Adventures in Music Contracting

My Life As A Music Contractor: Part 1

For the past fifteen years, I have lead another life. Rather, a parallel musical life. In the parlance of today, I suppose folks would call it a side-hustle. Fifteen years is almost precisely half the amount of time that I have enjoyed playing in the National Symphony Orchestra and teaching at the University of Maryland. Fifteen years is quite a long time to do anything if you ask me. It was a fun ride indeed, but it was time for me to get off and let someone else experience the thrill.

I was a music contractor; a small business owner, C.E.O., C.F.O., entrepreneur and musical pimp all rolled into one. I recently handed the business to my NSO colleague and friend, David Murray, who shadowed me for a year and learned the in’s and out’s of this unique gig. He’s going to be great and I wish him all the best on his own contracting adventure.

Along the way, I had many unique experiences. Some were wonderful and some were utterly stupefying. I worked with some of the preeminent musical organizations in Washington, DC. There were musical and non-musical fixtures of United States history that I had opportunity to rub elbows with, such as astronauts, former cabinet secretaries and even a convicted felon. As a lifelong performer, I had little working knowledge of event creation, planning and execution. Having lived to tell the tale, I can say that perhaps the most meaningful takeaway was the opportunity to weave myself into the inner fabric of Washington, DC’s cultural scene. I did not want to wait too long in chronicling these contracting tales lest I become forgetful. I’m not exactly getting any younger. This entry will concentrate on the back story of how I came to this profession and the origins of the business.

How It Happened

You never know which simple choices you make that can end up becoming life-altering moments. Remember the Palm Pilot? For the uninitiated, the Palm Pilot was a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) released in 1996. I bought one a few years later and used it primarily as an organizer for my schedule and as an address book. One of its selling points was the ability to interface with my desktop computer.

David Flowers, one of my longtime colleagues in the National Symphony Orchestra, played trumpet and had reigned for a few decades as one of the preeminent music contractors in the Washington, DC area. Sometime around the year 2000, he asked me to play a job and I informed him that I had been previously booked but that I would be happy to send him a contact list of other trombone players in the area. That same evening, I plugged my Palm Pilot into my PC and printed out my trombone contact list, complete with names, addresses, home/mobile phone numbers and last but not least, FAX numbers. The formatting was super clean and in alphabetical order by last name. The next morning when I handed the print out to Dave (Flowers), he asked, “What the hell is this?!” Dave was a salty character, to put it mildly. After explaining how the contact list came about, he thanked me and tucked it into his trumpet case. I thought nothing of the matter at the time and was happy to be of assistance.

Easter 1994 at Washington National Cathedral. L-R: Dan Smith, Matthew Guilford, David Flowers, Fred Begun and Milton Stevens


Fast-forward to the spring of 2004. Dave Flowers called me at home.

“Hello, friend”, he said.
He always began phone conversations with that greeting. His next question stunned me.
“Have you ever thought about being a music contractor?”

Clear from out of the blue. My jaw must have dropped and I’m sure that my heart skipped a beat.

“No Dave, I can’t say that I have, but tell me more”, I replied.

As he went on to explain that he was leaving the business of contracting due to failing health, he asked me if I would like to take on his business. Not hesitating to say yes, I felt compelled to ask him, “Why me, Dave?”. He could have asked any number of my more seasoned NSO colleagues or another experienced contractor.

“You’re organized.” That’s all he said in response.

*Poof*: I was now a music contractor. I’m pretty sure it was the Palm Pilot trombone contact list that helped to seal the deal, but we will never actually know.

The Back Story

In 1931, the National Symphony Orchestra was founded by Hans Kindler, a cellist who also became the orchestra’s first Music Director. He was succeed in that position by yet another cellist, Howard Mitchell, from 1949 to 1969. The principal trumpet player of the NSO during most of the tenures of Maestros Kindler and Mitchell was a gentleman named Lloyd Geisler.
Mr. Geisler played trumpet with the NSO for 37 years, and during that time he also served as associate conductor during the last years of his career. He also was the most powerful music contractor in Washington, DC.

Now, you have to remember that Washington, DC was very different city in the 1930’s through the early 1970’s. Although it was established as the U.S. Capitol in 1790, it remained a small southern city into the early 1900’s. By means of comparison, the New York Philharmonic was founded in 1842 and the population of NYC was a little over 300,000 (1840 census). DC’s population in 1840 was 23, 364 (1840 census bureau). By 1940, the NY Phil was almost 100 years old and the city population was almost 7.5 million. DC in 1940?: The National Symphony was 9 years old and the city contained 663,091 residents.

