THE ART OF JUGGLING – by John Somerville

When I was fourteen, I took the notion to learn how to juggle.  I only ever managed three juggling balls at any one time, although I did learn a couple of tricks that mildly impressed my friends.  It’s safe to say that even if I had perfected the art and managed to work with several balls at once, or even several flaming clubs whilst balancing a seal on my nose, nothing would have prepared me for the juggling act that I currently find myself having to perform.

Academics and educators are currently very fond of the term “portfolio” artist.  Although it is a term that could possibly have been dreamt up in the corridors of Eton or Cambridge, there is a great deal of truth in the assertion it makes.  In this day and age, to survive in the creative industries most of us have to be adaptable and versatile. For most musicians, this usually means having at least one secondary source of income other than performance.  For me, this means wearing several different working hats, a different one depending on the day of the week.  I’m currently a performer (Treacherous Orchestra, Adam Sutherland band, Croft No.5), freelance composer, degree level ensemble mentor (RCS), youth music teacher (YMI, Falkirk), primary trad music teacher (Feis Rois), project manager (Falkirk Traditonal Music Project) and Ceilidh band member and business partner. I should also mention that I have two young children and am doing a music degree part-time.  My life is quite frantic.  There is never a dull moment and it certainly relies upon having a relatively organised and structured working week.  My point in this post however is not to talk about how I manage my workload.  It’s about positive adaptability and being happy and content within what you do.

Treacherous Orchestra (photo by ABCassidy Photography)

In 2016 I had a really busy year of performance gigging. Treacherous Orchestra was out on the road and we must have performed at over thirty festivals and venues that year.  For a band of that size, that’s a substantial number of performances and a behemoth of an exercise in logistics and planning.  Fast-forward three years and here I am with three festival gigs in the diary for this year.  It would be easy to take the negative route and start asking questions; why am I not performing any more? Am I no longer on people’s radar? Am I good enough to perform?

The simple answer seems to be that as you progress through your musical career adaptability is a huge asset. Certain elements of your working life, such as touring and live performance, may have to take a back seat for certain periods to allow other elements to come to the fore.  And guess what, I think that’s ok.  I know I can return to the experience of live gigging at a time that’s more suitable.  What is particularly useful is having all those other elements of my musical career to fall back on.

There seems to be a huge amount of pressure on young trad and folk musicians to become exclusive performers.  We can see the positive intent and passion of those involved in the music scene and how this translates into wanting to make money from the thing you love.  It may be worth considering this… I recently attended a workshop with a notable Scottish guitarist who has gigged with several top bands.  One of his opening remarks to his student audience was “musical integrity begins once the rent has been paid”.  Quite a cutting statement in many ways and one that is definitely open to question.  Of course the world is full of musicians, instrumentalists and performers who survived on the breadline for many years whilst writing music that would later go on to be regular household listening.  Against this current backdrop of a changing music industry and a society where mental health seems to be gaining more awareness (there are already some great blog posts on this forum) perhaps within his words he meant something else.   When viewed in a positive light, is he not simply saying that creativity is more free and likely to flow if the harsh realities of life are not an obstruction?  Should we be suggesting that working a couple of bar shifts a week whilst being a musician is not a step back from your art, but in many ways a smart move to allow your creativity to breathe?  It may open up more positive space if you are not consistently worrying about whether the rent or other financial constraints can be met.  A few private lessons a week, ceilidhs at the weekend, a job with a PA company, temping work, a couple of days of studio work, painting, picture framing, or any form of stable but reasonably flexible work might just be the answer to keeping you going through those periods of inertia.   The reality is these are all jobs that friends and musical acquaintances of mine have done, and some are well regarded and respected within the trad music scene. Personally, I’m currently relying a lot on the non-performance aspects to allow me more time at home with my family.  It’s definitely a juggling act but one that seems appropriate for this moment in time.

Life as a working musician is fantastic; it’s a life full of experience and social gratification.  As you progress through life you may find that adaptability is the key to remaining content. Getting some work experience under your belt sooner rather than later might ease the pressure further down the line.  Just a thought.  However it works out, and if you do find yourself working somewhere or doing something you might not have envisaged, remember you will always have the music – no one can take that away from you!