Interview with Prof. Richard Smith: Tips on how to succeed in the music industry of the 21st century

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A couple of months ago, the renowned jazz guitarist and USC Thornton School of Music Professor Richard Smith delivered a lecture about the music industry in the 21st century at Morley College in London. He studied the profiles of  a few young professional musicians and I had the honour to be featured as one of the success stories! He interviewed me and here are my answers in full length! Some of them were used in the lecture at Morley College.

1) What was the most valuable experience(s) of your music education?

One of the most valuable experiences of my music education was getting a grasp of the music industry and how it works- whether that was through lectures and classes delivered by some of the best music practitioners or through actual projects that involved writing, recording and most of all performing. More specifically, one of the best experiences that I will always be keeping with me is collaborating with American musicians from across the pond and performing in some amazing venues in London and beyond.

I believe music education has nowadays the power to be very relevant to the real world and offer to young musicians the tools that they need in order to succeed, and these go far beyond technical knowledge: they can range from how you interact with people, how you can adjust to different musical environments and how to deliver under pressure.
2) What was the best mentoring advice you received from friends or teachers?
‘Keep working hard, keep insisting, take every opportunity and always remain true to yourself. Know who you are and follow your purpose with consistency and perseverance’
3) What turns out to have been least relevant, and waste of time?
I can’t remember any advice that has been a complete waste of time, but if there is anything that I personally think that is the least relevant would be to stay focused on one area you want to exclusively develop; there is this argument that in order to succeed you have to only focus on one thing and give it your all- while I definitely agree with focus and persistence, I disagree with absolutely focusing on one area of strength only as the music industry of today requires a range of skills and abilities, which, combined together in the right way, can lead to a successful career.
4) What got you your first professional gig?
A few years ago, I remember a songwriter had asked me to sing backing vocals for her EP Launch- it was a great feeling to be paid for the first time! I had met her through university and a common tutor had got us in touch for the gig!
5) How do you maintain your professional schedule – do you cultivate new situations/contacts?
I maintain it by having a circle of musicians and groups that I love working with, that I can truly relate with, whom I trust and know that they are my strong point of reference, my ‘rock’. I always build on those relationships and I make them stronger with time and through common musical experiences.  However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t look for new contacts, and new situations! I always seek to learn more and put myself in environments and jobs that I haven’t encountered before, that challenge me and push me to my limits! This thirst for challenge usually works for the best- I like being open to new connections,open to meeting people and developing bonds all over the world, if possible!
6) Do you “network”?
Yes I do network; For me, networking means cultivating relationships; it is not about seeking to take, asking for favours or persistently ask for jobs- unfortunately in the music world there is a lot of ‘wrong networking’ and misunderstanding around it and  it is easy for young professionals to fall in the trap of this wrong idea of what it means. I ‘ve seen young musicians handing out cards in the completely wrong context, sending untactful emails asking for jobs and generally just planning their actions in a very ineffective way.
Networking should be done very carefully, and always at the right timing and  within respect and appreciation coming from both parties. For me, my networking is communication; it is being open to other people, getting to know other musicians, show interest for their work -and I mean genuine interest-, being ready to help them out if you can, in the same way that you expect them to help you out; it is a healthy exchange and a process of connecting with other people from your field. Many times, my networking has led me into strong friendships which have also been very helpful in terms of musical career, but this was the outcome of the friendship and the connection, not the initial, strategically planned, aim.
7) What are your recommendations to the World’s aspiring professionals – what are the tools they need to succeed?
Don’t be scared to follow your dreams. Success is the result of three main things: love and passion for what you do, hard work and strong vision.
Always keep on working on your craft- what you are able to offer : this can be a range of skills but it is your craft, it is what makes you employable- work to perfect your craft, never stop learning and never think you are good enough to learn more! there is always space to learn! In the music industry, the more skills you have the more chances you will have to get hired; for example, a vocalist who can be a very good sight reader but can also pick up everything by ear, who can compose and arrange, who has production knowledge, who can teach and has great people skills will be 10 times more employable than someone else who can only sing! Flexibility and adaptability are super important, especially in the session world
Your craft is the first thing you need to have.
Secondly, you need to have a very strong vision and purpose. Your mind and your vision are incredibly powerful..-if you can visualise something and if you are ready to work hard for it, ..then you will most probably get there. A few years ago I would look at professional situations and would desire them so much, but I ‘d think they are impossible…Recently out of nowhere they became possible and I suddenly found myself doing things that were unimaginable before. This was the result of a strong, unstoppable desire to achieve my goals.
And thirdly: be kind, be easy to work with, dont be a diva, work on your communication skills! In the music world, we are required to spend days and sometimes weeks and months with other musicians and if we can’t get on with them, then the game is lost!
Any other advice and analogies?

Let everything you do be done in love. Your love for what you chose to be your profession will never fail you. Be strong, be courageous and do not let negativity or blaming others get in your way. Always seek for the good in every situation and always learn something from things that don’t go as you wanted them to. Most importantly..dont quit if you receive rejections!! Even the best have gone through terrible phases of rejection!

Also…dont compare yourself with others. In the past I used to admire others and compare, even though i knew it was wrong. Over the years I learned that each person is unique, each of us has their own voice, each of us carries a past and a background that cannot be comparable, just because the parameters around which we build our lives are different. Embrace your past, embrace your uniqueness and make your personal contribution to the world. Your only competitor should be your own self!

