I’m from Newry originally, just across the border, and lived in Belfast for years after that. I’ve been in Dublin, based in Harold’s Cross in Dublin, for the last nine years.
I knew I wanted to work in professional music somehow >>Watch Video>>
I did a music degree at college, had no idea what I wanted to do with that – I don’t think career’s advice is good for anyone who wants to work in the arts at all no matter what area you want to work in the arts… I knew I wasn’t good enough to be a performer, and that’s not in a self-deprecating way, I just didn’t have the skills to be a performer but I knew I wanted to work in professional music somehow but didn’t know how to do that.
It’s been choral singing the whole way for me…
I applied for a job to set up the National Youth Choir in Northern Ireland so sort of fell into it, it was a very small job to begin with but it grew into a much bigger organisation so I stayed there for 13 years and then I came to Dublin to take over running what was then the National Chamber Choir. So it’s been choral singing the whole way for me.
The holy grail of stressful situations >>Watch Video>>
I got the holy grail of stressful situations a few years back: I’d been diagnosed with a chronic health condition, I lost my Dad – he passed away – and there was a lot of stress going on at work… as happens in every job… nothing untoward or out of the ordinary, but enough that there were three major things playing on me.
Someone suggested I go to counselling
Someone suggested I go to counselling. If it wasn’t for that, I probably would have had a lot of difficulty coming out the other side.
I know certainly when I went to counselling in the first place, it was about a very specific issue and I thought, ‘I’ll go, I’ll have a couple of sessions – I’ll deal with that, I’ll be fixed and life will be brilliant again’, but I think anyone who’s been to counselling will attest to the fact that it’s about so much more.
We looked at a lot of things and, for me, learning that I can’t change certain things but I can change how I react and respond to things. It’s actually about building a set of tools, because we’ll all always get stressed, we’ll all always get the difficult situations thrown at us – that isn’t going to go away.
Just try it >>Watch Video>>
I was exhausted all the time. I slept really well and I know a lot of people who suffer from stress don’t sleep very well but I was sleeping – I was certainly closing my eyes and going to sleep and sleeping the whole night, but waking up completely exhausted and I didn’t seem to be able to get over that.
I talked to my GP about it – I have a fantastic GP and I know I’m really lucky to have her – and I talked to her a little bit and she said, “it sounds like you need to talk to someone – I’m gonna recommend someone… see if it works out for you. Go for a couple of sessions, see how that works out – it might not be the right person for you, you might need to find someone else but just try it.” So I did.
Thriving again >>Watch Video>>
The line she used was – ‘we need to see you thriving again, not just surviving’. I think she’s right. You can still work hard and do all the things you need to do but it’s important that you’re thriving at it and enjoying it and you’re enjoying life.
Creating a change yourself >>Watch Video>>
It’s about finding out what you can change yourself and try to let go of the things you can’t change – you can’t change the behaviours of others – I can’t personally change the arts funding situation in Ireland, but there are things that I can do to change how I respond to that. It’s hard work to change your way of thinking and your way of responding because your natural inclination is to always do what you’ve always done.
Enjoy your own time >>Watch Video>>
We’re all under-resourced, in terms of enough people in our organisations, so we’re all doing more work than a lot of other industries might do, and you just do it but actually learning to take your own time out and enjoy your own time… I think that was one of the big learnings for me.
That’s not being lazy >>Watch Video>>
When I started counselling I was helping look after an elderly parent, I was working and I was travelling to stay at weekends with my dad so I didn’t feel as though I had any time to myself; I was either working – and of course there’s a lot of evening work working in the arts – or I was up home with my Dad. And while I wouldn’t change that and I had good times doing that, I felt I’d no time for me. But I also felt a huge guilt – if I did have a free Saturday afternoon and I sat on the sofa and watched TV, I felt guilty that I was being lazy. Actually discovering that’s not being lazy, that’s OK – we all need to do that, was important for me.
I was actually discovering in work I was always thinking that I wasn’t working hard enough or doing enough when actually we all probably do far much more than we have capacity to do but we do it, we find the reserves somewhere to put that time in; to put that energy in.
Hiking >>Watch Video>>
Even just a thing like hiking, for me that was a big thing – I took up hiking and that was phenomenally good because it just puts things into perspective for me.
When I started the hiking bit, or continuing to lie on the sofa on a Saturday afternoon, that was the time out that was the ‘stopping thinking about work’. When I go hiking I don’t go hiking with anyone I work with or connected to arts in any way and it’s so freeing not to talk about work and what it is we do. Then you can get away from it; you can get away from that stressful bit and when you have that time out from it then you come back and deal with it much, much more easily.
Clear thought process
Working with a counsellor is hard work, I wouldn’t say it’s an easy option but it’s a much better option than plodding through by yourself because I don’t think you can have the clear thought process than with an individual who’s trained.
I couldn’t endorse enough the benefit of going to counselling. For some people it might be a light touch; a couple of sessions and there’s a lot of perspective gained in that. People like me, might need more and it’s an investment in time but it’s really worth it because it is an investment in yourself.
Aeroplane >>Watch Video>>
That whole analogy of being on a plane – put your own mask on before you help others because you’re no help to others if you’re that person who can’t breathe. Actually go and help yourself because you’ll be so much more beneficial to other people.
We’re getting better at talking to each other as colleagues – one thing I’d say about the classical music side of things is that we probably don’t talk often enough but throughout COVID we probably talked a little bit more, simply because we want to find out what everyone else is doing and try to support each other and try to find our way back to a normal performing life again. There’s a coaching side of things; we can help each other in that way – finding the right way to do things in our working life that actually removes the stress.
Playing the piano >>Watch Video>>
We don’t have live music at the minute so I’ve really struggled with listening to music and not equating it to work not happening, but I have gone back to playing the piano again and that’s been a really nice thing.
That’s been a real release of getting away from the desk and so if I’m working on something that’s causing a bit of a headache – I go to the piano for 15/20 minutes and play for a bit – it just clears my head of the work stuff and then I go back and do some more work.
Over the last 4 or 5 years we’ve commissioned several works from an Irish composer called David Fennessy. He initially wrote one piece for us and we really liked it and we got talking and said, ‘there should be more, this feels like it could have more pieces attached to it.’ So he wrote two more pieces over the next couple of years. It’s a collection called Triptych.
The first piece is about a woman in the early 20th century who was committed to a mental institution by her husband with what now would be diagnosed as schizophrenia. She wrote letters to her husband which simply said, ‘Sweetheart, come’… she just wanted her husband to come and pick her up, but he never did. So that was the basis and inspiration for that piece which was really incredible.
There are three phenomenal works that David has written for us, we recorded them in chaos last November when our recording venue had a noise issue so we had to record late into the night and not use our second day of recording – but we got it done. It was quite a catastrophic event but it turned out really well.
We’ve called the album Letters which also features our performance of British American composer Tarik O’Regan’s work and libretto by Alice Goodman. That recording was commissioned by Salisbury Cathedral which we performed with the Irish Chamber Orchestra back in 2017.
Many thanks to Majella for sharing her story and we really look forward to hearing Letters by Chamber Choir Ireland when it’s released on November 20th.
Remember, if you’re a member of the Irish music industry, you can talk to a counsellor free of charge at any time of the day or night. Simply call the phone number below.