You probably have some preconceived notions about classical musicians. Maybe you’re thinking of that one annoying flute player that sat behind you in high school. Maybe you’re thinking of that one episode of Bugs Bunny (or if you’re a millennial, that episode of Hey Arnold! where they go to the opera). Whatever stereotypes you have about classical musicians, they’re probably untrue. Here are some secrets you may not know about classical musicians:
1) Classical music is not a 9-5 job. Most orchestras don’t have rehearsals or concerts every day. Non-musicians look at our schedules and think, “They only have 8 hours of rehearsals this week? That’s nothing – I work 50 hours every week!” You are probably at your office more hours a week than classical musicians are at rehearsal, but classical music is an all-consuming profession. When we don’t have rehearsal, we practice anywhere from 1-8 (or more) hours a day. Reed players like myself spend a few hours each week selecting and preparing reeds suitable for concerts and rehearsals. Many of us juggle an orchestra job, private teaching studios, practicing, and other performance opportunities. Music is something we can’t escape – there is no finite endpoint, and there is always more to learn. Famed cellist Pablo Casals continued a rigorous practice routine into his 90’s, and when asked why he still practiced, he replied, “I feel I am making progress.”
2) Classical music is our job. It’s not a hobby or “cute pastime” (which I’ve heard before), but our dedicated profession. Sure, it probably started out as a hobby, but this is our career. We can get hired and fired like the rest of you. Please respect our profession.
3) We aren’t Mozart. Fun fact: Mozart could listen to a piece of music one time and could transcribe most of the notes. Most of us were not wunderkinds and had to work thousands of hours (at least 10,000 hours according to Malcolm Gladwell) to become a professional. Like all other endeavors, music takes blood, sweat, and tears to succeed.
4) We aren’t human jukeboxes. As soon as I tell anyone I play clarinet, one of two things always happen. Most people excitedly exclaim, “my –insert random relative or friend– played clarinet!” The others request to hear one of their favorite songs. I’m down for some spontaneous Brahms or Weber, but please don’t ask me to play that Adele/Justin Bieber/Taylor Swift song you love!
5) Listening to classical music is not relaxing for most of us. You’ve probably heard of some studies that claim listening to music can improve concentration, relaxation, and stress levels? Not applicable to classical musicians. If I have classical music anywhere in my vicinity, I stop whatever I’m doing to identify the composer, piece, and performer(s), not to mention critique the ensemble and remember that I should be practicing right now. Alas, this has ruined Panera Bread, upscale department stores, and other venues that play classical music for me.
6) We are nomads. Count yourself lucky if you got to choose your location before your job. Here’s a hypothetical (but common) audition process for most orchestras, professorships, and other job opportunities for musicians: the Los Angeles Philharmonic has a principal clarinet opening. You live in Delaware. You fly to L.A. (at your own expense) for the audition and win the job. Unless you have the financial security to fly cross-country for every rehearsal and concert, looks like you’re moving to Los Angeles!
7) There are thousands of other composers besides Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. If you think you don’t like classical music, you’re probably wrong. If you don’t like one composer or style, there are hundreds of thousands of others out there. If you don’t like Roquefort, that doesn’t mean you hate all cheeses. You probably like Gouda or Havarti or another kind. Find your cheese…..I mean, classical music you love.
8) One of our biggest pet peeves? Being asked to perform at weddings, dinners, or other events “for the experience.” Would you ask a chef to cater an event “for good experience”? What about a dentist? Or hairdresser? You are paying classical musicians for their time and musical skills. Even if you don’t have a large budget, offer musicians a place at your dinner or a tray from the reception. Just don’t insult us with the “good experience” line.
9) The risks outweigh the rewards. Classical musicians are doomed for a life of rejections. For every ten auditions we take, we might win one. We open ourselves up musically and emotionally for harsh critique and judgement. We are very vulnerable, self-critical, and angsty. We spend the costs of luxury cars and down payments on a house for our instruments. We pay out of pocket to travel and take auditions (the good thing is that we are well-travelled and platinum level with most airlines!). We have never heard the phrase “you are good enough.” There is always room for infinite improvement. Why do we do it, then? Those times when we feel we performed our best. The productive practice sessions. Performing Mahler symphonies with an orchestra. Standing in front of an orchestra as a soloist. When other musicians laugh at our inside music jokes. The applause and appreciation. The excitement in our students when they play an assignment successfully. Classical music is an emotionally difficult life, but most of us wouldn’t trade it for the world.