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Living a lie

Omg. This is shocking and revealing. I am just shocked at how true are the things she says. We are falling into the ‘prove your life on Facebook’ culture deeper and deeper…we ve come to the point where we can’t gain pleasure out of things, if they are not displayed on Facebook, instagram etc. We end up living in a lie, deeper and deeper..we are in a room with other people and we are on our phone feeling equally lonely. For what??? what is it that makes us happy?? ‘More followers, more likes, more praise…. !!’ Is that a life we want??

How self indulgent, narcissistic and hypocritical is the social media happiness and the ‘perfect life’ picture?? If u scratch the surface, if u go behind closed doors u ll see that reality has nothing to do with the ‘all happy and cool’ life we show on our timelines everyday. We feel that our value increases by NUMBERS. Our self worth increases by the social media approval, our popularity. Our confidence goes up by the numbers of likes. But after a few hours, we feel empty again- and therefore we post something else and wait for the response. Isn’t that like the worst drugs? I m telling you, it s a slow torture. It s like an illness.

Dont get me wrong, there s a good and beneficial social media sharing that can make a really positive change, such as sharing valuable information, articles, experiences that have a positive effect on others.

But living our life through it is an illusion. I ve seen so many people (and I can include myself in there many times) spending so much time and effort perfecting their social media happiness bubble. Taking hundreds of selfies until we finally find one which we think it can be approved from society and Facebook standards as being attractive, and therefore suitable for posting. And then being in front of the screen to count how many likes we ve got. We ve gone so far from reality, from truth. Out of the people who clicked ‘like’ on our stuff, how many of them will be there for us? how many will give us a hug when we need it? How many will smile at us? Probably one or two. Or noone. It s sad isn’t it? We rely on people who probably won’t even recognise us if they see us on the street, in real life.

I dont want to live there anymore. People are around us!! They are everywhere and we can’t even see them!! Because we spend so much time instagraming our  new dress that we are turning blind to real, beautiful things around us!! And there s proof that this kills us: we end up sad, unhappy and depressed without even knowing why and how. Well this is how….

Recognition, happiness and success is not how amazing and successful and pretty you look on Facebook. It comes from experiences that we can only acquire through love, real soul sharing and real life- these can vary from walking in a park to drinking a coffee and saying hello to someone. Where is real love, where have the real people gone?? They are out there, in the real world. They are our families, our friends, the real figures in the streets, in nature, everywhere. They can be next to us- all we need to do is switch off our phones and devices, open their eyes and see them.

If you have the same thoughts, please share the post and the video-it s shocking to realise that so many ‘successful’ on social media people suffer from melancholy and depression. Even global stars. Lets make a start.

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Stage and Performance Tips: what it takes to achieve a strong performance

 stage2Singing is an act of telling a story, sending a message, engaging in a dialogue with the audience. It is an act of communication. Whilst a good technique is absolutely necessary for a good performance, expression of emotions and feelings is equally, if not more, necessary. When the singer believes in what the song is about, can relate with the song, we have one of the most important ingredients of a good performance, which is connection. When we are connected with the song we are singing, this instantly comes across to the audience. If we start thinking of performance as a relationship then we have many more chances for our performance to be successful.

Being a confident performer often takes a long time to master; I have seen many singers struggling with their stage presence, their expression, their movement, even though they might be excellent vocally wise; performance is a whole other story and once you get into it, you ll never want to stop!

Below there are some general tips for singers and performers that I personally found very helpful in my journey so far; these will only work with time, determination and constant practice. Don’t be disheartened if they don’t work instantly and remember to always be patient about results!

General Performance Tips/ Stage Techniques:

The obvious no 1 ingredient of a good performance is to feel confident, what we often call ‘owing the stage’: the moment we walk on stage, we need to feel at home, we need to be comfortable, show that we are happy to be there and that we are ready to share the musical experience with our audience. In order to succeed at ‘owning the stage’ we need to pay attention to the following areas:

  • Eyes:  our eyes are the ‘window of the soul’; by engaging our eyes, looking our audience in the eye and not looking nervous or away, chances are that the audience will have an amazing experience. Sometimes it is totally acceptable and necessary to close our eyes, if we really feel it, as long as we dont do it constantly.
  • Moving/ Walking on stage: Very often owning a stage means that we have to move. It always depends on the needs of the song; when we feel like we need to move, we have to do that with confidence, and not show signs of confusion, of being unsure or hesitant about which direction we need to move. In any case, whatever we do, any movement we employ has to serve the purpose of the song; sometimes this means not moving at all. Moving for the sake of moving just to prove that we are competent performers wont give us more credit. No matter what we decide it is best for a specific performance, we should never be apologetic or afraid of the audience. In any case, remembering to stay honest to the song and delivering the message should be our priority.
  • Posture: A good posture contributes in a convincing, strong performance. Slouching our shoulders can give a bad impression and a feeling of nervousness. Always remember to maintain a strong, firm, good posture and not slouching the shoulders.
  • Gestures: there is not a single rule referring to what are good and what bad gestures, but generally we have to remember to never force gestures; again, gestures stem from what we want to express in a particular song- they might be minimal or a bit exaggerated; for instance, if we are performing a musical theatre song that has a very dramatic content, it might be more suitable to use many gestures. If we are performing a quiet, story telling ballad that doesn’t include many dynamic or dramatic changes it might be more suitable to control our gestures a bit more. No matter what we decide to do, we should never feel forced or act over the top in an effort to prove that we can be very energetic and animated, because that might risk to come across as fake.
  • Communication between band members: As performers in a band environment, we dont only communicate with our audience, but also between each other; it is crucial that the members of the band are in sync, are engaging with each other, support each other and work together towards achieving an energetic performance and the best sound they can get. The singer is the leader of the band, which means that in most cases he/she must cue the musicians as much as possible :look at them in the eye, be in constant communication regarding dynamics and the feel of the song, cue the solos -where applicable-, the repeats, turn arounds, conduct key sections such as rubato, climaxes, stops, intros and endings when needed and make sure to connect equally with everyone.  An example of a good communication is when the band members allow each other to have their moment; when there is a guitar or drum solo, for instance, the singer has to step aside a bit-without losing eye contact though- and allow the drummer or the guitarist to shine.
  • Being a musician and being in a band means that you have to be a team member; more importantly, that you have to learn how to  listen  and interact with your team. It is crucial that each member is not only focused on their own part, but that, while performing, they are aware of what is happening around them all the time. The rhythm section has to be in total sync with the vocalist and all together must complement each other and create a consistent sound. Showing respect towards our band mates and caring about our band rather than about ourselves as individual performers is one of the most important lessons to learn as a musician. One mistake that many, and often very good performers tend to do, is to underestimate the importance of listening and feeling the music; instead they are so concentrated in showing off  and proving how good their technique is, that they risk losing the essence, losing the connection with the rest of the band and losing the feel.  Listening to the music, feeling the groove, being in a non stop ‘dialogue’ with your band is crucial in achieving a good sound and ultimately a strong performance.
  • Dealing with stage fright: Stage fright is something that even the most experienced performers struggle with; it is the constant enemy of the performer and usually takes a long time to face it and overcome it. Some tips for overcoming stage fright are to always be very well prepared, be realistic about yourself and how well you know the song, replace the catastrophic or negative thoughts with the thought that you will do your best, even though some people might criticise you. Some effective techniques include making sure that you get through that first line of the song, doing some stretching and diaphragmatic breathing some minutes before you go on stage and mainly remember why you are there, what is your purpose and how much you love what you do. Don’t be put off if it doesn’t happen quickly- it is a long and painful process where you need to guide your thoughts and exercise your mind to think differently. It takes time, patience, and discipline. 
  • Lastly, never forget to enjoy being on stage, allow yourself some time to familiarise with the performance space and think how much energy you will fill it with! At the end of the day, if you are full of happiness and enjoyment, your audience will also be!!

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The Secret in their Eyes: Film Review

In most of the films we watch, even in the case of the best ones, we can usually point out a number of strengths and weaknesses afterwards. Even for those that capture us from the very first scene, we are usually able to identify some flaws- either in the direction, gaps in the storyline, not so outstanding performances and so on. In the case of ‘The Secret in their Eyes’, I can hardly find any flaws. It is one of the few films I have ever seen in my life that satisfies almost every aspect of an excellent film experience. Surely one of the most captivating films in years, ‘The Secret in their Eyes’ is built upon deep secrets that desperately seek to be come to light.

Based on the novel by Eduardo Sacheri and directed by Juan José Campanella, the film follows  Benjamin Esposito, a retired federal justice agent, who decides to write a novel referring to an old murder and rape case, which he had passionately investigated many years ago. The case involved a pretty young girl being brutally raped and murdered and was an extremely sensitive, moving and meaningful case to him, which, unfortunately, remained unresolved back in the past.  Now, years later, Benjamin stills looks for answers and in order to complete his book, he decides to ask from his ex-employer, Irene, with whom he has been deeply in love for years, to reopen the case.

Through constant flashbacks, the case which has been haunting Esposito’s life so irreparably is slowly unfolded in front of our eyes. The past helps us understand the present and the present inevitably leads us into the past. We witness a terrible crime, we get to know the tragic figure of the victim’s husband and follow his connection with Esposito, we share Esposito’s and Irene’s deep demand for restoring justice by punishing the murderer and we are exposed to a deep, undeniably true love. With the help of Campanella’s  virtuosic direction we reflect on the meaning of justice, the possibilities of taking the law into one’s hands, we question the human nature, the good and the evil and as the film progresses we are painfully and slowly led to one of the most wonderfully given feelings of catharsis in modern cinema.

The Secret in their Eyes touches upon some of the most powerful existential questions: what is justice?  What is the relationship between justice and the law? What is the role of morality in law making and criminal justice?  In which cases is revenge justifiable? When does the law conflict with a person’s right to define and create their own terms of justice? All these questions keep coming up all the time and as we follow agonizing secrets being gradually revealed, we desperately long for justice and redemption.

Some of the film’s remarkable qualities are the relationships developed between the characters- the repressed and deep love between Esposito and Irene, the honest and true friendship between Esposito and his closest, devoted assistant Pablo, and the deep connection between Esposito and Ricardo –the victim’s husband-. The Secret in their Eyes is also built upon antinomies:  Benjamin’s pure and deep love for Irene defined by romanticism and a true respect towards women is contrasted with the sick and brutal desire of the perpetrator for the victim, who ends up raping and killing the object of his desire. Two completely different attitudes to womankind shape eroticism in this film. The special connection between the two lead roles and the impact of Esposito’s veneration for Irene confirm that sometimes the greatest love stories and the deepest feelings stem from unfulfilled desires and not from a realised, sexual love.

