Interviews

Alex Aitken – Musical Director

"Seeing that you’ve inspired someone or a group of people and made a difference is a unique feeling that is like rocket fuel to do more."

Helena Nuttall

Fiona Scott Photography

“I’m a Conductor, Pianist and Teacher, and am currently the Children’s Musical Director on Mary Poppins in London, as well as the Assistant Musical Director at MK Chorale, and a Musical Director with the National Youth Music Theatre. Although, like many other musicians, almost all of my diary evaporated within several hours a few months ago.”

What do you wish you had known when you started out?

Oh gosh. So much. For me, I think it’s the importance of self-care and to have space to just be. But I think I should explain what on the surface appears quite fluffy and meaningless.

Mental health was never discussed when I was at university, and most institutions that train musicians focus too much on improving performing standard and learning repertoire, and never explore wellbeing. I find it bizarre – when you look after yourself and regularly have space, your musicianship grows; but I, like many musicians, have found that out the hard way. Music is an enormous field, and to succeed as a professional musician you need to be incredibly good at a very wide range of skills, and be able to play or sing pretty much any genre or style of music. Musicians at the beginning of their careers face enormous pressure; it’s one of the reasons why musicians never stop working. We’re also great communicators – we spend our lives communicating in sounds and gestures, so the spoken word is a natural extension of that. And of course we’re lucky that being a musician is inherently social; we are permanently surrounded by like-minded colleagues. Relationships between musicians are unique, and very different from professional relationships in other fields. Musical bonds often run very deep, having been enriched by shared performing, socialising, touring, or studying experiences; but our love, our job, our livelihood, and our hobby all merge into one mad and inescapable mess, and that’s where the problems start because so many musicians never stop.

There is an immense pressure on us, which we sometimes perceive but it’s mostly hidden behind all our deadlines, rehearsals, concerts, shows, music we’re currently working on, etc. It’s a pressure that goes with our livelihood: the treadmill of continually performing, learning new music, reevaluating our understanding of pieces or songs we’ve played or sung many times, maintaining our technique, listening more acutely than anyone else in the room, managing our careers, social media, etc. etc. Our brains whirr away continuously and, whilst it’s endlessly stimulating, it’ll only stop if we decide it should stop. For us there’s no such thing as leaving work at the office or closing a laptop and stopping work until the next morning. Regardless of whether you are a professional or amateur musician, or neither, everyone enjoys music in some form and music is part of everyone’s lives. We all have our favourite music that means something to us, and music is often what helps us all to unwind. But that’s the whole point for a professional musician – we can’t just switch off and watch the TV, or listen to the radio, or go to the cinema. We’ll be listening to the music in the background, analysing it (consciously or unconsciously), visualizing it, thinking about its interpretation. Even going out for dinner, there’s always the dreaded (and usually dreadful) background music.

So it really is quite hard for a musician to switch off, and it’s precisely because it’s so hard that many musicians don’t know how to do it. It’s almost like musicians need to be taught how to stop now and again for their own sanity. We should come with a health warning! But no-one ever explained that to me. I just naively thought that I would alternate between being a musician and being me, and that when I wasn’t working on a piece or in a rehearsal or in a show or whatever, I could just do other things. No-one explained to me that your head just gets more and more full of music as you keep going, that you get more and more worn out and less and less on the top of your game, even if you think that by continually ‘musicking’ you’re becoming better. No-one told me that if you don’t look after yourself you risk plateauing, regressing or, dare I say it, falling out of love with music. Neither did anyone explain the importance of physically looking after myself, particularly given that, being a conductor, pianist and organist, my hands, wrists, arms, elbows etc. never get much rest. Hence why so many musicians also silently struggle with physical pain as well as mental pressure. I still remember the excruciating pain I was in whilst performing my final recital for my degree. Unfortunately we tend to see it as an annoying side-effect of our job, instead of recognizing it as a sign that more self-care is needed. It would have had an immeasurably positive effect on me had someone explained this to me, or helped me to recognize warning signs and rationalise how I might feel at points in my early career.

So now I make sure that I walk regularly, eat and sleep reasonably well, and have periods of time without music playing; time to myself and my thoughts. I suppose it’s a form of meditating. Mental headspace away from as much sound as possible, and away from people. Giving myself permission to just be, to decompress and for my brain to stop whirring. But until a few years ago I would have been scared to stop ‘musicking’; I would have exerted self-pressure with unhelpful thoughts like ‘but you could have used that hour to work on that piece, to listen to such and such, do those jobs, or research blah and instead you’ve gone for a walk’. Having these few spaces in my week, even in a hectic one, means I’m better when I return to the world of music. I’m happier, more able to connect with what I’m doing, and able to move forward with energy – and those who know me will tell you that I have rather a lot of energy! So I think it’s really important that we temper the self-pressure that we all exert on ourselves in some way in our lives and balance it with self-care and nourishment, and allow ourselves space every now and then where we can just be. That, and seeing friends. Then it becomes easier to work towards things, to push ourselves to become better in the direction we want our life or career to take. Oh and one last rant: there are many good things about social media but it’s also a weapon and, until I turned off all notifications except for messages, it had control over me. Now I go on it when I want, and it’s made a phenomenal difference as well, particularly at the moment.

