Monday, 31 December 2012

The end of the road

I write this post with some sorrow for what must end, and with both trepidation and curiosity (and, I admit, also with some excitement) about what the future holds.

Ten years ago I left the high-pressure world of banking and finance, I thought forever. I had intended to leave years before, but the need to support a young family when my husband was out of work overrode my personal desire to - in the words of my little boy - "stay at home and do my big singing". But in 2012, following the breakup of my marriage, I decided that the time was right to leave. I was already teaching singing part-time and doing some professional singing, and I had gained my Royal College of Music Associateship in Singing Performance. Encouraged by my new partner, I took the plunge. I ended my consultancy at RBS and concentrated on building up my singing and teaching career.

It worked stunningly well. Or at least the teaching did. All too well, actually. I quickly found myself working in schools during the day and teaching adults in the evenings and at weekends. Right from the start most of my work came through word of mouth - recommendations from people who had either heard me sing or seen me teach. Within three years of cutting loose from banking, I was afloat as a self-employed singer and teacher.

But there was a downside. I soon found that the amount of teaching I had to do to earn enough money to pay the bills was having a bad effect on me physically. My voice was constantly tired during the school term and I started to lose high notes. I recovered during school holidays, when my schools work stopped (although my private work continued) - but then I didn't have the money to pay the bills. I started to dread Christmas and summer holidays, because I knew that there would not be enough money. And I started to dread solo engagements during school terms, because I didn't know if my voice would work well enough. As the schools teaching increased, I gradually stopped even looking for solo work.

The physical problems associated with teaching have got steadily worse over the last ten years. I accompany my students at the piano when I teach, which means sitting on a backless piano stool for hours on end: the remuneration level from teaching is not enough to allow me to employ an accompanist, and I don't like the inflexibility of backing tracks. The ergonomics of school practice rooms are frankly dreadful: it is always a beaten-up old upright piano, always with its back to the wall (so I have to face the wall) and there is seldom a correctly-positioned mirror so I don't have to twist round to see my students. I started to get pain and stiffness in my back, neck and shoulders, which kept me awake at night, interfered with my voice and reduced my ability to sustain long phrases. I now have regular chiropractic to straighten me out, but I am still tired and in pain a lot of the time during the school term. I've loved the piano all my life, but it has become an instrument of torture.

At the beginning of December 2012 I did a concert with a choral society that I have worked with many times. In their programme they advertised their next two concerts, both of which are works I know well, have sung before and which suit me vocally. But I won't be doing them.

It appears that a friend of mine who arranges teams of soloists for concerts had been engaged by the director of this choral society to book the soloists for the next concerts. But my friend had not booked me. I was very upset to discover this, so I emailed him to ask why. He said I am not strong enough vocally now to match the other people he was booking. The last time he heard me, which was in the summer of 2011 when I was doing 36 hours a week singing teaching, I was so tired that I simply didn't make enough noise.

I was horrified. I left banking to be primarily a singer, not a teacher. Losing professional singing work because teaching wears me out is far too high a price to pay for household solvency. And in the end, if my physical and vocal health is destroyed, teaching too will become impossible. You can't be an effective teacher if you can't sing well yourself.

I don't know if this is the end of the road for my professional singing. I hope it is not, and that I can continue to do some solo work, though I don't expect it to pay the bills. But it has to be the end of the road for full-time singing teaching.

So this New Year, for me, really is the end of the old and the beginning of the new. I have changed career before, but last time I knew where I was going. This time I don't..........or maybe I do. For the last two years I have been spending much of my time writing and talking about banking, finance and economics.  So far I have done this entirely in my spare time, for fun and for nothing. But maybe that will change. Maybe the wheel is turning, and the banking and finance I thought I had left forever is calling me back.

Singing will always be a part of my life. And perhaps teaching can be too, though on a much reduced basis. But what will plug the gap that teaching will leave? I don't know. Writing, perhaps, or consultancy? I would welcome suggestions.

