Conversation with a Recent Graduate
by Tim Finholt

(Editor's Note: This interview was originally published in the October 1993 Seattle Violoncello Society newsletter)

The following interview is with a recent graduate from a prestigious music academy on the East Coast. In order to encourage total honesty, I agreed to make the interview anonymous. He presents a not often talked about aspect of the music world: the competitive and political side of music. Watch how his attitude changes from his young idealistic years to now, a professional level cellist, who must try to survive in a highly competitive field of other hungry musicians. Usually we read giddy, "music is so wonderful" pieces from people who have a job and are successful. But what about those who haven't made it yet? This is not a "sour-grapes" account, however; I like to think that it's balanced with a clear love of music. He is an excellent cellist and I have full confidence that he will find his rightful place in the music profession.

TF: You were a music student and now you are looking for a job. How does the job market look out there for a musician?

BD: Scary. There aren't too many jobs and those who have the orchestra jobs are holding onto them. There are many more applicants than spaces, so the competition is fierce.

TF: What about chamber music?

BD: That's even worse. It's almost impossible to get four people together who have the same goal musically. As far as freelancing, only a small percentage of people can make a living doing that. And then freelancing is frustrating because there isn't any time to mold a piece and carve it into something you're proud of, so you don't get the same fulfillment that you get from a professional quartet. But freelancing does give you a lot of freedom and you get to travel a lot. Unfortunately, there aren't too many open doors anywhere, and the doors that are open are being swamped.

TF: How did you get started in music?

BD: Like most people, because of a love of music. Music was a beautiful art, an ideal way to express myself. All I saw when I was younger were the good sides of it. The great thing about playing music when you are younger is that you are playing pieces for the first time. In youth orchestras you have 150 people who are experiencing a Rachmaninoff or a Mahler symphony for the first time. You share an incredible love and excitement with the other young musicians. Some of the greatest experiences occur when you're young.

TF: In high school, it was fun and you were with other interesting people. You weren't thinking of it in terms of a way to make a living.

BD: It was more of a hobby. It was something I loved, but did on the side. I wasn't sure if music was what I wanted to do with my life. It was just something that I enjoyed.

TF: After a couple of years at the local music school you went to the East Coast to a well-known music conservatory. Why the urge to go east?

BD: I felt like there wasn't enough competition in Seattle and not enough of a barometer of what the real level was like out there. The local school was not geared to the professional musician at that time. And although I had a good cello teacher who helped me a lot, I felt I needed to be somewhere where I was pushed more by other students and see where I stacked up. I wanted to realistically gauge whether I had a chance to make it and compete with other people for jobs.

TF: What was your new school like?

BD: It was great. The school was known for great cellists. It was really inspiring to be around people who could do things that I couldn't do.

TF: Where would you say you were in the pack?

BD: Somewhere in the middle. There were a number of people who were definitely better players than I was. There were 3 or 4 great players who were incredibly natural. They had no problems with the instrument and didn't seem to struggle at all, which was something that I always felt like I had to do, and still feel like I have to do.

TF: And how did your change in "stature" make you feel?

BD: I didn't have any problems with this; it was more inspiring. I didn't feel like I wanted to give up the instrument because I felt like it motivated me to practice more and shoot for something. Growing up in Seattle, besides my teacher, there was no one that was significantly better that I could say, "Wow, that's how I want to play in four years." And there were definitely a few people in the East Coast who I could say that about. So it provided inspiration. At times it was frustrating, but I think that's part of the learning process.

TF: At this point, you have been exposed to cellists at a great cello school. Were you thinking about a cello career more seriously?

BD: I still wasn't sure what I wanted. I still vacillated between wanting to go for it and wanting to do something else and to keep music as a hobby.

TF: After seeing these players, did you think that, if this was your competition, that there wasn't much of a place for you in the music World?

BD: I felt like this was a good representation of what the cream of the crop was like. The nice thing about being there was that no matter where I was later, I always had something to shoot towards and measure myself against. I'm still not sure how I stack up in the "real" world, because I'm just embarking on learning how to make money in music. It's hard to say.

TF: Did you have any sense of the political side of the music world at this time?

BD: I didn't get along so well with the president of the school. It was a very political school. The president was a cellist and I never got any opportunities there. I felt like I deserved more than I got, even though there were cellists there who deserved to get things before I did, being more developed players. I wasn't politically in. So that's where I first started really seeing how really political the music world is and how important it is to know the right people. Playing well is a given, but I began to see how much you have to work on who you know, getting your name around, meeting the right people, not offending this person or that. All I wanted to do was learn how to play the cello. All I thought you had to do was learn how to play the cello and then get a job corresponding to your level. But it doesn't work like that, I guess.

TF: This sounds like many non-musical careers, but perhaps the stakes are higher. So you went to this school for two years and got your Bachelor's degree. What were you thinking then?

