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?

Arranging Carmen for piano and guitar

At first, I split up a quatre-main (4-hands, one piano) duet into separate parts for a single guitar and piano. Then I noticed that the piano duet left out many wonderful melodies. To do Carmen justice, I opened the orchestra score, found those beloved themes and allocated them as I saw fit. What shall I call my arrangement? How about Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar?

Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo
Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo, photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Amsterdam

I borrowed the Dover edition of the orchestral version for Bizet’s Carmen opera months ago. The full score looked intimidating, a reminder of the arduous score reading exercises I had to do during my years at conservatory. And so the hard-back book laid on my piano unopened until I found free sheet music of piano solo and duet transcriptions on the Internet.

Eureka! I found a short cut.

It is possible to reduce orchestral music to piano and fewer instruments. It requires a lot more imagination the other way around.

At first, I split up a quatre-main (4-hands, one piano) duet into separate parts for a single guitar and piano. Then I noticed that the piano duet left out many wonderful melodies. To do Carmen justice, I opened the orchestra score, found those beloved themes and allocated them as I saw fit.

Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers stopped me when he saw that I was giving the exciting parts to the piano. It reminded me of my own protests when he had given himself the interesting, virtuoso passages in his arrangements of Bach’s Badinerie, Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and the Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba for our duo.

“I can do that!” he pointed to a chromatic run. “I love scales. Better, let us do it together!”

Now that’s a challenge — to play the fast notes completely in sync with each other! We do that quite a bit in Vivaldi’s Summer from his Four Seasons. I can have the guitar play exactly what I play in the same register or an octave apart. Or we can play a third apart.

“Give me big powerful chords,” he said. He wants to show off, but so do I. We’ll just have to take turns, I decided.

Robert also gave me advice. “To be safe, don’t give the guitar more than two voices at a time.”

Bizet’s opera was set in Seville, Spain where we had visited in April 2009 for a gypsy flamenco project. I remember the flamenco rhythms and the percussive nature of such exotic music. Arranging Carmen brought back memories of that week as well as my visit to the Netherlands Opera production of Carmen at the end of the Holland Festival in Amsterdam.

Technically speaking, the piano and the guitar can replace 16 single-note instruments: 10 fingers on the piano plus 6 strings of the guitar. If we add our feet and elbows, then we can do even more. I love sound of the guitar being used as a percussive instrument. Can I do the same on the piano? Or would I need drumsticks?

What shall I call my arrangement? There are numerous Carmen Suites and Carmen Fantasies on Naxos CD Online and youtube. Mine is not a suite or a fantasy. A suite is structured — mine is a medley of various sticky tunes, and yet it’s more than a medley. A fantasy would require a lot more imagination, dedication, and virtuosity. I want it to be fun and interesting, not like some of the 19th century arrangements of popular opera themes for guitar and piano.

How about Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar? Coincidentally when I google “Carmen Potpourri” I find our piano guitar duo website and this blog. Maybe that’s what it should be called: Carmen Potpourri for piano and guitar.

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

South to Sevilla

…a nearly all Dutch crew… Brussels and fly to Seville

I am typing this on an iPhone on our drive to Maastricht where we will rendezvous with a nearly all Dutch crew: a flamenco guitar player, a flamenco dancer, a photographer, a camera man (videographer), and the manager. Together we will leave for Brussels tomorrow and fly to Seville where we will stay in a villa with a pool. We will work with a famous gypsy family to download their brain — the secrets of flamenco.