Anatomy of an Orchestra Gig: Getting Out-of-Town and Staying Overnight


When working in Chicago as a freelancer many years ago, a portion of my work involved commuting very long distances. For a few jobs this meant travelling out-of-state, to northern Indiana, southern Wisconsin or as far as southern Michigan.

While the hidden travel costs took a big chunk of money out from the final paycheck the experience was, at the time, worth the effort. Back in those days, when offered any job to play I would usually say “yes” – even if the pay was not huge or even if I was, in actual fact, losing money.

I needed professional experience and for that, these long-distance gigs offered a significant long-term value that went beyond the immediate cash reward. They had a time and place.

On the road again

These days I no longer need to pursue this kind of experience, but I still regularly travel long distances as a veteran member of the Arizona Opera Orchestra.

For each opera, two sets of performance cycles are engaged: a set in Phoenix and another in Tucson. I live in Phoenix and for the performances in Tucson (pronounced as TOO-sän), I travel by car and stay overnight in a hotel provided by the company.

It is not a terribly long commute. The trip adds up to about 120 miles one-way; it takes around 2 hours driving at a reasonable speed. Still, I prefer to camp out in a hotel rather than to drive back and forth for each performance.

It saves time, money and (most important), energy.

For this trip, the trunk (a.k.a. the boot) is packed with my horn, a book bag of miscellaneous stuff (more on that later) and a suitcase with clothes and overnight supplies.

I should also mention that underneath all of the luggage is a portable music stand. This stand is a permanent fixture in this car, one that gets used for other gigs and for emergency situations where an extra stand might be useful.

The car for this trip is a Honda Fit. It was purchased a few years ago with the notion to save a little money on gas. The mileage has been about as good as it gets and I am quite happy with it.

Sometimes I will drive the whole trip in one session without a break, but on this occasion I made a quick stop at a state-provided rest stop. In the winter, Arizona is a beautiful place and sometimes it is nice to take a break and stretch out a little at this rest stop.

(See this video for another look at this rest stop and its desert scenery.)

A room with a view

At the hotel in Tucson, my room this time had a view of the back end of the hall. The Tucson Music Hall, which is part of the Tucson Convention Center, is at left in the picture below.

It is certainly very nice to be able to walk to performances and not worry about commuting or parking. I am literally yards away from the backstage entrance and this convenience provides for a very relaxed and stress-free arrival at the hall.

Book bag

Like my horn, my book bag is a regular appendage at gigs. For this trip I packed a number of items, to execute this specific job, to prepare for future jobs, and also to work on other projects.

Some of its contents on this trip included:

* These particular items will be the topic of future articles at Horn Matters.

Other equipment

Being a technology-oriented guy, I come equipped with a number of electronics.

I am not a watcher of live or cable television and instead prefer to read my eBook tablet or to watch movies online for entertainment. I always bring a laptop to get some work done, and on this trip a scanner was also brought along in order to make and send a few PDFs.

Oil spill containment

There is a slight difference in altitude between Phoenix and Tucson – about 1,000 feet –  and the shifting air pressure occasionally causes valve oil bottles to leak.

For this Phoenix-to-Tucson trip, I put all lubricants in a plastic bag to help keep spills contained.

Also, to help prevent “burping” – a pressurized spray of oil when opening containers at the lower elevation after returning home – I loosen the caps a little on each bottle, before each trip. This seems to help with the changing air pressure and oil leaks.

An excellent mute

The opera on this trip was Puccini’s Madame ButterflyIt has a number of extended passages with mute (as do many of Puccini’s operas) and the shining star in this venture was my new straight mute from Ion Balu.

It is feels to be about twice the weight of my previous mute and the opening at top looks to be about twice as large. It has a great sound, one that blows evenly in all ranges. I bought this mute at the Southwest Horn Conference, and it is quite possibly the best mute I have ever owned.

And too, with Ms. Butterfly looking over my shoulder, the timing of this new purchase could not have been better.

In the pit, two-by-two

This final picture comes from the rear of the orchestra pit where I sit. In this production I was seated in my designated position as third horn, but otherwise for the rest of the season I have been and will be playing principal. It has been a lot of fun.

The Arizona Opera horn section seats itself in two rows, at stage left.

Below, is a diagram I made a few years ago of our pit seating. It illustrates the two-by-two seating of the horns.

Our pit areas are partially-covered and in this graphic, the gray area represents the area that falls underneath the stage.

Click on this image for a closer look.

This two-by-two formation allows the horn section to hear each other much better than when situated in one long row and placed in front of the trumpets and low brass. Under the roof of a stage pit, this can get way too loud and uncomfortable for everyone concerned.

Fortunately, the trumpets and low brass did not like having a horn section in front of them either, so rallying support for a move to stage left and to be set up in two rows was not incredibly difficult.

Practicing in the hotel

Myself, I have no apprehensions about practicing at a reasonable dynamic and at a reasonable hour in the hotel room. Any time after 10am or before 6pm is fair game in my book, and at least for the time being, I have received no major complaints.

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Related to this topic and to close out this article, here is a video that features members of the New York Philharmonic in a hotel scenario.

It illustrates – with tongue-in-cheek humor – the dangers of practicing in a building full of musicians.

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