Earning a living from jazz

 31 January 2013

After discovering the recorder at school, Arun Ghosh became a jazz clarinettist, theatre composer, and music teacher. He spoke about his career, and the challenge of earning a living from several jobs.

After learning the record aged 7, Arun soon discovered the clarinet. Photo: William Ellis
After learning the record aged 7, Arun soon discovered the clarinet. Photo: William Ellis

Starting to learn an instrument

"I started playing music when I was very young. I was about six or seven, and I played the recorder in primary school.

"Soon I realised that I really loved music, and that I could play it by ear. I definitely developed a sense of identity as someone who played music, in that I'd play it for family and for friends.

"I'd even play it on school trips. People would ask me to play Bananarama and things on the bus, on the recorder!

"I worked hard, and the clarinet just seemed to fit under my fingers."

"When I was a little bit older, I started playing the clarinet. I'd seen Courtney Pine on TV, playing the saxophone, and my mum bought me one of his records – the first jazz album I owned.

"My piano teacher also had a clarinet, and one day I had a go. I realised how similar it was in principle to the recorder, and suddenly I was away – I worked hard on it, and soon it just seemed to fit under my fingers." 

Getting into jazz

"I really wanted to be a clarinettist, but while I was at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, I realised something wasn't quite right.

"I'd started to learn more about what the classical world was like. At that point in my life, I was opening myself up to a lot of new ideas. I was playing jazz, going out to parties, playing clubs and having fun. 

"Classical music didn't fit with that, and I was starting to find it artistically restrictive. There were about 10 clarinettists at the college, and everybody seemed to be training to play the same way. 

"We were practising for hours on end to get a place in an orchestra. I realised that it was quite likely I wouldn't make it as a top-flight soloist. My style of playing was very different to everyone else's.

"During this time, I started writing my own music. I was already playing a lot more jazz. Although I was having a lot of fun, doing things like playing my clarinet with samba drummers, I was also really dedicated to jazz.

"I've always been quite academically-minded, so I began learning about jazz. I started to transcribe solos by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. People introduced me to these records – I'd never heard them living at home. 

"I started going out to jams, and meeting lots of other musicians.  There are some great jazz nights in Manchester, and I met a lot of people I later ended up working with."

Making music for theatre

"I started to really enjoy performing, and I began to work harder on it – not just the technical finesse, but on performing with a kind of raw energy.

"I performed at some poetry nights, and went in more of an arty direction, and then I started bringing Indian influences into my music. 

"As a composer today, I think it's important to be able to play your work."

"The artistic director of the Contact Theatre saw me play, and asked me to do a gig. I promoted that by giving out flyers when I was playing to anyone who liked what I was doing.  

"We sold the gig out, and off the back of that I was asked to compose some music for a play. This got me working in theatre.

"All this time, I was also teaching. Luckily, through word of mouth, I had landed a job teaching clarinet in a school. The gigs kept coming in on top of that, and I was able to make a living.

"I still work as a composer in theatre. I compose incidental music, and sometimes a few songs."

"I really like sitting in rehearsals, working with the actors. Often a lot of my ideas will develop while I'm in the room playing with the actors.

"I also work with dancers to create pieces. I put a drone on in the background and just start playing the clarinet.

"I watch them moving, and I won't necessarily try and do any kind of beat, but my playing will follow the flow of their movement. They'll hear what I'm playing and adapt to that, and I'll adapt to what I see. It's a great process." 

Developing as a composer 

"As a composer today, if you're doing what I'm doing, I think it's important to be able to play your own work. 

"I didn't have any of these skills when I first started, but it really helps to be able to record and edit your own audio. In theatre, there's not always a very big budget, so you have to be able to do things yourself.

"For me, composing is simple. Much of it develops from improvisation. 

"Composing for theatre or film is about finding a language. I'm looking for a way to bring out what's happening in the drama through the music I put into it. I use the skills I developed as a performing musician when I'm composing. 

"I'm lucky that I've studied music and have the skills to notate things. When a theatre director I was working for wanted 'Jerusalem' to be sung on stage in three-part harmony, I was able to arrange it."

Building creative business skills

"You can't wait for things to fall into your lap. You have to push yourself out there, and start sending things out and approaching people.

"You can't wait for things to fall into your lap. You have to push yourself out there."

"There are a lot of people in this industry who know how to be pushy, sell themselves and be good networkers. I've got a lot of respect for that. 

"I haven't put in many funding proposals in my career, because I've never liked the idea of not getting them. I don't like rejection, and sometimes that leads me to not try in the first place. That's completely the wrong way to think about it.

"I've got a good sense of business, in the sense that I know how to manage money. You've got to stay on top of things. 

"There are times when I'm willing to make investments, on equipment for example, and then there are times when I don't expect to make money from a gig, but I decide it's worth pursuing anyway. 

"There have been so many times in my life when I've thought I didn't want to do all these things. I've thought, 'I just want to make heavy hip-hop beats', 'I just want to work in theatre', 'I only want to do jazz' or 'I want to be an Indian clarinettist'. 

"But the mix of all these things is what's really important." 

Find out more about Arun Ghosh's music on his website


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