Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Balancing Act - Volume 1

The last few days have been difficult for me. They shouldn't have been, since I was pretty much doing work that I enjoy, but nonetheless, I've had to drag my way through. On Saturday, I played the last cabaret show of the season with Rian Keating. Sunday was long. I rehearsed and played for Trinity Grace Church's morning service, recorded for Gina Catalino in the afternoon and had another rehearsal and service at Trinity Grace in the evening. (My cello and I also went to see 'The Proposal' in there somewhere - it was better than expected). After playing catch-up on Monday, I went to Astoria, Queens on Tuesday, to do some overdubs for the upcoming live Trinity Grace Church album. I think the trip to Queens was what did me in.

I guess Queens must be okay, because a lot of people live there, and seem to like it. But for me, Queens is just completely unappealing. Perhaps it's because, from where I live in Brooklyn, it takes me at least an hour and a half to get there, and once I get there, there always seems to be a long walk from the train. And when you play the cello, this combination just sucks, plain and simple. But I also find that Queens just doesn't hold my interest. It seems an awful lot like Brooklyn, only without the artists, hipsters and cool Brooklyn-y stuff. (Not that I'm a particular fan of hipsters - but you know - they keep things interesting). It seems like a really long way to travel just to end up in a much blander version of where you came from.

But really, Queens is probably fine. I'm sure it's lovely if you live there, blah blah blah. I think my real problem is that I'm a little worn-out. Or maybe a lot worn out. There's a special kind of weariness here that I have dubbed 'NYC Burnout' (original, I know). I've experienced it before. It's symptoms vary widely from person to person, but for me, include needing to lay around like a slug for as long as humanly possible and extreme irritability. (Apparently about Queens.)

I think I've been overdoing it. I haven't had a day off in who knows how long and it's making me tired. Rehearsals, weddings, concerts, shows, church services, recording sessions, lessons - I know that I should be grateful to have the work, (and I truly am - I know that I am very fortunate to be able to earn a living as a musician in the City) but sometimes the long commutes, the endless requests and the last minute calls get to me.

Now I know some people might think, "What the hell is she talking about?? She plays the cello all day for crying-out-loud. If I got to play music all day you'd never hear me complaining. That would be a dream!" Don't get me wrong. Playing music as your job is awesome. It's great. I couldn't ask for better. But it's also work. Just like the word indicates - it's a job.

Sure, sometimes I get to play great music with cool people, but I also get t0 deal with all those normal (and not-so-normal) things jobs come with: Crazy and egocentric people, stressful situations, long commutes (which usually involves carrying a bunch of junk), long hours of preparation and practicing. As a performer, constantly in the spotlight, one must continually evaluate one's own image, clothes and attitude. There are no such things as sick days and lateness just isn't an option. OH and then there's all that music that isn't so great...

But I digress. I am sincerely appreciative to be working full time as a musician in New York City. I knew it was a difficult job when I signed up and I know now from experience that not everyone can make it in this city. However, I also know that balance is important; Balance between work, family, friends and fun. Lately, even when I'm not actually working - I'm thinking about it, preparing for it and trying to find more of it. It's hard to create any sort of balance when your life seems to revolve around working. And to be successful in this business in this city, your life often ends up centered on just that.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Wedding Wonders, Blunders and Woe - part 2

I've had my share of interesting weddings: wacky weddings, weird weddings, traditional weddings - you name it.  Most weddings go along pretty smoothly, but inevitably, there are those occasional weddings where things might have gone a bit better.  I've only had a truly horrendous wedding experience once.  The date was Saturday, May 30, 2008.  I'd had a bad feeling about this particular wedding from the beginning. The bride was super-anal, wanting a full background check on each member of the quartet and having the pickiest and most difficult music selections of all time. But the bride was just a warm-up for the wedding planner, who was by far the most neurotic person I had ever come in contact with. She needed like 4 recommendations from the quartet and a complete run-down of the contract - picking apart every little detail and offering suggestions for multiple revisions. I almost cancelled then, but felt like I couldn't after I had signed the contract.

