the orchestra world

day 109


It’s been 109 days since my last day on the job (actually working) as a member of the Oregon Symphony. Our season officially ended on June 13. I’ve had a couple of concerts as a member of 45th Parallel Universe‘s Pyxis Quartet via their remarkable live collaboration platform (thanks, Danny!), but that’s been about it. A colleague of mine called our situation an ‘unplanned sabbatical’. Unplanned is right.

I’ve written a half dozen posts in the intervening time, but have deleted the drafts the next day. Nothing felt good. Nothing felt right.

Mostly, I’ve been trying to get my instrument out at least once a day, and do some warm ups and a scale or an etude. Sometimes actual music gets played. Sometimes not.

It’s an unprecedented time for many occupations in the US. But in my middle-class, blue collar neighborhood, things seem to be pretty much as usual. I see my neighbors going to work each morning, while I sit around trying to figure out what I’m going to do with myself.

I and my colleagues feel pretty much invisible to society – even more so than usual. Some countries are announcing that they are slashing funding to arts education in their national curricula. Not exactly inspiring hope for the future.

My union brothers and sisters around the country are anticipating a round of contract re-openings in these tough times for US orchestras. One orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, decided that cutting off their employees’ health insurance was the right course of action in the midst of a pandemic. What were they thinking? Well, they’re in the midst of renegotiating a new CBA. Surprise, surprise. And don’t get me started about the Nashville Symphony. My initial reaction was profound disbelief. But I wasn’t in the room where it happened. There is a lot that I don’t know about the situation, and there may be plans to simply overhaul the entire ‘season’ rather than try to carry through preexisting plans. We’ll see.

Uncertainty is the greatest enemy to hope (and fiscal planning). When I think about how much I’m worrying about the future, I try to put myself in the shoes of those people who are trying to chart the course of my orchestra into the future – effectively without any sort of official guidance, and precious little (or nonexistent) funding. My heart goes out to the many people who have been working tirelessly these past three months who have just been furloughed until the next season starts (don’t ask).

I also know that our board of directors has been working overtime to try to fill the gap in earned income as well. Their responsibility is to the current and future financial health of the orchestra, and it’s a heavy burden when times are tough. I’m confident that they will make things happen in the sometimes mysterious ways that boards do their thing. High level contacts with government officials, financial institutions, and philanthropic foundations may help us get through the next few months and enable us to spring into action when the coast is clear.

Flowers in our garden.

As for me, I’m trying to keep busy and keep my thinking to the short term. It’s a luxury, but it is what will keep me sane, along with limiting my intake of the 24 hour news cycle. I’m doing work in our garden, riding my bike (without crashing, thank you very much), and spending lots of quality time with my wife and our two cats. So I’m making the best of a tough situation, and am grateful that, for now, my savings and thriftiness will enable us to get through this period without undue financial hardship. I hope that all of you are staying well and safe – and WEAR A MASK IN PUBLIC!

new music teaching viola

lessons learned

I had a hard week this week. It had less to do with outside circumstances than life inside of my head. I am working on a piece that I have long admired, and actually have owned for nearly a decade, but never got around to performing. It’s a piece for viola and tape by Nico Muhly called Keep in Touch. I was prompted to get it up to performance shape by Gabriel Kahane, who as Creative Chair of the Oregon Symphony is producing a series of videos called Essential Sounds. He had in mind an interview with Nico, and I’d mentioned knowing of this piece, so one thing led to another… So with basically three weeks to prepare something from zero to ready-to-be-recorded live for video, I began work. I learned some interesting things that might be useful to others – either established professionals, or students, or anyone in between.

First, start with a can-do attitude. I used to have one of these! When I was in my 20’s, I would fearlessly approach very difficult works with the assumption that they were within my purview, and I would be able to perform them well. In the intervening 25-plus years, though, I guess I’ve learned what I don’t know more than what I do know. The negative has overshadowed the positive. Difficult pieces are approached more with trepidation and fear than curiosity and enthusiasm now. And that’s gotta change. I can’t continue in this way – I would quickly burn out or become a bundle of nerves, or both.

Second, don’t get ahead of yourself. I used to tell this to my students all the time. Start slow. Take measured steps. Learn small sections well, then move on to a new one. If only I would listen to my teacher-self! I knew this stuff, but I was not listening. I think that part o this is because of the nature of being in a major orchestra that does so much repertoire in a season. Music is stuffed in one end of the sausage grinder, and hopefully something palatable comes out the other end. Music has to be learned so quickly. So when I start work on any new piece, the first instinct is to take the whole thing in and digest it as quickly as possible, and try to get it up on its feet way too soon. So it was with the Muhly. I tried to get it working with the tape accompaniment way too soon. So technical aspects of the viola part weren’t ready. I also wasn’t familiar enough with the soundtrack. And the rhythmic solidity of the viola part wasn’t there yet, either. What this made for was a series of off-balance, technically poor, and very discouraging attempts to make it through large parts of a 12 minute piece way before I was realistically ready to even contemplate such things. As a very wise friend of mine said on Facebook after my meltdown, “take it slow”. Words to live by.

Third, temper your expectations. I listen to a lot of great players. Some of them are colleagues who I hear at work, others are friends whose work I hear on recordings or on YouTube. Still others are in the constellation of fantastically talented superstars that either come through as soloists, or whose recordings I own. I hear their work, and think that’s the standard of playing that I aspire to. And that’s fine – but I have to also be realistic about what my end product will be. It’s not going to sound like Tabea Zimmermann or Roberto Diaz. I’m not at their level – never was, never will be. So when I record myself playing something, and hear all of the imperfections, I need to accept where I am right now, resolve to work harder to achieve more, and be happy with myself for putting in the effort. This is colored by my own complicated relationship with music and the viola, and I know that and am working on that relationship. But aspiring to greatness – while at the same time accepting the progress that actually gets made – is key.

Hopefully this brief therapy session was helpful to you – if you have any insights that you’ve developed in the course of your musical work, please comment!

cello the orchestra world trombone violin

OSO musicians play porch concerts

This weekend blessed us with some wonderful spring weather, and several of my colleagues in the Oregon Symphony gave impromptu concerts on their front (and sometimes back) porches. The wonderful photographer for the Classical Up Close series, Joe Cantrell, was on hand to document them, and here are some selected shots from his gallery on Facebook.