Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Significant Others on the Road

I recently received the following question in response to my previous entry, and would like to answer in a new one rather than in "comments" -- because it is a very good question!

It was really interesting to read about your touring situation. I am curious, though..... how many of the people on the tour have significant others who live in different parts? I would imagine that it would be a real challenge to maintain a relationship while on the road.

I would say that at least half the members of the 90-member company have significant others. Of this group, probably about a quarter of them travel together on the road. The rest stay at home, or are on other tours.

In the orchestra, for example, the concertmaster's boyfriend flies out from Cleveland to visit her once a month over an extended weekend, so this happens roughly once in each new city. He is not a musician.

The cellist's boyfriend also plays the cello professionally, a freelancer in the L.A. area, and has come out to visit once in the four months that our new cellist has been with us.

The assistant conductor (who also plays one of the keyboards) had his cellist wife with us for about five years, playing in the orchestra. Their son was born while both were touring. When he reached school-age, the cellist quit the tour in order to provide him with consistent schooling. (So we got the new cello player in August.) Husband and wife take turns flying back and forth to visit each other every month or so.

The second violinist's boyfriend was the Head of our Sound Department for a number of years. But several years ago, he quit the Phantom tour to join the touring production of "Mamma Mia", currently in Las Vegas for an extended run. His schedule is fairly flexible and he often comes to see the violinist whenever we are playing. She also takes time off occasionally to visit him.

The bass player met his future wife while touring. She used to fly out to visit him every month or so. Then they got married, and she joined him on the road. Now they have a four-year-old daughter who they are "home schooling".

The other assistant conductor/keyboard player's wife and three children travel with him about half the time. Otherwise they live in Las Vegas.

One of the woodwind players is dating someone who works in the company's Hair Department.

The Principal horn player is dating a woman who works in the Wardrobe Department.

The percussionist (who's also the show contractor) is now seeing a woman who had gone to college with him many years ago, and they've recently re-connected. She is a high school band director in Mississippi. He flies out to visit her on many of our Mondays off. She has also come out on the road to visit him occasionally.

My partner J. has traveled with me for nearly seven years now. His primary "job" was to take care of our Airstream travel trailer, and provide a home for us. We had a serious accident on July 4th and totalled both the trailer and our tow-vehicle. We rolled one-and-a-half times and are lucky to be alive, emerging from the accident with only minor cuts, bruises and a little whip-lash.

We've been staying in corporate apartments (like everyone else in the company) since then, and have come to HATE it. So we have gotten past our fears and are getting another Airstream trailer and a new tow vehicle in the next couple of months, and will resume our wonderful life in the Spring. J. will have his rewarding job back!

It is indeed challenging to maintain long-distance relationships while on tour. Some do it successfully while others fail. It all depends on the couples.

Early on in our commitment, my partner and I decided that we would NOT have a long-distance relationship. He was able to leave the real estate business he had built up with his mother and join me on the road very soon after we'd met. It has been a wonderful odyssey together ever since!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

How do I like touring?

I subscribe to an online yahoogroups list of horn players, and receive a "digest" of emails sent daily. I occasionally post to the group, in reply to questions about my life on the road. This is how I responded today:

On Dec 17, 2005, at 8:12 AM, horn@yahoogroups.com wrote:


How do you like touring? It's a great place to get experience for
better things to come.


Dear Nancy (and List),

It is the opposite situation with me. I'd already had 21 years of professional orchestra playing experience (Nashville, Mexico (Toluca), Sacramento and San Jose when I first went on the road with "Phantom" over eight years ago.

Although our 12-member touring orchestra does have some younger members (our concertmaster is 26) the average age of our pit musicians is probably around 45. I am 51. One of our musicians is in her late 50s. Many of us "older" ones have already played in major symphony orchestras. A lot of young musicians emerging from conservatories are trying to get orchestra jobs, not tour with a Broadway show.

Of course, times are changing and jobs are ever harder to come by, so this is not quite as pronounced as it was a few years ago.

This is ironic, because the current trend is to carry less traveling musicians with touring productions on new shows. Phantom, with its comparatively large amount of travelers, is an exception; this particular touring company was established thirteen years ago at a time when touring orchestras were bigger.

