Returning to Paid Employment

Very recently I’ve made a big and scary step to going back to paid employment, rather than being a full time freelancer.

There is a lot of rhetoric out there that being self employed is the only way to be happy, the only way to have control over your life. I absolutely believed this, but I haven’t been happy as an arts consultant for quite some time now, not least because there is just not as much work as there was a few years ago, and all my fellow consultants are saying the same thing.

A long time ago I worked in IT, in the marketing and PR side of things to be sure, but there was a part of my job which involved developing and maintaining a website, before CMS systems like WordPress were in place, I had to hard code it all and update using an FTP client!

While I was in my first full time role I applied for IBM’s graduate programme, I had several IBM clients on my rosta at the PR agency. I didn’t get in because I totally messed up my A-Levels. But I had started to do a Maths ALevel before I swapped if for Theatre Studies. How different my life would have been if I hadn’t made that change.

To cut a long story short I have always been interested in IT, but very much on the sidelines. A couple of years ago I got a Raspberry Pi from my husband, I love messing about with a computer without worrying that I was going to break it. I started to learn to code online and loved that too. I realised quite quickly that I was missing a lot of foundational information about computing and IT, and so I started to do a BSc IT & Computing with the Open University.

That was in April last year. I had a plan. I would work on my degree while continuing to do arts freelance stuff as it came long, with the longer term aim of joining a technology company and becoming a software engineer. I started going to my local tech networking event, and helping at a coding workshop for young people. Then I saw a job being advertised at Spektrix, a software development company who provide box office software to the arts sector. I thought this would be a perfect company for me to work for.

And indeed I was right, in the middle of January this year I joined Spektrix. I love it very much, although it is rather jarring to be in an office four days a week, when I have been at home for six years. Becoming a Spektrixer has allowed me to jump my plan forward by severaal years. I’m working as a Support and Training Consultant, our clients are all arts venues, which means that they are lovely! Over time I hope to pick up more of the technical side of things, but right now I am learning an entirely new and large piece of software, which is taking up a lot of brain power.

This is a change in direction for me, I am no longer looking for any arts consultancy or photography work (although I am still taking on freelance writing), but I am focusing in on technology, through my job, degree and personal projects, as well as continuing to love playing and listening to music!

Capturing the creativity of schools

At the end of last term I was utterly privileged to be commissioned by the Royal Opera House Bridge to capture the creative essence of schools who are going to be featured in their book of best arts practice within a variety of schools. It was wonderful to go and see nine different schools from across Essex and North Kent, to understand how they implement the arts within their context.

This was an incredibly challenging task, taking photos of young people doing the arts is exciting and relatively easy, but capturing how the school has bought the arts into their values and changed how they work at a fundamental level was much harder!

The schools and ROHB have been very happy with the results.

“We asked Jen to photograph schools all across Essex and Kent for inclusion in a publication. She got some brilliant shots that really encapsulated the creative and cultural learning that goes on in schools and brought to life the individual nuances of each school”

Richard Speight – Royal Opera House Bridge.

One of the photos has been used in an article in the Times Educational Supplement website. The full article can be read here.

Interested in working with me to share the essence of your organisation? Get in touch on Jen AT jenfarrant DOT com.

Save Elm Road Open Space

 

My local park is under threat of being sold off to make way for a 900 student secondary school. This is in the middle of a warren of tiny residential streets, it is the only open space for quite a way and it is incredibly well used.

I am spearheading an apolitical campaign to stop this from happening, it is vital that we protect all green spaces, especially in built up areas.

Please join us on the website, Twitter, Facebook and if you are a Thurrock resident please sign the petition. I have been interviewed by the local newspapers and radio too. Due to the way social media works, we need as many follows and likes as possible, as this means it gets shown more too.

