One way to capture a day in the life of 29-year-old symphony violinist Amy Oshiro would've been to transcribe the answering machine message she left when we were still trying to meet.
*Beep* "Hi, this is Amy Oshiro, and I'm very excited to meet you; I'm not quite sure what this interview is about, but I think it sounds fun! I know you said Friday was good for you, but unless it's very early in the morning, another day may be better, because I'm playing a concert in Kansas City Friday night, so we have to be at the airport at 1, and I have a meeting before that. Saturday could work, although I'm running in a road race in the morning, then I have an appointment and a meeting; I teach in the afternoon before rehearsal, and then a concert. Saturday actually may not work out; Sunday might work, if it's early in the morning..."
And so it went, a breathless but quite logical once-over of meetings, lessons, rehearsals, concerts, practice time and so on. Plenty of interview fodder for when we did sit down and talk, the very next day.
The Commonspace: How did you come to be in St. Louis?
Amy Oshiro: I was in the middle of doing a master's degree at Julliard Conservatory in New York, and I noticed an ad for auditions for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in an international musicians' union newsletter. I thought I would give it a try, because there was always the chance that I might be able to work, make some money for a year and not be so poor when I came back to school. I auditioned for the violin spot and they were kind enough to say they wanted me here. It was a great opportunity, and I already knew some things about this symphony from friends I had here. I'd also seen the SLSO in their performances at Carnegie Hall in New York, so I knew of it and had some positive feelings already. After my year was up because it was just a one-year position that I was filling for a guy who was on sabbatical he came back, but the Symphony became aware of some people who were going to be retiring, and they said, "You should really audition again." I did and was selected for a regular violin chair. So, that was more than three years ago, and I'm starting my fourth full season.
TCS: What was it that drew you to the SLSO, that made you know you already liked it?
AO: It's just a really friendly group of people, people who not only are this great orchestra but are actually happy to work with each other. It's not that way everywhere, and the more I hear from friends or people in other orchestras, I feel really grateful to be where I am, learning what I am, in this environment. This is a very competitive arena, and if you don't enjoy that and can't find a way to enjoy the people around you, you're going to be very unhappy. I mean, I really like the people I work with; it's not just, "I have to go to work" everyday. Just as an example, where I'm going tonight is to a dinner party that some friends from the orchestra are having. They just decided to have a small dinner party and invite two or three of us. We enjoy hanging out together. Besides that camaraderie, I love the sound of this symphony orchestra, musically. I don't know exactly how to describe it...it's very alive.
TCS: Ok, I'm now going to pelt you with lots of random little questions I have about symphony musicians, usually stupid stuff I think of while I'm at the symphony. What's your typical daily or weekly schedule like? Do you go in to the symphony hall and rehearse every day from 9 to 5?
AO: Oh, no, it's definitely not 9 to 5. Here, the easiest thing to do is let me just show you what a week looks like in my schedule. We get these nifty little books it's pretty common, almost every orchestra has something similar and it has basically our whole schedule of rehearsals and concerts for the entire year. So I can look at a glance and see what I'm going to be doing. First, we almost always have Mondays off that's also pretty common across orchestras. We really count on that; they always say most people have heart attacks on Mondays, but that won't be me! So, we'll have a rehearsal on Tuesday, another on Wednesday, maybe double up and have two on Thursday. We're always just rehearsing for that week's concerts. For some special events, like kinder-concerts, we might have an extra, separate rehearsal, and that might be two weeks prior. Whether it's a rehearsal or a concert, nothing can be more than two and a half hours long at a time; all of those units are called services. What it usually works out to is about eight services a week, broken down between three to four concerts, four to five rehearsals. If there's a guest soloist performing in a week's concerts, we don't even rehearse that piece until the soloist gets here to rehearse with us. Sometimes that's on Thursday, but often it's not until Friday morning for the Friday night concert.
TCS: Are some of the soloists just complete jerks?
AO: Oh my God, yes. Some of them are just real divas, and they are impossible to work with. Sometimes they yell and throw tantrums; if they yell, they usually yell at the conductor. Well, these conductors have egos, too, so they yell back or yell at the orchestra. But you know, for every bad person to work with, there are five guest soloists who are really nice, very easy to work with, complimentary. And there are guest conductors who are the same way, some horrible and some great. The funny thing is, the symphony seems to be attuned to who those people are, and if there is a particular soloist or conductor who just makes it miserable, we usually see that they don't show up on the schedule again. It's important that the upper levels of symphony administration support us in that way, that they just don't think it's worth the trouble to bring them back. But definitely, there are some people a lot of times the very famous people who are just ridiculous to work with.
TCS: How does a symphony decide, for example, how many violinists to have? How does it get determined who sits where in the orchestra, or is it just random except for the first chair people? If a piece only calls for three violins, how is it determined which three will play that night?
AO: Our symphony orchestra has 92 members, actually, and the symphony definitely has a goal for the exact amount of each kind of instrument they want to have to be fully staffed. When there's an opening either someone leaves or retires, (and it usually is through retirement that openings happen) they pretty much do what they did when I found the audition: they advertise in certain places.
