Work and Play

“What do you do?”

Ever since I’ve started doing this Japan freelance thing, this question has become a minefield.

There are two answers I give. 1) “I’m a harpist, who does some other stuff on too.” This answer gets some searching looks and questions to determine whether I’m a ‘legitimate musician’ by that person’s standards. Sometimes I pass the legit test (I have a music degree, I earn money with the harp), sometimes I fail (I don’t play in an orchestra, I have other jobs).

So I don’t like giving that answer because I don’t like facing this scrutiny in the first five minutes I meet a new person. But the other answer is… sort of insufferable.
“There are several things I do to make money and the proportion of my income they makes varies from month to month. These include playing the harp, music teaching, English teaching, modelling, English checking, writing and leading ‘English through Musical Theatre’ workshops. (Ok, the last one happened a grand total of twice but it was really fun, I want to do it more!)”
You see the problem? I’m not arrogant enough to think that a stranger wants to hear that much detail about my life.

People like to pigeon hole, I get it. Pigeon holing saves a lot of time. And there are people for whom things are very simple; they have a ‘profession’ such as doctor, lawyer, vet, teacher, and they go to work and then they go home. Good for them. But haven’t you noticed that, in our late capitalist dystopia, the boundaries are becoming blurred? Certain jobs are ceasing to exist, new ways of making money pop up, what was once secure and now predictable has become uncertain and random. What even is ‘work’ anyway?

Sometimes it seems there is almost an inverse correlation in how difficult a job is and how much I earn. One of the times I worked the hardest in my life was a year doing an internship in classical music PR and the pay was below minimum wage. Sometimes I feel guilty calling that position a ‘job’ because the pay was so low. But of course it was! I had responsibilities, I achieved things, I performed a service. I was a damn sight more productive than in many of the ‘real jobs’ I’ve had. On the other hand, sometimes I’ve played harp at wedding receptions for £50+ an hour and I feel like a sack of potatoes could do the job as long as we put it in a nice dress and sat it behind the harp. No one is listening, everyone is drunk and talking super loud. Sometimes I’m sure that I could just play scales and no one would care. I don’t of course, because I try to be professional, but chances are I would get away with it.

And it’s not just me. I have friends with well paid, respectable jobs who have admitted to me that on a normal 8.5 hour day they do about 3 hours of actual work. I’ve done temping in offices too and I’ve got so bored on occasion that I learned basic coding and a lot about the autonomous constituent country of Greenland. A friend started a translation job in Japan and spent a month being paid for absolutely nothing because his managers didn’t know what to do with him. The office had some manga hanging around of franchises they had translated for so he ended up being paid decent money for spending 3 weeks reading manga, which was encouraged by his employers because they felt bad for not giving him any work.

My point is that we all know that the links between productivity, skill and how much you earn is kind of bullshit. And yet, and yet if we can’t put our finger on someone’s ‘profession’ it makes us uncomfortable. And sometimes, if we can’t name a defined profession for ourselves, we get uncomfortable too. But I’m done with that.

I’m not much of a leftist but I studied some leftist thinkers at university and their thought is really useful to me in how I conduct my life. Why should the thing that earns us the most income be defined as our ‘profession?’ Ok, I’ll admit, I’m not earning the majority of my money from performing harp at the moment, but practicing, performing and networking still take up more of my time and passion than anything else so why not call myself a harpist? Capitalism tells me that I should want to make all of my money from my playing, and if I don’t I’m not a ‘real’ musician. Maybe that would be nice, and I haven’t turned down a paid gig yet but to be honest I’m not completely sure I would even want to be a 100% full time harpist. I’m a curious person with a broad skill set who enjoys variety in their life and my various income revenues allow me to life flexibly and comfortably. But still, sometimes I feel like society wants to make me feel like if I can’t pigeon hole myself as a 100% professional harpist, I’m a failure.

As much as the gig economy probably isn’t the best thing, I think while it’s here I might as well make it my bitch. At least for now. I’m not pretending that there may come a time when I want simplicity, security and simple tax returns. But for now, I’m loving life.

If you’re say, an oil painter, who’s never earned a quid for your art in your life, but you think lots about oil painting, you spend lots of time oil painting, and oil painting is what you love to do, then feel free do answer the “What do you do?” question with, “Oil painting” instead of your so-called “day job.” Whatever you want. And if you’re a lawyer and lawyering is your jam, and that is how you make your money, great! Call yourself a lawyer. Call yourself anything. Do what you want, I don’t care.

