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Outside the orchestra pit

For three L.A.-area classical players, life offstage illustrates the luxuries and complexities of making a living in music. Teaching, film work, even poker-playing all help pay the bills.

December 26, 2010|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times

When the conductor's baton comes to a halt and the instruments are tucked away, the lives of professional classical musicians continue past the clef notes of that night's repertoire. For three L.A.-area musicians, life offstage illustrates the luxuries and complexities of making a living as an orchestra musician.

Classical musicians: An article last Sunday about making a living as a professional classical musician gave an incorrect last name for one of the subjects. She is Tina Chang Qu, not Tina Nguyen. —

Dana Hansen, viola

For Dana Hansen, 31, days off from playing are usually spent in a children's gymnasium or a park, where she totes around her cherub-faced daughter, Phoebe — an entirely different kind of instrument.

As a full-time busy violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it's a luxury when Hansen find herself in a room full of toddlers, shuffling barefoot on a carpet as she sings "Ring Around the Rosy" or enjoying a moment of laughter with her 18-month-old daughter in the park.

With the birth of her first child, Hansen is still learning how to navigate her time between mastering notes of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and swing sets.

"It's a hard career to go into," she said. "A bunch of people my age in this field are struggling. I'm not complaining with where I'm at."

Her full-time spot with a major orchestra allows her to lead a comfortable lifestyle in Pacific Palisades, where she and her husband, Noble Hansen, who works in finance, moved last year. The annual income for an L.A. Phil musician in 2008-09 was $127,140, according to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.

Hansen's route to becoming a professional musician began with a degree in modern European history from Harvard College.

"I'm not naïve," she said recently at her home. "Music was what I wanted to do. But it's not exactly a sure thing. I wanted something else to fall back on just in case."

She began violin studies at age 5 and viola at 15.

"I definitely want Phoebe to learn how to play an instrument," she said. "I think it's important. Look at her — she's already formed a connection with music. Whenever she hears a tune she likes, she's dancing."

Paul Zibits, bass

Now bassist and personnel manager for the Pacific Symphony, Chicago native Paul Zibits, 59, has been an active studio musician since moving to California in 1979.

"I learned early on that music was what I was good at," Zibits said. "I was lucky to be good enough to make a living with it."

A father of two boys and husband to Kimiyo Takeya (a violinist in the Pacific Symphony), Zibits has seen his musical abilities extend beyond the stage and onto the big screen: He has performed on the scores of more than 500 motion pictures, including "Titanic," "Spider-Man," "Jurassic Park" and the first"Pirates of the Caribbean" film.

When he's not performing onstage or in a movie theater (or tweeting as @pzibits) Zibits can be found at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at Cal State Long Beach, where he teaches double bass.

For the few minutes (or hours) outside of that, he's mastering his poker face.

The hands of professional bass player Paul Zibits are in a tight grip.

Tap, click, tap, click.

There are no music sheets around and that humming isn't the sound of fingers plucking strings. The chorus comes courtesy of tapping chips at work during a game at one of the monthly poker nights Zibits hosts at his home in Long Beach.

Mastering music and mastering poker go hand in hand, he said.

"It's all about technique. In music, you learn an instrument's scales and positions. With poker, you become skilled at learning when to bet certain hands, when to raise hands, and your position at the table."

In 1999, he outplayed 233 others to finish seventh in the World Series of Poker's $2,500 buy-in, hold-'em tournament held at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas — pocketing nearly $15,000 for two days' work. At this year's tournament, he pocketed just over $3,000. Not bad, considering that section musicians with the Pacific Symphony would earn about $32,775 if they were to play every concert and rehearsal offered for a year, according to the orchestra's site.

During off hours, Zibits often can be found among the herd at Commerce Casino — the "mecca of poker" as he refers to it — or Hawaiian Gardens Casino. In 2006, he became a published author and editor of the book "Poker Face 2."

"Poker is fun … and it can be a great stress reliever," Zibits said. "But it can be exhausting at times. Your mind is racing, constantly analyzing everything. It's like playing a Mahler symphony. Sometimes you need a vacation from it."

Tina Nguyen, violin

Juggling separate jobs is not unusual for some musicians. Many teach privately in their homes or perform with several orchestras and other ensembles. Others record for the motion picture industry.

It's the kind of hectic lifestyle that Tina Nguyen, 35, is all too familiar with.

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