Music: a hobby or a profession?

I complained that I have to make enough income to show that it’s not a hobby. So far, the expenses are way too high. How can we say we’re professional musicians when it costs more to do it than to sit at home and do nothing?

Another way to look at it is to consider these activities as investment. They are necessary to scope the market.

I had an interesting conversation with our painter this afternoon. He has a portfolio career of teaching karate, sociology, and painting. Presumably being a sociologist pays the most. Karate keeps him fit. And painting? Whenever there is a demand for it.

As I’m doing my taxes right now, I complained that I have to make enough income to show that it’s not a hobby. So far, the expenses are way too high.

View in La Coruna, Spain in May 2009
View in La Coruna, Spain in May 2009

Last year, we went to Seville, Madrid, La Coruna, Ferrol, London, Paris, and Crete, not counting Venice, Florence, Rome, Dusseldorf, and Helsinki where I went without Robert.

Robert worked on a flamenco guitar project in Seville. We gave concerts in Madrid, La Coruna, and Ferrol. We went to London to check and relet my house. We took the train to Paris for a long weekend of inspiration. We spent a week in Crete, in an artist residency which culminated in an exhibition and concert in Brugge earlier this year.

We got a grant from a Dutch foundation and airfare from a Spanish electricity company for a concert.

The airfare enabled us to give the one concert (on the way) which actually paid us cash.

Airfare, accommodation, and living expenses were paid for the week in Seville, but no other income.

How can we say we’re professional musicians when it costs more to do it than to sit at home and do nothing?

Another way to look at it is to consider these activities as investment. They are necessary to scope the market.

Our painter said that he would most definitely get paid more if he was on a university payroll. But he could not conform. He preferred to freelance as a sociologist and accept the uncertainties of cashflow.

We too have to accept this income uncertainty if we want to be flexible. [See future blog about uncertainty and flexibility.] If there were an orchestra or an outfit or a conservatory or an institution that would hire us and pay us to do what we normally do, we would probably get paid more than our expenses.

Does such an institution exist? Pay us to fly to Seville, Madrid, La Coruna, Ferrol, London, Paris, and Crete?

Concert economics: ticket price as a function of time

I read an account of an economist’s ordeal in buying last minute concert tickets. It’s a fascinating tale of the way economists think and analyse scarcity and opportunity. here is never a truly sold out concert. There will always be incentives for ticket holders to sell. In this case, scalpers or touters get hold of extra tickets with the expectation that the concert will sell out and there will be people wanting to buy last minute tickets.

With plenty of time to transact, these touters ask for high prices.

On my train journey from Leiden to Utrecht, I read an account of an economist’s ordeal in buying last minute concert tickets. It’s a fascinating tale of the way economists think and analyse scarcity and opportunity.

The price at anytime is determined by the information about supply and demand at that time. Without actual information, supply and demand is communicated through the perceptions of the price maker or his expectations.

There is never a truly sold out concert. There will always be incentives for ticket holders to sell. In this case, scalpers or touters get hold of extra tickets with the expectation that the concert will sell out and there will be people wanting to buy last minute tickets.

With plenty of time to transact, these touters ask for high prices.

The closer it gets to the concert, the more information is revealed, such as another source of tickets available for sale.

I often compare concert economics with that of airfares. Last minute airfares are expensive because airlines deliberately overbook. I tried it myself. [See The Myth of Last Minute Flights, Bon Journal, 2 January 2005] Ticket holders can’t exchange their tickets or sell back. As such, it’s rare they will cancel. As for concerts, people will cancel due to illness, new obligations, or other reasons. Concert reservations are rarely overbooked — instead, there is a waiting list.

I would love to see chamber music concerts sell out and witness the phenomenon described by the economist. More often times than not, concerts don’t sell out. Many concert producers don’t even use a pre-payment reservation system. Thus, nobody knows.

The handy man can because he can

A guitarist who can build and fix things. A pianist who can manage property and rentals. A home in the USA while they are on sabbatical from the Netherlands? Sponsors wanted.

I chatted with my friend in Denver on MSN messenger recently. I wrote, “We’re trying to get concerts where our friends are so that they can see us perform… and we can see them. But the USA is SO big! There are so many places to be.”

