And the band played on

For musicians, summer means al fresco performances. But the British weather and unruly audiences can conspire to dampen spirits, says Jessica Duchen

At their best, outdoor summer concerts are fun for everybody. At their worst, the conditions in which the musicians have to operate, combined with long journeys and difficult programmes often catastrophically under-rehearsed, all for payment that is little more than an insult, can mean that disgruntlement is the best they can hope for.

A rank-and-file musician is usually paid £80 for such a day, including the performance, a three-hour rehearsal and the time it takes to travel to the often out-of-the-way venues. These concerts are known in the profession as "muddy-field gigs". The biggest hazard - which will come as no surprise - is the British "summer" weather. We have all shivered our way through such concerts under umbrellas.

"You spend a lot of time leaping around after the sheets of your music as they blow away," Jane, a harpist, says. "One time it rained so hard that a lake formed in front of the stage, and outside buses were turning over in the mud."

Michael, a violinist, tells stories of driving rain across the platform during Rossini's William Tell Overture - "Never had the storm music seemed so appropriate!" - and doing gigs "wearing long johns and jeans under my concert suit".

Jane faces all kinds of extra problems in transporting her instrument: harps are large, expensive and heavy. "I always try to drive the harp up to the stage's back entrance, and once I drove over the central power cable and all the electricity went off! I often have to be towed back to the road afterwards because otherwise I get stuck in the mud with the car wheels going round and round. And if you're on a beach you have to watch out for the tides." Things can get worse still. "A few weeks ago," Jane adds, "a bird shat on my harp. Right into the mechanism. It's almost impossible to clean it out."

One violinist recalls a Last Night of the Proms programme during which his valuable Italian instrument was damaged by some flying Smarties from the audience. Another musician has just experienced an outdoor concert in the north of England at which an excessively jingoistic presenter, clad in a Union Jack outfit and hat, found it amusing "not only to make quips slagging off 'Frogs' but also to pick out members of the orchestra to humiliate. He was saying to the audience things like, 'This is Mary; she got her roots done just in time for this evening,' or, 'This is Lizzie; she's pregnant - ooh, we know what you've been doing.'

"Nobody ever asks if a presenter peddling racist attitudes and personal insults is OK with us, and there's absolutely nothing we can do about it."

So much for the compères. A big-name singer can earn thousands of pounds while the orchestra plays for peanuts. That's fine, says Jane - as long as the soloists really can sing. "I did a concert with one famous singer who actually couldn't sing," she recalls. "He'd had to have some of the music transposed down because he couldn't reach the high notes. We started off laughing, but by the end he was so bad, and being paid so much, that it stopped being funny. He was kind to us, but at one point in the rehearsal he said, 'Sorry, I've got some technical problems', and the first horn called out, 'We all know that, mate!'"

All the players I speak too are keen to stress that muddy-field gigs can be useful and, on a good day, enjoyable. They are an excellent way for young musicians to jump in at the deep end, learn the repertoire and perform on minimal rehearsal.

"You never know which the good gigs are going to be," says Michael. "The ones that sound the most glamorous are frequently the worst, while ones that you might think will be dubious can be wonderful experiences. One of my best was a free local-authority gig near Huntingdon with a little chamber orchestra. It was cold, but we had the most fabulous show. That was because the conductor, John Wilson, was terrific. He insisted on us using loads of vibrato to get a big, fat, Hollywood tone - it sounded fantastic; it was great music-making, and the audience loved it."

Sometimes, though, it's all just too much to take. "Once we were in a big park at the end of the season when the weather was chilly," Michael continues, "and it was a bad date all the way through. There was a generator the size of a lorry churning out diesel fumes right next to the stage. We had a huge programme, almost three hours of music, including [Wagner's] "The Ride of the Valkyries", which sounded ludicrous on a tiny orchestra with virtually no rehearsal. I was sitting on the inside third desk [row] of the first violins, and the lighting strip stopped just in front of us, so my desk partner and I couldn't read our music and we got colder and colder - lighting helps to keep you warm.

"As the evening went on, my desk partner became more and more furious. And at the end, in the 1812 Overture [by Tchaikovsky], the fireworks were right next to us, and when one huge one went off beside us, he just lost it. In front of 6,000 people. He stood up in the middle of the piece, got his fiddle case out from under his chair, wiped down his violin and bow meticulously with a cloth, put them away, jumped off the stage and went home! Afterwards he thought he'd be sacked. But he'd had such a terrible evening and been so angry about it that the management didn't dare go near him."

These musicians fear that audiences will come to such concerts and assume that "that's what classical music is". As Jane says: "Some outdoor concerts are good. But usually you turn up, you freeze, you have only a top-and-tail rehearsal, there will be a bad soloist who's married to the director, and it's amplified so you don't know what it really sounds like.

"These concerts are part of our job. They're good experience, people enjoy them, and we shouldn't be too precious about them. But surely not at the price of people thinking that that's all there is to classical music."

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor