5 of the weirdest jobs in classical music

Meet the people working in music jobs you never knew existed. Click to enlarge, view the feature in its original home via Wayback Machine, or scroll down to read the raw copy.

Copyright © 2015 Universal Music Group Reproduced here with the permission of Universal Music Group
Copyright © 2015 Universal Music Group
Reproduced here with the permission of Universal Music Group

5 of the weirdest jobs in classical music by Christina Kenny

We’re all used to seeing musicians singing or playing their instruments on stage, but take our word for it: there are people working behind the scenes whose jobs are so unusual, you may not even know they exist. We meet five of them.

The Opera Horse Handler – Kay Weston

Kay works at Animal Ambassadors, a company that supplies animals and handlers for the media industry. This year her team appears in three operas at the Royal Opera House: Carmen, Falstaff and The Magic Flute.

I’ve been working with animals in opera for around ten years. I have a very talented team who help me to handle the animals, both on- and offstage – we always come on stage with the animals, in costume. I’ve never once had stage fright, probably because I’m mostly concentrating on the animals!

We choose the animals very carefully, selecting ones with calm personalities who can cope with noise, movement and excitement. They always attend rehearsals (anything from two to six per production) and we play the music to them in advance so they know what to expect. This year we used a new horse for Falstaff: Louis, who has already appeared in Carmen and is therefore an experienced performer. He knows the music so well that his ears prick up when it’s time for his entry.

Other animals aren’t so good at reading the script. Chickens, for example, are strictly free-range actors and often try to make a break for it. We think ahead all the time: horses are shod specially with non-slip rubber shoes to minimise the risk of slipping on the hard stage. When it comes to their bathroom habits, we rarely have an accident during the performance. Just in case, whoever is handling the animal will always be carrying a basket with a shovel and a brush in it.

I’ve only ever seen an animal stop a performance altogether once. The donkey brayed so loudly during the press preview of Pagliacci that the performance had to pause; the audience laughed so hard that Plácido Domingo asked me afterwards if I could get the donkey to do it again. It hasn’t happened since – we shamelessly bribe the horses and donkeys with mints and the chickens with corn, but the animals’ needs always come first. Let’s face it, when you’ve got half a ton of horse on stage you don’t mess about! And anyway, you can’t make an animal do anything it doesn’t want to.

I didn’t realise how wonderful opera was until I started working in it. I absolutely love Bizet’s Carmen. It’s absolutely smashing music, and I get to listen to it in such wonderful places – both on stage, and at our stables when the opera singers come out for their riding lessons. It makes me feel privileged to be a part of the opera.

The live broadcast score reader – Freya Hellier

Freya is Sinfini Music’s Head of Content. A former producer at BBC Radio 3, she began her career as a production assistant in live TV and radio.

Score-reading is an important part of classical music broadcasting, especially for TV. The person who does it sits beside the vision mixer and director and makes sure that everyone knows exactly where they are in the music. You have a marked-up copy of the score with numbers above the line that show the vision mixer which camera to cut to and when. Both the mixer and the director can both usually read music, but they might not have the capacity to look at the score all the time. So the score-reader’s job is to be a never-ending, rock-solid marker during the piece.

It can be a stressful job, especially with fast or complex music. Needless to say, you need to be very good at reading a score, and you have to have nerves of steel. You also have to be able to carry the responsibility of knowing you might screw up lots of other people’s work!

Once I was asked to cue the cannons for a live broadcast of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at the BBC Proms. At the rehearsal, I explained that I’d point at the parts in the score where the technician should press the button. But when the first point came and went, and nothing happened, I started to say ‘Now! Now!’ and he set them all off really quickly.

I remember thinking that my ears were going to fall off. I saw the tuba player’s tuba get literally blown off his face. The problem was, this guy had just come off tour with Usher at Wembley Stadium and had brought along stadium-sized charges. Mark Elder, the conductor, ducked down on the podium with his hands over his head as if someone was shooting at him. The BBC’s sound desk crashed – alarms were going off and bits of debris were falling down from the Albert Hall’s ceiling. And then the technician set off four more charges!

I honestly thought I was going to lose my job. The performance itself was the single most stressful experience of my life. In the end, it went smoothly, but I vowed I’d never do it again. In no other job have I had so much responsibility in such an exposed way.

The Music Editor – Edward Chaddock

Edward is a New Music Editor at Boosey & Hawkes, one of the biggest classical music publishers in the world.

My job is to look after the physical sheet music for a piece, from commission to first performance and sometimes beyond. I get music from composers in a variety of forms – through the post, by email, and sometimes even delivered in person. It’s very rare to receive a manuscript that isn’t legible (the composers tend to treat them like their own children), but there is the odd terrifying one that comes in on A2 paper with extra pieces of paper taped to the sides and top. Editing is done almost entirely on paper, so I have to send those ones out to specialist printers to scan and copy.

