So. Boyfriend and I just moved to The City. We’re going to start an ensemble and work fascinating side jobs and hopefully make a difference in music by doing something other than exactly what’s expected of art music, because what’s expected of art music is what’s killing it. I’m excited, and I hope we’ll be able to do something meaningful. I really want to, because we’re investing everything we’ve got in it. It won’t work unless we do.

I have visions of us, years from now, arriving at glittering cocktail parties as the most intimidatingly, brilliantly important people in the room because of what we’ve accomplished. I see us struggling for years, poor and cold and lonely, but eventually making an impact because what we have to say is important, and we’ve found a way to say it that makes sense. (I know it sounds cliché and starry-eyed, but I really do hope…) I see a fantastic career for myself—not what I envisioned, but maybe even better—rather than this faltering, uncertain half-career I’ve been having so far.

But holy crap, I’m scared.

What if this turns out to be a terrible idea? What if we’re just putting off the inevitable and someday Boyfriend and I do end up living far apart anyway because we fail and he has to get a job at East Bumfuck Community College and I have to take whatever I can get? What if I can’t get anything and I end up freelancing once a month with the Bumfuck Philharmonic and teaching kids who couldn’t give a single booger they just dug out of their nose about the violin?

What if we fail at this, but we sink so much time and effort into it that we fall out of practice at what we intended to do all along? It’s not so problematic for Boyfriend–composers’ styles change all the time. But what if I’m so busy with our music (and freelancing and day-job-working) that I’m not ready with my excerpts when that One Big Job comes along? The one I know I can and should win, someday? What if I never get the job I’ve always wanted because I was concentrating on something else?

What if, even worse and even more likely, we get sucked into our day jobs? What if we let this dream fade away because we need money and security? The salaried, somewhat pleasant positions we’ve gotten will definitely offer that. What if I end up hardly ever performing because I’m working another job? What if Boyfriend stops composing because he needs to buy us nice things? They might be nice jobs. They might even be great jobs. But what if we lose our drive and we become bitter because we let it go? What if something’s always missing?

That one’s my biggest fear. It seems the easiest, most insidious. And by far the worst.

I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Who DOESN’T have that feeling at some point in their twenties? That the choices you’re making are never going to lead you where you want to be? That permanent failure and life-ruination is just one tiny misstep away? Especially when, like me, you’re about to leave the safety of school and everything you know and understand and actually try to make a life. Even scarier, we’re trying to leave the prescribed path (whatever it is), and however closely we’ll be treading to its established route, that makes it all the more terrifying.

I know everyone feels this way. But every so often, when I’m thinking about the enormity of what we’re about to do, it crushes me. It terrifies me. And it surprises me that I’m so scared.

Several months ago, my best friend H graduated from Really Famous School with a year-long contract at an opera company in Germany. It’s an unbelievable dream job, and absolutely a good move in her career. She’s definitely on the classic I’m-becoming-a-famous-opera-singer track—she’s already one of our generation’s best singers, and I don’t just say that because I love her. But still, when we talked right before she left, she told me part of her wished she didn’t have to go. She has a life and the beginnings of a career here, and she was nervous that leaving now might destroy everything she already had.

Obviously, it’s not enough to call anything off. H went to Germany. Boyfriend and I moved to our chosen City. She’s singing her first real German season, and we got pretty much exactly the day jobs we wanted. We’re trying to figure out where we stand in this new place, to establish ourselves and break into the new music scene. We’re doing our best to do what we set out to do.

And god, am I scared.


The Story of Boyfriend (part 1)

Part One: Summer

This is a long story, and one that starts way back before Boyfriend and I got together, or even met. I promise I won’t pull a How I Met Your Mother, but context is important here…

We met at a summer festival. But not just any summer festival—the one where my family had been… how should I say it? Influential, for two generations before me. (We have things named after us, but not because we gave tons of money. We don’t have people-crushing money.) It is, without a doubt, My Summer Festival.

I was introduced onstage there as an infant, and my parents started working there when I was a toddler. I went every summer, first as a faculty kid, then as a student, until I was 18, then a couple times after that. When I was 4, I was in my first opera there. (La Boheme, for the record.) When I was 6, I lost my first tooth in the cafeteria. When I was 13, there were some episodes of puberty that I’d rather forget. When I was 14, I played the first concert that truly terrified me, and when I was 15, I played the first concert that truly changed me. I’ve moved around, I’ve loved and hated where I lived, I’ve gone to other festivals—but I keep coming back. This place is my home.

So I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, in the place where I’m happiest, I met the best person I could ever have asked for as a mate.

But let’s back up for a minute to the summer before we met. That was, at the time, the one summer I had spent anywhere besides My Festival. I was 18 that year, and my teacher had decided it was time that I go to Aspen (the story of which will be detailed in a later post). Let it suffice for now to say I hated every goddamn minute of it. Seriously. It was awful. But, in the short time between returning from Aspen and starting undergrad, I went to a party with a couple of my high school friends. I promised one of them that I was definitely NOT going to meet a guy and abandon her.

