Dutch Painting

By Evelina Chao

Many seasons ago, Frans Bruggen, Dutch conductor, recorder player and Baroque specialist, came as a guest artist to conduct and perform. The primary chosen work was an orchestral version of Monteverdi’s opera, L’Orfeo.

Word was that he was a genius, the greatest interpreter of pre-Baroque and Baroque music alive.  Rare for a Dutch man, he spoke little English, and had a fear of flying.  Consequently, his appearances in America were extremely rare, and because of this fact and his reputation, we musicians looked forward to working with him with a heightened level of anticipation.

On the first day of rehearsal, Bruggen appeared and, without a word, mounted the podium.  As a violist sitting on the first stand, I sat directly in front of and slightly below him.  He was loomingly tall, gaunt, with a shock of white hair, huge black, unblinking eyes.  His nose was a cliché, a bony beak. He nodded a perfunctory but not unfriendly greeting, and opened the score to the Monteverdi.  We raised our instruments.

Bruggen spread unbelievably long arms, unfolding them, I thought, like the wings of a pterodactyl.  In their shadow, and within range of his intense stare, I felt suddenly small, apprehensive, and stifled the squeak of a mouse.  Then he closed his eyes, seeming to fall into a trance.   Seconds passed as we waited in stunned silence, cast in a spell by his stillness.  Then, almost imperceptibly, Bruggen nodded his head, or, rather, lowered his beak of a nose. Unable to make meaning of this, we remained frozen in our mesmerized state.  More time passed.  Finally, rousing himself, Bruggen opened his scary black eyes, frowned, croaked something, then raised his arms again and made the same signal, dipping his nose.

Alarmed and a little desperate now, the orchestra stirred itself and made a stab at the beginning of the overture, scraping bow hairs against string, blowing wind through reeds and tubes.  We proceeded for some time, keeping our eyes on Bruggen, straining for some sign that we were doing something remotely that he wanted.  He seemed unconcerned, detached, looking up at the ceiling while continuing to wave his arms.

The noises we were making grew more perplexing and annoying.   Having looked at the music beforehand, I had seen rows of whole and half notes, all hollow and white, some with staffs, looking like so many tilted eggs, some with little legs.  There were few measure lines separating the notes, so there was no way to discern rhythmic pulse or length of phrase, but this was not unusual in this period of music.  Piece of cake, I thought.   As the orchestra continued, it became clear that we were playing exactly what we saw on the page: little hollow eggs tumbling here and there, and that is exactly what it sounded like, if anyone can imagine.   The feeling was like I imagined being in zero-gravity, floating in a weightless chamber where there was nothing to grab hold of.  Though we tried, my stand partner and I could not play together because we had no idea how long each egg lasted.  No one could play together.  Bruggen continued to find great interest in the ceiling as he waved his arms, giving no indication of a beat or pulse, seemingly oblivious to what we played.  Certainly it was clear to us that our efforts meant little to him. Trained to play in perfect unison, my colleagues and I felt like so many untethered particles careening around, to chaotic effect. Frustration and exasperation grew.   And this wasn’t even modern music! I thought.

Nonplussed, Bruggen continued to move his arms, looking down every once in awhile to turn the large pages of the score. Though totally lost, I also turned a page every so often..why not? I thought, shrugging to my stand partner, who was equally flummoxed.

Finally, after several minutes and pages later, something began to happen.  Don’t ask how it occurred, because I can’t explain it.  I think giving up trying to understand, grasping at order along conventional channels, allowed us to begin to seep into Bruggen’s process.  Gradually, imperceptibly, my colleagues and I somehow began to relate Bruggen’s arm-waves to segments of  the music.  His gestures began to appear more like sweeps of a brush, inviting us to add layers of sound according to the speed and curve of his arm and hand movements.  When he swept quickly, we moved our bows faster.  When he waved his hand as though stroking through deep water, we moved languidly.  When he jabbed or made large gestures, we played louder, accenting where and when his fingers pointed.  The image of tumbling eggs morphed into points on a canvas.  Inexorably, we began to feel as though we turned into pure color, swabs of paint, and that Bruggen brushed us at will to create his painting of the Monteverdi.  Throughout, his expression never changed, as though he had never a doubt that his art would be done.

