David’s first reflections on musical life in Purbeck
My first contribution to this blog is well overdue. So here goes…
I gave up full-time employment 5 years ago with the aim of building a portfolio of paid freelance activities, mainly musical. I fast realised that the two keys to success were some stable part-time engagements (to provide a reliable income and a base or focus for my work), and good networks of people who knew me as a musician in one guise or other and were likely to support my various ventures.
With our relocation to Purbeck, I had to throw all that away. I knew I could start to build it afresh, but also knew that it could take time and that there was no guarantee that I would achieve as much as I had in South London – leading a choral society of over 100 members, Director of Music at a thriving church with a love of music, private teacher to up to 10 pupils a week, organiser of well-supported workshops and concerts. I arrived in Swanage with none of that, and only a fledgling career as a recently-published (but largely unknown) composer to carry with me.
I knew there was a lot of music happening in Purbeck: I did my homework well before moving here. Perhaps a dozen choirs, for starters, making for a busy schedule of rehearsals and concerts. But as far as I could see there were no vacancies for me to slot into or obvious spaces in which to create something new. I determined to ‘make myself useful’ where I could, and start to build the networks which would in time deliver the opportunities and the market I needed to find.
A couple of things struck me from the start. One was the speed at which news travels in the music world here – it’s a tightly-knit community. I found I didn’t need to introduce myself too much – more often than not, someone had already mentioned me. And that meant that ‘making myself useful’ proved quite easy. Hatty has already told the story below how, on Day 2 there was a ring on the doorbell (as soon as I had fitted it) and there was the vice-chair of one of the local choirs asking me if I would sing tenor for them. When I turned up to the rehearsal I was sitting next to people who between them were in another 5 or 6 of the local choirs, and so the ripples spread. So when I started contacting people who were running music ventures here, they generally had a good idea of who I was.
The second thing that struck me was just how open and ready to collaborate those people have been. In London, there can be quite a rivalry between musicians working in any particular area or field, probably because there’s so much going on and so many professionals or talented amateurs trying to make a mark. In Purbeck it genuinely doesn’t feel like that – yet. Doubtless I’ll tread on someone’s toes before long, but so far everyone I’ve spoken to has been keen to find ways to involve me, use what abilities I can offer and take on board or help me develop my ideas. Even if that means that in time I’ll build something new which could, conceivably, be seen as a ‘competitor’. There does seem to be a sense in which people value the sum of everyone’s efforts to create music here, which is refreshingly different to what I came to know in London where, often, suggestions of collaboration would be greeted with suspicion and ‘competing’ musical activities deeply resented.
So, almost three months on, where have I got to, in building it all again from the ground up?
Well, I have my first ‘base’! After making myself available as a regular deputy organist, I was asked to take on the role of Director of Music at St Mark’s, Herston, on the western outskirt of Swanage. In several respects it’s a close match to the musical life I left behind at St Mary’s, Balham – a friendly church in the liberal catholic tradition, with a choir of a dozen members, mainly sopranos, a couple of men and a couple of altos, a small junior choir drawn from the church primary school – so I feel very much at home (and have been made to feel very welcome!). I also have a good idea of the kind of work I need to do here, to place the choirs and the music on the firmest possible footing. My work in Balham will be valuable experience, both the good and the salutary. And it’s good to start training choirs again, especially ones as enthusiastic to be led as my two at St Mark’s.
I’ve done more singing in the last 3 months than in the previous 3 years, and it’s helping me both to get to know the field but also to experience choral directing from the ‘other end of the stick’ – a good way of learning! I’m on my second choir preparing for a second concert. By moving around I’m seeing what variety there is here. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for the relative lack of rivalry – there’s room for all sorts: a traditional choral society, a ‘lighter fare’ choir, a music theatre group, a chamber choir, a choir of ladies voices, informal singing groups etc – as much variety but less overlap than in London. Over time I’ll probably sample them all from the singer’s perspective, except the ladies choir.
As well as my church job, I’ve taken my first booking as organist for a concert with a local chamber choir – again, not a regular experience when I was in London where organists are in plentiful supply.
Perhaps most surprising, and gratifying, is how quickly I have been able to establish my identity as a composer here. In London I had plenty of performances of my works, but I think I’m right in saying I conducted all but one of them! Here, both the choral directors I have so far shown my works to have asked to be able to include some in their very next concerts, and are enthusiastic to work with me on a future composing project. I could have worked for years more in London without ever getting this level of exposure and engagement. It seems to be something, again, about the shared pride in the music Purbeck is able to sustain and the desire to support those who make it. So, while I’m a newbie to Swanage, I’m already a ‘local composer’ with my local champions.
What of my ideas for building new things? Well, there are plenty of those in my head. More than enough for another blog later.