I had a lot of anxiety in the days leading up to the wedding, but as the day started things began excellently.  The quartet I was playing with wasn't my normal group (my 'Russian Quartet' as I'll call them, had another job) so I was playing with another set of players.  We decided to meet at Mannes College of Music since it was centrally located and we had all attended at one time or another.  We were originally going to take a Metro North train and then a taxi to the venue in New Rochelle, NY, but one of the violinists had to rent a car for a gig the next day and so he offered to go ahead and rent the car for an extra day so we could drive.
We all arrived at Mannes early (which was a miracle in itself), and parked in an amazing spot in a 15-minute zone directly in front of the building.  We stuffed everything except for one viola in the trunk - two violins, the cello, all the music stands and all of the sheet music.   We closed the trunk and we were off - at least, I thought we were off - until our violinist announced that the keys were in the trunk - the locked trunk.  

A moment of panic ensued, until we realized that the car was unlocked.  All was saved!!  We could just pop the trunk from the drivers seat and away we'd go.  So our violinist went around to the drivers side, found the button and pushed it - to no avail.  He pushed it again - still nothing.  Over and over we pushed that button, every member of the quartet trying in his or her own turn, thinking they might have the magic touch, but that damn trunk just wouldn't open.  It kept making this promising clicking sound, but it wouldn't unlatch.

However, all was not lost.  Our next idea was to break through the trunk through the back seats.  We swarmed the back seats, looking for buttons to push, poking through cracks and crevices and yanking on each seat in a desperate attempt to get in the trunk and to our lost keys.  After 15 minutes of that activity with no progress made, we decided it was time for a locksmith.  

This was okay - if we found one in the neighborhood who could come within the next half hour, we still could make it on time to play the prelude.  We ran into Mannes in search of directions to a locksmith or a phone book, whichever was available.  We were in luck!  The guard knew of a locksmith a block or so away and there was a yellow pages available, so we had one member run down to the neighborhood locksmith while the rest of us started calling places on our cell phones.  We called several places that day - a couple were closed, a couple were out of business and a couple answered.  We asked two different companies to come as soon as they could and they reassured us they could be there within a half-hour.  The other member returned from her search for the neighborhood locksmith unsuccessfully, but it was fine, we had the two other companies on the way.

So we wait, watching the time fly by, fiddling with trunk button and and each stepping in the dog poop that has been (so thoughtfully) deposited right outside the door to the car.  Then we realize - we can call the rental company!  They will have an extra set of keys they can bring to us.  We look for the number in the glove and call - no answer.  That's okay - there's an emergency number and we call that number - nothing.  We continue waiting and wondering and calling.  A half and hour passes, and now the worst part - I have to call the wedding planner from hell to let her know what is going on.  Even if the locksmith arrived at this point, we would have been a few minutes late, so I had to call. 

She handles the situation much better than I anticipated; She is calm and suggests that we use her AAA card to get a locksmith right away.  We explain that there are already two on the way, but she makes the call and lets us know that there's a third on the way.  We continue to wait anxiously for someone (anyone) to arrive as we continue to fiddle with the car and step in dogshit and chew our fingernails.  Time continues to click on by and finally, after an hour passes, the locksmith arrives!  We know that if he can open the trunk quickly, we can still make it to the start of the wedding, so we're thanking God as he takes a look.  After a few minutes of looking at the lock, he explains that the only way to open the lock is to take the car door apart, take a mold of the lock and have a new key made - a project which requires a separate guy with a separate truck and equipment.  

At this point we are panic stricken - I call the wedding planner to tell her the news and this time she's not so nice.  She starts yelling and cursing at me and I try to explain our next idea: to send the violist (the one musician whose instrument in not locked in the trunk) and to try to find another violinist (or just a spare violin) so at the very least this wedding will have some music for the processional.  We race through the halls of Mannes looking for a violinist - or even just a violin that we can borrow - but it's a Saturday and all we can find are two pianists and a vocalist.  We start calling everyone we know that lives in the area and, after several calls, track down someone who lives a few blocks away who is willing to come.  I call the wedding planner to let her know of our plans and she is livid by this point.  The new violinist arrives and we tell the wedding planner we have two musicians on the way and send them off in a cab.  

