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.

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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?

House concerts in the Netherlands, Madrid, Houston, etc

The late composer pianist Robert Avalon first introduced the term “home concerts” to me on one of my frequent trips to Houston where he was based. I languished in the triangular logic of “home is where the heart is” and “music is the food of love” and therefore “home concerts” or “house concerts.” It made total sense.

A journalist for a popular monthly magazine in Amsterdam called me an hour ago to enquire about house concerts. It’s a subject I’d like to write about, having personally experienced them in London, North Wales, Birmingham, Houston, Bussum, Utrecht, and Amsterdam.

I should clarify that initially I organised and produced house concerts in London so that I could perform in them. It evolved into a mechanism to play chamber music with interesting musicians that I was meeting in my travels. I’ve also attended concerts in beautiful homes in Houston, Amsterdam, and Utrecht. Nowadays I prefer to perform and leave the organising to house concert producers.

The late composer pianist Robert Avalon first introduced the term “home concerts” to me on one of my frequent trips to Houston where he was based. I languished in the triangular logic of “home is where the heart is” and “music is the food of love” and therefore “home concerts” or “house concerts.” It made total sense.

Robert Avalon and Anne Ku improvising piano duets in Houston
Robert Avalon and Anne Ku improvising piano duets in Houston

After performing in difficult situations, such as against the rattling of refrigerators and restlessness of audiences not familiar with the classical concert circuit, I longed for the silence and stillness of dedicated house concert audiences. They pay anywhere between 8 euros (Funen Concerts Art Productions, Amsterdam) to 15 euros (on average) and up, even voluntary contributions for a house concert that could include refreshments or more.

Our Monument House Concert Series, which hosts concerts twice a year in our home, began as a vehicle to share our music and our musician friends with our neighbours and the local community in 2006. It was also a way to introduce new repertoire, such as Robert Bekkers’ solo guitar programme in the 2007 Kitchen Concert in our newly renovated kitchen.

Kitchen Concert, Monument House Concert Series Utrecht
Kitchen Concert, Monument House Concert Series Utrecht

I am lucky to be on the mailing of a house concert series in prestigious Keizersgracht in Amsterdam, where I’ve once turned pages to experience it first-hand. The photographer-turned-impresario stores four grand pianos for musicians that allow them to be used in his ground floor flat which accommodates up to 80 people.

We gave our most recent contemporary duo concert in a house concert series in Funen Park Amsterdam. The owners Bart and Erik run their fortnightly Sunday afternoon concert series and art gallery out of their modern one-bedroom apartment. This deserves a separate blog entry.

Piano Guitar Duo in Funen Arts Concert Series Amsterdam, July 2009
Piano Guitar Duo in Funen Arts Concert Series Amsterdam, July 2009

Earlier in May, we gave a concert in a beautiful villa on the edge of Madrid — another forthcoming blog to write.

Piano Guitar Duo at El Jardin de Belagua in Madrid
Piano Guitar Duo at El Jardin de Belagua in Madrid

On 26 September 2009, we will give a mixed concert in a new house concert series in Amsterdam. In the first weekend in October, we will organise a classical guitar concert in our Monument House Concert Series, the previous one being a cross-domain event of contemporary piano duets with live video in March (pictured below).

Effusion of new works for piano duet against video, Monument House Concert
Effusion of new works for piano duet against video, Monument House Concert

What is so special about house concerts? For musicians, we get the opportunity to play to an attentive audience who are true connoisseurs of our music. It also allows us to “practise” before an important audition, a competition or a bigger concert, such as a high profile venue.

For the audience, it’s a rare occasion to go into someone’s private dwelling and enjoy live music in an intimate and relaxed setting.

Once you’ve experienced a house concert, you would think twice about going to a big hall, sit among strangers, and leave as soon as the music is over. We encourage our house concert guests to linger and get to know the performers and members of the audience.

While house concerts are a big and necessary part of the Americana singer-songwriter movement in the USA and Canada, it is not so well advertised (if at all) for classical music. Ironically in the 19th century, chamber music was performed in such house concerts where often performers played their own compositions. We tell the story of the Ducaten concerts of Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Mauro Giuliani where you pay one “ducat” to attend. But how many composers perform their own works today?

What do the organisers get out of producing house concerts? We put on three consecutive concerts in the space of two days in November 2007 to raise funding for our first trip to the USA (pictured below). For us, a mailing list and a large network of classical aficionados helped make it a joy to organise. Each concert was unique. In the following month, we gave two house concerts in Houston, the first in a 10,000 sq. ft designer home of architects in Memorial Park and the second in the town house of an investment banker in Montrose.

Piano Guitar Duo for Export House Concert Utrecht
Piano Guitar Duo for Export House Concert Utrecht

I told the journalist that producing house concerts isn’t profitable unless you do it on a regular (frequent) basis. “It barely breaks even for us,” I said. “We don’t charge our time or that of our volunteers. We have often included home-cooked food and a variety of refreshments. It’s time-consuming and interruptive to our daily routine, for we have to move the furniture and give up our rehearsal space.”

“So why organise house concerts?” she asked.

“It has to be for the love of music and a desire to share.”

I neglected to mention that the garden house (designed by Robert Bekkers in 2007 and finished in 2009) is our new venue for extremely intimate house concerts. Below is a video tour taken just before the celebrated violin guitar duo of Matt and Beth arrived from Italy to stay for a week. Duo46 had opened our first concert in summer 2006 with “Music of the Americas.”

We will be hosting the Cape Town classical guitarist Derek Gripper at the end of September next. Watch this space.

