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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 3

The Flip side of the Coin

by Marie Valla / November 1, 2000

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Emmanuelle Quiviger spent five days walking around town putting up posters. She left no stone unturned: restaurants, boutiques, cafés, and markets. It paid off in the end. Twenty people were interested, five signed up.

Quiviger has been teaching flute at home since receiving her masters in performance from the Université de Montréal. "I began teaching at university to help out with the rent. For the last six months I’ve been teaching fifteen pupils at home. That’s enough for me to survive." The 26-year-old flautist first thought of studying medicine. She never imagined having an orchestral career. "When I was at university I decided that money wasn’t important. I wanted to make my life in music, but I also wanted to protect my choice of lifestyle."

Quiviger’s story resembles that of many young musicians. If they relied only on their instrument, many would be living below the poverty line, says Emile Subirana, president of the Quebec Musicians’ Guild. Some dream of glory and work in the entertainment business while waiting for their big break. They have to live, after all. Others realize they are good musicians but not great artists, and have been able to recycle their talent.

Making a living in the music world

Roeland Denooij soon realized that "music is one thing, living is another." After receiving his degree in conducting from McGill in 1997, he spent months checking with the university’s booking agency. When it went bankrupt, he decided to fill the gap. His company, Creative Sounds Entertainment, was founded with the dual purpose of supplying good quality music for all sorts of business or private receptions, and of enabling young musicians, whether students or not, to gain playing experience in public.

"Aspiring musicians tend to look down on gigs," notes Denooij. "Maybe they don’t like them, but it’s a way of earning a living." His company’s policy is that musicians are worry-free until the moment they begin to play. For a two-hour performance (not including the time for getting to the venue), Denooij’s musicians get about $50 an hour after deduction of his commission, which varies from 10% to 15%, depending on the size of the event. His volume of business is around $100,000 a year.

Background music

Quiviger charges not less than $75 an hour for playing background music. She has played various venues, including an art-show opening in a florist’s shop—the florist having found her name on one of her posters. The fact that patrons don’t pay a great deal of attention to the music doesn’t bother her unduly. "It’s nice to be able to play inside your own bubble; to feel there’s just you and the violinist," she says.

Christopher Hall doesn’t agree. The 39-year-old clarinetist, a McGill graduate, has worked ten years as a freelance and has played background music on more than one occasion. Playing Beethoven’s Sixth for a table of bored businessmen has shattered some of his illusions. But, he says, "I respect musicians who do it as a fulltime profession, because they succeed in making good music despite everything." What about teaching? Hall says he hadn’t a great deal of patience with pupils who didn’t take their instrument seriously.

Teaching helps fill the gap

"Anyone who wants to teach music will find the door open," says Quiviger, "but it soon closes if you’re not good enough." Quiviger devotes twenty hours a week to her pupils. It brings in about $10,000 a year. To make sure she can count on this income, she insists on being paid by the month. Any lesson missed can be made up, provided the pupil has let her know ahead of time. She has three to four hours a day for practising the flute.

From time to time Quiviger and her pianist give recitals, for which they receive between $250 to $300 an evening. "Musicians who agree to less than the going rate make the public forget that behind every performance there are hours of practising," she likes to remind people.

Giving up performance

Some musicians decide to give up performing themselves and become involved in the music of others. Jacques Marquis studied piano and tried teaching, but felt it wasn’t for him. He went back to university and took a B.A. in administration. "I had a wide range of interests," he explains "I knew I wouldn’t make a career out of performing: I wasn’t good enough, and I didn’t like practising." His musical knowledge has been a definite advantage in his work as manager of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain. "An administrator has to understand music to manage 60 musicians, organize productions, and handle collective contracts," he says.

Jacques Marquis looks on orchestral music like a religion. You need faith to succeed. Hall prefers to compare it to NHL hockey: "Very few make it to the top."

Making ends meet

Even orchestra members have more than one string to their bow, so to speak. The Orchestre Métropolitain may be its members’ main employer, but most of its musicians work elsewhere as well to round out their income. At current rates in the collective agreement registered with the Quebec Musicians’ Guild, the Orchestre Métropolitain pays $82.50 for two and a half hours of rehearsal and three hours of concert. Annual individual earnings vary between $14,000 and $16,000. For engagements outside the orchestra, Guild rates apply, these being $24 an hour for a minimum of two hours’ rehearsal, and $125 for three hours of concert performance.

Hall has worked with most of the big ensembles in Montreal. One day he decided to hang up his clarinet—a somewhat bitter experience, as he felt that nothing in life would bring him as much joy as music. "I wanted to live in Montreal, and there wasn’t anything here for me," he told La Scena Musicale. "Maybe I wasn’t committed enough. I should have tried out for auditions in Thunder Bay or London, Ontario."

Marquis recommends that students who dream of playing in an orchestra do everything possible to achieve this goal. "But you have to be realistic," he adds. "Diversify your opportunities, take courses in law and administration."

You can’t lose anything by trying. Hall now works as a freelance journalist on radio and TV. He remembers a piece of advice given him by a fellow clarinetist in the Orchestre Métropolitain. "If you can make it as a freelance musician, everything else will seem easy." Hall shakes his head. "Nothing could be better, nothing more difficult."

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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