Justin Locke spent eighteen years as a professional double bassist, playing in the Boston Pops, the Boston Ballet, the Boston Symphony, and just about every other orchestra in New England. His role in the arts world has since expanded to playwright, author, impresario, score reader, producer, and publisher. He is well known in the symphonic world for his educational programs for orchestra concerts, Peter VS. the Wolf and The Phantom of the Orchestra, which have been performed for hundreds of thousands of people on four continents and two island nations. His two books are Real Men Don’t Rehearse, a humorous musical memoir of his days as a bass player (now in its 5th printing), and his latest book, Principles of Applied Stupidity, which is a unique approach to enhancing your creative thinking and action. In his speaking appearances, he offers a unique multi-faceted perspective on professional performance, and insights on how to apply the lessons of the arts world to the business world and vice versa. You can read excerpts from his books and see a video from one of his recent talks on his website, www.justinlocke.com.
Q. When did you start playing an instrument?
My first attempt at playing an instrument was playing the piano when I was five years old. For some reason I could play the left-hand or the right hand, but I could never play the two of them together. So I gave up. I tried playing the flute in fifth grade, but I kept hyperventilating when I practiced, so that was a bust. I actually tried trombone and percussion for a while as well, no go. Then one day I picked up the string bass and I guess the standards must have been pretty low because the phone started ringing within a week of my learning the C major scale.
Q. When did you get serious about your music?
Well there are some people who will tell you I never got serious… but I suppose one must decide in the junior year of high school if one is going to do this as a hobby or as a profession . . . and every year after that!
Q. Did you study music in college?
Oh yes. I attended the New England Conservatory of music. Although for performance majors, music school is really more of a trade school than a college experience.
Q. Why the bass?
Well, as I mentioned in my book, I’m not sure that anybody really decides to play the bass, it just gets foisted on you for one reason or another– you know, you’re late on the day they assign instruments and that’s all that’s left, you’re tall for your age and they desperately need someone to play it . . . I was just messing around with it one summer day for something to do, but here’s the thing, when the local high school production of South Pacific and/or every civic orchestra conductor within 50 miles gets wind of a new bass player, your phone just starts ringing. At the amateur level, people are desperate for bass players. I’m convinced I could’ve gotten into any Ivy League school of my choosing just by writing “I play the bass” on the application.
Q. When did you become a professional? How did that come about?
Well, an extremely long story short: in my first year at NEC I discovered that, on a national level, I was an intensely mediocre player. So I went home that summer and I re-dedicated myself. For eight hours a day, seven days a week, I did nothing but play scales and arpeggios. In the bass world, we refer to this as “the priesthood of fundamentals.” After three months of that, my playing elevated to the next level. After that, it was largely a matter of luck and connections. There was enough work in Boston at the time to support three bass players, and that autumn one of those three guys suddenly left town. The contractor for all the big gigs in town called my teacher, my teacher recommended me, and that was it. One phone call and I went from being just another student to instantaneously playing the opera, the ballet, and the Pops. It was sporadic seasonal work but it paid the
I do believe that in the music training realm, the importance of reputation and connections is not emphasized enough. While many major orchestra jobs come from auditioning, the majority of professional music jobs are per diem work, and being recommended to contractors is key. (I occasionally hire entire orchestras for recording gigs, and it always amazes me how bad musicians are at marketing themselves.)
Also, just a quick footnote, I soon discovered that I could not really maintain a professional playing schedule and continue to go to school. So even though I was a double honors student in bass playing and conducting, I gave it up. I mean, I was already doing what I was supposed to be learning how to do, so I didn’t see the point of it. And now I can honestly say that I “dropped out with honors.”
Q. What’s the best part of playing in an orchestra?
There’s the glamor, and there’s the money, but I have to say the best part of playing in orchestras, especially in a major orchestra, is the sense of belonging. I believe this feeling is one of the most important things people seek after food and shelter. And of course, when you’re playing a really great piece of music with 100 fabulous players and a really good conductor, there is this tribal feeling of unity that is hard to describe. There are few experiences in life that can compare to it. I have memories of playing specific concerts with Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, and Henry Mancini that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Q. The worst part?
