The Musicians with "Normal" Jobs: A Lockdown Special
So here we are! Welcome to lockdown 3.0!
Although all of the lockdowns have had their difficulties, personally this new lockdown is proving more difficult than the others. Only a few hours after lockdown was announced, I lost one of my teaching jobs, sadly the one that made up the majority of my income. It's hard to be mad, knowing I'm not the only one in that boat but also that the decision made sense, the course couldn't work online and we needed to put the students first. To say my positivity wasn't dented a little is an understatement.
Last week, after working on the final edit for some promo material, a blunder led to a post that looked like I was saying; "you'll never play professionally if you get a 'normal job", which for anyone who's read the blog will know that's a musical myth taken from my Failbusters! article. But this common misconception raises an interesting point: In a global pandemic when the music world has largely come to a halt, how on earth are freelancers, at the beginning of their musical profession, supposed to keep ourselves financially solvent?
There's always been a stigma about having a "normal job" whilst trying to climb the music ladder, that's why it ended up in the article in the first place. But with a global pandemic still raging, many of us are having to take a deep breath and step outside our comfort zone, venturing into other employment in order to keep our musical dream alive and keep a roof over our heads. But as we have discussed before, musical myths can be deep rooted and become voices in the back of our minds making it difficult to move forward. So today, we're saying to hell with the stigma and the naysayers once and for all.
I've been joined by some incredible musicians who have agreed to bust open the lid on what we've been doing to keep the bills paid whilst we've been in lockdown.
Ruth: The Under 5's Have Nothing On Me
Back in March, I had a pretty full concert diary. For the first time I could actually support myself through my concerts, I was living at home after coming back from Hong Kong and thankfully didn't need to pay rent so that I could save. Enter COVID-19 and my work left the building. Postponement followed by cancellation and no work in sight . I was getting antsy and irritated, when the opportunity of a flat share in London presented itself. So, in July, I moved from Yorkshire to London in the hopes of finding work. Luckily, I'd managed to secure a part time job as an under 5's teacher and had managed to find some teaching work using Facebook musician pages and writing emails to every single music service I could think of. I had enough to cover my rent but not enough to live off. I'd be fortunate enough right at the start of lockdown to benefit from the Musician's Union and Help Musicians UK but that money had soon gone on bills and I wasn't eligible for any of the self-employed grants.
So, I took the only option left open to me, Universal Credit. Honestly, it's been the thing that has kept me afloat to this day and it's meant that as a self-employed person, I tell them how much I earn each month and my expenses, then they essentially top me up. It's meant that with losing one job, and another not being sure about payment protection, I know I can still keep a roof over my head. There can be a huge stigma attached to UC but for those of us who are struggling, it's a God send. They're now, pushing for people to start earning. I have to search for a full-time position 15hrs a week but they're understanding of what I do. I've told them all the jobsites that musicians look at (i.e., musicialchairs.info and muvac) and I'm filling the hours applying for jobs that are relevant to me. Other than that, it's just me and a stuffed clown entertaining the children of North London, four times a week on Facebook Live!
Lydia: Reigning in Retail
This time last year my freelance orchestral career, that I had been building up for the past year as a graduate, was really taking off. I was working full time, mostly with a London opera company, as well as starting into the session world. I was the busiest I had ever been, I felt fulfilled and happy with where I was and the direction my career was heading, that is until March 23rd. Suddenly everything was cancelled - my bookings and tours. I thrive on my job and suddenly being without it was devastating, especially as all of my work is in performing. I decided I had to use this time to my advantage. I built myself a solid daily routine, threw all my energy into hours of practice - grateful that I had so much time to do it, which wasn’t usually the case when working and fortunately benefited from the SEISS grants, which sadly wasn’t the case for others.
But come September, with covid still rampaging on, I miserably signed up for Universal Credit. I realise I have been in a more privileged position than others during the past year, but nothing could diminish my deep feelings of sadness towards losing such an important part of myself in my work, even if only temporarily. It almost felt like I had no purpose or value if I was not performing. After the November lockdown, with no sign of covid slowing, I decided to get a part time job, partially to get off universal credit but also so I had something to do after practice and started working 20 hours a week at a high street fashion store. However once my area was put into tier 4, I was furloughed from my job and that brings us to where we are now, in yet another lockdown, still consumed by anxiety over when and how I’ll be able to perform and often feeling like my career will never pick up again. The vaccine provides a much-needed glimmer of hope and I have full faith that I, along with everyone else in the arts, will soon return to our beloved industry and life will feel joyful again.
On February 15th, Lydia will be playing a livestreamed concert! Show her your support, tickets and more information here!
Some of us even went into the thick of it, becoming key workers on the front line.
Iona (who you might remember from this graduate interview): Supervising your Swabs
I was in Australia visiting my family when the first covid lockdown hit. All my performing work I was supposed to return to got cancelled, but my teaching was able to go online. I’d been in the process of reducing my teaching hours in February so I didn’t have much income, but it was enough to keep me going short-term. Whilst it was a huge emotional stress not knowing if I could or should return to London, I also had the financial pressure of paying rent in London since I had only intended on being away for 3 weeks! Fast forward to September and I finally returned to London, expecting teaching to increase and gigs to return. Instead my teaching dropped significantly and there wasn’t a concert in sight! As things got worse and restrictions continued, I realised I couldn’t keep sitting waiting for the phone to ring. I began applying for jobs - administration, retail (before tier 4 was announced), anything I thought I’d be able to do, I applied. It felt soul crushing, I was supposed to be a successful musician, this felt so wrong. It felt like I was proving right all those people who’d said music “wasn’t a real job”.
