I was going to devote this Coffee Chat to another subject, but then I got something in the mail that made me change my mind. It has to do with the drastic disruption in our normal lives that is taking place … and specifically with regard to our livelihoods. Everyone who has a job has been affected to some extent. Some have lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. Others are working but often under difficult circumstances. I thought it might be of some interest to focus on what this situation means to musicians, especially those with whom we are familiar through Midsummer’s Music.
A former colleague at Lyric Opera just stopped by to drop off a few things from the grocery for us. Like folks everywhere, we are combining errands to reduce exposure. When he delivered our items, we got to talking about prospects for the summer. I told him that Midsummer’s Music would do everything we could to proceed as normal, but we were also making contingency plans just in case. I told him we felt fortunate as a small and nimble organization that we have the ability to wait until fairly close to the season to make any final decisions. My friend, on the other hand, performs with the Santa Fe Opera in the summer. They are in a real conundrum because they have to build sets for their productions now without knowing if they will be able to use them, and they are also having trouble getting them built because of the work requirements to maintain separation.
More drastic is the situation for musicians who are out of work currently. All performance venues are closed. Although a few groups are doing some live streaming, most musicians, like my friend from Lyric, are out of a job. Fortunately for my former colleague, Lyric determined to pay all its contracted musicians for the seven weeks of the season that remained when they shut down; however, this created a quandary: They were in the process of embarking on several full presentations of Richard Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungen – 18 hours of music performed in four nights in a week. Lyric was to do three such weekly cycles. With rehearsals, that added up to seven weeks. Such an undertaking requires planning that starts as much as a decade in advance. Internationally, there are a limited number of first-class singers who can execute the enormous demands placed on them. Therefore, contracts must be signed very far in advance to get all the many singers lined up to make this happen. The same goes with other aspects of the production – scenery, stage direction, etc. In Lyric’s case, the first three operas of the Ring had already been performed, one per year, for the last three years. Now, the grand culmination was to take place with all four operas to be performed concurrently, as the large festival unit that Wagner originally conceived. Image having to cancel all of that, after ten years of preparation, just at the moment it was all about to be magnificently realized!
The Wagner orchestra is a magnificent thing. It is very large and includes a number of instruments not normally heard in most orchestrations. In addition, extra strings are frequently added as well as musicians who play backstage. For the Lyric Ring there were about 45 such extra musicians who stood to make an amount of money that was of some importance to them. Lyric’s offer to compensate the regularly contracted musicians did not extend to the extra players. In a magnanimous and unanimous gesture, the regular musicians decided to share the payment they would receive with the extra players. The regulars would take less so that their extra colleagues would not feel so much pain. I couldn’t have been prouder of my former orchestra colleagues. However, I wasn’t surprised. That’s who they are.
Contrast that with the Kennedy Center. As a result of the recent stimulus package approved by Congress, in the realm of two trillion dollars, the Kennedy Center received a controversial grant of 25 million. Immediately after receiving the grant, the Center released their entire orchestra without pay. Unfortunately, the Kennedy Center musicians are not unique. Like so many in service industries, musicians are often the first to go in such situations.
While this is a hardship for anyone – waiters, hairdressers, store clerks … some will get temporary jobs. Amazon is hiring 100,000 new employees. Domino’s pizza and Walmart are also adding thousands of employees. Presumably, if the waiter’s old job opens up again and she wants to go back there, she can resume her old work rather seamlessly. Her wait skills will still be there ready to go. That’s quite different for a musician. If musicians go to work at Amazon and put their instruments on the shelf for a few weeks, things change. I have always been bemused by some lawyers who are described as being “practicing attorneys.” I sometimes would describe myself as a “practicing bassoonist,” as if, at the professional level anyway, there could be any other kind.
There is an old story, perhaps true, that the famous violinist Heifetz is said to have remarked, “If I don’t practice for a day, I can tell it. If I don’t practice for two days, my audience can tell it. If I don’t practice for three days, the critics can tell it!” Apart from his obvious disdain for critics, there is considerable truth to Heifetz’s assessment. When we see and hear a fine musician perform, we are witnessing the tip of the iceberg. And, it’s the beautiful part of the iceberg. Out of site is the daily grind of practice necessary to hone and preserve those skills and talent to make it truly presentable and truly exceptional. Most of us who aren’t musicians know something of the practice routine from having done it as children or through our own children who are taking up an instrument. However, that is considerably different from what a professional player has to do. When I was young, I tried dutifully to practice every day, sometimes 30 minutes, maybe an hour. That is, if a ball game didn’t entice me away just at the wrong moment. As I got a bit older, that commitment increased gradually. In college it could amount to three or four hours, maybe in different sessions during the day. Of course, this didn’t include playing in groups – orchestra, wind ensemble, etc. I can remember practicing so much that I would sometimes experience a sort of acid reflux discomfort from spending so much time blowing air for hour at a time forcibly through that narrow reed and bocal into my instrument.
