Transferrable skills: from music to ?

Four years ago, Anne Ku faced the daunting task of getting 40 musicians to play her music. She learned that those skills are transferrable.

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This time four years ago, in the historic city of Utrecht, Netherlands, I was contemplating “how am I to do it.”

The task of recruiting musicians to study my music and perform (or rather, premiere) it for the first time and only once — without compensation — was a daunting one.

It would have been easiest to have just one performer play my music. And that performer could be me. After all, I know my own music. I wouldn’t need to find other musicians, convince them to rehearse, and take the risk of playing music that’s never been performed or heard before. And to play it just once?  After all that studying?

Next easiest would be to write music for a duo or a limited number of players. Why did I challenge myself with producing a half-hour-long opera with a sizable ensemble, choir, and soloists? There had to be separate rehearsals with the choir. This was not the path of least resistance.

Where could I find these musicians? Ask their teachers? Approach them one at a time?

How would I get musicians to do it? I asked other composition students. How did they do it? Nobody had written a chamber opera with so many performers before. Orchestra yes. But not opera.

Conductor Henk Alkema greets first violinist and soloists, June 2008. Photo: Some 40 musicians performed in my final exam in composition on 2 June 2008 at Utrecht Conservatory. These photos were taken by Fokke van der Meer
Conductor Henk Alkema greets first violinist and soloists, June 2008. Photo: Fokke van der Meer

What I learned from those months from February to June 2008 was how to produce a concert with no budget. What was involved? It was a collaborative effort.

  • recruiting musicians
  • scheduling rehearsals
  • getting the musicians to arrive on time
  • getting the musicians to show up
  • getting the musicians to commit
  • organizing the music (making the part scores)
  • changing and editing the music
  • preparing the programming notes
  • preparing the slides for the overhead projector
  • setting put the stage
  • getting the event photographed and recorded
  • doing the publicity
  • getting help (stage manager, stagehands, usher)
  • ordering flowers to thank the musicians and selecting wine to thank the conductors
  • arranging post-concert refreshments for the audience
  • arranging dinner for the musicians
  • getting sponsors to pay for printing programs (PDF) and posters and the rest
  • getting the posters and programs printed

Thinking back, these skills are transferrable, for now I am managing an expanding team of volunteers. I am not paying them. They are not paying me. But we all work to the same goal.

The audience at the final exam concert of 2 June 2008. Photo: Fokke v.d. Meer
The audience at the final exam concert of 2 June 2008. Photo: Fokke v.d. Meer

Starting a blog of our concerts

In the rush of preparing breakfast and getting dressed, I spotted an email from a friend who wrote that she had a gap in the afternoon and would like to come to our concert in Amsterdam.

I have long wanted to write the story of our duo: how it began, what it’s like to rehearse together, why we do what we do, who we meet, and where we end up. As we begin another season of concertising, it’s become ever necessary to use a blog engine like this one.

Monday 23rd March 2009,
a typically grey, windy, and indecisive day in the Netherlands.

In the rush of preparing breakfast and getting dressed, I spotted an email from a friend who wrote that she had a gap in the afternoon and would like to come to our concert in Amsterdam. It’s always nicer to play to a familiar audience than an anonymous one, even if only one face was known among the strangers.

The drive from Utrecht to Amsterdam was uneventful until we arrived in the heart of the city where unexpected roadworks forced us to make a detour. [I should say that every concert experience is unique. There are always surprises. We’re required by our concert organisers to arrive half an hour early. We always aim for a one hour slack because of traffic delays and our need to test the acoustics.] Luckily the detour was not extensive.

After parking in front of the building, we unloaded the car with our suit bag, guitar in case, microphone stand, and backpacks of our sheet music. We left the thermos flask of hot herbal tea and the box of Dutch cream puffs in the car for later.

The lady who greeted us appeared somewhat unsettled. None of the volunteers she had contacted to help out had arrived. It was 20 minutes before the concert was to begin. The programme notes had to be handed out, the audience welcomed and seated, and of course, someone had to take care of us — the performers.

As performers, we don’t require much — really. Just a good well-tuned piano. Piano stool and pedals that don’t squeak. For the guitarist, a chair without arms (a literal translation from Dutch). A dressing room. Warm drinks to prevent cold hands. And clean toilets. I should also add good acoustics and a respectful audience. Somehow we never get all of the above.

The dressing room was a storage room for the kitchen next door. It was too warm to get cold hands. I changed into a puffy white cotton designer blouse and a long blue Jaeger wool skirt. I couldn’t find my new eyeshadow set. The make-up only needed to last the hour, and yet I felt incomplete without a touch of colour on my eyelids.

“Welkom, dames en heren.” I had prepared to speak in Dutch, introducing ourselves, the composers and their works, and what juicy tidbits of information to make the music memorable. There were perhaps 20 at most in the audience, with my American friend in the front row.

The black Yamaha upright piano made the checklist. But the acoustics was dry. This meant that I had to compensate for the lack of sustain by controlling the damper pedal carefully. The microphone we brought to record our performance ran out of battery midway through the first half of the concert. Thankfully, everything else was under control.

During the intermission, my friend suggested that I speak directly into the microphone. After the concert, she came to the dressing room. “There’s an elderly gentleman who used to sing in the Concertgebouw,” she said excitedly. “I feel young here. The man next to me is 92 !”

photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Bethanienklooster, Amsterdam
photo credit: Serge van Empelen, Bethanienklooster, Amsterdam