The film is elegantly and powerfully directed by Campanella, who decided to base the storyline on a constant intersection of the present and the past via flashbacks, in order to shed light to causes, motives, desires and secrets. Atmospheric scenes, intense dialogues, elements of mystery and adventure, memorable sequences like the chase of the murderer in a football field, open and closed doors, close-up shots of puzzled stares and unresolved dilemmas are only some of the film’s highlights. A note of lyricism and a sense of subtlety render the film incredibly interesting and delightful to watch. Some unexpected plot twists, the emotional narrative staying powerful all the way through and the journey through redemption lift the film onto ultimate levels of dramaturgical perfection. Especially the end is one of the strongest and unforgettable ends experienced by the viewer in the history of cinema.  The performances of Ricardo Darín (Esposito) and Soledad Villamil (Irene) are more than brilliant, a pure delight to watch. Both lead acts perfectly interpret two extremely interesting characters, two characters characterized by moral integrity, honesty, forcefulness and passion.

The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, awarded to the film in 2010 is possibly one of the most deservedly Oscars ever given, for which the Foreign Language Film category has to be proud of, but however not even enough to honour the excellence of this film which is probably extended far beyond awards. The excellence of this film is only felt deep inside our existence. As the film reaches its end, we are left speechless and certainly the end of the film is not the end of our internal journey to unspeakable truths. More accurately, it is a film that irrevocably marks what can be called a film experience and there is no doubt that no matter how many years may pass, its strong effect will not fade away . Engaging, pragmatic, lyric, surprising, intense and mesmerising, the ‘Secret in their Eyes’ is there to prove that real art still remains in modern cinematography.

*this review was published in Yuppee Online Magazine, on March 11, 2013

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Everyone is fully responsible for their own actions. True?

One of the most valuable and -widely approved as such -realisations in life is that at the end of the day, everyone is responsible for their actions. We build our destiny with our actions and reactions, the way we choose to see situations that are somehow revealed to us during the course of our lives and the way we respond to the barriers around us. They say that barriers exist so long as we let them exist. Is that true?

This is not an easy statement. It is easy to say that only each of us is responsible for the life we live. However, while a lot of it is true, it is not that simple and not that easy. The inequality of barriers in people’s lives is immense. It is certainly much easier for someone who did not have to go through huge amounts of pain and troubles, who happened to be healthy and supported and loved to claim that they own their life, their decisions and their choices. And certainly more difficult for someone who had to face tragic situations out of their control -and I mean really out of their control: situations such as big losses, physical disasters and other examples of life changing incidents- to stay strong and happy and declare that they own their life. Do they own it? When suddenly you lose everything you have, the people you love, when you experience fear, pain and abandonment, how much can you handle?

There are those whose response to barriers is strong and brave, but there are those who are by nature more sensitive, more fragile and more vulnerable, and for them sometimes it looks like there is no way back. Is it really their choice? Do we want to think that there are people who really want to spend a life in the gutter? In pain? Who would possibly cherish or want or choose that option??

You can definitely now argue that the way they treated and responded to their losses and troubles is only their choice, whether they are conscious of it or not…I m still not convinced. To be honest, I don’t know. And even if it is, isn’t it very unfair for some people to have to suffer immensely in order to be able to accept their struggles, fight for the best and try to take responsibility for their lives, while for others, everything runs smoothly, making it much more easier for them to chase their dreams and define their present?

And yet, while it is true that the receptivity to, acceptance or rejection of situations, the angle under which we face them and the meaning we choose to give to harmful experiences defines a lot each and every single one of us, I am finding it really problematic to accuse some people who seem to be unhappy for the absence of happiness in their lives. I m finding hard to point fingers and firmly say that if they are unhappy it is mostly their fault because they are the only responsible for their situation. It is cruel and inhuman to be that sure about it. Yes, there are ways of improving bad circumstances, there are ways of protecting yourself from getting hurt, there are ways of shaping your future with determination, hard work, firm decisions that you make-and there is certainly the potential of getting out of troublesome situations as a winner. And there is a big amount of personal responsibility in that process, no doubt. But, having said that, it s also important to remember that for some people, this road of taking ownership of their own life might be longer and more painful. And instead of judging them, we could make an effort to understand their challenges and hold their hands.

The reason why I am raising this is because I ‘ve heard so many times people arguing that, if someone suffers or cant seem to find their way in life, it is mainly their responsibility and no one can do anything about it. Yes, it is true that you cant do much in terms of changing the way one person sees the world-although you can always be a positive influence. But what you can surely do, is to not rush to judge or pity, but try to understand a small part of their journey.

Of course painful situations and troubles should in no case be used as an excuse for not trying and not fighting for the lives we cherish. There should always be a way to follow a light even through the hardest times. But at the same time, we should always keep in mind and respect that everybody’s journey is different, everybody’s past is different, everybody’s character is different and everybody’s influences from the day they are born shape the way they afford to define their lives.