I actually think the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’ can be very harmful, especially for the creatives amongst us. I know so many people who loved playing their instruments when they were in secondary school when it was ‘just play.’ Usually high quality play, but still ‘just for fun.’ Then they go to music college to become ‘professionals’ and suddenly it’s serious business.  It’s now work not play so they’re feeling the heaviness and they lose all the joy they used to get from their art. And ironically enough, often their playing gets worse because performance anxiety, muscle tension, exhaustion and conservatoire bitching isn’t the best recipe for a great stage presence.

I’ve done some of my best playing and songwriting when I’ve been light and playful about it. Same goes for a my other work actually, especially my teaching. Children are playful by nature so when I get it into my head that ‘I am going to be THE BEST music teacher and deliver a HIGH QUALITY LESSON because these parents are PAYING A LOT for it,’ it usually doesn’t go down that well. But if I take the pressure of myself, stop worrying if I deserve what I’m getting paid and just get really enthused about my lesson plan and the kids then I can deliver like no one’s business.

The work and play distinction is also harmful because it gets the idea into our heads that work = something we should try hard at, and play = anything outside of work; we don’t need to put in any effort because it’s ‘free time.’ No! Have you seen children playing? Have you seen how seriously they take it? Take play seriously! If you enjoy something give it your time, your attention and your passion even if you’re not getting paid. Show up on time for your band rehearsal. Learn a language, even if that means you need to get up early to practice kanji for 15 minutes every morning. Go to football practice even if you’re tired. Throw fantastic themed parties even if it’s ‘effort’ to clean up your house and make a costume. Do whatever is your jam.  And you will make things of value, form friendships and create an identity outside of your ‘work.’

People who don’t take play seriously are often in danger of becoming the most boring, passive consumers. Of course, sometimes you’re working long ass hours and you really don’t have any time. And if your job is fulfilling you, all of you, great! But to be honest, most of my most successful friends (and this time, I mean ‘conventionally successful,’ not a ‘are you fulfilled’ definition by a dirty hippy like me), are the ones who take play most seriously. The doctor who who plays the oboe. The boy-wonder academic who still has time to paint. The executive who cooks amazing food from scratch every night. Maybe life’s winners aren’t the ones who are martyring themselves, working so hard, but those who are curious and take life lightly.

In the words of Mother Teresa,
“Life is a game. Play it.”

julia mascetti freelance harp

Freelance Harpist In Tokyo

I’ve officially started working as a freelance harpist in Tokyo!

After a month back home in the UK I arrived back in Tokyo mid-May and have been spending my time setting everything up as a freelance musician. My visa is sorted, I have shiny new business cards and I have spent the last week contacting agencies, wedding planners, high end restaurants and corporations to secure my profession. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have these opportunities!

For those who don’t know my story, I went to Tokyo after graduating with a BA in Music. I taught English for 6 months before I changed job and became a music teacher. During this time I was certainly not idle with my harp playing – I played a lot of live shows, I released a solo EP and recorded another EP with my band that will be out very soon. I received many offers to play at weddings and paid events but with my previous visa I was not permitted to take paid freelance engagements. This was such a shame as one of the ways I paid my way through university was playing at weddings and the like and I always really enjoyed the work. I also saw a gap in the market amongst expats who are organising events and may feel more comfortable with musicians who speak their language. Especially Brits who are missing the wonderful celtic folk music from our country!

So because I’m always looking for ways to move forward in life/masochistically enjoy making things difficult for myself, I started to think about changing my visa yet again so that I could be a freelance harpist in Japan. I’m happy to say that I was approved! Setting up as a freelance musician is scary but also hugely exciting. I’m also still teaching early years music at a lesson studio and Tokyo American Club which was always a lot of fun but actually I’m enjoying all the more now that it’s not my main job. I brought my harpsicle lap harp with me from the UK and I’ve got a lot of ideas how to incorporate it in my lessons with the little ones.

I’m definitely going to be in Japan and available for freelance work at least until May 2018 so if you are getting married in Tokyo or the surrounding area, you have an event that could be brightened up with a harpist or you would like a session harpist for a recording, feel free to contact me! It’s juliamascetti at gmail.com

Freelance British Harpist in Tokyo

 

 

Taking my Harpsicle Harp on a Plane to Tokyo

“Don’t, whatever you do, put your harp in the hold.”
The advice of pretty much every musician ever.