By the final rehearsal, we became acclimated to Bruggen’s gestures and acted as willing brushes.  To be swept along, airborne one moment, fixed in place the next, then swooped or splashed elsewhere, felt exhilarating.  The musical effect of such transparent yet complex layering of color, of such spontaneous movement, was like nothing I had ever experienced.  The properties of time and rhythm, previously fixed by our training and conventional practices, were utterly transformed.   It was like being set free, all the while knowing that there, to support us, remained Monteverdi’s score, the most gossamer yet tensile of nets.

At the end of our first performance, my stand partner turned to me, her face radiant with wonder, and voiced what I myself felt: that we had just created the most beautiful music we had ever heard.

Interplanetary Encounter

By Evelina Chao

During a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Bobby McFerrin conducted several bars and it was clear from the softly pained look on his face that we weren’t giving him what he wanted.   Inveterate pleasers, we asked, “What articulation do you want there?  Shorter?  Crisper?”  He shook his head, simultaneously making helpless gestures with his hands signaling his frustration.   “Do you want the phrase to go here, or here?” we persisted.   “Is this what you want?” a principal string player demonstrated, playing a segment.  Bobby smiled crookedly, dropped his hands in his lap.  The expression on his face conveyed clearly the sense that he and we musicians had been convened only to stare at one another as separate alien races, unable to speak the other’s language.  And an interpreter was nowhere to be found.  The silence began to pall.  Bobby continued to smile sweetly.  We sensed precious seconds ticking by.

“Just sing what you want,” someone finally piped up.

Acting as though released from a thousand-year curse, Bobby began to sing the phrase in question, nodding, swinging through his torso.  As he sang, doubt left his face and his voice took on conviction.

“Oh!”  we thought communally.  That’s what you want!

Bobby picked up the baton and gave the downbeat.  As we began to play, plying our instruments to simulate his voice, he began to beam.  “Yeah, yeah!”  he sang, bounding lightly on the podium on bare feet.  (We had warned him about Minnesota winters but he, lately from California, had yet to make the trip to Eddie Bauer.)

Afterward, a few musicians grumbled about why Bobby hadn’t learned the vocabulary of music articulation, like spiccato, for off-the-string playing, or staccato, for shorter duration of note, or legato, for sustained playing.  I offered to teach him,” someone said,  “but apparently he wasn’t interested.”

Was it lack of interest?  Laziness?  Resistance to fetters of tradition we ourselves had worn for so long we had grown inured to their constraints?  Or did Bobby know something we didn’t,  something he had gained from the vocal or jazz world, where he had gained his fame?  The why hardly seems important now.   What struck us all was how powerful and immediately clear everything became when he opened his mouth and sang the music.   Terminology became moot, as though his voice simply cut through vernacular and the limitations of language and connected directly with the limbic regions of our brains.   All of a sudden we knew,  felt, without doubt, Bobby’s intentions in all their nuance, color, articulation, and shape.  Even though his conducting gestures remained the same, we now read them as poignant with meaning.  Together, we made a beeline to Beethoven.

Perhaps there’s hope in the future, when humans embark on interplanetary travel.  Galactic understanding will be assured, no interpreters needed, no ambassadors or intermediaries.   Such pioneers need only pray for some atmosphere, some oxygen, and just sing.

Chris Brown at Grand Teton Music Festival, Jackson, WY

July 20-August 11, I will be at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson, WY.

August 14-20, I am playing a recital in Copenhagen. BASS2012 is a European Bass convention which happens every two years. I am going there because I am playing an arrangement of Kurt Weill’s cello sonata and I think it is the first time this will be played on bass in Europe. I played it last year at The Festival of The Lakes in Alexandria, MN. Since Weill is Swiss/German, I like the idea of playing his piece on the Continent where he was born…..

The Audition

By Jennie Dorris
July 2012

Mike Tetreault has spent an entire year preparing obsessively for this moment. He’s put in 20-hour workdays, practiced endlessly, and shut down his personal  life. Now the percussionist has 10 minutes to impress a Boston Symphony Orchestra selection committee. A single mistake and it’s over.  A flawless performance and he could join one of the world’s most renowned orchestras.

Click to read the full article at Boston Magazine >>

Slash Your Local Orchestra

Slash Your Local Orchestra
By David Beem
April 11, 2012

10,000 hours.

That’s the number going around these days when people spit-ball what it takes to master a skill: 10,000 hours of practice. I happen to think it’s on the low side, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t as gifted as some. Yo-Yo Ma, for instance. But then, someone of that level only comes along once or twice in a generation. He’s not competing for jobs against the masses.

