colleague from SNS.  After not having prepared any live shows for months, suddenly we were playing a set of nyckelharpa tunes at the Carelton, for the Community Engagement Concerts that the Symphony has been presenting all year.  The prospect of playing “live” for people was fun, but also daunting because we hadn’t done it for so long!! What a BIZARRE thing to feel suddenly.  It was a fun show in the end and we were really happy to play our nyckelharpas for the very attentive audience.  I do love seeing the looks of total amazement when I play my nyckelharpa, it’s a real buzz 

Preparing the show and practising was fine, but when we actually played, I found that I expended a lot more energy than I normally do, and was completely wiped out afterwards!  We were only on stage for an hour, but it certainly demanded a lot of concentration and focus, which was more challenging than it would normally be for me.  Just like keeping in shape, the mental and physical performing muscles have to be used in order to feel good.  Mine have been in disuse for a long time this year, and I really felt it at that little show.  I think performers will have to be gentle with themselves as we eventually come out of this Pandemic.  Moving from “Out of the Absolute” back “Into the Absolute” is not going to be easy.  David, maybe you should make a new painting, “Into the Absolute” and I’ll buy that one too!

Teaching on ZOOM 

This past weekend I taught a ZOOM nyckelharpa workshop for the American Swedish Institute- a great honour I can tell you, as I am a relatively new player and teacher when it comes to  the nyckelharpa.  I have worked hard and progressed quickly on the instrument, and I think my different musical background has served me well.  Although I did not grow up in the Swedish tradition, I must say that there is something about this music and culture that just reaches my heart.   I can’t wait to get back to Sweden and learn more, and immerse myself in the summer festivals!  It is a rich culture, with a vast repertoire of music and dance.  I call it Sweden’t Secret 

The ASI Workshops and Concert (super fun to experience, even on ZOOM) were well received and the Festival Organizers were right on the ball with the technology and organization.  For an online Festival Event, this was one of the best I had attended, so well done ASI! 

But, teaching on ZOOM… 

As a teacher of the violin for over 30 years, I am used to working “hands on” with my students and also hearing them well, and immediately.   ZOOM does not offer either of these things to the music teacher, especially when teaching in a group situation.  I have to say I am surprised that a tech wizard hasn’t come up with a better interface for musicians during these COVID times.  ZOOM is still pretty primitive when it comes to teaching music.  How can you teach anything as a music teacher if you can’t hear or see the students properly?!  It’s kinda bonkers. 

For the nyckelharpa workshop, it felt more like a lecture than me actually teaching. There is nothing more eerie than speaking to lots of people in boxes on a computer screen, and not getting much back in return.  When students try what you suggest, they are on mute so there isn’t a cacophony of sound while everyone does individual practise.  It’s just WEIRD and  frustrating for the teacher and students, not hearing sound in the normal way.   In the hour long workshop we worked on two tunes, and I covered a lot of ground in that short period of time.  I had no idea if what I was communicating was being understood, because normal communication was simply not available.  It wasn’t until well after the workshop, when I received an e-mail  from the organizer, that I learned she had been happy with what I had done.  That was really nice for me to hear, but still leaves me uneasy, because normally I can gauge how things are going just by being in a room with people! 

I would think most people don’t really understand this frustration that musicians are experiencing right now.  Not only is working online very difficult in terms of making ends meet, but in a way I feel completely silenced.  Musicians rely on DIRECT communication through their instrument, not this taping and regurgitating stuff that we are all doing because we have no other choice.  Once my bow hits the strings, communication has started with that live audience.  In return, I rely on the energy of the audience (again, communication) to shape my performance.  These days I sometimes wonder if people remember the sound and experience of live music, for music making certainly feels awful to me at the moment.  Perhaps when we return to live shows, the public will realize just how precious this really is. I certainly do. 

I know that we have to make do with what we have, and that this online stuff is better than nothing – it is true.  Count your blessings I suppose.  But I for one will be ECSTATIC when we can say goodbye to this ZOOM interface, and move back to normal human interaction!!! 

Time to go find some chocolate…

Exposure or Fee? Just Pay Me Please. 

It’s been a bit of a trying week.  Being stuck at home, reading the latest Covid updates, and talking to friends who are having a tough time during this Pandemic is making it challenging to stay positive, particularly during my least favourite month, February. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a musician during these  preposterous times.  I find myself wondering how musicians are surviving, now that live concerts are no longer on the table at the moment.  This is the best way musicians can make a decent fee, and have artistic control of their product.  Almost one year into this Pandemic, they are now at the mercy of streaming platforms like Spotify, Youtube and FB, and let me tell you, trying to make a living this way is like trying to milk an angry and stubborn cow: the milk ain’t flowing so well. 

