Since many of us only see the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's musicians in a single setting — when we go to one of their concerts — it can be easy to forget that being a professional classical musician means a lot more than showing up at a performance rehearsed and ready to go. That's especially true during the summers when the musicians are technically on break from their CSO duties (though one would be hard-pressed to find any musician who would claim to be "off" from June through August).
We decided to go behind the scenes and see what these hard-working artists do to fill their hours and their wallets when they're not in rehearsal or in a concert hall. Although the CSO musicians scatter to the four winds come June, we tracked down three who were able to spend some time with us: Kathy St.John, principal bassoon; Jessica Hull-Dambaugh, principal flute; and Gretchen Roper, clarinet. "We all do more than play in the orchestra to make our living," St.John says. "We're a part of the community, whether it's playing at weddings or teaching kids."
Those who can, teach
Since orchestras are rarely able to pay enough for their musicians to comfortably live on, many full-timers take on private students, work at public schools, or teach at a studio to supplement their income. St.John, Hull-Dambaugh, and Roper all have private students who keep them busy year-round, though the summer months are a bit more laid-back than the rest of the year.
During St.John's summer classes, for example, many regular students are off schedule due to vacations or camps. She can therefore spend that time focusing on an element of bassoon-playing that doesn't require the same consistency as learning to play a new piece. "Bassoonists and oboists make their own reeds, so I have reed-making classes. We start with the cane, which looks like bamboo, and we hollow it out, work it into a reed blank [an unshaped reed]. It's a process: you have to work on it, play it, let it sit, play it, let it sit ... It takes a couple of weeks," St.John says.
Roper stays busy teaching master classes and private lessons and working with the clarinet sections of middle and high school bands. This summer, however, she's also focused on the more hand-tool-heavy end of things. "My newest endeavor [is] working as an apprentice doing woodwind repair at the Instrument Doc in Mt. Pleasant," she says. The pursuit of classical music, it seems, has its technical elements in addition to its intellectual ones.
As for Hull-Dambaugh, who is spending the summer caring for her six-month-old baby in addition to her professional work, she teaches both flute and fitness classes. "One of my other loves outside of music is teaching aerobics, so I'm also a fitness instructor. I usually teach three classes per week," she says.
One of the reasons that so few of the CSO's players are in town during the summer is because they go to music festivals. In fact, both Hull-Dambaugh and Roper said that this is one of the first summers that they haven't been traveling for festivals. Prior to this year, Hull-Dambaugh spent several summers playing the nine-week Central City Opera Festival in Colorado, and one summer playing a two-week festival in Maine. Some musicians pass the entire season this way, going from festival to festival, but that can get exhausting. Festival seasons are intense, Hull-Dambaugh says. "They're like a whole entire orchestra season crammed into one month. And I was a soloist with the orchestra, so I was practicing like crazy, four or five hours a day."
The three musicians also do side gigs, from weddings and parties to playing concerts with other nearby orchestras in Hilton Head and Beaufort. During the concert season, musicians will often come to an evening CSO performance straight from a wedding, with maybe a chance to eat dinner in the car en route. Roper and St.John, along with Roper's husband, John, also play chamber music together for recitals and events.
Practice, practice, practice
Just like your piano teacher told you, the only way to get better is to practice. All orchestra musicians practice regularly, and, in the case of those we interviewed, three to four hours a day. Hull-Dambaugh, who is getting ready for a flute concerto this fall, is already in her "practicing like crazy" schedule of four to five hours a day. During the summer, there are no orchestra-wide rehearsals, so much of that time is spent alone. That can be a difficult reality for young musicians to get used to, St.John says.
"When I was in high school I was in an arts program, and that's when I decided I wanted to be a professional musician," she says. "I thought I'd just be making music all the time, that it would be glamorous. But that's not how most of it is ... You spend a lot of time practicing, alone, and something else you don't think about is that in an orchestra you don't have control over what you're playing. That lack of creative control can be hard to get used to."
Roper also decided to pursue music professionally while in high school and had a similar experience. "When I used to rehearse or perform in the All State Orchestra in high school, I didn't want that experience to end. I mean, you are sitting next to other great players, and all you had to concentrate on was playing your part. I thought, man, there are people who do this for a living? Yes please!"
In the great artistic tradition, both Roper and St.John were warned about the challenges of their chosen field by well-meaning parents and decided to jump in anyway. But the reality is that yes, their parents were right: music, and playing in an orchestra especially, is a treacherous road to follow. Orchestra openings are few and far between, and if you win one, Hull-Dambaugh says, you take it, no matter where it is. As Roper says, "The first thing [my parents] warned me of was how competitive it is and how few jobs there were ... There were horror stories about people who took 60 auditions before winning one and of how unstable your life can be."
Nowadays, it's even harder to find an orchestra job, which is why Roper, St.John, and Hull-Dambaugh have all found themselves in the odd position of echoing their parents' admonitions to their students. Each encourages a student to dream of a playing in an orchestra only — and they do mean only — if they absolutely cannot picture themselves doing anything else (provided they also have the exceptional talent and determination required to make it). If that's the case, then they've got to be prepared to create additional work for themselves on the side. Roper encourages her students to learn multiple skills, "whether it be to play another instrument, learn to teach, become a manager, or play ... different styles of music."
So what is it, then, that keeps St.John, Hull-Dambaugh, and Roper coming back for more? The pay is low, the work is hard, and one job is never enough. Instability is practically a certainty. It's like any artistic pursuit, really; sometimes there simply isn't any choice. Just like they tell their students, these women couldn't imagine doing anything else. "I always say if my arm got chopped off I would make fitness a full-time career, but there's no way I could put my flute down and not play. It's so rewarding," Hull-Dambaugh says. "When you're in the middle of a performance and the sound just comes up all around you and you get those goosebumps ... you really can't describe it."