The life of a Grand Rapids Symphony musician is fulfilling and fun, but the pace is fast and furious

Professional baseball players play nearly every day for months on end during the baseball season. Professional symphony orchestra musicians live similar lives.

The boys of summer play double headers. Concert musicians sometimes have two concerts and frequently have double rehearsals on the same day.

In baseball, there’s a crowd every time the team plays. Not so for orchestras, which have audiences for concerts but not for rehearsals. But the time and effort, as well as the wear and tear on the people, are similar across a long season.

For both, sometimes the pace is relentless.

This month, the Grand Rapids Symphony is opening seven entirely different programs across just 21 days while performing a total of 22 concerts over just 23 days.

“I can’t remember specific instances where a month was so full,” said violinist and Concertmaster Jamie Crawford.

On one hand, ten of the 22 scheduled concerts, part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s PNC Lollipop Series for its youngest audiences, are only 45 minutes long. On the other hand, three performances of Harry Potter in Concert, a full-length screening of the 2001 film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone will be a test of endurance for the musicians on the final weekend of January.

“It has a run time of almost three hours, so it’s like doing a full-length opera,” said violinist Chris Martin.

Besides performing, musicians often are rehearsing one or more programs during the day while also performing an entirely different program that evening.

It’s a schedule that sometimes is tricky even to keep straight.

“Sometimes when I get glimpses of everything that goes into figuring all that out, it makes my head spin,” Crawford said with a laugh.

Principal Cellist Alicia Eppinga refers to her “pile of music,” which must be learned and performed in an orderly and timely fashion.

“The real trick is trying to stay focused on the music at hand and not be distracted by the looming pile,” she explained.

Personal practice is critical even before the first orchestral rehearsal.

“What people probably don't realize about the symphonic musician's work schedule, which couldn't be more different from a typical 40-hour week, is that there is a tremendous amount of pre-rehearsal preparation that happens at home so that we can quickly and efficiently assemble a program,” Martin said.

It isn’t only how many performances happen in a short period of time. What also matters is how difficult the music is. In January, the Grand Rapids Symphony plays two separate programs in its Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series, which usually includes the most challenging music to learn and perform. At the end of the month, rehearsals begin for a third pair of Classical Series concerts on Feb. 3-4, which includes Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, conducted by Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

“That has one of the most intense first horn parts in all of orchestral literature,” said Principal Hornist Rick Britsch. “I’ve been preparing the Third Movement Scherzo for a while as Marcelo hopes to add some special touches to it.”

The toughest job of all is learning a lot of new music in short order, said Principal Clarinetist Suzanna Dennis Bratton.

“At that point, rest doesn't cut it, and you must practice as though you don’t have to reserve something for later,” Bratton said. “Then everything else in your life has to stop for that week or two.”

“If that means the house is a wreck for the week or I don't exercise or the kids eat a lot of chicken nuggets, so be it,” she added with a laugh.

Resting up during holidays and breaks only goes so far. There’s no such thing as a vacation for a professional symphony musician.

“I still practice just about every day when we are on scheduled furlough, such as the month of June,” Britsch said. “Because letting my lip go for too long without playing can feel like a disaster is waiting when I return to playing.”

That’s why musicians employ other tricks and techniques to relax and cope with busy schedules, from modifying their own practice schedules, to physical therapy, to “a slightly fuller glass of wine,” Crawford said.

Professional musicians sometimes make sacrifices that go unnoticed by the audience, especially during busy stretches of rehearsals and concerts.

“I do end up giving up some things I really enjoy to be able to do a good job for the Symphony – time with my kids, exercise, cooking and sleep,” Eppinga said.

But the players who have made music their life’s work usually are happy to be busy learning music, rehearsing and playing.

“The musicians are really excited to be performing as much as we are, and providing such a wide array of offerings,” Martin said. “From Vivaldi to video game music.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 11:30
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