Making Music: The work of a Syracuse Symphony
Orchestra musician isn’t as effortless as it sometimes
By Jeremy Mastrangelo
As a musician with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, I have found that when I talk to friends who have non-musical jobs about our respective professions, the conversation will often come around to what my work schedule is like. This usually leads to a feigning of jealousy on their part for a job with hours that would seem more appropriate for a typical workweek in France.
I have given up on trying to explain the extra hours spent practicing, listening to recordings, teaching, etc., since most people think of music in a very recreational way. For many people, my listening to a recording and writing down metronome markings for various sections or making note of other instrument cues in the part is considered listening in the same way as when the radio is on in the kitchen while dinner is being prepared.
Or, if I mention practicing at home, they might picture their kids scraping away haphazardly for half an hour and think, “That’s really not that difficult.” The best way to understand the working conditions of a professional musician is to understand the working conditions of another, much more well-known group of performers: professional athletes.
I can’t imagine anyone looking at an NFL player and saying, “You know, that must be the easiest job ever. Those guys work for 16 weeks out of the year (19 if they have a great year), and on those work weeks they are only playing on one day, and on that one day there’s only one hour of actual game time, and then they’re only on the field for half of the game. They only work for a half-hour a week … playing a game! There you go, easiest job ever.”
Of course, everyone would recognize the absurdity of that line of reasoning, because there is a fundamental cultural understanding of what it takes to be a professional football player. Just looking at what goes into each game on Sunday can be overwhelming. The NFL is known for near-maniacal preparation each week, from practices to film study to individual workouts and preparation.
But go back even further to where it begins for individual players. In order to make it to the professional level, a person must first have exceptional natural physical abilities that are developed from an extraordinarily young age, starting with pee-wee leagues where helmets are bigger than torsos. There is the endless physical conditioning that begins in adolescence and only finishes when a career does. There are hours of coaching, learning proper footwork, playbooks and the limitless nuances of the game. There is also the pressure of being expected to perform your best at a specific, pre-ordained time, whether you’re having a day where everything is clicking and feels effortless, or a day where everything you’ve worked on is a struggle and feels alien.
Most weekend warriors can identify with this to some extent. A four-foot downhill putt becomes a very different thing for most people depending on whether they are standing over it with their buddies on a lazy Saturday morning while the drink cart rolls by, or standing over it on a Sunday in April with a chance to win the Masters while 40,000 spectators watch.
The typical professional musician will begin playing his or her instrument sometime between the ages of 3 and 10. Once you start playing there are weekly private lessons. Then there is orchestra at school, youth orchestra on the weekends, various festivals throughout the school year and music camps during summer vacation. I spent my final two years of high school at a boarding school for the arts in Michigan, something that is not uncommon for people in this profession.
After high school, musicians will attend a music conservatory, and nowadays it is almost a given that musicians have master’s degrees or even doctorates. By comparison with another profession, people who go into insurance aren’t looking at actuarial tables during their teenage years. That degree of specialization from such a young age is something that most people could identify with athletes, but is absolutely parallel with the life of a musician, minus apparel endorsements and beer commercials.
Rehearsals for musicians are much like practices for athletes. While there is usually not the same level of focus as in a performance, you absolutely have to be on your toes. No one wants to be the person who makes themistake that grinds the rehearsal to a halt. As far as individual practice goes, musicians have to understand the mechanics of playing their instruments the way golfers understand the mechanics of their swing, or basketball players understand the mechanics of their jump-shot. It requires daily self-discipline, nearly endless, but mindful, repetition, a desire to improve and a love of the process.
For many musicians there is something of a compulsive idea, wholeheartedly endorsed at conservatories and carried throughout life, that if you are conscious and at least partly coherent, you should be practicing … until tendonitis, carpal tunnel or rotator cuff injuries stop you.
One last comparison with athletes is that there is really no “off-season” for musicians, even when the symphony is not performing. Athletes train and work out year-round, with many finding that the time away from the team is when they can focus best on their individual growth. Many SSO musicians travel to participate in festivals during the summer, even internationally. There is a certain amount of practice needed just to maintain your level of playing, let alone trying to improve. And there is always music to learn: for orchestra, or chamber music concerts, or solo recitals.
None of this is to say that I would rather do anything else with my life, even if I possessed any other remotely marketable skills. What has troubled me lately, though, is that with orchestras across the country experiencing financial difficulties, musicians in these orchestras — friends and colleagues — face the uphill battle of trying to explain to an uninformed public, and even to their own orchestra boards and managers, through sound bites and short newspaper quotes, the depth of a lifelong commitment that is the unseen backdrop to the creation of the living art form we call music.
Whether classical music is something worth supporting in a community like ours is a matter of debate and individual taste, but I think that we should at least have a more accurate and common understanding of what goes into the concerts that, last year alone, more than 200,000 people enjoyed in Syracuse and the regions we serve.
Jeremy Mastrangelo of Liverpool is the associate concertmaster of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.