Everyone has a limited shelf life, not just athletes. Musicians and performers suffer for their professions every day. As a concert and rock violinist, my physical pains include much more than the visible calloused fingers and neck hickey, which is actually a large and permanent 3D bruise on the left side of my neck based on holding the violin and moving around intensely while performing. There’s the neck and nerve pain directly associated with supporting the instrument that is heavier with electronics and batteries than a standard acoustic violin. There are repeating headaches from damaged nerves, among other constant pains associated with our injuries from repetitive motions. The dental bills alone could buy a nice house! We don’t hold up a violin or viola with our hands; we clench our teeth and jaws to hold it between our shoulder and jaw so that our hands and arms are free to move up and down the instrument to create the notes you hear. The constant pressure and vibrations to our teeth and jaws means micro-fractures in every tooth, and overly strong bites that could pull a tractor like the James Bond villain, Jaws. Our right arm is busy holding a bow and balancing pressure and speed while moving around. Unlike symphonic musicians, the Violectric and Fretless Rock rock violinists and violists stand and dance while performing, in 5″-7″ heels, often for over 3 hours at a time. Dancers (especially ballet dancers) understand that the costuming and footwear are part of the show to do the job entertaining audiences. The constant dancing leads to calloused and sore feet, as well as lower back pains. This is in addition to the upper back issues directly related to playing violin/viola. Have you tried holding up your arms for 3 hours straight? How about while holding something in them? Then moving them around a lot?
It appears there simply are not enough words to express my sincerest gratitude to Robin Cowie. For those that don’t know the name, Robin is best known as the producer of The Blair Witch Project, but he is in international news again for his creation of this year’s Howl-O-Scream themed event, “Unearthed” at three Busch Gardens and Sea World Parks nationwide. He is a filmmaking genius (I can call him that, even though he’s quite down-to-earth and would never say that himself). He knows how to create and tell a story from start to finish, and still leave the audience wondering and wanting more. And he’s very selective with whom he works. Perhaps knowing all these terrific things about him is one of many reasons why I was surprised and completely honored that he asked me to be a part of this project. Thank you, Robin, for trusting me to create the mood and soundtrack for your vision.
Here’s how this happened (it is a long story, like everything in life):
Do you know how some people love Christmas so much that they want it year-round? It’s a happy time with children, lights, decorations, and oh, the music! No other season has more music dedicated to this one particular time of year.
For many others, people love Halloween in this same way, and for similar reasons. I definitely fall into this category. The costumes, the decorations, the candy, and the frights that delight! The music, though, has been mostly limited to loud, rumbling and intense sounds. Screams of horror and shrieks of high-pitched instruments pepper every haunted house, with no actual theme. We all hear the subwoofers rumble and the digital piercing tones. Only a handful of actual musical themes have become famous, and most are from horror movies and television.
There exists a stereotype that all artists/musicians should be starving, working gig-to-gig, hippie-like, sacrifice-for-the-love-of-your-art poor. I’m sure this stereotype, like most generalizations, exists for a reason. But when did being an artist/musician no longer become a respectable choice for a career? And should this career not also encourage us to give back to our community, too?
In ancient and not-so-ancient times, actors and musicians were regarded as the history teachers and storytellers of their cultures. The Christian churches regarded their musicians as essential in following the rituals of worship, and those musicians also gave a tithe to their church. Royalty may not have treated all of their musicians with respect and dignity, but many a famous composer from several eras were regularly employed by such courts. In many countries, the musicians are still highly regarded as essential to the culture and heritage of the people. Yet, in America, it appears that unless you are a top 40 act/artist, you should always have a “day job” or other means to “fall back upon” if you decide to become a musician. Even the public thrives on the story and wants their top 40 artists to rise from poverty, playing dive bar to dive bar, and learning of their struggle and story to “be discovered and make it big.” It seems to be the premise behind all the music and talent television shows of recent years, including “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice.” If you don’t have a good back-story, then they really are not interested in you or your actual talent. A good back-story is essential for reality television.
Why can’t a person be a successful musician without having to come from dive bars or living at the poverty level? Does this struggle make them a better musician? Or more talented? Or more or less devoted and driven to succeed? And when does one determine that he/she is successful?
