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Playing through the holidays

Published December 19, 2011 9:48 am

Music • Welcome to "Nutcracker" and "Messiah" season, where Utah's small band of professional freelance musicians celebrate the busiest gig schedule of the year.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Making a living as a professional musician is possible in Utah — if you're extremely skilled, that is, and willing to stitch together a complicated patchwork of gigs, lessons and studio work.

Daron Bradford has chosen the freelance life, and producers and music directors who hire such artists keep his number on speed-dial. It's an especially busy time of year for this musical polymath.

Bradford is more than a clarinetist or woodwind doubler, an orchestra pit musician who can switch among flute, saxophone and clarinet and their variants. He owns more than 100 instruments and plays them with professional expertise. His ability to do the work of several musicians stretches budgets for those who hire him.

Gigging your way to a professional life • In the past couple of weeks, Bradford's evening gigs included Lex de Azevedo's "Gloria," multiple performances of Kurt Bestor's Christmas show, subbing with the Utah Symphony and in the orchestra for "Annie" at Pioneer Theatre, and playing for private concerts and parties. Not on the ledger are the hours he donated to rehearse and perform with the Orchestra at Temple Square.

Bradford spends his days driving up and down the Wasatch Front to teach lessons and classes at Brigham Young University, manage the clarinet division of an instrument manufacturing company, and play in various recording sessions for film scores, musicals, advertisements and local CD projects.

He keeps Sunday afternoons open for time at home and says his family is supportive of his challenging schedule. He'll have more time at home in January, when contract work slows to a trickle for a few weeks.

Working as a freelance musician requires a particular skill set, says violinist Meredith Campbell, a prominent Utah freelancer.

"You have to be a top-dog sight-reader and be able to play in tune, with beautiful sound," Campbell said. "You just walk into a situation, sit down and play what is on that page."

Frumps need not apply • If there's a rehearsal — typically, there's no more than one — musicians must retain all conductor comments, markings and corrections. Mistakes happen, but they mustn't be repeated.

"Some musicians don't come back and play again," Campbell said. "They just can't stay with it. You have to have total awareness in every aspect of your playing."

Concentration is required for high-production shows such as the nearly annual tour of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, for which players are seated onstage amid laser beams and shooting flames, Campbell said. (This year's show is scheduled for Dec. 28 at EnergySolutions Arena.)

Musicians learn not to wear perfumes and scented lotions so they don't cause allergic congestion for players of wind instruments, and they have to keep their instruments in top condition. Campbell has her violin restrung and bow rehaired as the holiday season approaches.

It's also important to keep a flexible schedule, because musicians who say "yes" when called get called again. And — a recently added wrinkle — shows with onstage musicians are increasingly asking for musicians who don't look "frumpy."

"Suddenly, we have to think about how we look, not just how we play," Campbell said.

The 'Nutcracker' challenge • There's a particular challenge for musicians who perform for shows that do long runs each year, especially Ballet West's "Nutcracker."

Weber State University music professor Michael Palumbo has played viola for "The Nutcracker" for 20 years. Performing a specified number of shows for Ballet West's holiday cash cow is required for members of Utah Chamber Orchestra players, which also plays for other Ballet West performances, he said.

"It gets a little tedious," Palumbo said. "You have to be careful that you don't go off into la-la land. You have to keep your wits sharp even though you may have played the thing 400 times."

Palumbo doesn't run from the room when "Nutcracker" tunes blare from sound systems at stores and parties, as some musicians and dancers are rumored to do. "You can't avoid it," he said, laughing. "You can run, but you can't hide. It's the holiday season — 'The Nutcracker' is all-pervasive."

Campbell has played her share of repetitive holiday gigs and has her own method for surmounting overexposure to holiday classics such as "Messiah," which she performed last week with Michael Huff's Utah Voices choir. It's a trick shared with her by violin superstar Jaime Laredo during an audition.

Laredo advised using performance time as an active exercise in improving skills. "Every time I go to perform, it's an intense practice session — a re-audition," she said. "I'm trying for perfection in tone and impact, and aware of everything going on onstage. Because I'm trying to play every single note perfectly, I keep myself from falling into the rut of 'been-there-done-that.' I'm trying to create beauty."

Having a holiday — at intermission • The holiday prevalence of opportunities to play is a blessing, Campbell says, albeit a mixed one.

"Because the music is so marvelous, it's invigorating," she says. "But you know that you are going to miss much of what would be considered the fun and games of Christmas."

Musicians often bring treats to their gigs and enjoy them together during breaks, she said. "We have to make our own party happen, because we know we are missing other things."

Musicians start looking haggard by the end of the holiday season, Campbell says. "That's just the way it is," she said. "But then you smile to yourself, and think 'At least I've got some nuts in my cheeks that I can bury at home for the less wonderful season coming up when there is very little employment.' "

"Nutcracker" performances will continue through New Year's Eve, but for most freelancers, work will taper off a few days before Christmas.

That's when Bradford will do his Christmas shopping. He's accustomed to living this way and said making music and working with good, talented people makes it worthwhile.

"My sleep time gets short, and my schedule gets crazy sometimes," he said. "There are days when I make several trips between Bountiful and Provo. But I still love doing it, and I'm glad I can. There are very few things I do just for the money. I'm just glad I get paid, so I can keep doing this."

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Shows featuring Utah's freelance musicians

Here are just a few of the holiday shows that employ some of Utah's hardy band of freelance professional musicians.

Through Dec. 23 • "Annie," Pioneer Theatre Company's rendition of the 1977 Broadway smash about everyone's favorite red-headed holiday orphan, with 11-year-old Los Angeles and Park City resident Sami Staitman in the title role; Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City; Mondays to Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m., with additional 2 p.m. matinees Dec. 21 and 23; $36-$57, with children grades K-12 half-price on Mondays and Tuesdays; 801-581-6961 or www.pioneertheatre.org.

Through Dec. 31 • Ballet West's "The Nutcracker," Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City (no shows Sunday and selected Mondays and Tuesdays); nightly at 7, with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Dec. 24 and 26 (check balletwest.org for specific showtimes and additional matinees); $19-$75 (plus service fees); 801-355-ARTS; arttix.org. There will be Sugar Plum Parties, $5, for kids after matinees (except Dec. 24 and 31). "Nutty Nutcracker" performances Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. feature whimsical surprises tucked inside the traditional choreography.

Dec. 28 • Trans-Siberian Orchestra; EnergySolutions Arena, 301 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City; 3 and 8 p.m.; $29-$58 at SmithsTix.com






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