About a week ago, I was contacted by Jill Olson Moser, who’s a substitute violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra. She passed along a piece she’d written, sharing her concerns about the current conflict from her perspective as a sub. I haven’t heard anyone discuss what she discusses here, despite the vital importance of the topic. It was a hugely thought-provoking read for me, and I think it will be for you, too. So (for once) I’m going to shut up, and let a reader take center stage. I thank her for giving me permission to post her words here.
9:10 Tuesday Morning
A handful of weeks out of the year I have a week of work with the Minnesota Orchestra on my calendar weeks in advance. Sometimes I get a call 2-4 days before the first rehearsal. I leisurely go to the hall and check out the music. I enjoy listening to multiple recordings of the upcoming repertoire and I begin a thorough process of practice and mental preparation. But not at all unusual is the 9:10 call on Tuesday morning, just as I’m sitting down with a cup of coffee. This call starts with, “Hi, wondering if you can play this week,” quickly followed by, “Rehearsal starts at 10:00.”
That leaves 20 minutes to arrange a babysitter for as many of the hours between 9:20 and 4:00 as possible, get dressed, pack up the fiddle and fly out the door. The ten minute drive downtown is for canceling anything that was on my schedule during the rehearsal hours, and starting to leave messages for babysitters to tag team with whoever could bolt over for my hasty departure. Fingers crossed, traffic flows smoothly and there is an open parking meter right outside the stage door, or I will start to panic. Remaining, after racing downstairs, unpacking, checking the seating assignment and sitting in my chair, are about 30 seconds to glance at what I will be sight reading over the next two rehearsals. The rehearsal breaks on Tuesday are dedicated to rearranging my schedule for the rest of the week and lining up child care. If that goes smoothly, I hopefully have time to woodshed a few tricky passages. Believe me, these weeks fly by, as a Thursday morning Coffee Concert is just breaths away. Before I know it, I’m repeating the third performance on Saturday night of music that may have been foreign just days before.
Crazy, right? It is a funny thing, because I love it. Those crazy weeks are the mainstay of my career. You might ask, “Why don’t you make sure you’re at least dressed by 9:00 on Tuesday mornings? Well the thing is, there were years in which I always was. But budgets get cut, contracts require musicians to play with smaller sections, Young Peoples Concerts and Pops concerts that were once played by a full orchestra are now cut down to a few stands in a section. And what I can hardly believe enough to put in writing, orchestras get locked out. So now, I don’t plan on that call.
But let me back up a bit more. Because we subs could be secret agents for all of the notice we garner. You probably recognize us, we are a loyal bunch, and are so well treated that we stick around. In fact, we make a choice to build our careers around a job that doesn’t name us, and clearly doesn’t come with any job security or guarantees. Some of us have won other auditions for full time, decent paying symphony jobs and turned them down. Some of us have been offered stable University teaching jobs, but turned them down. Some of us could have been the tenured stand partners we play with from week to week, had the wind blown the other way in an audition. In part, the reason we keep subbing is because the sub work allows us to play with one of the greatest orchestras in the world. Because to quit subbing with the Minnesota Orchestra in order to play in a lesser orchestra isn’t so appealing. But lets be real here, it is also because we can make a decent living while doing so. Given the cost of living in the Twin Cities, the sub pay makes for a higher quality of life than many other “real” music jobs.
This takes me to the gamble. I could be talking about the fact that, at least in the violin section, we audition annually. From year to year I risk my place on the sub list. I could go from making $50K one year to making $12K the next if my Don Juan sucks at the audition. It is not easy re-auditioning, without a screen, in front of your colleagues. Let me say, every one of us agrees. It sucks. But actually, this isn’t the gamble I’m talking about. I’m talking about how a sub balances their work, because after all, we are freelancers.
In 2001 when I first won a spot on the sub list, I picked up and moved to Minneapolis. Shortly thereafter I won a sub spot with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Times were good. My weeks would fill with work from one orchestra or the other, and weeks that I wasn’t hired were a nice break. Time to get ahead with practicing other stuff. Those times are long gone. SPCO has had deep budget cuts and additionally, for years has been importing many of their violin subs from elsewhere. As I said before, in recent years Minnesota Orchestra has played with reduced sections, even for subscription weeks. So, the balance becomes more complicated.
Nothing in town compares to the pay of subbing with the Minnesota Orchestra for a freelancer. Depending on how much less something else pays, taking other work can really backfire. Also well paying is the Minnesota Opera, but even then it isn’t a clear decision. For instance, to play with Minnesota Opera, from just a financial perspective, it must not in its three weeks of rehearsal and performances conflict with even one week of Minnesota Orchestra, or you are losing money. If you sign a contract with the Opera for one production and then Minnesota Orchestra calls for all three of those weeks, you are out a couple thousand dollars. The subs are divided on whether that is a good gamble. Work with the Opera however, is guaranteed up to a year in advance, and some subs opt for that certainty. As you can imagine, our brains are always doing these calculations. But the reason I even go into this is because, it is in the best interest of the Minnesota Orchestra to have their best subs available when the orchestra calls at 9:10 on Tuesday morning. After all, these subs are not only expected to contribute and blend with the sound of the incredible sections they play in, they are expected to do it while sight reading.
There was an interesting Sommerfest concert this summer in which the cellos were featured in the Overture to William Tell. Five solo celli taking front and center. The Principal cello was out of town. In fact, due to injuries, illness and vacation days, the only orchestra members playing in the cello section for that concert were sitting on the front stand. The rest of the section was subs, including three of the solo parts. It sounded incredible! This was a concert in which Andrew Litton spoke in support of the musicians. He talked about how the measure of a truly great orchestra is in its depth. That it isn’t just superstar principal players that make a great orchestra, but having for instance, a full section of cellists worthy of featuring. I would add that another measure of a great orchestra is to have depth in its sub pool, which doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens because the musicians of the orchestra have fought for years to defend fair compensation for their subs. They understand that the quality of their orchestra depends on the support of this community of freelancers. Because on occasion you will end up featuring a cello section full of subs, and they have to sound great.
I do not write seeking a pat on the back; as subs we recognize that our names will not be listed in the program. But now as musicians have been locked out by management, I think about the future of this remarkable orchestra, and I can’t help but reflect on the important role subs play in this great ensemble. We tour the world alongside our tenured colleagues and sit side by side in intense and amazing recording sessions. There is no room for anything but the best, from any of us. We have all been pushed to grow and to improve under the baton of Osmo Vanska, and we too have done what has been asked of us. Our role could become even more vital, to step up as orchestra musicians seek other opportunities. But while musician pay is on the chopping block, I have a hunch that an easier cut by far will be slashing sub pay. A move which initially will leave us scrambling to scoop up whatever other work we can, and for many of us will be the moment when it no longer makes sense to have a career as a sub. We will follow the logical path toward reliable work; a smaller orchestra job, a teaching position, or subbing in another town. Even if we stay in town, when that 9:10 call comes on Tuesday morning, it just might not be worth it.