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Explaining My Job

Every holiday gathering brings the same question: “And you? What are you doing these days?” And here we go, my husband and I, trying to explain our job. And it never works. Either it sounds as if we were doing nothing—sitting at the organ all day, and playing in churches every so often—or it sounds as if we were doing everything except playing the organ. When we were kapellmeisters, it was already difficult to explain the details of what we did, but as freelance musicians, it is even more bizarre. The last sounded as if we were still kapellmeisters without being them. The more I tried to explain, the more it sounded twisted, and soon enough, Matthieu and I's lives sounded like a collection of miscellaneous small contracts, teaching, travels, practice, with a lot of free time on our hands (not).

True, our life as freelance musicians comprises small contracts, teaching, travels and practice. We have to take some time for ourselves, or we would be burnt out. The difficulty is to explain how all of this fits together. It looks like free time, because some parts of our schedule are supple enough to be moved around. Generally, the practice time is one that is not set in stone. So move it around we do, while juggling the various deadlines at hand.

Perhaps next time someone asks me something about my job, I should answer that my husband and I are architects of making the musical offering we are performing work. This means preparing January concerts during the busy week that leads up to Christmas. We can't afford to think: “I'll let Christmas pass, and I will be freer of my time.” No. Because realistically, one can't learn in such a short period of time. So January and December will have to be prepared together. Such is life. This means also working the long term and the short term together. Being ready for the last-minute contract as well as the one we knew would be there weeks ahead. Preparing the long term one early enough to be able to include the short term ones. Knowing what I can work on during my travels on the tube and not doing these things at home even if it would be more comfortable. And planning a trip to Costco too, to purchase food to feed 8 singers and 2 organists during our weekend in Belleville to present Carols by Candlelight. Organizing transportation. Accommodation. Food allergies. Oh yes, let us not forget to send an encouraging note to my student for her piano recital that weekend. I won't be there because of the tour. It means getting the programmes ready, and printing the music scores. And saying no to some gigs too, because we know that we won't be able to honourably fulfill our contracts if we take too many. And keeping the books. It means walking to Bureau en Gros (Staples) on icy sidewalks that particular evening, even though I really wish I did not have to, and make those photocopies once and for all, so that practice can get done. And it also means practicing on December 25ᵗʰ, yes, on Christmas Day, after the traditional lack of sleep and coming back from our morning services, and before going to much anticipated and mouth-watering the family dinner... practicing because, well, we will have to take a day off soon enough for another family gathering, and that concert is coming up in January, and we also have services on December 29ᵗʰ...

All the while preparing this, my husband is already making plans for next Christmas. You know how we hear about Christmas starting in November and tiring people out? It doesn't bother me too much, I must say, because Christmas had already started in September for me. Oh well. It is too bad I did not get anything Valentine's Day, or else, I am pretty sure that I would very well pull off Halloween, Christmas—actually the entire months of December and January—and Valentine's Day in one long stretch starting off sometime in the late spring.

My student (the one who had her piano recital) asked, a few weeks ago: “How do you manage your anxiety when you have so many things on your plate?” I looked at her and laughed: “I don't!” I typically am honest with my students. I don't want them to think of performing as a perfect glittering thing, of which they are unworthy. So I added, more seriously: “I try to, like everyone else. I try to set realistic goals. I try to say no to things. But I don't always succeed. I still am stressed out when performing, but I also put in the preparation. I've accepted the anxiety for the love of performance.” Because there is that too: psychological preparation is as important as practice. Just like for athletes.

I said to everyone I would take New Year's Day off. Haha. Guess what I did? Yes, indeed. On Christmas Eve, my husband, who was already booked to play elsewhere, saw that someone was looking for a cantor on January 1ˢᵗ and asked if I wanted to fulfill the contract. Nice church, fine organist... I started talking about being alone anyway because he was working, and booked myself a nice little service to sing, that I don't regret at all. Now, just so I don't lose face, I say that I am taking the afternoon of New Year's Day off.

Now, this ramble really sounds like my life and my head. The problem is that it doesn't sound too good at a cocktail party. Maybe I should find a nice way to sum it up. My job is about making it work. Actually not just work. Making it stand strong and proud. Making the magic happen. And an eternal crusade against procrastination too.

The truth is probably there. Building the magic and fighting procrastination on a daily basis, all for those short moments when the Northern Lights dance in the sky. When that ensemble sings. When that organ roars and whispers in one breath. And, most importantly, when the listener is moved.

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