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What's it Like to Be a Professional Violinist?

December 19, 2020

What's it Like to Be a Professional Violinist?

Growing up in the north-east of Scotland, our home was often filled with the sound of music. My father was the local violin teacher, and students often came to the house for lessons. In fact, as early as the age of three, I too had picked up a violin and had begun “playing”. There was also a regular stream of music from our record player. My parents had a sizable collection of old 33 and 78 rpm vinyl records; no doubt a collector’s item these days. Among my favorites were recordings of the late Yehudi Menuhin playing the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos. On listening to those, that was the moment in my life when I knew that I wanted to be a professional violinist. 

Of course, I had no idea at the time what it would take to reach my goal. I had gotten off to a good start though, having my dad as a teacher. He was certainly a driving force in my formative years and, without his knowledge and skills, as well as his encouragement, I know I would never have made the grade. There were to be years of practice, often in the solitude of our music room. And eventually the isolation of a studio at music college. In fact, I am reminded of an old joke about a tourist lost in London. He stopped to ask a police officer “How do I get to the Royal Albert Hall”? The officer replied “Practice sir, practice.”  

I don’t know if the tourist ever got there but the officer certainly had the right idea. 

Years of Practice Ultimately Paid Off

The years of practice eventually paid off, and by the age of twelve I had found my way to the Royal Albert Hall. This was to be the first of many performances there in my career, and a taste of life as a violinist. Of course, I was still some way from being a professional, but I knew I was on the right road. 

Some years passed, and I was soon nearing the end of my studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London. There are many orchestras in London, but I had set my sights on one of the big four; London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Philharmonia or Royal Philharmonic. The only way to become a member of an orchestra of this stature is by audition. I would regularly scour the newspapers for audition notices. Soon enough, I spotted the job for me; section 2nd violin in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. After a good audition and successful trial period, I was delighted to become a member of this great orchestra. 

A Dramatic Life Change

Life would change dramatically for me. I was now rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest conductors and soloists I had only previously heard or read about. In fact, I officially became a member of the orchestra on the same day that we welcomed a new principal conductor, Andre Previn. There was a lot of fuss being made about Andre’s arrival with tv and newspaper reporters present. My arrival at the back of the section went largely unnoticed, but it was a huge day for me. 

We spent the next couple of days recording Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony. We were to work with Andre again later that month, but first we had to jet off on a short tour to Greece. My orchestra always prided itself on promoting music across the whole country and not just the capital city. On our return to the UK we set off on a series of “out of town” concerts. I quickly realized how important it was to have a reliable car with all the mileage I was clocking up. We had more concerts with Andre in London, but I hardly had time to catch my breath before we were on tour again. This time it was a trip to Japan with famed Italian conductor Ricardo Chailly. We enjoyed many fine performances as well as having the chance to absorb the rich culture of the country and its gracious people. 

And Now, for Something Completely Different

And now, as the saying goes, for something completely different. We had been contracted by Warner Brothers to record the soundtrack for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner. The music director was Maurice Jarre, another one of those famous conductor/film composers I had only ever heard of. During the course of my career I recorded the soundtrack for many films including Greystoke; The Legend of Tarzan, A Passage to India, Ladies in Lavender, The Rosary Murders, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Lord of the Rings. 

Being a professional violinist is not just about Brahms and Beethoven. I also worked with the likes of Paul McCartney, Elton John, Michael Bolton, Electric Light Orchestra, and so the list goes on. They say variety is the spice of life and you certainly get that as a professional violinist. One day it might be the Sibelius concerto with Itzhak Perlman, and the next it’s Who Do You Think You Are with Mel B, Posh and the rest of The Spice Girls. 

Things to Remember

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the more mundane side to the life of a professional violinist. I have already mentioned the need for a reliable car, but you also need to know where to park it! I have lost count of the times I have turned up at an out of town gig, and been told by a belligerent parking lot attendant that “You can’t park that thing here, it’s for staff only” or some such admonition.

Off I have gone in search of the nearest parking meter, worrying if I had enough change. It’s also handy to have an idea of where the nearest restaurants are. The time between a rehearsal and concert is often limited, so meals can sometimes be a snatched affair. Make sure you know what the correct attire is. I once turned up for a gig in a cathedral assuming it was the usual white tie and tails. It was the height of summer and, being a new member of the orchestra at the time, it had slipped my mind that the concert dress was actually white tux and black tie. Fortunately, the road manager was able to spare my blushes as he carried a spare in the truck.

Another thing to remember is ALWAYS be on time. A legendary concertmaster I knew very well travelled to gigs as much as possible by train. He once told me he would check the time of the train that would get him there on time. He would then check the train before that but ultimately would take the train before that one! In over forty years as concertmaster in various orchestras he was only late once. That was the time he decided to drive, and a parking lot attendant told him “You can’t park that thing here!”.  

It really is a wonderful life as a professional violinist; thrilling and exhilarating but often exhausting and frustrating. It can be very rewarding, at least musically if not always financially. For those of you considering a career, I would highly encourage you to go for it. Bear in mind, the journey to success is a long one but well worth it. Just remember; beware of that parking lot attendant.     

Steve Merson was born into a musical family in Scotland, UK. He spent his formative years being taught by his father before moving to London to study at the renowned Guildhall School of Music and Drama under Professor David Takeno. Steve was awarded his Associate of the Guildhall School of Music (AGSM) and went on to the Advanced Solo Studies course for a further year. On completion of his studies, Steve joined the BBC and two years later he won a position with the world famous Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which he held for 23 years. During his career in London, Steve also performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia to name but a few. He has also worked with a number of internationally recognized conductors of the caliber of Andre Previn, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yuri Temirkanov, Lorin Mazel, Sir George Solti, Lord Yehudi Menuhin, Kurt Masur, Charles Dutoit, Valery Gergiev, James Levine and Michael Tilson Thomas. Steve has shared the stage with Pinchas Zukerman, Itzak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Maxim Vengarov, Placido Domingo, Lucianno Pavarotti, Mstislav Rostropovich, Daniel Barenboim, Joshua Bell, Emmanuel Ax and Jesse Norman. He has been fortunate to have traveled extensively performing at some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world such as Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Madison Square Garden, Boston Symphony Hall, Chicago Symphony Hall, The Musikverein in Vienna, The Philharmonie in Berlin, Suntory Hall Tokyo, Sydney Opera House, La Scala Milan, Royal Festival and Royal Albert Halls in London as well as for Pope John Paul II at The Vatican and for the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Steve has recorded numerous soundtracks for BBC television and films as well as for the big screen, such as The Red Violin, The Ghost and the Darkness, Mad Max 3, Ellis Island and The Lord of the Rings. Steve now lives in Austin, Texas with his Chicago born wife Norene and enjoys an active career performing with the symphony orchestras of Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Victoria, Mid-Texas, San Angelo, Waco, Abilene, Brazos Valley, Temple, Laredo and currently holds the position of principal 2nd violin with the Central Texas Philharmonic.

Steve Merson