Postcard from London

Postcard from London

Navigating life (and music) overseas. 

Daniel Thomson
London, United Kingdom

Postcard from London

Navigating life (and music) overseas. 

Finally, we have some sunshine and warm weather! After this winter and spring I had almost forgotten what it was like to wear a t-shirt and shorts. I moved to London 2 years ago for so many reasons, but the weather does not get a mention! While I am soaking in as much sun as I can here, it makes me think back to why I moved. I have found it challenging both personally and professionally, but I have achieved a lot in this short time. In this city that can feel like it is bursting with people and ambitions, it’s nice to step back and look positively at what you have accomplished.

Looking back, at university I was exploring what I like to sing. I was mostly into historical performance practice and chamber music. Sometimes solo with lute or harpsichord, with a small instrumental group or vocal ensembles with each singer on individual lines. After I finished university, I worked freelance in Melbourne for a while until I felt I needed a change. I wanted to work with more musicians my own age, broaden my understanding of historical performance and travel more to places around Europe where the music I love originates from. I also wanted to try working as a freelance tenor without having another job on the side. With no language barrier, I knew London would need to be my base.

I saved up as much as I could over 3 years to cope with the expensive rent while I was looking for work. I travelled to Dartington International Summer School in Devon, UK and made as many contacts as I could. Then finally in 2015 my partner and I moved together. It was the most surreal experience hopping on the plane out of Melbourne. I was moving somewhere to start completely from scratch. No study or jobs lined up.

It was the most challenging thing I have ever faced.

Moving was a particular challenge for my relationship. We were both entirely out of our comfort zone, but we had committed to moving to another country together. The pressure was immense. In the end we found (surprise surprise) that communication was the key. Once we started to talk about the difficulties we were facing and what we were feeling, we didn’t feel so much like fish out of water. You will always be surprised at who is around and willing to help. There are so many Australians living in London already that I had more of a support network than I realized. All you have to do is make the effort to get in touch.

It takes some time to build up a new network from nothing, especially in the niche of “Early Music”. It is so easy to get frustrated with a lack of rewarding work and waiting for the snowball to roll down the hill. Thankfully, London has a lot going on. Through emailing directors, I sang in a church service three days after I arrived. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that you are basically running your own business and that it takes work and time for it to grow.

If you are willing to put your name forward, maintain a positive attitude and work hard, you can get on the right people’s radar. I am constantly seeking out instrumentalists to plan recitals with and directors I can audition for. Some good recordings and a performance CV have been essential. Also, I can’t tell you how many times you have to tell people “it was so great to work with you, do let me know if you need a tenor”. Cringe, I know, but necessary and totally genuine. I truly do love working with the fantastic musicians here and I’m always looking for more opportunities. 

It’s an amazing thing to be able to say that all of my work here has been from the effort I have put in networking. Being a freelance singer can be a varied and exciting job. Since moving I have deputized in at least 50 different church choirs and vocal ensembles including Westminster Abbey choir and the Tower of London. I have settled into a regular position at the beautiful church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, the oldest church in London. I am in an ensemble of my peers (soprano, tenor, recorders, lute, harp and viola da gamba) called Lux Musicae London where I get to sing some crazy divisions and get nerdy and enthusiastic about rhetoric in singing and instrumental playing. I also regularly get to sing with one of my idols, soprano Dame Emma Kirkby, in Dowland Works. I am about to join them for an artistic residency at Hawkwood College in Stroud. Fingers crossed the weather stays nice!

These gigs outside of London can be a blessing sometimes. Leaving London occasionally helps keep me grounded. With the high-pressure sight-reading work and sheer density of people in this city (the tube at peak time is quite an experience) it can become overbearing and you need to take time to look after yourself. Thankfully as musicians, we work in a job that brings new friends and new experiences constantly. I have started a part-time Master Diploma in Switzerland at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and I enjoy splitting my time between London and Basel. I can’t believe that in 2 years I have been lucky enough to have worked in Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Canada and I’m about to go back for some concerts at home in Melbourne. I have always loved travel and that is one of the things that drew me to singing music from many places around the world.

What I can safely say now is that I love living in London. I will be here for quite some time. Although I can’t wait to visit home. By the time you receive this, I will already be in Melbourne performing with my friends and colleagues in Ensemble 642 and the Woodend Winter Arts Festival. I’ll make sure I take time to have brunch every day though!