Helen MacKinnon

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Helen MacKinnon - the woman who booked Lewis Capaldi to come to Perth. Do we really need to say anymore?!

In her first year as programmer and administrator for Perth Festival of the Arts, Helen has gotten off to a phenomenal start with the aforementioned chart-topper just one of the many fantastic shows secured for the annual 10-days-in-May event that brings internationally renowned arts to Perth City Centre.

Helen replaced the Festival's long-time doyenne, the wonderful Sandra Ralston, in autumn of last year. In a career that has honed impeccable organisational skills - she was the CEO of PKAVS for many years - and incredible artistic prowess - she is also a composer of classic music - it was little wonder that she was the obvious choice!

Helen MacKinnon Workdays - Perth Festival of the ArtsWhen she's not composing or booking acts, she can be found motorbiking through Scotland with her long-term partner, or eating and drinking in any one of Perth's wonderful restaurants.

"Tabla has my heart for the best-ever curry - if you ‘are what you eat’, I’m about 20% chicken tikka. Other than that, from North Port and 63 Tay Street, to Gringos for fab street food and Provender Brown for THE BEST sandwiches in the world, there’s great choice in Perth.

For drinks, it would be either Green Rooms for good beer, and Brew Dog as a great place to sit."

Relaxing for Helen, looks much the same as working which is probably why you always find her smiling and warm - the old saying "Choose a job you love, and you will never have towork a day in your life." could hav ebeen written for her!

"Composing music, singing in choirs, or playing violin in Perth Symphony Orchestra. There’s nothing like music to relax and refocus the mind after a busy day at work."

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

I’m self-employed, so I’m home-working mostly, but we do have a pop-up office for part of the year around Festival time. I’m usually at my desk for around 8am with a cup of tea (nothing happens before tea!) and a giant spreadsheet ‘to do’ list that keeps me on track for the day.

As a Festival Administrator, my day-to-day work involves planning, programming and delivering a Festival, with all the fundraising and marketing activity that goes around that. The day can range from creative phone calls with artists, to meetings with funders and sponsors, visiting venues, reviewing contracts, updating our website, writing marketing copy and going to concerts to review new artist ideas. There are a lot of logistics and multitasking involved; an organised mind is important!

Tell us the weirdest/funniest thing that has ever happened to you at work?

I’m usually at my desk for around 8am with a cup of tea (nothing happens before tea!)The funniest thing that happened at work was in a previous job, when I lost my front tooth while sitting at my desk eating an apple. The entire tooth just cracked off and dropped onto the desk! I ran to the bathroom to have a look and manged to fix it back in, temporarily. I then went to reception to explain that I was going to have to nip out to get the tooth seen to.

However, I hadn’t tried talking with my ‘temporary tooth solution’ yet, so I was half-way through a sentence when the tooth just took off and flew half way across the room and bounced off the wall! It was hilarious. There was a young apprentice on reception who was trying so hard to be professional and not laugh at the toothless CEO!

What signals the start of your days off?

I don’t really do ‘days off’ except for proper holidays. I’ve never had a 9-5 job. And now I’m self-employed, it’s even less so! But I wouldn’t have it any other way; work has always been a vocation first – we spend so much of our lives working, it’s so important to do things you love. But when I do get some planned down-time, it usually starts with a Costa latte and a white chocolate bun from the bakers Casella & Polegato and a bit of Classic FM. A rare calm and civilised moment in an otherwise busy life!

What might people be surprised to know about you?

A lot of people are surprised that I also work as a composer. “But I thought all composers are dead?!” is a response I’ve heard!

There are a growing number of female composers today that are certainly growing the profile, but if I was to ask most people – ‘can you name a female composer?’ They would probably still struggle. And understandably – I don’t think I ever once learned about a female composer while I was studying. Many orchestras and choirs are now committing to increased programming of music by female composers, which is really important.


What is at the top of your bucket list?

To live in Italy and have a solid grasp of the Italian language. I’ve been to Italy most years since I was in my mid-twenties and it just feels like home. My partner Fraser and I started to learn Italian a few years ago – we went to evening-classes at Perth College UHI. It was great fun and helped us feel a bit less like British tourists while we holiday in Italy.

What is the worst job you’ve ever had?

I’ve been fortunate to work in roles I enjoyed and could learn and develop within. I once helped out a friend doing some temporary waitressing work as a student. We were dropped off at the venue by a minibus at around 6am and worked a good 13 hour shift.

A lot of people are surprised that I also work as a composer.

There were only two of us on duty, covering a whole restaurant, and I don’t we got 5 mins break all day. I’d never waitressed before, so was winging it all the way. It was properly exhausting, but at the end of the day the tips were divided between just two of us, and I ended up making more that day than in any other day of my entire professional working life!

Who or what inspires you?

The people that inspire me are those who work hard and quietly, often under the radar, to support and care for others. People who choose to stay small and in the background, so others can be raised up. You see them every day around us. The neighbour who checks on her elderly neighbour every morning; the family member caring for a loved one, who selflessly puts their own plans aside out of love; the volunteer who gives of themselves day-in-day-out to make a difference and never expecting anything in return. We don’t often hear their stories, but their compassion keeps our world spinning.

Tell us about the day you’d love to live again?

I never thought I’d find myself about to stand on my chair at a classical concert!Going to see my composer-hero Ennio Morricone conduct a concert of his film music in Italy. My mum and I went together for a girls’ holiday. The concert was in the beautiful outdoors Verona Arena amphitheatre and the atmosphere was utterly electric. We are quite conservative as music audiences here in the UK but in Italy, the passion of the audience was wild! I never thought I’d find myself about to stand on my chair at a classical concert!

What’s the best part about your job?

So far, it’s been when a ‘plan comes together’. We juggle lots of variables in programming. Achieving the right artistic balance across the programme as we explore ideas, artist availability, venue availability, so when the magic happens and the logistics all click together, it’s a great feeling.

I’m also very proud of the work the Festival does with Perth & Kinross school children and young adult musicians - in my opinion, our young musicians need endless opportunities and encouragement.

The Festival brings children’s opera into schools, connects children and professional artists together for workshops, and gives young performers the chance to take part in a high-profile Scottish festival and develop their performance experience. We have a free Schools Lunchtime Concert Series that will run each weekday during this year’s Festival and I’m really looking forward to hearing the talented young musicians within our local schools.

Complete this sentence; the best things in life are… done through love!


Perth Festival of the Arts runs from the 16th May - 25th May 2019. 

Read about Helen's award-winning winning composition now featured on choral albumn, Voices of Earth & Air II >>>

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