In symphony orchestras, I played much of the rep and experienced many conductors and soloists. I performed the "usual suspects" (Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Dvorak etc.) many, many times. I was ready for something different by the time the Sacramento Symphony went bankrupt in 1996.

Believe it or not, playing "Phantom" over and over again is much the same as playing Tchaikovsky 5th for the upteenth time. Phantom is a bit less tiring, though.

As with any job, there are positive and negative aspects. Overall, I believe that the older musicians come to touring jobs with a broad perspective, already having had their fill of the symphonic scene. We've "been there and done that".

Of course, there's something special about playing one of the "classics" in a big orchestra -- those rare magical moments we've experienced which keeps us wanting more -- and I hope to do so again someday as a freelancer. But at this stage in my professional career, touring is a nice change of pace.

I find that the most challenging aspects of being on the road is living in cities I do not care for; having to find where everything is all over again each month; changing environments from one climactic extreme to the other which is hard on the body, and especially, dealing with horrible traffic.


horn, (US) touring company of "Phantom of the Opera"

P.S. We will be playing some cities in Canada this summer! (Calgary, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Winnepeg)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Chandelier drop -- or, "The Rain of Stones"

Every once in awhile, something unexpected happens in live theatre. Phantom of the Opera is certainly no exception.

Actually, it is amazing that there are not more mishaps in this show, given the complexity of the sets (there are many electronic moving parts) and the various explosions throughout the performance. Most of the time, everything runs like clockwork.

Except for last night.

When the chandelier drops at the very end of Act I, the descent begins far above the heads of the audience, usually in the first ten rows of seats. The orchestra plays a series of rapid runs as the chandelier drops directly downward. It then sweeps horizontally towards the stage, barely missing the conductor's head on its way, and passes over the footlights.

As the orchestra plays its final punctuated chord, the lights are suddenly extinguished so that the audience does not see the stagehands behind the heavy chandelier. They are ready to grab it on both sides to keep it from swinging back and forth from the momentum of its journey.

The chandelier is tethered by a series of cables. Sometimes, in its final descent on the stage, some of the wires can become tangled as the stagehands reach for it -- especially if it is moving faster than usual. Last night was one of those nights. Some cables brushed against the many strings of plastic, faceted beads of various sizes (to look like glass, of course) and some popped off. This has happened occasionally over the years, so I've been able to collect quite a few beads which make it into the pit.

There was a huge cascade and rattle of beads on the stage, which sounded like a hailstorm.

Since I am now playing Principal for the next three weeks (while the regular 1st horn is home for Christmas) my chair is situated a few feet away from the edge of the stage, rather than underneath as usual.

I was hit on the head by a flying bead, and pulled my horn closer to my body to protect it from any further rain of stones.

The concertmaster was likewise hit (it didn't hurt, but could have scratched an instrument) and is saving her bead as a souvenir.

The flute player directly ahead of me found a bead under her chair, and gave it to me. So I've got only two new beads to add to my collection.

This kind of "live theatre moment" helps keep this show fresh for us, many of whom have thousands of performances under our belts!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Trip from Denver to Cincinnati. HORRIBLE snowy highway experience here!

This is the first time that I have been able to catch my breath here in the "new show city" of Cincinnati, after a very hectic two days of travel and then two intense days of rehearsals and first several shows. I don't have to be at work until tonight's show at 8, hooray!

The 1,200-mile trip from Denver to Cincinnati was uneventful. We left Denver immediately after the final show on Sunday night, and drove for three hours before stopping at a Super 8 motel in Goodland, Kansas, a few miles over the border, at 1:30 Monday morning. We usually try to get to the next state the first night; it's psychologically gratifying.

There was a dusting of snow on the plains in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, which gradually faded out as we headed further east. It took most of Monday to get across Kansas; the state is about 450 miles long from end to end. We passed through Kansas City during rush-hour -- not too bad actually -- and then across the northern part of Missouri to St. Louis.

That stretch of I-70 has always been dismal; it's a rutted, winding highway with lots of traffic, but it seemed slightly less horrible this time. Perhaps they've done some work on the road since our last trip across, a couple years ago.

We drove through St. Louis at about 10:45 p.m. and continued on into Illinois. J. had made motel reservations at a Motel 6 in Effingham, Illinois where we arrived at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.

