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Eminent Australian composer/pianist, Bill Risby,
responds to the question...

Bill Risby

May 2011

The Question:
Is a Musician's Life 'Normal'?

by Bill Risby share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

When confronted with writing an article this month I felt compelled to bring forward what is all consuming in my mind at the present, and that is our fate and security as musicians and how we put our faith in our uncertain future...

As a recording musician, I am constantly aware of the fragility of my tenure as a working man. My studio income is based on people's affinity with how I play the piano, and their trust in the hope that I can do it well and in a short period of time, and that what I play will "fit" with whatever is a fashionable sound of the day. As I don't bend in this regard I walk a fine line.

As an occupation, playing live music is the most irrational, and bordering on masochistic. It has no tangible value, and once it is played, it disappears into the ether and becomes a memory. Often our value as musicians is based on people's collective faded memories that have improved with time and conversation, and often suffering the same fate as Chinese whispers.

People sitting at home waiting for Julia Gillard to introduce the Carbon Tax aren't going to be thinking, "Gee whiz, we better go out and hear some jazz tonight", especially when they can't even pay their electricity bill. We are on the bottom of the list of priorities in middle Australia's list of "things to do", straight after 'change the cat litter...'

In three to six months my diary is empty... I am effectively unemployed. Life has been like this for twenty years or more, and is the norm for us... yet we live in the same way as most people: we have mortgages, we have cars, we have children we put through school who participate next to the others in sports and artistic activities, we live and love, we dine out, we take holidays. For whatever reason work for me just comes in when I need it, and often as late as a week or a day before.

Compared to this we have the bank teller or manager (a cliché I know) who gets 4 weeks holiday pay, sick pay, superannuation, long service leave, and can tell you what and where he/she will be in 30 years. Banks will lend them money for homes, cars, private schools Etc. without blinking an eye.

If I take a holiday or get a cold, or get hit by a car, I don't work, and I don't get paid.

We find ourselves with a residency on a Saturday night (rare as hen's teeth), and after 6 months the owner says "Don't come next week, we're not having live music anymore, there's no money in it." Later in the year we find ourselves playing with a well known artist spending extensive time with them on the road, and then we are told, "I've decided to change bands... you're sacked." If we have a nice outdoor Sunday afternoon gig the venue can call and say "It's raining, the gig's off." We don't get paid. We have no unfair dismissal, no six weeks notice, no work choices, or even a right of reply. We are expected to suck it and move on. The first few times it hurts, but then it becomes just a shoulder shrug, a thankful night at home with the family, and a gin and tonic. "whatever..."

After reading this many may wonder why anyone would do this for a living. Well despite the well known phrase, "I didn't choose it, it chose me", I consider myself lucky and honoured to be given this course in life, because I am actually LIVING. I've had a plethora of life experiences all over the world because of where music has taken me. I'm not dying in a small room under a fluorescent light working for a corporation that is feeding off my flesh (often without a word of thanks), waiting desperately for Friday to come along so I can dull my senses with alcohol.

We may be on the bottom of people's list of priorities but often we make people's lives worth living. If one person is moved or changed from music then our journey has been worthwhile.

We as musicians live in a community of caring generous people. We seem to have an intrinsic mutual understanding of each other and how difficult this life can be, and when the chips are down we rally together to help those of us in need. This has happened to me in the form of a fund raiser when I was sick (organised by Kere Buchanan), and it is happening next week for Kere, who was recently hit by a car and is still in hospital with serious injuries, unable to work now for a very long time. These thoughts in this article came to me because I don't want to think of how my musical (and for me, personal) life would be without Kere. We all carry on with our lives, but when we hear one of our "family" is in trouble, a thousand calls are made with offers of help and consolation, and as a consequence of this some of the best known artists in Australia have offered to come and sing and play so we can cover Kere for the next few months while he heals, at a benefit night for him on the 4th May, 2011 at the Unity hall Hotel, Balmain.

As mentioned earlier, we live precariously, often hanging on by our fingernails. We push all our uncertainties to the back of our mind choosing to ignore them, because otherwise we couldn't function or create music. Now we have had our uncertainties pushed forward in our face: it has happened overnight and it has shocked everybody, but the knowledge that we will come together for one our friends in need is a certainty which makes us who we are.

These words say it all. It is a quotation from John Donne (1572-1631). It appears in Devotions upon emergent occasions and seuerall steps in my sicknes - Meditation XVII, 1624:
"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

© 2011 Bill Risby

Have Your Say
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Although I never intended to draw attention to myself, thank you for your comments so far, but more to the point, for all of your support for Kere on the 4/5/11. We were able to help him get through the next few months I hope, and then we'll try and do it again.

Posted by Bill Risby on Monday 9 May 2011

Your thoughts resonate as always Bill and your music lingers in a room long after you finish playing. Some people who can't make it to the Kere benefit have asked to make donations. If this is the case donations can be made straight into this account: Westpac Bank, Acc name: K L Musa, BSB: 736 081, Acc #: 578438.

Posted by Tony King on Wednesday 4 May 2011

Well said Bill , Your beautiful article moved me just like your playing does . How sad to hear about Kere , i hope that he gets through this and he is back playing soon .  By the way , I will be there next wednesday with bells on.

Posted by Michel Rose on Monday 2 May 2011

Living in Perth I don't know Bill or Kere [but I do know David and Mark - I've f'warded details of Kere's benefit to Sydney friends] Bill's article is so so pertinent and it should be mandatory reading for every student either undertaking or considering to undertake a tertiary jazz/contemporary music course in Australia - depending on age it might help if the students' parents also read this piece.

Posted by Garry Lee on Sunday 1 May 2011

As someone who has experienced Bill's music both on and off the bandstand I can say with absolute certainty that his music has indeed uplifted people's lives for the better-certainly my own. I can relate to his comments on the uncertainty of the musician's day to day existence. I had a lovely meal out with my partner last night due to the last minute cancellation of a Saturday gig.....one days notice. This happens all the time and we do just suck it up and continue in the hope that another equally tenuous opportunity to play may present itself next whenever. My bank manager cannot move me in the same way Bill's music does, nor can I get a loan to buy anything substantial on the strength of my next 6 months work, but I wouldn't trade places with my bank manager for all the equity in China. The camaraderie that Bill speaks of is so much more real and reliable than all our residencies, gigs, tours and festivals. Keep up the good work Bill. Without the rush that your spontaneity brings me the day to day stuff is much harder to deal with.

Posted by David Pudney on Sunday 1 May 2011

Well said Bill.

Posted by Mark Isaacs on Sunday 1 May 2011
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