She replied, “The biggest turnout will be wherever you end up staying. We will come to see you.”

Why hadn’t it occurred to me before? It’s hard to follow a rolling stone.

Another friend wrote that the one thing stopping him from coming to our concerts is DISTANCE. He lives in Virginia. We are near Amsterdam. If we base ourselves in the USA, surely it would be a lot easier.

Here we are, trying to get our house fixed up so that we can rent it out, have a peace of mind, and go travel. Perhaps there are other homeowners also thinking the same. If only we could clone ourselves.

Garden house designed by Robert Bekkers in Utrecht, Netherlands
Garden house designed by Robert Bekkers in Utrecht, Netherlands

But wait!

Maybe we can get a place to stay, a place with access to a piano, a quiet place where we can study, rehearse, and prepare for our next CD recordings — a place given to us in exchange for our ability to fix things — i.e. manage property. Does such a place exist?

Here is why: http://www.bonjournal.com/entries/j100830.htm

What is stopping you from attending a free concert?

Perhaps this fast-paced society of ours is too fast to stop you to sit down and experience a concert. Perhaps this is exactly the reason why you should.

Today I ran into a music connoisseur and house concerts advocate at the local sports club. Although she has been very busy with her work, she has not stopped encouraging others to go to the concerts I promote.

She said that many international students are curious and interested but are stopped by self-made excuses such as

  • it’s for the rich
  • it’s for the exclusive
  • I won’t feel comfortable there
  • thus it’s not for me.

Coincidentally I received a message from my Linked-In Group (Aficionados of Classical Music) about transforming the traditional concert for a new audience. [How to sell classical music to the masses, Times Online] [Full text of the RPS lecture of Alex Ross in 6-page PDF] This made me pause for thought.

Getting new audiences to traditional concerts requires getting old audiences to invite and encourage them to go. Like the music connoisseur I ran into this morning, music is to be shared. I get little result by telling people to go to a concert I don’t go to. I get much better results by inviting people to go with me. My concert reviews are nearly all written after I’ve gone to a concert with somebody else.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy going to concerts alone. I do. I nearly always go to concerts alone because I don’t have time to invite someone or wait for someone to decide and meet up with me. We live in a fast paced society. Everyone is busy. That is my assumption

Perhaps this fast-paced society of ours is too fast to stop you to sit down and experience a concert. Perhaps this is exactly the reason why you should.

Ironically our next free concert for the public is given on a day in which the major roads in central Amsterdam are blocked for the “DAM TOT DAM” — a 10-mile race from Zaandam to Amsterdam. It was the same story exactly a year ago when we gave a totally different programme (contemporary). Only 20 people came to this free concert because of this event. But I’m sure given enough notice, Amsterdammers will find ways to circumvent the road and traffic blocks this year.

Next concerts in Amsterdam:

Sunday 19 September 2010 at noon: FREE ENTRY
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo at Oosterkerk, Amsterdam
Traditional programme: own transcriptions of Queen of Sheba, Winter, and original work for piano guitar – the Grand Potpourri National

Immediately after this concert, I will be giving a house concert with French horn player Emile Kaper at Funen Park 125 a short walk away. This one hour concert of romantic and classical horn works takes place at 15:00. Entrance is 10 euros at the door.

Emile Kaper, French horn
Emile Kaper, French horn

Writing programme notes

After determining the order of pieces in a concert, you can research the programme notes. Here is an example from the cello piano concert in Warnsveld played by Stephanie Hunt and Anne Ku.

Experienced concert programme note writers will have the notes at their fingertips. They just need to copy and paste into a new document. Most of us, however, start from scratch.

Having determined the order of pieces in a concert, it’s time to research the programme notes.

There are many ways to do this.

One way is to find as much as you can about each piece — the composer’s name, birth and death dates, opus numbers, circumstances surrounding the piece, who premiered it, where it was first performed or published, and anything that’s controversial or juicy for the audience to know. Such information puts the work in perspective. Interesting tidbits engrave the piece in the listener’s mind.

