Tips for Musicians

Performing Abroad

I honestly don’t know which was worse: leaving my passport in the women’s washroom of the Frankfurt airport, or losing my voice the night before a gala solo recital at Prague Castle. Or perhaps it was the time when I was almost turned away at an EU border because my passport was only a few months away from expiring. And then there was the panicked sprint through an Algerian market to find the correct adaptor for my microphone…

Performing overseas can be a wonderful experience. It’s exciting, it can be a huge learning experience and it gives one a sense of the universality of music and of the importance of one’s chosen craft. However, there is also a lot of potential for things to be difficult or frustrating. Language, culture, customs and even electrical outlets are often very different from at home, and it’s worth a bit of advance preparation and forethought to be able to enjoy your trip and concentrate on the performance.

1. Don’t Get Sick

This seems obvious, right? But the little things (spending the night in the Frankfurt airport terminal to save a few dollars, squatting outside a Czech Burger King in the rain to get a WiFi signal, wandering over a Scottish moor instead of lying down for a sensible nap) can quickly wear a traveler down.

Of course you don’t want to be one of those obsessive germophobes, but be careful, starting on the flight. Bring a travel-size bottle of disinfectant, and use it: on your hands, on the airplane tray. Drink lots of water. Take time to walk around a bit. If it’s a long flight, bring (unscented) lotion for your hands—you want to keep them in top bassoon-playing form. Understand jetlag and its effect on your body. Do you need a day or two to recover? If so, go early and take the time. Taking melatonin can help regulate your sleep cycle for a new time zone, but try it before you go to see how the dose affects you. Take vitamins, don’t forget to eat, and ‘listen’ to your body.

2. Be Prepared

Is your instrument insured? Does your health insurance cover overseas travel?  This is worth checking into before you go; often specific travel insurance plans include lost or delayed luggage, as well as compensation for cancelled flights. If your wallet is stolen, it can be an incredibly stressful experience. But don’t panic! Most credit card companies will courier a replacement card to pretty much anywhere within 48 hours. This is another lesson that I learned the hard way. I was passing through Madrid during the launch of the final Harry Potter book, and at midnight the evening before, I hurried down to the bookstore to join the eager throng. I came away with a copy of the book…but no wallet, and just enough cash to get me to rural Italy, where I was singing a series of opera concerts. Luckily, my credit card arrived just as I did, and between the card and getting a cash advance (local banks can do that just about anywhere), I made it through the next few weeks.

If you regularly take medication, ensure that you bring along more than you need—your trip may be delayed or extended, and prescription drugs can be unavailable (or difficult to obtain) in other countries. Carry your medicine in clearly labeled containers and bring a copy of your prescription along to avoid confusion if your luggage is searched. Do you have enough reeds for your instrument? An extra pair of stockings for your performance outfit? A needle and thread for small repairs? If you’re bringing equipment, do you have the wires/adaptors/plugs/spare batteries you need? It’s better to be over-prepared and to carry a bit more than to find yourself in a last-minute panic because there’s no Radio Shack in Algiers. Check your cell plan to see if it includes roaming. If it doesn’t, consider buying a local SIM card upon arrival. If it does, be aware of data limits and ask your cell provider about temporary long-distance plans.

Always check if the country you are visiting requires a visa. The festivals and orchestras that hire musicians are not always aware of their country’s visa requirements and getting permission to work overseas can take time. I encountered this firsthand when I was invited to tour through several countries in North Africa. I assumed that since I’m Canadian and everyone trusts Canadians (or they should, anyway—we’re so nice!), I didn’t need to apply for a visa in advance. I know better now. The Algerian consulate came through, but with less than six hours to spare before my flight (and an “additional cash fee’”of $70 that seemed suspiciously like a bribe). I’ll never make that mistake again.

3. You Can Take It With You

If possible, keep your essentials with you at all times: your passport, your instrument, original scores. Also pack a performance outfit and shoes, reeds, and an information sheet in your carry-on luggage. This info sheet (containing important phone numbers, hotel and rehearsal information) can be essential, so carry it with you and don’t just keep a single copy in one location. If this essential information is on your phone and your phone is lost or damaged, the information could be quite difficult to access. Scan copies of scores and sheet music, and email them to yourself. That way they are easy to access and simple to share with accompanists and other musicians. Also scan some additional songs/music, because often programs change or grow at the last minute, and it’s best to be prepared.  If you’re bringing a large instrument onboard, take advantage of pre-boarding – that way there’s a chance to get settled on the plane before the mad rush begins.

4. Expect the Unexpected

No matter how prepared a musician might feel, performing overseas will undoubtedly present some unexpected challenges. Be a good sport, and meet these unforeseen (and sometimes completely frustrating) obstacles with good humor. After all, they’re all just stories for later!

I was once performing with an orchestra in Europe and we were rehearsing a song that I had sung probably 100 times before. However, it had been reorchestrated and I was instructed to get my starting note from the overtone of a bell (which I could hardly hear). And the starting note was not the overtone itself, but a fourth up from the overtone. Yes. I panicked. This wasn’t sight-singing class…I could barely hear the bell, much less use it as the basis for a starting tone. And the president of the country was attending this concert! I wasn’t sure what to do, so I was honest with the conductor about my concerns, and he made the time to rehearse the song opening until I got it spot-on. Protect yourself as an artist, but at the same time, don’t be a diva. After all, you don’t want your first trip overseas to be your last.

Remember that when you are performing abroad, you are a representative of your own country. Have a wonderful time, create friendships and professional contacts. Just do your best, and remember that it isn’t about the trip being trouble-free, it’s about being as prepared as you can to meet challenges with a solution and a smile.  

Melanie Gall (PS ’08) travels the world performing solo recitals and musicals and has recorded two commercial CDs of ‘lost’ wartime knitting songs.