…the good news is that that’s because the full official site for ArtsBrand, my one-man branding band, is finally live! It’s been in the pipeline for a while, but a fortnight of solid coding has resulted in a shiny new platform I’m pretty proud of.

Here it is:

artsbrand.co.uk

Thanks for all your support along the way.

Ben

 

On what I want to be when I grow up

Wednesday 16th May, 2012

Everyone always says it doesn’t matter if you don’t know for sure what you want to do with your life. Over the past six months, though, I’ve come to realise that having a specific job title in mind gives you a major advantage.

I’ve wanted to be various things at various points in my life. Mechanic, butcher, accountant, journalist, to name but a few (I abandoned the latter two when I discovered everybody hates them). The problem is, I’ve never been able to stubbornly hold on to one single ambition. And that’s not because I’m fickle; it’s simply because there are several different things that I would be good at and would enjoy doing. Does that mean there’s something wrong with me? I wouldn’t have thought so, but the truth is that every graduate-level job, even the most basic no-specific-skills-required rookie role, attracts so much competition that the person who gets the gig inevitably has explicit, clear-cut reasons for wanting that particular job.

Here’s the thing. I’ve been fortunate enough over the past few months to have secured several different interviews in several different industries, mainly because I’m able to show that I’m bright and talented with a range of strong transferrable skills – which is what a lot of recruiters, especially for graduate schemes, claim to be looking for anyway. What I’m not able to show, though, is why I’m passionate about getting that one specific job. And that’s because I’m not. Just about every position I’ve applied for has been one that I would love doing and that I would thrive in, but because there are so many other jobs that I could say the same for, I can’t show that I’ve been toiling ardently in that specific direction for any meaningful length of time. That’s why I haven’t been successful yet: I’m always up against people who can prove they are committed to that specific role.

For example, I interviewed to be the new marketing assistant at Sheffield Doc/Fest but was told that, although my experience working in arts marketing and arts festivals and my keen interest in documentaries and film made me a strong contender, I never really stood a chance. Why?

  • “we had many applicants for the role who had not only specifically worked for film festivals, but who have considerable existing experience in film festival marketing and were dedicated to building a career in this specific field, having already worked for many film festivals that we know well across the country.”
I discovered on Monday, at my assessment day for the BBC’s Production Talent Pool, that compared to the other candidates I was not remotely qualified. That’s because, unlike them, I haven’t gambled huge amounts of time on unpaid work experience in the media and specifically in production. Many of these people were in their late-20s and early-30s, having done degrees in broadcasting followed by several years of being a media industry dogsbody. I could, if I wanted to, go down that route now, writing letters, knocking on doors, and blagging to anyone and everyone about what a great cup of tea I can make. But I’m not going to because there are other careers I would be perfectly happy in. I guess the trick is not to give that fact away, to make each and every employer believe that the job I’ve applied for is what I’ve ‘always wanted’ to do.

On a positive note, I’ve got a few interviews lined up, including one for an assistant role in the ticketing department of an arts venue. I’m fairly confident that I stand a reasonable chance, as long as the other candidates can’t find some way of demonstrating a lifelong fondness for ticketing databases.

On the start of the MUMS year

Friday 7th October, 2011

Having a tendency to tweet reviews of concerts, I posted this 129-character summary immediately after the Manchester University Music Society’s ‘Welcome Concert’ last Saturday:

Great start to the @MUMusicSociety season. Burgess, Bizet and Bernstein were explosive, extravagant and enchanting, respectively.

And that’s really all I need to say; for me this was an ideal programme, particularly for the opening night of the season, a prime example of the wide range of music that the Music Society delivers.

More important, though, is that the players were able to do justice to this fantastic but difficult repertoire, from the exuberance of Burgess’s The Glasgow Overture to the haunting second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

I know for a fact that there’s plenty more where that came from; bring on the rest of the 2011-12 MUMS season.

On tour (comma lads)

Monday 19th September, 2011

I went on tour with the Manchester University Symphony Orchestra back in July. Seb asked me to write a piece about it for the Music Department’s website, and I thought I’d stick it on here since I didn’t write anything at the time.