Ugh, let me count the ways. For one thing, for freelancers, the flip side of the belonging is the fear of being fired at any minute. The pressure is enormous. As I say in the book, a professional orchestra in an environment “of mutually demanded precision that borders on the psychotic.” And then there’s the boredom. You can only play Beethoven’s Fifth so many times before you really don’t want to play it again. Also, as a rank-and-file member of the group, you really don’t have a lot of control over anything. You play the piece the conductor picks, at the tempo the conductor wants you to play it. They tell you when you can take a break, the rehearsals and concerts are scheduled at very inconvenient times. I personally hated working nights and weekends. And if you don’t get along with your stand partner, it’s a nightmare. Incompetent conductors abound. I could go on and on with all of my complaints about orchestra life. Don’t get me started! I do feel somewhat guilty though, because in my book I focus on the really good and fun parts of orchestra playing. But I didn’t think anyone wanted to read a book full of my complaints, so I left them out.
Q. What are the auditions like?
I wrote a whole chapter on that in Real Men Don’t Rehearse. Suffice to say, if you have a choice between taking an orchestra audition and being detained by the Turkish police, I would advise you to pick the Turkish police.
I never took an audition for a major orchestra that had fewer than 300 other applicants. It’s a stress test i never want to repeat again.
Q. What ballet orchestra did you play in? Who was the conductor?
I played in the Boston Ballet Orchestra for I think about 15 years. That includes 500 Nutcrackers! The first conductor was a BSO violinist named Michelle Sasson. Then he went to La Scala I think, so we then went through a series of single year guest conductors, most of whom were quite forgettable. One in particular drove me nuts, as his highest priority in life was to check and see if the bass players were “vibrato-ing.” I cannot begin to tell you how amateurish and ridiculous we found this requirement to be. Inept conductors are, sad to say, a common occupational hazard.
I also played for touring ballets, most notably the Royal Ballet when they came to town. I can’t comment on the dancing, as I rarely got to see much of it from my vantage point, but their conductors were excellent. I even played for a show with Nureyev once, but he was past his prime and sat through most of it as I recall!
Q. Anything different about playing in a ballet orchestra as opposed to a regular orchestra?
Oh yes, theatrical playing is very different from concert playing. In a concert, we play it the way we want to play it, but in a ballet pit, tempos are determined by the choreography. There will be places where a dancer on stage is doing some sort of grande jete, and we can’t see him, so on certain beats we all have to keep an eagle eye on the conductor so we can play the Big Bang when the guy hits the floor. I talk about playing in orchestra pits in my book. It is a bizarre sensory deprivation experience, because you can hear the audience clapping and or laughing in the same places night after night, but you have no idea what it is that they’re laughing or clapping for.
Q. You have written a very humorous book about playing in orchestras. Anything humorous happen in the ballet orchestra?
Oh jeez . . . well, when you are in orchestra pit, the audience cannot see you. And this opens the door to a whole new level of fooling around. For example, in the Nutcracker, there is a scene with the rats and toy soldiers where a gun goes off. Our percussionist had a real live 38 caliber pistol for this sound effect. When he fired it in the air, the packing of the shell would come raining down on the brass section. So he took to packing the muzzle with more and more newspapers and what not to get an even bigger effect of crud raining down on these other musicians. One night he goofed though, and put so much stuff in there that the gun failed to go off.
Also in Nutcracker, when the mice came out they used to hassle us directly, was great fun, as we would wallop them on their mouse heads with our bows. We thought about making up a big 2-foot long box of D-Con but figured that might be too much.
Another night, a percussionist ran a fish line the full length of the ceiling of the pit, and had a bag of that phony snow rigged up in the ceiling above the celeste. And as the celeste player played Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, he was subjected to a blizzard of snow on his keyboard. Hard not to laugh out loud.
And one day at a kiddie concert ballet, the two lead dancers had to do this move where the guy picks her up and her feet go up over his head, and his knee buckled under the weight (not injured, just slipped) and they went splat all over the stage in a pile of arms and legs at the high point of this Tchaikovsky music. Not something you see every day!
There are more stories like that in the book… I have lots of stories like that, buy me a few drinks and I can go all night. I also wrote an entire story based on the true stories of the fooling around of the brass section of the Boston Ballet. It’s called The Legend of Albert Haaaugh, and you can read it on my website
Q. What inspired you to start writing?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I wrote my first short story when I was in second grade, wrote and staged my first play in 3rd grade . . . When I have a sheet of paper and a pen I just start scribbling. I have always had “a way with words,” and plays and scenes are always popping into my head, so it’s just a natural thing for me.
