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Young musicians find work by creating it

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Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010

If competition drives innovation, then musicians have to be more innovative than ever before.

Each year, America's higher-education music programs generate about 11,000 graduates, 5,600 of whom are performance majors. Yet, there were only 192 openings at the country's top 60 orchestras in 2008 and 201 openings this year.

The figures are from ongoing research by Brandon Van Waeyenberghe, who is director of corporate giving for the Houston Symphony and previously worked at the Pittsburgh Symphony. His goal is to "throw a quantitative light on a question that musicians know anecdotally: There are not that many jobs."

Independent musicians, who don't have full-time gigs, are adapting in many ways — from using the Internet to forming their own groups.

Pittsburgh's Alia Musica, for example, was formed in 2006 by young composers to perform their own music. Ion Sound Project, formed eight years ago, grew out of the joy of playing chamber music together and to support young and local composers.

"There are ways in which it has never been a better time to be a musician. There are many more kinds of opportunities than before for a savvy individual musician that were inconceivable 50 years ago," says David Cutler, a composer, arranger, pianist and conductor. He is also associate professor of music and coordinator of the music entrepreneurship studies at Duquesne University.

Cutler's new book, "The Savvy Musician" (Helius Press, $19.99), has been praised by Jeffrey Ziegler of the Kronos Quartet as "hands down, the most valuable resource available for aspiring musicians."

There isn't one model for cobbling together a musician's life. Some jobs generate most of the income. Others are valued for artistic independence and other rewards.

"Savvy musicians are excitable about many kinds of projects. Sometimes they have several income streams and many activities," says Cutler.

Alia Musica

"We wanted to create an organization where our music was the priority," says founding artistic director Federico Garcia about his fellow composers in Alia Musica. Its performers are its composers, who are proficient on an instrument, supplemented by other musicians as needed.

As a student at Carnegie Mellon University or the University of Pittsburgh, there are "required performance opportunities," Garcia says. "But after that, we're nobody's priority."

Carefully prepared performances serve more than the personal gratification of the young composers. They are the basis of recordings that can be sent to competitions and performers who want to check out the new compositions or be posted on the Internet.

But Garcia stresses that performances are also essential to a composer's growth.

For example, in November, the Pittsburgh Symphony performed Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 7, which Garcia says is "an amazing masterpiece."

"But if you listen to Dvorak's Fifth, it's not that good," Garcia says. "He was able to write the Seventh because he had the chance to hear his Fifth and Sixth and to learn" from his own music how to improve.

Experience may be priceless, but for Alia Musica's composers, these days, it's also payless. Garcia says the performers have very seldom been paid for their services in the past two seasons because of cutbacks in foundation grants caused by the recession.

"When we have money from grants, we've been able to pay for performers," he says. "Mostly, the arrangement now is that they don't have to pay membership dues," about $100 per season.

Ion Sound Project

Flutist Peggy Yoo is one of the founding members of Ion Sound Project.

"The premise was not original — to create a money-making ensemble," she says.

After eight years, the group isn't there yet. Although, in 2008, Ion Sound Project became the first ensemble in residence at the University of Pittsburgh, its members are at best breaking even for their involvement. They support themselves from other work.

Yoo, for example, earns most of her income from teaching at Chatham University and privately and she subs with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Making money wasn't the only impetus for forming the group. It grew out of a chamber-music party at which the musicians found unusually gratifying chemistry with each other.

Cellist Elisa Kohanski says the group is about "making great music and enjoying the creative process."

"Amazingly," she says, "it continues to be that for us."

Kohanski started her freelancing career while still studying at Carnegie Mellon. She recently became principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra and a section player with Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra. She performs with the orchestras in McKeesport; Erie; Wheeling, W.Va.; and Youngstown, Ohio. None are full-time jobs. She drives 30,000 miles a year to and from her jobs.

The Ion Sound musicians share administrative functions.

"(Pianist) Rob Frankenberry is very talented when it comes to arranging and has great knowledge of repertoire," says percussionist Eliseo Rael. "I tend to do a lot of the PR, posters, brochures and managing our Internet presence — our Web site, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter."


If making money is the priority, working on Wall Street or as a lawyer or physician are obviously better career choices than becoming a musician.

Yet, making music can be so rewarding. For those who feel the calling, have the talent and put in the work necessary to become really good, musicians will invest their time even for work that doesn't pay off financially in the short term.

"I have a brother who is an engineer and another who's a doctor," Rael says. "They lament the fact that their work is not as rewarding as mine."

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