Still, a number of years back, Yo-Yo Ma did joke that he’d never pass an audition to join the Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s a claim that’s hard to swallow, but not beyond the realm of possibility. Especially in today’s job market.

In fact, winning any job in a professional orchestra is increasingly like your chance of being there when lightning strikes. Even if you’re among the consummately gifted, the chances of winning that full-time gig are frighteningly slim. But don’t take my word for it, ask anyone currently in the workforce.

Make believe.

For the non-musicians, imagine you’re graduating among experts from our nation’s top conservatories. You and your highly trained peers are similar to first-rate NFL newbs entering the workforce for the first time, all searching for your first big break. You, like your NFL counterpart, compete against an army of first round draft picks.

And this is where the similarities end. You, unlike Andrew Luck, face fiercer competition than the NFL, fewer jobs than the NFL, and vanishing funding for the jobs still available. Also, each year the number of jobs, and the charitable giving that sustains them, will dwindle further, consistently, without exception.

There will be no courtship for your expertise. No limos, lavish parties, enticing gifts or anything like that. All expenses incurred for the audition process are charged to the musician. Cellists are responsible for their own airfare, and that of their cello, since the cello cannot safely be checked as baggage. In the rare occurrence that there are two jobs open this year, you’ll drop a significant chunk of change just to show up for the right to compete against the 50-100 others auditioning for the coveted spot. You’d happily practice the 10,000 hours for that single audition if it were possible. The stakes are that high. And when you’re done, maybe, if you’re lucky, and lightning strikes, you just might earn the right to work.


You see, no orchestra is a sure thing. When you finally do land that first job, nearly every orchestra out there will cut your work. It’s what they do. They can’t really afford you, even the great orchestras.

In fact, the United States of America is home to some of the finest orchestras in the world. At least, I think it still is. I’ve been out of the business for a couple of years and am unclear on which orchestras are still breathing. Ah, well. Give it a few years and I’m sure we’ll rip those revered institutions to shreds and besmirch their good names, just as is happening right now, elsewhere in the country. Politics will be exercised at the expense of flesh and blood people who want the right to eat (don’t worry, they’re fat anyway) raise children (how dare they?) or put roots down somewhere (not in my town!). These Americans, as I’ve written about before, are clearly subhuman, as determined by our free market system. Granted, they’re not throwing themselves from buildings like those Chinese people building your iPhone, but give it time.

Even the Philadelphia Orchestra hasn’t cut it in these tough economic times. They’re currently mired in legal hell with the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund as they struggle to settle past due payments. You heard that right; the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the finest in the world, a national treasure, is bankrupt. But who cares? Most young musicians aren’t going to win an audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra anyway. And orchestras are about “handouts.” Musicians need to get a real job. The market has spoken.

What are they thinking?

How is it that our country’s Beethoven-worshipers feel entitled to steal your hard-earned money? (Or, why do they expect you to “give,” by way of taxes, to the National Endowment for the Arts, or privately, to your local orchestra?) To understand their audacity, you’ll have to look at the shape of their careers.

Most aspiring orchestral musicians crawl up the ladder from the bottom: the regional orchestra. Regional orchestras may pay anywhere from $500 a year to $4,000 a year. They do not provide health insurance, and most “gigging musicians” will not buy it themselves. Once a musician earns a contract to play in a regional orchestra, they naturally commute for extra work to help make ends meet. Some will commute from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Bowling Green, Ky., and every flea-ridden orchestra in between. Without a car. (For real.)

I should stop there for a second before anyone gets too excited about the possibility of cobbling together multiple $4k a year jobs for a livable wage. There are two reasons this isn’t going to work.

You’ve got to play every concert to get the4k. Most members of a regional orchestra aren’t hired for every concert, as the orchestra is reducing its size for most of its season in an effort to save money.

Even if you’re offered the full4k, scheduling problems arise in your effort to include those other orchestras offering500 or more, annually. You’ll commute to the highest bidder on your “free” weekends, but, since you’re not playing every concert with those other orchestras, your earnings are significantly limited. At the end of the year, you’ve played all your “free” weekends, and you’ve boosted your annual income by another1k, all told. Give or take.

So how do musicians live?

