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A Freelance Week

You know, freelancers get no respect.  We respect each other, sure, but if I meet another oboist and we start comparing resumes, there’s a real difference in status between the person with one job in a full time orchestra and the person with multiple smaller jobs.  Even though a busy freelancer might actually earn more in a year, or may have higher quality musical experiences much of the time, there’s definitely a stigma attached to that lifestyle which disappears for the person who can state their employer and position in one simple sentence.

But the freelancers I know are some of the finest musicians I have encountered, and the couple of weeks I am engrossed in right now well represent the challenges and joys of the job.

During these two weeks, my own orchestras did not have big concert cycles, but I am certainly bringing in my share of the household income.  On top of my regular teaching (there would have been more if all of the colleges were all still in session) I worked with five different ensembles.  One wind quintet (rehearsal and two performances), two separate pick-up orchestras (one rehearsal and one concert apiece) playing second oboe, one gala event playing principal in my own orchestra (while also trying actively to meet our donors and be socially delightful), and now a week of substituting as principal in another regional orchestra.  In each case, I was acting a different role, with different colleagues, in a different venue.  At times I was sight-reading repertoire that was not available in advance, and following an unfamiliar conductor in a venue new to me. 

And these elements all do make a difference.  During a week in my own orchestra, I know who I’ll be working with.  The principal winds all play together in a quintet, and we know each other’s playing very well.  I have a good relationship with my section, and with the conductor, and a history of success which makes a small mistake or two matter less.   I know what kind of reed I’ll need in the hall, and how much to push to get my sound out, and where to park and how close the restroom is to the stage.   It’s pretty comfortable. 

In contrast, when I work in a new group, I have to be hyper-aware.  To play good second oboe, I have to lock in my sound, style, and pitch to those of another person, with whom I haven’t worked extensively.  To play in a chamber ensemble, I have to intuit the phrasing and dynamic levels of my colleagues to predict just where and how strongly to play, and also understand in the split second that it happens who I should be following, and also, of course, try to present my part in a compelling way.   There’s inevitably more guesswork involved in this than when I play with my own group, because music is going on in real time.  I can’t think intellectually about who to follow or what to do - I just have to react and go.

In some cases, I’m sight-reading this music at the same time - translating the dots, lines, and symbols on the page into audible music as it is going on, and trying to catch every marking the composer has given us.   When I perform a piece in my contracted orchestra, I can expect to have it two weeks or more in advance, and can take my time studying and preparing it.   Sightreading in English is no harder than recognizing the letters and words, but in music each note can have a ton of information attached to it.  The precise pitch, its duration, whether I approach it with or without my tongue and how strongly, how I release it, how loudly to play it, its relative importance in the phrase - all of these factors are communicated in our notation system, and I have to pay attention to all the details while playing music that I was perhaps issued minutes before. 

I love it.  Love the challenge, love getting to see different people at every gig I go out on.  New music every week keeps things interesting.  To be fair, four different concerts last week was perhaps a bit much - a lot of changing gears and reeds and trying to sense what a conductor or a colleague was up to, a lot of REALLY uncomfortable folding chairs, and certainly a lot of driving. 

My purpose in this post is only to point out that in many ways making music on a freelance basis can be more difficult than playing in a full-time orchestra, and the people I work with in this context are well worth our respect.  Don’t sell the freelancers short! 


  1. I think we truly owe a debt of gratitude to the freelancers. One thing you didn’t mention is that they constitute a large pool of always available performers, who like the challenge of novelty, not only in music but also in human companionship.
    On sight reading I should think that with today’s technology copies of the music could easily be made available to the performers well in advance.(Rarely is there an issue of copyright involved).
    Thanks for all the good information. You make us part of an enchanting world.

  2. Thanks, Dimitri! Always good to hear your responses. The technology certainly exists to get music out in a timely manner, but the will to do so is not always as strong. This is rarely an issue for an actual orchestra - they have policies and personnel in place to do the copying and emailing - but for a small pickup group or a church gig or or is not always a priority. Just adds to the challenge, says I!


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