Women free-lance musicians harmonize work, family

Three weddings, a bar mitzvah, two concerts, a museum opening, and an executive convention can be on Marian Kaul's agenda for one week, but not because she's at the top of each guest list.

Ms. Kaul is the musical entertainment for these events. As a "free-lance" jazz performer she supports herself on whatever music jobs she can find. She plays her saxophone day and night, but unlike a member of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, she has no permanent position in a jazz band. It's a rugged life, and yet she loves her work enough to endure the hardships.

She is one of many female musicians who free-lance because it's still hard to break into all-male preserves in many bands and orchestras, and because there are too many musicians for too few jobs.

Marian Kaul, who lives in Baltimore with her husband and teen-age daughter, is gone from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, rehearsing and coordinating the CETA-sponsored Port City Jazz Ensemble. The group tours Baltimore's schools, plays outdoor concerts, and gives workshops at the city jail.

Evenings, she plays saxophone or flute in various jazz bands, and on off-nights she goes to nightclubs to hear other musicians.

When her daughter, Tristan, was younger, Ms. Kaul avoided the baby-sitter search by bringing her to rehearsals. Now Tristan is busy with her own interests -- trumpet and dancing -- and mom's career is "old hat," Tristan says.

Mom's work may be "old hat" to her daughter, but in the jazz world Ms. Kaul is making history. As a female jazz performer she is helping challenge one more field traditionally slotted to males.

She is often the only female in nightclub bands, playing until the early morning hours. She says it's important to "prove yourself in groups that are mostly made."

Classical orchestras also used to be "mostly male," but this has been changing. Almost every major city or even midsize one has an orchestra and numerous chamber groups. More demands for classical music means more opportunities for female musicians.

More women than men free-lance rather than hold permanent musical positions, because women still usually assume the bulk of the family responsibilities. A steady, full-time music job requires a time commitment that free-lancers might not be able to make. But the coin has two sides: Irregular hours may require them to be away from home at awkward times. Free-lancers with families agree that support from spouses and children is crucial.

Kristina Nilsson, a violinist, plays seasonally with the Boston Ballet, the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, and the Opera Company of Boston. She is also principal violinist of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston -- a group she helped establish two years ago. In these classical groups, women performers are numerous.

Her wellspring of jobs comes because there are far more violins than woodwinds or other instruments in an orchestra. "I know plenty of wonderful woodwind players who can't get work because there are only two or three orchestra positions available," Ms. Nilsson says.

Synchronizing schedules with her husband, who works a 9-to-5 day, is difficult. "By the time I get home, which is usually past midnight, he's asleep ," she says. But quality compensates for lonely dinner hours and few moments together. "The time we do spend together is precious, worthwhile."

Ms. Nilsson's first baby is newly arrived. To a career woman with normal working hours, this could mean complications in the daily schedule, but for her this is one time that irregular working hours come in handy.

"With myself at home practicing during the day and my husband home at night, at least one of us will be around to care for the baby," she reasons.

Despite the demands of music and married life, she somehow found time to get her law degree. "I've always been interested in law and didn't want to reach 50 and ask myself, 'What if?'"

Many free-lancers do teaching on the side with private pupils or at schools. Another violinist, Maria Benotti, teaches several days each week at two Boston music schools and coaches their chamber orchestras.

She also plays in the New Hampshire Symphony, Portland Symphony, and Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. One drawback is her travel expenses in these days of soaring fuel costs. She averages 180 miles three or four consecutive days in a given week.

Time runs short in her life. A simple thing like getting together with friends, especially nonmusicians, is a major production. Ms. Benotti feels this limits her choice of friends: "Many of my friends are musicians simply because they are the only people my schedule permits me to see."

As a single, professional musician, she finds that any close relationship outside the music circle is nearly impossible. "It's hard to say, 'Goodbye, I have to be alone to practice.' People just get jealous of my instrument!"

The holidays are her busiest times, as they are for most free-lancers.

"Right before Christmas, the amount of jobs is overwhelming and you have to take them, not only because you need the money, but because the contractors put you under a certain amount of pressure," Ms. Benotti says.

Though these drawbacks seem overwhelming, she persists as a free-lancer "because I love what I do in its purest form."

Music teachers who lose their students to summer vacations try to replace this source of steady income by working in summer music festivals or taking nonmusical jobs such as clerking or proofreading. Corrine Flavin, a cellist from Milton, Mass., uses her own ingenuity and combines it with a hobby -- antiquing -- to bring in extra income.

One innovative approach for women who free-lance is the all-female Alexandria String Quartet in Cambridge, Mass. It was started by Susan Gottschalk in 1976, and its first two years were more rehearsing than performing. Though jobs have picked up recently, the members are not breaking even financially.

But Ms. Gottschalk keeps going because "rarely do you find four people who can play this closely and this well for so long."

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