There is no sick leave for a freelance musician. I sure learned that lesson the hard way.
A couple of years ago I was booked to play Bugs Bunny on Broadway, a popular show using the orchestra to accompany some Looney Tunes classics. These shows are like musical flypaper, attracting huge numbers of folks into concert halls for a little classical music, Warner Brothers-style. Fun for the adults, fun for the kids—what’s not to love about these kinds of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink extravaganzas?
Actually, these classic Looney Tunes cartoons are absolute musical and comical gems, and I am sure that many people were unwittingly inaugurated into the orchestral world with these timeless cartoons. I remember them from my youth quite vividly, and I didn’t even really like Looney Tunes cartoons that much growing up.
I was having a typical high-octane (and high-mileage) freelancer week at the time, cramming in my 35 students at two different colleges and three high schools along with a week of regular orchestra concerts, and rehearsals for this kooky Bugs Bunny show was some icing on my already bloated freelancer cake.
Eating on the run is par for the course during these weeks, and I remember cramming a somewhat suspect Italian sub down my gullet between services on a Friday afternoon. I do this all the time—donuts in the car at 6 a.m. while driving across state lines, pizza off a paper plate on a street corner outside a theater, or a messy sandwich eaten while walking from sub shop to gig, soda and chips balanced against my bass case, making the most of my 15 minute break.
Do you ever start gnawing away at something and just know, mid-chew, that there is something horribly, horribly wrong with the food you are stuffing your face with? I’ve had that happen to me several times in the past (unfortunately), and I hope that I’ve finally learned my lesson after this nasty sub experience. My stomach was already sending distress signals (Danger….bad meat incoming….old, bacteria infested mayo coating stomach…abort…abort) as I was chowing down, but I was in a huge hurry and not about to let my $3.99 go to waste.
The sub was still sitting like a greasy evil brick in my stomach as I parked my car for the evening. I decided that a little sleep would cure me up in a jiffy. It had better, anyway, for I had a rehearsal and concert for the Bugs Bunny gig the next day, and sickness was not an option.
My body begged to differ, waking me from an early evening, sending me crawling in agony to the bathroom. Sick in every way you can imagine (I’ll spare you the gruesome details), I spent the rest of the night huddled in the bathroom, moaning and drinking water out of the sink as the rotten sub had its way with me.
Morning came and I was a total wreck, covered in a cold sweat, shivering from a high fever, unable to keep anything down (even water) and hesitant to venture more than 10 yards from a bathroom.
Sounds like a good time for a Bugs Bunny concert!
Could I have called in sick? Well, I COULD have. The world would certainly have gone on without the presence of Jason Heath at the Bugs Bunny show. But calling a major contractor and canceling at the last minute is a very bad idea, no matter what the reason.
While pondering whether or not to go, I couldn’t help but think of this dark little story about a Chicago freelancer’s grim experience with last-minute cancellation:
A female freelance musician regularly performed in a prominent instrumental role with a major ensemble in Chicago. Once, while pregnant, she was rushed to the hospital with complications right before a performance. She ended up miscarrying and (of course) missing that evening’s performance.
She was never asked to play with this ensemble again.
If you asked the contractor or the principal instrumentalist in charge of filling that instrumental seat, you would never in a million years be told that this was the reason that she no longer played. But it doesn’t take a genius to see the connection between the events. She didn’t make the performance, and to some people there is NO excuse for missing a performance. Such people have a nice little spot in Hades reserved just for them, but they are out there, and they can make or break your performing career when you are a freelancer.
With that sobering tale ever-present in my mind, I know that I had to make the gig. I was already kind of a second or third choice on this contractor’s list, and I was convinced that missing the gig would result in either removal or massive demotion down the pecking order. And I needed work! I was hungry! Just not for Italian subs…..
Pale and shaking, I showered and dressed in my tux (I doubted that I had the strength to change more than once that day), then limped outside with my bass and drove off to the rehearsal space.
I stumbled into the bathroom of the performance facility the minute I got in the doors, successfully avoiding a horribly embarrassing potential incident (again, I’m trying to be vague…). Reeking of moldy old sub and covered in flop sweat, I lugged my bass and stool on stage, unpacked, and then sat down….ahhh, glorious sitting….trying not to move more than absolutely necessary.
