I don’t know about you guys, but I am overwhelmed by the response to Part I of this blog post! I’m always amazed at how encouraged we feel by our shared experiences. Based on the Instagram and Facebook lives that so many of us lead, it’s hard to imagine that almost all of us have done time in the non-union low-pay circle. In Part II, I’m going to take a look at three reasons I would turn work away, regardless of how badly I needed the money.
IF A JOB HURT MY FACE
I started my freelancing career playing in community orchestras as a paid ringer. It was interesting to meet people that had gotten music degrees, but switched careers in grad school and chose to keep music performance in their lives. I learned a lot about mixing the technique of playing an instrument with the joy of music, and about how difficult we make our musical lives with our own neuroticism!
As educational as these experiences were, every now and then I would play in a group or section that wasn’t so gifted in intonation. If I was more scientifically-minded, I would be able to explain why the vibrations of horrible intonation make your face hurt. I would tacet what I could and never take that job again. In school, I could take another work-study shift and make up the difference, and out of school, I lived a little cheaper that week (hello canned foods and chicken thighs!). I’d also say no to orchestras that chose big rep in a small space and stuffed the entire horn section in the warpath of the percussion battalion. Chop damage for $35 a service was a line that I couldn’t cross, because it meant too much to me to keep playing.
IF I STARTED “GIG COLLECTING”
Back in the days when we all kept paper planners, I used to look at the upcoming week ahead and plan my practicing in between rehearsals and concerts. I hope we’ve all had weeks where the calls keep coming, and the slots you set aside for yourself keep getting filled with work offers and opportunities.
At a certain point, I realized that I wasn’t even sure what the repertoire was for which group, and had no time to practice for it. When I could hear myself rattling off dates to my colleagues for the sake of conversation. I would hand something off to Steve so that I could get my head on straight and play less services well. Admittedly, it was an easy decision to make because the money would stay in our family.
We all love being called for work; we all love that feeling of “I am offering this to YOU specifically because I know you’re good enough for this job.” That feeling can lead me to working for the wrong reasons, and my playing level suffers. If I couldn’t do something to the best of my abilities, it was a sign that this low-paying work was using me, and not the other way around. I have to be in control of the level I play at, otherwise the struggle is all for nothing.
IF THE GROUP HAD ABUSED MUSICIANS IN THE PAST
Even before I was a working union member, I always believed in the ideal of power in numbers. If I knew a group had treated a colleague unfairly, the solidarity in me would not allow me to take the job. If the group hadn’t paid its musicians in a timely manner, it’s a pretty good sign to steer clear. If a group hires musicians and then changes the details of the rehearsals and venues, even the concert dates, automatic no. I know myself, and I know that I cannot play my best if the job is not honest with me about the details. The horn is unpredictable enough!
It should go without saying that if a group is on the unfair list, or if there is a line of picketing musicians, absolutely DO NOT cross it. Even if you’re not yet getting union work, the union rarely asks musicians not to play something, and you can be sure that they’ve tried everything to make sure that doesn’t happen. To cross that line is to tell them “I don’t care about your struggles”, and we need each other as workers in a dying industry.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF NO
In my experience, it is one of the biggest fallacies that turning away low-paying work will lead to better offers. I spent years giving up all my non-union work because I thought I was investing in a trajectory that would lead to full-time work of my own. I am now a career sub, and a very good one, and I am so grateful to the colleagues that have given me opportunities to learn new books and play in different places. By dropping everything and turning down so much non-union work, the musicians playing those small jobs that are now in shows of their own all began to assume that I was busy. I have effectively phased myself out of most people’s immediate consciousness as an available option.
I am an older young musician now, and the phone doesn’t ring with new jobs. If I play in an classical orchestra five times in a year, I’m incredibly lucky. I have to accept that the high-paying work I was sure would happen for me will not, and that my career is a trickle-down of bigger work that’s creating openings. The summers are brutal: if there’s no symphonic or operatic work requiring subs, the people who rightfully have their shows don’t need subs, and I’m out on the street delivering food. My only avenues for new work seem to be creating my own projects or winning an audition outside of NYC.
So let me be clear: the only thing that leads to more serious work is advancing in an audition or meeting someone that wants to give you work. No one is scouting the lower tiers looking for the next sub. Conversely, if someone sees that you advanced somewhere and you play great, they’re not going to ask you if you played a low-tier job the night before. Talent is talent, and if you’re lucky, the work will follow. There is no guarantee for anyone, no matter how hard they work or how much work they give up on principle.
I don’t mean all of this to be whiny or self-sympathetic: it’s the opposite, in a way. I am invigorated to have artistic freedom. I have time to practice and be a better player. I have creative license to come up with new projects to introduce the horn as a solo instrument to different communities. Perhaps the best outcome of this is that I am watching my kids grow up, and loving it. A good friend of mine once told me “I’m not going to wait for someone to lay my career out for me.” And that is the essence of the young musician turned modern-day freelancer. Our backs are up against a wall. We have nothing but time. We are more empowered than ever to make our careers what we want them to be.