While most information is easily found on the Internet (wikipedia for instance), I prefer to “triangulate” — i.e. double check various sources. The opus numbers may be mistyped and propagated. People do fall into the lazy habit of copying instead of reinventing the wheel.

To avoid plagiarism, I would rewrite the sentences and paragraphs so there is no sign that I’ve copied word for word. This takes some practice.

To make the programme consistent, I would ensure that no work gets more attention (word length) than others, unless one piece is deliberately featured. If there is a theme to the concert, the text should fit to the theme.

For the two cello piano concerts in Warnsveld, we weren’t requested to produce programme notes. Yet it was a good exercise to come prepared. Sometimes we learn in hindsight what would have been a better order. In this case, there were several pieces to do with love and marriage — Chanson Triste (the end of a love), La Cinquaintaine (50 years of love and marriage), and Salut d’Amour (the beginning of love). It would have been a nice story to begin with Salut d’Amour instead of Chanson Triste.

Stephanie Hunt, cello; Anne Ku, piano
Stephanie Hunt, cello; Anne Ku, piano

The three page programme notes can be found in a PDF.

Concert programming: order of pieces

How do you select the works you will play in a concert? Should there be a theme? How do you determine the order? The answer is in the audience, maximum time given, what you like to play, what you can play.

How do you select the works you will play in a concert? Should there be a theme? How do you determine the order?

I had researched this topic with a Swedish violinist for a master’s research elective at Utrecht Conservatory in 2008: how to programme live music for elderly audiences (summary 1 page PDF).

This morning Stephanie (cellist) and I (pianist) got together to decide exactly that. For this Friday’s concerts, we needed 30 minutes before the intermission and 15 to 20 minutes afterwards. It’s for an exclusive, affluent, historical house of elderly residents – about 10 to maximum 12 people in a cozy, intimate setting. We will play the programme twice in one day —- i.e. in two homes in the same town.

The piano room in the Monument House Utrecht
The piano room in the Monument House Utrecht

Selecting the pieces

We began with what we had worked on and performed before.

Fantasiestucke by Robert Schumann – 3 movements to be played attaca – virtuoso and exciting – not so well-known – best to end with it, before the intermission. 10 minutes

The rest of the pieces we had not performed but had sight read or practised together. We played each piece once and timed it.

Sicilienne by Faure – well-known, familiar – I had played the piano solo version as a warm-up at a previous concert and noticed the early guests liked it – 4’5″

Intermezzo from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana – well-loved – I had played the piano solo version in concerts with French horn and noticed the audience loved it. The cello-piano arrangement is much easier on the piano than the solo version. 2’56”

Salut d’Amour by Elgar – again, well-loved and well-known. The piano solo version is much more demanding than the cello-piano arrangement, so it’s a relief to hear something more beautiful but easier to play on the piano. 3’21”

Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise – very romantic and beautiful but sad – must be careful not to overdo it. 7’24”

La Cinquantaine by Gabriel Marie – unfamiliar piece but moving – important to have something that’s unfamiliar in a sea of familiarity. 4’56”

We added all the durations and fished for additional pieces to complete the programme.

Minuetto by Boccherini – familiar, light, joyful – a nice break from the more serious pieces – 3’53”

Menuett by Beethoven – similar to the Boccherini – well-known and light-hearted – originally for piano – 2’56”

Barcarolle from Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffman – easy but not my favourite – 2’41”

Chanson Triste by Tchaikovsky – 2’24”

Songs My Mother Taught me by Dvorak – the piano plays in 6/8 time while the cello part is in 2/4 time – 1’50”

Ordering the pieces

We put Schumann’s Fantasiestucke just before the intermission because it’s the longest and most virtuosic of all pieces. After the intermission, when everyone is rested we can challenge the audience with something more demanding: Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. This requires something lighter and joyful to follow – Boccherini’s Minuetto.

In deciding upon the sequence of works, we were constantly seeking a balance —-  contrasting long with short, heavy with light, dark with light, and familiar with unfamiliar.

The final programme for cello and piano

Songs My Mother Taught Me – Dvorak

Minuett – Beethoven

Chanson Triste – Tchaikovsky

La Cinquantaine – Gabriel Marie

Salut d’Amour – Elgar

[Barcarolle – Offenbach —- may skip if not enough time]

Fantasiestucke – Schumann

INTERMISSION

Vocalise – Rachmaninoff

Minuetto – Boccherini

Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana – Mascagni

Sicilienne – Faure

Final step: research and write the programme notes so we have something interesting to say about each piece.

Selected videos of Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo

Here is a new page on our Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo website of selected videos of our duo and trio performances in rehearsal, master class, and live in concert. http://www.pianoguitar.com/video/

Many years ago, my friend Stuart told me that we should make videos of our performances. Back in those days, few people had video cameras. The output from those cameras was not in a form we could easily use. Technology has exploded by leaps and bounds since then.

Today I can make a short video with my mobile telephone. It’s good enough for youtube and fast enough for blog readers. I use bluetooth technology to upload to youtube and embed it into a blog post. Simple. Fast.

Because it’s so simple and fast, we have now videos of solo guitar and solo piano performances in different settings, but still not enough of our duo performances. Why not? We need a third person to make the videos.

Here is a new page on our Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo website of selected videos of our duo and trio performances in rehearsal, master class, and live in concert. http://www.pianoguitar.com/video/

Bach’s Badinerie is one of our earliest videos, a home video from August 2007 that has received more than 2,000 viewings. We play a lot better and faster now. We should replace it with a new one. But we’ll need someone to video us playing it!

Sight reading chamber music in Bristol

It began with 4-hands on one piano. What is more fun than playing with others? To play as equals — such as in an ensemble or orchestra. After all these adventures in sight reading, I asked myself, why not piano and string quartet? or Piano and string trio? There was a lot more music to be explored.

It began with 4-hands on one piano. That was my treat at the end of the academic year when my piano teacher at Duke University would sight read duets with me.

What is more fun than playing the piano (or any other instrument)? To play with someone else.

What is more fun than playing with someone else? To play with more than one person.

I had accompanied singers, flute players, violinists, trumpet players, but these were not the same as playing together with someone else.

Then I met Robert Bekkers in Amsterdam and discovered the joy of playing together as equals. In London, I recruited musicians to play for house concerts I’d organise everytime Robert was coming to visit. It became a ritual: flute, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, guitar, piano, and voice.

What is more fun than playing with others? To play as equals — such as in an ensemble or orchestra.

In Utrecht, we explored and performed new works for piano, guitar, and violin. In Amsterdam, we gave a concert of piano, guitar, and cello. In London, Robert performed Boccherini’s guitar quintet with a string quartet in a memorial tribute concert for Ayyub Malik. In Taiwan, Robert played Tedesco’s guitar quintet with a string quartet after I tried several piano trios with violin and cello.

In mid-July, I completed my duos with violin — Brahms horn trio, Mendelssohn piano trio number 1, and Piazzolla trios. It was a different way to communicate, not through words but through music. We were engulfed in the powerful sound of chamber music.

After all these adventures in sight reading, I asked myself, why not piano and string quartet? or Piano and string trio? There was a lot more music to be explored.

I was eager to visit a violin and viola couple whom I met years ago after their orchestral concert in Ealing. I had crashed their post-concert home-catered party (for the orchestra members) and discovered a world of amateur musicians who loved music as much as they loved gourmet cooking. Their lifestyle of chamber music, fine cuisine, travel, and annual homage to Dartington Festival inspired me greatly.

They had set up the Ealing Chamber Music Club before moving to Bristol. In early August, I finally got a chance to visit them. They gave me a tour of their magnificently renovated Georgian house. The best room was undoubtedly the music room which featured a beautiful Yamaha C3 (conservatory) grand piano and several violins.

Each evening a different cellist joined us to play Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. Afterwards we wined and dined (on home-cooked gourmet meals of home-grown organic vegetables). This was how sight reading chamber music became my latest addiction.

Music room in Georgian house in Bristol
Music room in Georgian house in Bristol

Impromptu barbecue and concert for Ayyub Malik’s 75th birthday

A successful barbecue depends on the weather. An art exhibition doesn’t. Neither does a solo guitar concert. I invited everyone to walk to the back garden to give a toast. This was how I remembered Ayyub’s birthday parties: highly diverse group of interesting people from all walks of life.

