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.

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