Techniques Thoughts

The secret to a smooth performance

It may be just my own approach (although I am somewhat experienced in these matters) but for me there is only one technique in making any performance smooth and polished.

I’m not talking about the musicians: there are countless people extolling the value of practise, talent, luck, alcohol etc. I’m talking about the performance as a whole. We’ve all got stories of concerts which were bad, not due to a deficit in performance skill, but in execution of a successful event. Mine involves Notre Dame cathedral, 2 degree temperatures, no toilets, and a concert starting 45 minutes late. The music was amazing, the concert was not.

I’m also talking about classical music. In theatre and musicals they keep on trying until they get the performance they want (try seeing a first preview and then a press night and prepare for some surprises) showing that the smooth performance is a product of elimination and trial and error.

In classical music (concerts, recitals, opera, anything) you only really get one shot at success, and so getting it right (or not) becomes a matter of prediction and experience.

For me, the ‘trick’ is to imagine your performance going perfectly: what does that look like, how does it run. Then, you do two things – take it apart (what did it need, what was used, what did it feel like in the room) and work out how to get those things into that room at exactly that time. Then it’s just working backwards from there to get it done.

Easy, right? But just thinking about the end product gives you the steps you need to achieve it. We work in a standardised industry, meaning we can visualise the final concert without too much effort. This can apply to performers too: work out what the performance needs to be, plan on how to get there, hope you have the skills to do so (we have the luxury of outsourcing and freelancers).

Of course this ‘simple trick’ (I’m moving into clickbait) assumes no spanners are thrown in the works: no-one changes repertoire, no-one gets sick, the soloists visa comes through, the venue doesn’t flood and the piano doesn’t disintegrate. Of course, those of us with the special training know how to handle these, but I swore an oath not to tell you. But I definitely know. Yes.

Thoughts writing

London orchestras are homeless

It may come as a surprise to many, but many of the orchestras in the UK, and particularly London, are functionally homeless. Sure, the administrative staff are based in a permanent office, but the orchestra itself lives an itinerant lifestyle that belies the slick and polished performances.

Visitors from other countries, such as the US, Australia or continental Europe might expect that the orchestra ‘lives’ in the concert hall it is resident in. In other countries it often work this way: the offices, store rooms and lockers are in the flagship hall, only leaving for concert tours and outside engagements. But in London, orchestras work to a very different model.

One only has to look at the performance schedules of venues like the Barbican Concert Hall (home of the LSO and BBCSO) or the Royal Festival Hall (Home of the LPO, Philharmonia) to realise that they can’t possibly be living in the venue. London venues are so tightly programmed that you’ll often have 2 or three different ensembles using the stage on the same day so clearly there has to be an alternate way of working.

It sounds strange, but the most prestigious UK orchestras are living out of the back of a truck. They might have storage warehouses in outer London, or even storerooms inside their main venue, but they load everything they need for a batch of concerts (until they are next at their home base to reload) into their truck and treat every location as a tour.

There are a network of loarge concert halls accross the south east that these orchestras use to rehearse in, bringing everying including the music library, earplugs, noticeboards, wardrobes and instruments in road cases for the 2-3 days that they will be rehearsing. Then, after the last rehearsal they will load the truck back up again and drive away. The morning of the concert (which could be days or even weeks later if they have a tour to get through) the truck will arrive and a small crew of grumpy people will load everything into the venue, set up the chairs and stands, and unpack all the percussion instruments and check everything is as it should be.

This, no matter how big the ensemble or how many steps between the truck and stage, always seems to take an hour and 15 minutes. It’s one of the mysteries of orchestral management.

In the afternoon the musicians will turn up, find their instruments and have a run through rehearsal. A quick break and then the audience arrive for the concert. As soon as the conductor leaves the stage the same crew will remove all the instruments, pack up the music, and load up the truck.

What were the crew doing between the load in and load up? Either down the pub definitely not having a number of beers, or just as likely popping off to do the same work for one of the other orchestras at a different venue in london.

This is an invisible industry which holds UK cultural life together, and it all fits into the back of a truck at midnight, and the orchestras are always touring, whether the audience thinks they are ‘at home’ or not.

Discussion Thoughts writing

In defence of the day job

There are almost no composers, at any level of success, who just do composition full time.

I’m talking about the world of ‘classical’ concert music rather than media work, but even in those fields composers might have other gigs as performers, teachers, etc.

The most frustrating thing, from the point of view of someone trying to ‘break into’ a career as a composer, is that no-one ever talks about the work they do on the side. Everyone (myself included) is trying to frame themselves as a pure sucessful composer, but in reality there are very few composers (mostly big name ‘celebrities) who do not support their art through other means.

Many teach, either in schools or in universities or music colleges. Many play or conduct, with successful performing and recording careers. Many write or present, being animateurs in educational concerts, pundits for radio and pre-concert talks, or writing books and programme notes.

Some, like myself, do arrangments and orchestrations, often working anonymously for ensembles and performers to adapt work to their needs, although this is also a difficult career path to break into.

