Facing the music

Freelance musicians scramble for new sources of income as gigs they counted on vanish amid the economic cutbacks

Recession Tales

April 08, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Laura Ruas expected a busy spring in Baltimore. The double bass player, one of the region's many freelance musicians, would typically have a calendar well-filled with performances for several orchestras. One by one, engagements vanished from her schedule.

"It's always a patchwork, sewing these things together to make a living," Ruas says. "Now I'm wondering what's going to be gone forever in Baltimore, and what's going to come back?"

Ruas is part of a community of freelancers that has been rattled by the recession's toll on musical activity here - canceled and postponed concerts and, most severe, the loss of a major institution that had provided reliable jobs for dozens of instrumentalists and choristers. Such losses are causing musicians to scramble for new income sources, possibly playing gigs they previously passed up as artistically inferior, or to consider starting on new career paths entirely.

The biggest blow so far to the local music scene came when the Baltimore Opera Company, having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, switched last month to Chapter 7 liquidation. That wiped out any remaining hopes for the company's many full- and part-time employees, including the roughly 60-strong Baltimore Opera Orchestra.

"I had been a tenured player," says Ruas, 44. "It was a good feeling to belong to that orchestra."

Ruas, who moved to Baltimore in 1995, has also been a longtime member of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and Concert Artists of Baltimore.

After a January program, the BCO, which has about 40 players, ran low on funds and suspended operations for the rest of the season to concentrate on rebuilding. And Concert Artists postponed until next season a performance of Verdi's Requiem planned for next week because of slow ticket sales; that event would have involved an orchestra of 50 to 60 musicians.

"What is most unsettling is that you could always count on those three things - the opera, the chamber orchestra and Concert Artists," Ruas says. "Everything else fell in around that."

Not that this bassist or any of her fellow freelancers stood to get rich from the gigs.

Her January-to-May season with the three Baltimore ensembles would have yielded $4,000 to $5,000, she says. Going without that income is "manageable short term, but double that for an entire season, if [none of that work] comes back - that's when it would hurt."

Standard pay for a typical freelance chamber orchestra gig is about $100 per rehearsal, $100 per concert; in the opera orchestra, the norm was $135 for a rehearsal, $160 for a performance. By comparison, members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are guaranteed a minimum of $1,560 a week this season.

"I got a new job teaching part time this year at [the University of Maryland, Baltimore County] that's been kind of making up for losing that orchestra work," Ruas says. This supplements teaching that she already does at Baltimore School for the Arts and Goucher College - more of that patchwork.

But, like all musicians, what Ruas wants most is to make music.

"It's a lot of effort for not a lot of money, but if I'm playing, I'm happy," she says. "I've called some [orchestra] contractors in the area to let them know I'm available now. I'm doing things here and there."

Recently, Ruas and her partner of 21 years, freelance violinist Tamara Seymour, played a concert with a Washington-area orchestra that is of decidedly modest quality, a job they normally would not have considered.

"We were always selective," says Seymour, 45. "There was a time when you wouldn't drive to Ocean City for $250, but maybe now you would."

Since settling here from South Florida, the couple have seen music organizations go through good financial times and bad, just as they did in Florida, each slump affecting the workload.

Over the years, Ruas has picked up extra, nonmusical money to make ends meet, working at a department store, a dog kennel and, most recently, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she helped with installations.

"But you don't want to be unavailable if a music gig comes up," Ruas says.

Seymour, who lost the same gigs with the chamber orchestras and who had been doing some work with the opera, has been looking into income possibilities outside the field. "I'm a musician. This is my passion," she says. "But I've got to get out of the house and stop sitting at home practicing for myself."

Like others who are self-employed or only able to get part-time work, Ruas and Seymour are not used to benefits from employers, let alone severance packages when jobs run out.

"I wasn't able to buy into health insurance until I started teaching at UMBC in the fall," Ruas says. "I had coverage for two months, but the insurance was a car payment, and I had to have my car. So I gave up the coverage. We've been fortunate so far with our health."

Ruas and Seymour do not readily complain about anything, and they are the first to point out that others have been affected more drastically by the recession.

"My mom told me that my grandfather sold fruit on the street during the Great Depression," Ruas says. "So I honestly feel that we're not doing too badly - knock on wood."

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