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I Used To Be An Orchestra Player
or, Living The Dream
By Aaron Minsky a.k.a. Von Cello
(more articles from this author)
2001-10-23
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(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 there?!"

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!


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