The cycle repeats itself, the faces on the gigs and the music on the stand changing in a never ending cycle of concert halls, Styrofoam cups of coffee in underground orchestra lounges, hauling basses, stools, and stands out of parking garages.
- Kennedy Expressway – 7 a.m. – jammed up on the freeway, riding the brake pedal, hoping to break 15 mph, desperately longing for an open lane
- Dunkin’ Donuts – 8:30 a.m.– loading up on my first round of tasty treats for the day
- Chicago Loop – 9 a.m. – sitting in the car in a parking garage deep below street level, coffee in hand, empty bag of donuts crumpled on the seat next to me, trying to shake out the cobwebs from last night’s concert
- Fine Arts Building – 10 a.m.– cramming bass, stool, and music stand into an elevator along with a handful of cranky colleagues, planning my escape route for after the rehearsal (to no avail)
- Starbucks – 11:30 a.m. – more coffee, more pastries
- Underground Parking Garage – 1:15 p.m. – speed-walking to the car with bass, stool, and stand, with just barely enough time (traffic permitting) to make it to the next engagement
- North Suburbs – 2:15 p.m. – dashing from parking lot to a local high school, late for my round of lessons, stomach churning from hunger and too much coffee, doing a little “lesson planning” en route
- Tri-State Tollway – 6 p.m. – sitting in deadlocked traffic on a multi-lane expressway, doing the commuting math mentally (How far? How much time? Do these numbers compute?) and hoping to squeeze in enough time for a quick drive-through before the evening gig
- McDonald’s – 6:45 p.m. – slamming on the horn and hoping that the car in front will move so that I can stuff my face with some burgers and more coffee before my fast-approaching evening gig
- Suburban Parking Lot – 6:55 p.m. – running with bass and eating burgers at the same time, hoping to have a second to unpack my bass before the tuning A sounds
- Northwest Tollway – 10:15 p.m. – sitting yet again in deadlocked traffic, this time because of evening road construction, heart pounding from too much caffeine, sugar, and grease, knowing that in a few short hours I’ll be on this road again, this time driving 300 miles south
I started doing this kind of work when I was fifteen years old, playing for both the South Dakota Symphony and Sioux City Symphony, plus doing jazz gigs, theater work, and a host of other paying gigs. I remember seeing older musicians and marveling how, though they seemed to complain bitterly about everything, they obviously loved this lifestyle and playing this music. Many of them had day jobs and got only a few hours of sleep a night, balancing this nocturnal lifestyle with the regular 9 to 5 world. Others lived completely in the world of music, bouncing around from job to job, eking out an existence as best they could in the punishing Arctic climate of the Dakotas.
Now I’m one of those old guys. Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn! Gramps is coming through with his bass.
Every time I try to get out… they pull me back in
This is both a completely exhausting and strangely addictive lifestyle, and every time I try to divorce myself from it I keep getting pulled back into it. Sometimes I hate it, especially when I’m driving home from a $75 gig in a snowstorm, but when faced with a week off or a week of crappy gigging, I usually opt for the crappy gigging, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of financial sense.
Simply put, playing the bass makes me feel…well, useful. While outsiders may seem a week off from playing as a cause for celebration (after all, how many people in regular joe jobs daydream of the flexible schedule of the musician?), when this week off is a result of there simply not being enough work rather than an intentional vacation I feel myself getting antsy and feeling more than a little bit like a bum.
Maybe this is all in my head, but maybe not. I’ve had many conversations with fellow freelancers about this same exact topic, and observing orchestral musicians with full-time playing positions wedge extra work into their precious few days off makes me assume that the same mentality must exist within many of them as well. When I’m not playing, I kind of feel like a loser. I don’t know why–I have a lot of other activities that I do (teaching, blogging, podcasting, and managing new media projects for others) that generate income, and I love a real vacation just as much as the next person. Though I work hard when I’m “on the clock”, I’m certainly not a workaholic.
It’s like I was born to perform on the bass, and when I’m not playing for a stretch of time I feel kind of worthless. I wish that this feeling didn’t happen for me–I know that it’s not true, and I also know that I’ll probably be dreaming of having some day off while playing 10-12 services a week and cramming in teaching around that during the regular season. But those empty weeks inevitably roll around, and after a day or two I just feel like an old has-been, unemployed and useless.
Gigging your way through life
When I’m working these ridiculous 18 hour days (much of which is spent in standstill traffic here in metro Chicago), I dream of a less scattered profession, with regular hours, benefits, and consistency from week to week.
When I am not working, I relax for a day or two….. then start dreaming of working again!
It’s not that I don’t enjoy my time off. In fact, I tend to keep productive (doing writing, blogging, podcasting, and other such projects) during these stretches. I really enjoy the discretionary time.
But there’s always a nagging part of me, reminding me of what I should be doing–playing the bass. If I’m working as a bassist–even if the pay and conditions are wretched–that part of me is satisfied. If I’m not working as a bassist–even if I’m doing something profitable, fun, or valuable–that part of me keeps stabbing at me, making me feel useless.
Does music school do this to people? Is it the nature of musicians? Or am I just crazy? I don’t know, but as I mentioned earlier, I know a lot of musicians who feel the same way when faced with time off. What’s up with that?