Well, they don’t, really. The ones who don’t exist as figments of your imagination (that is to say, however the non-musician might imagine the musician’s lifestyle) barely scrape by. The lucky ones have family money. The rest will never see a vacation. (Or, if they go somewhere, it’s with their instrument so they can practice.) There’s no such thing as weekends. Since they don’t have health care, or they’re buying some horrible package for an obscene price, they’re unlikely to start families. Most live like gypsies. Some even beg on the streets for your loose change when they’re not teaching your child how to play the violin (who can eventually grow up and not like classical music either).

Many of these highly trained professionals are in considerable debt, because they went to Juilliard, Eastman, or some other expensive conservatory. They have no money to invest in the stock market, but they’ve heard from others that this might be a way to make money. For them, rubbing two one dollar bills together isn’t going to do much, and they might need one of those dollar bills to put gas in someone else’s car so they can carpool to work.

The full-time gig.

Despite the long odds, a select few will manage to win an audition for a full-time orchestra. These musicians’ accomplishments are always tempered by the economic reality of their chosen profession. If they’re in a B-level orchestra, their jobs are insecure at best. Many of these orchestras have vanished, flooding the marketplace with still more workers looking for gigs. If your B-level orchestra is still kicking, you live in constant fear that death is waiting around the corner for your orchestra.

If you’re in an A-list orchestra, such as Philadelphia, your job probably isn’t going anywhere even if your employer did file for bankruptcy. Still, most of your six-figure salary is going into your mortgage, since you live in or near Philly. Add the expense of a fine cello or violin into the mix, and you’ve not got a lot left over.

(Any non-musician who doesn’t have an idea of what a good violin can cost should Google it. I don’t want to ruin your surprise by telling you here.)

But, now that you’re in that full-time gig, you’ve become embroiled in the politics of players’ negotiations with management, who, after all, also want to continue to provide an orchestra. They just have to get to sleep at night knowing the bills are paid. And they’re sweating bullets to do it. That death rattle invading your dreams bugs them too.

Back to handouts.

Sometimes politics between management and players derail contract negotiations, as they have recently in Louisville. In comes the musicians’ union, the AFM. And, against the backdrop of our national debate on unions, many in the community will naturally assume the musicians are gaming their employers. Discussion of how the arts requires “your help” will fall on deaf ears as much of the public shrugs their shoulders and puzzles over why they’re asked to “give handouts.” They’ll clear their throats and delicately suggest to the lot of lazy beggars that they should “get a real job.” They’ll say things like, “The economic reality is that there’s only so much money. You’ve got to divide what’s there.” (As if there was never a thing called development. As if there were ever a time that was economically “good” for the arts.)

Of course, the gems, who are passionate about classical music, already give with their hearts –generously. Until, one day, they look around to find that, they’re all that’s left. People who used to give in smaller shares, the “real world” givers, can no longer afford it. Discovering this alarming state of affairs, the high roller patron gives more of her money, but now she’s also giving her time. She serves on boards, even sponsors auctions or other clever ways to drum up cash. Finally, she can no longer afford to prop it up for the rest of us. She can no longer sustain it on her own. Her portion of the burden is too large, or maybe she passes away, and the orchestra declares bankruptcy.

Sounds too fatalistic? It’s happening now. It’s been happening for years. If you live near an orchestra, you know. And if you don’t–who cares?

Free Market; Service without value.

If there’s no orchestra near you, I can understand why this seems like a service without value. That point is often argued when cities are on the brink of losing their orchestra. But those who frame the argument in that way really don’t understand what they’re saying. You see, art has to be “productized” in order to sell, and a development director who doesn’t understand that ought to be let go before ever you fire the first musician. To understand this phenomenon about the productization of art, watch what happens when Josh Bell, one of the most “in demand” violin soloists in the world, performs on his Stradivarius in the subway. No “productization,” no one cares.

Intrinsic vs. free market value.

Musicians point out how they’re helping your kid’s SAT scores, or how your kid is more likely to go to college because s/he takes violin lessons. They point out how “studies have shown… ” then insert some arcane bit of data related to classical music. Yet, those arguments are typically met with “Look around. No one wants to give to your orchestra. No one wants to listen to Beethoven.” They argue that the free market is working, since there is little perceived value, we’re culling elitist art from our culture.

To them, I point to “the clear value” of American Idol.

