Racing commentary

By Miranda Wilson

In my late teens and early twenties, when I was still regularly playing in competitions, I often wished there could be some kind of voice-over commentary during the rounds the way there is in horse racing and other sporting events. (“…and we’re coming up to the triple Axel…AH! What a superbly executed move. I saw her attempting this last Olympics and she missed it entirely, fell, and injured herself quite badly. What a comeback from this brave young skater! She’ll be in line for a medal now.”)

Wouldn’t it be marvellously informative for the audience, and for the other competitors, if there were a panel of experts separate from the often mysteriously-intentioned jury who could give the whole thing some presumption of objectivity?

(Of course, the whole notion of objectivity is anathema to an activity such as music, but one hears about so much skulduggery in competition juries that it might, at least, provide some disinterested perspective on how the performers actually did.)

I’m thinking the equivalent of the triple Axel might be the notorious octaves passage in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, for example, or those wretched sextuplet passages in the first movement of the Dvořák concerto where you have to contort your left hand into some difficult-to-tune chords while simultaneously getting your bow to bounce. (“Aaand she’s coming up to the sextuplets! Will she make it will she make it will she make it? She’s the favourite in this year’s competition but this has always been her weak spot. She did it in this morning’s rehearsal but that’s no guarantee that she can repeat it…. Ohhhhh! What a comedown, she’ll never win now.”)

This past weekend, I finally got my wish. I was playing a concert at Gonzaga University with my wonderful colleagues, the flautist Leonard Garrison and pianist Rajung Yang. During in the first piece, Villa-Lobos’ Assobio a Jato for flute and cello, I became aware that a member of the audience was talking not at all quietly in the front row.

I’ve performed so many times with distractions going on that I am, at this stage, more or less impervious to them, so I reinforced my concentration on the music and tried to tune him out.

It wasn’t until we had started the last piece on the programme, Mendelssohn’s D minor trio op. 49 (in Mendelssohn’s own arrangement for flute instead of violin–who knew?) that I realized what this inconsiderate person was actually saying. He was, I kid you not, doing a racing commentary!

“Here it comes,” I heard him say to his companion, “it’s coming up, it’s coming up.” We were, as it happens, coming up to a particularly climactic section of the recapitulation. “AH!” he sighed, when the dynamic had come down a bit, “they did it!”

This went on and on throughout twenty-five minutes of rather difficult music. “How are they going to do this bit? Oh, beautifully done, beautifully done.”

Yes, it was annoying, no doubt even more so for the other audience members, but I couldn’t restrain a little inwards smile.


Faulte d’argent

By Miranda Wilson

There’s a piece by Josquin Desprez, Faulte d’argent, that laments the musician’s perennial problem. “Faulte d’argent, c’est douleur nompareille!” begins the text, plaintively: “Lack of money, it’s unparalleled sadness!” The voices work their way through a canon as the text gets darker and darker: “Femme qui dort pour l’argent on l’eveille,” “A sleeping woman will wake up for money.” While this may be a distasteful piece of fifteenth-century misogyny, the point is clear; we are all singing for our supper. (Josquin made this point in another work, the famous El grillo. The cricket, Josquin pointedly writes, will sing all day for love alone.The underlying message, of course, is “but I won’t.”)

Every day I’m amazed at how love–which is a huge part of this profession, even when you’re getting paid–compels talented people to make ends meet on tiny incomes. Most classical musicians have the kind of education, entrepreneurial temperament and work ethic that would equip them for success in any profession. They also find a way to live on air.

Back in the days when I belonged to a freelance string quartet, my income was ludicrously low, and yet I always had enough money because I exercised the same kind of financial prudence that I see everywhere in the music profession. My touring expenses were considerable–domestic and international plane tickets (two on each trip, since the cello had to have its own seat), hotel rooms, restaurant meals–but I was never in debt and I put 10% of all income into a savings account every month. I can see now that I was able to stay solvent because my day-to-day expenses weren’t high. I rented rooms in shared apartments, I had no dependents, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have cable television, I didn’t have a home phone, I only bought clothes from second-hand shops or budget stores like Target, I didn’t buy fancy gadgets, I was very good at working out deductions in my annual tax returns. By contrast, now that I have a monthly salary, I feel much poorer in many ways than I did back then. I earn far more than I’d ever dreamed possible (I do not wish to imply that I am wealthy!), but houses and children, though wonderful, simply eat money.

I wonder if audience members at classical concerts realize, when they watch the well-dressed players on the stage, how little money those people make. It’s hard to imagine that a person in a $400 gown playing a $100,000 instrument might be struggling to pay rent, and yet, this is almost universally the case. The gown probably has to last four or five years of constant wear, and the instrument is on loan from a foundation or a sponsor, who can snatch it back at a moment’s notice. The player’s shiny concert shoes probably come from Walmart or Payless, and their undergarments will be the sort that come in a pack of 10.