What felt worse was the rejections or complete lack of replies that followed. I know I’m capable of these jobs, but I have no professional experience outside of music so why would they pick me out of the 500+ applicants who DID have experience in those areas? They wouldn’t. Then an opportunity came up to be a test supervisor at some new covid testing centres in Kensington and Chelsea. At first I wasn’t sure if I should apply, it seemed incredibly risky, but I decided to take the plunge. After a successful interview and training, I began work in January. It feels wonderful to be doing something useful and I’m actually enjoying it so far. It might not have been my first preference of job, but I now have financial stability until work in the music industry returns and ironically, I have never felt more safe in a workplace. The best part is, the shifts are flexible so I can still keep up my practise and be ready for anything that comes my way!
Heather (another past Graduate interviewee): Answering your Covid Calls
It was Mid-March as I found the work dates in my 2020 diary gradually disappearing- all concerts, gigs, weddings, events and recordings being cancelled or postponed. Then the announcement of the schools closing; now teaching was on hold. Panic started to set in. I needed to get a job. I was lucky enough to come across an advertisement for a call-taker at the North West Ambulance Service. I immediately applied and was taken in to do paperwork within hours of applying. It all happened so fast, as training commenced the following Monday and then before I knew it I found myself working full-time; 12 hour shifts through the day or night working on the Covid-19 line. I am so honoured to be working with the NHS through these difficult times and eternally grateful that I was able to find work.
Fast forward to now, I am Part-Time at the Ambulance Service allowing myself more time to focus on my music teaching (the majority of which is now online). Only the other day I was filling out a form and when it came to my ‘Occupation’ I experienced a strange identity-shift as I wrote ‘Ambulance Service Call-Taker and Music Teacher’. I miss playing music so much. At work I find myself reflecting on my most memorable musical experiences, of the people, the venues, the audiences… until I hear the bleep go off in my ear…
Ben: Daring to Deliver!
A few weeks before the first lockdown my colleague and I were joking about how nice it would be to have a four-week Easter break. The following week I was playing with BBC Phil - and that’s when things started to get worse. We started the rehearsal with a meeting of the orchestra and executives where we were told there would not be a live audience for the broadcast. Only after lunch we were told the recording day was cancelled... and an hour after arriving home that night I was told not to come into work until told otherwise. That was ten months ago and I haven’t played with an orchestra since. In one week all my work was cancelled for the foreseeable; orchestras, teaching, quartet, conducting, all vanished. Initially like everyone else, I was scared and anxious. No work, no money, what can I do? Thankfully my girlfriend and I were very proactive and both managed to find supermarket jobs and within two weeks I was trained as a delivery driver for Tesco. It felt wonderful to have a different purpose, to be able to get out of the flat, deliver food to the most vulnerable and in need and have a stable income.
A few weeks in we heard about the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme which thankfully I was eligible for. After what would have been the Easter holiday things started to look up, students were asking for online lessons. I managed to keep my youth orchestra active with online rehearsals and I was told the New Generation Festival in August would be going ahead. To hear singers, pianists and orchestra play live for the first time in 6 months was astonishing. It was hard work but for 2 weeks I heard live music every day and it was unforgettable. September started and we were allowed back into schools to teach. Now though, in this third lockdown it’s back to zoom lessons, poor internet connections and more video editing. At least now we’ve done it all before, even more students want online lessons and the prospect of playing is getting closer every week.
So here we are, five people out of the thousands out there who have thrown themselves into new employment whilst we wait for the storm to pass. Turning to another avenue of work doesn't mean you're not as much of a musician as you were before the pandemic. It means you're supporting yourself so that you can comfortably come back when the coast is clear, without your finances making starting up again impossible. Truth be told, in a pandemic, the only way you can be a professional musician is if you've got a 'normal' job!
If you're stuck financially or need a little bit of help looking after your health and wellbeing through this truly crappy time. Please check out these websites (UK specific):
Help Musicians UK Coronavirus Hardship Fund: https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/news/latest-news/help-musicians-coronavirus-financial-hardship-funding-phase-
Musicians Union Coronavirus Hardship Fund: https://musiciansunion.org.uk/hardshipfund
NHS Mental Health Charities: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/
Self Employment Income Support Scheme: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-a-grant-through-the-coronavirus-covid-19-self-employment-income-support-scheme
Universal Credit: https://www.universal-credit.service.gov.uk/
To finish with today, I'd love to share with you some good news in the form of a huge thank you. It's thanks to you wonderful readers, with your messages of encouragement and feedback, tuning in and reading my witterings every fortnight, that I had the confidence to send my little blog over to the big guns at Larsen Strings. To my shock and disbelief, they have invited me to become a guest writer with them, sharing my favourite articles from here as well as writing and recording reviews for them, starting with a review of their Il Cannone Strings for Cello. As cheesy as it sounds, I could not have done it without your feedback and encouragement so thank you!
So, until next fortnight, let me know how you're coping with yet another lockdown. Maybe you're a performer who has had to turn to other forms of work to pay the bills and want to share your story. Get in touch! Message me privately, or comment below! I always love to hear from you so don't stop now!
Stay Safe and Stay Strong,