It snowed a little overnight, so we were greeted with a couple inches of the white stuff when we got up around 9:30. J. made tea for our two "bullet" thermoses, and we stopped at Starbuck's for scones and pumpkin cake for our breakfast on the road. We had about a five- hour drive remaining to Cincinnati.

It is interesting to see that Starbuck's has expanded their locations to include some highway exits on interstate highways lately. I have always noticed the glaring lack of decent coffee on our travels throughout the country; it's nearly impossible to get anything other than truck-stop rocket fuel. Perhaps this is changing now with more Starbuck's appearing at highway exits.

We continued to see snow flurries on our drive through Illinois and Indiana. We arrived in Cincinnati around 4:30 Tuesday afternoon, and checked into our hotel, the Hannaford Suites on exit 12 of I-71.

It's a surprisingly nice hotel; much better than the Residence Inn in Denver. Our place is actually a SUITE, with a separate bedroom. We're on the ground floor so the windows in both bedroom and living areas are nearly floor-to-ceiling. The lack of light in our room in Denver had nearly killed us. It was SO depressing!

Our "digs" at the Hannaford Suites are a cut above the usual bland corporate apartment setting, with sage-colored walls rather than white, and passable upholstery on the couch and chairs. J. won't have to cover them up with canvas drop-cloths, as he did in our rooms at the two Candlewood Suites in July/August, Residence Inn during November/December and the little garage apartment we had stayed at in Atlanta in September.

Like Candlewood, Hannaford Suites does not have an oven, so we're forced to use the microwave. Unlike Candlewood, however, this kitchen does not have a dishwasher!

I jumped right back to work bright and early on Wednesday morning. Here's my typical first-day-in-the-new city schedule:

9:30 - 11:30 a.m. Seating & Sound Check
1:00 - 2:00 p.m. Sound Check / Tapes
2:00 - 4:30 p.m. Tech Rehearsal
8:00 p.m. Preview #1 (first show)

But yesterday, Thursday, was the DAY FROM HELL because of the snow here in Cincinnati.

I need to rant and rave for a few moments!

It started snowing just as J. drove the twelve miles to downtown to pick me up after the matinee ended at 3:40. He said that the inbound traffic was starting to thicken up, but not too badly as the snowflakes started whirling down. And he said that there was no outbound traffic at all.

By the time we got to the outbound lanes a few minutes later, though, it was bumper-to-bumper traffic. The snow was falling rather heavily but the roadway itself was not very clogged with the white stuff, since there were so many cars driving over it.

I admire and encourage driver caution, but these people were OVERKILL. Haven't they ever driven in snow? When I attended CCM in Cincinnati thirty years ago, it snowed like this two or three times each winter. So it seems to me that people here should know how to drive in it.

But NO! Everyone freaked out. The highways were totally clogged for hours, for no apparent reason. Even at its worst, the road conditions were not so bad that drivers couldn't have gone about 35 mph, and would have been perfectly safe.

Since the average speed was 5 mph (when we weren't stopped), the highways were a virtual parking-lot. There may have been some folks with nearly-empty gas tanks who hadn't expected to be stuck on the highways for several hours, so there were quite a few cars abandoned at the side of the roads. There were even some abandoned cars right in the MIDDLE of them!

It was as though there had been a nuclear holocaust and that major panic set in -- all bets were off! Almost total panic which was unnecessary.

It took J. and me nearly an hour to drive the twelve miles up the clogged highway to our rooms at Hannaford Suites. J. had prepared a delicious dinner of posole and sauteed veggies before picking me up. As we ate, we watched the Weather Channel and local Cincinnati news stations which predicted as much as six to eight inches of snow by midnight.

We took a nap for an hour and then got up at 6:30. J. suggested that we leave even earlier than we had planned, which was already early -- just in case traffic was still horrible on the way back downtown.

Well, it was WORSE.

This time, it took an hour and a half to drive 12 miles! Incredible.

The snow had accumulated to about three inches by that time, but the road conditions were not really so bad. J., who's from south Georgia and hadn't driven in snow until he joined me on the road seven years ago, did a far better job of driving in it than these people in Cincinnati! He was cautious, but not freaked out, and could easily control the car at speeds up to 35 mph. -- while these folks couldn't seem to drive faster than 5 mph.