As a fledgling orchestra in the early decades of its existence, it is highly unlikely that the orchestra paid a living wage to it’s musicians. I recall conversations with Fred Begun, longtime NSO timpanist, as well as Ken Pasmanick, former principal bassoon, as to the overall work environment in DC during their tenures from the 1940’s until the year I joined the orchestra in 1991. Musicians were focused and trained classically, often at the top conservatories in the country, but had to eke out a living by supplementing their incomes with “outside” jobs. These outside jobs could include club dates (Ken Pasmanick played saxophone), random gigs and “straight” jobs (non-musical). Freddie Begun was often seen behind a drum set, emulating his boyhood hero Gene Krupa, on club dates in DC. Both Ken and Freddie have since passed on, but their recollections of old DC were colorful and vivid.

The Washington National Opera was not established until 1957 and the Washington Ballet in 1976. There were far more jazz clubs, dance halls and theaters that were thriving in DC well before classical institutions such as symphony and opera took root. Lloyd Geisler had at his disposal many NSO colleagues to hire for his “outside” musical engagements. That tradition was carried forward when Lloyd Geisler handed his contracting duties to David Flowers in the mid-1970’s. When David Flowers turned his business over to me, the same tradition was still alive and well. It is certainly not the case that NSO musicians were taking work away from others. At this point in time, Washington DC has many more excellent full-time freelance musicians than ever before, plus many of the elite DC armed forces bands have musicians that also partake of freelance engagements.

What Does A Music Contractor DO?

A music contractor serves as the hiring agent for organizations that require musicians for an event or performance. Most of my steady clients were large symphonic choruses. DC is known nationally and internationally for its choral scene. Whether is was a full symphony orchestra or a smaller chamber ensemble, my job was to hire the musicians, manage them on site for rehearsals and concerts, invoice the client and execute the payroll for the musicians. My fee was a percentage of the musician’s wages. There are a myriad other details that come into play as well, but I will touch upon that a bit later.

As a music contractor, having NSO musicians available to me was a distinct advantage. Having been previously vetted by the audition and tenure process of a major American symphony orchestra, these players are precisely what one might want to successfully piece together a rigorous program on precious little rehearsal time. With NSO musicians occupying principal chairs throughout the orchestra, there was strong leadership at they helm of each section, meaning that even the most difficult of repertoire would come together successfully in a short amount of time.

The essential elements that a music contractor requires at the outset from a client:
– Dates/times/locations of rehearsals and concerts
– Repertoire
– Instrumentation
– Rehearsal orders

Once all of these basic items are agreed to and confirmed by me and the client, a contract is signed and I then would go about the business of hiring the musicians. David Flowers would call each prospective musician over the phone. My main form of communication was via email, but I often needed to use text, Facebook, Messenger or Twitter to locate a musician. Once the orchestra was completely formed and hired, it was quite easy indeed to send a group email to the entire ensemble. I cannot imagine the amount of time it may have taken Dave Flowers to contact and follow up with each individual musician from the start to the finish of an engagement. His further communications were often composed on a typewriter, and his payrolls were written on graph paper with a pencil. I remember seeing his accountant’s calculator with the paper scroll sitting on his desk and thinking, “I’m taking this business into the 20th century! “.

My first move after Dave Flowers’ crash course on contracting was to hire a lawyer, create an LLC and and an S Corporation in the state where I reside. My accountant was particularly helpful, for a fee, in showing me the advantages of small business ownership. Shout out to Oscar at Berg, Faircloth and Company.

Go big or go home.

My very first engagement was with The Choral Arts Society of Washington. The venerable Norman Scribner was it’s founder and music director. A few months before the start of rehearsals, Norman invited me to lunch at the burger joint, Booeymonger, across the street from the Choral Arts offices on Connecticut Ave. in Chevy Chase, DC. Once we had ordered and sat down to eat, Norman asked me,

“So, are you ready for this craziness?”

In retrospect, although I was as ready as I was going to be, I honestly had no idea as to the potential level of crazy that could be part of a contractor’s responsibilities. Zero. Dave Flowers had shown me the basics of the process, but we did not have time to delve into the minute details due to his failing health. I became one of his first-responders, often driving him to hospital appointments. After one appointment, I asked him how it went.

“Well”, he said. “I’m fucked. I guess I won’t be buying any green bananas.”

Vintage Dave Flowers.

Back to my lunch with Norman Scribner:

“I am ready, Norman!”

On the podium, Norman Scribner was a rather imposing presence. Standing at well over 6’ tall, his stern demands from the chorus and orchestra rained down upon the musicians from a lofty height. He would demonstrably beat and manhandle the wooden conductor’s desk in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to a state where it usually needed repairs by the stagehands after a rehearsal or concert. The standards that he expected, and received, from his musicians were uncompromising.