To them, I point to “the clear value” of Internet porn, as determined by our free market, and its virtuous impact on our society.

To them, I point to “the clear value” of all those without homes, and buried under crushing debt, after the housing bubble collapsed.

Slash and burn.

So, as I look to my friends in Louisville, whose families are suffering in the wake of the unconscionable decisions of the management of the Louisville Orchestra, and as I read some of the ignorant and hateful remarks in the comment section of various news pieces I’ve read over the past few years, presumably made by some Louisville residents, I have to wonder how that community’s classical musicians have become so vilified. How did it happen that they’ve been characterized as lazy, greedy, overpaid, conniving and ruthless? (“Eat their young” was one quote that comes to mind.)

I can only think it is related to the tenor of the national debate about politics in general, and unions and free market values specifically. And if that’s true, then the conclusion I make is that the remaining full-time musicians in the LO are losing their jobs because of the conviction that “one size fits all” for our nation’s talking points. Nonprofit is fundamentally different from Big Business. Always has been, always will be. And the American Federation of Musicians isn’t exactly like the auto union. The two industries are completely different.

As orchestras continue to fold across the nation, musicians too join the ranks of the unemployed, attending to our national self-loathing and self-fulfilling prophecy, “collecting handouts,” and creating more lazy, smelly, good-for-nothings to carry a sign and march on Washington. Smacking down your local orchestra taught someone a lesson, for sure. What the lesson was is anyone’s guess.

Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra: Why is it considered so great?
By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer
Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Cleveland Orchestra performing a Bruckner symphony at Severance Hall.

It’s heard and said all the time that Cleveland has a “great” orchestra. What “great” means, though, isn’t exactly clear.

Is it just the playing, or is it something deeper? Does it relate to money, and if so, how much? Or is it merely reputation, the accepted wisdom of an ancient, possibly outdated list?

It’s time to get more specific.

“There’s a constellation of elements that all need to be functioning at a high level,” said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras.

One thing greatness most definitely is not, experts agree: a direct function of budget size.

If it were, the Cleveland Orchestra, with its $42 million annual operating budget, long ago would have been replaced by the San Francisco Symphony or the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the so-called “Big Five” club, whose members include the orchestras of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland. Austria’s Vienna Philharmonic wouldn’t even appear on the radar.

“I simply disagree with bigger is better,” said Thomas Morris, artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival in California and former executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra. “It doesn’t relate. I’m closer to believing less is more.”

Neither is greatness a reflection of city size. If it were, New Mexico’s Albuquerque Philharmonic Orchestra would be in global demand.

Which isn’t to say the Albuquerque Philharmonic isn’t “great.” It may very well be.

If an orchestra is flourishing, playing well and meeting the needs of its community, it could merit the “great” stamp, Rosen said, especially in light of the volume and degree of talent coming out of music schools today.

“The general level of playing at U.S. orchestras is just staggering,” he said. “People [in smaller metropolitan areas] aren’t thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish the Vienna Philharmonic were here.’ ”

Money, of course, does matter and does figure into the “greatness” constellation, but only to a point. Pay, endowment size, budget: They’re each like body temperature, for example, just one gauge of overall health.

As with human health, though, when one or more of an orchestra’s financial metrics slips too far out of balance, it can set off a chain reaction and affect the organization as a whole. Greatness then hangs in the balance.

“That gets very dangerous, when you start to walk down that road,” said Drew McManus, an orchestra consultant based near Chicago. “[Greatness] won’t disappear overnight, but it goes away a lot faster than the time it took to build it.”

Pay, for instance, has no direct impact on artistic quality. The musicians are who they are, after all, irrespective of how much they’re being paid and what benefits they’re receiving.

Yet compensation bears strongly on the orchestra’s overall identity, affecting which players it’s able to hire and keep. An artist may join or leave an orchestra for any number of reasons, but one of the hallmarks of a “great” ensemble is low turnover among musicians.

Cleveland does well on that front. Musicians here rarely depart for other orchestras or jobs, and when auditions are held, music director Franz Welser-Most is able to get the cream of the world’s crop.

All of those he hires hail from top-flight music schools. Many also end up teaching at them. Many more maintain active second lives as chamber musicians, soloists and recording artists.

“The orchestra knows what it’s looking for,” said Morris, describing the audition process here as “fairly simple.” “It’s not just who can play the best, but the quality of the musicianship.”

