Orchestrating a Musical Career

I'm fascinated by what happens behind the scenes in the performing arts. Sure, I like to attend an opening night. But I also want to know what goes on in rehearsals, how a play or concert program is chosen, which performers are easiest to work with, and how artists feel about their paychecks. I'm not talking about irrelevant gossip here; I'm talking about the nuts and bolts, day to day experiences of actors, choreographers, sopranos or flutists. What's "normal" in an artist's life? How much time does she have to learn her lines, rehearse a new dance, practice duets with a stressed-out tenor or pacify a touchy director?

For instance, violinist Evelyn Pupello (formerly Moore, she just remarried): At age 54, she's a veteran member of The Florida Orchestra, which she first joined in 1965. With the orchestra's new season under way (it opened last week with Beethoven's Second Symphony) I thought I'd ask the tall blond musician to describe her work-life.

Here's what I discovered: first, that performers learn about a coming year's season in the spring and start practicing for it in the summer. "Our season is very jam-packed," Pupello says. "Maybe people who go to Masterworks don't realize that when we're not doing Masterworks we're doing Pops and Park concerts, Youth Concerts, run-out concerts to various parts of the state, so some weeks we may have four or five different programs to prepare for."

Summer work, then, is indispensable: Going over the Mahler Third one doesn't know well, and over the difficult passages of the Tchaikovsky Fifth one does. "It's just a matter of doing a little bit of advance work, and then you practice more intensely right before the first rehearsal," Pupello explains. "And sometimes you'll see people at rehearsal for one concert on their break, and they'll be practicing parts for the next concert. Because our time is very limited, and also, you know, the pay here is very poor, it's the lowest in the state ... and so a lot of us have to teach, and do other paying jobs too. It's kind of like you're always cramming for a final exam."

Florida Orchestra general manager Jeff Woodruff says the average orchestra musician makes a little more than $30,000 a year.

Pupello supplements her income by teaching at a church in Town N Country and at the University of Tampa, and by playing at weddings with her chamber group, Camerata. She says she loves both jobs, and would pursue them even if she didn't need to. And she's particularly proud to relate that five of her violin students played solos just before her recent wedding.

But getting back to The Florida Orchestra, and, more particularly, rehearsals: Six weeks before a particular performance, musicians are notified of the schedule, including the order of pieces to be rehearsed. Rehearsals are very regimented, Pupello says, with a set amount of time given to each piece on the program. Instrumentalists are expected to arrive with their parts already prepared; maestro Jahja Ling (or the week's guest conductor) typically wants to work on interpretation, questions of phrasing or dynamics — not on fundamentals. Rehearsals begin just before a concert weekend, usually on Wednesday and Thursday. There's a dress rehearsal on Friday followed by the concerts themselves at TBPAC, the Mahaffey and Ruth Eckerd Hall. Pops concerts, amazingly, usually have only one or two rehearsals.

Musicians aren't always ready for rehearsals: "Life interrupts us," Pupello says. "So sometimes, you know, we're not totally prepared, maybe we had sick children or crises in the family. We're still expected to show up for work, but most of us are professional enough that we can get on the ball and do what we have to."

And it's not uncommon that musicians disagree with a conductor's interpretation — and go along with it anyway. Pupello says she recently attended a conference on the subject of musicians and stress, and "one of the stresses is that we have no input in what we do. I mean, we don't get to choose the music that we play, we can't get up and go to the bathroom if we have to. ... And you know, if you have a different interpretation and most people do, I mean, you might have 88 different interpretations of a particular passage. But you have to have a leader, and that's the conductor, so everybody has to go with his interpretation. Which in most cases is very good, I must say."

Once performances begin, variations may set in, depending on the quality of a specific hall — affecting "our ability to hear each other" — or through a process of simple evolution. Usually, tension has been building up to the first, Friday night concert: "It feels really good to get that first concert done," she says. "Then the second and the third are so much easier."

In fact, emotion runs so high after the first performance, that "no way can you come home and go straight to bed. Our lives are kind of difficult that way because then it's hard to get up at a normal hour and do the other things that you're expected to do in life, like get kids off to school and everything. It just kind of eats into your sleep. But ... you cannot walk out of the concert hall, go home and go to bed. It doesn't work."

In the theater, a director will often give "notes" to actors after an early performance. But there's no equivalent post-mortem in the orchestra, aside from a concertmaster's occasional suggestions. And the same is true once the whole weekend is past. Yes, says Pupello, the next time maestro Ling works with the musicians, he might say ""Thank you for three fine performances' or something like that. But he's never gotten on the podium and said, "What happened to you last week?'... If there are problems, they're dealt with in private."

"Being a musician," says Evelyn Pupello, as our conversation reaches its end, "is a great life, but it's a very exhausting life, very stressful. And you know, there's the pressure of trying to meet expenses — I had to put three kids through college, and you know, the everyday stuff. But ..."

But, like so many other artists, she wouldn't choose anything else.

And that's the reality behind these scenes.