And it wouldn’t hurt to also keep in mind that, no matter how much we stand in our own two feet, how much we take our lives in our hands, how strong we are, how we shape our lives as individuals, people around us  do matter.  Much more than we think. Our family, our friends and our loved ones. How much easier is for someone who has strong and supportive people around them to rise and become happy and successful? And what is success at the end of the day without having the people we love around us? In fact, the people that surround us are crucial to our journey towards self-realisation and life ownership. This comes as a bit of a contradiction, since individual responsibility does not include others, as per term. However, individual responsibility in life should not preclude the incomparable power of companions in life, who, essentially, are the people who hold our hands while we are climbing up the stairs to reach that level of happiness and success.

Being powerful and successful and happy surely is associated with taking ownership of your own life. But this ownership becomes so much more meaningful and valuable when it coexists with companionship, honest relationships, mutual encouragement, love and synergy.

Yes, each of us have to make the final calls about our life direction. But while we are in the process of doing so, let us take a second to be tolerant and empathetic towards others’ struggles. It never takes the same amount of time and effort for everyone to define their destiny, if ever. Whether we are able to define our life or not, we should definitely be able to cherish good people around us, value each other’s importance in developing our own sanity and build our self worth and realisation upon solidarity, encouragement and mutuality.

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For 307 Members of the UK Youth Parliament Friday 23 November 2012 will be marked up as a day they will never forget. The UK Youth Parliament held their annual debate at the House of Commons chamber. Members of the UK Youth Parliament aged 11-18 debated five crucial issues chosen by a ballot of 250,000 young people before voting for the campaign they wanted to become the Youth Parliament’s main campaign for 2013. The day was eventful, electric and vibrant. It was an event never to be forgotten and never to be overlooked.

Stefania: The five topics discussed in the five debates were: ‘Making public transport cheaper, better and accessible for all’, ‘Getting ready for work’, ‘Marriage for all’, ‘An equal national minimum wage for all’ and ‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’. For each debate, there were two speakers representing two opposite positions-for and against-. After each speech…

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Binge drinking on the increase for women, the new CDC report shows

pictureThe U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report in January of 2013, stating that women’s binge drinking has been on the increase during the last few years, a fact that can potentially have destructive consequences for their health and lives.

According to the survey, binge drinking among women is ‘under- recognised’ and can constitute a much bigger problem than most people tend to think it is. The report defines binge drinking as ‘a dangerous drinking pattern that is defined as the consumption of 4 or more alcohol drinks for women (or 5 or more drinks for men) on an occasion.’

The findings show that about 1 in 8 adult women binge drink and that nearly 14 million U.S. women binge drink about three times a month. One in five high school girls drink excessively and the age between 18 and 34 seems to be the usual age at which women prefer to overindulge. According to the New York Magazine, college is the most suitable and welcoming ground for excessive drinking habits and usually women constitute the majority of those severely affected by binge drinking. Another recent study also confirmed that women in college are much more likely to binge drink than men.

Another shocking and surprising reveal  is that binge drinking is the cause of about 23,000 deaths among women and girls in the U.S. each year.

The CDC research indicates that binge drinking is a habit far more prevalent among white, highly educated women. However, a group that was particularly at risk were Latinas.

Another highlight of the CDC report suggests that women are much more vulnerable towards alcohol consumption, because their bodies and metabolism respond differently to alcohol than those of men. Women can become easily intoxicated after consuming less alcohol than men, because of the way their bodies process the quantities of alcohol entering their organism.  ‘Women’s bodies generally don’t have as many of the enzymes that digest alcohol’ said  Maureen Shackleford, a registered dietician at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

Binge drinking among women can have alarming consequences regarding their health, social life and emotions, the report warns. Women who binge drink put their health seriously in danger, as they are in extreme risk for breast cancer, heart diseases, sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. In addition, pregnant women who binge drink might put the health of their unborn child in serious danger, as there is a risk of fetal-alcohol spectrum disorders and sudden-infant-death syndrome.

Binge drinking could also be associated with date rape and sexual violence, as excessive amounts of alcohol substances usually impair women’s control and clear vision over different situations, especially situations associated with unwanted sexual encounters.

Socially, binge drinking has become a whole new culture, a way for women to feel liberated by endorsing those habits that were traditionally conceived to be men’s drinking habits. Corporate culture in the western world also promotes binge drinking as a way of entertainment between colleagues and clients.

It certainly makes sense not to overlook the marketing and media influences and strategies, that deliberately  target female alcohol consumers, directly or indirectly, in order to always maximise profits. Kathryn A. Cunningham, the director of the Center for Addiction Research at the University of Texas Medical Branch stated: “The serious impact of binge drinking is truly interesting when placed in the context of the lack of prevention tools to prevent these behaviors and in the face of marketing of alcohol to female audiences.”

It is certain that the extent to which this habit can actually destroy women’s sense of control over their behaviour and their bodies is not yet recognised. Binge drinking is quite ignored and its danger and risky outcomes are not clearly articulated. It is crucial that women are informed and educated about the risks and serious impacts of binge drinking.

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The UK Youth Parliament Debate in the House of Commons

ImageVaultHandler.aspxOn Friday the 23rd of November 2012, the UK Youth Parliament held their annual debate at the House of Commons chamber.  307 members of the UK Youth Parliament aged 11-18 debated five crucial issues chosen by a ballot of 250,000 young people before voting for the campaign they wanted to become the Youth Parliament’s main campaign for 2013.

