Rant #2

Lately I’ve read several items on the World Wide Interwebs in which artists talk about being asked to produce Art without being paid for it. Ah, I thought to myself, it might be time to throw in my two-cents-worth.

One of these items was a Facebook post by a distressed colleague. She’d followed up on a lead for work as a community children’s music teacher by sending along her credentials, experience and her fee, which she calculates on a sliding scale to accommodate people of various means. She was unprepared for the response she received, which was, ‘Sorry but I think they mean free lessons.’

Ouch. My colleague was stunned and hurt. To be sure, those folks probably pay their babysitters, their school taxes and their hydro bills, but apparently an extracurricular music teacher isn’t even worth minimum wage. It’s a shock to run into people who think that the playing or teaching of music shouldn’t cost anyone anything. There are many people out there who seem to think either that we musicians all have money trees in our backyards, or that we don’t actually have to eat, pay for public transit or buy underwear like everyone else. Apparently, we are miracles – or freaks – of nature. Come to think of it, my aforementioned colleague has lived a blessed life if she’s only just run into this attitude.

I thought I’d share my most significant experience of this type, but before I do, I’d like to clarify a couple of things. Firstly, as we already know, money isn’t everything (don’t I sound deep?). There are many times when musicians offer their services for free, knowing that paying a realistic fee would constitute a genuine hardship, or if the event is something of which one simply wishes to be a part.  Every one of us has done this, and for me, over the years, such events have included certain funerals, wedding ceremonies, fundraising concerts and community events. For several years I played once a month at the long term care facility where my mother lived during her final years. I continued playing there for quite a while after she died, and I’ll take it up again soon after a break of a few months. The non-monetary rewards of playing there are many and diverse, and many such facilities just don’t have funds to provide artistic activities that their residents enjoy and deserve.

But I must also say that the organizations or people who can’t afford to pay their musicians usually offer to do so anyway, apologizing all over themselves for having so little to spare, and it’s that offer that means a great deal. There’s a recognition that music has value, and that a musician’s expertise and time is worth something. In my experience it’s often the people who can afford to pay that don’t recognize this. There are folks who will tell you they spent $10,000 on a wedding dress and then offer $200 for five hours of a quartet’s time, adding that the musicians won’t get served dinner either but are welcome to ask the wait staff for water. (“Great, thanks. Is it OK if I forage for berries in the country club garden on my break?”)

A country club with lots of green areas. Ideal for foraging.

A country club with lots of green areas. Ideal for foraging.

And now for the story I said I’d tell.

Once upon a time, a member of a distinguished women’s organization called me on the touch tone phone. She asked me to put together a Baroque ensemble to provide music for a swanky fundraising event that her organization was putting on for the Alzheimer’s Foundation. The cause was very worthy, as they almost all are, and in hindsight this story feels even a little sadder than it did at the time. It was Alzheimer’s that felled my mother, reducing to a shadow a feisty woman whom not even cancer had succeeded in demolishing.

The woman told me that the ritzy restaurant Winston’s would be catering the event, that Very Important People would be there, and that it was bound to be an altogether scintillating event. “Well, it sounds very impressive, and thank you for calling me about it,” I said, or something like that. “May I ask what you’ve budgeted for the music?” She sounded a bit surprised. “Oh. We don’t have a budget for music,” she replied.

There was a moment of silence on both ends of the touch tone phone, and then I told her I didn’t really think anyone would be willing to play several hours of background music for free. “But it’ll be very good exposure!” she piped up. “Very Important People will be there! Please ask your colleagues. I’m sure they’ll be happy to support this great cause.” Wow. I’d heard that before, and I’ve heard it since, but it was particularly odd to hear such words coming from the representative of a women’s club linked to a local university, where people paid lots of tuition in exchange for professional training in medicine, law, engineering and – gasp – music. I told her that if musicians played for free every time we were asked to, we’d be living on the street, but she clearly didn’t understand what I meant. I suppose I sounded kind of rude, but she cheerfully asked me to check with my colleagues and get back to her.

To test my theory I called up one colleague and asked what she thought. She laughed uproariously, which is a great gift for a musician to have – way more fun than crying and much healthier than getting mad. I waited a couple of days and phoned the woman back. I surmised out loud that Winston’s probably wasn’t catering for free, nor would Canada Post deliver the invitations out of the goodness of their hearts, so why should any musicians should be expected to play for free?  If the music was as significant and meaningful a part of the event as she described it, why was there no budget for it? There wasn’t even an offer of tax receipts in lieu of payment, which would at least have demonstrated an awareness of the value of the musicians’ services. As for exposure – and this part I didn’t say in my out loud voice – exposure at such an event is usually meaningless as far as career development goes. The best you can hope for is that nobody Very Important spills their red wine on you, your music, and/or your instrument. (Word to the wise re: gig outfits: always wear dark colours.)