Yesterday I attended the council meeting. This is the first time I have been involved in local politics and I was utterly appalled at the behaviour in the chamber. There were blatent lies, rudeness and our campaign was treated as a political football, rather than an impassioned local movement

Returning

About six months ago I started to code. Or, more to the point, code again. I learnt to build websites over 15 years ago, well before WordPress or even any ‘what you see is what you get’ editors, it was in raw HTML code. I stopped when changed jobs and I no longer needed to maintain the website. I watched the launch of the Raspberry Pi with jealousy…and never bought one because what use would I have for it?
I decided a while ago to delve back into my techie, geeky self and start to learn to code. Amusingly I couldn’t set up a username on one coding site as it was taken. Jen Farrant is relatively unique name, I’ve always managed to get it as a username in the past, so after putting in an old, abandoned email address the account popped up. I’d set this up over six years ago. Hmm, if only I’d followed up on that whim at the time!
Like with everything I’m realising that to get good at code, you have to put the time in. Decide that’s what you want to do and then do it. I absolutely love coding and I am getting better at a steady pace, because I work on it every day (aside from Sundays, when I have a complete day off from all things digital and learning focused).
Whatever it is that is my core focus, music theory, Python, piano, I tend to do it first thing in the morning. I am definitely a morning person. That way, my strongest focus goes on the thing that is hardest and I have a fantastic sense of achievement to kick me off into the rest of my work.
As when I was learning music theory, I use a variety of methods. I primarily use Team Treehouse as an online academy, but I supplement this with various books, Codecademy (which is similar to Treehouse, but explains things in a different way), Google searches when I get stuck and I’m going to be studying Python with the Open University too, which will take a different approach again.
Learning new things is hard, there is no getting away from it. Few people sit down and discover THIS was what they had been born to do and are suddenly virtuoso at it. You have to decide this is what I want to do, then figure out the right habits, and environment, for you to keep turning up day after day after day to do it.
I love getting back to my techie roots – my first ten years of work were in the IT sector. Oh and the Raspberry Pi? My husband bought me one for Christmas and I’ve been enjoying building and coding with it. I wish I had done that years ago. I think this comes down to Liz Gilbert’s exhortation to follow your curiosity to find out what your passion is, rather than telling yourself not to be silly.

Having your own space

I am one of the few consultants in my field (arts & culture/not for profit), who has their own website.

I have love affairs with social media and then stop. I invest lots of time Tweeting and sharing links. I post lots of photos. And then stop.  I’ve had a lot of thoughts about Instagram, especially I love photography.  I used to post to Instagram very regularly. Then I did a course from a very well respected Instagram expert, which stopped me in my tracks.

That was mainly because I don’t want my feed to look like the feeds she promoted and I do not want to worry about a perfectly curated feed which needs planning in advance. Doing the course actually stopped me doing Instagram as I couldn’t and didn’t want to do Instagram like she did. For some reason it didn’t occur to me that I could do Instagam as I wanted.

At that time the accounts she promoted, or the ones that I followed made me feel really bad.

First of all there was the flat lay and floral contingency, feeds full of beautifully curated, perfectly laid out things, knick-knacks and colour coordinated gewgaws. Or peonies artistically arranged, in what I thought (naively) were perfectly beautiful houses, but were in fact backdrops and bits of wood, not people’s tables.

Those with perfect homes without any stains on the wall, all perfectly lit. I found out they all edited the photos to remove the marks on the walls and yes, they did indeed use lighting, it wasn’t that their houses were flooded with natural light.

Then there were the health accounts, the ones full of perfect bowls of super healthy food, or the yoga accounts of fit, skinny twenty year olds on California beaches. I’ve been doing yoga on and off for well over 20 years and I don’t look like those people. I live in an suburban, industrial/post industrial bit of England. My life is not lived on a Californian beach.

With my personal photography I don’t focus on things like that, but odd juxtapositions, which often don’t look like the standard definition of beauty.

But my biggest problem is that I am giving over the ownership of my work to Instagram. And at the end of the day I am building their business for them, they are making direct money off of the fact that I, and hundreds of thousands like me, give my work to them to use free of charge.

I haven’t been great at sharing my client photography work here on the site. I’ve done a shoot for Thurrock Council (the switching on of the Christmas lights), as well as working with local businesses, finding ways to explain their work through images. I’m currently working with Royal Opera House Bridge. I should upload them here. But because I decided not to Instagram them, I didn’t take the time to upload them to my portfolio.

Strange isn’t it? There is no doubt that it is more effort to share here, than through Instagram. But I am building on my land, rather than chucking my work out into the Instagram vast desert. And with my site, I don’t get sucked into hashtags, comments etc. I retain control – of my work and of my time.

My site adapts to me and what I do. I’ve lost track of the iterations of my start here there has been, and it expands and contracts as it needs to. Now my health is excellent, I no longer blog about disability and chronic illness, but those things still sit on my site, including my most hit blog post – the fight for a wheelchair. As my client offerings change, my site changes to reflect that. I maintain control of my site. If people sign up to the RSS feed, or email alerts (on the right hand side of the page) on new posts they get them directly, rather than my news being dependent on the Twitter/Instagram/next social media algorithm.

168

7 x 24 = 168

7 days a week
24 hours a day
168 hours in a week

On my war-board which sits behind and to the left of my desk, the centre currently reads

168
?

It’s there to remind me, every single moment I glance up and to the left (which is where I tend to look when I am thinking) that we all have 168 hours in a week.

What am I going to do in that time?

1) There is only 168 hours in a week – I honestly can’t do everything that I want to do right now, what is my priority?
2) Is scrolling through Facebook/Twitter/Instagram AGAIN going to make my life what I want it to be?
3) am I focusing on what is scheduled in my calendar – working towards my long term aims?

This year I didn’t set myself goals to achieve, last year I had an extensive list. This year I have long term aims – the direction I want my life to be heading, along with monthly goals and daily Most Important Tasks, which get scheduled into my calendar hour by hour.

Working like this makes me feel good and my most important work gets done too.

Amanda Palmer makes me deeply uncomfortable

Amanda Palmer is a musician, writer and all round artist. Her relationship with her fans is legendary and intimate- she will sofa surf at her fan’s place and she was one of the first artists to fund an album via Kickstarter. Just do a quick Google search to see how contentious she is – she does tend to divide opinion. She is an avid user of Patreon and for a while I supported her through that, but I had to stop – primarily because she makes me deeply uncomfortable and I observed her output with my hands over my eyes, peeping through my fingers, figuratively speaking. I’ve written about her before, here and here.

I think there are several reasons for this – she is so open with her emotions, she wears her heart bleeding on her sleeve and writes so eloquently about it. She is explicitly political and doesn’t care who she upsets with her proclamations. She just seems to do what the hell she wants with her art and music, while at the same time supporting other artists through her Patreon.

She is clearly deeply passionate about life and art.

Maybe it’s because I am so damn British, reserved and deeply introverted that I find her uncomfortable.

I watch her videos and writing dumbstruck at her sheer effrontery and truth. Because she does seem (as far as I can tell without ever having met her) to be utterly genuine. She is who she is and doesn’t care what others think, while caring deeply about people and music. It’s an odd combination. I think she is essentially herself in all her glorious magnificence.

I think the uncomfortableness is jealousy and horror at the same time.

There have been huge gaps in my posting here as I struggle to find the right balance between personal and ‘professional’, whatever that means.

It is clear from her blog posts (and I no longer have access to the more intimate Patreon posts) that she feels everything deeply, that she is affected by everything that happens and her art work comes from that suffering and that she is driven to share it.

I guess it is interesting for me to think about why AFP makes me so uncomfortable, to see if there is anything I can learn. I really don’t want to start dressing like her, or living my life like her, but I would love to be a little freer in my writing, and photography and I’d love to hold my music less tightly and just enjoy it more.

Don’t get me wrong, AFP has had a lot of issues – like I said do a Google search, ‘most hated’ comes up more than once. I don’t think she would be upset at my blog post! Oh and the F in the middle of her name….. Fucking. Yep, she actually claimed that as her name. Astonishing.

None the less, I don’t think AFP should change what or how she does what she does. I think she is awesome, the uncomfortableness shines a lights on me and how I work…

A day with Nigel Hess

This weekend I was privileged to take part in a rehearsal day with the international composer and director Nigel Hess. My concert band does these sessions every couple of years, we then go on to perform the composer’s pieces in a special concert later in the year. I can’t remember the last time I had such a wonderful day. Nigel was incredibly generous spirited in his direction of the band. We are a community amateur band and he is used to working with professional orchestras. He was full of praise and encouragement, as well as getting us to play his pieces so much better than at the start of the day. I am certain that everyone else enjoyed the day as much as I did.