Having experienced house concerts and art exhibitions in private spaces, I wanted to organise an art exhibition and a concert in my London home. I wanted to do a lot during a short period of time in which too much had to be done.

A successful barbecue depends on the weather. An art exhibition doesn’t. Neither does a solo guitar concert.

I reserved Friday the 13th of August just to tempt fate. I didn’t invite anybody in case I had no time to prepare for this event.

When it came close to the 13th, I checked with the London Ealing-based artist Yousif Naser if he was still game to participate. I checked with Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers if he wanted to give a short concert. I checked the weather forecast.

We moved the date to Saturday 14th August for more barbecue-friendly weather. I then invited my friends by phone, e-mail, skype, and facebook.

It rained all morning and what-looked-like all afternoon. Jetlagged travelers from outside of London would surely be dissuaded from venturing into town.

Set-up in back garden of Victorian cottage London for barbecue
Set-up in back garden of Victorian cottage London for barbecue

First to arrive were Ian and Julie who landed from New York and Boston the same morning. Next were my Colombian friends who were still recovering from their trip to China. By the time my German professor friend showed up, complaining of jet lag from Montreal, the diversity index had soared: Scots, American, Colombian, German, English, French, Iraqi, Dutch, and me. Total 13 people.

I invited everyone to walk to the back garden to give a toast. This was how I remembered Ayyub’s birthday parties: highly diverse group of interesting people from all walks of life. He was the leader and the centre of attention. “I would like to give a toast to Ayyub Malik, who would have been 75 today.”

Painting by Ayyub Malik, 2005
Painting by Ayyub Malik, 2005

Bristol, Bath, and Oxford: in search of Ayyub Malik

I must have walked back and forth for one hour before I gave up. I could not find Ayyub’s grave. After the memorial tribute concert in London in September 2008, I decided that I must visit Ayyub Malik’s burial place. Never could I have imagined that I would visit alone and not find his grave.

The momentum of concertising came to an abrupt stop when I left for Bristol in early August. This short trip of visiting old friends in Bristol, Bath, Oxford, Maidenhead, and London was my summer vacation. I left Amsterdam on Tuesday 3rd August and returned on Wednesday 18th August.

The first thing I noticed about Bristol when I landed was the three dimensional reality of hills and valleys. One forgets the contours that challenge our daily existence. My friends Mike and Lynda had spent the past three years renovating a Georgian house to their liking. The best room was undoubtedly the music room [see separate blog post.]

After three nights in Bristol, I took the train to Bath to see my concert pianist friend Nicola who had once lent me her Chappell upright piano for several years in London. We didn’t have time to play and barely enough time to digest the sumptuous Thai luncheon before I caught the 5 pm train to Oxford.

My trip coincided with my Singaporean friends’ annual sojourn to their Oxford pied-a-terre, where I had the pleasure of visiting on a previous day trip. Staying there offered more time to converse and share memories of my first job and ex-colleagues.

Like the previous trip, I also visited my friends James and Kathy with whom I had shared a house in St John’s Wood in London. I had played the organ at their wedding in Essex. I was delighted to see and join their children in playing the piano.

As we packed into their car and waved goodbye to Kathy, James said to his children “We’re going to first drop Anne off at Botley Cemetery. She’s going to visit her friend Ayyub.”

“How long has he been living there?” asked James’ son.

“He’s dead, my dear. Anne is going to visit his grave.”

I was told that he was buried in the western part of the cemetery, near trees. I walked in the direction of the setting sun. I soon figured out that the tombstones were ordered chronologically by date of death. I must have walked back and forth for one hour before I gave up. I could not find Ayyub’s grave. Tired and deflated, I took out my orange umbrella and left the cemetery to catch a bus back to central Oxford.

After the memorial tribute concert in London in September 2008, I decided that I must visit where he was buried. Never could I have imagined that I would visit alone and not be able to find his grave.

Botley Cemetery, Oxford
Botley Cemetery, Oxford

— to be continued