I Used To Be An Orchestra Player
or, Living The Dream
(Most musicians, and other artists, wrestle with the need to make a
steady living and the need to create their art. They often wonder if
they should quit their day jobs and pursue their art full time. The
following article goes into the category of, How I Quit My Day Job. I
hope it may serve as an inspiration.)
I once had a nice cushy job. Well, maybe not cushy, but the work was
steady, the pay was good, and the benefits were excellent. I was a
section cellist in one of South America's top orchestras.
When I first joined the orchestra I was thrilled. For one thing, we
played great music, the real war horses, like Beethoven's 5th,
Tschaikowsky's 4th, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. We also had a great
group of musicians; most were imported from top U.S. conservatories. It
was fun to take in a new culture and every day was an adventure.
One day I showed up to a concert when suddenly the personnel manager,
who had always been friendly to me, came running over and started
screaming at me. My shirt wasn't pressed! The way she carried on, you'd
have thought I killed someone. Yes, I understood that an orchestra must
maintain a certain image, but the shirt was wrinkled in the back where
it would end up covered by my jacket anyway. I didn't argue, it was
clear from her attitude that there would have been no way to win. This
was lesson one on the powerlessness of orchestral musicians.
On another occasion, we were rehearsing a Mozart symphony and I was
playing my best, when the principal bassist made a comment to me that I
wasn't playing with the cello section. I told her that I was hitting the
notes at exactly the same time as the section but playing the notes with
a round and ringing sound. I further explained that I had studied Mozart
with Lillian Fuchs ( the famous violist ) who taught us to play Mozart
with just such a sound. She said, "I see."
During our next break the principal cellist walked over to me and in an
angry tone said, "Why aren't you playing with the section?" Surprised,
I said, "Oh, you must spoken to the principal bassist. As I explained to
her, I WAS playing with the section. It's just that the section was
playing with a dry short sound and I was taught at Manhattan School of
Music to play Mozart with a round ringing sound." He said, "You're not
in school anymore. Play with the section!," then he briskly walked away.
So much for musicality!
It was rumored that our conductor was given the funding to create our
orchestra as a gift from the president of this democratic (on paper)
country. His position seemed clearly due to politics. On one occasion,
he started a rehearsal of a Mozart symphony a little differently. He
explained that he had made an intense study of Mozart, his favorite
composer, and he felt that Mozart was always played incorrectly. He
wanted to play the music exactly as Mozart had written it. It seemed
that this time we would actually have a good experience with him.
Perhaps we would finally play Mozart with style and finesse.
We started playing the first phrase of the piece when he stopped us. He
said, "Why are you playing a crescendo? Mozart didn't write a
crescendo." We played again. He stopped us. "Why are you playing a
crescendo?! Let's try it again." Again we started and again he stopped
us, yelling, "A whole orchestra of American conservatory trained
musicians and you can't even play Mozart! What do they teach you up
At this point we were all getting nervous and wondering what kind of
game he was playing. It continued on uncomfortably with him becoming
more and more angry each time. Finally, the section leaders whispered
something to each other and then the word was passed down through the
sections by musicians whispering with cupped hands, "Play a decrescendo
as the phrase goes up." Apparently what was happening was that as the
musical phrase went up in pitch there was a natural and slight growth of
intensity. The conductor was interpreting this as a crescendo, so to
compensate and make the music not increase in intensity at all, we had
to fight nature, and actually pull back in sound to keep the music
completely flat in volume and emotion. We did just that. It sounded
bizarre. The conductor smiled with satisfaction and said, "Now THAT's
Mozart!" Needless to say, the rest of the rehearsal was sheer torture as
we butchered this beautiful piece of music.
The dictator, I mean, conductor, was always finding ways to demonstrate
his power over the musicians. The lowest blow came when he decided to
break the contract and move a rehearsal to the Jewish high holiday of
Yom Kippur. He had no right to unilaterally change the schedule and
there was no need to do it. The Jewish members of the orchestra
complained, charging him with breaking the contract with no
justification. He admitted that he made the change solely because he
felt like it, nevertheless, he would dock the pay of any musician who
took the day off. He suggested that if the musicians were unhappy, they
should speak to the orchestra committee chairman, and that is what they
did. (The orchestra committee was a group of orchestra members whose job
it was to settle disputes. The chairman was a very nice guy who happened
to have epilepsy. It was known that he could have an epileptic fit if he
were stressed, so everyone was careful to be kind to him.) He was
outraged by the conductor's actions and agreed to speak to him with the
musicians present after the next rehearsal. The next day he went up to
the conductor and diplomatically made his case. The conductor responded
by screaming at him. He started to shake and the musicians encouraged
him to walk away. The conductor kept screaming even as the musicians
walked the committee chairman off the stage. They pursued the matter no
further and all were docked pay!
These experiences and many others led me to the realization that being
an orchestra player was not for me. Of course this is an extreme
example, but similar things happen in many orchestras or in any work
environment where a boss or manager has unbridled power and low morals.
I fulfilled my contract and then proudly quit the orchestra.
When I returned to New York, I wrote a rock song called, "I Used To Be
An Orchestra Player," and started joining rock bands. It was hard to
quit my "day job," and many years of struggle followed, but I never
looked back. This song became the opening song on my solo CD, "Breaking
The Sound Barriers." It took many years to get in this position, but I
am finally able to live my dream!