Natural voice network

Reclaim your voice. Anyone can sing. You don’t need to read music notation. Listen. You can make beautiful music with your voice.

These are the messages of the “natural voice network,” something I read in Caroline Bithell’s well-cited 2014 book “A Different Voice, A Different Song: Reclaiming Community through the Natural Voice and World Song.”

I had to experience it for myself. I googled “natural voice network” and found a website with details of upcoming events. There was a free rehearsal at St Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green. It’s a part of East London I knew well, for I had lived and worked near Victoria Park some thirty years ago.

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Getting the gig: cover letters

Writing cover letters is an art. It’s much easier to get the gig because the person already knows you.

I like the word “gig.” It not only refers to getting a concert booking but also a job, a project, and any opportunity that pays.

The way I secured the next three gigs did not start with a phone call, an e-mail, or a cover letter. I simply walked into the office of the activities director and said, “Hello! How are you ? Long time no see. Say, have you booked anyone for Thanksgiving or Christmas?” I got the gigs because I showed up, I had a track record, and I caught him at the right moment.

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Remembering the Tsunami

Elwin Hendrijanto premiered “Toccata on an Elegy Theme” written by Anne Ku after the 26 Dec 2004 tsunami that struck Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.

The tsunami that hit Japan yesterday brought back vivid memories of a winter six years ago in the Netherlands. In the comfort of my home, I read about the unexpected tsunami of 26 December 2004 that nearly destroyed my favourite holiday spot in Thailand.  As the tragedy unfolded through the Internet and Dutch radio, I became conscious of how useless and helpless I felt.

It was my first year as a composition student at conservatory. I had neither the money nor the means to contribute anything of value. I could not volunteer at the scene. I did not know anyone that was affected. It was before Facebook and Twitter. Yet I felt as though I had lost a dear friend.

In the end, I expressed myself by composing an elegy to the victims of the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia. I asked the Indonesian pianist Elwin Hendrijanto to premiere it in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Toccata on an Elegie Theme by Anne Ku
Toccata on an Elegy Theme by Anne Ku

His interpretation was so much more powerful than what I expected. It’s like a tsunami — you see it coming but you have no idea how powerful it could get. Listen below.

Elwin Hendrijanto plays “Toccata on an Elegie Theme” by Anne Ku

I did run for a fundraising event for the victims of Aceh, but it was working on this piano solo piece and getting my friend to play it that released me.

On Friday 11 March 2011, through Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, I saw what happened in Japan.

Decision rules in music composition

Such mathematics gives us an appreciation for the beauty of music. When I was studying composition at the conservatory, I learned that mathematics could reduce and ease the decision making required when composing.

One of these techniques was deciding on the interval to use. Serial music is an example of a predefined decision rule. Understanding the mathematics of music helps to determine decision rules for composing.

When I was 7 and had to learn English for the first time, I regressed to mathematics for comfort. I listened to English through my Chinese ears and the only thing that made sense was to resort to math.

“What Chinese animal year were you born in?” I motioned with my hands.

Instead of asking my American teachers for their age, I figured it out through the Chinese zodiac system. It was the logic of Modulo 12.

The Circle of Fifths works by the same principle. There are 12 notes in an octave, each corresponding to a key — hence 12 major keys. Each key is related to the next by a perfect 5th interval.

Circle of Fifths Diagram
Circle of Fifths Diagram

Such mathematics gives us an appreciation for the beauty of music. When I was studying composition at the conservatory, I learned that mathematics could reduce and ease the decision making required when composing.

One of these techniques was deciding on the interval to use. At each step you choose the next note to be the interval above or below. At some point, you switch to another interval. [Listen to Interval Scherzo by Anne Ku 2 min 47 sec, live recording of pianist Elwin Hendrianto’s world premiere in Utrecht, The Netherlands, 22 March 2005]

Serial music is an example of a predefined decision rule. To learn about twelve tone music composition, I created a spreadsheet to compute the different rows, inversions, etc. I proudly showed it to my teacher. I found a way to use Excel to compose music!

I like objectives and constraints to be preset to help bound a problem. A commission such as “write a piece for my new born baby to reflect the our French and Japanese heritage” is better than “write a piece for my new born baby.” A commission that has a goal and set of criteria or constraints help make the job of a composer much easier.

Most of the time, we as performers ask composers to write a piece for piano and guitar with no criteria or constraints. Implicitly we want the composition to be playable, interesting to listen to, and have a longevity beyond the amount of time it takes to write and learn to play it. Every composer has his or her own ideas. They are not always explicit at the outset.

Understanding the mathematics of music helps to determine decision rules for composing.

Future of music business models: contact with your fans

The third thing we weren’t taught in a classical music education is contact with our listeners. At conservatory, we were not taught to promote ourselves or our music. Least of all, we were not taught to get to know our listeners, let alone build a fan club. If we don’t know our fans, how can we contact them?

The previous blog got too long. The third thing we weren’t taught in a classical music education is contact with our listeners.

Futurists advise that the business model for musicians in the future is contact with your fans.

I mentioned in another blog that classical musicians don’t know their fans. At conservatory, we were taught to interpret, analyse, perform, teach, and compose music at conservatory. We were not taught to promote ourselves or our music. Least of all, we were not taught to get to know our listeners, let alone build a fan club. If we don’t know our fans, how can we contact them?

