Athletes may spend all their free time training or at the gym; musicians spend theirs rehearsing and training in practice rooms like this one.
Yay, it's Rob!/flickr
"So, what do you do for a living?" While this has to be one of the world's most awkward and unimaginative icebreakers, it poses a particularly daunting task for professional musicians. You can see the wheels in our heads spinning as we summon the energy and diplomatic skill needed to explain our complex and unorthodox career to someone who is most likely unfamiliar with this tiny niche of the workforce.
I'm a freelance violist and grad student at Catholic University (pursuing my Masters in Viola Performance) and my life is the ultimate exercise in multi-tasking and time management. My workplaces are scattered throughout the greater Washington, D.C. area, from the National Philharmonic in Bethesda, Md., to the Virginia Symphony in Norfolk to the Annapolis Symphony — not to mention a multitude of beautiful — yet remote — wedding ceremony locations. On a typical day, I will leave the house at 7 AM to get in a couple of hours of individual practice before I go to my part time job, after which I may have an afternoon class or rehearsal or lesson before rushing off to an evening gig. I don't have any real "days off" — nowadays I consider a "free" day to be one where I only have one rehearsal or a couple of lessons to teach. On the rare occasion that I have a completely unscheduled day, I finally get the chance to spend a few hours experimenting with different ways of playing the viola — rather than feeling the pressure to cram in a note-learning session before my next rehearsal.
Jeremy Mastrangelo, a Syracuse Symphony Orchestra violinist and Associate Concertmaster published a post addressing this very subject. I think it's one of the most important issues professional musicians face today: educating the general public to the services musicians provide and overcoming misconceptions about the nature of who we are; what we do; and exactly how much effort goes into our craft/art. The conversation Jeremy speaks of (where his friends envy his seemingly light work schedule) is one that every single musician I know has found themselves in hundreds of times. And each time we are faced with the monumental task of breaking through a mental block that neglects to differentiate between music as a recreational activity and music as a career. It's an understandable mental block — the schedule and workload of a musician are very different from those of a typical 9 to 5 job, and trying to understand this unique and unconventional career path can be challenging and confusing, even to musicians themselves.
So, how does one address the seemingly inevitable question of how much effort it takes to be a professional musician? After years of practice with this line of conversation, I've condensed my response to comparing musicians to Olympic athletes. One common question I get is, "why do you still practice — don't you know everything already?" But as Jeremy points out, no one thinks to ask that question of an athlete. And winning an orchestra audition is like winning a spot on the Olympic team. The level of competition and the expertise needed to pursue such a goal is exponential, and you don't get there without years of daily training, dedication and sacrifice. While the number of hours we are scheduled to work may be small in comparison to a traditional job, the hours of unpaid work we have done from an early age and continue to do on a daily basis more than make up for it.
The role and value of artists in our society should definitely be an ongoing discussion, so to my fellow working musicians: how do you handle these types of questions? And to everyone else: if you have any questions about life as a working musician, ask away!