By the end of the night, I had met my ex-boyfriend—whoops. Let’s call this ex “T.” T was 21, an engineering student, tall and strong, and the first guy in months who didn’t treat me like crap. I fell for him immediately.

We dated throughout my freshman year. It was fun, but it was my freshman year—there were other guys interested in me, and I enjoyed the attention. Maybe even encouraged it. I never cheated on him, but I didn’t let the fact that I had a boyfriend hold me back from having all the fun I wanted.


 I may have been a little naïve at times.

And of course, we had our private troubles. He was incredibly irresponsible and would often tell me stories about it like it was funny. (Like the time he drove home “just tipsy” from a night with his friends and wrecked his car’s suspension by jumping a curb. He said he “got lost.” Hilarious!) And I wasn’t comfortable expressing concern because, often when I did, he acted like I was trying to strip him of his hard-won independence. (I realized later that, while I completely trusted him not to cheat on me, I didn’t trust him with my life. He wasn’t worried about his own safety, let alone mine. And I’ve just realized that reflecting on what you learned from your past relationships makes you sound like Oprah, no matter what. So, victories on two fronts.) But it seemed like a minor problem at the time.

Then came summer—the first summer I would be able to spend in the college division at My Festival. I was so. excited. They got to do all the fun things, like play in an orchestra with faculty, not just teaching assistants, and in the new music ensemble, and play the really good chamber music. And I knew the system—there would be no disappointments this year.

Plus, I knew for a fact that they had great parties.

I got there and did my audition. I was ranked first and placed in the advanced chamber music program, just as I had hoped. It meant that our quartet would have dedicated rehearsal time every day, and (on the orchestral front), that I would be assistant principal in the first concert, with Famous Conductor X, Famous Soloist Y, and Famous Concertmaster Z all at once—it was a huge concentration of awesomeness. (I wish I could tell you who the famous people were! But it’s too specific a combination.) It was also a huge time commitment, so I told myself that I would definitely not be able to do the new music ensemble, too, no matter how much I wanted to.

Cue my violinist friend N. He was in my assigned string quartet, sitting assistant principal second on the Highly Concentrated Awesomeness Concert—I got to know him quickly, in that way that you can only do at a festival. So when he asked me to read a student composer’s string quartet, I already trusted his judgment. I couldn’t say no.

The quartet showed up at the reading, which turned out to be during the composers’ class, in a little tiny classroom where they teach French during the year. All fifteen or so of the composers sat glued to the back wall, and still, there was hardly enough room for the four of us in the middle. We sat down, staring awkwardly at the music and the other composers and each other in the expectant silence.

Then Boyfriend got up to introduce the piece. He and I had already met briefly before, but I only had fleeting impressions of him. It was only the second week of the program, after all. He seemed so much older, at 25. (He’s since told me that his first thoughts upon seeing me were something like, “You can’t do anything to her; she’s too young. No matter how much you want to.”) He wore button-downs and slacks at what basically amounts to a summer camp—he was cute, but he dressed more formally than most of the teachers. In our only previous conversation, he had seemed smart, witty, and intimidating as hell.

I wanted to impress him, and I was pretty sure sight reading highly chromatic music in 7/8 wasn’t going to do the job.

With his other composer friend J conducting, we got through it, if shakily. By no means did it sound good, but we got the general point across. I was too embarrassed to look Boyfriend in the eye—I wanted to get the hell out of there and joke about it later. I prayed to whatever deity I could that they wouldn’t make us do anything again. Then, the professor got up and thanked us, laughing. “I’m sure it’ll be better by the time the concert comes around!”

Only then did I realize, I had signed on to perform the damn thing.

After the initial surprise, my summer started to settle into a predictable, wonderful pattern. A breakfast of horrible coffee and whatever food I could grab before orchestra rehearsal in the morning. A quick slice of cafeteria pizza on the porch before official quartet rehearsal in the afternoon. A bit of wandering through the pine trees, a meager dinner, and maybe a concert—where my friends and I would organize our activities for the night. Some warm, glowing nights, we would rehearse for Boyfriend’s quartet. We laughed, drank the beer that he brought to rehearsal, and learned his music. By the second rehearsal, we were all talking like we’d known each other for years. Then, we all would go together to join the rest of our friends for the rest of the night’s plans. Usually, that meant sitting by the mosquito-laden lake in the glittering twilight, drinking and talking into the wee hours.

And each morning, I would wake up in my tiny, standard-issue camp bed from dreams of Mendelssohn and Elgar and 7/8 time, with a smile still lingering from the night before.