As both an expat and a harpist, my life choices have not exactly made things easy in terms of moving my stuff around. Once last year I did a gig as solely a vocalist and it was incredible. No faffing about with taxis, no desperate attempts to take my harp on public transport. I actually went to the pub afterwards and didn’t have to ask in Japanese if they have a back room where I can put my lever harp while I drank with the band. My old car made things a lot easier but I sold him to come to Japan. I also have a beautiful pedal harp being rented out 6000 miles from here that I pine for occasionally but getting her out here is next to impossible.

Taking my harpsicle on a plane though, would not be impossible. For those who don’t know, harpsicles are small harps that you can carry around with you, are often painted in fun colours and you can plug them in easily. I have one, it’s purple and I love it. I could think of so many uses for it in my Tokyo life – on stage with my metal band so I could perform standing, in my work as a Kindermusik teacher and any casual rehearsal where I could get away without the faff of moving my large lever harp.

On their website, Harpsicle® Harps describe how professionals have started using their harpsicles as their “travel harp,” “the one they can toss into the airline overhead while their big harp is trapped in a massive harp travel trunk.” So I was hopeful that I could take my harp on the plane with me on my flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda. I looked on some flight and music forums and found that people had had very mixed experiences taking their harpsicles on planes and I started to be more concerned. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I had presumed that it would be allowed on with me and then be turned away at security – with the choice of either leaving my harp behind or chucking it into the hold with only a soft case (which is NOT an option at all).

So I called British Airways, gave them my harpsicle’s dimensions and asked if it could come with me in the cabin. The short answer was no and the long answer was no. I didn’t have a hard case as Harpsicle® Harps don’t make them and I didn’t wanted to spend the money required for a custom made case as it would probably cost more than the harp.

So my Dad and I set about making a cardboard construction to keep my baby harp safe in the hold.

First we wrapped the harp and its softcase in  4 layers of bubble wrap…
harpsicle harp bubble wrap plane

Then we constructed cardboard around the harp. Making it so it fit tightly around the irregular shape was harder than it looks. Again we used several layers for protection.

harpsicle harp cardboard plane tokyo

Finally we used a tonne of tape and then added fragile tape and a contents label in English and Japanese.

harpsicle harp tokyo fragile
The packing process took a little more than an hour. It did occur to me that if customs told me to unwrap this I would be royally screwed. Luckily, I got through with only a few odd looks and some questions. My real concern, however, was whether my harp would be damaged. Every musician I had chatted with had looked at me in horror when I had told them my intention of putting my harp in the hold. It took me 20 minutes and 3 papercuts to free my baby harp from it’s cardboard case but when I got it out it was undamaged and even mostly in tune. Victory.

It’s been really satisfying bringing my purple harpsicle to work and rehearsals this week and I recorded my first youtube video with it in years last weekend. It’s Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran and I’m not as ashamed of this as I should be.

 

Kyoto in the Spring

I took my parents to Kyoto because they came to Japan in the spring and where else would you rather be?

The first thing I will admit about the gateway to old Japan is that, yes, it is crowded during cherry blossom season. But if you are willing to step off the beaten track you can still find those hushed moments of zen like calm that the ancient capital promises.

2016-03-28-18-57-07
Dinner served to our room in the ryokan

I wanted my parents to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan (hostel) and booking was a  nightmare even though I started the process early. Many ryokans aren’t on the internet yet so I searched for a place and booked through Japanese Guest Houses. To be honest their system isn’t super convenient but it may well be your best bet, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. We ended up staying in the Ischicho Shogikuen which wasn’t my first choice but was still lovely. I really recommend going for the full ryokan experience if you can – futons, tatami mats, sliding doors and Japanese cuisine served to your room. My parents had a couple of reservations about the food and my Dad sleeping on a futon with a bad back but they loved every minute.

I recommend walking between your destinations as much as you can because Kyoto is the kind of place where interesting things happen in between. There’s a small art gallery or a charming independent coffee shop on every corner.

The Famous Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple.

2016-03-29-09-23-14-1
Ginkakuji (which I prefer to its more famous brother, Kinkakuji)
2016-03-29-10-41-37
Definitely walk along the Philosopher’s Path to get from Ginkakuji to Nazenji

 

It’s lovely walking around town as it starts to get dark. Oh and we did see a geisha- she was actually locked out of the building she was trying to get into, desperately ringing the bell and trying to remain graceful as the tourists crowded around her. I didn’t take a photo as it was actually quite alarming to watch the cameras swarm like flies and I felt sorry for her, so you’ll have to take my word for it that she was really, incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately I think hoardes of tourists goes with the Kyoto territory at this point but Kyoto was still able to capture my imagination.

