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Terrible jobs: Orchestral fixing

December 14, 2010

Pity the orchestral fixer, a person you’re rarely going to see or hear from unless you’re a musician being booked for a concert or indeed a manager moaning about the poor quality of players booked to play in your band.

Orchestral fixers – those with a database stuffed full of players’ names and telephone numbers – are vital. They’re also dispensable. They are integral to the contract which exists between orchestral management and the audience. Ultimately it is them who guarantee there’s an orchestra there to follow the conductor’s beat. Insodoing they almost always find themselves responding to the most ridiculous suite of problems (normally brought on by the very people they’ve booked in the first place) in a variety of near comical situations in a supposedly calm and collected way. They have to be all things to all people. Pity them.

I seriously doubt they get paid massive amounts of money either to offset the hell of the job. I can’t believe that the arts has changed that much since I did the job in 1997. I certainly wasn’t paid that much then. And I had an even tougher situation to deal with. None of the musicians were being paid.

Sure, they got travel, expenses and accommodation thrown in when they trecked to the East Suffolk coast. They also got the opportunity to work with a wide range of international conductors too. That was the ‘USP’. You’re a student. You come here. You get to do a gig with a conductor. You won’t get paid, but we will lay on everything for you.

It makes my blood run cold just thinking about it now. One memory seems persistent.

Picture this. A fifty-odd strong band all doing rehearsals for a high profile concert somewhere in the wilds of east Suffolk. Rehearsals finish early on a Friday evening. One more day to go before the concert on the Sunday afternoon.

When I arrive at the office early the following morning I pick up a fax message (remember them?) from a double-bass player. It was something like this:

“I will not be able to attend the remainder of the rehearsals or the concert on Sunday afternoon. I have been offered a weekend job in a shop in central London and have decided to take it. The job starts tomorrow (Saturday). I have left my double bass in the rehearsal room. I wonder whether you would be able to look after it for me until Sunday morning when I will be able to come back to collect it.”

I was – as I’m sure you’ll appreciate – seething when I read this. Not only had I just received what seemed like a perfunctory ‘note’ – so very final, so spineless it seemed to me – but I now had to find another double-bass player who a) was available b) could get to the rehearsal venue in time, ie 20 minutes c) could do the concert and d) didn’t mind not being paid. Quite a tall order.

Oh and I had a double-bass to look after for the errant player. And I had a conductor to placate who was – I need not mention his name – quite particular about everybody being in rehearsals all of the time. If they weren’t it was me who got it in the neck.

I rang round loads of people. An air of resignation had long since past over me. I knew deep down I wasn’t going to find anyone in time. That missing bass player would be like an albatross around my neck. Him not being present in the concert would detract from the finished product. It would be less than perfect. And aren’t audiences after perfection? It would be like one wall in a newly decorated room not being quite finished off properly.

So, in lieu of a player, I dealt with things in the next best way. We locked up the double bass in the safety of the instrument store (for insurance purposes it was vital we did this anyway) and waited for our bass player to return to pick it up the following morning.

When I arrived at 9.00am I discovered not only was the bass player there but his parents as well. They’d driven from London. They must have got up very early.

“Can I collect my bass please? Where is it?” he asked.

“It’s in the instrument store. I can arrange for it to be unlocked,” I smiled charmingly. “In the meantime, could you just drop in to see the conductor for me?”

“Oh?” he asked, “Why?”

“He’ll need to know why you weren’t at the rehearsal yesterday and who’s deputising for you during the concert this afternoon.”

I didn’t join the meeting. It seemed inappropriate. Unneccessary. Redundant.

He emerged soon after, retrieved his bass and left.

Looking back on it now, I’m not entirely happy with the way things worked out. By and large I have reasonably high expectations – perhaps too high? If you say yes to something then you should stick with it. And that might be one of the reasons I was never any good at the job because I wasn’t flexible enough. Who knows.

Whatever the reason, I can’t believe orchestral management has changed that much in the intervening years. So, next time you go to a concert pity the unsung hero of orchestral management: the orchestral fixer.

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One Comment
  1. Oh god yes, orchestra fixing is the worst thing ever. That, and trying to get the music back at the end. Come to think of it, it was always the bass player that was often the one who walked off with his/er part…

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