The five topics discussed in the five debates were: ‘Making public transport cheaper, better and accessible for all’, ‘Getting ready for work’, ‘Marriage for all’, ‘An equal national minimum wage for all’ and ‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’. For each debate, there were two speakers representing two opposite positions-for and against-. After each speech, young members of the parliament had either the right to defend, support or argue against each issue.

I was there from early that morning with my fellow journalist from the 99% campaign, Ruth. We were both excited as it was the first time we entered the Houses of Parliament! After having a nice breakfast at the Westminster Hall – choosing from a massive buffet of delicious treats- we made our way to the House of Commons chamber, where the Members of Youth Parliament would debate. After seating at the gallery reserved for the media, we decided that although each of us would report on the whole debate and focus on points we believe are remarkable,  Ruth would focus on the ‘against’ views and I would focus on the positive arguments in each debate.

‘Make public transport cheaper, better and accessible for all’

The debate started promptly at 11 am, with the first topic discussed being the need for a cheaper and more accessible public transport. The first MYP spoke about the urgent need of lower transport prices. He was very bold, strong and articulate and stressed that accessible public transport for young people should be an ‘absolute priority’, as many students in Britain struggle to afford going to school, being very often obliged to pay full adult fees. The main arguments supporting the motion were the need for a general better, affordable pricing structure of the public transport and the improvement of the treatment of young people on public transport, including those in rural areas.

The reason why this debate sparked a lot of controversy was because many people argued that public transport system varies between different regions, making the campaign difficult to attract consensus.  For example, some said that London public transport has a great structure and that young people commute with a free pass and others mentioned the ‘ridiculously high transport prices’ in Birmingham.  Some other members focused on the importance of education and the priority to the needs of disadvantaged, homeless and extremely poor people.

‘Getting ready for work’

The second topic titled ‘Getting Ready for Work’ was mostly about the imperative need for a better preparation, education and skills development enabling young students to enter smoothly the employment market. The young delegate speaking in favour of the motion being the national campaign emphasized the importance of a good career support , the need of  a valuable and essential work experience for all young pupils: ‘we need to provide stable and sustainable apprenticeships for young people’. Work experience for all was at the centre of his speech and he described it as a ‘vibrant opportunity’.

Many young members questioned this need for a short term work experience, stating that what should be at stake is the ‘improvement of the quality of education’, ‘life skills’, and gaining ‘transferable skills at work’.

‘Marriage for All’

The next controversial, lively and to my opinion, very interesting debate was ‘Marriage for All’. I was impressed by the speech of the young girl supporting the issue. She was firm, decisive, energetic and particularly convincing- although she could be characterized slightly aggressive, I certainly liked that tone of aggression and I would rather call that a passionate, vigorous speech. Her name is Michaella Philpot and only at the age of 18, she managed to deliver an amazing speech: she held that equal rights to marriage should be at the heart of the youth concerns, as everyone, regardless of sexual orientation should have the same right to marry the person they love. She highlighted that each person’s sexuality has to be accepted by society and a form of acceptance is the equal right to marriage. She stressed that ‘love is a natural human condition.. there is a moral and social obligation to challenge discrimination against gay people’ and defended an ‘accepting society’.

Quite predictably, there was a big opposition to this argument and a deluge of comments. Highlights included that equal marriage does not affect young people so much – someone said that ‘the 11-15 year olds are excluded if equal marriage becomes the national campaign’-, others held that love and marriage are totally different concepts, others wholeheartedly supported the argument by drawing on the need of sexual inclusion which has been overlooked when compared to other types of inclusion. Despite the different views, this was a particularly prolific debate and one of the closing statements proved it: ‘it was an honest, frank, dignified debate’. I agree.

‘An equal national minimum wage for all’

The next debate, after the big lunch break was about the need for an equal national minimum wage for all. The defenders of an equal national minimum wage for all raised issues of equality and justice, arguing that low pay for young people in comparison with their adult counterparts is a form of discrimination that has to be stopped. The main speaker in favour of the issue urged upon the fact that ‘3,5 million people live in extreme poverty’ and that inequality has to be tackled efficiently.

Many arguments against the issue being the national campaign emphasized that the ‘unequal minimum wage is just a symptom of the general problem’ and some others argued that requiring an equal minimum wage for all could be quite unrealistic and that what should be the main focus is a better curriculum that offers real opportunities.

‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’

The last and certainly one of the most powerful and significant debates was ‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’, stressing the need for a sustainable, realistic, inspiring curriculum that provides young people with political knowledge, cultural awareness, practical skills, relationships and sexual education and enables them to make a smooth transition from school life to work life.

That issue seemed to attract a large consensus: after the two speeches, the members of the Parliament talked about real, current challenges in young people’s lives that need to be met at school, world issues, cultural diversity and life skills. They seemed to hold that the school had to prepare them for life-by not focusing on exam results mostly, but by placing attention to the real problems and to a sustainable preparation of young people for a balanced life and career, producing thereby responsible, educated, informed and open minded citizens.

The winning debate

After the end of the debate, the members of the Youth Parliament voted for the campaign they wanted to be the priority campaign for 2013. As expected, the last issue (‘A curriculum to prepare us for life’) received the majority of the votes (154), making it the priority issue for next year. It was followed by the issue of getting ready for work, which gained a significant 43% of the votes and the rest of the debates. The issues that came last in the voting order were the issue of an equal minimum national wage for all and the issue of making the public transport affordable for young people.

