Well, first of all there really isn’t a typical day. I work as a session musician, which means I rely on other people calling me, often at short notice, to do one off jobs that last a couple of hours. So ‘A Typical Day’ is a way of trying to tie down the unusual.
On Wednesday I did four separate jobs in London. The ‘in London’ bit is rather important. Not only is this the place where there is a the greatest concentration of work for a session musician but – crucially – it has sufficiently good public transport (and the contingency of a ready supply of taxis!) to let you get from one job to the next in a reasonably short time.
My first was at a church (much of my work comes from singing in London churches, which have an unrivaled musical reputation). I had responded to a call two days previously from a colleague who was feeling unwell. He had decided to pass on the work for which he had been booked to someone else, known as a deputy. Singing in session in London has certain advantages: with my instrument in my throat I can accept work immediately. However, there are other issues to do with presentation so it’s often useful (for a man) to wear a suit & tie and black shoes. As for the music itself, well this is supplied (as sheet music) and session musicians such as myself are expected to interpret the music from the notes of the page immediately, idiomatically and to a high stylistic and aesthetic standard. Church work is easier if you have a sense of what happens in the liturgy (what happens when, which bits are sung and how one should behave).
On this occasion I was stepping in to assist a school choir. This is specific form of session work known as ‘bumping’, ‘stiffening’ or ‘stuffing’, when the singers of an amateur choir need support. The occasion was a school assembly and the music included Allegri’s Miserere, a famous piece of church music often heard on this particular day in the church calendar, Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent, the period in the run-up to Easter).
This is a point worth making, as certain days are hot spots in the calendar. Indeed this first job started at 9am (rehearsal) and finished with the end of the service at 11.30, before I had to get on a tube and move on to the next.
The second job was another in a church, singing a lunchtime service in the City. Again I arrived at the church knowing only what time I am expected and the fee I am to be paid. Many people who know a little music speak wistfully of what a wonderful life the working musician must have: for all the privations of a hand-to-mouth freelance existence, it must be said that there are perks to be found, especially when working with good colleagues (singers tend to know each other, even if they don’t all meet regularly) on really good music. This was the case for this second job, singing English polyphony by William Byrd and the Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, all aided and abetted by sunshine mediated only by the lattice of the church windows,
I left this church service with the City workers returning from their lunch hour at about 2pm and got on a bus for the West End. My third session of the day was at the London Coliseum, where I have started work on the music for a new production for English National Opera. The ‘music calls’ are the process by which the chorus learns the music prior to ‘production calls’ where the director puts the opera on to the stage. The performances are scheduled for June but a long lead-in time is necessary, not only for a large project but also as part of a jigsaw of productions that make up the working season of a full-time operatic institution.
Finally, leaving the session at 6pm, I took a tube to Fulham. At 7.30 that morning I had responded to an email asking if I could come and sing another church service that same evening. Within reason, it’s important to try and work when it’s possible as the workflow for a freelancer can be erratic so I had accepted – despite knowing that I would be rather tired. Tired? Well, I worry less about being sharp enough to make music than making unrealistic demands on my voice. The operation of singing is a intensely (and carefully balanced) physical activity and too much can produce strains and chafes that can be detrimental in the long term. Part of singing is to know what one’s limits are and to work within them.
This final service was unusual in that the church (and its musical director) had recently finished putting on a production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The church was littered with the fall-out from the ambitious undertaking. We, the choir, used music stands with the filter gels still on the lamps. Otherwise, the job was as expected. A second outing for Allegri’s Miserere and then across the road to the pub for a restorative pint and the chance to catch up with familiar colleagues and new faces. And exchanging details about where to send the invoice, because at the end of the day, it’s still a job.