Monday, January 14, 2013

Michael Lisicky: Oboist, Author, and Historian

Michael Lisicky is second oboist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He is also an author and historian and has written five books on the histories of downtown urban department stores. (Visit here or here to purchase.) He has been sought out by CBS Sunday Morning, Bloomberg, Fortune, and other leading news sources as an expert on this field.

I think you are the only person I’ve interviewed so far who has a full-time symphony orchestra job. Everyone else has been a freelancer. What is your typical schedule?

This year marks my twenty-fifth season as a symphony musician. I am an oboist with the Baltimore Symphony and am a former member of the Richmond and Savannah symphonies.

My orchestra schedule consists of the typical full-time symphony schedule, which amounts to the average eight services a week. As a second oboist, I’m usually on stage all of the time, almost every piece. People tend to look at my job as some type of blessing or privilege and sometimes it is. But it’s also my job. And it forms the basis of my income and provides health benefits for myself and my family.

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to act on an interest or passion that I have always strangely had: department store histories. If you can explain to me why you like certain colors or why you like certain scents, then I’ll try to explain this uncommon interest in department stores. For me, it’s about history, not shopping. I don’t know why I’m interested in department stores. I’m just wired that way. 

As a child, I never thought that these institutions would go away. But I’ve learned that nothing is forever. Their stories fascinate me. Most date back more than 100 years and they all had their place and purpose. In the big picture, many things don’t last more than 100 years and it’s impossible to turn back the clock.

After much prodding from people who knew about this hobby, I tried my luck on writing a book. It was on Hutzler’s of Baltimore. I didn’t think that anybody still really cared about Hutzler’s but I was strongly proven wrong. Hutzler’s went through six printings in eight weeks. All of the sudden I had a new identity in Baltimore. I was no longer just a musician in the Baltimore Symphony, I was the person who wrote the Hutzler’s book who plays in the BSO.

Since then I’ve written four other books, each with their own level of success. It has changed my life. Certainly the BSO knows about it, but I like to keep this part of my life separate from my ‘department store life.’ It brings me joy and that is important. I fret too much about the future of my profession and this brings me happiness as it allows me to focus on other things.

My orchestra schedule has not changed. The symphony does not provide me any more flexibility with my lectures and signings and I frankly don’t ask for it. The symphony has to come first and I schedule everything around it.

Can you talk about family and non-career (free/hobbies) time and how that fits into the mix?

I am married to oboist Sandra Gerster and we have a daughter, Jordan, who is 13. Sandy and I met at New England Conservatory back in 1982 but we didn’t get together until 1998 when we happened to get married on a whim at the ICSOM conference in Las Vegas.

Sandy and I also perform quite often with BSO Principal Oboist Katherine Needleman in an oboe trio, Trio La Milpa. The group has done some very interesting things, both musically and by performing in unusual places. 

For a while I concentrated a lot of energy trying to find and schedule concerts for the group. It was fine for a few years but when the economy tanked in 2009, people stopped hiring and if they were going to hire, they’d choose a string quartet. I understand that even though what we provide might be a little more….different, in a good way. But you can’t make a living from oboe trios, or from writing department store books.

You must be particularly efficient at reed-making. Do you have any advice you can share? Do you process your own cane?

I’ve never been interested in reed making. It’s not my thing. I could care less about all of the gadgets and bells and whistles. I’ve never even gouged a piece of cane in my life. I used to be very embarrassed by that but I’m old enough now that I see it as a badge of honor.

You don’t always need the perfect reed all of the time. I’ve learned to compensate for that but there are times when you do get stuck. I spend about 1-2 hours a week on reeds. I feel that if the cane is of decent enough quality, you can get something going.

Some people do enjoy the science of reed making and live by measurements, etc. That’s fine but it’s not me. How many times have we heard that line, “Don’t let the reed play you, you play the reed.” There is some truth to that. Life’s too short. Just make sure that you have a decent embouchure and that you’re blowing correctly.

Do you have specific training/education for your non-music career?

I’ve learned that if you can talk the talk and that you have access correct and comprehensive facts and data to back up what you’re saying, you can be an expert at anything. (It is pretty bizarre to have Fortune Magazine and CBS Sunday Morning seek you out for your opinion of today’s state of retail. Aren’t I just an oboist?)

But I do want to learn more about preserving and honoring history, whatever the subject. As I said, the music business is too precarious. Later this month, I will start the Master of Arts in Museum Studies program at Johns Hopkins University. I never wanted to go back to school but I’m going to try it. This is the scariest thing that I’ve ever done in my life and I have an irrational fear of taking tests, and I have the results to back that up.

Are there aspects of your musical education/training that help you in your other career? What about vice-versa, aspects of your other career that help you in your music career?

I’m not afraid to pick up a phone and blindly ask somebody to talk to me. When I first started to talk to people, I always mentioned that I was a musician with the Baltimore Symphony. It seemed to lend some credibility as if symphony musicians were a safe and sane breed.

Symphonies relied, and continue to rely, on philanthropic people and many former department store families were very good community citizens, especially with the arts. That also helps give me access or credibility to people. I also am very comfortable with public speaking. I suppose my experience talking with board members (I was the Players’ Committee chair last year) and audiences has helped with that. I can give a lecture at the New York Public Library and not think twice about it.

Do you have particular strategies for staying focused/balanced/sane?

Stop sitting in front of TV doing nothing. But watch programs that you want or need to watch. There’s nothing wrong with TV, just don’t watch it 18 hours a day. Just get up and move.

Two years and four months ago, I started running and I’ve NEVER missed a day. I run for at least one hour every day, and that is something that I do have to schedule. I don’t belong to a gym. I live in downtown Baltimore and I run outside, at any hour. People tend to leave me alone and I love the thrill of running through sketchy areas. (For God’s sake, I was born in Camden.) Since I’ve started running, I’ve lost about 90 pounds. I ran my first full marathon last October. I actually do love running. But it can be exhausting.

Who are your role models?

I’m not sure that I have any role models. I just like to be my own person and I admire anybody who is not a conformist. I also admire any person, or institution, that is willing to take educated chances.

What advice would you give to young musicians considering careers in music?

Being a professional musician is not easy, and hopefully you’ve heard this before. You have to win a job, you have to get tenure, and then you have to worry about the health of the job. Don’t just assume there are always jobs out there. Study the business and make sure that you are skilled at something else. Double degree programs don’t sound that bad these days.

And if you’re a student and you are not attending orchestra concerts regularly or don’t feel like attending concerts, you’re in the wrong field. You need to have a passion in order to succeed in this business so you should be attending concerts because you love music. If not, don’t waste your time or your money.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Don’t sit still. Take risks. Do what makes you happy. And buy all five of my books.

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