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Starting from scratch is scary but useful

Evilena Protektore

From Gunārs Kalniņš to Boston — Jekaterina Šarigina tells her story about her path in music, rebuilding life from scratch and differences between Latvia and Great Britain

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One of the biggest questions a young musician has to face nowadays is whether to stay in Latvia and study music here, or to go somewhere else, abroad, but then — where to? We all know that America is the birthplace of jazz, but does it mean that it’s the only place where you can study it? Jazz has come a long way now, has embedded itself into the cultures of the countries from all over the world, so the choice now is so huge that it’s easy to become confused. Each place has its pros and cons, and in the end it’s all about what a certain person really needs or wants. Someone wants a place where there’s a lot of foreign students, some want a place with none from his own country, some think that jazz is in fact inseparable from the US. Each has his own reasons and motivations.

This time my conversation buddy is a singer Jekaterina Sharigina. A singer whom I know personally for 13 years already. At some point I’ve seen her at almost every concert place in town, but then she just vanished… Later I found out that she decided to go away to study jazz in London and now she visits Latvia once or twice a year, this time as a foreign artist. And musically… Well, she’s a completely different person. We’ve discussed a lot of things together, talked about her decision to leave home, how does it feel when you’re completely alone in an unfamiliar place and have to basically rebuild your life, and how does life go on when you’re so far from home. If you want to know more, please join and enjoy!

ATTENTION! This is a translation of a conversation that happened a year ago and Jekaterina now resides in Boston, USA. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting anymore, so enjoy!

Let’s start with the prehistoric times! How did you discover jazz? I remember you with Stībelis (local pop singer).

Really? Maybe even with Gunārs Kalniņš?

That one I found out a bit later that Stībelis!

I wasn’t born in a family of artists — as a child I was more into math and tennis, music came into my life accidentally. It just happened. When I finished school, I wanted to enroll into Stockholm school of Economics, but when I didn’t pass entry exams I was so unmotivated, I didn’t want to do anything, so my parents signed me up to the first program they saw in Latvian University. Naturally I was bored there, so I took some additional courses and one of those was the choir, and there we had a project with Gunārs Kalniņš. After that he invited me to become his back vocalist. Basically that’s how it all begun — we played at different festivals, got acquainted with different musicians, some of those played jazz and invited me to attend a jam session. I went once, twice, and then I started attending workshops in Saulkrasti and Riga. All this buzz looked very exciting, but I was still just a back vocalist. That’s how I decided to start doing something myself.

I had just gotten my bachelors degree (by the way, somewhere along the way I transferred to another university) and decided to form my own band, after all I needed to earn a living somehow. We started playing function gigs, then I met Stībelis, then there was the musical, the Eurovision and some other projects, all the while jazz stayed as a hobby — I developed my skills and was inspired by that music. I spent one year in the Dome Cathedral school with Inga (Bērziņa), and then decided to move it all up to a higher level, start doing jazz seriously — went to try and get into the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. Despite the fact that I didn’t even know the notes properly, I got accepted! First two years were really hard — I wasn’t able nor to read music, neither to write it, I had good ears and ensemble leading skills, but at the same time when I needed to learn a ton of new material and do other stuff individually, it took me half a day just to read the scores… I worked on that a lot.

Did it become easier with time?

I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite part of the process, but I see the benefits you get from that, and I can now live with that. Now I even like spending time with more technical aspects of the music.

What is your life about now? Are you still doing jazz or…?

Right now I have a contract with a private English school. I teach there, but it’s not the only thing I do. It is an international boarding school for girls, the personnel is divided into academic and administrative, and together with private singing lessons I also am involved in some administrative work. I organise my own concerts in my free time, that I have every five or six weeks. The greatest advantage of this work is a full boarding. Those 8 years spent in London, everything I did revolved around expenses — everything I earned was used to pay rent and buy food. And even if it seemed that with every year my situation improved more and more, I had a better job, a better salary, better concerts, the expenses also grew — I had to move around more, the transportation fees are very high. I realised that I’m never going to win this game, it seemed almost impossible to save some money to pay for school or to rent a recording studio. That’s why I decided that if I wanted to save up, I needed to take a year off and work either on a cruise ship or in a school like this one.

Do you still have time for your music while working this kind of job?

Well, you have to always put some effort into it. I prepared in advance, I had a goal — to save some money to make a recording and to fund my masters degree. The compositions were already created, I just needed to get the money and record them. Art is one thing, another thing is the creation of a project concept and its realisation. Also the fact that during my free time I had a lot of travelings and concerts in London, so my November and December turned out to be quite busy. I decided to stop for a while, because the pressure became too big and tiring. During winter I applied for masters in the US, attended some auditions, took part in a competition in South Africa, it was a busy time and very little of that was left for music. I realised that a lot of small gigs require a lot of resources, and it’s time to move a level up — to pay more attention to marketing, produce and advertise new material. Also the situation in England is such that no one will invite you to do a gig if you don’t have enough followers in the social media, and if you have concerts four or five times a week, you just don’t have enough time left for marketing. You have to have less concerts, but make those more serious ones.