So can that work for people who aren’t in the world of music as well?

Yes, absolutely. I think of wellbeing as being like a glass of water: the inevitable challenges of each day and the energy that we expend gradually empties the glass, and sleep and stopping temporarily might fill the glass back up slowly, but the next day you may start with less water than you had the previous day, and so over time you just reduce the water level, and there’s still some of the old water left at the bottom every time you begin refilling. I think I spent quite a few years operating on the dust at the bottom of the glass, much to the worry of my family and friends! But self-care and stopping more frequently for longer also refills the glass, and if it’s a sufficiently long time you can even empty the glass, clean it and start again with fresh water. I also think of it as resetting, resting and recalibrating. An odd analogy, but it works for me. It would have made a huge difference. I think everyone should have a list of things or activities that fill up their glass or help to clean and look after it, and they should give themselves permission to just be every now and then, without the continual noise of life or pressure to be better. Especially at the moment.

What keeps you motivated on a day to day?

Teaching and coaching is a big factor for me, as I love making a difference. Seeing that you’ve inspired someone or a group of people and made a difference is a unique feeling that is like rocket fuel to do more. I love working with kids, because they’re so funny and it’s so easy to tell whether you’re inspiring them or not. And really it’s just an excuse for me to be silly with them, but get lots done at the same time, ideally without them realising it. I’m a big lists person as well, so being able to cross things off, however trivial, from a list makes me actually see that I’m moving forward, even if it feels like I’m not – that’s also a big motivating factor. And I’m so lucky to work with such amazing colleagues, both on Mary Poppins and outside of the show, who are not only fantastic musicians, actors and creatives, but also very inspiring to work alongside, hugely supportive, and great fun. Musicians are continually learning from each other, often without consciously realising, and so the environment of rehearsals, shows, academic work and teaching, and the perpetual variety means I’m never bored. I think that’s what it comes down to – life is too short to be bored, so variety keeps everything fresh, and each day is a chance to make a difference to someone (even if it’s yourself some days).

How do you cope with / conquer fear of failure?

Really interesting one for musicians, because we often have a distorted idea of what failure is. Failure to musicians is normally playing wrong notes, feeling inadequate next to someone who we feel is a better musician (they’re not better – they’re just another musician, with their own insecurities and challenges as well). I decided very early in my university years to aspire to be like other musicians who I admired, rather than to flip that around and let it become a sense of inadequacy. Otherwise I would have ended up in a horrible place; with such a big field, people are going to excel at different things, so you may as well learn from them, consistently strive to better yourself, and in turn you’ll likely inspire someone else.

I tend to have three criteria by which I judge whether I’ve failed: has anyone died, has the error or mistake gone out on national TV or radio, and is it irreparable or something that’s destroyed reputation? If any of these can be answered with ‘yes’, then it’s time to feel sad and permission can be granted to mope. BUT, in 99.9% of cases none of those apply, and so it’s not failure. It’s just something that’s happened that went against what you expected to happen, and you’re low because you hadn’t anticipated it, or think that you could have avoided it beforehand. What’s more important – playing a wrong note or three on a radio broadcast (guilty) or having had the opportunity to make music at that level? Everything that you initially think is a failure, other than fitting those three criteria, in whatever field you’re in, is likely to not be, and should be something you grow from and become better as a result of experiencing. Once you individually come to terms with that I think it makes it easier, but it involves detaching the objective and subjective. You may feel like something you’ve done has failed, or that you’ve failed, but that’s subjective and YOU think that. Objectively, many positive things may be there, and others may have not noticed, or not been affected by it. Why waste energy on negativity when that energy can instead be used to push forward positively?

Musicians are the first to criticize themselves, possibly partly because of the wellbeing stuff I talked about earlier. And there is a culture I think of always being expected to be on top of your game. Yet there’s a difference between always trying your best and aiming to be consistently outstanding, warm and generous as a musician, but with occasional unintentional slips; versus being exhausted from the self-pressure to be flawless because of perceived expectations, and making even more errors as a result. I think that applies to most people and not just musicians.

More widely I think social media has really damaged society in that regard, because of the expectation to put up appearances increases the void between perception and reality, and some begin to detect the size of that void as the representation to which they themselves have ‘failed’. A ‘look at me I’m living my best life’ on social media may mask and exacerbate loneliness, under-confidence, or fear of being perceived as ‘failing’, whatever that is. And that’s not on. I now only use social media for chronicling my own professional music activities, or for silly composer facts or music stories, and for anything that’s happened to me that is funny and that I think will cause a smile to someone who may be having a meh day. That, combined with turning off push notifications, and only going on social media every other time that I think of it, has made an enormous difference. I now have control over it instead of it over me, and by limiting my output to only professional or funny, and not reposting silly videos etc. I have found I am more present in the world. As in I feel more like me, rather than sucked permanently into this foggy void ruled by the need for self-approval and having your existence validated by people who you haven’t spoken to in far too long. Social media for musicians is part of the job – it’s that delicate balance of self-promotion and just reminding people in your musical world that you exist and are getting better and may be useful to them. Which of course is I guess self-validation, but in a professional not personal way; and that’s the difference.

So for me I always aim to be able to look back and say I could not have worked any harder. As long as I can say that, hand on heart, then the result and the outcome of whatever happens matters less. If I look back and feel bad about a lack of preparation or effort, then that’s when I think I’ve failed, but even then you grow from mistakes. So I place more importance on the process instead of the outcome. Then if the outcome is not what I had hoped for or wanted, then looking back becomes about analysing what you can take from it going forward, not feeling bad about yourself or your ability. Easier said than done of course, but over time you can train yourself. I did!

I think it’s also vital that we all know that it’s ok to not be ok, and this is not a weakness; it’s a sign you’re empathetic, in touch with how you feel and, frankly, are human. Talking things through with one or two trusted friends, or writing stuff down and burning or shredding it after is immensely good for cleansing the mind. I’ve learnt not to bottle things up, although it took a long time for me to train myself not to do that as well. Maybe that’s another thing I wish I’d known earlier. Life’s too short to beat yourself up.

A book you think everyone should read, and why?

OH NO! So many. Can I have two?! Well I think The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is a must read – really interesting concept of an investigative journalist teaming up with a neuroscientist to try and understand why, for example, so many top Brazilian footballers came out of an under-resourced and smaller-sized club in a Brazilian favela. Or a squad of top ballet dancers emerging from a Russian shack in the middle of nowhere with no money. They also look at musicians. In other words, understanding where ‘talent’, and peoples’ wrong perception of it, comes from, but explained through the observational and neuroscience perspective. It was the best book I read in 2017 for its thought-provoking ideas that really linked up so many of my thoughts about how to learn and get better at things. Talent is environmental, combined with hard work, and expert coaching that fosters and enables a skill rather than dictates mistakes. I don’t believe people are born talented, and I get annoyed by people’s insistence that natural talent exists. They’ve just worked hard, and had various triggers that have spurred them on further. Quite often it’s at a young age where they don’t realise they’re working hard, because they love it. But the core ingredient is hard work. Young footballers, artists, musicians, actors; anyone who is perceived to be highly-skilled has worked hard because they love it, and then because they see themselves getting better they love it more, so work harder, and it becomes a positive cycle. No-one is better or worse than you – they’ve just had a different life so far, and you’ve got just as much to offer to them as they have to you. The secret I guess is accepting that, and The Talent Code was quite pivotal in cementing my thoughts and actions. Would thoroughly recommend it.

And secondly Jane Eyre. Because it’s so beautifully written, reminds you of the small things you take for granted, has so many themes applicable to today, and is so incredibly moving. Probably not what you were expecting me to say.

Do you have any advice for people who are struggling as a result of the current circumstances?

Yes. Make a long list. A very long list. Things that make you happy; things that you want to change. Things that you’re grateful for; things that could be worse. Things that could be better; things you want to do in your life. Things you must accept and cannot change; habits you want to break. Habits you want to encourage. Things you want to get better at. Watch live theatre and opera being streamed and support it with a small donation. Read up on the great artists in the Arts, learn something new. See friends; walk and read. Sort, declutter, reset. Just use 2020 as the time to be, and know that so many in the world are also currently on pause. We will emerge from all this better and stronger, but this is the time to put that into motion so that you personally can emerge with a ping in 2021, all shiny and ready for the next adventures.

How would you sum up your approach to each day?

I have a quote on my wall: ‘Have I gone mad? I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret – all the best people are.’ It’s of course from Alice in Wonderland, but I love it, because it reminds me to just be me. I also think about the things I want to do by the end of each month, then divide that down to each week, which gives me a rough shape of things I want to do each day. It gives me structure in an otherwise structureless time. Then I can feel at the end of each day that I’ve achieved something. And if I’ve had a blob day where I haven’t felt like working or doing anything really, then that’s ok.

2 comments

  1. What an incredible article. One I shall read over and over again and try to put into practice.
    Thank you.

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