Overall, it was a prolific event, with very knowledgeable, smart, strong, articulate young pupils, who had the courage and the ability to analyse, criticize and offer solutions and proposals for a better education, better opportunities for youth and a fair society. I was impressed by the atmosphere of the debate, which sparked constructive discussion, dialogue, and celebrated equal rights to dialogue -the coordinator gave equal chances to girls and boys, people from different ethnic backgrounds and disabled people to speak- as well as mutual respect. There was a high level of toleration and acceptance of different views.  As John Bercow MP, who chaired the bebate, highlighted, the day, the speeches and the debates were characterized by ‘honesty, compassion, abundance, explosions and dignity’. He also said that ‘Respect is a two-way street’. It definitely is.

*this article, slighlty altered to be a joint article (with the coverage of the ‘against’arguments)  was written for the needs of  the IARS 99% campaign blog. I went to the House of Commons and reported on the event as part of the IARS 99% campaign blog team of journalists and for the needs of the blog. The whole joint article, along with my fellow journalist’s coverage can be read above.


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10 reasons why Christmas can be a healing period for the soul

Christmas-Tree-Wallpaper-christmas-8142630-1024-768I always loved Christmas, to be more accurate, I adored Christmas. I couldn’t wait for the Christmas holidays to come, for the lovely festive atmosphere to outweigh everything else, bringing only joyful and warm sentiments, loving feelings and reunions with my beloved friends and family. Christmas was, no doubt, my favourite period of the year. It was the reason why winter always mattered. When the summer ended, the thought of the coming Christmas kept me going through the autumn blues. While I definitely believe that every season has its magical moments, it would be a lie if I didn’t admit that September and October were always the pre-Christmas months, a sort of ‘warming-up’ for the peak of the season- what else? Christmas.

This year I found myself hesitant at wishing everyone ‘Merry Christmas’, especially after hearing various opinions stating that, since many people are not Christian or are not religious, it would be offensive or ignorant to wish them ‘Merry Christmas’. I even had people saying that it is not politically correct to pronounce the word ‘Christmas’ in front of people coming from different religions or defending different religious beliefs.

I was quite confused and puzzled to that argument, but it kept going a lot in my head and I decided that I should not be afraid of or ashamed at wishing to the people around me ‘Merry Christmas’. The next list is an effort to prove why Christmas could be a universal celebration, even for non-religious people and why it can potentially have only positive and healing affects to the human soul.

1. Christmas, whether you believe or not in the Christian God, is all about love. It is an occasion to spread love, share love, give unconditional love and receive love. And as far as I know, love exists everywhere and touches everyone.

 2. During Christmas period, people usually are eager or are socially ‘forced’ to spend some family time, for most people meaning that they reunite with their family, even travel miles away to see their relatives and dine around the same table. Well, how true is that busy lives and daily routine make it harder and harder for people to stay in contact with their families and have a true connection with them? Could Christmas then be an opportunity for people, regardless of religious orientation, to meet with their close relatives, and spend some quiet, peaceful time with them? Wouldn’t that be a kind of healing for their stressful lives? It would surely be.

3. Christmas is a celebration of life. It symbolizes Jesus’s Birth, but even if one doesn’t believe in Jesus, who can argue with the power of the very concept of Birth, which is the creation of life, the fountain, the starting point? Let us celebrate the joy of life, despite our religious or political differences.

4. Christmas is an opportunity for us to rethink our actions, reflect on our misbehaviour and mistakes and apologize to the people we hurt. Christmas encompasses the meaning of ‘forgiveness’ – so why don’t we try not to judge people so much but try to accept, and forgive instead? Forgiveness relieves the soul.

5. Christmas is a chance to offer gifts to as many people as possible.  Even though there is a materialistic and maybe superficial dimension to gift exchanging, it is still a way to spend time thinking about the other, instead of focusing on ourselves. Especially kids become extremely happy when they receive gifts. I think that everyone is happy when they receive gifts. And they don’t have to be expensive- even the smallest gift is a symbolic action of offering. Offering and receiving gifts makes people smile. We all know that smile is a sign of health and happiness all around the globe.

6. Christmas is the period when we usually think about justice and injustice. It is the period when we tend to think about those people who are lonely, deprived, poor or disadvantaged. It is the period when organisations, individuals, charities, people of authority unite to offer shelter, food and help to those in need. Maybe not everyone cares about helping others, but for those who do, it is a rewarding feeling and a generous act. Christmas period should not be the only period when the priority is the people in need, but nevertheless it doesn’t cease to be the peak of humanity and solidarity. Again, these values exceed religious borders.

7. Christmas is the chance for people to act generously and focus on good deeds. On Christmas and New Year’s Day, people do not want to be involved in fights, arguments and anger. It is the celebration of good feelings, of saying a good word, pronouncing wishes or give a hug. What is more healing for the peace of soul than that?

8. Lights everywhere. In the streets, in the houses, in the public spaces, everywhere. It is psychologically proven that lights help people get out of depression and various health problems. Lights are a crucial part of Christmas celebrations. Literally and symbolically, lights are primordially connected with joy, positivity, happiness, purity and truth.  In fact, they can brighten up someone’s day, especially children’s world.

