Sunday, July 19, 2009

From Academia to Freelance . . . Down the Rabbit Hole

When I traded academia for the freelance world, I found that traipsing through the new terrain was trickier than I expected. Successful navigation required some mental reprogramming. And gas money. 

There's No Place Like Home
In general, academia is orderly. Repertoire, rehearsals and recitals are planned and scheduled in advance. Everyone comes to the same location, the music building, where rehearsal spaces are free, well lit, and furnished with pianos and stands. Scores and CDs can be plucked from the library, office supplies ransacked from the cabinet, and musical input is supplied (solicited or not) by knowledgeable colleagues. Dead composers write most of the performed repertoire. The artistic merit of the performed repertoire is rarely questionable. Collaborative partners have training, often extensive training, and are focused on their work. On the whole, the gig allows musicians to sound their best and I was accustomed to that feeling of security.

Buckle Your Seatbelt, Dorothy
The freelance world runs differently than academia. Advance notice of repertoire is rare (especially with vocalists), making public sightreading a standard exercise in humility. Requests for transposition occur more frequently, especially for musical theatre repertoire. Audition playing has its challenges, as I mentioned in a
previous blog. Repertoire is all over the map - knowing styles, being able to read charts, translate musical theatre orchestral reductions into viable accompaniments are different skills than simply reading dots on a page. Listening to recordings of the repertoire is essential, because unlike classical music, most written musical theatre and pop music is 'loosely translated'. The recording of a performance often becomes more important than what the composer scribbled down - which is weird after years in academia of viewing the little black dots' placement as crucial. Of course, there are composers who actually write for the piano, and accurately transcribe their ideas: their stuff can be performed as is. Bless them.

No Time to Say Hello Goodbye
Working in the theatre world you gain a new appreciation for the skill of 'time management', because in theatre, there is never enough time to cover all the details. You must prioritize and cover what
must be done. From there, you rely upon the professionalism of coworkers, that they will do the necessary homework to get the job done and done right. The saying 'Hurry up and Wait' is especially apt for theatre work. It is helpful to bring a book, a laptop - anything you can use to fill in the dead time. I try to keep my ipod constantly updated with new music, so I can actively use dead time (in rehearsal and in transit) to learn new repertoire.

You Don't Need a Bench, Do You?
Workplaces can range from havens to hovels. I have performed in bad lighting, no lighting, sorry versions of piano benches heightened via phone book, and on ridiculously rough pianos that drew blood after I executed a glissando. Sound equipment sometimes doesn't work properly - or it works fine, but no one is competent at the soundboard. Transportation is an ongoing issue, as locations tend to multiply when you have over 7 gigs - and 3 separate locations are in one day. Extensive road travel is wearing - as is getting lost on a regular basis (hello, gps unit). Finding parking can be a headache, depending on your location. DC parking is a migraine.

Stranger in a Strange Land
Age ranges are wider outside of academia - you are dealing with the full age spectrum, each with their differing challenges and attitudes: children, teenagers, older men and women. You may have to work with musicians with no formal training (often singers and guitarists). That lack of common knowledge can be frustrating when trying to ascertain key signatures or tempos. Occasionally there is no written music available, and you are issued a CD instead. Some gigs have you providing music to people who have no direct understanding of it - choreographers are notorious for their lack of musicianship (they speak in code, like "I need 7 counts of 8"

You Want That on a Silver Platter?
The transition from academia to freelance challenges deeply held convictions of how things ought to be doneYou should not have to sound mediocre due to circumstances. You should get the music in advance. You should have enough time to learn the music. You should have rehearsals before you perform with someone. You should have an instrument in tune with itself. You should not have to specially arrange music when already written out music is available. Holding on to all these 'shoulds' can create resentment, stress or rage . Be professional and avoid these negative emotions by letting go of your past reality. Then glom on to the present one.

There is No Spoon

Whether you like it or not, your emotions can be transparent in your playing: discomfort and dissatisfaction cannot be broadcast, because the music suffers. To remain in the profession, your attitudes must be professional - even if circumstances utterly suck. You are hired to play. Even if you had virtually no time to learn the piece, you wanted to play something else, you hate the composer, the monitors aren't working right or the piano is out of tune - it is in your best interest to view every performance as an opportunity. Mentally bend yourself and slip into a zone where you can perform to the best of your abilities. Somehow, you have to enjoy your performance, or your audience probably won't, either.


Geraldine said...

This is all so true! The piano bench (or lack thereof) is a particularly hard one for me because I'm 5.1 ft and that I need to sit higher than where non-adjustable benches are!
I also think that when working professionally, we have to accept the fact that we sometimes have to perform less well than we normally would if we had enough time, which I wrote about here,
Thanks for the article!

Billie Whittaker said...

I'm 5'2" and like to sit high, also. I've gotten pretty creative in the pursuit of extra inches - right now I am using two planks of wood to raise my chair in a pit orchestra setting.