There were more abandoned cars along the roadway (did they run out of gas?) and some huge semi-trucks were even parked in the left or right lanes, causing traffic to snarl up even worse. At times, J. created his own lane on the right (which was just the furthermost lane, but covered with snow so no-one was using it!) and made better progress. We passed everybody else, who continued to crawl along in the left-hand lanes.

Meanwhile the snowfall had tapered off, so the roadways weren't getting more clogged. But traffic continued to CRAWL at a snail's pace.

Although we had left our hotel room at 6:40, thinking it was plenty of time to catch the show at 8:00, I was obviously going to be late. I called the Stage Manager's office to let them know. The contractor came on the line and didn't seem perturbed; said "We'll see you when you get here". I asked him to ask the Principal horn to assemble my instrument and put it on my chair, to minimize further delays when I finally did arrive at the theatre.

This was a first in my more than eight years with Phantom. I certainly hope it's the LAST time I'm late to a show -- even for only the overture and initial measures of Act I's first number. I got to the pit at about 8:16 (we usually start at 8:06).

More than half the audience was absent. It felt so weird to play for so few people. I could hear the sound of the orchestra echoing throughout the theatre, more live without warm bodies to absorb the sound. The applause was also noticeably thinner.

I'm surprised the show wasn't cancelled. But our company already had its money, so why should it care? (Wow, that sounded COLD! But there's an element of truth to this.)

Luckily, the assistant conductor was on the podium so I escaped potentially glaring looks from our regular conductor. The latter probably wouldn't have given me a hard time, though, since the snow/highway situation was indeed so bad. He would have understood.

If this situation ever comes up again on a double-show day, I'll call J. to tell him to stay home until after the evening show, and I'll remain downtown and eat dinner between performances. I never want to repeat this very unpleasant experience again!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Traveling and Local Theatre Musicians: An Ongoing Dilemma

It is a beautiful sunny day in Denver; nearly 60 degrees. The weather has generally been warmer than usual (as it is most places now, during this time of global warming!) with many sunny days over the past five weeks. It has gotten below freezing occasionally, but no snow has made it to the east side of the Rockies yet this season.

After tonight's show, I've got two more days and four more shows to go in this city. Our last two shows are on Sunday. Then on to Cincinnati for four weeks (32 shows = eight shows a week).

The show's run here has been fun because for the first time, our little 12-member touring orchestra in "Phantom" has been augmented by local musicians. The violin section has been expanded from two to five; viola and cello have been doubled; the addition of oboe/eng. hn to the woodwind section; and most importantly (for the horn section) two trumpets!

Since we two horns are usually the only "live" brass (the bass trombone and two trumpet parts are synthesized in our pared-down "tour" version -- ugh!!) the addition of the two live trumpets makes our job a LOT easier. The brass chords are now filled-in nicely, and the horns are not as exposed.

It is a joy to play with these people (who are all excellent musicians) and to experience a more expanded orchestration of the "Phantom" score. I wish we could do this in every city.

But the situation in Denver is an unusual one, because of the strong local musicians union and their arrangement with the local theatre. It is amazing that both local and traveling musicians have been equally accomodated during this run. This should be a model for every theatre we play in!

Awhile ago, I told the lead trumpet player that going back to our usual pared-down orchestration in Cincinnati will feel like watching a black and white TV rather than color.

The situation with "traveler" and "local" musicians is a tough one, and not as easily solved as it has been here in Denver.

There can be a conflict of interest. Many local musicians think that traveling ones take away their jobs whenever Phantom comes to their town. When I played shows in Sacramento, I never begrudged the traveling musicians their jobs. It's THEIR gig, after all! (I had enough work otherwise.)

Touring musicians sacrifice everything to go on the road; they don't have a "life", per se. They EARN their money. Locals who have a home don't understand this.

In the largest US cities, the AF of M touring contract protects local players by establishing high "minimums" in the theatres, which displaces many of us touring musicians. We are laid off in these cases.

So in effect, the musicians union that I pay dues to turns around and puts me out of work in some cities! I have been on both sides of the fence, and understand each viewpoint. It is a tough call.

I didn't intend to go into such detail about this when I first started today's entry, but perhaps some people will find it interesting, after all!