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music, technology & life in pasadena, california

What's Wrong With Mark Swed?

Mark Swed, classical music critic for the LA Times, can be an astute observer of the classical music scene. His writing has matured in recent years and his insight has grown, all of which combine to make his articles and reviews an enjoyable read even if you occasionally disagree with him.

But, Tuesday morning’s article, a review of the acoustics as well as the performance by the Pacific Symphony at the brand new Cesar Pelli-designed Rene and Henry Segerstrom Hall in Orange County included such a kicker in the last sentence that I feel compelled to set the record straight.

After a generally favorable review of both the concert and the acoustics, Swed writes:

The concerts were broadcast live locally on KUSC and K-MOZART but not streamed over the Internet for the rest of the world. Greedy orchestra musicians, heedless of Ramakrishna's message, wouldn't permit it.

Calling orchestra musicians greedy without offering any background about pay schedules, contracts and supplemental media payments is a slap in the face to working musicians everywhere.

Musicians work extremely hard to advance in their field, especially those who choose to work in the orchestral arena where the competition is so great that every open audition call fields hundreds of applications. It takes many hundreds of hours to prepare for an orchestral audition, and that is after the player has already studied their whole life just to get to the point where they may have a chance. Most professional musicians start studying music seriously between the ages of 4 and 7, putting in at least an hour a day of practicing time. As they get older, practice time increases in relation to the difficulty of the technique or music they are trying to master and it’s not at all unusual to see exceptional young players practicing for 4 to 7 hours (and longer!) daily. I say exceptional because those are the players who will at least have a speck of a chance at landing a position with a symphony orchestra. And all that practice time is in addition to their regular schoolwork and extra-curricular activities. Does all this seem like a huge undertaking, an almost Herculean task that puts tons of pressure on young people? Well, Wynton Marsalis says, “You gotta have heat in everything you do.” Because that’s the only way to succeed and be the best in whatever you endeavor, and most young musicians today are showing that heat. It’s the drive, the passion and the love of music that keeps ‘em going through those lonely days in the practice studio while all their friends are out having a good time. It’s the discipline that orders their life, builds their character, and turns them into well-rounded citizens who recognize that a life in the arts or a life that proceeds with an interest in the arts is one worth living.

So, where am I going with this? Ah yes, Mark Swed’s comment…

So after a minimum of 15-18 years of preparation, hard work and sacrifice, maybe a player can have a chance to win an audition against 200 other hopefuls who have been working just as hard as they’ve been. Maybe they’ll get that job right out of college, maybe they’ll land a position with one of the top orchestras in the country, or maybe they’ll end up with a regional orchestra or freelance for a while before the next big audition is announced.

The Pacific Symphony is one such regional orchestra. It’s roughly comprised of half Orange County players and half Los Angeles musicians. It’s a great group under the direction of Carl St. Clair, and they’ve been able to make an indelible mark upon the southern California community in a relatively short amount of time. Now, with the opening of their new concert hall and all the media attention of the last week, many good things await.

One of the LA Times pieces about the orchestra mentioned that the players make $175 per service. A service is a musician’s term for a rehearsal or a concert, any specific time that you are called to show up and play, a session usually lasting for 2 ½ to 3 hours. However, the LA Times was erroneous in quoting that figure. Pacific Symphony players are paid $175 for a performance and approximately $120 for a rehearsal. The figure that they gave as an approximate annual salary for the players (about $40,000) was also off the mark. According to my sources, only the first chair players come anywhere near that amount while most of the section players make about half of that on an annual basis.

When an orchestra or any other group of musicians performs live and the concert is broadcast on radio or television, an extra payment is added to the players’ salaries. It’s essentially a payment that covers the fact that another type of media is using the players’ services in producing content that they are airing for profit. Now that the internet is a viable alternative media for broadcast, musicians should expect a small media payment as they have been receiving for years in both television and radio.

So…a top-flight musician who makes about $46 per hour for his orchestral services (which doesn’t include the long hours they’ve had to practice and prepare for that concert) is greedy for wanting an extra fee for allowing internet streaming? Ask yourself what an average attorney, an average doctor or even what an average plumber makes. And none of those professions needs to be trained since kindergarten in order to have a chance to compete in their rarefied and respected worlds.

Mark…my advice is to lay off the “greedy” adjective, look at things realistically and appreciate the artistry that normal everyday working musicians provide every single day to enrich all of our lives. I’m surprised and a little ashamed that you didn’t realize that already. Or better yet, rather than wait for free internet streaming, go and buy a copy of the Pacific Symphony’s An American Requiem CD and support the wonderful live music they’re bringing to the people of Orange County.

September 20, 2006 | Link to this entry

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Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

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