As a musician, I receive requests every day to play for free for someone, some event, some charity, etc. I could play every day for an audience, if that is what I wanted to do. So how does one determine when to say, “yes” to play for free? Honestly, that decision must be left up to the performer, but I hope this article will help him/her make an educated decision.
There are thousands of charities/non-profits based in my local area, and I think I have been asked by every one of them to play for free for an event. While I do have some organizations that are close to my heart, I make my decisions each time based on a number of factors besides the emotional appeal. These questions are not just for charities, but also for any type of event where the asking party claims it is for “promotion.”
First – what’s in it for me? I know we as artists are not supposed to ask that question of a charity, but it’s the cold, hard truth that we have to pay our bills and feed our families. Are they willing to offer me signage/ad placement in the program/promotional opportunities where I can gain future work from paying clients? Are they willing to barter in exchange for something else they can offer that I may need (physical space for a student recital, video shoot, or a CD release party?) Is there a budget where the musicians can be paid, even at a discounted rate? Is it televised or recorded for additional promotional purposes that I may also use? Perhaps a mix of all of the above?
Someone said “you don’t know what you don’t know until you know something.” Oh my, did this ever ring true this past week. I’m mainly talking about my recent shows with Fernando Varela and our dining experience at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa. This celebrity artist with whom I had the pleasure of touring treated the entire band to this delectable, decadent experience expressing his gratitude to us as musicians.
Having come from a very humble (read “dirt poor”) childhood, it was rare that we had any type of what I now consider decent meals. Most meals consisted of Southern staples (cornbread, biscuits, pork, beans, cooked vegetables) because they were cheap and could be kept several days. McDonald’s or other fast food was expensive, so we did not have that often, either. Steak was a treat only on the most special days, and even then, it was usually a place similar to Golden Corral or Ponderosa. When my mother played gigs regularly at a finer steak house, she would sometimes bring home leftovers to share. I would wait up for her so I could be the first to enjoy the delicious fare.
Just because we didn’t have the finest cuisine did not mean that we were ill-mannered. My sister and I were still taught proper table manners, and disciplined if we did not adhere to them. We were taught everything a Southern lady should know from how to walk properly in high heels to appropriate topics of social conversation. My grandmother said: “You should always act and look like a lady. Others will treat you as one if you are one. Regardless of where you live, don’t act like an uneducated hick.” And she was correct. We learned how to speak with a slight Southern accent instead of a country accent. She believed that people from other parts of the country thought being Southern was equated to low IQ and stupidity. She was correct about those misperceptions, too.
Each day led into the next as we only had a few hours’ sleep between each day and not enough nutritious food. Every morning started with a 4am – 6am lobby call with a bagged breakfast of bread and milk (sometimes a tea-boiled egg) for a 6am-8am flight to the next city, followed by bus ride to hotel, followed by quick change and bus to venue, concert, bus to hotel and/or dinner, sleep a few hours, repeat. Food? Sleep? Shower? Catch it when you can. I took 35 meal bars and 8 small tubs of peanut butter, and came back completely depleted of all, and actually looked forward to the meals on the plane (yeah, I know.) I understand that there are vast cultural differences between our Western standards and Chinese standards for health, accommodations and meals. Many of the hotels and meals were considered “good” by their standards. However, it really makes me count my blessings that I can live in America, where the air is clear and meals are usually safe to consume. Our hotels are generally clean, and the tap water is safe and drinkable. One can obtain safe protein at almost every restaurant in America, even vegan restaurants.
Of course, every one of us had something stolen from our luggage in Xi’an somewhere between the hotel and the airport check-in. For me, it was hosiery. For others, it was electric razors, medicine, anything that looked like money, and almost anything that was packaged (like souvenirs) or jewelry. The thieves had the keys like the TSA to open the locks and close them back so you wouldn’t notice until you were at the next destination.
*the following should be an ad for China tourism:
Are you disgusted by mildew and other dirty fixtures in the bathroom? Does dirty carpet frighten you to the point you never take off your shoes in the room? Are you bothered when businessmen visit the hotel for only a few hours at a time and are visited by female guests during the daytime? If you answered yes to any of these questions, do NOT stay in a “business hotel” in China. Does moldy air in the bus ventilation bother you? Do not take a tour bus in China. Does the multitude of toxins in foreign cigarettes cause you to gag and choke? Do not go into the backstage areas of venues nor stay in “business hotels” where every room is a smoking room and all hallways and elevators are smoke-filled. Take a mask and use it!