Consistency on such a level is “basic, but fairly elusive, and difficult,” Morris added.

What’s true about pay at every business also holds at “great” orchestras. Musicians who feel valued in terms of their compensation and empowered artistically “produce” more.

“It’s not enough to play well,” McManus explained. “There has to be a certain vibrancy.”

Financial stability aids in excellence

Greatness also depends on the financial security of the institution. No orchestra can hold on to its “great” moniker for long if it’s running a deficit, struggling to pay the bills and raise money, or unable to experiment. The Cleveland Orchestra reported a deficit of $2.7 million for its last fiscal year.

Stability, Rosen said, is the “platform that permits sustained excellence. Without it, confidence can begin to erode.”

Pay and budget size, too, relate to “greatness” in that they dictate how frequently an orchestra rehearses and performs, two factors directly linked to quality.

One of the fundamental things, in other words, that sets the Cleveland Orchestra apart is the basic fact that it’s full time, composed of musicians who understand each other profoundly after years of working together on an almost daily basis.

“There’s so much instantaneous exchange that’s only possible from having played together a long time,” McManus said.

“Other groups just can’t reach that level. . . . It really does depend on who’s playing together. If they’re a group that gets along, that will produce more than the sum of its parts.”

At Severance Hall, that sum is huge. Setting aside everything to do with pay, employee retention and institutional durability, the Cleveland Orchestra simply sounds better than most.

Credit this one not just to the players, but also to the perfectionism of former music director George Szell. No matter one’s opinion of individual performances or artists, most listeners agree that Szell introduced something magical into the sonic essence of the Cleveland Orchestra. Especially famous are the luster and richness of the string section.

That alone makes the orchestra “great” in the minds of many, even if the difference in sound among it and other highly esteemed ensembles can be difficult to perceive.

“There’s a clarity, and a balance, that are just so refined,” Rosen said. “It almost doesn’t matter what they’re playing. The sheer sound is a joy to listen to.

“But at a certain point, you’re just splitting hairs. We’re talking about shades of difference here.”

Finding a leader who fits the group

Tightly bound with consistency and quality of sound in the “greatness” equation is the position of music director.

“Great” orchestras tend to have little trouble hiring the leaders they want and even less trouble holding on to them. There’s a reason, in other words, Welser-Most’s contract runs all the way to 2018. Just as time together helps musicians, orchestras, in general, benefit from stable, long-term relationships with conductors.

Whom an orchestra chooses as music director is also vitally important. Some groups require a personality, an extroverted musician with a gift for promotion. Others need a figure who’s more scholarly and introspective.

In any case, to quote the famous Serenity Prayer, the best ensembles have the wisdom to know the difference, and they have the foresight to spot potential.

“A great orchestra has a vision,” Morris said. “There needs to be some degree of continuity.”

One last telling indicator of greatness is versatility.

Plenty of ensembles are excellent in one or two categories of repertoire, opera, for instance, or contemporary music. Rarer is the orchestra that can play pretty much anything, and play it well.

“They’re not one-trick ponies,” said McManus of the Cleveland players.

The question of greatness used to be an easy one. In years past, the measures were fairly straightforward and objective: budget size, wages, number of recordings, volume of touring.

These days, the standards are more complex, and the orchestral landscape has changed dramatically. There are “greatness” arguments to be made on behalf of many orchestras nationwide, even as the economy and other factors have made the “great” status harder than ever to retain.

But as the ground trembles around it, the Cleveland Orchestra has at least one thing special going for it: a unique sense of pride. From the collective down to the individual level, the musicians are deeply invested.

More than any other factor, this may be what makes the orchestra “great,” Morris said.

“They are fundamentally driven by their pride. They obsess about giving the best performance possible.”

Syracuse Symphony Orchestra

Making Music: The work of a Syracuse Symphony Orchestra musician isn’t as effortless as it sometimes seems
By Jeremy Mastrangelo, member of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra
September 19, 2010

As a musician with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, I have found that when I talk to friends who have non-musical jobs about our respective professions, the conversation will often come around to what my work schedule is like. This usually leads to a feigning of jealousy on their part for a job with hours that would seem more appropriate for a typical work-week in France. I have given up on trying to explain the extra hours spent practicing, listening to recordings, teaching, etc., since most people think of music in a very recreational way. For many people, my listening to a recording and writing down metronome markings for various sections or making note of other instrument cues in the part is considered listening in the same way as when the radio is on in the kitchen while dinner is being prepared. Or, if I mention practicing at home, they might picture their kids scraping away haphazardly for half an hour and think, “That’s really not that difficult.” The best way to understand the working conditions of a professional musician is to understand the working conditions of another, much more well-known group of performers: professional athletes.