Nothing stirs up excitement amongst a group of musicians quite like the prospect of a tour. From orchestras to brass bands to pop acts – amateur or pro – no one can resist this sublime combination of road trip, concert series, holiday and party. And so it was no surprise that the mood around the Martin Harris Centre was nearing fever pitch as soon as our exams were over, such was the anticipation for the Manchester University Symphony Orchestra’s European tour in July.

The chosen settings for our concerts (following a warm-up rendition of Mahler 5 in Manchester for the Not Part Of Festival) were Heidelberg and Prague. Heidelberg’s picturesque Rhine-side cobbled streets, student-friendly since before it was cool to be student-friendly, were a wonderful contrast to the touristic grandeur of the Czech capital. The latter’s magnificent Municipal House not only looked incredible but also enhanced the already beautiful sound of the orchestra.

One of the biggest highlights of the trip was, unusually, part of our marketing strategy – flashmobs. We would gather in the cities’ main squares, set up instruments, blast through Jupiter while some of us frenziedly distributed flyers, then pack up and move on. Not only was this great fun, but it also made a significant difference to our audience numbers, with many of the faces we saw in the evening recognisable from those we’d seen in the afternoon.

Elated, emotional, exhausted, we returned home to unload the instruments, go our separate ways, and get on with our well-earned summer holidays.

There was a time when I knew I wanted a job in the arts. Not as a performer, just as one of those people who makes it all happen – one of those people who is well known by important people but not by the riff-raff. Those days are long gone.

I quickly learned that when graduation day comes and that ribbon-clad kitchen roll tube is handed to me, I need to find or have found a job. Any job. Within or without the arts sector. There’s no shame in that – bills have to be paid and, besides, the ‘any jobs’ of this world aren’t necessarily dead ends.

But then I realised I wasn’t giving myself enough options. It was either an arts job (which I certainly couldn’t guarantee was going to happen) or an ‘any job’. You know, the usual archetypes. Shelf-stacking, burger-doling, circus, Foreign Legion…

That’s when I started looking for jobs that weren’t arts-related but would still challenge and satisfy me. After research I discovered that a lot of big companies offer graduate schemes that I’m ideally suited for, as someone who is used to leadership and responsibility and is able to pick up new skills quickly. A lot of these businesses say they’re not necessarily looking for someone with a degree that has obvious relevance; rather, they want people who have intelligence, enthusiasm and personality.

I’m doing pretty well – so far I’ve got telephone interviews lined up with KPMG and Sainsbury’s, and am waiting to hear back from a few others. Some companies have already rejected me, but I don’t think they were right for me and in a way I’m glad they agreed.

Where will I be this time next year?

N.B. If you think these kinds of graduate schemes might be for you, a good starting point is The Times’s list of the Top 100 Graduate Employers.

Nearly three months and no blogging. It’s been good to have that break, but September is drawing ever nearer, my big summer plans have all been fulfilled, and it’s time to take stock of what all that was about. Looking back at these last few months, it seems to me that there’s one very clear recurring theme: balance.

Probably the most significant moment this summer was my great grandad’s death at the end of July. More important than the death itself, though, was that it happened the night before we were due to celebrate his 90th birthday. That coincidence meant that all four generations of his family were able to gather from three countries in two continents and see him one last time. That day, and the weekend after when we gathered for the funeral, demonstrated to me more clearly than ever the strong family values that my great grandparents have been able to instil in their descendants. The funeral service itself didn’t feel sad; the atmosphere was one of optimism, celebration, and often humour. A lot of hope and happiness came out of what on the surface was a bad situation.

A huge chunk of my summer has been spent volunteering at arts festivals. 374 hours and 45 minutes, to be precise. I’ve been an extra in a live and immersive Doctor Who episode at Manchester International Festival; I’ve managed a sometimes hectic Manchester Jazz Festival box office; I’ve helped the Gruffalo onto stage for his dance off with Elmer at the second annual Just So Festival, and I’ve done a whole lot more. The decision to do all that hard work while my bank balance gradually dropped will seem foolish to some – myself included during some of my less exciting volunteering episodes – but if it’s made me more employable then it was the right decision. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve been appreciated, trusted and helped by the people I’ve worked for; I’ve worked long hours, but I’ve had a lot of fun; I’ve worked for no money, but I feel significantly more prepared for a proper job than I was three months ago.

