The ARIA Award-winning pianist and composer wants you to broaden your horizons a little every day.
I don’t know who coined the term Portfolio Career. Did they want a more glamorous term than freelancing, contracting or muddling along? Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the way that most classical musicians now work. For me, it’s juggling a combination of recording contracts, occasional recitals, commissions to compose new works, some arranging, some choral conducting, a little chamber music, a small teaching studio, and lots and lots of accompanying. It’s a busy life, sometimes complicated, always stimulating and varied, but crucially, it’s a sound vocationally strategy based on having multiple skills at your disposal. If you’re considering becoming a professional classical musician, there are certain skills that will keep you employable and thus help to put you in situations where you feel appropriately challenged.
Do your theory homework every day.
Every single day as a working musician, I use skills I learnt in theory classes. Having the ability to read a score, hear it in my head and understand how it works without even approaching an instrument or a recording is the most valuable skill in my arsenal. Don’t let your singing teacher tell you that sight singing is bad for your technique (after all, you do it completely in your “inner” ear). Do some harmonic analysis of things you find in the library ( from Bach Chorales to Wagner operas to John Coltrane: absolutely anything) and read about how musical structures work (Charles Rosen’s Sonata Forms is a particular favourite of mine). Shakespearean actors know everything there is to know about how the English language works. Likewise for classical musicians, this peculiar language of dots and squiggles must be our second nature.
Sight read on your instrument every day.
This one is important for everyone but as a pianist especially. If you’re a pianist who can sight read really well, you will always have work. If you’ve also done what I told you to do my first tip, you will be in even higher demand because you’ll also be able to interpret the score at speed. Sight reading itself is a skill that needs to be practised. I emphasise it with my piano students, many of whom send me little video diaries of themselves sight-reading something, at least three or four times a week. When you’re sight reading, the elements of music are prioritised in a particular way. From most important to least important, these things are; pulse, meter, rhythm, dynamic/articulation, notes. Think on that next time you pick up a brand new piece for a read through, and figure how much detail you’re able to capture on your first attempt.
Explore the music of the world.
Propel yourself into the discovery zone, starting gently with your listening habits; sometimes, instead of Vivaldi, listen to Locatelli; instead of Monteverdi, go for Gesualdo; instead of Brahms, what about some Dame Ethel Smyth? And before the lockout laws have closed down all the venues, go to lots of non-classical music gigs; death metal, mongolian throat singing, indie ukulele strummers, electropop DJs, whatever you can find. Do this so that you know both intellectually and experientially that classical music is only one small culture within a myriad of cultures and that as a sector, we need to ensure that we can communicate beyond our own people, to grow our audience and ensure our future. Furthermore, to truly live up to our names as artists, we must play a part in the creation of new work, so listen to as much brand new music as you possibly can. Make friends with composers, work with them, try improvising, have a go at composing something yourself. Your world and everyone else’s world will be all the richer for it.