Time has a strange way of moving at a festival like that. You’re so thoroughly immersed that each day feels like an age, each conversation seems to go deeper than it should, each new friend can become a close one in a matter of days. And while every night felt different in that rich air, a surprising number of them included me and Boyfriend, off on our own—simply by chance. We would be talking about something (whether you can really hear sarcasm in Shostakovich, for instance, or the literary merits of the Harlequin romance novel we bought on a beer run) so intensely that, somehow, everyone else would peel away, and we wouldn’t even notice.

All the while, I was getting less and less concerned with T’s flakiness, his lack of ability to call me when I asked, the fact that I had to ask. (Except the time he casually mentioned that he had tried acid about a week ago, as though this wasn’t news I’d have liked to hear as more than an afterthought. That was a treat.) On the rare occasion that he would text or call me when I was with Boyfriend, the difference was thrown into sharp relief. It’s the distance, I told myself. Everything will be fine when I go home.

Really, though, I wasn’t sure I was in trouble until the night of the first concert.

I can’t exactly remember how the concert went. I’m pretty sure we resorted to one of our “Oh shit” spots at one point, but whether it was J’s conducting or one of the players that caused it is lost to time. But we got through it and no one threw things at us, so it was good enough.

Fulfilling his professorial duties, the composition teacher was to throw a (booze-soaked, minor-serving) post-concert reception at his swanky faculty lodgings that night. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened, but after the concert, the rest of the group sort of evaporated. They reappeared later, after changing or buying drinks or whatever. But at the time, all it seemed like they were doing was leaving me and Boyfriend to walk to the reception alone.

And I vividly remember that. My heart was pounding more than necessary as we climbed the hill to the professor’s place. I was probably speaking a little too loudly and a little too fast—I tried to blame it on leftover adrenaline from the concert, but I knew what the real problem was. I had never really been alone with him. Our late-night conversations had all occurred with other people nearby, just waiting to rejoin us or pull us off to some other activity. But on that deserted road, I was suddenly, uncomfortably aware of our aloneness. We were vulnerable, exposed. It made me nervous.

We were some of the first to arrive at the party, but it was a minor relief to be in the presence of anyone else, even if it was the awkward composition teacher and a couple of wind players I’d never met. I reveled in the free pizza that meant I didn’t have to speak anymore, and the bourbon that meant I could soon stop thinking, too.

Most of what I remember from the rest of the night is a series of impressions. Not really because I was so totally wasted, but because they stick out as important, even years later. There was the point at which more people had arrived, and I was talking to J, the other composer, and M, our cellist. But I was still sitting next to him, and it took all my will not to be talking to him instead. Not that J and M and I weren’t having an interesting conversation. Not that he would even have particularly enjoyed the conversation we were having. Just that I wasn’t talking to him, and I wished I were.

Then, there was the point when we were talking to each other again. It no longer felt dangerous, in the din of the party, to be talking to just each other about Mahler. But then, I mentioned that I loved the Adagietto from the Fifth. He asked why—the answer stuck in my throat. Because Mahler wrote it for Alma and sent it to her as a profession of love and I think it’s the most romantic thing in the world. But I couldn’t say that, not to him. Not to this composer, this man, sitting in front of me, who, if I said that, might take it the wrong way. Why would he take it the wrong way?

Because, I admitted, he liked me—and, below the surface of conscious thought, I liked him too. And talking about Alma and Gustav would be like revealing what I knew, and maybe—even worse—implying that I felt the same.

Then, the party was almost over. Everyone was gone but me, Boyfriend, the composition professor, and one very drunk conductor. The night was beginning to chill, and as we extricated ourselves from the tipsy adults, his arm wrapped protectively, warmly, around my bare shoulders for the first time.

I was so screwed.

Funny story…

So, I’ve learned recently that (apparently) the best way for me to get hits on my blog is to leave inflammatory comments on religious sites. Really! A friend on facebook posted a link to this silly post on how a girl’s choice not to wear a bikini to the beach is a great favor to all the men who then don’t have to be tempted by her luscious stomach. (Or something.) Obviously, I don’t agree, and said so. But my little comment got me about FIVE TIMES as much traffic as I was getting on my own. I have no idea if any of them read anything, but there were a TON of them.

So far, that’s my ace in the hole, the big trick that my two weeks (or is it three weeks?) of blogging have taught me. Troll blogs that have nothing to do with yours, then sit back and reap the sweet, sweet rewards. I’m pretty sure that’s solid blogging practice, right?

(Anyway, there’s a longer, better post to come soon. Just thought I should share my vast, helpful experience in the meantime.)

Freelancing finances

Holy crap, am I bad with money. I love clothes and food, and it pains me every time I have to let go of several hundred dollars just so that I can keep living in the same semi-crappy apartment where I already live, or pay for heat and electricity that I already used. I was righteously indignant when, as a kid, I found out that trash removal was something you actually have to pay for and not just a service provided by the community. It’s not like the government (or anyone, really) wants trash lying around, so it seemed absurd that its removal wouldn’t just be provided for everyone. (It still does, actually. But then, there’s always been a little communist in me.) And yes, I sometimes don’t even have enough money to pay for internet, but online shopping still exerts its siren song on me embarrassingly often.

