This is the second installment in This Crazy Business, a multi-part analysis of both the challenges that performing musicians face and the psychological reasons why we tolerate these challenges. This series is based on my observations as a full-time freelance classical musician, and builds upon the ideas and considerations presented in Road Warrior Without an Expense Account, my ten part series on the freelance music business.
As always, I welcome and comments or additional observations regarding the concepts and situations presented here.
In Part I of this series, the alternate mental circuitry developed by performing musicians was discussed. Differences in mental processes between performing musicians and the general public were explored, and a theory was offered as to why music performance becomes so addictive and compelling for so many people, causing them to toss aside practical considerations and embark on a path that, to the general public, may seem either ill-conceived or foolhardy. This theory of alternate mental circuitry serves both as a foundation for the remainder of this series and as a justification for the seemingly bizarre life choices that musicians often make.
This next installment of the series discusses the hypocrisy often evident in management’s treatment of musicians in part-time performing organizations, illustrating how demands of complete loyalty are often placed on musicians of ensembles which offer no guarantee of reciprocal loyalty.
Throughout this and subsequent installments of This Crazy Business, I urge the readers to keep in mind these two fundamental questions:
• Is it worth it? – Does the satisfaction of making a life for oneself as a professional musician counterbalance the difficulties presented within this chosen career path?
• Are these realities clearly understood by musicians entering the profession? – To what degree are musicians aware of these professional realities when embarking on a career as a professional musician?
Musicians employed in full-time professional organizations are generally expected to give that organization priority over any other professional endeavors they may happen to have. Just as the police force comes first for a policeman and the hospital comes first for a doctor, so should the orchestra come first for a full-time orchestra musician. Full-time employment naturally dictates a reordering of professional priorities toward that particular employer, with any further professional side activities being scheduled around the demands of that full-time position.
If an organization only employs a musician on a part-time basis, however, there can only be a practical expectation of part-time loyalty toward that employer. While a full-time orchestra offers a weekly salary and benefits package, a part-time orchestra falls considerably short, rarely offering more than a handful (usually no more than a dozen) weeks of work a year, with many organizations offering only 3-5 weeks of work to even their ‘tenured’ members (part-time musicians in many organizations have hiring and tenure processes similar to their full-time counterparts). Freelance musicians must therefore assemble a wide array of part-time employment opportunities into a full-time position. The importance of these various jobs in the mind of the performer therefore takes on a relatively flat hierarchy in terms of importance, with primary consideration given to practicalities such as service time, length, distance, and compensation rather than artistic considerations such as repertoire, quality of ensemble, or other matters of musical satisfaction.
In other words, while the full-time orchestra member is a salary man (or woman), with professional loyalty logically aligned with that primary employer—a sharp hierarchy—the freelance musician is a mercenary, assembling disparate jobs like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that are being randomly tossed through a window.
Adopting a mercenary attitude is an essential freelance musician survival skill for several reasons. Obtaining a full-time orchestra position will lead to a tenured position after a probationary period, unlike the majority of a freelancer’s work, which is either non-tenured and usually carries with it no written promise of loyalty or future employment, or is a tenured position constituting only a few weeks of employment during the year.
Assembling a career out of these disparate employment opportunities and having no guarantee of future employment from the bulk of these employers has a leveling effect on the quality of each of these individual organizations in the eyes of the freelance musician. Organizations tend to blend together in the mind of the freelancer, losing any individual artistic merit and becoming reduced to a set of statistics, differentiated mainly by pay, distance, and working conditions.
Instead of seeing:
The Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra
Gig ensemble #42
Location x—37 miles away
Musical quality: so-so
Other members of the section: OK—one psycho, but he’s not next to me
Freelance musicians certainly are aware of the artistic merit (or lack thereof) of a particular organization or opportunity, and this certainly factors into the equation when selecting employment opportunities, but artistic considerations must be weighed against the political ramifications of accepting or declining various jobs. If the Chicago Symphony calls, most freelance musicians feel the overwhelming urge to accept this employment, but doing so often creates scheduling complications that can be highly detrimental to the professional future of the musician.
From a purely artistic viewpoint, most musicians would choose a week with the Chicago Symphony over a week with random gig #746 or freelance orchestra #19, but subbing out of a previous engagement for a higher quality one can create complications by either:
• Angering or annoying the contractor for the previously scheduled engagement, making them less likely to call the musician in the future
• Violating attendance requirements with the previously scheduled ensemble, either putting one’s status in jeopardy or risking out-and-out termination
Or, more sinisterly:
• Backing out of an engagement creates an opportunity for another player, which can result in the gradual nudging out of the original player in the dog-eat-dog world of the freelance music business
The freelance musician must therefore weigh the benefits of accepting higher quality work with the drawbacks of backing out of lower quality work every time the phone rings. Being completely loyal to any organization that only offer part-time employment means missing out on valuable opportunities for artistic advancement and improvement in one’s place on the ‘gig chain’ (see RRWAEA #2 – Realities of Professional Freelancing), while dropping a less desirable engagement every time phone rings can quickly alienate an individual from the major music contractors in a metro area, causing a massive decrease in offered work (no matter what the quality), and the eventual demise of one’s freelance career.
Freelance musicians must therefore only allow themselves to have ‘part-time loyalty’ to these groups—that is, loyalty within reason, to a degree proportional to the amount of work offered and the stability of the employment conditions of this organization. If a major organization calls this musician to work for a period of time that directly conflicts with a previous engagement, a very high percentage of freelance musicians will sub out for the higher quality engagement.