My band is a very important part of my life, and music generally.

When you play music you are actively creating. You are taking control of your life, not passively consuming, but making. When that is combined with taking part with other people that is a recipe for some feel good hormones being released through you body.

I have been quite open about my journey of learning to play an instrument as an adult. It is not easy. There are a million and other things I could be doing with my time. It’s not like I picked up the flute and suddenly started playing, that I was an undiscovered genius and just had to find the right thing. I work at this. I put the time in, practicing most days, and for extended periods of time now too. Sorry neighbours, especially when I’ve been learning new high notes.

When I passed my Grade 5 flute (and it is only ever a pass as I get incredibly anxious in exams), I was delighed, but had to do my Grade 5 Theory before I could continue any longer. The whole way through playing the flute I had been saying I didn’t want to do theory, I couldn’t see the point in it. Now I had to study them all in one go to get up to G5 standard. I’ve written about that here.

There are times when I am playing with the band, especially when we revisit pieces from previous years, when I suddenly realise how much I have improved. It gives me a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Days like yesterday make me want to practice more and get even better. Taking part in a hobby where you are being stretched, challenged and grow is incredibly positive for mental health. Being part of a community is good for your well being. Community music helps on both points! I also think creating, rather than consuming is also excellent for wellbeing.

My band is Harmonie Concert Band, and you can find a local band, orchestra or choir here.

 

Dabbling in hobbies

I’ve always had lots of things on the go and I am always attracted to learning something new. I’ve finally realised that it is ok for me to try things out and see if I like them, and I love doing ‘taster’ sessions of new skills and crafts. I may take them up for a little while and let them go after a period.

Many crafts that I have done fall into that category and I’ve enjoyed making the ‘thing’ and then moving onto the next thing. My house is full of quilts i have made, one of them filled with embroidery. At one point I had a lot of knitted dishcloths. I have lots of sketchbooks from when I fell into sketching and painting. I hope at some point to go back to that, probably when I have more space to do the bigger paintings I dream about.

It is fine to have hobbies, things we dabble in and more importantly that they are not about making money. They may only be with us for a season, or something we do at the weekends, or something we return to every few years for an obsessed period of time.

I am currently working on an embroidery kit, which has the pattern all printed out, and all the threads and needles in the pack, only scissors were needed. This is perfect to do when I am having a sofa day watching undemanding tv!

The trick is to make sure that the remains of old hobbies are let go of, or at least packed away. It’s quite helpful to put things in boxes or bags to contain all of the bits. Really Useful Boxes are indeed extremely helpful in this sense. When I am sure I am not going to go back to a hobby I find someone to pass all the bits onto. This is especially important in a small house like mine!

It has taken a lot of effort to accept this idea, that I can enjoy tasting new hobbies and not taking them into my life at a deep level, in contrast to my deep and abiding loves of reading and music.

The joy of ukulele

The ukulele is such a joyful instrument, it gives me a huge amount of pleasure. It always sounds uplifting. I took it up four years ago now and I’m very happy I did.

I’m glad that there are whole classes in schools across the country learning to play it, I suspect they all sound a lot better together than a bunch of squeaky recorders. Don’t get me wrong, I love the recorder and I seem to recall learning to play the tenor which had a much mellower sound, but a whole class on descant recorders can be a little whearing.

I have tried to play the guitar in the past, but I found that my hands didn’t have the strength to stretch and hold the chord shapes, and I found the strings too rough on my fingers. That isn’t a problem with the uke, it is smaller and the strings are nylon, so it is much easier to play.

It’s also easy to get going and to be playing songs with just a few chords, which are easier to reach, especially for smaller hands. That’s not to say it is an easy instrument, like all music it takes dedication and practice to get good at it. None the less it is hard to make the ukeule sound horrid, (unlike the flute) which means playing it is such a joy.

And for some serious inspiration, there is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I went to see them last year and it was an amazing show. For practical inspiration, and actual music to download I recommend Ukulele Hunt.

If you want to take up an instrument which is great fun and deeply rewarding, I really do recommend the uke, you can pick them up quite cheaply, although it will sound better if you invest a little more. And at this stage I would like to make a plea to find your local music shop, rather than buying online, you will get help and advice which you just don’t get from online.