When Manchester, like other UK cities, was hit by riots on the night of 9th August, I felt disappointed. I was annoyed at myself, even, thinking I was naive to have had so much faith in Manchester and to have given so much of my time to two of its biggest festivals. I wasn’t naive, though, because the subsequent wave of defiant, proud hope completely trumped the disappointment I had felt. The crowds of volunteers clearing up the streets the next morning; the ‘We Love MCR’ campaign that has culminated in today’s celebrations – these events are proof of what Manchester really is, really means, is really capable of.

I can identify that same sense of balance in each of these areas – my family, my career (-to-be), and the way I relate to this city – and I think there’s something in that. In our roles as relatives, employees, students and citizens, it’s a valuable thing to a) be able to see the good in the bad and b) to see potential for good and play our part in making it happen. It seems a bit lofty to claim that this summer has changed my life, but I really do feel enlightened to some degree. Balance is good.

Click to see the 'tagged' version on Facebook

Summer summarised by scrapbook-style souvenirs

I was asked to review today’s concerts, sooo…I did. I’m that kind of guy.

 

Lunchtime Concert: University of Manchester Chamber Orchestra

Despite a shaky start that didn’t quite achieve the intense drama of Mozart’s opening, the orchestra redeemed themselves with the Haffner Serenade’s Andante and Allegro assai, making for a very convincing and elegant performance overall. Special credit is due to Amy Heggart for her charming violin solo in the Andante, and to conductor Thomas Jarvis for reining in this piece’s very tricky corners.

Though deceptively difficult to play, Beethoven’s 1st Symphony was brilliantly delivered. The orchestra demonstrated that sound quality necessary for proper classical playing; a kind of glistening poise that is best defined by my old cello teacher’s word ‘zing‘. The wind section, though made up almost entirely of first-year students, was oozing with skill and musicality. Emma Fry led with enthusiasm and vibrancy, and Jamie Phillips’s conducting was a perfect mix of flair and clarity: one recurring flamboyant gesture can only be described as ‘jazz hands’, but seemed to fit the context perfectly, and the players certainly responded to it.

Beat the Rush Hour Concert: The Joy of Voice

A wonderfully varied exploration of different vocal music genres, this concert opened with Stravinsky’s harmonically unusual but beautifully expressive Mass. The medium-sized choir – formed specially for the occasion – injected the music and text with energy and fluidity, and were very ably led by Ben McKee and Timothy Langston.

With Les Chansons de Bilitis, final-year student Emily McDouall drew us into a much more intimate world, bringing honesty and drama to this sensual cycle. Her mesmerising voice was delicate and yet filled the hall, powerful without being overpowering.

Finally, the University of Manchester Barbershop Chorus changed the mood entirely. With an upbeat approach and careful attention to rich harmonic detail, they seemed to win the audience over without effort, partly thanks to Antoine Kaiserman’s energetic and engaging direction. They opened with traditional barbershop fare, and closed with an ambitiously bizarre though refreshingly hilarious encore: following an outburst of ‘Ah tick tock, ya don’t stop’ from an apparently ordinary concert-goer, a rousing a capella rendition of Color Me Badd’s I Wanna Sex You Up gradually unfolded.

Ad Solem – The University of Manchester Chamber Choir

A quality performance as ever from Manchester’s answer to the BBC Singers. The tone of the ensemble was rich, clear and nicely blended, while this evening’s various soloists all rose above the texture with style and grace. The three guest basses were inevitably necessary in a Russian-themed programme – Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, for example, features a few too many bottom B-flats for even the best student singers – and they added a magnificent new dimension to the choir, allowing for a luxurious overall sound.

Ben McKee, at the helm for the second time today, showed a real understanding of the music; he clearly knew exactly where he wanted to take it, and the choir obviously trusted him. Tonight’s concert, though Ben’s last, also marked the debut of David Young as director. His leadership, previewed in Edward Bairstow’s Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, was extremely promising and made it clear that Ad Solem are set to achieve exciting things in their 2011-12 season.

The University of Manchester Barbershop Chorus rehearsing 'Jericho'

image

 
I’m writing this on a break between playing in one concert (Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings) and stewarding another (Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante). Later, I’ll go for a drink in the bar in the seminar room across the foyer, before attending tonight’s Big Band concert as a regular punter. And the next three days won’t be much different!

 

This is the wonder that is Estival 2011, Manchester University Music Society’s 33rd annual festival of music and art. The theme is the music of Russia, the highlight being Thursday night’s performance of Shostakovich’s heart-stopping 5th Symphony.

 

Pop along if you’re in Manchester – there are concerts at 1.10, 5 and 7.30 every day up to and including Thursday, but the music and general merriment basically goes on all day! Somehow, this festival manages to be educational without being dull; to be classical without being exclusive; and to have a ‘festival atmosphere’ without being a rowdy, drunken, muddy mess. Take that, Glasto.

 

estival.co.uk

We saw this fantastic show at The Lowry last night. For those not familiar with it, it’s Sesame Street. For adults. It’s difficult to put it any other way.

That concept works on so many more levels than you might first imagine, though. It’s not as basic as having puppets make racist jokes – although that does happen. And it goes beyond the puerility of making those same puppets have loud, energetic sex – although that definitely happens too.

But not only does Avenue Q use adult humour to parody a children’s format, it uses a child’s way of thinking to deal with everyday issues from a fresh angle. So through song, dance, puppetry and humour – traditionally tools for teaching literacy and numeracy to kids – grown-ups can learn about things like discrimination, unemployment and homophobia; perhaps even a little bit about the meaning of life.

I have yet to figure out the serious message behind this number, though…:

I met Cathy, Manchester International Festival‘s Marketing Director, earlier today to discuss the possibility of my helping her team out over the next few weeks. I left their King Street office with the seemingly Herculean task of promoting MIF amongst this city’s student population. Why Herculean? Because so few students have heard of the festival!

Armed with a zealous desire to preach the good news to the culturally poor of Manchester’s universities, and a good chunk of free time (my newfound courseworklessness affords me such luxuries) I sat down on a bench in front of Central Library and wrote the following article for submission to the Mancunion…only to discover that the student newspaper closed up shop a while ago for exams and summer. So I thought it would be best to blogify it rather than deprive the world of my message! Here goes…

A biennial celebration of art and culture that invades and pervades Manchester for two and a half weeks, costing several million pounds while bringing several more million into the local economy, and attracting over 200,000 people to over 20 events in over 14 venues around the city, could surely not have slipped through your radar. But have you heard of Manchester International Festival? If not, you’re far from alone.

Back for the third time this year, MIF 2011 will be even bigger and better than ever before. At least, that’s the impression I’m getting; I can’t comment on this with any real authority because I didn’t know the festival existed until a couple of months ago! But it’s absolutely huge, the colossal cultural elephant in the metropolitan room that is Manchester. This year it’s enlisting the talent of huge names like Björk, Snoop Dogg, Damon Albarn, Victoria Wood and even The Doctor. But despite its global reputation as the greatest festival that focuses on commissioning new work – be it visual art, music, theatre and/or dance – something is hampering students’ awareness of this groundbreaking sensation.

Perhaps it’s the very fact that, as a biennial festival, someone on a three-year degree course can only come across it a maximum of twice between freshers’ week and graduation. More likely, it’s that most students are at home while MIF is happening (this year it’s 30th June – 17th July). I wouldn’t dream of missing the action, though, even if it means spending a little less time at home this summer. As soon as I heard about it, I signed up to join the 400-strong team of volunteers that play a huge part in making the festival happen. Why is it that we students are so keen to spend three months at home, perhaps venturing out to a holiday destination but missing out on the amazing things that are going on in our university cities? After all, our relationship with these places is often not that close while we’re studying; why not make more of an effort when we’re free?

I think the bottom line here is that Manchester students miss out on great things like MIF because we just don’t get out enough! Alright, we get out enough to know where to get the most intoxicated for the least outlay; we might even be relatively familiar with the music scene; but how well do we really know Manchester? This whole rant is very hypocritical, I confess; I’ve still got a great deal to learn about this unconventionally beautiful city. But that’s the aim of the dissertation I’m about to start writing; I want to investigate whether Manchester has the cultural calibre to compete with the New Yorks and Viennas of this world. In other words, I’m hoping to prove why Manchester truly is international.

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