No matter how many years I’ve done it, I still get a thrill after coming home from a concert, my body temperature elevated from the music and the excitement of the moment. The sound of an audience clapping and cheering is always a great way to end a night, and this feedback keeps me coming back time and time again, regardless of how annoyed, burnt out, or fed up I am with the performing lifestyle.
While part of me absolutely loves all the thrills associated with performing music, much of the time I feel annoyed, bored, irritated, or frustrated, and looking around the ensemble during many orchestra rehearsals, I see that I am not the only one. Looking over at the woodwinds, I notice that one of the bassoonists has his reed knife out and is furiously pantomiming slitting his wrists while gleefully laughing. Half of the bass section is poking each other with their bows, and the other half is thumping through jazz links, spinning their basses, or picking the accumulated rosin goop off their bows. The brass players are slumped in their chairs like slack-jawed yokels, drooling in a dazed stupor, and the cellists are gesturing angrily at the conductor, mocking and belittling him while simultaneously glancing at their watches, counting the seconds until rehearsal wraps up.
As the last few minutes of rehearsal tick away on the clock, the orchestra starts rustling and grumbling, making motions to pack up. To the ensemble, rehearsal is like mild torture for an established length of time, and most musicians are itching to leave five minutes after sitting down in their chairs.
At the same time, they love it. Making a beautiful sound on a great instrument, executing a phrase in the most graceful manner possible, cooperating as a section—all of these things bring a sparkle to a performer’s eye. Musicians who look like they’re being stabbed by rusty nails during rehearsal will get together later with colleagues to talk shop or play chamber music for hours with no pay involved whatsoever. These musicians obviously love music and think about it constantly. But this love for music manifests itself in complicated and conflicting ways, and to an outsider, these manifestations may look like indifference or disdain for the craft.
This is not the case. They DO love it. Yet, they also, in some ways, hate it.
Music is a blast.
Music is a pain.
We love it.
We hate it.
Most musicians I know experience this dichotomy, this desire to create music no matter what, yet simultaneously experiencing extreme frustration and boredom with the rehearsal process and the logistical inconveniences. Yet, when they try to quit, they find themselves getting slowly and inexorably sucked back in. They miss the lifestyle and the addictive thrill of actual performance, forgetting about the excruciating agony and dreadful drudgery of the rehearsal process.
Quitting performing music is like quitting smoking—most musicians relapse, showing up with instrument in hand even after they swore that they’d never do it again.
The general public likely does not realize that this is the way most musicians feel about the rehearsal process. Audience members may believe that since music is entertainment for them, rehearsals and performances must be equally entertaining and fun for the performers.
This is not the case.
Music is work, just like any other kind of work. Office workers don’t (usually) feel extreme joy and ecstasy every day they go to the office, and music is no different. Rehearsals are a job, and musicians go to work and do that job just like anyone else in any other career. While the final product is usually full of emotional energy and expression, the rehearsal process is a grind for most musicians.
Yet, that hard-wiring described in Part 1 of this series often ensures that musicians will keep coming back, regardless of the conditions. Performers are simply wired differently, cognitively speaking, and the higher the level of the performer, the deeper that wiring goes. Not only do they become proficient—they also become addicted.
Most amateur musicians do not experience the scenario described above. They play music for the love of it, doing so as a hobby. This hobby provides a great deal of satisfaction to the amateur, while viewing it as a hobby helps to naturally keep a balance in the individual’s life. An amateur views a rehearsal as a diversion and an escape from every day life, using the time to communicate and interact in a satisfying and different way from their every day drudgery. For the professional, however, rehearsals are not an escape—this IS their every day life. Amateurs see music as an enriching activity to their life. Professionals see music as a paycheck. They may love it or hate it, but it’s their job, and it’s definitely going to work for them.
This is not to say that professionals don’t have fun while performing! They certainly do. Performing can be an incredibly satisfying way to forge a path through this world, and professional musicians certainly enjoy a lot of their activities. Performing music is addictive, after all, and if amateurs feel the pull of music and the addictive power of this method of communication, professionals feel it exponentially more, having devoted vast amounts of time and energy over a prolonged period of years to build up the skills necessary to function as performing artists. The time spent building up such skills makes this sort of addictive communication a daily habit, and for the professional, these habits die hard.
I have had numerous colleagues over the years throw up their hands and declare that they were through with music, only to see than at the exact same gig two months later.
I have usually heard this sentiment expressed after some sort of aggravating situation, like driving 150 miles in the winter on black ice to play with a wretched group and a tyrannical conductor, then getting stuck in a snowstorm on the way home and sliding all the way home at a slow and scary crawl.
Like a smoker shivering outside in subzero winter temperatures, musicians are constantly drawn back to the stage, seeking out performance opportunities even after they swore to themselves that they were through with this “ridiculous” business. Either we’re gluttons for punishment, or we’re hopelessly addicted to making music.
A favorite quote of mine from Woody Allen best summarizes the dichotomy of many performing musicians:
There’s an old joke… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”
Read the complete series: