Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Work in music compared to work in the "real world"

There's a post over at Anesthesioboist that has a lively discussion about what people (mostly MDs, it seems) would like to do as alternative professions. This started me thinking about my experience as a working musician and my experience in what I used to call the "real world," or think of as "everything else."

Not that I ever got to the point where I made more money than it took simply make ends meet, but I was able to work exclusively in music during my years at Juilliard and a couple of years after graduation, when I lived outside of the U.S. The early 1980s was a time when musical work was really scarce here. When I returned to the US in 1982, shows in New York were saving money by using synthesizers rather than musicians, and the very small amount of flute work was held onto by a few people who spent many years developing the kinds of relationships that flutists need to develop in order to get work. The work situation was even worse in Boston, where I went to typing school, and decided that I would try to get work in "the real world." In order to get a job with a temporary agency in Boston in the 1980s, you had to be able to type if you were a woman. In order to learn how to type quickly, I had to learn how, and, like anything else, I had to practice daily for a while. That was not unusual in my experience. I understood how to practice, and I learned quickly. Intelligence and education didn't matter in typing school. I was functionally bi-lingual when I went to typing school, and I wasn't the only functionally bi-lingual person in my class.

I passed my typing test, and I went to work for a temporary agency. Unfortunately I wasn't able to use my typing skills for my first job. The job was a filing job, and me and my Ph.D. in economics candidate filing partner set out on our huge task with dedication. I noticed that none of the people, particularly the "support staff" in this engineering firm seemed to be very dedicated to their work. They arrived late to work, and they left early. They didn't seem to care that their filing system was totally screwed up, and the engineers didn't seem to care either. My first dose of the "real world" was that people, for the most part, don't take their work as seriously as musicians take their work.

Musicians (at least those who work) always show up on time. If a musician doesn't show up on time (which usually means a little early) for a rehearsal or for a concert, the other musicians fear the worst: an accident, terrible sickness, or maybe death. Musicians who want to continue to work always come to rehearsals with their music prepared. That usually means that in order to prepare for a 2.5 hour rehearsal, that musician has put in anywhere between 4 and 60 or more hours of practice (over several days or weeks, and sometimes over a professional lifetime), depending on the difficulty of the part or the familiarity with the piece.

String players can be covered up if they make mistakes or if they play a few notes out of tune. Wind, brass, and percussion players cannot. They can have a bad day, but they still have to count and come in at the right time, and they have to play the right notes in tune. If they don't, even in rehearsal, everyone knows it. Their reputations are always on the line. Good wind, brass, and percussion players carry a lot of pressure on their shoulders, but they often do their best not to let on how hard they work, or how much it matters to them to play well.

Even though the pay is often pretty low, musicians cannot afford to lose work. The phrase "change jobs" was one that I heard among my support staff peers around Boston. Musicians don't change jobs. They do look for more work, and some people are lucky enough to play great auditions and get better-paying jobs with better orchestras in exciting cities, but your run of the mill "rank and file" (yes, string players who are not in leadership positions are referred to as rank and file players) musician who is not motivated to take difficult auditions is going to stay pretty much where s/he is, if there is work. That means that musicians have to get along with their co-workers, and their team of co-workers remains pretty much the same, with "new blood" thrown in as people graduate from music schools and enter the working world of music.

In my neck of the Midwestern woods, most of the musicians have "day jobs." Some are teaching jobs in music, and some are jobs further out in the "real world." Some people (like me) rely on their spouse's job to pay the bulk of the bills. Most working musicians don't complain about their lot in life, because it is their life of choice.


j said...

very interesting post.

and many artists and musicians are too tired and simply give up. and we all lose.

Chip said...

Very interesting post. In my recent concert I "hired" an amateur orchestra and I got what I paid for. The musicians, for the most part, were fairly good (some of them very) but all were working day jobs (few of them in the music industry) and none of them were making a living playing music - which is why they were in an amateur orchestra.

During the rehearsals, we never had full attendance, some people only showing up for one rehearsal. So, many of the general notes given at one rehearsal had to be given again at another.

I expected this.

What I didn't expect was the lack of enthusiasm for the performance. It was a premier of a symphony (my first) and so I thought (maybe arrogantly so) that they would be excited to be playing something for the first time. Some were, but most looked at it as if they were doing me the favour (yes, they were - but I felt it could have been a two way street).

During the concert there were a number of mistakes by performers that (IMHO) were due to lack of practice. Overall the concert was good - but it wasn't as good as the performers could have been. IF they had approached the piece (from the outset) as an opportunity, then they would have spent more time focusing on the music at home (and at rehearsal).

Here is where you can help me understand....

Is this expectation wrongly founded? Is it too much to expect this of the performers who are performing as a hobby?

I feel now as if I need to lower my expectations of future performers. No one is going to be as excited about my music as I am...

But I don't want to become too cynical either.

Elaine Fine said...

Maybe it has something to do with where you live, Chip. Here in downstate Illinois there is really a finite amount of work for an overqualified and highly-educated musical workforce. The pay scale is relatively low, and people are willing to drive pretty good distances to play in the various ensembles they play with. There is a union, but there isn't any union work that I know of. People around here are pleased as punch to have any paying work at all!

Perhaps the population of a larger city, with its larger number of performing organizations would yield a larger number of jaded amateurs. I'm sorry that you had a negative experience with the first performance of you first symphony. If you ever want to do it in downstate Illinois, I imagine you would have a better experience!

Elaine Fine said...

I should also add that there is a difference between professional and amateur musicians. Professional musicians who have day jobs usually have them because there is not enough musical work for them to support themselves. When you hire well-recommended professional musicians (just about anywhere), you get what you pay for. When you hire musicians who spend their time and energy being professional at what they do for a living, and use their music-making as a way of relaxing, socializing, and having a good time, you will probably not have the same performance quality for a piece of new music as you would with professionals.

You might fare better in the future with university students.