Image(Exhibit A: I recently convinced myself that I needed this balance ball chair for practicing. Plus a comfy cover for it. While it’s turned out to be great for my posture, it’s also indulgent and ridiculous at almost $90. I can justify anything if it’s for playing…) 

Yeah, I just bought that thing. The thing that looks like it could have come out of either a kitschy, faddy fitness ad from the 60s (mail-order, of course), or an incredibly specialized sex toy store. (Might still be good for both…) But it’s awesome, and I’d been needing both a balance ball and a practicing chair—I’d been sitting on the edge of my bed, with my feet not touching the floor and the pillows right there, begging for nap time instead of practice time. So I went ahead and bought it.

And to be fair, it’s really, really hard to be smart with your money when you have no idea what kind of income the next month will bring. When you have that one unexpected gig that pays $600 out of the blue, you feel like it’s your one chance to buy all the things you’ve been putting off, like a pair of pants that won’t rip within a week and a half, or a new toaster to replace the one you melted (long story), or the $6 shampoo which is twice the price of the cheap stuff but that actually makes your hair look okay. When faced with that small, glimmering opportunity for normalcy, it’s really hard for me to bite the bullet and use most of that money to pay the two months’ worth of bills I’ve been avoiding.

The reasons aren’t lost on me—spending money on something that makes your life nicer/easier/prettier is FAR more satisfying than something so banal as the Comcast bill. (It’s not like Comcast or Duke Energy NEED my money anyway…) That fancy dinner/weekend in a nearby city/Jedi bathrobe has an immediacy and thrill of the new that paying for a continuing service that you’re already used to just can’t match. And yet. Every time I buy something silly (like a balance ball chair), even if I’ve decided I actually need it (like a balance ball chair), I do think about all the ways that money could be spent more practically, if only I saved it until next month.

The impulse to save up a lot of things to buy or pay for until after a big gig has got to be a common one amongst freelancers. I was doing it all by myself in college, but now that I live with Boyfriend, the impulse is more than doubled—maybe squared—because now my finances don’t only effect me. I obviously can’t say that I’m good at budgeting, and I’m not really sure what the antidote to pre-spending large paychecks before they even come might be.

Except, of course, a steady job.

Classical Mansplaining

My post made it onto Academic Men Explain Things to Me! Yay!


(As featured on…)

This scene happened several months ago, and it still irritates me to think about. I’m a classical musician, and I’ve been playing viola in this particular small-time orchestra for about five years now. I started there when I was relatively young (19), but the fact that I’ve kept the job should say something about my abilities and professionalism. 

We had a new principal player this season, and during the first concert (which included the very piece that had won me the job), he kept giving the bowings (and all the other information on how to play the piece) to the man on the third stand, skipping me and my (female) stand partner entirely. Now, I usually sit third or fourth chair, which means I’m always second stand—pretty high in the chain of command. And I definitely outrank the guy he was giving the bowings to, who is much older than me, but does not, to my knowledge, have a contract. He’s only a substitute. So, I was already irritated, but when Third Stand Guy miscounted repeatedly and blamed me (by leaning over and whispering, “Don’t rush!”), I was primed to say something. 

At the break in the rehearsal, I went up to New Principal Guy and told him, very politely, that he was giving the bowings to the wrong stand and that we weren’t getting the information. He apologized profusely and said it was an honest mistake—we were all sitting in a row behind him, and he just hadn’t realized. But Third Stand Guy overheard our conversation and interjected. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said to New Principal Guy. “I’ve been making sure she’s been getting the bowings. She’s just kidding.”

I gaped at him as he walked away. New Principal Guy, to his credit, asked me if I really was kidding, and I told him no. But thanks, Third Stand Guy, for speaking for me. I needed that.


For some reason, whenever I hear a Mozart recitative, I feel at home. I can picture myself, suddenly, at My Summer Festival, the air wonderfully fresh and full with humidity and the smells of pine trees, the sound of crickets and geese and maybe Nozze or Cosi. It’s warm and safe and beautiful. The feeling that there’s nothing else you need to be doing, nowhere else you need or want to be. The air almost sparkles as the sun is setting. There is no urgency, no stress, no want, because that moment is just right.



I know exactly what’s going on, of course. More than the wonderfully clever, solidly tonal harmonies and the beautiful singing, it’s the associations I have with this particular music that makes me feel good. My favorite thing to do in the summer as a kid was to sing in the children’s chorus for the operas. We would get to do things like sing in French while brandishing wooden swords at enormous baritones (Carmen) or wear glitter and wings and sing Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). And during rehearsal, while we waited for our scenes, we would play on the lawn outside the concert hall doing normal kid things, but never out of earshot of the opera. And for some reason that I really don’t understand (because most Mozart operas don’t feature children), I associate this memory most strongly with recitatives, especially those by Mozart.

