Playing for their supper? Not quite

Times Staff Writer

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.

“We can go from zero to 80 in a minute in terms of our schedules,” he said during a break in rehearsals for Puccini’s “La Rondine.” “Some weeks you might not have anything. Some weeks you are booked to the gills.”

It was a Tuesday evening of a fairly hectic week. Eckert was at his stage-right workstation in the Dorothy Chandler pit, a dimly lighted thicket of music stands, scuffed risers and metal stools that are an affront to ergonomics.


The day before, he had taught for six hours at the Pasadena school. The “La Rondine” rehearsal would stretch from 3 to 10:30 p.m.

“ ‘La Rondine’ is not a hard opera for the basses,” Eckert said, running a hand over the flamed maple back of his instrument. “We’re just playing on the downbeats. The most difficult thing about a rehearsal is all the stopping and starting.”

Wednesday night brought a three-hour performance of Puccini’s more challenging “Tosca.”

Eckert was back at the Dorothy Chandler the next night for the dress rehearsal for “La Rondine.”


On Friday, he carted the bass to Fox in Century City for the six-hour “X-Files” session.

Opening night of “La Rondine” was Saturday, followed by a Sunday matinee of “Tosca.”

He typically performs less than 40 hours a week. Playing an instrument is physically taxing, and a grind is not conducive to perfection.

“Like in athletics, there is a point where you get a diminishing rate of return,” Eckert said.


He noted that many musicians suffer from repetitive stress injury and that qualifying for medical leave and health insurance is no lock.

Professional Musicians Local 47 occupies a stark white building on Vine Street in Hollywood. The union finished building it in 1950, about half a century after the organization’s founding. Embedded in the floor of an entryway is the image of a 16th note.

The union is a principal source of the musicians’ medical and retirement benefits. Coverage kicks in after a member has logged a certain amount of work covered by union contracts, year to year.

“There is always a struggle to do enough work on contract,” said Lashinsky, the bassoonist and secretary-treasurer.


She flipped through the union’s fat directory of performers. “We’re careful with this,” she said. “Anybody can take this book, use our members and do nonunion engagements with them.”

John Acosta, the local’s electronic media administrator, nodded, saying some employers pressure job-hungry musicians to take under-the-table work.

“They’ll say, ‘We need you for a jingle. It’s 100 bucks and you have to go out to Vegas,’ ” Acosta related. “You might be afraid to say no.”

Lashinsky, who plays for the Long Beach Symphony, said top-dollar assignments are so coveted that musicians don’t think twice about clocking in sick or even bleeding, as she has.


“When I was doing ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ a cabinet fell on my head,” she recalled. “I wrapped it up, put on this beautiful scarf over it, and went to the gig. Afterward, I had a colleague take me to the E.R. I got 14 stitches.”

She laughed ruefully: “I’ve worked with a 103 fever in an orchestra pit. I’ve worked with a popped lung. If you don’t work, you don’t earn.”

The same is true if musicians don’t drive long distances, never mind today’s gas prices.

Gary Lasley, a union director, is a bassist for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra but also fights the freeways to sit in with the Santa Barbara Symphony and teach at La Sierra University in Riverside.


“The competition has gotten harder,” said Lasley, who has played here for 32 years, 14 at the Bowl.

It’s an inescapable irony that the competition forces so many musicians to supplement their income by training their future competitors.

“I can’t think of any colleague who doesn’t have private students,” Lasley said.

Eckert was in the “green room” of the Dorothy Chandler, steeling himself for a “Tosca” performance.


The room is not green but an institutional beige, and is appointed with vending machines and vinyl couches.

Costumed singers were milling about, chattering and joking, shaking off the pre-show jitters. Eckert was wearing his one and only tuxedo, a Zegna that he climbs into three or four times a week.

“This knee always gets shiny because the bass rubs against it,” he said, slapping at the fabric.

He was amped because the opera’s internationally renowned director, Placido Domingo, was conducting the night’s performance.


“I really have to stay on my toes,” Eckert said.

Which meant no mistakes.

“I haven’t had a big one in a while,” he said.

He got through the night without making another. Later, Domingo said that Eckert plays with “musicality and dedication.”


“It’s so amazing, the amount of wonderful players that we have,” Domingo added. “Yes, it is work, but it doesn’t seem like it’s a job for them.”

The next week, Eckert swapped his tux for shorts, an orange polo shirt and flip-flops. He was in a second-floor practice room at the Pasadena Conservatory for his weekly lesson with 18-year-old Matt Gray.

A Crescenta Valley High graduate, Gray is bound for Eckert’s alma mater, Indiana University’s celebrated music school, on scholarship.

“Use some more bow,” Eckert said, coaching him through a Bach suite. “Let’s try for more of a dance rhythm. You’ve got to get the lead out.”


Gray’s left hand flew up and down the oar-length fingerboard.

During a breather, the prodigy said he might stay in the Midwest after college and perhaps audition for the Cleveland Orchestra. He was asked if he expected steady employment.

“I’m going into the music business,” Gray said. “There’s no such thing as job security.”