Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Saying No: When is it okay to back out of a gig?

Monday night, I couldn't sleep. It is a cliche to say that I tossed and turned; like many cliches it is also a truth. Beside me, my boyfriend lay sleepless as well. Our reasons were different: he had to move house in the morning, which is one of the most stressful things you can do. Me? I had to make a difficult decision about a job.

The problem was, I'd been offered the job in early December and accepted it. It was now the end of January, the job (music directing a high school musical) was supposed to start February 1st... and I was thinking about backing out of it. 

But oh, the dread: How could I back out so late? What would my contact for the job say? Would he be angry? Or worse- upset? Would he blame me for sabotaging an ambitious show, for leaving them in the lurch? 
But how could I do the job? I was unprepared- I had never received the musical score and rehearsals were now only days away. The job had gone from something a bit out of my comfort zone- working on a classic musical with high schoolers- some of whom I'd have to shape into a live band by opening- to something I was dreading: a show with 15-plus songs, none of which I'd ever seen a lick of music for. 
On one hand it was easy to say well, they never got me the music and I've been asking for it for weeks. Now I haven't got the time to prepare. And on the other hand: If you were a really good musical director you would have found a way. You'd be able to sight-read the score. You'd be excited about this show rather than frustrated. You'd make it happen. The real issue was, I didn't want to make it happen. I wanted out. 

Back and forth my mind went, through the pros and the cons of saying no. There was the money of course, because in my life there's never enough money and now here I was turning it away. And there was pride: by backing out I was essentially saying I wasn't good enough to take it on. There was convenience though- if I did back out I'd have more time to do the jobs I was really excited about rather than spreading myself too thin. 

In the end it took that night and most of the next day before I worked up the courage to email my contact and tell him I was backing out of the job. And then I had to wait for his email. More dread.
Hey, look! I'm using this dumb stock footage of a woman who looks nothing like me to illustrate my stressed-out state of mind.  

I started realizing that I was not just saying no to the job. I was saying no to the idea that we freelancers have to say yes to any job that comes our way, lest we refuse one and then all the work dries up. I was saying no to being overly busy, which is such an ingrained part of our work culture. How many Facebook statuses and articles have I read where someone is about to start a 12-hour workday, or hasn't had a day off in a month, or is juggling childcare and work and school? Hell, my own boyfriend would never stop working if I wasn't around. I salute you people. I applaud your work ethic and your dedication, but I am not you. And I don't want to be.  

I was also admitting some inadequacies in my skillset, which is a tricky one, and something again that freelancers in general have a hard time doing. We've all said yes to gigs that challenged and stretched us. Arrange music for an ensemble you've never worked with before? Gotcha. Teach piano to kids?, Sure, see you Wednesday. Run from the orchestra pit to the stage and back again multiple times in one show, being both the attention-seeking diva and the quiet-but-efficient music director? Yep, just did that for my last play. Hang upside down 30 feet off the ground while singing opera? Sure, I can do that. (Not really. But I'd probably give it a go.) 

I have a tendency to downplay my abilities. But there are certain things I am not that great at, and while I am learning to love (and improve at) my job teaching piano to kids, when it comes to piano music I am simply not a great sight-reader. I need practice and lots of it. I would (and could) happily step in at a moment's notice to replace a singer onstage. But a piano player? Never happen. There are times when you have to accept that saying yes won't be a case of challenging yourself. It'll be a case of being the wrong person for the job. 

Am I over-justifying? Of course. There will always be a part of me that regrets the missed opportunities. The part of me that wonders what could have been if I just said yes. If I'd made it work. Because hell, almost every time I say yes to new and exciting and scary things, it's led to the best things: great gigs, travel, new friends, new loves. 
In my mind, I try to look past the door I just closed, and see the path I could have chosen. But of course I can't; that's the price you pay for closing doors. What I do see is a spring filled with excitement: 3 weeks of full-time rehearsals where I get to be a musician and performer; the continuing joys and challenges of being a music teacher; an album release concert, and who-knows-what other jobs that will pop up along the way? 

I blame myself for not being more clear about my needs (getting the score in plenty of time) when I took on the job in the first place. And of course, I blame myself for overbooking myself, which is the constant curse of the freelancer. But having finally taken action and refused the job, I feel nothing but relief. 