Soon after they leave, the special locksmith arrives and begins to takes the door apart. He only accepts cash, so I have to walk a few blocks to the ATM.  When I return, he has finished the job and I hand over $300 and we're finally able to open the trunk and retrieve our keys!  We decide to go ahead to the venue to apologize to the wedding party in person and to see how everything went with the two we sent ahead of us in the taxi.   We drive the 45 minutes to the venue (getting lost several times on the way) and arrive at the country club 30 minutes after the wedding was to begin.

We walk into the club and spot our friends, who explain that the wedding had already begun by the time they had gotten there - the wedding planner hadn't waited for them to arrive - the DJ ended up providing the music for the ceremony.  We meet the wedding planner (who had inexplicably morphed back into a regular person, thankfully) and apologize, giving the deposit back for the wedding.  We drive back to the city and all go our separate ways home.  

Financially, this gig was a complete disaster.  Instead of making a couple hundred dollars, I ended up paying the $300 for the locksmith, $100 for the cab ride (for the two musicians who went up ahead) and $50 for the last-minute violin replacement's time.   Professionally, this gig pretty embarrassing, especially after I had reassured both the bride and the wedding planner that we were experienced and competent.  But personally, (and some might say spiritually) something else happened for me that day that wasn't so bad.  I realized that one of my biggest professional fears - missing a wedding - had come true, and I was still alive.  The earth hadn't shattered, my skin didn't melt off, I didn't have a heart attack.  I was disappointed with the situation, but I handled myself with dignity (minus the dog poop) and did the best I could do.  

We found out later that we had accidentally pushed some safety button when we stuffed all of our equipment into the trunk, which is why the trunk button wasn't working.  The rental place was supposed to be open when we called, but they had closed early for a family gathering.  And although the manager's cell phone was set to receive incoming emergency calls, their phone was malfunctioning that afternoon.  For some reason, it just wasn't meant for us to get there that day.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wedding Wonders, Blunders and Woe - Part 1

Today I played a wedding - my 7th in the last 30 days - at the Empire Club in Little Ferry, NJ. In general, contracting and playing weddings can be tricky and stressful, especially in NYC. Sure, it seems easy enough. But if you happen to do it for a living (and those of you out there who do, know), you realize there are just so many variables. Variables that can, in the best case scenario, be annoying, and in the worst, add up to failure.

First, we have the wedding party. By wedding party, I mean the BRIDE. Now, I would like to start by saying there are some brides that are okay. Several, in fact. But by-and-large, brides are crazy. This usually involves some sort of uber-high-strung behavior, like calling or emailing every few hours to work out some detail no one else seems to care or even know about, selecting music that is only available in Hungary (or not at all) and then freaking out when it doesn't arrive a week before the ceremony, or demanding the full resume and bio of each quartet member along with a list of every venue we've ever played. Brides come in a wide variety. You have your anal brides, your cool brides, your anal brides who think they're cool brides, your cheap brides, your extravagant brides, your clueless brides, your snooty brides...the list goes on and on.

Next, we have the venue. This involves a series of questions: Is the wedding outside? What if it rains? Does the fancy club demand proof of liability insurance? Do they need the papers faxed over or can we bring it on the day of the ceremony? How fancy is it? Do the men need to wear tuxes? What about the ladies? Those types of things. Then we have the issue of equipment. We need to remember music stands, the correct sheet music, the contract (in case of disputes), directions to the venue, a checkbook (to pay the other members) and our instruments (duh).

Next comes the most stressful variable of all - transportation. Usually, if the venue is in Manhattan, we take the train. This is always a little risky, because the train can be unreliable (especially on the weekends) and most of the people I play with happen to live way far away in the butt-fuck of Brooklyn. (Specifically Brighton Beach, which is lovely, unless you want to get somewhere on the train). So we strap our instruments, music stands and volumes of string quartets to our backs and leave really early. If the ceremony is outside the city - Long Island, Upstate, NJ or CT - we usually take a car (on a rare occasion we'll take one of the regional trains that service the area like the Long Island Rail Road or Metro North and then take a cab from the train station- but this is usually quite daunting and more expensive).