But in those early days as a student, there is so much room for progress, and it comes quickly, however incrementally, if one stays the course and does the homework. However, as the player starts to really reach a high level, things again change. More and more of that time spent in personal practice is a kind of maintenance practice instead of improvement practice. In other words, the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in. Just staying at one’s peak becomes a large task in itself. If you take a day off, you can tell. A couple more and you’ll hear from the critics. It is a troubling weight on your shoulders. Can I ever take a vacation? Do I have to take my instrument along and lock myself up in my Hawaiian hotel for part of each day practicing while my friends or family are on the beach? A former colleague of mine at Lyric, who played the clarinet, had a unique answer to this nagging problem. When he went on a long road-trip vacation, he would have his wife drive, and he would sit in the backseat practicing. Amazingly, this woman is still married to him after a very long time and many trips.
At some point in the summer each year when there was a bit of a lull, I would intentionally take a few weeks off. I felt it was important to have some time away from the instrument to clear my head and heal my body. By giving myself permission for a set period of time, I could more nearly enjoy this respite. Of course, I would assuage the lingering guilt by doing certain basic reed making tasks (the bane of all double reed players). I would do some of the fundamental carpentry that was hard to find time for in the regular season. I’d stock up for the coming season, as though I were making pickles or applesauce in the olden days for the coming winter. And, I could do it on my patio with a glass of wine at my side after a day of being in the woods. It was a small price to pay for my time off.
Then the day of reckoning would come. With the fall season of Lyric looming, I would open the case, wet up a reed, and blow those initial painful notes. The first thing that I always noticed was how much the reed tickled my lips. That didn’t last for very long, but it was inevitable and intense for the first few seconds – like the first time I ever tried the instrument. The not-so-subtle message was, “You are starting all over again!” The tickle in the lip was soon followed by pain. A little ache in the muscles around the lips said, “You’ve been goofing off, and you’re going to pay for it.” Several shorter sessions with rest periods helped, but then there were the fingers. They seemed to have developed a mind of their own. I could still play the scales, but they weren’t as even as before, and certain fingering combinations that I had worked for years to get perfectly coordinated, now weren’t. It wasn’t fun. In fact, it was drudgery – painful both mentally and physically. I would keep asking myself, was it worth it? Should I have just kept my nose (or mouth) to the grindstone?
So, for a musician who is laid off, what is the solution, especially if the musician doesn’t have a large savings account? Which is kind of the definition of a musician, isn’t it? Take a job at Walmart, and the practicing is going to disappear or be severely diminished. As good as intentions may be, coming home from a long day at work is not conducive to a productive practice routine.
That is why I was glad to hear that Lyric Opera of Chicago was going to pay its musicians for the remainder of their season and why we at Midsummer’s Music decided that we would continue supporting the members of our Griffon String Quartet through the remainder of their season. That decision was all the more validated when we received this letter:
“We wanted to write to you during this time to express our gratitude to you and Midsummer’s. So many of our friends are free-lancers whose livelihoods have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 situation. We feel extremely blessed to have financial stability during this unstable time. We are currently teaching online and privately practicing our quartet music in hopes of giving our May performances. We also continue to brainstorm ways to reach our community. Thanks to your vision for this residency, we are secure in our arts careers and are able to dream about the future. We want you to know that we do not take it for granted.”
I invite you to relax and watch the Griffon String Quartet’s “virtual concert” from St. Norbert college. Just follow this YouTube link.
Tickets for All 2020 Midsummer’s Music Concerts are on Sale Now
Under the circumstances pertaining to COVID-19, in the event that Midsummer’s Music must cancel a concert, ticket holders have three options:
1. You may donate the ticket to Midsummer’s Music as a tax-deductible donation.
2. You may exchange the ticket for a Midsummer’s Music concert at a later date.
3. You may request a refund.