Performing with the Breton Symphony Orchestra - attitudes to pregnancy in the professional world
I've just returned from a wonderful week in Rennes, Brittany performing with Calan and the brilliant Breton Symphony Orchestra. It was an utterly thrilling experience performing our music alongside this world-class orchestra under the direction of Grant Llewellyn. The sheer joy I felt sharing the stage with this 45-strong orchestra, my fellow bandmates, and harpist Catrin Finch will remain with me for a long time, and is without doubt a huge career highlight.
There was of course the presence of one extra person on stage with us, and that was my unborn baby - now 24 weeks, and quite visible from my newly rounded figure. I felt proud to be stood up there with her in my tummy, and I look forward to telling her that she was there for these two rousing performances of "Druides et Dragons" at the Couvent des Jacobins.
On day one of rehearsals the conductor, Grant Llewellyn, a warm-hearted and assertive man from Tenby originally, was the first to acknowledge the bump. I was glad he'd addressed it as I realised I must surely look pregnant now, and not just a chubbster who's eaten too many French pastries and Breton crêpes (of which admittedly make the most of during my visit!)
He told me something lovely, which instantly made me feel at ease. He said, "some of the best musicians I've ever worked with have been pregnant women. Especially singers. There's a certain warmth, openness and honestly that comes directly from within, and shines through in their performances. It's quite special."
"Some of the best musicians I've ever worked with have been pregnant women..."
Referring to the bump, the principal flautist also asked me how I was feeling. We spoke about family, his three children, and how proud he was of them and what they're achieving.
I was also grateful to Catrin Finch for speaking so openly to me about her own experiences as a Mumsician. My concerns about travelling with a little one, are real, but "you figure it out," was her advice. In reality, you're only on stage for an hour or so each night, and with support it's perfectly possible. Catrin is a shining example of a strong, successful and brilliant Mumsician. "The difficulty comes as they get older," she said, "when they start school and when routine becomes important." Her children are now at an age when they miss her when she's away, which she admitted was difficult. Even going away for this trip, she told me that her nine-year-old daughter was upset to see her go.
It must take strength and courage to be a Mumsician. Not only for the mother, but the children also. I have my own memories of seeing my own mother and father going away for gigs, and being upset to see them go. When would they be back? Who would plait my hair? Who will cook food for us, and will I like the food? I wonder how I'll feel when I have my own little ones at home missing their Mam....
I was in constant awe of these musicians during our stay in Rennes; my heart pounded in rehearsals, and I felt quite inadequate as a musician next to them. But as soon as some one acknowledged the bump, I would relax and the barrier would come down. Being pregnant no longer felt like a hindrance, but rather a key to connecting with the human side of these otherwise un-touchable musicians. I was glad to engage in conversations with people about parenthood. Any anxieties that I had about pregnancy and the professional music world faded away in an instant.
I was glad to engage in conversations with people about parenthood. Any anxieties that I had about pregnancy and the professional music world faded away in an instant.
It was great speaking to these people about the realities of parenthood, but in fact, considering how many people I worked with this week, from the performers, to the orchestral managers, to the venue technicians - the majority didn't mention anything about the bump. There may well have been a language barrier - or could it be the music industry in general?
When I'm not performing, I do a lot work a lot in schools. When I walk into a new school where no one knows me, the majority of staff will say something about the bump and congratulate me. Admittedly there are a lot more women working in schools who will have had their own children, but it's a different professional world. I'd like more people in the music industry to be cool with talking about pregnancy. Because those few people who engaged with me in Rennes made me feel ten times better about my situation, and professional standing.
But perhpas the barriers are all in my own head. Why would being pregnant make me less of a musician, or less serious about my career?
Many people have asked me recently whether I'm going to slow down. This is a constant reminder that perhpas I won't be able to continue with my career at the same rate as it's going at the moment, and that fills me with fear. I don't want to slow-down, but I realise I may need to re-address the work-life balance when the time comes. It may mean being selective about the work I take on. But one thing is for sure, if I can get more work like I've had this week with the Breton Symphony Orchestra, I'd be a very happy Mumsician!
More about the performance...
My friend and band-mate Patrick Rimes arranged the music for the orchestra, and he smashed it! I've heard a few other collaborations between folk musicians and orchestras and I can't say I've ever been over impressed by them. I enjoy both genres, but combining them doesn't necessarily work. This however, was quite different and I think it's down to the fact that Patrick has a command of both genres. He's a highly trained classical musician, who has a sensitivity and understanding for traditional music. He managed to bring the two worlds together in a winning fusion - it was thrilling, mesmerising, exciting - all the positive adjectives!
It was also very exciting to hear my own compositions, namely Madame Fromage and 'Dolig Abertawe (which I've recorded with Calan, and with DnA: Delyth & Angharad Jenkins respectively) played by the orchestra.
I was pretty nervous about the two performances at the Couvent des Jacobins, a glorious new concert hall for Rennes. The main concert hall holds around 1000 people, and it was almost at full-capacity for both performances on the 6th and 7th March 2019. The audience were mostly a classical audience, who knew when to clap, and did so respectively.
I listened in to part of Elgan Llyr Thomas's performance and Catrin Finch's new composition for harp and strings called Celtic Concerto, which was absolutely stunning.
By the second half, we tried to shake things up a bit, by bringing a bit of a festival vibe to the concert hall, with Bethan's clog dancing, up-beat tunes and relaxed chatter. Patrick walked around the orchestra, engaging with some of the players like a rock star. The principal violinist, Fabien, loved it, but some of the players didn't know what to do! I suppose it's quite risqué and unusual in this classical setting to engage like this with the orchestral players!
I had a good view of the audience from the stage, and I could see into the white of their eyes. There were quite a lot of young people there who were smiling, and nodding their heads to the beat. They seemed to be enjoying it!
45 minutes later, at the end of the two Suites, we took a bow and left the stage. Grant, the conductor followed us off the stage, before leading us back on for a second bow, then a third, then a fourth, until we'd lost count! The audience didn't seem to want to stop! We hadn't prepared an encore, so we repeated Kân. It was only after that, and oner final bow which we all luxuriated in, that Grant lead the orchestra off stage which marked the end of the concert.
The whole thing was a wonderful, thrilling, nerve-wracking and exciting experience, and one which I'll cherish for years to come, and hopefully one day re-live with my daughter when she's older.
We drove back to Wales the following day, which was a 17 and a half hour journey. I drove, myself, Patrick and Shell from Rennes to Dieppe, we then took the 4-hour ferry to Newhaven, and then I drove back to Swansea, dropping the other two off in Cardiff en route. I felt tired, but pleased that I'd managed such a long journey, so heavily pregnant. I'm tired today, but I feel strong, powerful, capable and grounded. I'm feeling positive about this Mumsician venture. Bring it on!