One of the on-site responsibilities of a contractor is to make sure that the rehearsal start/stop times are within the set limits of the musician’s union boundaries. A large clock is hung at the side of the stage well within view of the conductor and orchestra. When time had elapsed, it was my job to inform the conductor that time was up. Sure enough, in my very first rehearsal with Norman Scribner, I had to stop the rehearsal to inform him that time was up and that if he wished to go on further, Choral Arts would then be responsible for the rehearsal overtime pay for the orchestra musicians. Stopping a rehearsal is one thing, but to stop a rehearsal with Norman on the podium gave me pause. Still, it was part of my job and I did it. At this point, the orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists had still not completed rehearsing all of the material to be performed on the concert.

“We will have to let the chips fall where they may, but I simply cannot cut off these brilliant artists at this point.” Norman said.

It was an awkward moment to be sure, but one that had to happen once time had run out. Norman was well aware of the time restrictions, so there was no ill will turned toward me. The fact that it was within my power and responsibility to stop a rehearsal of a major DC arts institution took a while to sink in. I would need to exercise that power many more times over the course of fifteen years, but I will never forget that first time.

As I mentioned, Norman Scribner ruled with an iron fist on the conductor’s podium. His often stern demeanor, uncompromising standards and physical stature often put fear into the hearts of those under his baton. The Norman Scribner that I got to know off of the stage was earnest, frequently warm and kindhearted. One moment that caused me to look at him in a different light occurred just minutes prior to the downbeat of a Choral Arts concert.

It was a springtime Sunday afternoon in Washington DC. The orchestra was onstage and the chorus in place on their risers. Backstage at the Kennedy Center concert hall, I stood with Norman, the concertmaster of the orchestra and the concert hall stage manager. The principal trumpet player was not yet onstage and I was able to reach him by cell phone. He was close by and would be there in 5 minutes. The concert start time had already been delayed by the standard 5 minutes for late seating. Knowing the potential of Norman’s anger, I informed him of the principal trumpet situation, expecting fire and brimstone to come my way.

Very calmly and matter-of-factly, Norman told me:

“Matthew. We are about to perform one of the seminal works in the canon of classical musical literature in our nation’s living memorial to the performing arts. We can wait for our principal trumpet player.”

And with that, my appreciation for Norman grew ten fold. All of his work, energy, exhortations, and dogma were always in aspiration of the loftiest goals; serving the composer and producing the highest quality performance for the audience. It was never personal.

You will see some photos of the Choral Arts brochure from 2004 as well as the Playbill from the Kennedy Center on November 7, 2004, my maiden voyage into music contracting.

Next up: NASA, Cold War Players, a Charlatan and more.

Interview with Bob Hughes (from 2006)

In 2006, I began a series of interviews with bass trombonists around the globe. For one reason or another, the posts were removed as I made room for other material. Beginning with this interview of Bob Hughes from 2006, those interviews will reappear here in no particular order.

Bob Hughes, Bass Trombonist

Short Bio;

I was born in Oswestry in 1957. Studied trombone with Harold Nash at the Royal Academy of Music. Bass trombone with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra 1978-1981, Scottish National Orchestra 1981-1989, Philharmonia Orchestra 1989-1994, London Symphony Orchestra 1994-2006.
Professor of trombone Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama 1982-1989, Professor of Trombone, Royal Academy of Music 1990- present. I also teach at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music and have given Masterclasses worldwide.

Matthew Guilford: Why do you play the bass trombone?

Bob Hughes: When I was young I was always put on third trombone in bands and orchestras. So I kind of developed a speciality for the low register. I always loved the sound of the Bass trombone and enjoyed being the foundation of the section.

M.G.: When did you decide your make music your career?
B.H.: I was about 15 or 16 and started being selected for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. I enjoyed the courses and the music making so much I thought it would be great to make a career from playing in a good orchestra.

M.G.: Were your parents supportive of your career choice?

B.H.: My parents were fantastic and fully supportive. They did point out the precarious side of the music business to me and my Mum thought that I should become a dentist ! I’d probably have made much more money doing that but wouldn’t have had half as much fun !!

M.G.: What were the factors involved in choosing a college?

B.H.: The trombone tutor on the Welsh Youth Orchestra was Harold Nash, principal trombone with Covent Garden Opera. He’s a great musician and I learnt so much from working with him. He was trombone professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London so that was my first choice.

M.G.: What/who were your biggest musical influences early on? What about now?