Driving is always a complete and utter crap shoot. You may leave 20 minutes late and wind up arriving at your destination two hours early, or more often, you might leave an hour early just to find every major artery out of the city totally clogged, with nothing you can do but sit and listen to the traffic report. So far, I find when the traffic report guy says there's a 20-minute delay at the George Washington Bridge, what he really means is that you'll be inching along like a snail for an hour. A '45-minute wait at the Lincoln Tunnel' is secret code for stand-still traffic for two hours. Once, on a Saturday, we took the Lincoln Tunnel to Red Bank, NJ and literally moved one block every 30-minutes before even getting to the Tunnel. We were supposed to be an hour early. Instead, we ended up having to sneak onstage halfway through Handel's Messiah.

Then, once you have dealt with the bride, figured out where you're going, have the right stuff and have gotten there, you have the wedding itself. This used to stress me out a lot more than it does now, but there are still variables at play here. You have to make sure you have the cues correct: How many bridesmaids are there? Is there a flower girl? Ring Bearer? Are they rolling out a carpet or anything before the bride comes out? What are the final words before the recessional? Is that hand signal you are giving me the 'Let's begin in 5 minutes' wave or the 'We're beginning now, I'm sorry that you have to finish the piece you are currently in the middle of playing and flip the page to the correct song, we've started without you' gesture? All in all, the possibilities are endless.

Today started out great. This bride happened to be really low-key, the music selections were standard, nothing weird. The only thing I had a little trepidation about was the traffic on a Friday afternoon. Even that began just fine. My violinist friend picked me up a full two hours before we were to begin playing and since both Mapquest and her GPS gave an estimated travel time of 45 minutes, we were in good shape. Traffic was moving well as we left Brooklyn, and we took the exit to the FDR. Everything was moving swiftly until we hit 155th street, where we became slow as slugs. This would have been no biggie - we still had almost and hour to get there and only 10 miles left. However, we were quickly running out of gas. Now I love my Russian friends - my quartet is from Moldova - and many of the other people I play with are from the former USSR. I love them as people and as musicians. They are excellent and passionate players. But they are stingy, stingy, stingy with the gasoline. We have almost run out of gas several times because they wanted to wait until we got to a gig in NJ to fill up the tank (NJ typically has cheaper gas then NYC). I mean, we've been close to being stuck in the middle of the FDR or Holland Tunnel because of this. That's a lot of anxiety for $0.40 a gallon.

So we're inching along bit by bit, watching the gas tank, listening to the traffic report and wondering if we should pull off and try to look for a gas station. The stress is starting to mount - we've been in traffic for about 30 minutes and only gone a 1/2 mile. At one point we pulled off the highway only to discover another standstill line leading straight back to where we'd come from. We're sweating because we had to turn off the AC to conserve milage and every time the car goes uphill the gas indicator dips down lower then we think it can possibly go. Finally, just as we have 15 minutes left until we have to start playing and we are just about 15 minutes away, traffic starts moving again. We make it over the bridge and are thinking we'll be just fine when we miss the exit and are sailing back in the direction of the Lincoln tunnel, which according to the last traffic reports we listened to, had a 45 minute wait in both directions.

Luckily, we spot a service area and pull in, thinking we can fill up on a little gas and hopefully turn around. Miraculously, there is a pump free and we pull in and wait for someone to fill the tank (it's illegal to pump your own gas in the state of NJ). We wait there for a few minutes to no avail and start yelling at the at the attendants who inform us that the pump is out of order. So we wait in line for the next available pump, only to get behind this huge SUV that takes like a half-hour to fill up. Eventually the monster SUV and his owner leave, and we pull up and the attendant meanders over to our car, takes our money and his sweet time filling it up, before sauntering over to another vehicle. The tank is full and we're ready to go, but we have to wait for Mr. Attendant to amble back our way and put our gas cap back on.