Cheryl Studer, “Ch’io mi scordi di te.”

Music, for me, is comforting. And not just in the adolescent sense of I just have so many feelings and music is the only way I can understand ALL THE FEELINGS, although there may be a little of that. It reminds me of some of the happiest parts of my life, especially summers as a kid. It sounds trite, I know—I play music because it makes me feel nice! But if I can continue that happiness into the present, building new wonderfully satisfying memories (maybe) every time I play, is that really such a bad reason, among others, to make it into a life?

Why I’ll Never Go Back to Aspen: Preview


Ahh, that looks idyllic, doesn’t it? There’s something so wonderfully Alpine about that picture. Makes you want to go listen to Strauss while relaxing in a sunny field, or maybe practice under a tree while a pleasant breeze cools you.

Yeah, that picture is a lie.

I can’t hide it at all. I can’t even equivocate, and I’m a master equivocator. I despise Aspen. The festival, the town, the experience of being there. It’s not at all Strauss in a meadow with a pleasant breeze. I’ll expand more in later posts, but I thought I should put out a public service announcement now, while people are still preparing for festivals. I hope this reaches at least one person going to Aspen for the first time this summer, maybe someone who’s in a similar situation to mine, the first time I went. Young, deliciously alone, and excited for the big leagues. I can tell you some things right now.

Yes, it is the big leagues.

But unless you’re a child prodigy/first timer with a fellowship/the faculty’s absolute favorite in some way, you won’t get to taste that big league chew from anywhere but the audience.

Even so, you’ll see the most famous soloists and chamber groups in the country right now, mostly for free. And you’ll meet faculty from far-flung conservatories, and maybe you’ll impress them.

However, unless you present yourself as a social equal to all the wealthy visitors that are constantly roaming the streets of Aspen, chances are, someone in town will treat you badly simply because you’re carrying an instrument.

You’ll also probably be treated like a cute little lamb in a petting zoo by some well-meaning but condescending old patron. (But that’s most festivals.) Maybe you’ll be invited to their fabulous mountain chalet for a free steak dinner—you can hope.

But still, artifice, entitlement, and pretension abound. It’s the most artificial place I’ve ever been, and I just got back from Miami. Even the trailer park outside of Aspen costs over half a million dollars to live in, and the residents (should you be unfortunate enough to engage in conversation with one of them) will be all too happy to tell you so—even proud. People will bring their dogs absolutely freaking everywhere and, when poor Princess the Pomeranian gets thirsty, ask the clerk at the shoe store for some Fiji water for the little rat, without even a hint of irony or embarrassment. And the store clerk will apologize profusely for only having Evian, and proceed to serve the dog out of a bowl they keep behind the counter for just such an occasion. It’s a strange, strange place.

I’ll tell my full story a little later, but just know, if you’re preparing to go—be on your guard. It’s truly a unique place, but not for all the reasons they’d like you to think.

Well, I could do that!

This post was written during the San Francisco musicians’ strike a couple of months ago, but was never published. The musicians are now, thankfully, back at work; however, I think this makes some points that still need to be made, over and over again. Musicians of every stripe and level are constantly accused of being lazy, of being overpaid, and of doing something for a living that should be reserved as a hobby for children. So here is my response.

People of the Internet. My name is E, and I’m a freelance violist. It’s nice to finally meet you. I think you should know, I try to be a reasonable person most of the time. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, not get angry over little things that are really nothing. But right now, after the articles about San Francisco that I’ve been reading recently, I need to correct some serious untruths.

In the past few days, I’ve read two articles that belittle my chosen profession with a heroic combination of misinformation, superiority, and the foolhardy self-assurance afforded by a connection to Wikipedia. The first, by Manuela Hoelterhoff, a Pulitzer prize winner, is incredibly petty. Her main point, culled from between the insults, is that the musicians are whiners who should just be grateful they get to do what they love, and that the administration’s job is way harder, so it makes sense that they make a hell of a lot more money. She goes on for a while about Michael Tilson Thomas’s salary ($2.4 million), but I came away unsure whether she thinks it’s deserved or not. She certainly thinks executive director Brent Assink is a gift from the gods, though.  The second article is by San Francisco investor Anthony Alfidi, who readily admits to knowing nothing about music except that a guy with his last name once played in Carnegie Hall. But he still has an opinion—that the SFSO musicians are greedy for wanting more than the national average income (“They claim they should be paid as much as other big city musicians”! How absurd!) He does a lot of misplaced math in order to make his ultimate point: they could so easily be replaced by high schoolers anyway, the management should just fire them all and start fresh with people who will work for cheap.