BD: I certainly didn't feel ready to enter the job market. I felt like I had a lot more improving to do. Should I get a master's degree? Should I take some time off? Should I go to Europe? Should I do something else with my life? Finally I decided that there was nothing I loved so much as music and that I wanted to keep pushing and give it a try. But I've never felt that I was locked into the music track. I've always felt that if I was unhappy at some point, and things just weren't working, that I could always switch. But I figured that if I didn't try now, my chance would be lost. The time to improve is when you're young, and once you get into doing something else, it's easy enough to say you can go back. But it's more difficult than that, I think.

TF: You went to another school for graduate work?

BD: Yes. It was the best experience because I had a good friend there who was a faculty member, who helped me out by spreading my name around. As a result, I played with some of the best players at the new school. The school was very strong in violin and piano. I had a piano trio that played a lot of concerts in the East Coast. I played in quite a few faculty concerts also.

TF: Was this school less of a "cello" school?

BD: Yes. I was a bigger fish in a smaller pond. There are a few schools that are renowned for the level of the good cello players and this wasn't one of them. But at the same time the level was high enough that I was inspired by certain people. I had more opportunities and so it was sort of a perfect mix. Where I started at the music school in Seattle, I was too big ofa fish in too small of a pond. In the second school, I was a medium fish in a very big pond. But I fit in better politically at this latest school. The teacher I studied with was a great musician and was very inspiring.

TF: You went to this latest school for a few years. What was your frame of mind as you were coming to an end in your schooling?

BD: The last year I was in school, I felt like it was no longer the place for me. I wanted to get out and test the waters. I felt like I had done everything I could do in school. School is a great environment, but it's so protective. I was getting to the point where I needed to try to make things happen for myself.

TF: Did you feel like your teacher helped you politically? Did he help you make contacts?

BD: No, he didn't really. But another member of the string faculty helped me out greatly. He is someone who is looking out for me, who has been writing me recommendations.

TF: Do you think that this is something you must have in order to begin a musical career?

BD: Definitely, unless you are auditioning for an orchestral job, where "all" you need to do is learn your excerpts and then go play as well as you can. There's less room for politics in orchestral auditions because they're often behind a screen. They're just looking for the most qualified person. But for chamber music or solo opportunities, it's all in who you know.

TF: Now you've finished school and you are trying to make contacts. How do you feel about doing that kind of thing?

BD: I don't enjoy it and it doesn't come naturally to me. There are some people who are made to do that sort of thing. You can cite examples anywhere from the superstar musicians down through the chamber music scene, freelance players, the recitalists, and the orchestral musicians. There are people out there who really know how to push and get a lot from it. The ones who understand the business side of things are the ones who have the bigger careers and who have the bigger names and the recording contracts. I try to force myself to do these things because everyone does it. You're not taught this in school.

TF: Does this conflict with your view of what music should be about?

BD: For me it cheapens it a little bit because it has nothing to do with music. That isn't why I started in music. I started in music as a kid for the love of the art. Some people have an affinity for making contacts and doing the business side of things and even enjoy it. For them, it's not a hindrance, but a part of life. But I think it's something that everyone has to do who is first starting out. They really need to make use of what contacts they have. One person puts you onto someone else who has six friends who you might call, and maybe nothing works. You make thirty calls and you hook onto someone who needs you to fill in for a recitalist who's sick, or sub in the symphony, or they know someone who is quitting a string quartet.

TF: You sound like the music world has made you a little cynical.

BD: No. I'm not cynical. There's just a lot of cynicism out there. For example, by college age, most conservatory musicians are complaining about the number of hours they have to spend in the school orchestra, because they don't have time to practice their own music. What happened to the love that they had for orchestra when they played in youth orchestra? There's already a lot of cynicism in the early college years. But I don't feel burned out at all. I still get as much love out of it as I used to. I'm just not as naÔve about how the world works. That's the great thing about being young: you see music as an ideal, not as a job or a way to make a living. Music is a business!

TF: So now that you have graduated, what are you going to do?

BD: I'm jumping in the water and seeing if I can swim. I haven't geared myself towards taking orchestral auditions yet; learning excerpts isn't something I've done. I would have to change gears if I want to do that.

TF: Orchestra is a second choice for you?

BD: Orchestra isn't my main love. I love chamber music. An orchestral position is prestigious these days because the competition is so fierce that only the great cellists can get the jobs. It's almost impossible to get into chamber music also because there isn't the money out there for it and there aren't that many concert series. Only the cream of the crop gets to play at these concerts. Forming a quartet is not easy, so a lot of people turn to freelancing, which is what I'm going to try for a while. This will give me a chance to test the waters to see how I fit into certain scenes.

TF: I imagine you find this to be both scary and exciting.

BD: Yes. It's scary because I don't know if I will find any work. As I said before, it doesn't matter where I stack up if I go to an area where people are already well connected. Those who are well connected will be the ones who will get the work. So it entails being really pushy and persistent.

TF: And in spite of all this, you still love music.

BD: Yes. I will be extremely happy and proud if I am able to make a living in music.

(Editor's Note: BD is now a section cellist in one of the top 40 professional orchestras in the US.)

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