9. In Christmas, people go out, meet with their friends, go to parties. Even the fanatic workaholics throw work Christmas parties and finally find a chance to chat with their colleagues, to whom they rarely say ‘hi’ on a typical working day. Work Christmas parties are an institution, they might be silly, shallow, might include fake socialising, but they still are an effort of getting together, something quite rare in everyday, typical work routine.

10. During the Christmas period, there is a special atmosphere to it, marked by music, choirs, carol singing, colours, voices, that distinguishes it from every other period of the year. Surely, to many this atmosphere is not appealing, but if you think about it, all those lively manifestations can be a vibrant sign of life.

 So, for the above reasons I firmly believe that Christmas can be an extremely important and blessing period for all of us. I felt an urge to defend Christmas, a very special period of the year, a very special part of me, a celebration that has shaped my life, my experiences, my emotions and who I am today. Thanks to Christmas I sometimes see the world with a different view. Although the reality of life can very often be cruel, disappointing, discouraging and frustrating and the evil dominating in the world succeeds in letting me down and making me wonder where the good is hidden, I never stop hoping for Christmas. And I know that no matter what, I will always want to wake up on a Christmas Day and believe, even for some moments, in the beauty and true meaning of life. Yes, thanks to Christmas.


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The sexualisation and stigma of women drug users

Anxious Beggar TeenagerGender shapes the experience of drug use and its consequences. In a society where policies are mainly designed by men, directed towards men’s needs and where women are often excluded, discriminated against or abused, it is more important than ever to consider female drug use in terms of gender equality.

Although more research is needed, there is enough evidence showing that many existing harm reduction services exclude women and that existing policies have a discriminatory stance which leads to human rights abuses of drug using women. It is now a fact that gender-related factors can enhance women drug users’ vulnerability and victimization and decrease their access to drug treatment and sexual and reproductive services.

Gender inequality has many negative outcomes for women’s drug use. Low socioeconomic and political status, unequal access to education and employment, fear of male violence, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse increase female problematic drug use and add to the biological vulnerability of women and girls being infected with HIV.  The consequences of gender inequalities in terms of low socioeconomic and political status, unequal access to education, and fear of violence, add to the greater biological vulnerability of women and girls being infected with HIV. Violence is catastrophic for a woman’s capacity to have safe sex and safer drug use and a history of trauma encourages risky behaviour and reduces possibilities of female empowerment.

A testimony from a woman who has been an injecting drug user for thirty years in Australia and the UK is indicative: ‘HIV services were almost exclusively male domains throughout the 80’s and 90’s despite the welcoming rhetoric and HIV positive women were forced to create services for themselves because it became clear that services not created by women didn’t cater for women. … We must address this unrealistic view we have of women who use drugs–vulnerable or deviant, or kicked to the curb or needing saving from themselves, the lives they can’t control, or the children they shouldn’t have had. HIV does not happen in isolation. It is strongly linked to violence against women, lack of knowledge and/or harm reduction, poverty, social and economic exclusion.’ ( quote taken The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS paper on women drug users)

There are still many societies where female drug use is considered as a sin or a taboo or a high level crime. The stigma of injection drug use is added to gendered discrimination and is reflected in the treatment of women and the inadequacy of harm reduction services. Women lose self-esteem, get panicked, threatened in many instances by the social rules of conservative societies and resort to catastrophic solutions such as unwanted abortions and higher dependence on substances instead of seeking help and treatment.

Moreover, power imbalances and drug economy hierarchies put women in an inferior position, making them vulnerable and easy targets to arrests, detention and incarceration. According to research findings, women are mostly confined to the lower levels of the drug trade which facilitates their arrest in comparison with the high level traffickers, who are almost always men. The majority of drug using women suffer from poverty and lack of resources, which results in them being without the appropriate legal defence. This power imbalance and general gender inequality in the drug economy, combined with rigid and punitive drug policies that often criminalise drug possession, along with a discriminatory attitude from police officers and health providers, has devastating consequences for the lives of women, who very easily become subject to long, unjust prison sentences and degrading treatment.

Women have specific needs that need to be addressed and met. Women’s specific characteristics, including reproductive health, family bonds, pregnancy and many more have to be taken into account so that they have equal and full access to harm reduction services and treatment. As it is stated in the 2010 UNAIDS chapter on women: ‘ Efforts to promote universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services require a sharper focus on women and girls. Fewer than half of countries report having a specific budget for HIV-related programmes addressing women and girls’.

All women who use drugs need to have full right to health, full access to HIV and sexual and reproductive health services, the right to denounce violence and to bring their persecutors to justice as well as the right to maternity and reproductive freedom. The UNAIDS 2010 Global Report recommends the following:

•             A gender centred AIDS response including a full budget addressing women’s needs.

•             Given the widespread violence and the clear association between gendered violence and HIV, national HIV responses must include specific interventions to address violence.

•             All countries need to ensure that women have access to integrated quality HIV and sexual and reproductive health services that enable women to fully exercise their rights.

Female drug users have specific needs that have to be met through careful policy design that addresses them. Punitive approaches towards drug injecting women only aggravate their condition and cause worse problems. A gender-sensitive approach to harm reduction programs around the world coupled with a decriminalisation approach to drug policy will certainly improve not only women’s lives but those of the people who live around them.

* this article was published at

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