All the worst-case scenarios I feverishly mulled over never came to pass. My contact for the job accepted my news with disappointment, but with total class. I dreaded reading his replying email to me, and yet when it came, there were no recriminations, no accusations, no guilt trips. We wished each other well, and that was that. As always, my worst enemy had been myself. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

To Be A Rock and Not To Roll

Good gravy! Is anyone else having trouble yanking themselves out their holiday torpor, or is it just me? This December I had a dangerously seductive combination of (just) enough money, and plenty of time off, and I'm a bit ashamed to say that I really did very little over the holidays. I read, I lazed with the cats, I didn't even see many friends, if I'm going to be honest. I was a wee bit of a hermit, and I kind of liked it. 

But now the New Year is here, with all of its
Jolting me unwillingly out of my comfortable little rut and back into the fast lane.

Jay sent me a link to this lovely little animated video. Go ahead, watch it. It won't take long:

"I feel like that rock," I admitted to him the other day. "All this stuff keeps happening to me and I just want to... sleep." 

I feel a strange kinship with the sleepy little rock in this movie, who just wants to rest, but keeps being yanked into the most extraordinary situations, kind of like an inanimate Forrest Gump. 

Which is making me face an uncomfortable truth about myself:

I am the kind of person who lets things happen to them rather than making things happen. 

Which isn't to say I haven't had an amazing professional life. Let's see, I've

  • played live gigs in Istanbul
  • spent 5 summers doing historical theatre in a gold rush town
  • made my living (kinda) as a freelance musician
  • played in all kinds of bands, from Turkish to left-wing folk to Slavic soul
  • worked for all kinds of theatre companies in Vancouver and elsewhere, from tiny struggling companies to some of the top professional companies in the city. 
...and all kinds of other good stuff.
But imagine how much more interesting it could be if I made my own plans?

If I said 
  • I'm going to write and perform my own 1-woman show.
  • I'm going to record an EP or album this year and get some of my talented friends to play on it.
  • I'm going to take classes and learn something new this year to make myself more hireable.
  • I'm going to actively improve my singing and piano playing.
  • I'm going to contact more seniors' homes and get them to book me as an entertainer, rather than waiting for them to call me. 
Wow! I just came up with most of that stuff in 5 minutes! Imagine what could happen if I put some real time into making my life happen. 

But making your life happen instead of letting life happen takes courage.
It means letting go of your (my) fear of rejection and ridicule.
It means working hard, every day. 
It means never getting comfortable, always challenging yourself to try something new, something scary, something hard. 

But there are so many rewards, and my own history proves this. 
When I decided to apply for a music director job on the BC Arts Alliance website, I made a connection that would lead to six years of demanding, rewarding, life-changing work in a northern town.
When I left a stagnant relationship, I opened myself up to new adventures, and it gave myself and my ex-partner a new lease on life.
When I say 'yes' to teaching a class that I don't know much about at the music school where I work, I learn so much, and feel way more relaxed and at ease the next time I am challenged to take on something new.
I decided on a whim to go to Seattle and take a class with a yoga teacher who really inspired me. It was a wonderful weekend.
When I took decided to join a dating website, I met a wonderful man. And yes, I was the one who contacted him! In fact, he'd gone on to the site that day to shut down his profile, as he hadn't had any success, and then he saw my message. So...

When you take action, amazing things can happen. And yeah, I know that I sound like a goddamn motivational speaker on TedTalks right now, but I'm psyching myself up, yo. 
Today I got up, went for a run, did yoga, and worked- actually worked- on some stuff when I found out I had extra time because a meeting got cancelled. It's the first day in this new year that I can actually say that I felt supercharged with energy and purpose. And yeah, I know I'll backslide, but I really do believe that there can be a snowball effect. After all, as that cute little cartoon shows, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. 

The time for being a sleepy little rock is past! 

If I can look back at 2016 next January and honestly say that I took more control of my life, I will be beyond proud, even if I failed at some things. Especially if I failed, because that means that I put myself out on a limb, big-time. 

Because I'd like to say "Oh, torpor? Apathy? That's so 2015!"