Why Aren’t You Playing Your Nyckelharpa? My Reality After the End of The Pandemic



This is the question I am asked a lot these days.  The short answer is I have had to go back to my orchestral job full time, now that the Pandemic is definitely over.  While this is good news on one hand, for me it's been a bit of a conundrum from the creativity standpoint and the work I have done on the nyckelharpa these past 3 years.  Ironically the Pandemic was an extremely creative time for me with the instrument, and I felt I was making some progress both with my playing, and getting my creativity “out there.”

I am a mum of two children (17 and 20) who still need financial support, and making a living as a musician in Nova Scotia Canada is not an easy path to walk.  My job with Symphony Nova Scotia is full time for 8 months of the year. The average layperson has NO idea what this means, so I shall enlighten you :) Depending on the schedule (which varies from week to week, this is normal in an orchestral job, we don’t do the simple 9-5 thing) often we are playing two different programs per week, and rarely three.  Many folks assume we have been practising these different programs for a few weeks before performing them - no, this is not how it works. We work in rehearsal and concert blocks, meaning that we rehearse intensely one or two days before any given concert.  This is how we roll, and if you can’t get it together during this time, then you have to do your own individual practise on your own time.  There is not enough money to pay for rehearsals weeks before a concert, especially these days when funding for the Performing Arts is at an all time low.  Since the Pandemic, Arts Organizations are trying to find their feet again, and many have had to fold, which is so incredibly sad.  Add this to the digital world of entertainment, and you can guess why Arts Organisations are floundering. But I digress, this is another subject for another blog post!

Orchestral musicians are highly trained from an early age, and we are technicians on an OCD level.  Funnily enough, one of my violin students commented during a lesson, saying that what I was asking her to do with her left hand was more difficult than writing The Bar exam for Lawyers- haha!!  It could be true, but we certainly aren’t financially compensated the same as lawyers, despite the skillsets we posess. Orchestral musicians are also readers who read ANYTHING that is put in front of them. As I am a woman with two children, who holds a position with SNS, a teaching job with the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts, who also tries to freelance on top of all of this (because I can never make enough $) , I have to be extremely efficient with my time. As a result, I usually just read what we are performing on any given week.  I just don’t have a lot of extra time these days,  and TIME is what I need if I am going to switch to playing nyckelharpa, and working in the traditional world.

This year SNS gave me some extra time to spend with the nyckelharpa outside of the rigorous schedule, which I am very grateful for. Many orchestras wouldn't even offer this, as I'm not hired to play the nyckelharpa in an orchestra (that would sure be fun!!).   Even with this extra negotiated time it’s not enough to pursue and accomplish what I would like to with the instrument and the tradition.  The classical and trad worlds could not be more different, especially so when it comes to making any kind of decent pay in Nova Scotia.  My SNS job is poorly paid (after taxes it’s still well under $30,000 per year), but at least it’s a salary of some sort.  In the trad world here it’s usual to make anywhere from $50-100 playing at a bar for 3 hours of work, or if you’re doing a show, you depend on what you make at the door after paying your venue rental, or presenter cut if your are part of some sort of festival or series.  In other words, it's extremely challenging to make a living unless you have: no kids, have the energy to constantly hustle gigs to make ends meet, and are on social media all the time, promoting your shows!!!  It is definitely a grind, and you have got to be tenacious to succeed I think.  Then there is the recording aspect of independent musicians, which is another can of worms.  I have the deepest respect for the non- symphonic musicians who have made it work here.  They have had to be wicked creative, and probably write an infinite number of cultural grants in order to make ends meet.  You are probably getting a good picture now of what it's like to be a professional musician in Nova Scotia, and I wager most people would say, “nope, that's not for me.”

So where does that leave me and the nyckelharpa?  Physically and mentally, classical violin and nyckelharpa don’t mix at all for me, as I’m in my mid 50’s and body aches and strains are almost constant after years of service in orchestral playing.   In other words, when I’m doing a nyckelharpa project, classical violin has to be totally out of the picture, as I use very different muscles (and brain muscles too) when playing the nyckelharpa.   I also have to write cultural support grants to present nyckelharpa shows, as solely depending on audience $ is just not enough for the amount of work and creativity that goes into presenting a trad show.  I really wish there wasn’t such a financial differential between the classical and traditional worlds, as the talent is abundant on both sides, but not the payout; not in Nova Scotia at least.  The trad musicians who have made it work have been working at it for YEARS, and I just don’t have this under my belt, as I’m relatively new to the trad world through studying the nyckelharpa. 

Hopefully I’ll be playing the harpa more when the SNS season is over, and I don’t have to be in the demanding rehearsal and concert schedule that is my life 8 months of the year- but it does make me feel divided and a bit schizophrenic truth be told.  I really miss playing my harpa on a regular basis :(

Perhaps it’s time to think about another sabbatical, or at least partial sabbatical.

I guess I had better think about how I might fund this!!  Anyone interested in a Go Fund Me campaign??   

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