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How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? - 2002-07-21

There's an old joke told in the United States that makes a serious point about how to be successful in this country. The joke is: a visitor to New York City stops a musician in the street and asks, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" Now, it's many a musician's dream to play in the famous concert hall, so the musician isn't thinking about which street the hall is on, but how good a performer you have to be to play there. So he responds, "'How do you get to Carnegie Hall?' Practice, my friend, practice." VOA's Andrew Baroch wanted to find out how to make it to Carnegie Hall so he talked with a cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

Cellist Yvonne Caruthers practices every day in her studio at home outside Washington, D.C. whether it's for a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra or a solo recital.

"If I'm at home and I'm practicing I usually have to warm up for a few minutes," she said. "I might do that by playing some scales, that kind of stuff, or I might do simple finger exercises like you stretch before jogging. I just do some little: [music] just to kind of get some flexibility in the fingers and make sure everything is moving. Then I generally have some difficult spots I'm working on so whatever piece we're performing that night and I've got a particular passage that's giving me trouble, I work on that spot for a while to make sure it's feeling good and is going to be reliable that evening."

The American Federation of Musicians, which is the nation's largest union of musicians, says Ms. Caruthers is one of about several thousand cellists in the United States, but only five major U.S. orchestras pay cellists enough money to support themselves. The union says the salary range runs from about $2,000 to, in relatively few cases, more than $100,000 a year. The union says most cellists are part-timers or free lancers, traveling from one small orchestra to the next in whatever region of the country they happen to live.

Yvonne Caruthers, for instance is a 49-year old native of Spokane, Washington, who, early on in her career, knew she'd have to leave town if she wanted to play fulltime.

"You couldn't make a living in Spokane, Washington, as a professional musician. They have an orchestra, but it doesn't pay very much even to this day," she said. "So people out there, who play in it the orchestra, maybe teach school or sell shoes or insurance, or something like that to supplement their income. When I first got started, in fact, there are still many communities that I go into today, where the first question a kid will ask is, 'What do you do for a living?' because they can't believe you can support yourself as an independently as a musician because nobody in their community does. So it's still kind of rare."

How did Ms. Caruthers achieve what few others have not? First, she did all the necessary things like practice a lot and attend a four-year music college. Then, she persistently auditioned for an opening in an orchestra.

"They have ads. There's a musicians' newspaper that comes out every month and has ads," she said. "It'll say, 'The New York Philharmonic needs a cellist and a flute player.' You write to them and say, 'Hey, I'm interested.' Then they say, 'Okay. Be here on May 12. Here's what you should have prepared.' And then you show up. Let's say I'm the person auditioning and I walk in and you say, 'Okay, let's hear the Mozart.' You've got the Mozart ready. And for the next one, they say, now we need Strauss.

"You can't say anything in an audition. You're behind a screen so they can't even see you. This is a new thing they've developed. They realized there was gender discrimination in auditioning. So they said, hey if we're going to make this fair, we've got put this screen up like a little curtain. The women quickly learned not to wear heels. Sometimes you take off your shoes so it doesn't make 'click, click, click.' You go padding out there quietly so when you sit down, they have not a clue. You're number seven. You're number 15. That's it."

Ms. Caruthers' career spans 25 years, but her love of the cello started many years before. When she was eight years old her parents enrolled her in music class. "The way I remember it, I took one look at this instrument and said, 'That's mine.' I don't know if anybody else in class had a chance to try it," she said.

As a child, she practiced nearly every day. There are different size cellos for different age groups, and by the age of 16, Yvonne Caruthers knew what her career would be and also what her limitations were.

"I knew that I was never going to support myself as a soloist, the next Yo Yo Ma. There's only one or two of those in the world. It wasn't going to be me. But I thought I probably could support myself as an orchestral player. And I have. I've done that all my life."

But those closest to her tried to talk her out of it.

Caruthers:"Nobody thought I was going to make it as a professional musician. ...My teacher, my parents. My father used to say he didn't want me to go into music because, 'I mean, look around at all those guys [musicians]: they're all drug addicts and alcoholics. I don't want my daughter being like that.' Everybody kind of said, 'My dear, do you have any idea what you're talking about.' But I guess I have a kind of perverse nature because the more people tell me I can't do something, the more it makes me determined that 'maybe I should do this.'"

In the late 1970s, after four years in music college and a stint with the Denver Symphony, Ms. Caruthers auditioned for and was hired by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. directed at the time by Mstislav Rostropovich. She recalls Maestro Rostropovich, who was a good friend, but nonetheless very critical.

"He would stop me, like maybe after three measures. He would talk about how, with the very first note, you have to draw your listeners in. You can't play with a boring sound. You have to play with magic in your sound. He would always talk about magic. 'Where is the note going? Is it just sitting or going to the next note. You, as a performer, have to realize how much information is contained in every note you play. But you've got to, at some level, when you're practicing, you've got to think about all that, you've got to analyze it, decide what you're going to do with every note so it comes out sounding like the most natural singing sound anyone can imagine."