Virtual Discussion Panel
:: Driving for Dollars
:: 2/4/2019 - 2/15/2008

About this Virtual Discussion (Click to Hide)

Ann Drinan  

Ann Drinan

Senior Editor
Discussion Moderator

For many months Polyphonic has been planning to hold a February discussion about freelance musicians who play in multiple orchestras in different cities — the "Driving for Dollars" musicians. Imagine our surprise and pleasure when we read of a new documentary about Driving for Dollars musicians, The Freeway Philharmonic, released just last Sunday (January 27, 2019). www.freewayphil.com

I contacted the filmmaker, Tal Skloot, who not only agreed to participate in our panel, he also put me in touch with several of the musicians featured in the film. We also have musicians from the LA, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Northeast freelance pools on the panel.

The traffic patterns are different in each city but the stress of juggling multiple schedules, driving long distances for rehearsals and concerts, having lots of down time between services — or none at all when doing 3-service days in 3 different cities — can be overwhelming. Why would anyone decide to pursue such a career? I'll let our panelists explain it for themselves.

Panelists

Meredith Brown's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Meredith Brown  

Meredith Brown

Free-lance hornist, San Francisco area

I never meant to have this freeway philharmonic lifestyle, but am lucky in that most of the time, I enjoy what I'm doing! Right now I have contracts in nine orchestras (for which I can't hope to satisfy all my requirements, there are far too many conflicts) and teach at two universities, Cal State East Bay and San Jose State. I also do a fair amount of school shows, which is hard because they are often EARLY, and I, like many musicians, am a night person! A "typical" week for me includes several double- and triple-service days, which leaves me feeling as if I'm shortchanging my practice schedule—sacrificing quality for quantity, always learning music at the last minute — and running my body down.

Lately I've felt this schedule problem weighing on me a lot more — I was rear-ended in my car last fall, got a whiplash injury, and am still going to physical therapy. If I don't have to drive much and do my prescribed exercises, I can be relatively pain free, but driving REALLY aggravates it. Luckily, since my husband is in many of the same orchestras, I can often rely on him to drive — however, that's not always possible, and gigs I used to enjoy can cause me a lot of pain. I've gotten out of some work but, well, we have to pay our bills. It's shown me how fragile our position is — we all hope no catastrophic injuries will happen to us or our families, because we really don't have a way to plan for that while living hand-to-mouth.

I was very happy to be in the Freeway Philharmonic movie and I think it came out well. One of the problems we have in communicating with our audiences is how the media portrays creative types—basically, that people who are successful are just "blessed" with a "gift" — a talent that comes naturally and easily. The movie shows how hard we work, both in the time we put in and in honing our skills on our instruments.

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Paul Castillo's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Paul Castillo  

Paul Castillo

Free-lance clarinetist, LA area

I've been a Driving for Dollars musician in Southern California since college, and it's fair to say that I "cut my teeth" on the Los Angeles
free-lance music scene. My primary clarinet teachers and mentors were free-lance musicians, so I really grew up with it. Becoming a free-lance musician was my first choice - I didn't want to be tied down with working with the same group of musicians in the same place - and the flexibility in scheduling and variety of music and musicians has always appealed to me. The driving for dollars part of it has always been a natural component of free-lancing, though I didn't think when I first started out that I would be doing it so much throughout my career.

In Los Angeles and the surrounding areas everybody drives (musician or not), and it's a way of life here, but dealing with traffic congestion is never easy, and I have never really gotten used to it. Early in my career I was willing to drive just about anywhere for the work, but for a few years there were some jobs I routinely turned down because for me the money was not enough to compensate for the aggravation of the commute, and I was very fortunate to have been in that position. Others were not and are not so lucky.

There is no typical workweek for me. It varies all the time. The most difficult schedules are when there is an early morning gig of some sort and an evening gig of some sort in the same area that is 50-60 miles from home and a two-hour commute each way due to traffic (all too common in the greater Los Angeles area), because you either have to stay in that area and spend the whole day with nothing to do in order to avoid the commute, or drive back home or to
your studio to teach, or to some other rehearsal or recording session in some other part of town, and at the end of the day you have spent 4-6
hours or more just commuting and not getting paid for that time.

A couple of weeks ago one of the orchestras I play in, the Long Beach Symphony, had a series of youth concerts in the morning and rehearsals in the evening. For many musicians that's a two-hour commute or more each way because of the traffic, and it's made more difficult because our rehearsals start at 8 PM (because of rush hour traffic) and end at 10:30 PM, and the youth concerts were the next morning. So, you get home close to midnight, and then leave the house by 7 AM or earlier in case there is a serious traffic problem (don't want to be late), and after a week of that you get burned out but still have to play concerts on the weekend. Some musicians in the orchestra rented hotel rooms in Long Beach at their own expense as a way of dealing with it, but that cost adds up. While all this certainly has its challenges and frustrations, I have found that for me, the advantages of having time off during the day (at least some of the time) and working with different musicians, conductors, music, etc., outweigh the disadvantages. I'm also a bit of an optimist - for me it's always good to be working.

