There are some folk who don't see the gem inside my rough exterior who might consider me a hot head. To which I say a hearty "bite me". But let this opinion be a caution that within this blog may lurk items of a venting nature or perhaps those which might be considered a rant. So be it. Proceed with caution. You have been warned.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Amateur Night

I've been a musician all my life. Currently I'm employed as a programmer but I have a degree in music and have played woodwinds and keyboards most of my life. I'm not going to try and remember how many years - let's just say that I played in the pit for a production of "Hair" when it wasn't a revival. I've been paid to play all my chosen instruments and still have an ongoing paying gig. I've been in and out of the musician's union and performed a wide range of musical genres. Still for most of my life I would probably have been classified as an "amateur". Wikipedia provides this as part of it's definition "Translated from its French origin to the English "lover of", the term "amateur" reflects a voluntary motivation to work as a result of personal passion for a particular activity."

Currently the majority of my musical activity consists of playing in a "community" (translation: volunteer) orchestra and pit orchestra for a community theater (same translation of "community"). Since I have, at one time or another, performed in professional groups of the same type and paid for the upkeep on my instruments as well as a few beers, then why do I do it for free?

Actually some recent experiences (see future blog entry "It's the pits!" for particulars) have led me to ask myself the very same question. Maybe I can use this venue to work out the answer.

One of the things that has always bothered me is the cost of attending live performances be they theater, orchestra concerts, opera, ballet, and the like. Pop music is kind of a different animal so I'm going to to stick to the venues I operate in the most. Right now (2009) in the Midwest it's $50 for cheap seats at any of these. And I'm not talking road troupes of current broadway productions either.

I'm talking Des Moines Symphony - certainly not one of the big 5 or even the big 50, Des Moines Playhouse, or Des Moines Civic Opera (although the latter IS one of the finest summer opera programs in the country). So it costs my wife and I $100.00 to attend a performance of any of these professional organizations. Got a family of four and you want to introduce the kids to live music or theater? Two Benjamins just for tickets not to mention intermission refreshments or a dinner before. I don't know about you, but I still consider a hundred dollars to be a lot of money. I know I'll consider it a lot of money when I retire on the pittance the bankers and Wall Street left me after paying out multi-millions in bad loans and executive salaries. But I digress.

So what do you do if you are living on a fixed income and you love to hear a live symphony orchestra or go to a live performance of a broadway musical? What do you do if you're a young married couple that wants the kids to absorb some live culture before they are completely brainwashed by MTV? Not to mention what you do if you are a single parent struggling just to put food on the table. What you do is to try to find free or very low ticket amateur productions.

The orchestra I play in gives free concerts and supports itself on member dues (that's right - we PAY to play) and donations. It exists on a shoestring and is constantly teetering on the verge of not being able to afford to put on the next concert. The theater group I play in the pit for charges $12 a seat, but considering the royalties charged by the companies that rent the music and parts in addition to costs to build sets, make costumes, etc. this is about as fine as they can cut it and continue to exist. But in spite of the shoestring budget, the home built sets and costumes, the actors and musicians put everything they have into it. The result is that the productions may not look as slick as the ones seen in the Civic Center, but the performances are filled with the passion and expertise that only tender loving care can give them. Audience responses are universally positive and even relatives visiting from the coasts who have been dragged to these performances are amazed at the quality.

Now I could pick up a gig now and then playing for the folks that can afford the best or I can play for the folk who love live performance and can't afford to pay for it. I can play for people who consider a large part of their ticket price to be their visibility as one of those who have arrived or I can help build the future audiences that will keep live performance viable in the future. I've come to a point in my life where I want to give something to the have nots. I've had a lot of things in my life that I regret and will never be able to change and while this doesn't make up for them - it's a way to do something very positive.

Bottom line, you can go out and drop several hundred dollars on an evening's dinner and entertainment and get broadway sets, polished performances long ago set in stone, or the finely tuned emotionless symphonic performances - you'll get what you paid for. Or you can go on the cheap to a performance where everyone is there for the love of it and every performance, though in humble surroundings, will be full of heart and enthusiasm. And as a bonus, you help preserve the group entertaining you so they can provide entertainment to those who otherwise could never see a live performance. For an old utility outfielder of the music biz there's no comparison.

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