Beach, concert, dinner in Ferrol and La Coruña, Spain

I’ve been mulling over what an eye-opener this trip has been. Did having no or near-negative expectations make everything a welcoming surprise? After the concert in Ferrol, we drove back to La Coruña to join the others for dinner in the crowded but popular pulpeira at Pita Maria Square.

It seems only yesterday that we were madly packing our bags to leave Utrecht for Schiphol airport, to fly to Madrid….. for our first concert, the experience of which still begs a blog or two. And before we knew it, we’re saying good-bye to 8 nights and 4 concerts in Spain.

    Silhouette on Ferrol beach in Spain
Silhouette on Ferrol beach in Spain

While editing and uploading photos from Robert’s iphone and (videos from) my mobile phone, I’ve been mulling over what an eye-opener this trip has been. Did having no or near-negative expectations make everything a welcoming surprise? What a contrast it was from the expedition to Seville two weeks earlier in which we had expected to venture into the gypsy flamenco world only to fall headfirst into a smoker’s paradise.

Thankfully our time in Madrid and La Coruña have been smoke-free, with nonsmoking classical musicians who understood our need to breathe fresh air. The lack of smoke and smokers made all the difference. [I suppose I really should write about my escape from the smoking villa of chain smokers to beautiful Sevilla, in particular, the conservatory superiore. And to complete the picture, I should write about our concert in Madrid, our trip to Santiago de Compostela, and more.]

Let me follow from the previous blog which detailed our decision to go to the beach BEFORE our last concert in Spain. The drive to the gorgeous beach (with good-looking surfers in wet suits) took 45 minutes, leaving barely enough time for a snooze. I fell asleep on the sand for 20 minutes. And then we had to quickly drive back to give our final concert in Spain.

After the one-hour concert at the conservatory in Ferrol, we drove back to La Coruña to join the others for dinner in the crowded but popular pulpeira at Pita Maria Square. All the restaurants adjacent and across the octopus restaurant were empty. Yet people would patiently stand and queue for the pulpeira. Once we sat down, we learned why.

How reluctant we were to say goodbye! First goodbye was to Ernesto, the violinist. I promised to send him my music. The rest of the gang took us back to our hotel. Until the next time!

Group photo on the last night in La Coruna
Group photo on the last night in La Coruna

Debut concert in Spain: Madrid

How does one move from the online world to the real physical world? From youtube video to live concerts? From blogs to conversations? From twitter to chatter?

First, I need a Spanish dictionary to translate the invitation sent out by the concert producers below.

Escaping the biggest party in the Netherlands (the Queen’s Birthday on 30th April), we will instead embrace the public holiday of Friday 1st May 2009 in Spain. Will the Spaniards make a dash for the beach or will some be lured to come to our debut concert —- in Madrid? I hear there’s cava and other refreshments to make you stay — but reservations by e-mail are a must!

Why not use this opportunity to finally meet my online contacts face to face, in person, in the real physical world?  Could this be a way to get out of cyberspace and interact in the three dimensional space called LIFE?

Anne Ku and Robert Bekkers after a concert in Tuscany 2007
Anne Ku and Robert Bekkers after a concert in Tuscany 2007

I know only one person in Madrid, a tenor I have accompanied at the conservatory where we had both studied in the Netherlands. He is on Facebook and by that very fact, should be easily reached, but is he available when we’re there 29th April to 2nd May?

On other social networking platforms I should be able to find fellow alumni from the different schools I’ve attended and companies I’ve worked for.  Although I may not know them personally, we share a similar past at some similar place and point in time. But would they have the time or be interested in meeting up or attending a concert on a spring evening? Or perhaps I should look for aficionados of classical music, piano, guitar, ….? How about those who have been following this blog and are tempted to see and hear us live in concert?

How does one move from the online world to the real physical world? From youtube video to live concerts? From blogs and discussion forums to actual conversations? From twitter to chatter?

First, I need a Spanish dictionary to decode the invitation sent out by the concert producers below. Or perhaps someone will kindly translate it for me?

Robert Bekkers, guitarra.
Anne Ku, piano.
Viernes, 1 de may de 2009, 20:30hrs.
Potpourrí de ópera. Hummel.
Fantasía para un gentil hombre. Joaquín Rodrigo.
Sonatina. Moreno Torroba.
========== Copa de cava y bizcochos ==========
Verano de Las cuatro estaciones. Vivaldi.
Fantasía. Castelnuovo Tedesco.
Polonesa de Variaciones op 113. Mauro Giuliani.

En el siglo XIX no existían los auditorios que ahora conocemos, y
las obras de los compositores eran interpretadas en salones de cortes
o casas privadas. Por eso esta música se llama “musica da camera”
que traducido del italiano significa “música de salón”.
Con la intención de recuperar el marco histórico que acompañaba
a esta música recreamos cada viernes, en nuestras reuniones
privadas, el formato de concierto de cámara de la época.
Artistas de reconocido prestigio, que regularmente actúan en los
grandes auditorios, interpretan esta música en un entorno privado,
cálido y cercano, tal y como se hacía siglos atrás.
El Jardín de Belagua es una casa privada, por lo que nuestras
reuniones son estrictamente privadas. No son espectáculos públicos,
no se ofrecen como tales ni están abiertos al público en general.
Si queréis traer a familiares y amigos rogamos nos lo hagáis saber
para poder incluirles en la lista de invitados. Para cubrir los gastos
de la reunión es necesaria la aportación de 12€ adultos / 6€ niños
antes de que empiece el concierto.

Un cordial saludo,
El Jardín de Belagua