My first step is to mark up a copy of the manuscript with a red pen, clarifying notation or flagging up problems. I might also re-notate parts to make it easier to read. Composers do occasionally make mistakes; it’s my job to check these out. Depending on the complexity of the work, there can be a lot to check – I recently racked up six pages of questions for one work.

A note-setter then puts the manuscript into music notation software and prints out a proof for me to check again, and we’ll go back and forth until we have a version I’m happy with. Then we extract any orchestral or choral parts, solo lines and piano reductions and check every single one. It can be a very lengthy process, especially if the composer makes revisions later on. A simple work might take a few weeks, but an opera can take two years.

The job is sufficiently varied that I never get bored. But the best bit is hearing the music at the end of the process: it’s so rewarding. You can get a sense of the piece while you’re editing it, but you can’t be sure until you hear it in performance. That’s part of the reward of the job, but it’s also useful for the later life of the work – I’m the person they come to with questions about future performances.

The Opera Prompt – Alice Farnham

Alice is a professional conductor who has worked in opera houses all over the world.

I’ve been prompting on and off for around 15 years. I’m so glad I learned – it’s a great job, but far more common in Europe than in the UK. The Royal Opera is the only place in the UK that still uses prompts, and even then it’s rare. In the old days it was much more widespread. All the great conductors who came up through The Royal Opera – people like David Syrus, Paul Wynne Griffiths and Mark Elder – started off in the prompt box.

The Royal Opera House has a very subtle prompt box that looks like a large footlight. You get in by sitting on a lift that comes out of a trapdoor in the orchestra pit. Inside, there’s a music stand and a TV monitor, so you can see both the music and the conductor. Your feet are left dangling into the pit, so sometimes the percussionists will try to pull your shoes off.

The basic principle of opera prompting is quite simple. A beat or two before a singer’s entry, you shout the first few words at them in rhythm. But as you’re shouting upstage, it’s very rare for the audience to hear. The usual agreement is to prompt every phrase just before it’s sung. I always mouth the words, too. It’s almost like conducting, although there’s nothing subtle or artistic about it.

It’s not a question of singers not knowing the music: if you don’t know the role, a prompt isn’t going to help. But it helps some people – especially older singers who know how to use prompts properly, or more inexperienced ones who get a bit ‘rabbit in the headlights’ on the night. In Sweden I prompted for a singer who was flown in two hours before curtain up to stand in for one of the principals. The last time she had sung the production was four years previously. I got her through it by feeding her all of the lines very loudly. There were also cuts she didn’t know about, so I had to stick my hand in the air to warn her not to sing. If there hadn’t been a prompt, she wouldn’t have been able to do it.

It’s not without its risks – I’ve had bread thrown at me during a Bohème, and Health and Safety once ordered me to lower my lift during Faust so a soldier could slam his rifle down on top of my prompt box. But I love it. As a conductor, it really helps me understand what singers need when you’re directing them. Plus, the prompt is in the centre of the opera soundworld. It’s thrilling, and a great way to get inside an opera.

The Bow Hair Dresser – Michael Sowden

Michael has worked in the horse hair dressing industry for over 60 years. His family business, Michael A Sowden, is one of the world’s best-known suppliers of hair for string instrument bow makers.

I was 15 when I started out as an apprentice horse hair dresser. I’m 71 now, and have my own business working with my son, Michael Jnr. About five per cent of the horse hair we sell isn’t good enough for bows – instead it gets used to make things like judges’ wigs and rocking horse tails. But the rest goes to make bows for stringed instruments.

When I started out, we used to get all our horse hair from local abbatoirs, but the last horse hair I bought from the UK was in the late 1980s. Nowadays, most of it comes from Mongolia and China, where horses are bred for meat. But although the hair that comes from overseas has been cleaned, it isn’t always of the quality the bow-makers need, so we provide what’s called ‘re-dressed hair’. We get it in bundles that contain enough hair to make about 90 bows. We go through them one at a time, taking out any very thin hairs or any chalky white ones. The remaining hair is sorted, first by colour and then by size, before being rebundled and sent out to the bow makers.

You need one hell of a lot of patience! Every bundle contains about 15,000 individual hairs that have to be sorted one at a time. Depending on how bad the bundle is, it can take three or four hours, and you can end up taking out up to 40 per cent. It also has to be kept pointing in exactly the same direction it was on the horse, root to tip, all the way through the washing, disinfecting, sorting and dressing process, otherwise it’ll cause problems for the musician.

It’s quite rare to meet anyone who uses our products, but I met Vanessa Mae once at an exhibition in San Francisco, and Yehudi Menuhin too, years ago. But I’ve never been tempted to play a stringed instrument myself. I have a lot of violins and bows around, because I think they look nice. But my real passion is the blues!