I can’t imagine anyone looking at an NFL player and saying, “You know, that must be the easiest job ever. Those guys work for 16 weeks out of the year (19 if they have a great year), and on those work weeks they are only playing on one day, and on that one day there’s only one hour of actual game time, and then they’re only on the field for half of the game. They only work for ½ hour a week…playing a game! There you go, easiest job ever.” Of course, everyone would recognize the absurdity of that line of reasoning, because there is a fundamental cultural understanding of what it takes to be a professional football player. Just looking at what goes into each game on Sunday can be overwhelming. The NFL is known for near-maniacal preparation each week, from practices to film study to individual workouts and preparation. But go back even farther to where it begins for individual players. In order to make it to the professional level, a person must first have exceptional natural physical abilities which are developed from an extraordinarily young age, starting with pee-wee leagues where helmets are bigger than torsos. There is the endless physical conditioning that begins in adolescence and only finishes when a career does. There are hours of coaching involved, learning proper footwork, playbooks, and the limitless nuances of the game. There is also the pressure involved of being expected to perform your best at a specific, pre-ordained time, whether you‘re having a day where everything is clicking and feels effortless, or a day where everything you‘ve worked on is a struggle and feels alien. Most weekend warriors can identify with this to some extent. A four-foot downhill putt becomes a very different thing for most people depending on whether you are standing over it with your buddies on a lazy Saturday morning while the drink cart rolls by, or if you’re standing over it on a Sunday in April with a chance to win the Masters and 40,000 spectators watch with held breath.

The typical professional musician will begin playing their instrument sometime between the ages of three and ten. Once you start playing there are weekly private lessons. Then there is orchestra at school, youth orchestra on the weekends, various festivals throughout the school year, and music camps during summer vacation. I spent my final two years of high school at a boarding school for the arts in Michigan, something that is not uncommon for people in this profession. After high school, musicians will attend a music conservatory, and nowadays it is almost a given that musicians have Masters degrees or even Doctorates. By comparison with  another profession, people who go into insurance aren’t looking at actuarial tables during their teenage years. That degree of specialization from such a young age is something that most people could identify with athletes, but is absolutely parallel with the life of a musician, minus apparel endorsements and beer commercials. Rehearsals for musicians are much like practices for athletes. While there is usually not the same level of focus as in a performance, you absolutely have to be on your toes. No one wants to be the person who makes the mistake that grinds the rehearsal to a halt. As far as individual practice goes, musicians have to understand the mechanics of playing their instruments the way a golfer understands the mechanics of their swing, or a basketball player understands the mechanics of their jump-shot. It requires daily self-discipline, nearly endless, but mindful, repetition, a desire to improve, and a love of the process. For many musicians there is something of a compulsive idea, wholeheartedly endorsed at conservatories and carried throughout life, that if you are conscious and at least partly coherent, you should be practicing… until tendonitis, carpal tunnel, or rotator cuff injuries stop you.

One last comparison with athletes is that there is really no “off-season” for musicians, even while the Symphony is not performing. Athletes train and workout year-round, with many finding that the time away from the team is when they can focus best on their own individual growth. Many SSO musicians travel to participate in festivals during the summer, even internationally. There is a certain amount of practice needed just to maintain your level of playing, let alone trying to improve. And there is always music to learn: for orchestra, or chamber music concerts, or solo recitals. None of this is to say that I would rather do anything else with my life, even if I possessed any other remotely marketable skills. What has troubled me lately, though, is that with orchestras across the country experiencing financial difficulties, musicians in these orchestras-friends and colleagues-face the uphill battle of trying to explain to an uninformed public, and even to their own orchestra boards and managers, through sound bites and short newspaper quotes, the depth of a lifelong commitment that is the unseen backdrop to the creation of the living art form we call music. Whether classical music is something worth supporting in a community like ours is a matter of debate and individual taste, but I think that we should at least have a more accurate and common understanding of what goes into the concerts that, last year alone, over 200,000 people enjoyed in Syracuse and the regions we serve.