I am holding to the belief that somehow, the way will become clear. After all, the end of one road is always the start of another.



13 comments:

  1. Best of luck for 2013.

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  2. All the best at what you decide to do, but I hope you keep up with your comments on this twitter its one of a small group I read

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  3. Re “pain and stiffness in my back, neck and shoulders..”, a first cousin of mine (who used to play viola in orchestras) is married to someone who teaches the Alexander method, which as you doubtless know addresses “pain and stiffness” problems, particularly with musicians. Their names are Felicity and Malcolm Williamson. If you contact them, they might be of some sort of assistance. See:

    http://www.alextechteaching.org.uk/html/papers.html

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    1. Thanks Ralph. Alexander technique is immensely helpful. We are a bit short of Alexander practitioners round here!

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  4. First of all, as this is my first comment, I should say I love your blog. I have been reading for about 6 months and really enjoy your thoughts, so thank you!

    Changes like what you face are never easy, I sense from how you've worded that this is something that has taken a lot of thought and you find yourself in the position you are in with some regret. But you have a positive attitude (or at least, you blog positively!) and this will stand you in good stead - I'm sure things will sort themselves out.

    In terms of suggestions, you have experience as a teacher and experience of banking/economics. Could you potentially get a job teaching or tutoring A level economics (and piano/music theory etc) is a school or college or similar (Business studies etc)? This would seem to combine the two key skills you mention a lot in your blogs.

    Thanks again for blogging, and Happy New Year!

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  5. Best wishes and good luck for the new year.

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  6. You write brilliantly, and clearly know your stuff, so I'd be amazed if you weren't already earning some income from writing. If not (and even if you are, actually), please drop me a line.

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  7. Frances: the thing is, your concerns go beyond conventional economics; you're a political economist with a theoretical bent. I can imagine that consultancy for instrumental purposes in an instrumental environment could have been not completely satisfying, regardless of the quality and abstraction of the analyses. I think you should consider university teaching and a PhD, late in the day as it may seem. :)

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  8. Frances, this is not an easy situation for you. I think personally you should give as much priority as you are able to your solo singing. I can vividly remember the first time I heard you sing at an Arts Festival in 1996 where you had won first prizes in both Opera Singing categories. I was so struck by the beautiful combination of richness in your voice and lovely high notes and this still applies today.

    You are obviously a talented and popular singing teacher but, as you say, you can't let your health suffer. If you had an additional source of income you would be in a better position to limit your students to those able to fit in with the times and places where you want to teach.

    You have so much knowledge in the areas of Music and Economics and write so clearly with such common sense, I feel sure you must be able to make money from this. Students would love any textbooks you write!!

    If an immediate short term solution is needed, perhaps you could look at some part time (maybe freelance?) work eg being an examiner / exam marker for Music Exam Boards ?

    I do hope 2013 will bring you some new opportunities.

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  9. Frances - you have so much to say and say it so well putting the present financial mess into context that to go back into banking would be a pity because you will probably have confidentiality conditions and be bored out of your skull.

    Ideally you should write a book and become a commentator. It needs someone who understands the inner workings of banks and how money works to explain it - maybe to generations of undergraduates or trainee bankers.

    There is enough copy on this blog alone to do this. It needs editing together and marketing. The audience may not be massive (it wouldn't be Harry Potter after all) but it would be informed, interested and relatively affluent.

    You can retain singing maybe with a few students but don't wear yourself out. But hopefully you won't give up blogging.

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  10. I have just recently discovered your blog [thanks to Isabella K. at FT Alphaville]. I find it to be outstanding, and would be glad to contribute financially, as I find it superior to some subscriptions that I pay several hundred dollars for. I suggest you add a way [Paypal?] to allow readers to send you contributions.

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    1. Thank you. I'm very encouraged by your remarks. I have been considering doing something like a voluntary donation scheme (I know other bloggers do that).

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  11. I found this informative and interesting blog.

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