you have no idea

I remember (back in the days when I could afford cable tv that had more than just the local channels) watching an MTV show about the ‘real’ lives of celebrities. The tagline was “you think you know how my life is? you have no idea”. That clearly applies to musicians of all types, but especially those of us who make our living in symphony orchestras.

I stay up for hours after concerts, thinking about what went well, and what did not. I try to make a mental practice map for the next day in order to reinforce things that went pretty well, and to correct those things that did not.

I get up early before morning rehearsals to take a look at passages that are exceptionally difficult. I  live in an apartment, and so must often use a heavy practice mute in order to get work done that would otherwise bother my neighbors.

During heavy weeks of rehearsal, I often spend a good amount of time going back to basics, working on etudes and scales to ensure that the ensemble work does not adversely affect my intonation and tone production, which can often happen when one is unable to hear one’s own sound clearly in the orchestra.

After rehearsals, I go home and spend time looking over places that need more work, often re-fingering difficult passages that were in a different tempo than was anticipating. Bowings often get changed at the initial rehearsals, and need further practicing to get them thoroughly in hand for the next rehearsal.

On concert days, when there is particularly exposed or difficult writing for the violas, I will literally wake up worrying about these passages, and think about them incessantly all day. I try to “visualize” aurally the way it will feel to successfully negotiate the passages, and how they fit into the complete orchestral texture. These are the passages that you will see me working on on stage right up until the moment the concert begins.

I worry constantly about the financial footing of my orchestra.

I worry constantly about where I will next cut my expenditures, and what I can do to earn more money. I ponder going back on the audition circuit – something that I am loath to do, but may consider doing depending upon how my orchestra decides to handle its financial obligations over the next season or so. Believe me, hitting the audition circuit at the age of 44 is no picnic.

And that’s just the beginning. We don’t simply play 20 hours a week for our ‘big’ paychecks. We work pretty much non-stop, for all of our waking hours. We care deeply about what we do. We love what we do. We’ve trained our entire lives to get where we are right now – not the highest paid orchestra in the country, not a Grammy-winning ensemble, but an orchestra that can hold its head up high and play like our lives depend upon it (and they most certainly do). I defy anyone to say we have easy, cushy jobs.

So I stand in proud solidarity with my brothers and sisters in the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony.


14 Replies to “you have no idea”

  1. Charles, this is an excellent, informative description of what you and your colleagues in orchestras everywhere do – except the lucky ones who don’t lie awake wondering whether their organization’s financial future is secure, or if they have to go back on the audition circuit. I hope it gets widely posted.
    The lock-outs in Minnesota and St. Paul are over concessions so deep it’s hard to imagine anyone in any profession able to accept them without putting up a struggle. Being asked to accept a 30% pay cut means being asked to change one’s entire way of life. I sincerely hope you and your colleagues in the OSO never have to face demands like that, especially as in your case 30% of a lot less money to begin with would hurt even more.

  2. thanx, charles, for spelling out the bottom line of your orch life with such detailed care – i learned a lot here. the worry you describe must be truly wearing . . .

    now, what you REALLY don’t want hear about is the life of today’s average composer. THAT is a deeply sad story with no 30% pay cuts or lock-outs to briefly brighten the narrative of despair!


    or, better make that;


  3. Very informative, Charles. For what it is worth, this is one long time season ticket holder who appreciates all the effort that you and your fellow musicians make to bring musical excellence to every concert I hear. I hope you can take some satisfaction in the enthusiastic audience reactions to concerts such as last night’s which featured a superb performance of Dvorak 8th symphony. You and your fellow musicians are my heroes. Your skill amazes me every week.

  4. I agree with and understand all the comments you post here. And I am sure you appreciate that all professionals in whatever their field battle similar issues of living a 24/7 job, balancing the stressful times at work (critical presentations, deadlines for important reports etc sometimes with tens of thousands of dollars at risk) with reflection and the need for additional training on your own time. I have read many blogs over the last few weeks as people in the orchestra industry react against the situation in San Francisco. Personally, I think blogs like this show that musicians are out of step with how many people in other professions deal with their demanding jobs. Yet most don’t have the safety of the union around them to ensure that their jobs are secure (pretty much for life), that they have pensions, and paid vacation.

    I am truly sorry that orchestra musicians are not respected more in society. The amount of training and dedication needed to succeed in the field is extraordinary. The personal investment and sacrifice needed is immense. But it is in other fields too. And the constant blaming of ‘management’ by the bothers and sisters you stand in solidarity with is simply getting old — especially as so many orchestra administrators are also underpaid and overworked with not enough resources to be successful in their positions.

    We need to find a better narrative to help this industry. After all, we are all looking for the same result.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. One sentence in particular was unclear:

      Personally, I think blogs like this show that musicians are out of step with how many people in other professions deal with their demanding jobs.

      Do you mean that what we musicians write in our blogs show how we are out of step with how other people in demanding professions deal with their jobs? I could not disagree more. In fact, most every musician knows that being a lawyer, doctor, police officer, nurse, retail worker, etc. are all quite stressful. The problem that we’re reacting to is that 90% plus of the general public perceive being an artist as being an avocation instead of an occupation. There is that problem of the fact that what we do with our instruments is called ‘playing’, which has connotations that do not align with hard work, in most cases. They only see the outcome of our lonely hours in the practice studio, and our intense rehearsal periods. At the performance, we try to project an image of ease and joy – who wants to see miserable, tired, toiling people on stage – and often we are very good at masking our discomfort and hard work that we may be engaged in at any given moment. Yes, we do have some degree of job security via a well-defined termination process (which was arrived at after decades of continuous negotiations by us and our colleagues around the country) – but we hardly serve with impunity. If there is cause for someone to be dismissed, it can and will be done – this isn’t the fictional longshoreman’s union of On the Waterfront.

  5. Thank you. From an audience member. You people make such wonderful music, I know it is not without a lot of effort and practice. But, your account above fills in the details which we don’t begin to imagine. Well put.

  6. Thank you so much for this—I think that far too many people do not have any idea as to what the life of an artist is like, and the passion/fortitude required. As a person who lives in the Twin Cities watching horrified as to what is happening here with the MN Orchestra and the SPCO, and who also has a daughter who lives the dancer version of your story in St. Louis, your account is much appreciated.

  7. Hello Charles, I am a retired bass trombonist and music educator. I have many friends who work as live music performers in the industry. Orchestra, Jazz, Choral, Sacred, it doesn’t matter what idiom, live music is dying and, not because the performers aren’t sacrificing or dedicated or reaching new levels of performance standard and innovation. I can only concur with everything you have written. I believe that live musics decline is a reflection of our society, certainly not our musicians. That is we are losing our ability to value things ecstatic (things that give us emotion, mystery, rapture), especially objects, and especially performances that have been crafted through long years of patient, careful and loving practice. Our future generations have not learned to love what we as musicians learned to personify and embody through our own love.

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