I suggested that perhaps she could try hiring an ensemble of undergraduate students, who might actually appreciate the experience and exposure. Thanks for calling, but no thanks, and the conversation ended. Later on, I had to smile when I learned that the local universities and conservatory actually charge a fee on behalf of student ensembles who play at events like this. Go figure, it’s actually professional training.

Another time I’ll address the questions of payment and the recording industry…but this is enough for now. In the meantime, here are a couple of the many interesting posts I’ve came across:



The Eton Choirbook

A page from the Eton Choirbook

A page from the Eton Choirbook

I’m teaching a survey course in early music at Ryerson University’s Life Institute these days and in my preparations I revisited some music from the Eton Choirbook. It’s a wonderful, wonderful source. If you’re a player of early music and haven’t ever tapped into this music, you really ought to do yourself a favour and check it out.

The largest collection of English sacred music composed during the late fifteenth century, the Choirbook is something we’re very lucky to have. Not burned, bombed or destroyed – sort of miraculous, really, considering the ruination we humans often visit upon our world.  Compiled in the very early days of the sixteenth century (between about 1500 to 1505), it features choral music by the likes of Robert Fayrfax, John Mundy, Nesbitt, Cornyshe and many others. Glorious stuff.

Here’s a lovely example by Fayrfax (1464-1521):

And here’s William Cornysh’s Salve Regina from YouTube:

I’ve used repertoire from this source in numerous workshops and people have always loved it, so if you’re looking for teaching material or for something to play for yourself, go to your nearest music library and have a look!

One Recorder Woman

Every once in a while I do some CD reviewing for the Wholenote, one of Toronto’s go-to publications for finding out what’s going on in the city’s music scene. In the case of the Wholenote it’s the non-popular music scene that’s covered, and it’s pretty far-ranging, including concert listings, preview articles, CD, DVD and book reviews on classical, new, world, jazz, early and other kinds of music. A couple of weeks ago, while dithering about a review I was trying to write, I looked back some of my previous efforts, and came across a review of a recording of 20th-century English concertos, as performed by Michala Petri.

English Recorder Concertos CD cover

I thought the CD was very good, though I could have done without the slightly bizarre cover image of the Giantess Michala tootling in front of Stonehenge. But the photo got me thinking. It had been a long time since I thought much about Michala Petri but that night I visited her website, did some reading and some musing, and concluded that she actually is a bit of a giantess.

Danish-born Michala Petri played her first concerto in a concert at the age of 11, and not long after that – perhaps a year later? – I think she received an Honourable Mention at the Bruges Musica Antiqua recorder competition. When I was in high school and university, people in the regular classical music world who’d actually heard of any professional recorder player were most likely to have heard of her. Frans Bruggen was playing all around the world too, but not on the modern scene with symphony orchestras, or on typical chamber music concert series. On the rare occasion that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra hired someone to play a recorder concerto, it was Michala that they hired. She played at modern pitch, on modern-type recorders, had a modern performance style as opposed to a historically informed one – and had the kind of soloist’s pedigree that modern orchestras like to see.

As the period instrument movement grew in popularity, recorder players on the historically informed side of the fence were not great fans of Michala, myself included. I had played the modern type of baroque recorder while growing up and in undergrad studies, but when I first encountered historical instruments and in-depth performance practice in the summer after my third year, there was no going back. For me this style of playing and type of instrument offered so many more interpretive and expressive possibilities that I would sooner have quit than return to my former modus operandi. I thought Michala played brilliantly for a modern-style player but that just wasn’t my cup of tea any more. I remember a moment from years ago, following a Tafelmusik concert in St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick, when an ex-pat Scots gentleman rushed up to me to tell me that my Vivaldi concerto had been so spectacular that I was ‘right up there wi’ Michala Petri!’ He meant it as a big compliment, I know, but I was mildly mortified. (‘If I’d known then what I know now…’)

Many years into her career, and when the historical performance movement was in full swing, an interviewer asked Michala Petri why she hadn’t gone the historical route. She replied that she really couldn’t have afforded to take off the time that it would’ve taken to learn to play in a new way. If she were to cancel performances, touring, recording and guest teaching for as long as it took, perhaps at least a couple of years, would that professional work still be there for her when she returned? In the same interview she was asked to name her favourite musical era, which she said was the Romantic, but that since there was no recorder repertoire from that period she just had to listen to it, or play arrangements of pieces for other instruments. Her preference for that musical era might also suggest why earlier historical instruments or playing techniques weren’t of much interest to her, and that’s fine – to each her own. But I found it poignant that this person was leading an impressive musical career on an instrument which didn’t jive at all with the era of music she most loved.

And as I explored Michala’s website I saw very clearly that despite not ever living on the ‘historical’ side of the fence, she continues to be a major player of the instrument. Here are some facts:

1)   Between now and the beginning of December, she will play numerous concerts in Denmark, a few in Japan, and tour in Germany, and that’s just the performing, not the teaching or recording;

2)   Already having inspired more new pieces for the recorder than anyone else on the planet, very fine new music continues to be written for her, by composers in various countries around the world, and this music is (or will be) available to anyone else who wants to play it;

3)   She continues to put out significant recordings, which routinely receive reviews in all the big journals such as Gramophone, American Record Guide, Diapason, Classic CD, etc. CDs by other recorder players just don’t get that kind of consistent coverage.

These three things alone make Michala Petri stand out from the rest of the world’s recorder-playing professional musicians. On top of that, she’s been busy for years, shows no sign of slowing down, and lots of people want to hear her. The world’s early music schools may not pay much attention, but their inhabitants are far fewer in number than the people who attend symphony concerts where she appears as a soloist. And no recorder playing graduate from such a school has ever had a career to rival hers, nor is it likely that anyone ever will.

So this woman recorder player from Denmark, doing things her own way, really is a kind of giantess, and an inspiring one no matter what one’s approach to recorder playing might be. If one had to choose the player with the greatest positive impact on the general concert-going public’s perception of the instrument – that is to say, someone who’s not preaching to the converted – my vote would probably be for her.

If you want to read the CD review, have a look here:


And here’s a larger version of her photo:

Michala Petri Photo: Tom Barnard

Michala Petri
Photo: Tom Barnard

Sighting #6

Brian Jones recording for 'Ruby Tuesday'

Brian Jones recording for ‘Ruby Tuesday’

Remember him? Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones. Talented, smart, savvy, and overtaken by substance abuse, he was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool a few short months after he’d been asked to leave the band. It was 1969 and he was 27.

I wasn’t much of a Stones fan but for some reason I liked Brian Jones. I could never understand all the hundreds of girls screaming at the sight of Mick Jagger;  I thought Brian was way cuter. ‘Ruby Tuesday’ was released in 1967, but I didn’t realize it was him playing the recorder bit until years later.


My regrets for such a long silence! Many posts have been started over the past weeks, only to be waylaid and left on the desktop…

Last night I was on the website for the Toronto-based new music organization Soundstreams, looking for info on their upcoming season, and I chanced upon a concert recording made back in March of 2011. It was a recording of ‘Breathe,’ a piece composed by James Rolfe and scored for three female voices with medieval instrumental ensemble, which in this case meant organ, recorder, nyckelharpa, lute and percussion. The words included texts from Hildegard of Bingen.

For the premiere, Soundstreams arranged for a collaboration between Norway’s Trio Medieval and the instrumentalists of the Toronto Consort, so lucky me – I was a part of it. Last night, listening, I was vividly reminded of how beautiful the piece was, and of the real fun it had been to rehearse and play it. Yes, there were some moments when we all thought we might come undone – but what a total pleasure it really was. Even if you think you don’t like ‘new’ music, give this a listen:


We rehearsed and performed in St. Anne’s Anglican, one of Toronto’s most historic churches. Built anew in 1907, the architect Wm. Ford Howland styled it after Byzantine models, and it has a beautiful central dome which dazzles with painted stars. Members of Canada’s artist collective the Group of Seven – MacDonald, Carmichael and Varley – were among the artists who decorated the new church in 1923 with spectacular paintings and sculpture. Worth a visit if you haven’t seen it!

I took some shots to remember the experience. Here are three.

Part of the ceiling, St. Anne's Anglican

Part of the ceiling, St. Anne’s Anglican

Around the organ - not the one we used! -

Around the organ – not the one we used! –

Pre-show setup.

Pre-show setup.