Each city did have interesting characteristics, but we had little to no time to explore, except when searching for bottles of drinking water so we can hydrate and brush our teeth. The concert halls in each city were beautiful, and the acoustics were wonderful throughout.
Xining Grand Theatre 12/30/14
Gansu Grand Theatre Lanzhou 12/31/14
Suzhou Grand Theatre 1/1/15 – this one is my favorite with all the LED lights outside
Xi’an Grand Theatre 1/2/15
Shanghai Poly Theatre 1/3/15
Xiamen Grand Theatre 1/4/15
Shanghai Oriental Art Center 1/5/15
Guangzhou Opera House 1/6/15
Once the concerts were complete, we did take time for a wrap party in Connie’s room on the final night. At the airport the next morning, we all said our farewells as many of us parted ways on flights to our respective home cities. As much as we enjoy visiting with each other, we also each had loved ones awaiting us at home for that first new year’s kiss. And a USDA Prime Beef steak, with a fresh garden salad with lots of veggies. And a hot, steaming shower with a soft, warm bed where I stayed for almost three consecutive days upon returning home. Yes, I count my blessings every day, and am so thankful I live in America!
The morning started off beautifully with Starbucks coffee and breakfast again at the Marriott, followed by a taxi to Dragonfly Spa. I had the most wonderful Chinese massage and foot massage (approximately two+ hours total). The muscles were so tense, and the female therapist was wonderful in working out every issue. On the taxi ride back to the hotel, I saw the largest screen down the side of a building that I have ever seen:
I then went back to the Marriott for lunch, then back to our no-star hotel to check out and got on a bus for the airport. It was a smaller airport in Beijing this time, but the security was extremely thorough. It took us an hour to check all the bags as there were so many things triggering the alarms (just about anything with a battery in your checked baggage).
During our wait time, I was able to walk around the airport where I saw two more interesting Santas, including one with a “Happy Birthday” hat on his head:
Finally, after a total of 2.5 hours of waiting and standing with no seats anywhere to be found (we already had to wait an hour prior to that since check-in was not open yet), we got through security and to the gate where we then waited another hour before boarding a very full flight to Xining. Another 45 minute bus ride to the hotel – yes, another Chinese brand with not a soul who speaks English. The rooms are at least a little bit cleaner, and I would give it maybe 1 star for accommodations. After a fairly decent night’s sleep, several of the orchestra members went to the monastery, but my body is still detoxing from the massage yesterday. *Note to self: do not have a massage and fly on the same day due to pain, stiffness and pressure changes. Therefore, I am staying here until we depart for the concert hall tonight.
It’s only days 7 and 8 of the tour, and they are already running together. Ana, Carl and I decided to seek out real coffee – Starbucks. We finally found one about a mile from our hotel in Shenzhen in a shopping mall. The mall had a strange theme for the holiday: “Bingo Christmas” and this was their decor:
We then had a fun concert in Shenzhen at the Shenzhen Concert Hall. Such a gorgeous hall! The acoustics were absolutely fantastic. I think this will be a similar design for the new acoustic hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
The next morning, we had a 6am lobby call for the airport where we are always herded like cattle to check in:
We then flew to Beijing where we were again dumped at this interesting hotel – Royal Palace Hotel. The lobby is beautifully decorated, but the smells and cleanliness standards just are not capable of being processed by my immune system. Again, no one here at the hotel speaks or understands a single word of English. This is a huge challenge when you have 40+ English speaking guests and are trying to help them.
Shortly after check in and lunch, we had to board a bus and go to the Beijing National Opera House. It is a beautiful building with amazing features. The hall is also acoustically perfect, and the audience was the most appreciative and fun audience we have had thus far on the tour. Our hosts for this city then took us to “Big Pizza” for dinner. The buffet not only had great pizza, it had chicken wings and other delicious foods that were not Chinese. Sure, I enjoy Chinese food, but I cannot eat it for 3 meals a day for 7 straight days. It was a welcome relief to my digestive system, too.
