Author note: One of my favorite things about summer is getting the chance to finally spend some time outside, and writing on my MacBook sitting under a tree with the birds chirping and the sun shining in the sky (which I’m doing right now) has to be one of life’s great pleasures.
Check out Part 1 of Instrumental Junkies here.
Music in McCormick Place
I was recently playing in a massive venue in Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, with 5000 seats and a stage large enough to hold a 747 jet. I paid my parking fee, pulled in and unloaded, wheeling my bass and stool in my tuxedo through throngs of conventioneers in button-down shirts and
sport jackets. As I passed through the crowds into the dilapidated and expansive convention center, people gazed at me as if I had a third eye on my forehead.
“Where ya goin’ with that thing?”
…and the ubiquitous “betcha wish you played the piccolo!” line, one that I seem to hear every single time I take my bass out of the house.
As I wheeled my gear up through the cavernous center, the smells of diesel fuel, old popcorn, and carpet cleaner assailed my senses, reminding me simultaneously of the airport and of distant industrial venues I’d played while on tour in Russia. I wound my way through long corridors, my stomach grumbling from lack of food and my muscles aching from carrying gear all day (I’d spent the previous seven hours working out in the suburbs, dashing downtown with just enough time to make it to my evening gig).
I searched the convention center for any sign of food, but it was a Saturday night in April and there wasn’t a bit of food to be found. Multi-lane expressways separated us from the rest of the city, and any open eating establishment would be essentially impossible to get to without reloading my bass, trying to find (and pay for) more parking somewhere else it the city, and then I’d just have to find (and pay for) more parking at the convention center. Out of the question.
As I passed the garbage can I couldn’t help but pausing-maybe someone had thrown away a little food that I could fish out….. wait a minute! I wasn’t actually considering doing some dumpster diving before my gig, was I? Could I really be that hungry? Have I sunk to that point?
The orchestra congregated in the bowels of this vast convention center, wiring up their instruments with microphones and playing some selections together during a brief soundcheck rehearsal. Most of these musicians were on their second or third gig of the day, and the bus terminal-like lighting gave people a corpselike pallor as they mingled about, grumbling about lack of food.
There’s some old food backstage!
One of my fellow bass players discretely came up to me at the beginning of a ten-minute orchestra break. Keeping his voice low, he said:
“The singers have some leftover food backstage. Go down that hall, take a left, then take a second left, then go through the first door on your right. You’ll see it.”
I smiled and began speed-walking backstage. Food! Glorious food! Visions of a tasty spread floated through my mind as I weaved my way through the crowd backstage, trying not to draw attention to myself. There probably wasn’t much food left, and I had to be a speedy guy if I wanted to get anything.
I sped through the dilapidated corridors of this aging concrete bunker, trying not to look too obvious as I moved through the crowds. My quest was not in vain–the remnants of a feast were strewn about in one of the far-flung utility rooms, with portable burners still keeping the mostly empty metal trays warm. I spied a few unused paper plates and some plastic forks and, like a back-alley raccoon with a pile of fragrant garbage, tore into the leftovers, piling my plate high with chicken and pasta.
I’d spent a good seven of my ten minutes of break just finding this roomful of tasty discarded treat, and I wasted no time as I crammed my gullet with food, feeling deviously satisfied at finding food in this airport terminal-like bunker.
Glorious, overcooked, leftover backstage food!
It doesn’t take much to make a musician happy.
Where are the bass players?
Despite my furtive attempts to escape notice, a handful of other musicians found out about the glorious stash of leftovers (keeping musicians away from food is a futile endeavor), and several of my colleagues popped their head into this off-the-beaten-path chamber and helped themselves to a plateful of leftovers.
The entire bass section (of course) ended up finding the room, and we all took our sweet time chowing down, eating up that microscopic ten-minute break in no time. Realizing that the passage of time had escaped us, we hurried back to our seats, the faint sounds of the orchestra rehearsing proof that we had pushed the length of the break too far. We maneuvered our way back to our basses, wiping our greasy mouths on our sleeves as we began the second half of the rehearsal.
The march of the hungry musicians
Word about the secret stash of chow must have traveled like wildfire, because the moment the rehearsal ended the entire orchestra made a mad dash for this backstage room. Returning for a second time (as a musician, I’m obligated to eat all the free food I possibly can–it’s part of our code of honor), I noticed that all the paper plates and most of the utensils were now gone. The first musicians to arrive stared at the spread at the moment, pondering how to get at this food, and then starting taking styrofoam cups and filling them with leftovers, grabbing any available plastic spoons or forks to eat with.
We all stood around, like weary tuxedoed penguins trapped in the bowels of some 1950s fortress, holding little coffee cups filled with chicken and chowing down like crazy.
I found some cold coffee in a metal decanter and poured myself a cup of the oily stuff, alternating bites of leftover chicken with swigs of diesel fuel. Looking around, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one doing partaking of the leftover coffee. Filling my belly full of this bounty gave me a strange feeling of satisfaction, like I found a way to weasel a little more out of this gig.
Will work for food
I know a lot of musicians who will gladly take a non-paying gig if there’s the promise of food. Even a gig that pays a shamefully low rate (some community orchestras here in metro Chicago hire ringers for $40-50 a service) pull in some excellent players by dangling the prospect of food in front of them.
I played in several community orchestras during my y early days freelancing, and my other ringer colleagues and I would rank the various jobs based on the quality and quantity of food offered.
“Yeah, the East Glencoe Symphony only shells out $40….. but man, is that fried chicken spread good! I’m playing there next month!”
“The South Joliet Chamber Orchestra has some wicked break food, but man, did they ever cheap out on last concert’s spread! I’m not sure if I’m going back….”
“The Lake Shore Concertina has coffee and Krispy Kreme for every break? I am sooooo there!”