The blog simplifies the formula as follows:

Connect with Fans (CwF) + Reason to Buy (RtB) = The Business Model

Classical musicians want to spend as much time as possible practising and perfecting their music. This explains why agents and impresarios are necessary to deal with everything else. In a big concert hall, it’s impossible to look into the black void to see who your fans are. Only with a small audience can you see them.

Getting to know your fans requires time to network with them. The best time is after a concert. There are no free drinks or snacks after a concert at the conservatory.

I was at a final exam concert recently, packed with supporters of the singer whose teacher applauded her as her first master’s student at the conservatory. She said,”Now let’s pop the champagne.” (or something to that effect.) The student replied,”Thank you. I have given you my music. That’s all I have.” (or something to that effect).

Indeed, after every concert at the conservatory the opportunity to stay and network is squashed by lack of drinks and food to lure people to stay. If musicians are conditioned to leave right after a concert, where is the opportunity to get to know who your fans are? If you don’t know who they are, how can you contact them?

Mayor of London Ealing signs guest book after a concert, 2003
Mayor of London Ealing signs guest book after a concert, 2003

What they don’t teach you at conservatory

The best time to learn about succeeding as a self-employed musician is after conservatory studies. But this is where the conservatory is no longer obliged to educate you or to ensure that you do make it in the real world. As conservatory students, we didn’t learn how to get gigs.

Now that many of my musician friends are graduating, I would like reflect upon what I learned in the past two years after conservatory.

My hypothesis is that even if the following topics are taught at conservatory, students would rather spend more time on performance or composing (their main subject). The best time to learn about succeeding as a self-employed musician is after conservatory studies. But this is where the conservatory is no longer obliged to educate you or to ensure that you do make it in the real world.

Final exam concert at Utrecht Conservatory, 2 June 2008
Final exam concert at Utrecht Conservatory, 2 June 2008

The black hole after conservatory is felt by many people, including myself.

I felt this void today when I met with the director of a local residence for elderly patients with dementia.

The 600-year old building has gone through extensive renovation such that it feels like a 5-star hotel. Conveniently located in the Museum Quarter of central Utrecht, a Roman city of cobbled stones, the impressive building has a brand new concert hall that seats 80 to 100 people. The new Yamaha grand piano gives a velvety soft sound, perfect for my piano guitar duo.

Yet as I sat in her office with my various marketing material, I am confronted with a disturbing reality.

“I am flooded with enquiries from musicians and people who know musicians,” she exclaimed. “Everyone wants to play in our concert hall. I have conservatory students willing to play for free.”

A knock on the door interrupted our conversation at 10:30 am. One of her staff complained that they’ve run out of bread.

“Call the baker,” she said.

“Nothing is open until noon.”

“Call the baker after 12,” she said.

As conservatory students, we didn’t learn how to get gigs. We were happy to play for free. We didn’t know how to get people to come to our concerts unless we told them to come to the conservatory where every concert was free.

After conservatory, we compete with musicians who are willing to play for free.

What differentiates us from the not-yet-graduated musicians?

We need an income. We can’t perform in the conservatory anymore. Where can we play and get paid?

So the first thing that we should have learned at conservatory is how to get paid concerts.

We’re taught to find students to practise our teaching on. In the training for a piano teaching diploma, my teacher told me to get started early. Learn to build a piano teaching practice.

What if you don’t want to teach? What if you want to perform? What if you want to compose for a living? None of my compositions teachers told me how to get a commission, how to apply for funding, and how to get paid as a composer.

If anyone is interested in this topic, please LEAVE A REPLY below and mention whether you want your comment published or not. I have learned a lot more things not taught in the 4 years I was at conservatory. And I’d like to continue onto another blog about “what they don’t teach you at conservatory.”

Why musicians attend concerts (part one)

It’s hard to get other performers to come to concerts because they are busy rehearsing or giving concerts themselves. I daresay that to take time away from my own practice (if I am not already giving a concert), it would be for reasons such as a) free …..

I don’t count on musicians attending the concerts I invite them to unless they have the time and the inclination as I’ve listed above.

Before I became full-time musician, I often wondered why the free concerts at conservatories were not well-attended. They were of excellent quality in acoustically perfect concert halls. The instruments were perfectly tuned. The concerts were listed in advance on web sites. The locations were central and easy to get to. In other words, there were no barriers to entry.

As I got busier in my studies at conservatory, I discovered that there was not much time left to go to concerts. Even if they were free, I could not afford to go. I was still curious, and I still felt the necessity to explore new repertoire and be exposed to new sounds. But it became a tough choice as the opportunity cost grew too high.

It’s hard to get other performers to come to concerts because they are busy rehearsing or giving concerts themselves. I daresay that to take time away from my own practice (if I am not already giving a concert), it would be for reasons such as

a) it’s free or nearly free

b) curiosity

c) to support another artist I know i.e. simply to show up and witness a performance

d) a personal invitation that is hard to refuse

e) to meet the others that will be there, i.e. networking

f) to educate myself

g) to see a work or composer I absolutely love or miss

h) a social occasion, i.e. to go with others and make an outing of it

I’m sure there are more reasons I’m not even aware of.

I don’t count on musicians attending the concerts I invite them to unless they have the time and the inclination as I’ve listed above.

The last reason (h) is why I’m taking time off tonight. I’m going to see a free concert performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Amsterdam Conservatory. I invited three others to see this three hour opera. A fourth one tried to book it online, but it was already full. Even FREE performances can be “sold out.”

continued