Many, although we can never be fully sure, have jobs or careers outside of music altogether. I know of some who work for tech companies or in the city, some who make films and videos for clients or online, some with just normal jobs in normal places, allowing them to pay rent while they work on their music with whatever time they have. Charles Ives worked in insurance, Borodin was a research chemist, Eric Whitacre is a model.

This doesn’t make music their hobby, unless they want to see it that way. By taking the commercial pressure off their creativity they are allowed to make music at the pace that works for them. It’s still their career, but it sidesteps the myth that commissioning and royalty payments pay anything close to living wage for the vast majority of composers.

All sorts of trendy places are talking about the portfolio career as a millennial idea: the concept of the single career (perhaps supported in the outside by small jobs that don’t matter) is over and now we are all sailing in the gig economy patching together sources of income and finding opportunities wherever they lie. This is hardly new, but is only now being talked about in such terms.

I have a day job, and I have since I left music college: I work in music logistics and administration, originally for the London orchestras and concert venues and now at the National Theatre, using all my knowledge and experience to support musicians and composers. Talking about these two sides of my professional life is so complicated: even if I have the most exciting stories from the theatre or juicy theatrical anecdotes, when talking to others in anything approaching ‘networking’ I have to remember to frame myself as a composer with interesting artistic projects so that I don’t get pigeonholed as the classical roadie and miss out on potential opportunities. I know others in my industry who have to do the same thing.

Almost every composer, going back to Beethoven or Vivaldi, has used other work to support their family and give them space to write. The fact that we are not prepared for this in music college, and this isn’t talked about when musicians meet for a drink and a moan, does a disservice to us all and leaves us unprepared for the realities of a working life. Think of your favourite contemporary composer under 60: they may be at their other job right now, not telling anyone lest you think less of them.


Classical Music’s Naughty Secret

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the classical music industry: Encores are not a surprise.

I saw a question posted on a classical music subreddit recently where the poster was asking about why, when the audience was asking for an encore at the end of a concert, the orchestra and conductor ‘refused’ to give one. All sorts of theories were being put out, ranging from the possibly sensible (the orchestra have a bus to catch) to the esoteric (cultural differences and programming choices).

My little piece of insider knowledge: they probably didn’t do an encore because there wasn’t one programmed in.

There are actually two programmes for a concert. The one given or sold to the audience, containing the works, the biographies, photos, and ads for private music schools. And the one back stage: written in a kind of code it contains the call times, orchestrations, durations, and most up to date order of pieces. This is what gets sent to the PRS licensing people, this is what tells the stage manager when to retrieve the brass players from the pub. This is the actual concert, the shiny one is a best guess made by the marketing department a few weeks before rehearsals start.

When you think about it, of course encores have to be planned. The venue needs to know when the concert will finish. The orchestra need to rehearse the music. In the case of my career, someone needs to orchestrate the fun folk tune for this particular group of musicians (a process which starts a month or two before). Parts need to be printed, broadcasters need to be briefed, musicians need to be reminded to turn the page to the next piece.

With all this effort, no programmer is going to leave it to chance on whether the audience will ask loudly enough for it. We can predict whether there will be a round of applause big enough for the encore to be called months ahead, and the real trick is making it look spontaneous and responsive, like a magician forcing you to pick the 6 of diamonds.

Sometimes a soloist may have something prepared that they can bring out unaccompanied after a concerto, but the conductor will have asked what they have and they’ll have decided on something together and will wait to see if that atmosphere demands it, but that’s easy enough for one soloist. It’s usually a Bach caprice or Paganini variation: flashy, but doesn’t use up rehearsal time.

If the orchestra haven’t prepared something you are highly unlikely to ever get an encore, no matter how loudly you shout for it: it might not be appropriate to follow a requiem with Send in the Clowns, they might have run out of venue or rehearsal time, the entire brass and percussion section could already be halfway back down the M5. If they have prepared one, and it clearly isn’t wanted or called, for they might skip it.

In every other situation, they’ll do the encore because that’s whats on the program, and because it makes the concert better. Whether you want it or not is just your own problem.

The other dirty secret: they might have only played that piece you adore once before the concert. And someone in the orchestra is sight reading. It doesn’t make it any less good.


February Update

Well, here’s another update for all of you following my progress here in London (ahem). I’ve just gone through a month of intense busyness, as I juggle projects and performances, but things have eased off now, allowing me to focus on the compositions I am writing. I’ve also shifted my focus a little bit to start working on some career development, so I’ve been updating my website and CV, and will be updating my biography and photography over the next couple of weeks. I’ve also begun the process of applying for scholarships for the next school year, as I know I won’t be able to do the 2nd part of the masters unless I find some new sources of funds.   This seems like a good time to fill you in on what I have been doing so far this term,


I started this year by working on the schools production of Twelfth Night. This was an extra opportunity that fell into my lap and it proved very satisfying and exciting. My main role was to set the 8-9 songs that Shakespeare wrote in the text, and then to rehearse them with the actors. In addition to these I composed some incidental and background pieces, and ended up performing these as part of the show, mostly on a (vaguely jazzy) piano, but with some cello and a tubular bell at the more atmospheric moments. It was very interesting observing rehearsals and piecing together the incidental cues from the scraps of music I had composed. It was nice to play and perform again, especially after a couple of months of solid composing, and improvising music with the musicians in the cast was very enjoyable. I was playing as part of the action, so I given a costume, and asked to grow a moustache, which I feel was probably a mistake (see right).

