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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On freelancers, swiping work and danger money,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? 'Hello, Alice!

I assume you know that my local orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, have put together a million dollar savings of pension freezes, unpaid leave etc. This is bad news, obviously, for the salaried players, but also probably bad news for us freelances in Baltimore, as the symphony players will have a new and urgent interest in the work that we do. What would you recommend we do if they start becoming available for the work we've got now?
Worried in Baltimore

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Alice Dear Worried,

I know this sounds nuts, but my advice is to give way gracefully should you be put in the position you describe, of having Baltimore Symph players swiping your work.

These are my reasons:

  1. The economy will not always be this bad, and, when it improves, the Baltimore Symphony (believe me) will still be there. Should you get a reputation for mean-mindedness, the person choosing who gets to play in the next non-Baltimore Symphony concert may well pass you by in favor of the next eager-beaver on their lists.
  2. There's always a chance -- however faint -- that the Baltimore may need you (on the day when their first and second bassoons have the same curry and get food poisoning). Don't poison your chances of receiving that phone call by showing yourself jealous now. Instead: grin and bear it!!!!!!
  3. Don't discount the loyalty you've built up by playing for (and this is yet another guess!) Baltimore's chamber orchestra ensemble, Gilbert and Sullivan team or concert opera troupe. Most contractors / fixers would hesitate to upset someone who's ever-reliable, bang in tune etc.

Having said all this, I do feel for you, and hope the members of the Baltimore remember what it felt like to be a freelance, to wit:

  1. neurotic
  2. unsettled
  3. uncertain about one's income from month to month

and don't swipe your work, even in the short term ...


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? 'Dear Alice,

My question is probably stupid, because I'm not musical but my child is the first bass player in his school orchestra but every concert the conductor makes the first flute and clarinet and others stand up on their own. Why not the bass player? Or the cello player? Why are the band-type players such a big deal?

Anna Povie, New Jersey

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Alice Dear Anna,

It's not a stupid question at all.

I can still recall saying to my own parents, 'Hang on, I was principal cello and I hardly missed a note' (I know this sounds incredible, but it's my story and I'm sticking to it ...) 'yet the conductor picked on the wind players to stand up at the end?'

My mother's answer was hugely unsatisfactory ('It doesn't matter, Alice dear, it's the whole performance that really counts' -- I mean, give me strength!!!!)

The real answer is this: the woodwind and brass get 'danger money' (or 'danger appreciation,' in the school sense).

And really, they deserve it. Take this example. Say the principal trumpet (or flute, or clarinet, or whatever) messes up. Everyone in the audience titters, and the conductor avoids his/her eyes after the concert and he/she goes home and probably wishes they were dead. OK, now imagine that this disaster happened to the principal cello or bass. The most any member of the audience might think is a doubtful, 'Wasn't there something a little fishy about that bit?' Nobody goes, 'Ohmygod, Alice' -- naming no names, you understand -- 'has ballsed it up again.'

Therefore, dear Anna, take heart. Your principal bass son or daughter will probably get into the All-State orchestra that those much-feted winds won't make, due to the sheer numbers attempting it on the flute or the trumpet. On the other hand, unless he gets the chance to essay Mahler's first, nobody will ever really know how great s/he is ...


Copyright © 22 May 2009 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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