On the road again

When musicians tour, playing the music is the easy bit. As Amy McLellan hears, breakneck schedules, fragile instruments and paltry payments bedevil both musicians and their managers
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Orchestral touring is not for the faint-hearted. Moving 90 people, their instruments and enough luggage for a 17-day, 15-venue tour requires military planning, a level head in the face of adversity (such as a wildcat airline strike) and a sense of humour. "If you thought about it, you wouldn't do it," says Mike Buckley, director of operations at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO).

Given the scale of the enterprise, it is little wonder that most musicians have favourite horror stories. For Richard Watson, double-bass-player with the BBC Concert Orchestra, it's the time the instrument van caught fire en route to a live broadcast. The London Symphony Orchestra administrator Sue Mallet recalls a tour to Daytona Beach when the baggage-handlers forgot to load the instruments and left them in the baking sun on the airport tarmac. Another Mallet favourite is the time a Paris hotel re-let musicians' rooms while the players were at the concert; they returned to find strangers in their beds.

Most tours, however, proceed with some degree of precision. Like an army, an orchestra marches on its stomach. "People think I'm obsessed by food because my first question is always: 'When and where will they eat?'" says Dawn Day, concerts director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. "It's absolutely paramount. I need to make sure they get a good breakfast and find time for lunch before rehearsal, so I have to ensure there are places to eat near the concert hall." Emergency supplies of bananas and biscuits on interminable coach transfers are among the tour manager's secret weapons.

Musicians are paid a per-diem subsistence fee to cover accommodation, food and watering costs. Although agreed with the Musicians Union and linked to the retail price index, some per-diem payments can leave players out of pocket. "The per-diems are based on the retail price index, which does not include hotel prices," says Paul Allen, clarinettist and orchestra manager for the English National Ballet. "Places such as Bristol and Oxford are very expensive hotel-wise, far more than we get in expenses."

Musicians with the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra, for example, receive a subsistence allowance, which must also stretch to pay their accommodation costs, of £38.10 per night or £228.70 for a week, rising by a quarter for the more expensive cities such as Aberdeen and Birmingham, and to £50.80 per night in London. "We supply them with a list of theatre digs, but most people have their own regular haunts," says Barry Collarbone, orchestra and concerts manager for the NBTO.

Money, and the saving thereof, is a constant feature of life on the road, although the addition of a top name conductor or soloist can bump up conditions for the rank and file. "It's much tougher these days," says the CBSO's Mike Buckley. "If we have a surplus at the end of the tour, we are pleased but it only takes one thing to go seriously wrong to end up with a deficit." Mallet says: "When I started in 1967 we could go on tour and the fee income would cover all our costs. Now we have to have a sponsor on board and the tours are very condensed because every free day costs a huge amount of money, about £35,000."

The straitened economics can make for gruelling timetables and raised stress levels. Flying out on the day of the concert, rather than the night before, not only adds an element of risk should travel plans go awry but also makes for a very long working day. "It's financially driven," Mallet admits. "If we flew out the night before, then there would be an extra hotel bill, per diem and fee to pay, which could add another £18,000 to our costs."

As a result, a musician can be up at 5am to make an early morning commuter flight to Europe which may be followed by a lengthy coach transfer and a quick check-in at the hotel, before embarking on a three-hour rehearsal and three-hour concert, perhaps finishing around midnight. Yet the fee paid for this 19-hour marathon may be as low as £66.20 for a rank and file member with one of the smaller orchestras, rising to £87.25 for the likes of the LSO or the RPO. A principal could expect to be paid £110.35 for the day. On "hit-and-run" tours, the plane, coach, rehearse and perform grind can be repeated day after day. "Living out of a suitcase, doing one stop per night is incredibly tiring and very wearing," says Day.

CBSO violinist Cathy Scott recalls a gruelling farewell tour to mark Sir Simon Rattle's departure. "We had two weeks in the US and two weeks in Japan back to back. I was almost insane by the end of that month." On long-haul tours to the US or Japan, an extra day or two will be built into the schedule to acclimatise to the time difference. "One year I had a bad case of jet lag in Japan," says Scott. "During the concert I had to keep pinching my legs to stay awake and the next morning I wondered what all the bruises were!"

