Escaping the Pit

Oboist Blair Tindall blows the roof off classical music's dark places.

September/October 2005

Reading time min

Escaping the Pit

Photo: David Howells

A few months ago, a group of New Yorkers gathered in a small, dark Manhattan bar called Junno’s for its Tuesday night reading series. The weekly gathering has a reputation for bringing in talented authors to read from book-deal projects shortly before publication. On this night Blair Tindall read from her memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music (Atlantic Monthly Press). Tindall, a graduate of both the Manhattan School of Music and the Stanford journalism program, a woman who has written for the New York Times and played for the New York Philharmonic, then did what she’s always done best in front of a crowd: performed on the oboe.

As far as musical instruments go, the oboe rates pretty low for sex appeal. It’s the waddling duck, the lone character devoured by the villainous beast in Peter and the Wolf. Even when the instrument sounds pretty, it usually doesn’t look it. The oboist, cheeks puffed out, holds the long, straight tube downward—a sight nowhere near as dainty as a flute or suave as a saxophone. Tindall chose the instrument as a schoolgirl in Chapel Hill, N.C., because her last name is near the end of the alphabet: only the oboe and bassoon were left when her turn came to pick. But since Mozart in the Jungle appeared this summer, Tindall’s sex life, and that of many of her colleagues, has been the subject of book reviews and newspaper articles—particularly in Boston, where word spread that she’d revealed having had an affair with the admired, and married, Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart.

Tindall’s motive for writing the book was to use her story—anecdotes of spending most of her adult life in a run-down apartment house with other classical musicians, of her stint selling marijuana, of sexual liaisons with conductors, teachers and musicians, often leading to gigs—to demystify the orchestral scene and expose its pitfalls. She figured an eye-catching cover and a behind-the-scenes tell-all would dispel stereotypes. She warns young, aspiring classical musicians to first think hard about the lifestyle, asking “how do you feel about long periods of substandard pay, lack of health insurance, and possible unemployment?”

It isn’t that Tindall, MA ’00, hasn’t found success as a musician. She’s played in philharmonics and Broadway orchestra pits and on soundtracks of commercials and movies. Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean carried an injured Marius down into the sewers countless nights to Tindall’s accompaniment. Malcolm X died to her solo in the film of the same title. “She brings an expressiveness,” says conductor Robert Billig, who has worked with Tindall in several orchestras and is currently on tour conducting Wicked. “She is a great player, sensitive and expressive.”

Even so, like many in her field, Tindall constantly struggled to piece together enough work to make a living. Securing a regular spot on a Broadway show was one solution—a lucrative gig with benefits for as long as a show stuck around—but it meant playing the same music night after night.

“For all the wonderful kind of blissful moments of music, it can also be such a frustrating career path [with] the lack of opportunity,” she says. “A lot of people really go down the tubes.” Tindall devotes a couple of pages in her book to a cellist who studied at Juilliard and ended up prostituting herself to pay for a drug habit. “[T]here were plenty of reasons for musicians to get high,” the author observes, including “to soothe frustration of spotty employment, or the repetitious nature of both practice and performing the same works again and again.”

Tindall describes her own suicidal thoughts in the memoir. She felt inadequate for having bypassed a traditional education and needed to find a fit in “the mainstream world I’d never known, outside classical music.” In 1999, as her 40th birthday approached and she realized she’d lived in the same shabby West Side tenement for more than two decades, she vowed to make a change fast. “Whatever it took,” she writes, “I would not turn forty in this dump of a building.” Instead, Tindall would do that on Stanford’s campus.

She took several career aptitude tests. Public relations, international business, teaching, music, advertising and journalism all came up as good matches, but journalism intrigued the 39-year-old the most. After years of performing in Les Miserables, she knew the music so well that she could read school brochures while playing the score.

“Enrolling at a real university would minimize my two useless music conservatory degrees, and at the same time, immerse me in the world outside classical music,” she writes. When she got a full-tuition fellowship to Stanford, her dream school, it was an easy decision.

At first, Tindall, the oldest student in her graduate program by 13 years, worried that she wouldn’t be taken seriously. She kept a foot in both worlds, punctuating reporting internships and classes with substitution gigs for the San Francisco Symphony. She merged her two interests in lecturer Dale Maharidge’s class, with a paper on her pianist friend Samuel Sanders and the classical music business. Maharidge told her she had illuminated a world that few knew anything about and suggested she write a book.

After earning her master’s, Tindall kept juggling journalism and music. She wrote business stories for the San Francisco Examiner and covered the arts for the Contra Costa Times. In 2002, after an offer from Billig to play in the orchestra for Man of La Mancha, she moved back to New York and used free afternoons to start her book and pitch it to publishers.

The cover illustration for Mozart in the Jungle, published by Atlantic Monthly Press in July, is a parody of Henri Rousseau’s The Dream. It depicts a nude Tindall on a park bench, her outstretched arm holding an oboe. The Manhattan skyline frames the jungle, and the fauna are naked men with Mozart faces.

“I hate it when people regard classical music as something kind of bland,” Tindall says. “By isolating the arts behind this curtain, by isolating the artists, people are missing the exciting part. It’s passionate. It really touches your soul.”

She cites a national poll showing that “most Americans felt that cultural facilities were important to local quality of life and economy,” but that few of those polled attended concerts. Her conclusion: the classical music business is not in touch with audiences. It needs to be more accessible—to ditch the stuffy black tie attire and become less intimidating. Too many people have told her that they were interested in classical music but felt they didn’t know enough about it to go to a concert. “You can just walk in and experience it,” Tindall says. “You don’t have to know anything.”

Sherry Sylar, the associate principal oboist for the New York Philharmonic and a friend of Tindall’s, admits that she wondered about Tindall’s job prospects in the classical music world when she first heard of the book. “I did fear that people would discriminate against her should she choose to return full time to the freelance business,” Sylar says.

Tindall acknowledges that the book might rub some in the business the wrong way. But she says she’s willing to accept any consequences. “If what I write changes classical music for the better, I would consider that the biggest success of all.”

Besides, Tindall now has the confidence to work outside music, in what she calls “the mainstream world.” In September she will move to Los Angeles to try her hand at screenwriting.

BRIAN EULE, '01, is a writer in New York City.

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