And these are just the most recent in a long line of similar articles. The argument that musicians hardly work, are easily replaced, and are therefore greedy whiners has been made at least once in every labor dispute—Indianapolis, Atlanta, Minnesota, and so, so many times in Louisville. The management of the Louisville Orchestra even went so far as advertising for scabs on Craigslist. Have these people ever been to a high school band concert? It’s not pretty—I don’t care how good you think you sounded when you played second bassoon, Ms. Hoelterhoff; how complete your understanding of the bassoon’s role in an ensemble, how solid your oompah-oompah. Chances are, it still probably sounded like a weed whacker hitting gravel, not a top-flight professional.

(Start around 2:45)
So I was sitting here, and I thought, hey! I have a bassoon! Why don’t I just play it in a major symphony orchestra?

Mr. Alfidi says, “If the Symphony needs a scab player for the triangle or tambourine to help break the strike, then I volunteer to perform for free. I’ve had no musical education at all but those instruments don’t look that difficult.”

Thanks for the offer, bro.

Ralph Wiggum with a flute up his nose

I would honestly love to see Anthony Alfidi on stage with Michael Tilson Thomas, terrified and humbled like George Plimpton with Leonard Bernstein. But I love a good dose of schadenfreude, and I don’t think the audiences would appreciate it as much.

I have a challenge for these people. Go to a youth orchestra concert, then go see a major symphony orchestra—perhaps the San Francisco Symphony, if that becomes an option again soon. Try to enjoy it. Try to find something worthwhile in both concerts. (There will be something!) And try, with all your might, to find a difference. If, by the end, you still think they sound the same, then by all means, never set foot in a concert hall again. You have my permission. But only if you also never air your silly, ignorant opinions in a public forum ever again. Do we have a deal?

Let’s look away from bad bassoon for a moment, to another vocation that gets more respect, but which has essentially the same career trajectory as musicians—athletes. Lots of people do it as children, but very few make it to the upper echelons. It relies very heavily on talent in the beginning, then on dedication later. The people who do make it do it by spending thousands upon thousands of hours on their vocation, without the guarantee of success, financial or otherwise. They rely on larger organizations, run by people with lots of money, but who may or may not have ever been in that business themselves. Yes, people were unsympathetic when the NFL went on strike last year because, hell, they make tons of money—like ten times as much as the musicians of the SFSO—but still, you didn’t hear anyone suggesting that those athletes could easily be replaced with the high school quarterback. They could even have said, to hell with the NFL—we’ve got great college football, and that’s just as good! But they didn’t. They wanted both, because they recognized the difference between the two, with the professional league as the pinnacle of that particular sport’s achievement. I know the realities of sports and the arts are very different, but the effort put in by those who produce the entertainment is not. So the difference in respect for their finely-honed skills shouldn’t be so stark.

The depressing truth is that, when people look at the NFL, they realize it’s not something that they could just run out there and do. They remember high school gym, how hard it was to even run a mile or pass the Presidential fitness test, and give the professionals their due. They might think the players make too much money, but they at least realize the players are doing something special. But for some reason, when people look at professional musicians, they remember their high school music classes and think, yeah, that was easy! I could totally do that.

Yeah, maybe you could, but you probably shouldn’t. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for instance, is famous for its brass section because of the individual players. Dale Clevenger, Charlie Vernon, and Gene Pokorny (among others) have made that section famous because they’re incredible players within the structure of the orchestra. Without them, it wouldn’t be the same—in fact, Dale Clevenger is retiring this season after 47 years as principal horn, and he will be sorely missed.

(28:11) Chicago with Barenboim—Dale Clevenger

Berlin with Karajan—most likely Gerd Seifert

Both amazing performances, which sound quite different because of all the different personalities involved.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s famous strings would suffer without Bill Preucil and Robert Vernon because of the years of trust they’ve built up with their sections, and the musicians in the rest of the orchestra. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s famously glittering sound is the sum of the contributions of each individual player. And San Francisco lost their principal oboist, Bill Bennett, to a brain hemorrhage just days before they went on strike. That’s enough of a loss for a group of people who depend on each other so heavily and intimately as musicians do—starting mostly over with a new crop of recent Juilliard grads, who, I’m sure, would be great players, definitely would not result in the world-class orchestra that San Francisco deserves. You can’t just replace them, even less than you can instantly replace NFL referees or air traffic controllers. It takes years to build an orchestra of that calibre, not days or weeks.

I think the problem is this. Non-musicians, including (but not limited to) Anthony Alfidi and Manuela Hoelterhoff, have this idea that music is something that children do, not real adults. It’s something they learned in school, perhaps on a recorder or a little plywood violin, and then never really encountered again. And as such, it’s not really something that should be a grown-up’s only source of income—it’s a hobby, not a career. Sure, every little suburban kid should take piano lessons, but once they go off to college, they should major in something useful, like business, nutrition, or creative writing. Just imagine a grown man who still plays in his garage band from high school—childish, right?

