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.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Playing for Nothing

I majored in music education in college. I picked music because there was little I enjoyed more than making music (with my friends - thanks Willie). During my final two years while I was playing piano, bass, sax, clarinet, bassoon and trombone at every opportunity and conducting every group I could that I was not actually playing in, my clarinet teacher gave me a piece of advice that I have come to recall many times in the years since. "Never play for nothing", he cautioned me, "people will think that's what you are worth."

I've been on both sides of the pro/amateur musician profile and in previous entries in this blog I've gone to some lengths to explain the rewards of bringing live orchestral music to those who otherwise could never afford to attend and providing full pit orchestras in venues that could never afford the pros. Evidently full pit orchestras will soon go the way of the dodo everywhere as even shows appearing on Broadway are making every effort to replace musicians with digital synthesizers while musicians' unions make futile efforts to preserve these jobs. So even as amateur musicians are working to provide and preserve music performance that is either rapidly vanishing or becoming prohibitively expensive, organizations and individuals who recruit amateur groups to enhance their productions are doing their very best to demoralize and discourage the very people they depend on to complete their audience's experience.

Our local ballet company has been trumpeting their pride in that our city finally has a year round professional ballet. Be that as it may, for a live orchestra this professional company still turns to the amateurs and it is easy to see why. For a recent engagement there were three rehearsals and two performances. The going terms of the musician's union local would be $90.00 per person per 2 1/2 hour service. $90.00 X 40 musicians X 5 services is $18,000.00, a sum that would leave this company, like many throughout the country, using recorded music were it not for volunteer musicians.

Faced with these facts you would expect volunteer musicians to be treated with respect and gratitude. Nothing could be further from the fact. Instead they are treated like galley slaves. Four to five hour rehearsals with no breaks are the norm. With no constraints on time or costs, rehearsals are disorganized and the musicians sometimes wait idle up to forty minutes while problems are worked out that could have easily been addressed in technical rehearsals requiring no live music. Promises as to rehearsal length are made and quickly broken. Offers of buffet lunches in return for early rehearsal times for people who all have day jobs are made and not realized. Musicians arrive and leave for each rehearsal and performance without a single word of appreciation from either those in charge of, or participating in, the production.

Lest I be accused of picking on this particular organization, this has been the norm in various summer theater productions as well. It has brought home the perception that one of the reasons that musicians' unions exist beyond the obvious remuneration consideration is that union contracts force those in charge of productions such as this to realize that a musician's time has value and is to be wasted at financial peril.

My own perception is that money alone is not entirely a substitute for respect and gratitude, but it helps. People that wish to treat others like indentured servants should expect to pay for the privilege. If you can't afford to pay, then consider doing without if you can't extend common courtesy to those you wish to exploit.

My teacher was right. In spite of our huge contribution to these local performances, somehow because we play for nothing, far too many people think this is what we are worth. Personally I have been burnt too many times and am getting to old to expect things to ever change. I'm going to have to rethink the cost/reward equation of doing these things in the future.

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