Were you scared when decided to go abroad?

Sure thing, I had to start from scratch. But that’s also a good thing, because you can reinvent yourself as well, find out things about yourself you never knew before. In Latvia it happened the way it did — I was a back vocalist in the beginning, then I had my own pop music projects, but I had no idea how to present myself as a jazz artist. I can say for 100% that I aced it in London — here I have had quite a break through with my teaching activities. And that’s also something that interests me, taught me a lot, but I can’t say that I want to continue working in this field further on. I was approached with a proposition to extend my contract for yet another year, but I decided to start doing my masters degree. It is important to me to be moving on all the time, to have some action.

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There is a stereotype that doing jazz music is better in New York, London or Berlin. Do you agree?

I don’t think that there is a perfect place at all, life will lead you in the right direction, you just have to trust it. But if you have a choice… then, maybe, Berlin. The social stability is better there for a musician. In London, in order to just be able to pay your bills, you have to do a lot of additional work. Everyone teaches, plays function gigs. From this point of view France is better, they have this governmental program — you pay taxes from your concert revenues, and if you have reached 43 concerts in a years time, then the state starts paying you a salary. Of course, the taxes are high there, but it your fee is higher, your salary also increases, it can reach up to three thousand euros per month. This program was created in order to help the artist that has no contract with, for example, an orchestra, to feel more safe socially, just as a regular employee, a bank worker, or someone else.

If the choice is between New York and London, then in New York jazz sounds more natural, organic, but that’s my opinion. I still can’t befriend British jazz, it’s a bit conservative, but at the same time they don’t like the tradition.

What, don’t they play dixie in London?

No! British jazz is very intellectual, but not very expressive. In America if you play swing, it’s understandable to everyone, but in Britain they mix something in it and as a result you get some sort of a hybrid — not this nor that… And you have to listen very carefully to understand it. I still don’t feel it.

Where would you want to live and do music?

I don’t know. I just enrolled into one of the schools in the US, a masters program, and I think that jazz education here should be stronger than the one in England, but there’s still the question of money. Right now I’m working on a blog where I’ll speak about how I chose the school, how the auditions went.. My approach was to think everything through carefully, to reach my goal slowly but steadily, I’ll tell everything there, in my blog.

I’ll give you the short version — I chose three schools. One was the University of Northern Texas, a very strong school, I like how Jennifer Barnes sings, a lot, and she’s also the head of the department. The second one is Manhattan School of music in New York, the third in Boston, New England Conservatory with the amazing Dominique Eade. In all three schools I got the chance to sing in an audition, but then I’d had to fly out there three times, because the dates of the auditions were too far apart. In the end I decided that the audition for Texas would be through Skype, because it’s too expensive to get there, and not very easy. I liked Jennifer a lot as a person, but the interview turned out worse than expected. The connection was very bad, I couldn’t hear some musical moments clearly, I started to get nervous. I don’t recommend doing skype auditions, ever. It’s very easy to fly from London to Boston, only six and a half hours one way, and in the end I was back home the next day after the audition. Manhattan… In the end I decided that their program was a bit more weak that in other schools and vocal teachers didn’t inspire me much, that’s why I cancelled my audition there. How it all worked out and what roadblocks I fought along the way — all of that will be in my blog!

So, it looks like we’ll not see you here that often during the next two years…

Looks like it, yes.

Do you plan to come home at some point?

For now I don’t see that happening. I want to live in the US for a while, Asia, to work in different countries. But concerning the field of arts, it’s pretty good here, there’s something here that I haven’t found in London — a community of musicians, a lot of roles to fill, more of the things available, and the level of life in whole. But in this whole pattern I’m lacking something like a sense of social responsibility. On the level of the society. For example, I can’t understand how anyone could spray graffiti on a freshly renovated building? Who benefits from that? Why? In London there are areas where this is permitted, places designated for that, without the damage to the beautiful buildings. Otherwise it’s just vandalising. They have some beautiful street art, here it’s mostly something stupid… (During this speech Jekaterina is looking outside the window on a freshly painted wall of a building across the street that someone had tagged).

These are called «Tags»!

What’s that?

It’s sort of a signature, to say that «I was here». It can be called a subculture…

But that’s just vandalising! Why should you ruin the beauty? Or let’s talk about taxes… In England everyone pays taxes! People there follow the word of law.

Absolutely everyone? They have so many people from all over the world…

Yes, but nobody wants to get in trouble with the law.