“But these musicians do get paid, and they to do so little work, and it’s fun for them! My job’s not fun, and that’s how work should be! You can’t make a living doing something you enjoy!” these people seem to say. So yes, if you think that way, it might seem ridiculous that the musicians in the SFSO have a starting salary of about $141,700. But let’s try to get a picture of how much work they really do—because, as we should all know, it’s not actually so easy as “just rehearse, play and go home,” as Ms. Hoelterhoff believes.

You start with time actually playing with the orchestra. On a light week, you might have eight hours of rehearsal and four of concerts—12 hours. Most musicians also practice between three and five hours a day, every day. This is time they need to learn the music for concerts and keep their chops—21-35 hours. Then, you get into research. Professional musicians want to know the pieces they’re playing, so they’ll spend several hours a week listening to other recordings and studying the score, even if they’ve played the piece before—easily 5 hours. Then, you have things completely outside of the orchestra—teaching, chamber music, and other outreach activities. These benefit the orchestra indirectly, but never show up on their expenses. They’re completely variable from musician to musician, since they’re voluntary, but no one I’ve ever met only does their orchestral work and nothing else. So let’s give this category a low-ball 10 hours a week. And let’s not forget—the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra plays a 52-week season.

Add those up, and you get 48-62 hours a week. That’s up to 50 hours of work beyond what you see just on the symphony’s rehearsal schedule. Having grown up in a household with a full-time professional musician as a father, and now becoming one myself, I can vouch for these numbers. They’re even a little conservative, but they’ll serve our purposes. In a 52-week season with a $141,700 salary, they’re making roughly $45 an hour (for a 62-hour week). Sounds pretty good, until you look at, say, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a comparably sized, full-time orchestra in reasonably good financial health. Their starting salary is around $135,000. Chicago’s cost of living is 5.1% higher than the national average, and (as Alfidi states in his article) San Francisco’s is 18.36%. Bring Chicago’s salary up to San Francisco’s cost of living, and, voila, you find that a comparable salary for San Francisco would be more like $151,600, or $47 an hour. Then, you look at listings for software engineers in San Francisco with 15 years of experience. (I looked up median salary offerings on and chose software engineer because it sounded sufficiently banal to impress Anthony Alfidi.) If that software engineer works 40 hours a week and makes $144,890 a year, they’ll make $52 an hour. That’s more money for less work.

Who’s whining now?

So. That estimation tallies with a full-time orchestral musician’s life after they’ve gotten that one big dream job. However, it doesn’t even get into the countless hours of practicing and studying, the classes, the extracurricular activities (at one point in high school, I was in four different youth orchestras), the degrees (probably at least two, in this day and age, complete with the requisite loans), and the innumerable auditions that the musicians had to undertake to even get to this point. Most professional musicians have devoted between 10 and 20 years to perfecting their art before they even begin a full-time job with a livable wage.

If that’s not work, I don’t know what is. Passion for your work doesn’t change the fact that it is still work.

In the case of most of the recent locked-out orchestras, the musicians who had the opportunity moved over to other orchestras. I know a violist who was in the Louisville Orchestra, but went to Cincinnati during their lockout. Detroit had several people leave for more stable jobs. Minnesota has already had several. Indianapolis and Atlanta weren’t locked out long enough, as far as I know, but I’m sure they would have, had their strikes gone on longer. San Francisco has already lost their principal timpanist (a decision made before the strike, but inspired by a lot of the same things) to Chicago. These people really are at the top of their field, a field which requires incredible dedication and years worth of work, and other orchestras will compete for them. If you want them to stay in your community (and you do), you have to give them a reason, like any high-skilled professional. So implying that they don’t deserve competitive wages is frankly ridiculous.

These absurd articles shouldn’t simply be dismissed as the product of ignorance, though. They are ignorant, don’t get me wrong—but they speak to a deeper misunderstanding in wider society about what it means to be a musician. As I said, this gets brought up all the time, not just by these two writers. Every time any orchestra goes on strike, I hear pretty much the same thing, from local bloggers, journalists, even board members. Musicians are lazy, unreasonable, and intractable. They should be grateful for what they get, because they get to play all day and do what they like. It’s musicians’ responsibility, as the slighted party, to defend our profession. We know we aren’t lazy. We’re some of the most focused, directed, talented, dedicated, persistent, insanely career-focused people on the planet. What’s more, we’re collaborators. We depend on each other for every performance, so we have to trust our colleagues’ judgment. In the same vein, if anyone, confused about what it means to be in our profession, decides to attack it in a public forum, even one so unfocused and broad as the Internet, we have to be prepared to reply.