The rest of the bass crew arrived, laughing and joking with each other. Every loud noise was like a rail spike to the temple, and every time I tried to talk I felt like I was going to fall over. I looked like death warmed over, and the guys left me alone after expressing their condolences.
Being sick on the gig is always a drag. I’ve played sick before, but never while in this serious a condition.
All of a sudden I realized that my bad day was about to get much worse. We were playing a concert consisting solely of Looney Tunes music! Loud, raucous, in-your-face Looney Tunes music! And, to make the situation even worse, we were all going to be wearing headphones with a loud click track blasting in the right ear for the entire show.
I shakily grabbed the headphones and put them on as the rehearsal started, trying my best to keep from falling over.
The rehearsal began.
“Waaaaah, what’s up, Doc?”
Buuuuuuuuh… BUBBA-BA BO BA-BA, BO BUBBA-BA BO BI-BAW!
All the while, a persistent “Tock! Tock! Tock!” emanated from the headphones I was wearing, each thwack like a series of tiny little sledgehammers wielded by munchkins living inside of my brain.
Burping up rotten salami and trying to keep from completely losing it, I tried to focus my hazy brain on the complex tempo changes and frantic licks that made up this kooky score.
No sick days. Gotta love the freelance life.
We had a couple of hours break between this agonizing rehearsal and the performance. Some of the musicians asked me if I wanted to go get some Mexican food with them, and the mere mention of that beany, cheesy fare (which I usually crave) sent up a deeply unpleasant feeling from deep within my wrecked stomach. Declining, I waited for the building to clear and then crawled inside my bass case on the floor behind the concert shell, fully clad in my concert outfit, falling unconscious within minutes, my feet sticking out from the bottom of my bass case like some crazy tuxedoed mannequin.
I woke off and on as I heard stagehands shouting and moving gear, hoping in my lizard brain that I wouldn’t be walked on or crushed by some errant piece of equipment. Finally, I heard the sound of a lot of people talking and playing, and I emerged from my bass case lair, hair mussed and eyes bleary, looking like a drug addict or homeless person. The entire orchestra was getting ready to go on stage! One well-groomed cellist threw a particularly scornful glance my way as I tried to orient myself. I saw the contractor also wandering around backstage, and I began to ponder which made a worse impression—not showing at all, or showing up looking like a heroin addict in the throes of withdrawal?
I got saddled up on my stool with my headphones, covered in flop sweat and disheveled, waiting for the dreading “Tock! Tock! Tock!” to begin, trying to keep my body as motionless as possible. Bugs Bunny’s big, oh-so-chipper mug filled the screen above us, and the show began.
Looney Tunes music is not exactly calming to the nerves. Bugs strutted around above us, getting into all sorts of mischief and escaping without a scratch. Every peal of laughter from the audience sent a fresh wave of nausea through my body, every metronome click hammered another nail into my central nervous system, and every frantic flurry in the music was like a gust of putrid salami on my face.
I’m sure I played like I felt.
I got one of my colleagues to drive me home after the gig, (wisely) not trusting myself behind the wheel. I slept for a solid 12 hours that night and finally tried to eat some solid food the following afternoon.
To this day, any time I see a shot of Bugs Bunny I automatically catch a whiff of rotten meat and cheese and feel my stomach start to turn.
I haven’t eaten an Italian sub since.
I’ve never been called by that particular contractor since this incident. Maybe he saw my pallid, sweaty complexion. Perhaps he caught a glimpse of me passed out in my full tuxedo on the concert hall stage under a pile of dirty bass bags. Or perhaps it was my bizarre, crappy bass playing on the performance in question. Who can say?
Maybe I should have stayed home that day after all. I’d have been blacklisted if I’d skipped the show, but maybe I got blacklisted for stumbling around the venue like a heroin addict jonesing for his next fix.
I suppose I learned yet another valuable freelancer lesson from this whole experience—if you’re sick, you’re toast in the freelancer world, whether or not you show up for the gig.
More Gig Stories:
- They locked me inside and made me conduct violas!
- They all started laughing at me
- Massive musical disaster in the Nutcracker pit
- Symphony on the swamp
- You play solo….I dance!