I don’t write a lot anymore about what I’m up to musically ever since making the transition from full-time classical music freelancer to high school orchestra director (a role that I actually derive much more professional and musical satisfaction from), but I can’t help but notice a change in my attitude on gigs ever since making this professional switch.
It’s not like a had a bad attitude in my busier freelancing days, per se, but a general malaise and weariness went hand in hand with all of my long drives all over creation. One day in Milwaukee. The next in Memphis. Then a trip out to some far-flung rural Illinois town, playing along with some sort of good-natured but headache-inducing community orchestra. Throw in a few frustratingly futile failed audition attempts and you’ve paved the way for creative bitterness and exhaustion.
It’s amazing to me, therefore, how much of a difference playing less has made on my attitude towards the bass. I now look forward to the gigs that I have on the calendar, seeing them as a way to practice the craft that I spend my days teaching to students. Each rehearsal or performance is an opportunity to think more deploy about the mechanics of string playing and music making, not just an opportunity to earn a few extra bucks (though there still is that element, of course). I now catch myself watching conductors and picking up tips on to do (or not to do!) in my own conducting.
When I decided to go back to school and become an orchestra director, I thought that I’d probably quit playing bass altogether at some point. I was sick of it and didn’t really see myself missing it. That attitude has definitely changed for me now that I’m teaching all day, and I see these performance activities as a way to recharge my musical batteries and get me thinking creatively. It’s an enhancement to my teaching life, and I really enjoy it.
I also think that playing gigs every other week (which is what I’ve been averaging this season) rather than every week makes a huge difference. I have done a few stretches with gigs every single week this year, and I begin to feel myself getting beaten down after a few days. My freelancer world-weariness creeps back, and I start to see all those gig hours marked in my schedule as an albatross. Once I’m back to every other week, I feel great.
It also doesn’t hurt that I axed all the, er… “lesser quality” gigs from my schedule. Everything I’m playing these days is good: pay, colleagues, music, working conditions, proximity, etc. If it’s not good, then I don’t do it. I’ve played enough bad gigs for a lifetime (most musicians my age have, probably… even if they’re in a major orchestra!). I certainly don’t miss the detritus!
The teacher work hours and lifestyle also appeal more to me than the freelancer life. While many people undoubtedly look at the hours a freelancer frequently works (sleep late, get up late, lounge around all day, go to a gig, go out partying, then do it all over again) with envy, I like getting up early in the morning and being productive. These days, I get to school by 6:30 am and practice violin (!) for about 90 minutes before beginning my teaching. I wrap up my day in the early afternoon and the rest of the day is mine.
I always felt like a bum living the freelancer life, spinning my wheels and not really getting anywhere from year to year. Though I seemed to feel like my playing was stuck in an endless loop (a good loop, to be sure, but still a loop), I have felt that my teaching abilities continued to improve. This seems to be something that I can work hard at and see tangible results.
Many musicians see their performance activities as the core of their career, augmenting these with some teaching and the like. For me, the opposite has proven to be a better fit, and I’m happier as a result.
Does this mean that I’m a failure as a bass performer? Do I just give up too easily? Is this just following the course of least resistance? Should I have kept taking audition after audition? Gone back to get a doctorate in bass performance (oh no!)? Done music festival A, B, or C? Studied with person X, Y, or Z? And does it even matter? Would I really have found my professional life complete if I made it into some orchestra or another?
I don’t think so, though my 18-year-old self would probably see me as a washed up performer. All I can say is that I’m happy and that I feel like I’m making a meaningful contribution, and I come home from work satisfied and looking forward to the next day.
And I didn’t as a freelancer.