B.H.: A short list of my early musical influences early on would include Gordon Tune (that’s correct !) my first trombone tutor from mid Wales, Harold Nash (mentioned above), Denis Wick ( I was knocked out when I first heard Mahler 3 with Denis and the LSO), Don Lusher ( Have a listen to Oriental Holiday with Don and the Ted Heath Band ), Ray Premru ( The best Orchestral Bass Trombone Sound –check out the New Philharmonia recordings, try Vaughan Williams 4 to start), Bill Watrous, the Stan Kenton Band, George Roberts ( whenever you get a glimpse of that sound !), Charlie Vernon. That’s a few to be getting on with !
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with most of the top brass players in the UK. They have all influenced me in one way or another. To mention a few names ( too many to mention all here) Lance Green, John Gracie ( Scottish National orchestra), Peter Bassano, John Jenkins (Philharmonia Orch) Dudley Bright, Jim Maynard, Patrick Harrild, Maurice Murphy, Rod Franks (LSO), Eric Crees, Ian Bousfield, Lindsay Shilling, Gordon Campbell, Derek James, Arthur Wilson. To mention a few.

M.G.: Did you consider any career other than music?

B.H.: Not really.

M.G.: What do you like to do completely outside of music?

B.H.: I love spending time with my family as much as possible. Hobbies include walking, running, golf. Oh yes, eating and drinking !!

M.G.: What are your pet peeves with your students?

B.H.: I’m very lucky to have some great students at the moment. My pet-peeves would probably be getting them to see and hear themselves as a listener would; not to be so insular; be more imaginative and creative; be more aware of phrase shapes, dynamic and stylistic contrasts; think on a bigger canvas; be much more aware of your role and how you should fit in to whatever ensemble you are playing with.

M.G.: What is the best piece of advice you can give to an aspiring young bass
trombonist?

B.H.: Be open minded. Listen to all kinds of music and musicians. Most of the time the Bass trombone is playing a supportive role but occassionally you have to shine out. It’s important to understand when and how to to do this. By studying scores and listening to good players who you respect you can build up a true picture of how you’d like to sound.

M.G.: Your recordings are legendary in the trombone world, particularly the RSNO recording of Kalinikov’s Symphony #1 and Walton’s Symphony #1 under William Gibson. The bass trombone sound is incredible; present, commanding and exciting. What can you tell us about these sessions: how the orchestra was miked, what Gibson asked of you, what equipment you played on, etc.?

B.H.: I was lucky enough to be in the Scottish National Orchestra at a special time. We made dozens of exciting recordings with Jarvi and Gibson. The 2 main venues for these were the SNO centre in Glasgow and the Caird Hall in Dundee( one of the great halls of the world but very few people have even heard about it ). I can’t remember too much about the miking. We certainly were not close miked but both venues did have quite a lively acoustic.
Gibson was a very good musician but not the clearest of conductors. Most of the time we were just trying to get things together! Jarvi started in about 1982 and the orchestra loved him The chemistry was great and we had a fairly young enthusiastic orchestra. Jarvi sometimes didn’t worry too much about the detail but he was always exciting and inspiring and loved the brass!!
On the Walton 1 recording, I was still playing a Bach 50B2. In about 1983 I managed to find a great Elkhart 62H which I still play today. My mouthpiece is a 2G with a wide rim similar to what Ray Premru played on.

M.G.: What is the strangest thing to have happened during your musical career?

B.H.: The strangest and the most frustrating thing to happen in my career has been the onset of Task Specific Focal Dystonia. This started about 4 years ago and affected my control on a few low notes. Over about 18 months it gradually got worse until I could hardly produce a sound in the mid and low register. Unfortunately I have recently resigned from the LSO which was a very sad decision to make.
I would like to mention the kind and generous support I have received from all my friends and colleagues, but especially Jan Kagarice in Texas who has given hours of her time in trying to help me overcome this condition. She has a remarkable understanding of problems affecting brass players and her expertise, generosity and enthusiasm in helping players overcome Focal Dystonia is quite remarkable.

M.G.: What characteristics do you admire in others that you do not see in
yourself?

B.H.: One characteristic I admire in some people is their ability to see the big picture and not get cluttered by the minutia. I tend to be a very careful person with an eye for the detail in things. I think this can be somewhat limiting at times. As Denis Wick says for 95% of the time an orchestral trombonist is more of a craftsman than an artist. Maybe this can limit one’s creative way of thinking.

M.G.: What is the last book that you read?

B.H.: My wife is a great reader and devours books. I’m not ! I tend to dip into encyclopedias on jazz or great recordings etc. However, I am reading “Dispatches” by Michael Herr at the moment.