Saturday, August 13, 2011

If Only They Had Told Me

 Written by: Amy Tobin

I have been a musician for nearly all of my life. I started playing the piano when I was three, and then I added the violin to that when I was ten. In fact, I went to college for music, majoring in violin performance.

I love symphonic music, and I love chamber music. When I was studying at Boston University, the faculty there did a great job preparing me, as well as all of the performance majors, for orchestral careers, but nobody ever talked about any other options. In their defense, however, other outside-the-box types of performance careers were not as plentiful or accepted as they are now, so I definitely can't fault them for that. If I had known then what I know now, however......


There are many ways of making a living from performing other than playing for a major orchestra, being a soloist, being part of a professional chamber group, or teaching at a University. In fact, one of my dreams when I was younger was to play with the orchestras that play and record film scores! The idea of being able to play such a variety of new compositions, music that millions of people would hear when they watched a film, sounded so exciting to me! Imagine being in the orchestra that played the music for the movie "Star Wars," or "Indiana Jones," for instance! The only problem was, I had absolutely no idea how to go about doing such a thing.

Or how about all of those strings that you hear in the background of most hit songs? If you listen closely to the songs on the radio, you will hear that quite a few of the top 40 types have string parts - some of them very intricate! I had no idea how someone would go about being hired to do those kinds of things, and that they could actually make a living doing it!

The other thing that I was really interested in doing was playing in a band of some kind. Rock, metal, folk, indie, it didn't really matter. I wanted to do that, but I didn't know how.

Here I have to credit my friend and former orchestra stand partner, Joan Wasser, with showing me that that was possible. Joan is a great violinist. She was a year behind me in school, and I remember going to clubs to hear The Lotus Eaters, the band she was playing with at the time. Seeing a violinist playing as a featured member of a rock group was one of the most eye-opening experiences I had in college! All of a sudden, I could see that it was possible to do something different than what everyone expected! (Later, Joan moved to New York, played and toured with Rufus Wainwright, and moved on to have a very successful career with her own band, "Joan as Policewoman")

Her story, in fact, is a perfect example of how you have to go about following one of these more innovative career paths. In most cases, when you think you know what you would like to do, the best thing is to go where the action is. I know that Joan would have been successful anywhere, but her move to New York City was the best possible thing she could have done at the time. That's where the music that she wanted to make was happening, so that's where she went.

If you want to play for film scores, you probably have to move to Los Angeles, California. Most of the music is recorded in studios there, so you want to be a local. You will probably have to join the Musician's Union as well, since I am sure all of the hiring for those sessions is done by union contractors. The same is true for most of the music you hear on the radio, although this also depends on how popular the artist is and who produces the songs. Most top 40 hits come out of California, although other places (Nashville, Seattle, New York) have a lot of this work as well. And, of course, it almost goes without saying that if you want to play country or bluegrass, Nashville is the place to be.

Once you are there, get out and meet people! Join the Musician's Union, find out who the contractors are, hang out near the major studios, and keep practicing! Just because a lot of this music is not as complicated as Brahms or Bartok does not mean that you don't need to have the chops to play those as well. Remember, you will still be competing with other well-trained musicians for these gigs!

Once you land one of these gigs, make sure you are prepared. Arrive early enough to take a look at the music (you don't usually get parts ahead of time for studio sessions....most are done right there in a very short amount of time), make sure you are tuned, warmed up, and you have everything you might need - extra strings, pencil, and, most importantly, a good attitude - and arrive ready to work! I have been part of a few studio sessions in some major studios, and believe me, it is work! (It is, however, a lot of fun, too!)

Nowadays, violinists, violists, and cellists can also be seen as regular members of pop and rock groups, just the same way the guitarists and drummers are. Luckily, this kind of thing is happening everywhere! All you need for this kind of career is a connection with other like-minded musicians, and a lot of energy and focus. There are so many opportunities for bands to play.......just think about how many clubs in your nearest major city have live music, almost every night of the week! That's a lot of possibility!

If playing for a major orchestra is not your bag, and you want to do something that is more out of the ordinary, go for it! There is a lot of music out there, and a lot of need for good musicians. Keep meeting people, go to local jam sessions, and think outside the box.....you will find the path that you are looking for!

(Stay tuned for more about string players performing in more specific genres!)

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