The first and second chairs in a section are the most important, and have the most responsibility. It's definitely a lot bigger job to be the first chair violin, and therefore the concertmaster, than it is to be Amy Oshiro, violin player. Beyond those first two chairs, we rotate through the other positions, so our position and our stand partner changes all the time. Based on where you are in the rotation, that helps determine who plays what concerts or pieces. It's basically negotiations and meetings, to determine if, let's say, only five violins are needed, then they'll look and see who has been off recently, who hasn't been playing recently, who has maybe just come back and so hasn't been rehearing as much. Then that helps decide who plays and who's off. Even if you are not playing one piece in a concert, though, you may very well be in another piece, so it's not like you just get to go home. You can also get time off by requesting it and kind of negotiating that, too, although when the maestro is here, you really shouldn't ask for time off. It's kind of like, it's his orchestra, you know, and you shouldn't just say, "See you" when he's here. When you are off, the orchestra hires a substitute, freelance musician to fill your spot.
TCS: What's the range of what a symphony musician makes?
AO: People who are first chairs or major sort of "stars," I guess, have a lot more freedom to try to make a better deal for themselves personally; they can negotiate as individuals. If you are just here as your first job out of college, or you come here for your first season from somewhere else, I think the starting range is around $70,000, maybe $72,000. That is seen as pretty good money, especially in St. Louis, because that kind of salary could enable you to buy a house here. The starting salary is higher in Chicago, but you couldn't buy a house on it in Chicago. It's so easy to live here, to do all the things you need to do. St. Louis is definitely thought of as one of the top ten symphony orchestras in the U.S., and is recognized internationally when it tours, so we are obviously able to keep getting talented musicians. A lot of people supplement their incomes by teaching music lessons. I have five private violin students right now, maybe one maybe two of whom are the kind of students who want to be professional, concert-quality musicians. And it's fine with me if they don't; I try to have a conversation at the very beginning of teaching a new student to say, "What do you want out of this? Where do you want to go?" If I do get a student, as I have now, who says, "I want this, I want to be where you are," that's exciting because I see someone who is as serious about it as I was.
TCS: Did you always want to be a professional violinist?
AO: Always. I've always known it. I started playing when I was two and a half years old; well, as much as a two-and-a-half-year-old can play. But it was the only thing that I always knew I could do really well, better than most other people. And when I was a kid, some of it was, "Oh, you looked so pretty in your pink dress when you played your little song at the recital," and me thinking, "That's it! I want another pretty pink dress for the next time!" A little encouragement like that goes a long way when you're a little kid.
TCS: Are there pieces of music that you have to play, thinking, "Oh, I hate this piece or this composer or this kind of music?" Do you have a favorite to play?
AO: I have to think...there's really no one thing that comes to mind that I just can't stand to face. I try to give everything a chance, because for me, it's so not worth it to be doing something half-assed, you know? If I am spending my time doing it, I'm going to be looking for something something! to keep my interest in it. Maybe a phrase I never heard quite that way before, or a new technique. As far as favorites: I know some people who have such fast answers for that! Like, "Oh, so-and-so is my all-time favorite composer." I really don't have a favorite, because I think so much changes all the time: the place that you're at in your life, your mood, your understanding of what a piece of music means. You know what I've been listening to a lot lately? Mahler's Second Symphony, The Resurrection. We're actually playing it soon in the program, which was scheduled a long time ago, but it just seems perfect to me right now. I heard Leonard Slatkin recently, and he just performed it with the National Orchestra, and I almost cried listening to him talk about it and its use in this time of mourning. It's just perfect, and I am just in the right place for it right now. It's good timing for the resurrection of our symphony but also for the country. You know, when I was in college I hated Bach, hated him! But it was just because I was young and didn't understand him. So I keep giving a chance to everything I can. That's another thing I like about this orchestra: this is a group of musicians who know how to approach a new piece of music or an up-and-coming composer and make their music sound great. So many modern composers were given their big chance by a premiere with this orchestra, and they really credit us for that.
TCS: What do you see in the future of the SLSO?
AO: It's definitely a very serious time for us right now. Without a doubt, every musician in the orchestra is aware of the financial difficulties of the symphony, and is concerned about it, even though our first responsibility is to keep coming to work every day and making the best music possible, to keep our orchestra the best that it can be. But I think people are very willing, and in fact want to, to help out in any way they can, whether it's doing interviews, making themselves available for media contact, meeting with potential donors and so on. I'm actually an elected representative to the orchestra council, which gets some say in financial discussions as well as some input into the artistic direction, so I may be a little more aware of the details than some other people. No one thinks the worst-case scenario will happen, that the symphony orchestra will declare bankruptcy and there won't be a next season. But definitely everything is on the table for discussion, from reduced touring to cutting salaries. We have a real challenge, but also an opportunity, to make a bold presence in St. Louis right now. We need to constantly push ourselves out there to be in the front of people's minds. We are involved in something that has lasted so long, has been around all this time, and yet is from another period, so we have to be pretty creative to find ways to make it relevant to people. Some of that is branding, but also getting more aggressive about telling people what we do and why it's important. We're competing with the Britney Spearses of the world now. We have a series geared towards younger people, the Micheloeb Classic nights, and when I know it's one of those nights, I might look out and see some younger people in the crowd. But usually, it's the stereotypical, blue-haired older person, and that can't support us forever. It's scary, but if I can look back in five or ten years and realize I was at the very edge of making a new way of people thinking about us, I will think it was an exciting time.