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Bruce Chrisp's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Bruce Chrisp  

Bruce Chrisp

Freelance trombonist, San Francisco area

I am one of the musicians featured in the the film Freeway Philharmonic created by Tal Skloot [one of our panelists] and Steven Baigel. Six of the musicians featured in the film went to a public showing at a small movie theater in El Cerrito, California last Tuesday. It was the first time I had seen this version of the film and it was a blast to watch. After the film the musicians and the film makers took part in a Q&A session with the sold out audience. It was very inspiring to see how the audience was moved by the film. It made me appreciate what we do more than I ever did, kind of like looking at myself from a distance.

What really hit home for me though was how freelance musicians, film makers, etc. need a support system. Those of us that do this for a living and have health insurance pay for it ourselves, unless we are married to someone that has an employer that provides it. There is no paid maternity leave at all and no paid sick days in many of the orchestras we play in. Kale Cumings [another panelist], one of the other musicians in the film and a good friend of mine, was telling me about the health care set up in Los Angeles, which sounds viable, but would require those of us that already have health care provided to give up a raise or some other benefit in order to provide for those of us in need of health benefits. It would also require a minimum of work in the orchestras that agreed to contribute.

I was recently involved in contract negotiations with one of the orchestras I am a member of and it was like pulling teeth to get one paid sick day per year. I'm hoping that we can come up with a working solution to this problem, and I'd love to hear ideas.

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Christine Coyle's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Christine Coyle  

Christine Coyle

Freelance cellist in New England and NY/NJ

I am Christine Coyle, a cellist. I perform with with at least 5 different groups regularly, plus two different teaching jobs and a wedding gig group which does over 100 weddings a year. My shortest commute is 20 miles and my longest is 225. Of course the 225 group is my favorite to perform with. I have been driving forever it seems.

Back in 1985 I decided that I needed a car to get to the gigs rather than a bow to actually sound better. It was a practical decision. My all-time high for mileage was 38,000 in one year. I would drive 150 miles a day every night for up to 14 days in a row, and then have to drive to other gigs squeezed in between.

My biggest problems are falling asleep while driving, struggling to arrange carpools, car maintenance costs, gas prices, driving in bad weather, lack of parking provided for musicians, bad traffic, getting claustrophobic in the car in traffic jams, and staying calm when I am running late. I could go on ... The driving is the only thing that makes freelancing so difficult.

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Kale Cumings's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Kale Cumings  

Kale Cumings

Free-lance trumpeter, San Francisco area

I have been freelancing in the San Francisco Bay area for a little over ten years. Most of my work is in regional size orchestras, occasional subbing with the San Francisco Symphony or Ballet, and various casual jobs.

For me, the driving varies in terms of the hardship and stress it adds to my life. There are times when driving to work gives me a welcome break from other activities in my day, and there are times when I simply do not want to spend another second behind the wheel.

I am envious of some of the other panelists for whom freelancing was a first choice. I have always done this work with an eye to winning an audition for a full time position with a larger orchestra. I've been very close, but now am coming to a stage in life when I have lost some of the zeal with which I first chased that dream. It's hard not to see in that decline the loss of hope. As I get older, though, I am realizing that the job I've always dreamed of might not bring with it the happiness and fulfillment that a nineteen-year old version of myself thought it would. Does that sound like a rationalization from somebody who didn't achieve what they wanted? It's OK, it strikes me that way, too. For me, these questions are far more taxing and testing of my resolve than any amount of driving or other circumstances of this lifestyle.

Still I find that I am ultimately happier with my life now than I ever have been. I can only account for this by noting the support and love I feel from my family (for whom I am profoundly grateful) and my large group of friends, most of whom are active freelancers themselves. I have found our community here in the bay area to be full of people ready to help and encourage each other - not just with careers but with our lives. It helps me to think of the freelance community as more or less trying to build up and help each other to find the best life possible. If this is true, even if it is a result of shared hardship, what could be better?

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Marjorie Goldberg's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Marjorie Goldberg  

Marjorie Goldberg

Freelance violinist, Philadelphia area

I have been a freelance violist in Philadelphia since 1988. I went to the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, CT and then returned to Philadelphia. I grew up in the Philadelphia area where my first and only violin teacher was a freelance musician and teacher, so to me this always seemed like a good plan.

Over the last 20 years I have played in many regional orchestras, chamber ensembles, casinos, and theaters. I also play many chamber music gigs from weddings to recitals. There is some recording work in the area but not as much as in other cities.

I am married to a freelance cellist and between the two of us, we are paying dues to 7 different locals. At times it has been as high as 9 different locals. We usually drive between 1 to 2 1/2 hours for the regional orchestra jobs. The driving for the other work is less. There are many regional orchestras in and around Philadelphia, and sometimes we choose to play the same jobs so we can spend time together, and sometimes we choose to do different jobs, especially if it helps with babysitting costs and other childcare issues.

I teach two and half days a week, during the school day at a private school. I teach violin and viola and I lead a small elementary string ensemble. I also teach one evening a week at the University of the Arts. I teach string methods and a pedagogy class on private teaching. My husband just got his real estate license and has found this to be a great job along with his freelancing.

Since Philadelphia is a good city/area for freelancing, we are lucky to be able to pick and choose what jobs we want to play. Fulfilling minimum attendance requirements is more of an issue for my husband than for me, but it is a problem for many of our colleagues in this area.

Every week is different around here so there is no "typical" week. This week, for instance, I am playing Philly Pops and the concert hall is only 10 minutes from my house. Since I am close to home I am able to squeeze in other gigs around it. On Friday I am playing a memorial service in the morning, a wedding ceremony at 5:00 and then I have an 8:00 concert. Next week I am playing in Harrisburg Symphony. It is 2 hours away (3 in rush hour) and although the symphony provides us with hotel rooms, we will commute the first day of the run, so we will put 220 miles on the car that day. The next day we will fill our van with instruments, suitcases, toys, movies, video games, and our kids, and we will stay in the very glamorous Howard Johnson's. We both like playing this job and since they give us each a hotel room as well as per diem and wages, it makes the whole "schlepp" worthwhile.

After 8 years as the orchestra committee chairperson of the Harrisburg Symphony I have "retired." Unlike so many horror stories that I have heard, we players have a wonderful relationship with the management and music director. Because of this relationship our last two negotiations have gone very smoothly. The last contract was negotiated in about 7 hours! I just finished working on the first ever elected Orchestra Committee for the Philly Pops. Although this group has been in existence for over 25 years, it has not functioned as regional orchestras usually do. This was the first time an elected group of musicians, as opposed to an ad hoc committee, worked on the negotiations.

We have the usual concerns/issues that most freelancers have, such as paying for our own health insurance and a huge pile of tax forms, but we also feel lucky to be at a point in our lives where we can just say "no" if we are not interested in a job. Being able to decline work takes away the helpless feeling that many freelancers have.

My favorite part of freelancing is the variety and the friendships related to these jobs. We have made many friends over the years who we only see at one orchestra or another.

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Todd Jelen's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Todd Jelen  

Todd Jelen

Freelance bassoonist, Cleveland area

I have been freelancing and driving all over the Northeastern Ohio area since I was 18. I was lucky to have teachers early on who are in the freelance scene to refer me for gigs. I play in the Akron and Canton Symphonies in Ohio, and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in Madison, Wisconsin, as well as freelancing in many other groups in Ohio and Wisconsin.

Two years ago, I moved to Akron to try to cut down on my gas consumption. Even with the move I still drove just under 36,000 miles last year. I do enjoy traveling to my various locations for work, with the exception of the eight-hour commute to Madison during the winter months.

I really don't have a typical schedule, but I average working for about three weeks out of every month. All of the groups I'm in rehearse in the evenings and I'll often be playing youth concerts or doing educational presentations in schools during the day. I also will have up to a month off at certain times during the year. I don't teach because of my hectic schedule.

Attendance and the balancing of schedules seems to always be high on my list of concerns each season, along with trying to fill my year with as much work as possible.

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Tal Skloot's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Tal Skloot  

Tal Skloot

Filmmaker

As the producer and director of the documentary "Freeway Philharmonic" I have a bit of an outsider perspective.

Out of interest I recently reviewed some of the original interview questions I asked the musicians in 2005. "Do you enjoy this lifestyle
and what are the rewards?", ""What are your goals for the future?", What are the struggles of balancing work, finances and your personal life?","Tell me about the freeway community".

There was a lot of depth and openness in the musicians' answers. While filming and getting to know the seven profiled musicians over a period
of three years, I got a sense that these questions were contemplated over and over even when the cameras weren't rolling.

What struck me the most was that in the face of these daily and relentless challenges - driving countless miles, scheduling, preparing for auditions, having personal and family time, etc., 'driving for dollars' musicians continue to do what they love, mainly because they must to be true to themselves and to pursue their passion. As a filmmaker that's a wonderful underlying theme to work with.

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General Comments on This Discussion (Click to Hide)

Great topic! I've observed this growing trend for years, and I don't know what to make of it. I'll be following this discussing with great interest.

Yvonne Caruthers
yvonne on February 5, 2019 at 10:17 AM

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