She adds: "Your reputation is only as good as your last performance so no matter how bad you feel you have to put on the best concert." Given the pressures of touring, it is important that players get on. Most orchestras will divide into smaller cliques when it comes to dining and socialising. "We have a contingent who do the culture thing and another group for whom the main experience is dining and spending the subsistence as soon as possible," says Day. "It's important they have these little support networks while they are away."

Quintin Ballardie, artistic director of the English Chamber Orchestra, says the camaraderie is very important. "If you find someone does not get on with the others, they have to be edged out over a period of time because it does cause trouble. People do get very tired and stressed on tour and if there is someone at the back of the bus moaning then it can really pull the whole orchestra down."

Cracks can start to show on a long tour. In her book, All Risks Musical: An Irreverent Guide to the Music Profession (Pocket Press, 2002), cellist Alice McVeigh writes: "The slightest incident - a disagreement about bowings, a rumour about what the principal oboe said about the principal horn - can assume mammoth significance on tour, especially at mid-point, the psychological low of the trip."

Extensive touring can also put stresses on family life. Scott says she finds the touring harder since the birth of her son. "We went away in April for a week and I found that very tough because it was the first time I had ever spent a night apart from him."

Musicians also worry about their instruments. On UK tours, some musicians arrange their own transportation, with the owners of the heavier instruments receiving porterage payments - ranging from £12.65 to £18.20 for a double bass - to defray the extra costs. Orchestras such as the LSO, the RPO and the CBSO have their own trucks. To offset costs on European tours, the instruments will often be trucked while the orchestra flies: traffic jams and faulty mechanics can make for a nervous wait at the other end. When the instruments do take to the air, they are packed in special flight cases and travel in the hold. Some orchestras will buy seats for cellos, although post September-11 the airlines are increasingly twitchy about the practice. Even taking violins as carry-on is frowned on by some airlines. Musicians, reluctant to see their prized cello or expensive violin travel in the hold, often leave their best instruments at home.

"There is a constant stress wondering whether it will fall out of its flight box in bits at the other end," says bass player Richard Watson. In the face of such adversity, why do it? Some orchestras, such as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which receives no subsidy, are forced by sheer economics to take to the road to earn a living. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra also counts touring as essential to its financial health.

"Because we have the royal association, it helps us when we go abroad," says Tammy Breeze, tours manager for the RPO, which this year has been to China, Mexico, Turkey, Cyprus, Romania, Mexico, Spain and Italy among others. "Our tours are profitable and an important part of what we do." Others, like the CBSO, believe touring is important to raise the profile of the orchestra and its home city. That also holds true for the UK as a whole; many British orchestras are held in high regard overseas. "We were the first visiting orchestra to play in the new Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles," says Day. "It was a huge coup for us. There was even a five-hour radio programme devoted to the Academy and Ken Sillito [lead violin]. That would never happen at home.

"It's incredibly important people realise what a great job orchestras do. Touring is very much about promoting Britain and British cultural life. People talk about coming to London to visit us. That has real economic value."

Even on a UK tour, an orchestra can provide a welcome fillip to local hotels and hostelries. "When the ballet tours, that's 150 people moving from town to town and that can be a mini-economic boom," says Paul Allen of the ENB. Touring has artistic merit, allowing the orchestra to develop by playing together for extended periods. And for many of the musicians, it can be a very personally rewarding experience. "There are ups and downs with every job and sometimes I have to remind myself how lucky I am," says musician Byron Parish, picking a trip to South America as his touring highlight.

The quality of the venues abroad is another plus. "The concert halls in Japan are fantastic," says Richard Watson. "We played a girls' grammar school there. It was a 2,000-seater and would rank in the top five halls in this country."

And touring can do wonders for morale. "When we tour abroad it's like being on a different planet: we consistently get great reviews and play to packed houses everywhere we go," says Day of the Academy of St Martins in the Fields. "It's an amazing feeling when a 3,000-seat hall stands up as one to cheer. It means the orchestra feels appreciated for what they do." Given that many orchestras are made to feel a costly irrelevance in British cultural life, a little ego-boosting overseas can go a long way.