Contractors and music directors that want to hire professional freelance musicians for their part-time organizations must accept this reality. Part-time work for part-time pay can only be reciprocated with part-time loyalty on the part of the freelance musician. If this is unacceptable to a contractor or music director, they are best advised to either hire complete amateurs and considering their ensemble an amateur community orchestra, or else put everybody on salary. Hiring professional freelancers brings with it a degree of instability.
Here’s the issue. While freelance musicians see various musical organizations in terms of cold, hard facts:
Gig ensemble #42
Location x—37 miles away
Musical quality: so-so
Other members of the section: OK—one psycho, but he’s not next to me
Artistic directors and conductors do not see this list of numbers as representing their organization. After all, it’s their orchestra, their pride and joy, the precious organization that they devote their time to, meticulously planning repertoire, venues, donor engagements, pre-concert lectures, and other audience building events. They have a huge emotional investment in their own organization, and it is therefore hard for them to understand the perspective that part-time musicians involved in their organization have to take out of necessity and self-preservation.
“Sub out? Of my orchestra? What could possibly be more important to you than playing this concert? After all, I’ve poured my heart and soul into this event? Haven’t you? Aren’t you also an artist? Don’t you care?”“Unionize? What do you mean, unionize? Don’t we treat you well? Aren’t the cookies and punch there for you on every break? What more do you want—coffee? If we also have coffee on the break, will you put aside this crazy notion of getting some dirty…union involved in our beautiful flower of an organization?”
“What do you mean, minimum attendance requirement? Why would you ever want to miss an event? Don’t we treat you well?”
My favorite line is this:
“We don’t see ourselves as a freelance orchestra. After all, we aren’t just some pick-up orchestra.”
I’ve heard this line many times, spat out like a piece of rotten fish from the lips of music directors. A freelance group! Perish the thought!
My response to this (a response which is of course never verbally articulated to any ensemble director/administrator—I like being hired back, after all) is as follows:
• Does it look like a duck?
• Does it quack like a duck?
• Does it waddle like a duck?
• Does it fly like a duck?
• Has it got a big bill like a duck?
Then guess what? It’s a duck!
It doesn’t matter if an organization doesn’t “consider themselves” to be a freelance orchestra. If the organization is hiring musicians for five weeks a season, there can be no reasonable expectation of complete loyalty on the part of the musicians. The musicians may in fact want to play in that orchestra for those five weeks, but they have 47 other weeks to fill with employment, and unless those five weeks pay $20,000 a week, they are going to have to join other organizations and take work from contractors, some of which may overlap with those five weeks.
They may not think that they’re a freelance orchestra. They might not think that they’re a pick-up orchestra.
But they are.
Artistic directors who have a hard time understanding why musicians in their organization seem like such…well, mercenaries may want to have a look at my ten part series on life as a freelance musician. Hopefully this will give them a foundational understanding of the challenges and difficulties of this career path, and how vastly dissimilar it is from musicians employed full-time in one organization.
Even a union contract and collective bargaining agreement doesn’t change the fact that a part-time orchestra is a part-time commitment that must be juggled along with other such commitments.
Too often, artistic directors just don’t understand or empathize with the professional realities facing their musicians. I have had the unique displeasure of being hired for several orchestras that had musicians subbing out for another job in town, only to have the conductor get up and make a speech to the orchestra deriding these absent musicians and raving on about “loyalty” to the organization.
I’ve seen this happen in several different organizations, and it is not a pretty sight, indicating a fundamental lack of understanding from the artistic director.
This loyalty is rarely reciprocated on the part of the organization when the tables are turned. I have also seen musicians that were present for the aforementioned jobs then not asked back at the end of the season. The same management who got up and chided the orchestra for disloyalty then turned around and, for any number of reasons (justifiable or not), terminated the employment of those very ensemble musicians who decided to be loyal.
And management wonders why musicians are disgruntled.
Fortunately, many organizations hiring freelance musicians do understand the unique challenges and survival skills required by their ensemble members, granting flexible policies that allow their musicians to combine schedules from various ensembles together and assemble a freelance career.
Would it be best if all members of an ensemble were present for every rehearsal and performance throughout each and every season? Maybe so, but that doesn’t happen in any musical organization. The Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic have time off policies, after all, as do firefighters, police officers, and individuals in most other fields of employment. If full-time employees can be granted flexibility in their schedules, should part-time employees expect the same courtesy?
Ensembles that create a policy that allows for a deal of flexibility end up attracting the highest quality freelance musicians, which ends up raising both morale and the artistic level faster than any other action that management could otherwise take. This policy demonstrates respect on the part of management.
In fact, I have heard these exact sentiments expressed by the management of an organization that I have worked with for many years, and they best demonstrate the outlook and orientation that management should have concerning freelance musicians:
“We want our musicians to be successful, and we want our musicians to play with the best ensembles possible. We take pride in letting our patrons know that our musicians also play with orchestras x, y, and z. we also hope that there will come a time when we can offer compensation that is even better than what these other organizations can offer our musicians, therefore allowing them to play with us al the time rather than take these other opportunities. And we are working every season to achieve that kind of compensation for our musicians.”Read the Complete Series:
- Part 1 – Hard-Wiring the Musical Mind
- Part 2 – Full-Time Loyalty at Part-Time Rates
- Part 3 – Music is Addictive
- Part 4 – Orchestras – A Secret Society of Weirdoes (and I’m one of them!)
- Part 5 – Driving for Dollars – life as a classical music bottom feeder
- Part 6 – Individual Artistic Expression
- Part 7 – The Satisfaction of Section Playing
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