After a rough night’s sleep on the hard mattress (no spring at all and typical of every hotel where they put us here in China), I awoke and joined friends for a visit to Beijing Zoo. We started by going to the Marriott Hotel a block away (everyone speaks beautiful English and is very courteous), had Starbucks again and a good breakfast, then took a taxi to the zoo. The driver actually dropped us off at the BJExpo next to the zoo. So much really is lost in translation.
When we finally found the zoo entrance, we started at the Giant Panda exhibit, then worked our way around. I think we saw everything, but it is a HUGE zoo and we walked a total of 7 miles just inside the zoo. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and there was not much smog at all! The sun was shining and the sky was actually blue. While in the Polar Bear exhibit, my phone slipped out of my gloved fingers and fell to the ground, shattering the glass screen. When we came back to the Marriott, I met the kindest, friendliest concierge serviceman, Ted Shi. He wrote in Chinese the name of the place that fixes phones and even what I needed done in Chinese. I went to the location and was able to even haggle by myself to get it fixed properly. I paid approximately what it would have cost in the US to have it fixed, but I was happy it was done so quickly on a Sunday evening. Even the bank was open for me to exchange currency. After taking care of this problem, I met the others in my party back at the Marriott where we had a delicious dinner. We then all walked back to the required hotel, all dreaming how we wish we could stay in clean, nice accommodations. Still, it was another adventurous day here the land of China.
Ah yes, the true smells and sights and sounds of China. We were dumped in the absolute most authentic part of the city. Not a single word of English anywhere, no one speaks English (including not one person at the hotel), and people stare. Two (not just one) cell phones were stolen from our party at lunch yesterday. How? They each got up from the table to go to buffet (with others in our party sitting at the table), left their phone on their chair, and did not realize it was missing until they went back to their room. You cannot leave anything, even when you think someone else is watching from your group.
After lunch and the scenes that ensued shortly thereafter with our interpreter and hotel management, at least one of the ladies did get her phone back. I don’t know about the second one.
Several of us did decide to be bold and explore the area on foot. We ended up down a residential area where people definitely stared and knew we were absolutely and completely lost. We took a wrong turn, but managed to make it out okay. We then found a huge “mall” that was mostly similar to a US flea market with indoor and outdoor stalls of vendors with everything from food to shoes to power tools. During our explorations, we did find a lovely fruit shop where some of our party purchased coconuts and drank the liquid.
Several of our party then departed while Ana and I stayed at a coffee shop nearby and had a most delicious coffee, watermelon juice, fruit salad and club sandwich. The total for all of this, including gratuity? 100 yuan. That’s about 16 dollars for dinner for two. Very high end for this part of the city. At this shop, they had a dancing Santa out front that moved and sang Christmas songs in English, and a Snoopy and Woodstock on our table. They also had a Christmas tree with the big lights like in The Christmas Story movie.
After this, I went back to the hotel (which has no heat), froze to the bone while in the room until I figured out how to write “heat” in Chinese and went to the front desk. Moments later, a lady brings up a space heater and I could finally thaw. Unfortunately, this incident has caused me to have a sore throat this morning. Airborne, ColdEaze, and lozenges are my friend today. Concert tonight (Dec. 26) in the Shenzhen Concert Hall, which is about an hour away from the hotel. Why couldn’t the promoters put us up near the venue you may ask? Good question. I think it is likely due to the cost of the hotel. Western hotels cost a lot more than Chinese hotels.
On the bright side, we are getting an actual cultural immersion here. I am learning to read and write in Chinese characters. We see how the people really live. And it’s obvious many of the people who live here have never even visited anywhere more than a few blocks from where they live. It’s interesting all right.
At 2pm, we departed the hotel to go to the concert hall for a short rehearsal. It had been 4 days since our last rehearsal, and we were a bit rusty. When we got back, Connie, Mary and I decided to go have our own Christmas Eve Dinner. We found a place that served Western style food, and tried it. Well, it’s still not Western as everything seemed to be made to suit the tastes of the Chinese. But at least it was not the same 6 dishes on repeat for every meal.
We then got dressed and headed back to the hall as for our evening concert. The stage was very nice, and the audience was very appreciative and welcoming.
After the concert, I came back to the room to retrieve my Christmas tree that Jerry gave me to take with me. I took it to our late dinner with the group and we enjoyed a beautiful Christmas Eve together. Now for some rest before we head out to another city tomorrow morning.