Earning From Music in Western Europe’s Most Affordable Destination
Becki Christopherson visited Portugal for the first time in March 2018 to visit a friend who lived in the Algarve. “I got a taste of the lower cost of living and learned about the national healthcare system. The relaxed lifestyle also intrigued me,” she says.
Becki, a professional violinist and teacher, returned in August to get more of a feel for life in the southern region of Portugal. She was back again in November. The purpose of this third trip was to do due diligence, exploring neighborhoods where she might settle, and to make connections with people with whom she could establish herself professionally.
“I was upset when I had to return to America,” after the third trip, she says. “I had plenty to wrap up at home in Westport before relocating, not the least of which was finding new teachers for my violin students. But I just didn’t want to leave Portugal. I didn’t want to be back there, where my health insurance premium had gone up 18%. I paid $800 a month. If I’d actually needed to use it, it would have been a challenge to pay the $5,000 deductible. It was untenable; it’s not like I could have raised my teaching rates by 18%.”
In contrast to the massive cost of healthcare in the U.S., private insurance averages just $46 per person monthly in Portugal, which is widely regarded as the most affordable destination in Western Europe.
Born in Chicago, Becki spent her early years in Ghana, where her father was doing research for his doctorate in African music studies. Her own love of music dates back to when she received a gift of a tiny 1/16-sized violin at just two-and-a-half years old.
Her mother, also a violinist, taught her using the Suzuki method, whose premise is that all children have musical ability at an early age. It aims to foster a music-learning environment that parallels the linguistic environment of learning a native language. As an adult, Becki went on to found two Suzuki schools.
“One element we call ‘Meet the Instruments,’ where children hear the cello, violin, flute, and piano played by a professional,” she says. “To develop a skill, you need to commit to it, so I try to get a child to say ‘I want this’ so there will be follow-through. Parental involvement at home is key, so everyone needs to be on board.”
In July 2019, Becki made her move to Portugal with a plan to launch the Suzuki method in Portugal. An admirable goal, but how to accomplish it on foreign turf?
She quickly encountered hurdles. In the U.S. when she approached a school about teaching the Suzuki method, administrators would hand her a thumbtack and point her to the bulletin board. In Portugal she discovered a cultural difference. It was a challenge getting parents to buy in. She also had counted on periodically performing with a local chamber orchestra and restaurants for income, but struggled to find gigs.
After months of feeling as though—in Becki’s own words—she was “throwing Jell-O at the wall,” things turned around. Friends were studying at the Portuguese Institute of Arts and Letters in Albufeira, the southernmost region of the Algarve, and she discovered that a nearby elementary school was looking for music teachers. She was able to start a choir there. She scored two restaurant gigs. Finally her dream began to materialize: the music conservatory in the municipality of Portimão, also in the Algarve, recently asked her to formulate a Suzuki program for them.
In addition to her own tenacity, Becki gives credit to the generosity of friends for making her success possible. Her home in Connecticut had not sold prior to her expatriation, so she stretched her budget by staying with friends and housesitting. Eight months into her Portuguese journey, she’s well on her way to establishing a rhythm to her life.
“I feel calmer. My happiness quotient is much higher than it was in the States. I’ve given free educational lectures at local libraries about the Suzuki method, as it’s little known so far here,” she says. “Music is a gift for a lifetime, and there’s an amazing music scene in this area. I love the Sunday jam sessions at O Feedback bar in Alcantarilha, between Portimão and Albufeira.”
Written by Tricia Pimental