To clarify, the performing musician is the one who courageously gets up on stage, knows her instrument like the back of her hand (10,000 hours minimum of work and practice), creates a one of a kind musical experience in that moment, and brings you, the listener, JOY.  In one of the hundreds of Netflix offerings I have watched, the cutting and perceptive New York based writer, Fran Lebowitz says musicians and chefs are unique to the world in that they bring JOY to Humanity in the moment, and that she does not know of any other professions that do this in such a direct and immediate way.  I ask myself, “Is this not worth something? Why do people take this for granted a lot of the time?  Where does the attitude originate that musicians are not really workers, that they are doing what they love, so paying them a professional fee (or at all) is not really necessary?”   Echoes of Mozart’s pauper existence still haunt us, even in the 21st century it seems. 

I found myself in a sticky situation last week, where I was offered “exposure” in lieu of a fee.  Everyone else involved was receiving a fee EXCEPT me.  Sure, we all need exposure when it comes to getting the word out to “sell the product”.  However, you would never ask a chiropractor for free treatments, or a chef for a free meal, or an experienced videographer for free footage in exchange for exposure.   Why are musicians often asked to donate their services for free?? 

This experience left me a) very angry, and b) extremely depressed, for let me be very clear, in NO other profession would this happen.  It certainly hammered home that what I did that afternoon had very little value, and it was clear that no thought had been given to the musician budget for this project.  I could not let this go and subsequently spent hours e-mailing, and talking on the phone with the parties involved, arguing my point that it made no sense for me not to be receiving a fee, and that ultimately this situation was insulting. 

As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we are working on resolving this situation.  There are also other musicians involved, so I hope we can come to an agreeable conclusion.  My point is this: if you are engaging musicians for your project or event (and it does not matter what kind of musician you are hiring either) PLEASE put their FEES in your BUDGET.  Don’t try and balance your budget by squirming your way out of paying the musicians, or paying them an insulting fee.  The musicians’ fee is often MINIMAL in comparison to other things you have to pay for in your budget, so just PAY IT. 

In the Maritime Canada where I live, there is a lot of “Well, we can’t afford that, just who do you think you are?”, or “We didn’t budget for that” or “What is your real job?”  So I must continue to stand up for myself, even at the age of 51, with over 30 years of professional experience.  And here is my message for the younger generation out there, who are starting to get opportunities: if you sell yourself to the lowest bidder, you will have a hard time digging out of that hole.  You need to set firm boundaries on how you want to be treated and compensated at the beginning of your career.  If younger musicians continue to work for poor fees or no fees,  they are doing the profession and their colleagues a GREAT disservice!!

February in the Maritimes 

 

It’s February, my least favourite month of the year- March isn’t much better in the Maritimes. Being from Victoria, BC is not helping me at this time of year! Out there cherry blossoms are blooming and Spring is already in the air. Out East we are just bearing down for the brunt of Winter. Add the Pandemic on top of this and I have to say, I have not been terribly inspired lately. I find myself in a bizarre little world of no schedule, no performances and domestic tasks that have to be done daily in order to keep the house running. Depression is setting in and I really don’t like it when I get in a funk like this. I wake up each morning and think…’ what am I doing today?? When can I see my family or friends??”

But late last night my buddy Jude shared this wee video with me, and it’s sweet! I went to his place in Baxter’s Harbour at the end of December to escape and play some tunes. He’s pretty tech savvy (unlike me) and has been plugging away at getting things up online, and working on editing our debut album. I think we shall be called the Spruce Larks, and the recording will be called “Out of the Nest.” Here’s the vid on Vimeo, the “posh platform” as Jude likes to say.

Kanada/Olsson from Jude Pelley on Vimeo.

Working out to Polska Rhythm 

As a young child, I remember always having some sort of rhythm going through my head when I was doing any kind of exercise, whether it be dancing (yes, that’s obvious!) or just walking or running around the neighbourhood. This rhythmic pulse has followed me through my career as a musician, and now I find myself working out to Polska rhythms! This morning I got out of the house (challenging to do these January days) and I found myself driving up the stairs listening to the marvellous recording by Ahlberg, Ek and Roswall, titled “Vintern”, how fitting! This recording is one of “those” recordings where you can listen, and listen, and listen and not get bored. There’s tons of energy, swing and chutzpah in the playing. Such an energizing way to start the day, I gotta say!