The Folks Who Keep It All Going

From time to time I notice a bright blond head poking up out of the trumpet section at the San Francisco Symphony. Aha! I think to myself, Scott Macomber has a subbing gig this week at the symphony! Bully for him.

You may or may not know Scott Macomber but the odds are you’ve heard him play, if not at the San Francisco Symphony, then perhaps at other venues around the Bay Area. The Napa Symphony, for example, where he plays principal. Or the Santa Rosa and Sacramento orchestras, where he is second trumpet. Or perhaps you’ve heard him with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, SF Contemporary Music Players, at the Music in the Mountains Festival, or with groups like Bay Brass or his own quintet, the San Francisco Brass Co.

Maybe Scott has taught one of your kids: he’s on the faculty of San Francisco State, U.C. Davis, and the San Francisco Conservatory’s Preparatory Division. For that matter, maybe Scott Macomber has taught you.

Scott Macomber, trumpet

In a lot of ways my namesake Scott is an exemplar of the kind of musician who makes up the solid backbone of any area’s musical establishment. It’s way too easy to take them for granted -- those people who play in the orchestras, the chamber groups, provide the music for civic occasions, teach in the schools or privately. They are a community’s resident local musicians, just as much a part of it all as the teachers and plumbers and roofers and postal clerks.

It’s not that unusual for people to think that a successful life in music means touring, soloing with the big orchestras, recording best-selling CDs, holding comfortable tenured positions in major symphony orchestras, and/or sitting in majesty on a departmental chair somewhere appropriately prestigious.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, naturally. But it just doesn’t represent the musical profession that most musicians know. A busy freelancer like Scott is much more typical of the life of a successful musician in today’s world, and in that he is part of a long tradition of solid, working musicians who keep things running along. Not famous, necessarily, and almost certainly not rich. But expert, industrious, and productive, integral to their communities to a degree often unrecognized.

The profession has changed dramatically over the past two centuries but some elements remain the same as ever. While recording has eviscerated the market for working musicians, it has never done away with it entirely. Imagine everyday life one hundred years ago. If there was music in a public place, such as a restaurant or tavern or whatnot, it was live music played by living, breathing musicians. Lots and lots of folks made their livings that way.

Recording and radio changed all that. Where once taverns might host a few players or a band or a singer, technology brought the radio, jukeboxes, or piped-in Muzak to replace flesh-and-blood background music. Nowadays the usual technique is to plug somebody’s iPod into the room’s sound system and let it handle the proceedings. These days, if you have real people making music in an establishment, that’s something you advertise and probably charge a cover fee for.

Movie theaters needed orchestras until the sound era, and until very recently musical theaters required a reasonable assortment of flesh-and-blood players in the orchestra pit. Background music for, say, a Shakespeare play would be provided by players, and not recordings -- as it still sometimes is in the better venues.

But there are still orchestras, chamber groups, ballet companies, dance companies, cabarets, music societies. And there are still weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, christenings, confirmations, etc., and those typically require live music, not records. For most of life’s rituals and celebrations, canned music carries a distinct taint of tackiness.

That leads to a notion. If recorded music is considered second-rate for important occasions, then at some level as a society we still consider recorded music to be second banana to the live variety provided by real people playing real instruments. In other words, recorded music may have replaced live music in many of our establishments, but it has not achieved parity in our hearts. For the stuff that really counts, we want people, and not machines.

Which is resoundingly good news to all of us who toil in this particular field. I love having recordings handy and wouldn’t go back to the pre-audio-tech world on a bet, but while canned music may be where the money is at, it isn’t where the juice is at.

Whether we freelance or hold down a full-time orchestra gig, teach or tour, we’re all in it because we love music and want to spend our lives making and living music. From time to time we can even forget about the gigs, the services, the contracts, the commuting, and just make music that we want to make.

We can put on a recital.

Which is what Scott Macomber is doing on Monday, April 13 at 7:30 in San Francisco State’s Knuth Hall, at the corner of Holloway and 19th Avenue in SF. He’s playing trumpet & piano works by Hansen, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Francaix, and also the Hindemith concerto for trumpet and bassoon. All terrific stuff, none of it the sort of thing one is likely to be asked to play at your basic gig.

Now here’s the thing about these kinds of recitals. They require a tremendous amount of time and effort to put together. Recitals don’t usually pay anything; they’re for the soul, not for the pocketbook. If you measured all of that prep time as a series of services for which you expected to be paid, you’d never play recitals.

You may well refuse to so much as leave the house for a lousy $75-per-service gig. But you’ll spend hours upon hours putting together a recital for which your take will most likely be zilch, and which might actually wind up costing you money to pay some of your performers or whatnot.

But you do it anyway, because it’s all about making music, growing and developing, following that bliss that got you into the whole shebang in the first place. That’s what being a musician is all about. You play your gigs, some of which are cool and some of which are strictly for the paycheck. You teach your students, some of whom are gratifying and some of whom are...well.

And then you take a deep, happy (maybe a bit nervous) breath and launch into your recital program. Making music: no union scale, no services, nothing but you and your instrument and the music. It’s a little slice of heaven, even if the experience can get a bit nerve-wracking at times.

So here it is again:

Scott Macomber, trumpet

Monday, April 13 at 7:30 in Knuth Hall, San Francisco State

19th Avenue at Holloway

$10 general admission, $5 for students

For more info: 415/338-2467 or