Saturday, October 3, 2009

Working, continued

It's sometimes hard to explain to a nonmusician why you don't have a music job. People tend to say helpful things like "Have you thought about playing in an orchestra?" or "What about teaching?"

Orchestra auditions are cattle calls. The way they work is that all the orchestras that pay any kind of regular remuneration, whether salary or per service, advertise in the International Musician (the monthly paper put out by the AFM). Interested applicants send in a resume, and sometimes a recording, and they get a list of excerpts. The excerpts are usually the hardest bits from the standard repertoire. Auditioners prepare these plus a solo piece. Any orchestra that pays any kind of money, especially if it is in or near a decent-sized city, will draw a large number of applicants for an audition. A committee sits, sometimes behind a screen, and listens to each player in turn play a bit of the solo piece and some of the excerpts. Then the hook comes out they say, "Thanks," and the next victim applicant takes a turn.

This doesn't sound so bad, but let's say you spent many hours, over many years, practicing the excerpts. You have played most of the pieces in actual concerts. You have traveled to the audition, perhaps buying a plane ticket. You wait, sometimes in a hallway, sometimes in a dressing room, with dozens of other people either practicing furiously or making snide comments to each other about where they went to school and who they studied with. The excerpts are usually the most awkward parts of the pieces, some of them really almost impossible to play perfectly (e.g., the opening of "Don Juan," or the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony), though there's always some wunderkind who can play them perfectly (usually scheduled right before you). And then all of you play, and they decide no one was good enough and don't hire anyone. Then you hear later that the conductor's girlfriend got the job.

I remember one audition I did for the New Jersey Symphony, in Newark, that was for a job paying about $10,000 a year: At least 100 cellists showed up for that one. I later happened to be talking to someone who was on the committee, and he said if someone missed a note in any of the excerpts, they were out then and there. Another time, I auditioned for the National Symphony in DC. They heard us in groups of five. I actually made it to the second round (I think the only time for one of these things); I heard another young woman who didn't complaining bitterly to the assistant who was escorting us on and off the stage about how she had flown from California for this, and they had only listened to her for two minutes.

Anyway, anyone who wants to read audition stories can find thousands of them out there. I didn't do that many; I simply didn't have the funds to travel that much, especially with a cello (which is like traveling with an ancient mummy in a wheelchair, plus you have to buy a ticket for it to bring it on an airplane if you don't want it smashed to bits in the baggage, which doubles your travel expense). The two salaried orchestra jobs I had did not have auditions like those because they were in the Dakotas, and not enough people were willing to travel there for an audition (or even live there at all).

I had those jobs in the two consecutive years before I went back to graduate school for my DMA, during which I developed a sort of carpe diem attitude after my incarceration time on the Great Plains. I had gotten a full scholarship through my connection with a former teacher, and I basically just tried to enjoy myself being a student -- nothing wild, by any means, but simply going to classes, taking lessons, giving recitals.

At the end of that time, I put some thought into the problem of how to support myself, and I came to the conclusion that I didn't like playing in orchestras enough to invest the work, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars, into trying to get into one. And the odds were against me, anyway because of my age. Even before I went back to graduate school to earn my DMA, I was almost 30, and by the time I was finished, I was almost 35, which is considered ancient for a string player looking for a first job.

So what about teaching? Well, teaching at the college level is even more difficult to get than an orchestra job. You need to have credentials beyond a degree (such as competitions won), which I didn't. I was a competent but not great player, had basic but not inspiring teaching skills, and had no clue about how to use connections to help me find something. Teaching on one's own is really the best way to be employed, but the difficulties of setting up and running a business were beyond me at the time.

So I followed the only possible course: I moved to Baltimore and started working as a court reporter.

To be continued . . .

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