So, what does one do when one’s just finished a degree or two in music? It may come as a surprise, but the combination of writing sort-of-amusing internet columns, doing a sort-of-amusing internet radio show, and crowbarring an instrument usually exclusive to classical music into an indie-rock context, all largely pro bono, are not among the standard career paths for music school graduates. Can’t imagine why, really, but “Musical Polemics 401,” “Handjob Jokes: A Musicological Primer,” and “Smoke Your Way to a Radio Voice” are not on the curricula of most accredited music schools. But with music schools churning out eager graduates at the rate of hapless thousands each year, all of whom are forced to compete with previous years’ hapless thousands for about four jobs nationwide, one has to get a bit creative if one doesn’t want to end up blowing that treasure trove of musical information out the back of one’s head and all over that nice clean diploma. See, music schools exist for those one or two people in every class who are freakish prodigies, or attractive and marketable (by classical-musician standards, at least)(the really lucky ones are both), but one or two people’s tuition money just ain’t enough to keep any kind of school running–even at USC prices. So they have to sell the hopeful, starry-eyed rank-and-file on the idea that they too can make a career out of something only a lucky few people can make a career of. At least until the checks clear, and then they’re on their own. So, as one of the rankest and filiest, before I settled on my chosen field of Doing Musical Stuff For Free (But Also With Complete Autonomy), I tried just about every standard path to post-music-school glory. Following is a list of them, and the reasons they eventually made me want to vomit.
The Big One, of course, is symphony playing. The biggest symphonies can provide a pretty decent steady paycheck, with a pretty light work schedule. And there is the bonus of getting to play some of the best music ever written on a regular basis. The problem, naturally, is that for every one opening in a big symphony, there are at least a couple hundred people waiting to fill it. Leaving aside all the intra-symphony political posturing and almost total lack of creativity that comes with symphonic playing, and the fact that symphony players are generally required to join the Musician’s Union (and they’re a barrel of fucking laughs, let me tell you), the biggest hurdle is the audition process. It usually happens that nearly everyone who wants a symphony job is capable of doing it–that’s what you learn how to do in music school, after all–so it’s not so much a matter of being a good player as being a good auditioner. The two skill sets are almost completely unrelated. This was the thing that sunk me early on–I am crap at auditions. On any given day, I could play anything every bit as well as anybody else–in the privacy of the practice room. But put me in front of a panel of judges, and I’d shake like a tasered air-traffic controller with Parkinson’s on Christmas eve. So after a while, I ruled symphony playing out–not just because of my jittery nature, but because musical creativity is not much of a factor in a symphonic viola section. They want two kinds of playing in a symphony: 1) in time, and 2) in tune. Somebody else (the conductor) is paid truly ludicrous sums of money to dictate musicality. Not my style. But, if you’re an unimaginative masochist with plenty of bravado, go right ahead!
Then there’s chamber music. It’s initially appealing to a violist, since the chamber repertoire is (for the most part) bigger and more interesting than the solo viola repertoire. I’m not kidding, the music itself is great. But I never had much luck with chamber groups in school, due largely to the fact that most musicians (especially in college) have about as much tact, discretion, and humility as a Fox News correspondent accepting an Academy Award. (Note to self: For lead in new period drama about mentally handicapped ex-boxer death row inmate: Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly? Mental handicap probably not a stretch for either. Hello, Oscar!) It’s unfortunate, but most of my chamber music playing was less about playing chamber music and more about squabbling over bowings combined with vacuous, rambling, self-serving orations about phrasing. Fun! Count me out. Which is not to say that it can’t be rewarding if you happen to find a group of three or four other musicians to play with regularly, all of whom are mute.
Chamber music playing segues pretty handily into that mainstay of student income: Weddings. Playing wedding ceremonies is pretty good money, made with a minimum of effort. And they usually pay you on the day, which is a rarity in the world of freelancing (most gigs use atomic-clock precision to ensure that you receive the check precisely one week after you’ve been evicted from your apartment). And what could be more rewarding than helping a couple begin their new life together, ushering in a golden age of nuptial bliss? Well, lots of things, really. Forcible fingernail extraction, for instance. For one thing, the list of repertoire acceptable for weddings consists of about three pieces: the wedding march from Lohengrin, the wedding march from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that goddamn Pachelbel Canon. Every goddamn time. Over and goddamn over. Each note a goddamn soul-crushing eternity of goddamn torture. Also, there’s the idea that the musicans at a wedding are little more than hired help–on the level of, say, a cocktail waitress or church candle-snuffer. Which, in that context, is sort of true, at least to a greater extent than most other career options available to musicians. But there’s also a general sense from the people who pay you that you’re flying in the face of all that is civilized by asking to be paid for doing something you love. I have two responses to that sentiment: 1) Fuck right off. The idea that if you love doing something you should do it for free, and that the only respectable way to earn money is by subjugating yourself to something you loathe, is about the most damaging and insulting philosophy available on the market today. And 2) I love playing music. I do not remotely enjoy playing weddings. So you should feel nice and comfortable giving me money for it, because I have hated every second. But, on the upside, if they hire you back to play the divorce ceremony, you can really clean up.
Then there’s the other big money-maker in the musical field: studio playing. Specifically, playing for movies and major label albums. The money is great. But studio playing has two gears: 1) boring, and 2) impossible. It’s usually hours and hours of playing the same note, interrupted every once in a while by something completely unplayable. Just imagine driving on the 10 freeway through west Texas, completely straight and flat and mind-numbing, void of any kind of scenery or interest, except every 200 miles or so you have to do a wheelie through a flaming hoop to avoid a deadly obstacle. It’s kinda like that. And if you can handle the boredom and the impossible, don’t worry: it’s only a matter of time before somebody with more seniority than you decides they don’t like you (you may be taller than they are, or mispronounce their name, or wear the wrong color shirt, or commit one of any number of Victorian-social-structure slights, whether real or imagined) and you never work again! There are more knives-in-the-back at an average scoring session than at Thanksgiving dinner at the Medici household. Also, once again, there’s the Musician’s Union to think about! I am not much of a joiner under the best of circumstances, but I’ll explain my feelings about unions. First, no little club is going to tell me when I can and can’t work. Ain’t gonna happen. As to dealing with them on a personal level, ever been trapped in a room with a guy who’s in AA? Who only exists as a being composed of pure not-drinking, and whose entire existence now revolves around being in AA? And will not shut the fuck up about it? Yeah, that’s what people in unions are like.
All of these factors ate away at my resolve for years, as I mentally proceeded to whittle down my list of things I could do to make a living as a musician and keep at least a shred of my relative sanity. But there were two specific instances which catalyzed a desire in me to quit playing music professionally. Both of them, oddly, involved Kanye West. And you’ll have to wait two weeks to hear about them, because my word count is reaching critical mass for this installment. So in the interest of your computer not exploding, I’ll leave you hanging for a while, pondering for two torturous weeks what possibly could have made a musician–normally a pillar of mental stability–nearly leave his chosen profession. Until then, stay tuned to this website, and I’ll be back in two weeks.