I get asked this a lot. I try and keep to the point of knitting when I post here but I think it would be good to fill you guys in on what goes on around here. It will hopefully also explain why sometimes there is a lot of knitting and others, not so much.
1. What exactly do I do? I am a pianist. I did a BA in piano (yes! you can do that! academic modules in harmony, composition, history, conducting; exams that made up 75% or more of my overall mark were solo recital, concerto, technical and chamber music exams). Then I did an MMus in solo piano (solo recital, concerto, chamber only). Then I did a fellowship diploma – the performance equivalent of a masters – in piano accompaniment. I graduate from MMus in piano accompaniment this year.
2. How do I make money? This is a very good question. My main sources of income have been teaching piano one-to-one, playing for singing lessons and playing for students’ competitions, auditions and exams. More recently I’ve been getting an increasing amount of accompaniment work and have stopped teaching piano for the time being. This sort of work includes working as a set accompanist for a feis or music festival – typically one or two days together.
I also work as an accompanist in a university where I play for a performance class. There I am assigned a number of end-of-degree/masters students, usually six, to prepare their recitals in June, and I play for undergrad performance module exams, too. I do pretty much the same thing in the IT where I got the job a few weeks ago. I used to work as an examiner for the RIAM. I also work a lot of random jobs like filling in for rehearsals, exam resits where the original accompanist isn’t available, that kind of thing. I’ve actively worked in the city for over five years now and I can get phone calls for all sorts of random things. A lot the time it’s either someone I played with before looking to work on a new project or it’s a recommendation from someone I played for.
3. That sounds really hectic, right? Yes and no. From February to June is the busiest period for me. There are exams – from grade exams to the ones I’m assigned like in the university and IT, auditions for the main music institutions, competitions and festivals. It’s also a busy concert period and the best time of the year to get an audience. I have a recital today and one next week, one in March and three in April. Some of these are my own projects, some are projects where I am hired by whoever got the gig initially.
In the summer, it is very difficult to get decent audience numbers and most musicians travel to music festivals abroad to take masterclasses and meet new people. A masterclass is a lesson with a teacher you don’t normally go to. They’re usually open to the public so it’s more like a recital with discussion afterwards than an actual lesson. This costs money to do so most people apply for funding for a little help. It’s good to try and tie in masterclasses with a concert because then the concert can pay for getting to the masterclass.
September is the worst time of the year. You’re broke and teaching has only just started again. Even worse if you’re in a third level institution like me – they don’t start back until the end of September. Up to December is usually a quiet period, bar a flurry of Christmas concerts which are usually last minute. This is where you really need a steady teaching job to get through. On the upside, it leaves a lot of free time to enjoy the autumn and to get stuck into learning new repertoire for the coming year.
4. Sometimes it is very hard. Sometimes the music is hard, I have to learn a lot of music I have never heard before, I am under time pressure, I have to sight read, the person I am playing for is an idiot/maniac/arrogant/mean, I work long 12 hours days, there is a lot of travelling involved but I still have to turn up and play like I just had a long snooze and a smooth cup of coffee, I get abuse from who I’m playing for (usually singer/conductor), the person I’m playing for blames all their mistakes and bad judgements on me.
5. Mostly, though, it is really cool. Sure, at times I have an overwhelming amount of work to do, to try and juggle my course work with what I need to do to be prepared for actual work. But at the end of the day, I get to play really great music all over the place. I get to meet and play for all sorts of people. Sometimes it’s kind of hairy but mostly it is lots of fun.
6. If you have so much work to do, how come you’re drinking tea and writing this at 4pm? I don’t have office hours. Sometimes if I have a rehearsal or lesson later in the day, I sleep in and work through the afternoon. The days I work in the IT, I go there first thing and then practice in the evening. I have to try and fit in the practice I need to do with outside commitments that earn money. Typically I end up working through the weekend and taking a few halfdays as I need them.
7. An average day’s work for me is 4-5 hours of practice, not including breaks.
8. I still have piano lessons and intend to keep having them for another few years.
9. I think what I like most about being a pianist is that, as a person, you have to constantly refresh and renew your approach. You have to be receptive and open to learn and change. You have to be strong and stand up for what you believe to be musically right, but diplomatic and compromising to find something that works for that moment without having a massive row.
10. Overall, though, the best thing is that, in my office, you can knit any time you want!
Playing piano duets at Mary Immaculate college, Limerick, today (15th) at 1pm – come one, come all!
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