So, here are my conclusions. The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra are not overpaid—they’re paid comparably to other musicians in similar major symphonies. (If you think the entire industry is overpaid, well, that’s another conversation entirely.) It sounds to me like their union’s demands would help them keep up with the benefits offered by the other symphonies at their level. (And, beyond my obvious bias as a musician, I have no interest in this particular fight—I just hope everyone gets a fair deal.) Musicians, as a whole, are not lazy, and are, in fact, some of the hardest-working people in the world—a fact that we would do well to remind people of as often as possible. Musicians are also not as interchangeable as people seem to believe—they are creative individuals who bring something unique to each performance. They’re not out for the money. If they were, they’d be in something more lucrative, like rock music or finance. The musicians have dedicated their lives to creating this music, which is ultimately the only product that the San Francisco Symphony has to sell. Perhaps, if this goes on long enough, they will form a Keep San Francisco Symphonic group, as they did in Louisville, just so they can keep bringing the music they love to the community they’ve made their home. The last thing the musicians need is uninformed financiers and dabbling writers publicly insinuating that their highly-skilled job that they slaved for years to qualify to get could probably be done by the pimply kid serving your Slurpees at the convenience store.

No serious professional will risk blacklisting themselves just to take someone else’s hard-earned job. Open up auditions for scabs, and this is all you’ll get.

Auditioning for principal trumpet…

On second though, that’s awesome. You’re right, smug Internet writers. Replace that piccolo player with your fifteen-year-old kid who totally just got second chair in All-State band and you’ll get exactly the same results. I don’t know why we didn’t think of that before.

Who Am I?

E: violist and new music enthusiast, living in a major American city.  I come from a musical family, but not one you’ve probably heard of.  I’ve been around music my whole life, so I know a little bit about a lot of different things in the music world.  I did my bachelor’s at a conservatory in Ohio, and my master’s at a large school in a nearby state. I’ve been to lots of festivals (Aspen, Domaine Forget, NOI, Spoleto, and a festival I consider Mine…), and because of this, I know lots of people and have lots of stories.  Because of that, though, I’d like to stay more or less anonymous—as will the characters in my stories.  I’m not here to embarrass anyone.  I’m just here to shed some light on the reality of being a classical musician in the modern world.

By myself, I’m not an important person, even in our small corner of society.  But I’m around a lot of important people—and a lot of people who may someday be important.  I’m one of many musicians my age at my level.  I have some things that make me unique, but who doesn’t?  I am very much a minor figure, hoping to maybe, someday, become a major one.

Starting this blog was inspired by two things—one, a great personal triumph, and the other, a huge disappointment. The triumph was getting something I wrote featured on one of my favorite blogs, A Practical Wedding. It was a post about that awkward space between being simply boyfriend/girlfriend, and being engaged, which is exactly where Boyfriend and I have been hovering for a couple years now. But the real triumph was that people enjoyed what I had to say—I haven’t felt like that in a long time. And I liked it.

The disappointment also somewhat involved Boyfriend. He’s a composer—we met when I was playing his string quartet, which is a long story—and he was writing me a concerto. We were going to enter it in a competition and perform it on both of our degree recitals this year. At first, it wasn’t ready for him to do a recital in the fall—that was fine. He’s doing his doctorate, so when he does his recital doesn’t matter all that much. It wasn’t done by Christmas break, but I went ahead and scheduled my recital for late February. The competition was the weekend after my recital date, so it had to be done.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Canceling my recital was horrible. I don’t begrudge Boyfriend—he doesn’t work fast when he does know what he wants to do, and it just wasn’t coming. I know all too well the feeling of having a block on something—for me, most recently, it was the fourth movement of the Ligeti Solo Sonata—that you know you have to do, but knowing how desperately you need to do it makes it more and more impossible. But not having control over the situation, over my own failure, that was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had. Sitting there in studio class the week before the competition, watching everyone else play their competition pieces, thinking, that should have been me… It’s just numbness now. Numbness and dragging thoughts. And I’m still not sure what the end to the story will be. I don’t have another date yet—will I even graduate on time? Stay tuned for the shocking conclusion…

Anyway. My career seems to be going in zig-zags, rather than the straight lines that I might have hoped for. Even stair steps might have been more reassuring. (Maybe I’m on stair steps, but they’re really lumpy. More like foothills, maybe.) But it occurred to me, nobody is successful in a straight line. All my friends take weird detours, but maybe those weird detours will end up as something good.

I’m here as a witness to that weird, unsettling, wonderfully free part of a musician’s career. The freelance time, the time where we bounce around and do all sorts of crap that more established people won’t touch—our twenties, essentially, although for musicians, it can last forever or end before college. Who the hell knows? But it’s where I am, and I’m not going to let it pass unobserved.

So. I don’t pretend to be an expert about any of this. If I get something wrong (especially something historical!), please tell me. I’m open to input and advice, but I hope that what I say is at least meaningful or helpful to someone. I want to tell funny stories and talk about the state of music and our futures. That sounds fun, right?

Let’s get this party started.