Even knowing this, I was still shocked recently while discussing this subject with a friend who had “made it” in every conceivable way. First prizes in competitions, major career grants, appearances in famous concert venues and important concert series, commercially released recordings, interviews in all the top music magazines. I wasn’t going to ask what he made, but he volunteered the information. At first I thought the figure he named was his earnings minus touring expenses, but no, he told me, it was his gross income. “I couldn’t have worked any more than I did,” he told me, with some bitterness; “I had several concerts every week of the year.” He made, by the way, about $3,000 more than what I used to make  as a quartet player. While we were, I think, a good young quartet, I’ll be the first to admit that we weren’t the top of the top. Was this paltry figure, I wondered, the best we could possibly have hoped for, ever?

This conversation made me realize that although I do miss many aspects of life on the road–the exciting foreign countries and cultures, the charming music-lovers you meet, and, especially, the chance to play Beethoven and Haydn quartets with three other people who care as deeply and strive as hard as I do for perfection–I really, really don’t miss the low income. I may still feel poor these days, but at least a teaching job, or any form of stable base income, affords a musician the chance to have a family. And I wouldn’t have my life any other way.


By Miranda Wilson

As a travelling musician who’s been based in the American West for some time, I now take it as a matter of course that I’ll be required to travel in dangerous conditions to get to gigs.

My husband and I are currently in the resort town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where we’re playing principal trumpet and principal cello, respectively, in their wonderful orchestra. Getting here involved a 90-minute drive from our home in the Idaho Panhandle along icy back roads to Spokane Airport in Washington, a two-hour flight from Spokane to Denver, and a perilous three-hour trip through several mountain passes to Steamboat Springs. Snow was falling heavily, and the steep, winding highways were thick with hard-packed snow and slippery layers of ice underneath.

We drove at about 20 miles under the speed limit in that peculiarly Coloradan mountain darkness–the darkest, most treacherous darkness you can imagine. Skidding off a cliff was, in some ways, the lesser of our worries. It’s wildlife season in the remote mountain areas, and while a collision with a deer could severely damage a vehicle and endanger our lives, there would be no contest at all if an unwary moose should wander into our path. I’ll admit it, I was pretty scared.

And yet, the thing we were travelling to do–performing music in front of an audience–is apparently far scarier for most people than the thought of driving through mountain passes in the snow, which of course is a fact of life for mountain people anywhere.

According to this piece in Forbessome of the commonest fears are snakes, spiders, heights and public speaking. I’d say performing music pretty much falls into the same category as public speaking. It’s a fear of appearing foolish and professionally inadequate in front of others.

And yet, for people like me, it’s something we thrive on. Perhaps the people drawn to professional music-making are slightly (or not-so-slightly) narcissistic and exhibitionistic? Is the possibility of appearing foolish less dreadful, or at least more of a trade-off for the adrenaline high of executing a difficult solo perfectly, of bringing tears to the eyes of the audience, of attracting adulation?

That could certainly explain why we practise a profession that is neither secure nor, in the vast majority of cases, well-paid. The love of music is only part of it, since good amateurs love music too–indeed, the roots of the word amateur come from the Latin amare, to love. 

I started thinking about the human delight in doing scary things for fun this morning when some of the orchestra members and I went out for brunch in the main street of Steamboat, which was blocked off for a winter carnival. While we were waiting for a table to be free at the restaurant, we stood on the pavement outside, watching cowboys on horses gallop down the snowy street pulling children of no more than six or seven on skis behind them–children who had obviously been skiing more or less since birth and didn’t appear to know to be frightened. I wasn’t sure whether I was more worried for the children or for the horses. But everyone involved was manifestly having a thrilling time.

Was it, I wondered, a common human trait to take pleasure in danger, whether that was physical danger–as in snow sports–or the psychological danger of public performing? Were the compulsions really that different from one another? Is that why people become professional athletes even though in most cases the financial rewards are no greater than those in the music profession?

My own main fears are about being hurt or killed, or my loved ones being hurt or killed. Not really from spiders or snakes, which I don’t especially fear. I’m more afraid of the things that are far more likely to kill you, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as cancer, strokes and, that’s right, accidents. I consider those rational fears.

I don’t consider fear of public performing a rational fear. I experience my fair share of slight performance anxiety–the elevated heart rate, the cold hands–but I don’t let it sabotage me. What I do for a living would be unutterably terrifying for thousands of people who think nothing of driving on American multi-lane highways, whereas I’m far more afraid of being in a car accident than I am of playing the cello in public.