Let’s change the topic. How about the place of a vocalist in a world of musicians? I once heard a saying: «A singer isn’t a musician, a singer is just that, a singer» It looks like a masters degree in music doesn’t change the fact that one’s still a singer…

At least he didn’t say that a woman isn’t a human…

Yes, exactly! The best wheel for a woman is a saucepan lid!

Over your head!

Exactly! So how is it — being a singer in London?

I don’t think that the situation is different of what’s here. Jazz is a more male oriented field. It’s just the way it is, the historical leftovers. Usually the boys want to play instruments and the girls want to sing. There are exceptions, of course. If we look from an instrumentalists point of view, the presence of a vocalist sets some limitations to the things you can and should do musically, and not everyone wants to work in these conditions. When you work with a vocalist, the program will probably be more lyrical, the story is in the front line, the words, and I think that this can give out a vibe that an instrument is on the background. It’s just my personal opinion. But I don’t worry myself over that any more. I know that my strongest quality is communication with the client, I can organize things, mediate, represent myself better and in the end I get what I want. That makes me the boss of sorts. At that moment I don’t really care what the musicians think about me, because it was me who got the gig and I’m responsible for that. To each his own. I, for instance, am not that good with arrangements. That’s why I often ask someone to do that for me. In the end — who cares about who’s the boss, more important is the fact that everything happens. I don’t think that it’s a universal unfairness. Not any more.

So you’re not bothered by the fact, that a musician does arts, and a singer wears beautiful dresses?

A beautiful dress and your name on the poster in capital letters! And that is a huge responsibility, when you are being recognised.

And what about your studies? Did you enjoy those?

When I enrolled, they accepted two people per specialty. There was another vocalist, but she dropped out after the first year and I was left «alone». The program was more oriented towards instrumental music, so it was hard for me. There was a lot of different adventures, for two years I was struggling with a trauma to my vocal folds. When I finished school, I was so tired of music that I found a job in complete silence — in an art gallery. And you know what? It was a fundamental lesson in my life — it is quite pleasant to be normal. To start work at 9 in the morning, clock out at five, and when the day is over, there’s suddenly a lot of possibilities — to read a book, get a hobby, do something for yourself, not just for the sake of your job. When you’re a musician, there’s not any line between your job and what you love, you think about it all the time. That was a very valuable thing I’ve learned. I didn’t have this constant stress, that I have no opportunity to get a cold, because I have to sing all the time. I found out that I can earn money doing something else, not just music, and I don’t feel disappointed about that. I worked in a big arts center, I had access to the most important galleries and museums in London, I attended exhibitions, watched different movies, attended orchestral concerts, was surrounded by art and I found so many interesting things! It was very important to me, not to be fixated on music solely.

How did you find your way back to music?

Through teaching. Children can’t do complicated things, we sang simple songs, I had to involve them somehow and look at music through their eyes. It was pretty hard to do, my knowledge of the complicated jazz theory didn’t help at all, because it all works differently with kids. And just like that, while trying to interest someone else in music, I got sucked in myself, and now I try not to limit myself with only complicated musical material.

Recently I had a conversation with one teacher from the states, and he said that they study both music genres at the same time — classical and jazz, so that the musician would be more versatile and had more chances to get a job. What do you think about this approach? This broadness of expertise?

The education is supposed to broaden your possibilities, not limit them. Every action is based on theory and practice, after that it’s up to you, you choose how to apply what you know.
For me personally classical singing… it lead me in a slightly wrong direction, but I’m not sure it would be better without it. It did influence my preferences in what I listen to. I don’t listen to big and loud voices anymore. It’s more pleasurable to hear this clean and precise performance, the nuances and small details, perfectionism, virtuosity. Another thing is how it coexists with a wish to search for new possibilities and ideas, create something new rather than to be fixated on perfection. I think that I chose jazz to be able to activate my brain and to create something new myself.

Do you listen to jazz often?

Right now less. But sometimes other things apart from music can be your inspiration. That’s why when I compose I don’t listen to anything at all, to be further from everything and closer to myself.

Do you attend jam sessions?

Jam sessions in London are not very popular, especially among vocalists. I went a couple of times when I just came here, in 2009, but the atmosphere is totally different from the one in Riga. In Riga people are more relaxed, there they are rivals. Also there’s no possibility to live a bohemian life in London, everyone is worried about making it to the last train, because they have work in the morning… Life is scheduled.

Does a metropolis influence the personality of a musician?



It all depends on your goal.

And what is your goal?

Hm… You know, I went to London for one thing, in the end got something totally different. In the beginning I was in a state of panic that I’m moving in the wrong direction, but after a while I understood that life shows you the right way. It was important to experience the life in metropolis, international surroundings, find my hidden strengths. You get new possibilities when you live through something like that. And what is most important — your understanding of what is truly important changes, everything about you and your potential.

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