2016-03-29-09-06-57

Performing with Die Milch

Sometimes you have moments when you look around you and think, “My life is utterly ridiculous.” Standing in the changing room at The Quarter Note, Shinokubo, waiting to perform with Die Milch, dressed in Lolita fashion and surrounded by girls in even more outrageous outfits is near the top of my list.

“What kind of things do you get me into?!” says long-suffering boyfriend holding his viola and also waiting to perform. Unlike me, boyfriend is not into alternative-fashion in the slightest so his ouji stage outfit, complete with subtle frills, was a new look for him. One I was enjoying immensely.

How on the earth did two scruffs from Essex come to perform with a neo-classical Gothic Lolita outfit in Tokyo? A lot of hanging around at gigs mostly. I’d been a fan since last summer when I was told about Die Milch’s London gig. I almost didn’t go as it was a Sunday night and I was feeling lazy about doing the drive up the M11 to Islington. You can bet I’m glad I made the effort now! After that we went to a gig of theirs in Ikebukuro in the autumn where we got chatting to a friendly fan who was organising a car share to a special Die Milch birthday gig in Shizuoka and did a very good job of convincing us to come along. It was a great excuse to go to Shizuoka and at that gig the band were kind enough to invite us to go for seafood with them. Over dinner, we got chatting to Coco, the band’s keyboardist and vocalist and told her that we play the harp and viola respectively and she asked if we wanted to perform as guests in a performance. Whilst this was very exciting, it’s not exactly unusual for musicians to go ooh when I say I play the harp and nothing to come of it so I didn’t get my hopes up. But a couple of months later, she sent us an email with our parts and gave us the date of the concert! As long as our playing was up to scratch, this was happening!

I’m not ashamed to say that it turned out that ‘getting our playing up to scratch’ was no easy feat. Die Milch are real pros and pros in the classical sense – no offense meant to pop musicians, but difficult classical music demands boss technique. Our parts weren’t easy, we didn’t go to music college and we have day jobs so we worked really hard to get up to level. And when performance day came I was still terrified – if I cock up performing by myself it sucks but if I messed up on this stage I would not only let down a professional band but one which I hugely respected as a fan.

13082098_10154845185068327_1125241944_n
Definitely the first time I wore pink frills since about the age of 6…

The theme for the gig was ‘Doll Special’ and so the other artists were suitably beautiful and doll like. The openers were colorpointe, a group who fuse singing and ballet with an alternative twist. They were followed by JULiC, a fabulously dressed gothic rock band. I really enjoyed chatting with these lovely people backstage and both of their live sets were fantastic. We were playing on sad~悲しき王子のため息~, a neo-classical instrumental on Die Milch’s latest album Imperial. Luckily, I did not vomit in terror on stage/break my harp strings/play in the wrong place and the crowd responded well to us and Coco’s typically fantastic MC-ing.

A real highlight for me was the fans of Die Milch. Even though my boyfriend Arthur Rei and I were only temporary members of the band they were so kind to us. A friend of Coco’s hand made me a beautiful ring to wear on stage to match the rest of the ladies in Die Milch. Afterwards members of the audience came up to us to chat and one kind gentleman told us that the song we were in was the best piece of the night!

I would like to thank Coco and the rest of Die Milch for this amazing opportunity. I feel like I learnt so much from you – not only musically but about how gigs work in Japan.

I hope to do more collaborations like this one in the future!

All photos taken by Yuki Yoshida

13081695_10154845185598327_261192935_n

Performing in a Metal Band in Japan

In the autumn I posted about joining a heavy metal band in Japan and a few weeks ago we had our first gig together! Post is super late due to a trip to Kyoto with my family and several other significant occurrences which will no doubt be blogged about in due course.

My band’s name is Gjöll and we play melodic metal. I joined the band as part of a drastic line up change, which has resulted in a dramatic change in sound. They had one release before I joined and we’re currently in the process of recording another, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to blog about what it’s like to go into the studio in Japan!

Our gig was at the Crescendo Live House in Kichijoji and we were honoured to play alongside some amazing acts including the awesome Aresz from Osaka who have been playing together for over 20 years. We had our soundcheck and rehearsal then I went off to enjoy the nearby Studio Ghibli museum in the hours before the gig.

Sound-checking in Japanese is an anxiety button of mine. I don’t like doing it in the UK either because sound engineers rarely know what to do with the harp and there’s only so many times you can say, “I still need more in the monitors,” before you start to annoy people. But in Japanese it’s even worse, what with all of the specific vocabulary and because the distance between me and the sound engineers means that I can’t rely on my usual hand gestures and significant looks to make up for my poor language skills. But I got through it and I was very impressed with the professionalism of the Crescendo’s staff.

It’s less common to see foreigners in smaller music venues than in larger gigs (where sometimes we dominate the audience…) but if I’m the only non-Japanese in the room it doesn’t bother me at all, obviously. What I do find excruciatingly embarrassing is when the bands point it out… from the stage. Believe it or not, this happens almost every time I go to a concert in a small venue. The last visual kei gig I went to one of the bands said こんばんは to the audience and then looked directly at me to say ‘Good evening,’ causing everyone to turn around and stare. I know this is kindly meant but it makes me wish a trap door would open underneath me. So when Rumiko, the gorgeous singer from Aresz comments on the ‘international’ nature of the audience and apologised for not being able to speak English the Britishness in me could not handle it. “Please, please don’t apologise! You are not expected to change anything your amazing band does in any way on my account!”

We were on last and thankfully everyone stuck around so we played to a nice crowd. I was pretty nervous – not only was this my first gig with them it was the first time I had sung without the harp in front of an audience in ages. Even though singing with the harp is very complicated, I guess I feel I can hide behind it. But there was such a friendly atmosphere in the audience and we had been practicing really hard which gave me confidence. I really enjoyed performing and I can’t wait for the next one!

Gjöll Japan live
Maybe I was getting the gig confused with my yoga class with this backbend…. Photo credit: Gjöll

Performing at the Aoyama Moon Romantic

In September I wrote a review of one of my favourite Japanese bands, Mushi Furuu Yoru Ni. As well as their stunning performance, I was also enchanted by the venue – The Aoyama Moon Romantic (青山 月見ル君想フ). The Moon Romantic is a ‘live house’ (Japanese English for gig venue) in Omotesando with idiosyncratic yet ever-so-trendy décor including a FRICKIN HUGE MOON behind the stage. When I was awed by that gig in September I didn’t think that I would be playing my harp at the very same amazing venue 6 months later.

A couple of months ago, my boyfriend decided he wanted to start gigging in Japan and so started sending out his music to various live houses. On a whim, he chose to send his EP to the Moon Romantic, not thinking that they would want an unknown to them to perform. Surprisingly, they wrote back really quickly, saying that they would love to have him play just two months later! We often play together, though it’s more common for him to play on my music than vice versa, or for us to play covers together. We wanted this gig to be special so we decided it was time to reverse roles. We had fun figuring out which songs would work with a sprinkle of harp or female backing vocals. A couple of weeks practicing and plugging the gig to our friends and followers flew by and then it was show time!

harp tokyo metro
Me looking super grumpy on the train after carrying my harp in the rain

A less glamorous part of the day was walking from Meiji-jingumae station to the gig with harp, keyboard and the rest of our gear. Believe it or not, taxi prices are even worse in Tokyo than London and so my spindly arms and I were hating life a bit. Mostly I can do fine living without a car but it’s times like this when I really miss my bashed up Vauxhall Vectra.

harp backstage Aoyama Moon Romantic
When you’re instrument is a little too big for the backstage room…

When we got there everything was great though. The venue’s set up and treatment of my harp (something I always worry about outside the classical arena) was really professional. Something I’ve noticed when hanging around gigs in Japan so far is that soundcheck appears to be more thorough – I’m used to the, “Is it plugged in? Good,” approach but sound engineers in Japan sometimes want you to run through your entire set. I really enjoyed chatting with the bands backstage, and they were kind about my harp taking up more than it’s fair share of space…

It was both of our first times performing to such a large crowd in Japan so we were nervous. In the end though, we had a lot of fun on stage and our set was well received. Performing in such a beautiful venue felt magical. The other acts were all of a really high standard and we felt proud to be able to play alongside them! I would particularly recommend checking out Mami Kawamae, an impressive vocalist with a lot of energy and large presence for a solo act.

Here’s a video of us playing one of Arthur’s songs spaces. We really hope we can perform here again!