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Playing The Field

It used to be that a classically trained female musician was expected to settle down to life with a symphony. No longer. There are commercials, films and videos to score, pop bands to support, and even a little miming.

July 10, 2005|Adam Baer | Special to The Times

In the great-expectations, high-anxiety bubble that is life at a classical music conservatory, the last thing a graduating student wants to discuss with her teacher is the possibility that she may not be entirely fit for the regimented, full-time life of a symphony orchestra.

" 'So what do you want to do?' my teacher asked me upon graduation," says Sara Schoenbeck, 33, an L.A. bassoonist now known for her solo contributions to contemporary and crossover concert music, the international jazz improvisation scene and Hollywood studios, where she's played on big-budget scores for the "Matrix" trilogy and "Spanglish."

To her teacher's chagrin, her reply was, "There have to be other options."

At just 23, Schoenbeck was rebellious in her confidence but correct in her assessment of how useful to the music and entertainment worlds a classically trained musician -- even a bassoonist -- can be. A regular participant in the Bay Area's youth orchestra scene, she had studied at the storied San Francisco Conservatory. Never, though, had she wanted to pursue a job in a major orchestra. It just didn't feel right. Instead she graduated and took a different route: moving into Los Angeles' diverse musical community and earning a master's at the California Institute of the Arts, a freer, more interdisciplinary place that encouraged her to study dance, jazz, and new and world music.

"It may sound shocking, but I got studio work from playing contemporary music," Schoenbeck says. "A prominent film composer heard me improvise, which just confirms my belief that if you do what you want artistically, people will notice you. You've got a distinct voice. You take chances."

Schoenbeck is just one member of a small but growing and spirited subculture of young, classically trained female L.A. musicians who have skirted the symphony audition path to play "alternative" musical genres and enjoy eclectic entertainment-industry work now that the Hollywood studios are no longer boys' clubs.

Along with more highfalutin work, the jobs these women get include acting in movies as nonspeaking but pleasant-looking musicians with classical skills, improvising in hip-hop orchestras and playing solos for liquor commercials a few hours before recording Stravinskian jazz riffs for an art project. They may not pull down either the standard symphony income or the generous residuals earned by studio regulars who troll only for "Star Wars"-style scoring sessions. But the impressive range of styles they play provides them with a level of excitement and performance satisfaction that more traditional musicians cannot claim -- and they wouldn't have it any other way.

"Of course I had to do some silly things to help make a living at the beginning," says Schoenbeck, referring to a 2000 gig that required her, a bassoonist, to "dress sexy" and mime violin-playing in an all-female string ensemble employed to "back up" one of pop music's ubiquitous boy bands. "But we're in Hollywood, and L.A. is good for musicians like me. In fact, it has made me a better overall musician. I like the challenge of having to transpose and harmonize on the spot, to improvise a fast microtonal scale or play jazz with performers like Anthony Braxton, who I'll collaborate with this summer at Belgium's Middelheim jazz festival. I learned I could do all of that here in L.A., and I know I wouldn't get those chances with a full-time spot in the Phil."

In fact, some of her male colleagues may even be a little jealous. Local violinist Julian Hallmark was a student of Yehudi Menuhin, among others, and has a busy freelance career. But, he says, "If I, as a guy, could get more gigs like that, I'd want them. They pay well and are fun."

'A more flexible lifestyle'

Another talented freelancer with pop backup experience like Schoenbeck's, violinist Melissa Reiner, 31, has found still other ways to use the classical training she received from years of study with "serious" musicians at the San Francisco Conservatory, Aspen Music Festival and Peabody Conservatory. An improvising member of the popular country-rock band Kane and a Hollywood session musician with credits including "The Tonight Show" and the Grammy Awards, Reiner has played in videos for David Lee Roth and P. Diddy while maintaining a schedule of rigorous chamber music and collaborative small-orchestra performances.

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