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Playing for their supper? Not quite

Even an L.A. Opera gig can't assure a classical musician a living. The fallbacks: studio work, church pageants -- and teaching competitors.

August 11, 2008|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer
  • Tim Eckert tunes up his double bass at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Although as the fifth-chair bassist for the L.A. Opera he holds one of the few ?tenured? orchestra positions in the region, ?I couldn?t survive on just this,? he says.
Tim Eckert tunes up his double bass at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Although… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Tim Eckert's job requires a light touch and a measure of heavy lifting.

As a workaday classical musician, he lugs a 40-pound double bass from downtown Los Angeles to Century City to Azusa and points in between.

"In the most reductionist terms, I am paid to come in with my bass and play these notes," he said, minutes before descending, tuxedo-clad, into the orchestra pit at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "We are the laborers."

Eckert's routine illustrates how the business of producing beautiful sounds can play out as a dissonant mix of art and toil: major scales versus wage scales.

For all its intrinsic rewards -- Eckert loves what he does -- his vocation comes down to a fretful chase of elusive paydays, each demanding a level of excellence here that might be unsurpassed in the tuneful world.

Lately, the gigging has only gotten tougher.

Eckert and his colleagues say they must contend with an influx of talent from as far away as New York and Europe and Asia, a growing crop of younger competitors from L.A.'s ever-improving academies and increasing use of canned music onstage and in television.

"We have tremendous numbers of members who are absolutely struggling," said Leslie Lashinsky, a veteran bassoonist who is secretary-treasurer of the L.A. musicians union. "Even very prestigious musicians are hard-pressed to make ends meet."

Eckert, 39, counts himself among the fortunate. He holds one of the few "tenured" orchestra positions in the region, as the fifth-chair bassist for the Los Angeles Opera. That assures him a spot in the pit whenever the opera needs at least five basses.

But as prized as the posting is -- landing it took Eckert three years of subbing for regulars -- full-time employment it's not. Players are paid per rehearsal and performance.

"I couldn't survive on just this," said Eckert as he prepared for a weeknight presentation of "Tosca," for which he would collect about $300.

In the local classical realm, only the L.A. Philharmonic offers musicians a full-time salary.

The Phil starts its players at more than $100,000 a year, and openings draw hundreds of applicants. Winning candidates survive a gantlet of auditions, beginning with a "blind" tryout in which they play behind a screen.

The rest of the classical performers in town -- there is no official tally, but estimates range up to 1,500 -- piece together engagements with other civic orchestras and chorales, grab the odd church or school pageant, do weddings and teach.

Studio sessions can be a livelihood saver. A day of recording tracks for a CD, movie, TV show, commercial or video game can be more lucrative than weeks of live performing, especially because of residual payments.

Recording opportunities are limited, however. And there is no telling when the phone will ring with a booker on the line.

"The combination of studio work and residuals is more than a third of my income," said Eckert, who recently contributed to songs by pop star Dido and the soundtrack for the "X-Files" movie.

"But I can't make that happen," he said. "There is a pool of work out there, and it ebbs and flows."

Boyish, dark-haired and fashionably bespectacled in solid black frames, Eckert was born in San Diego to a Navy officer father and homemaker mother. He took up the clarinet at 9, the year before the family moved to the Detroit area. A teenage fixation with rock 'n' roll led him to the guitar and electric bass.

"AC/DC was an epiphany," said Eckert, whose iPhone is still loaded with rockers.

His mother encouraged him to learn the double bass in high school, and he soon immersed himself in jazz and classical music, earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Western Michigan and Indiana universities, respectively.

After completing a USC advanced studies program, he set out to crack the L.A. music scene, first working as a barista to cover his rent. He endured the usual run of grueling auditions and stinging rejections -- orchestras in Minneapolis and Rochester, N.Y., turned him down -- before scoring a seat with the Long Beach Symphony.

"That was a big deal for me," he recalled. "I knew I would be making, like, three grand that year. I was really excited."

Next came the opera and stints with the L.A. Master Chorale and, as a sub, with the Philharmonic. Three years ago, Eckert launched a part-time teaching career, with lessons at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. In the fall, he begins at Azusa Pacific University.

Eckert's annual income fluctuates between $75,000 and $100,000. It's enough to enjoy the artist's life in L.A. and pay the theft and damage insurance premiums on his 19th century instrument, a rare guitar-shaped Baldantoni bass, but he has yet to achieve his goal of homeownership.

And despite a busy social calendar, he is single, which might make his erratic, mostly night-centric work regimen easier.

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