This post was spurred by a brief conversation with a fellow sub. As we talked about what we did, he asked:
"Do you play classical or commercial?"
That he had to ask was a wonderful compliment and I thanked him. Unfortunately, young classical players able to play convincingly in a commercial style have become more and more rare.
Commercial styles are a different language - there are accepted norms about rhythms and articulations which are not apparent on the printed page. The sound and range demanded often call for different equipment. Playing a convincing Harry James solo or playing an Earth Wind and Fire arrangement are totally different skills than playing Bruckner and Beethoven. Even in my own studio at UMass, I have had trouble convincing some players that they NEED to have these styles as part of their toolbox.
Many people may not realize that for most of my youth, a career as a classical musician was not really on my radar. My plan was to become the next Doc Severinsen/Maynard Ferguson/Conrad Gozzo/Harry James/Herb Alpert/Al Hirt/Chuck Mangione. Wynton Marsalis's double GRAMMY nomination opened my eyes to my eventual path in classical music, but I was still mostly playing in the commercial realm. I loved playing in my high school jazz band as well as some professional groups on occasion and loved playing musicals. Among my most treasured outlets was fall marching band season when I could stand before hundreds and wail some high note solo.
I tried to maintain both sides of my playing at NEC by splitting my practice sessions between classical and commercial as well as playing in George Russell's big band. What a rush playing those charts with the man himself! Before graduating from high school, I copied my entire big band lead trumpet book. I devoted some time throughout the week just reading through these. I even took a "Jazz Ear Training" course as an elective. While still a student, I began to work playing shows and even played in a salsa band that performed in a now defunct latin club nearby called the Taurus.
When I got out of school, all of this commercial experience paid off. Unemployed with a performance degree, I needed to be able to take anything that came my way. For most of my 20s, this included precious little orchestral work, but lots of wedding bands, musicals, a few big band gigs and some of the commercial orchestral work backing touring headliners and rock bands like Yes. I became known as a "classical" player that could be convincing in that setting. I credit a huge career boost to a random free rehearsal big band that I played in for kicks. It was there that I met an important lead trumpeter and contractor who would provide a significant amount of employment for years. He was glad to see someone who would play both sides and loved commercial playing enough to do it for free.
For anyone seeking a career as an orchestral player, look at the schedules for the orchestras that you aim for. See how large a portion of their year is devoted to "Pops". It is a significant money maker that supports the core orchestral masterworks programming that you hope to play. The demands of any orchestral job will be heavy enough that you will not want to cram to learn how to play a Sinatra act sandwiched between weeks of Beethoven 9 and Mahler 5.
While you are in school, make sure that you take advantage of the opportunities to speak this language. Although they will be useful, you don't need to have killer improvisation skills (I don't) but make sure that you play in the big band. Connecting with people who make music in a different way can help to open up some of the blocks we put in our own way as classical performers.
As a case in point, I remember one very important lesson from Charlie Schlueter during my first year in Albany. We had a crazy week with Also Sprach Zarathustra and Planets on the same program (Planets first...) As I stressed incessantly about all of the high Cs, he called me on the ridiculousness of my worry and solved the problem with:
"When is the last time you worried about a high D on your Bb trumpet in big band?"
So, be prepared to take any work that shows up and do a convincing job of it. Freelancing is the most probable career path for at least a part of our career. From brass quintets to broadway pits, you will have to swing both directions. If you do land your coveted orchestral job, know that pops conductors are interested in making their time in front of the orchestra as painless as possible on everyone. They don't want to teach you how to play the style on your colleague's time. Don't be the one player that your pops conductor badmouths around the country. Besides, once you learn the style, it really can be a load of fun. Enjoy!