Once we're through with the gas, we peel out of the service area, back onto the highway and we're back on track. We make the correct exit and after a few more wrong turns and a scuffle with the valet, were at our final destination - a full 15 after we were supposed to start playing. We run into the venue, and are pointed in the direction of the wedding by a rather slow and pasty looking woman. We burst into the room, only to discover it's the reception room, not the room where the ceremony will be held. We go back out and are pointed in the correct direction and we race through the halls to the outside area. We are fully prepared to unpack all our stuff, throw it all in a corner and sit down and play immediately until we look out and see 100 chairs - with no one in them. Not a soul. The wedding was running late. So late in fact, that we had time to unpack our instruments and assemble our music stand leisurely, pose for some pictures for the photographer and still we sat there all alone for 10 minutes. This time we were lucky.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Today I Received a Sign from God

So today, I taught a few cello lessons, finished up a few wedding contracts and received a sign from God. At least, I feel that it was a sign from God. As I have mentioned, the hubs and I have been considering purchasing a home and moving back to Kansas City, MO, so I have been in contact with several mortgage brokers. I had been going back and forth with a few different people, sending some info here and there and not really getting much real feedback. So today, I finally spoke to one who informed me (very nicely by the way) that there was no real way we could get a loan what with being self-employed and our income levels. She explained how, if one of us could move back and get a salaried position, then after 30 days we might be able to make it work and during that time we could rent a place in KC or stay with one of our families. This totally sounded gross to me (my main interest in moving back was to purchase a giant Victorian mansion for $50,000 and live happily ever after), but I thanked her and hang up and was sad.

However, during the phone call, someone else had called on the other line. I recognized the number and thought it was my student who was supposed to arrive at any moment so I went ahead and checked the message in case she needed something right away. It turns out it was another friend who works at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music). He was calling to let me know that one of my all-time favorite artists - Joanna Newsom - was recording her next studio album here in Brooklyn and needed a cellist. Was I available? I called him immediately and received his voice mail. Called a few dozen more times (crazily) and finally spoke with him on his way to somewhere and found out the dates of the show. BOOM. It was during the time I was supposed to be in Guatemala on vacation.

There is always a risk of booking anything too far in advance when you are a freelance musician. Especially in this city. Many times my schedule doesn't fill up until a week even just a day or two before an event. I knew when I booked the trip that there was a possibility of needing to cancel it if I got a really great gig, so I went ahead and paid the $20 for trip protection. That's the good news. The bad news was that the girl I was going with would now need to go to Guatemala by herself (I feel mean) and the dates for the recording weren't set so I wouldn't be seeing any type of contract any time soon. I could go ahead with the hassle of canceling the trip, but I might get a call later from someone telling me that the recording had been postponed or they had decided to go with someone else.

So now I'm playing the waiting game. I'm going to go ahead and warn my friend that there's a good possibility that I might not be able to go on the trip, and wait for a contract to appear. If the recording happens, I'll feel terrible about my friend, but opportunities like these are the reason I live in New York. If the recording doesn't end up happening, I'll go to Guatemala as planned.

Although it may not be perfect situation, I still feel like I received a sign from God today to stay in New York. At the exact moment I was getting the bad news that there was really no way we could purchase a home in KC, someone was calling me to record an upcoming album with one of my favorite and most inspiring artists here in NYC. Seems like divine intervention to me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


So today I played another cabaret with Rian Keating at Don't Tell Mama's on 46th St. One of the best parts about playing with Rian is all of the great romantic stories about 'Old New York' from his 30 years of living in the city. Coupled with our pianist Woody (who has been a New Yorker for 40 years) and the 25-year history of the club, playing for Rian is like shadowing days gone by. As he likes to explain, Rian graduated from high school one Thursday in 1979, moved to NYC the next day (a Friday) and had started a job by the following Monday. He lived in a 4-story walkup in Manhattan and paid $175 a month, but had to have a roommate as his weekly paycheck was only $95. ('Tis a far cry from the $1100 we pay for our one bedroom in South Brooklyn, which includes at least an hour one-way commute to get to anywhere in Manhattan). He tells tales of $0.50 subway fares, a "Pre-Guiliani Times Square," (which included hookers, nudie flicks and other fun activities) and gives many references to the dangers of NYC in the 70's and 80's.