My professional writing began with the creation of my “kid shows,” and I tell that whole story in my book so I won’t repeat it here. With Real Men Don’t Rehearse, well, I had been regaling people at cocktail parties for years with my “Pops War Stories,” but I didn’t want to write a tell-all book for fear of getting fired from the Pops. Then when I finally quit working for the Pops (as both player and score reader for TV shows) I decided I had nothing to lose and lo and behold this thing took off.
Q. You’ve written some funny pieces for orchestras like your Peter VS. The Wolf. Any plans for the ballet?
Well, once upon a time I actually wrote two kid-oriented ballet/dance stories, but I find they are too elaborate for most groups to stage so they have lain fallow for many years. One of these is called J.S. Bach, Superstar. The premise is that Bach’s 22 kids hire a manager for their father, but the manager is from modern day Las Vegas. Bach and his kids get swept up into a highly commercialized world of pop music performance. It’s great fun, as the 22 kids (of all ages) perform in modern dance idioms to updated arrangements of classic Bach pieces (including a hip-hop/rap version of the Bach Chaconne). I just recently put some of those arrangements up on Itunes, not sure when they will be officially available, but soon. The Hot-Tempered Clavierand Sheep May Safely Swing are real favorites!
One of my orchestra shows, The Phantom of the Orchestra, was done in the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro. The idea is, the Phantom is sabotaging the concerts, and in one sequence, in their oh so elaborate staging they had the 4 cygnets from Swan Lake come out, but the Phantom had spiked the coffee of one of the cygnets, and she gets drunk and takes off on her own, doing a Charleston and just being very unique and happy. It was staged by Dahlal Achcar, and if anyone has her email I need to talk to her! I have to say, that happy-drunk cygnet dance sequence was one of the funniest things I have ever seen on a stage.
I am also about to put on Itunes an old production, Fitness Fairy Tales, not dance per se but simple movement activities for 2-6 year olds. It’s the exercises all the fairy tale characters have to do to stay in shape.
Q. Any tips for aspiring musicians?
Oy. Well, this is a one hour talk I give so I will have to truncate things a little. I think if you are looking at music as a career, be careful to look at the big picture, and follow the money. Just a few little factoids: less than a tenth of 1% of the people who go into music work full time playing music for paying audiences. There are what, maybe 1500 people who work truly full time playing in orchestras in the United States. There are lots of other smaller orchestras, but they aren’t full time, so they must supplement their income by doing non-playing activities. This can be managing, contracting, fund raising, repairing, selling, or perhaps animal husbandry, but for most, it is teaching. The vast majority of “the music business” in America is the music education business. The Illinois Music Teachers Association alone has 5,000 members.
If you choose a career in music, bear in mind that the people at the tippy top of the pyramid are not representative of the business as it really is. And there are many people who want you to get into their world and be their student, and so it’s a great sell. But even at the very top of the profession, well, the big stars live on the road and they work nights and weekends. Yes, for a select few, it’s fame, glamor, and big bucks. But so is the NBA. Be realistic about what the future holds. There are many down sides to the music business, even if you make it big, and no one within the industry wants to turn away potential teaching income (which is the source of the majority of the industry’s income) by telling you about those things, so– caveat emptor.
Q. Any tips for aspiring writers?
Ha– again, another hour long talk. A friend of mine once worked for Houghton Mifflin reading their “slush pile” submissions, and she put it this way: “Most people write for therapy, not for other people to read.” When I write a book, I think very hard about how this will look to someone other than myself. Stories of my childhood angst might be incredibly interesting to Justin Locke, but would this be even vaguely interesting to anyone else? Always remember, the role of an artist is not to be listened to, but to do the listening. The reason I wrote Principles of Applied Stupidity is to emphasize the importance of doing something unique and not simply conforming to how everyone else does things. Mimicking another’s success is a sure road to failure.
Q. What are some things that you are working on
Well, I just got Principles of Applied Stupidity up on Amazon and I am trying to work some marketing magic to get some speaking appearances about that–it is a funny book, and it was originally meant to be a joke, but much to my surprise this is a real live self help book, and is truly unique.
I am really doing more marketing than creating these days– the curse and the joy of self publishing. Peter VS the Wolf is being done down in the Bahamas again I think, and I am putting all my music up on Itunes. Mostly I am hoping to do more and more speaking, as that seems to be what I am best suited for and I think is what I want to be when I grow up.