The Twelfth Night Cast and Crew (that's me on the left)
The Twelfth Night Cast and Crew (that’s me on the left)

This term we have been working on our collaborative projects with postgraduate singers and poets from Birkbeck university. I’ve been busy trying out some new techniques in setting the poem that has been written by Dan, and I’m quite pleased with how it is turning out. I’ll send another update after it has been premièred at the Wigmore Hall. I’m enjoying playing with meditative materials and using the text in a fragmented way without breaking up the text into something not comprehensible.  We have also started working on a piece for violin and piano. I have decided to take this on in a very different direction, and am writing something fiery and energetic. We had a workshop last week, and I think the ideas I have are promising, as long as I maintain the focus of the piece. Last week we also had a workshop of the piece we started right at the beginning of the course, for two pianos and percussion, and although I thought the sections of the pieces worked, I have been reordering the piece to make the ideas clearer and less chopped up.

I had a lovely Christmas, the Family came to visit and we had a cosy European Christmas with friends. It was nice spending time with them, and I returned to college refreshed. A nice treat in January was the weekend of snow that we had. London has been pretty cold for these last couple of months (especially compared to Sydney  and there have been flurries of snow every couple of days, but there was only one weekend when it settled. We went to the park, made a snowman, and looked at the very confused ducks. A very European winter!


Until the next update.



Christmas Update

As Christmas approaches I felt it was appropriate to update you on my progress and activities this term.

Last weekend we concluded our contemporary dance project with two performances at the London Contemporary Dance School. Although it went through many revisions and rethinks over the 6 weeks that we worked on the project I ended up composing a score for a solo harp to accompany the two female dancers which my choreographer, Joseph Toonga, was working with. After the more raucous and energetic works of the first half (many of the other works used amplification or electronics, and had larger corps of dancers) we opened the second half with a very quiet and intimate piece which the audience seemed to appreciate. I could feel the audience listening perhaps more intently than they had for the louder pieces (apart from the gentleman in front of me, who had his mobile phone out), and the dancers felt that they could explore the relationship with the harp in a particularly intimate way. A video recording was made, although I won’t receive it until the new year, but an audio recording was made in the last rehearsal, and can be found on my soundcloud:
As well as the projects that are part of the course (we are now under way with the ‘voiceworks’ project, where we are collaborating with postgraduate singers and poets to create new works for voice) I am using this opportunity to take on a few additional projects. I am working on an additional song project, writing a new song for a master’s singer and pianist to perform, and am planning on setting a poem by Poe for them to perform. I have also started working with the Guildhall School’s drama department on their production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for which I will be writing music for the famous songs, and composing incidental cues for the scenes and transitions of the production. This is very exciting, although rehearsals start on the 2nd of January, which means I will be very busy these holidays. I am also preparing submissions for several competitions, so I am facing a pleasingly busy month ahead.
I am looking forward to seeing family and friends again this Christmas  as the family is coming to London and we will be celebrating Christmas with old family friends, which will be a welcome time of calm after the hectic first term.

An Update

Over the last few months I have been properly settling into London and into music college and my degree. I moved into my flat three weeks ago, and have been busily getting set up with all the usual living necessities, as well as a digital piano so that I can compose at home whenever I need to, rather than needing to use a practice room for the trying out of ideas.
College is now well and truly underway, with many of the year’s projects starting in the last month or so. I am now busy writing a piece for two piano players and two percussionists for a postgraduate ensemble, in which I am experimenting with some of the more mathematical and procedural methods of composing. We have also started working with choreographers from the London School of Contemporary Dance to create a dance piece with live musicians from the college and dancers from the LCDS. It is very exciting to be working with the choreographer and dancers, and although I know very little about contemporary dance, quite a learning curve.
We have also just embarked on another collaborative project, this time with postgraduate singers and poets from the Birkbeck University School of Poetry, to create new song works for première next year at the Wigmore Hall.
In addition to the curricular compositions I have used the opportunity to get involved with a couple of extra-curricular and professional projects. I recently completed a collaborative intensive at the Young Vic Theatre company, and I have just started work on a similar project to the one above, working with singers and pianists to create new art songs. I am in all likelihood going to start working on the drama school’s production of Twelfth Night. In addition to getting into the conducting unit, I am currently preparing scores for competitions run by the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music and the BBC Concert Orchestra.
I am enjoying finally being properly settled in London, which is a very exciting city with so many different performances and events going on. It is also nice to be properly stuck into the business of composition and study. I am already trying to broaden my compositional style and stretch myself to try new ideas and ways of working.