T0day, the subway fare is $2.00 and there is serious talk of increasing it to $2.50, Times Square is a tribute to mega-corporations, tourism and Con-Edison, and, according to 'The Gothamist', NYC is the safest metropolis out of the 25 largest cities in America. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy walking around at all hours in all places with a cello and feeling relatively safe. But I get the feeling that New York has lost some of it's electricity what with all this safety, gentrification and consumerism. It's a toned down version of the New York I grew up hearing about.

NYC used to be a place where artists would gather and things would happen. Big things. Think about the movements that were born and thrived here: The Harlem Renaissance in the 20's and 30's, Jazz in the 40's, the Beat Generation and Abstract Expressionism of the 50's, the Folk Movement of the 60's and the Hip-Hop, Punk and Hardcore scenes of the 70's and 80's. These movements weren't led by people that came from money and had easy lives. They were spearheaded by people who went through enormous hardships and struggles; financially, politically, socially and (one can assume) spiritually. These are the people we are losing here. As the city has become less dangerous and more homogenized, many of the artists have either been priced out or have simply lost interest in a city without as much spirit and grit. Take me for example. I happen to like a little 'edge' to my city.

Another great thing about playing with Rian is that he is deaf. He's deaf and he sings cabaret. He's not totally deaf, he wears an hearing aid and can hear a little bit. Now, there are good days and bad for Rian, pitch-wise and otherwise (I mean - he's deaf for crying out loud). But the thing about him is that he never gives up; he keeps doing cabaret shows and going to workshops and classes. Just as he's never loses his zeal for New York City. He's a true testament to the city.

After the show, my cello and I took the train to Chelsea. We walked around for a little bit and had dinner at this great little Vietnamese place. Then I met the hubs for a movie (Angels and Demons - eh) where we had to sit separately because the movie was moderately full and there weren't any seats left that would allow for two adults and a cello to fit. I saw a 400-pound woman who was balding, and had a particularly memorable experience in the bathroom where someone had projectile vomited all over the toilet seat and floor of the bathroom. When the movie was over, we walked two avenues over to our train, which turned out to be out of service, so we walked two avenues back to where we'd started, where a woman who I thought was homeless gave me a penny.

That was Tuesday.

The First

As I was riding the train home from today's gig (playing for a cabaret workshop on the Upper West Side), I realized it: I hadn't had a day to myself in over a month. In the past 30 days, I had played 6 weddings, a Wagner Opera on the UWS, a Suzuki Concert in Brooklyn, a cabaret show (Hot Mess in Manhattan) in the Village, Zach Williams' CD release at Mercury Lounge, a Barnaby Bright show at the Living Room, another cabaret show in Vineland, NJ (this time with Rian Keating) and recorded for Trinity Grace Church's upcoming live album. There were rehearsals for all of the above, lessons taught, church services played (I'm fortunate enough to have a gig playing at Trinity Grace each week) and extra church services played. Add an hour or four of commuting with each project and you've got yourself a full schedule.

In addition, I had two of my favorite people on earth come into town on two separate trips, adding a plethora of other activities. Before each arrival there was apartment cleaning, towel and linen washing and rearranging of aforementioned schedule (when possible). During visits it was planning, commuting and activity-izing: trips to Coney Island and Central Park, violin auctions, psychics, 'Hair' on broadway, dinners, lunches, breakfasts, drinking and long talks. After each departure were a few thoughts of the lonely city before diving breathless back into more busyness.

It seems like in this business it's all or nothing. Often I feel like I'm either too busy to enjoy myself, or I'm sleeping 'til 2:00 everyday wondering when my next job will come around and wondering where my motivation ran off to. It's a tough business and a tougher city, which makes balancing all of life's other demands all the more difficult. This month has been great business-wise, I'm making good money and making great connections. But it's also been more difficult personally, as it's been hard to find time for enjoying life and my husband's been struggling with work (he's a freelance audio engineer). We've even toyed some with the idea of packing it all in and heading back to the easy life where we came from (Kansas City, Missouri). But the city has an interesting way of enticing and pulling you back in. It's an interesting life.