Musicians are a mixed bag of misfits. That’s not intended as an insult—it’s actually the highest compliment.
From open mic acoustic to street corner soul, musicians cross all socioeconomic strata and do what most only dare to dream while singing in the shower or playing drums on their steering wheel. They breathe art into the air that surrounds us, and fearlessly face ridicule in real time. Despite the long hours and low wages, musicians are the shared pulse of the human experience.
Sure, pop stars and singing celebrities make it all look glamorous. But in reality, the average working musician just refilled your water glass, fixed your email, or changed your oil. That’s because making it as a full-time musician doesn’t happen overnight (if ever) and many aspiring folk singers, guitar heroes, and metal heads can only afford to moonlight as musicians by working as waitresses, tech support, or auto mechanics while the sun shines.
Music may be their passion, but in some cases it is just a side gig.
But what happens when it’s the other way around—when music is a full-time commitment, but outside passions fill the off hours instead with equal measure? Do professional musicians also have side gigs?
Amid the rigors of rehearsals and performances, I interviewed three Columbus Symphony Orchestra musicians about their side gigs. And it turns out, their extracurricular endeavors are as unique and enthralling as the overtures and interludes they play.
Mike Buccicone’s music career started from scratch more so than most, with a violin handmade just for him by his grandfather.
“My grandfather emigrated from Hungary and settled in Campbell, Ohio. He played the violin in small ethnic community bands in the area,” explained Buccicone. “He worked in a machine shop in the steel mills of Youngstown. When he retired, he began making violins by hand using his knowledge of tools and machining.”
His grandfather spent winters in California and summers in Ohio. When Buccicone was seven, he received his first violin, and his first lesson from the master and mentor who made it.
“When he stayed with us in Ohio, he would spend his time carving out the necks of the violins in those summers. In California, he would build the bodies,” Buccicone noted. “He presented violins to most of my cousins, but I was the only one who stuck with it.”
Buccicone’s studies at the University of Cincinnati led to his first job with the Arkansas Symphony in Little Rock. Faculty contacts made at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lakes, Michigan eventually landed him a position at Michigan State. That’s where he met George Hardesty, founder and first conductor of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.
But the violin isn’t Buccicone’s only passion with soft curves and a shiny finish. He’s also the president of the 928 Buckeye LandSharks, a close group of owners and enthusiasts united in their love of the luxury line Porsche.
“In the mid ‘80s, I had a neighbor whose brother-in-law had an early model. He took me for a ride in it and I was totally blown away,” Buccicone revealed. “Unfortunately, as these cars aged, they became very expensive to repair. Many were abandoned in a barn or garage and degraded to the point no one would spend the money to fix them.”
Now, he and his fellow LandSharks rely on an orchestra of experience, expertise, and spare parts to keep them running.
“It’s the attention to detail of the music and what we call detailing just before a car show or CSO performance,” Buccicone explained, comparing his two obsessions. “I never think of Wagner and the Ride of the Valkyries, but like to play Rush’s ‘Red Barchetta’ on a driving tour.”
About the only time you’re likely to find Russ Gill with both feet planted firmly is standing next to his double bass. Otherwise, he’s probably out running another marathon.
No really, Gill has run 124 marathons—including 43 consecutive Boston Marathons.
He may have been a bona fide early adopter of the nation’s running craze, but not so much with the bass. Gill didn’t start until the seventh grade, which is well past the average for most professional musicians.
“I was pretty tall and I remember him saying that a bass performance job would be much less competitive than a violin or cello job,” Gill confessed, having been introduced to the instrument by his first piano teacher. “I started running about the same time I started playing bass, so I’ve been doing both forever.”
“I love teaching piano because—to me, anyway—it’s a very easy instrument to play well,” he commented, noting that he still enjoys teaching piano in addition to his work with the CSO and a rigorous running ritual. “Simple formula: play the right notes, play the right rhythm, and voila! You’re a good pianist. I don’t know which I enjoy more.”
“I feel just as fulfilled after playing my best in a concert as I feel after I’ve given a marathon my best effort.”
Gill came to Columbus as the CSO’s first full-time bass player in 1978 by way of the Syracuse Symphony, where he’d been since graduating from the Eastman School of Music.
He’s also not the only runner in their ranks. “I know several classical musicians who are marathoners. Certainly, one of the connections is the dedication it takes to run 26-mile races and the effort it takes to get into a top symphony orchestra.”
But Gill is also a man apart. The philanthropic thread that ties his tireless feats together is almost unrivaled.
“I’ve carried a Christmas tree for arthritis, run marathons for leukemia and lymphoma, and done 65-mile runs for multiple sclerosis. I’ve raised over $550,000 for five different charities,” he reflected. “It took me 32 years to climb a million steps for cystic fibrosis. We had a small ceremony in the lobby of the Rhodes Tower when I reached that milestone.”
That’s putting it modestly for a guy who’s been in the Guinness Book of World Records—three times.
It’s a rare kid who sets out to be an oboist or play the English horn, but Bob Royse is that kid.
“I started playing the cello in school, in Rocky River, Ohio where I grew up. You know, it looked cool,” Royse admitted. “But I always liked the sound of the oboe, especially the English horn—the haunting quality.”
“Plus, I had a friend who played the oboe when I was a kid. I thought it was cool watching him fiddle around with all of his knives and reeds. That was obviously very naïve on my part, because that’s been the bane of my existence ever since,” he admitted with the chuckle of an inside joke.
For woodwind players, a good reed determines and defines their tone, pitch, and response. Even the best reeds may only last a few performances, so crafting each by hand easily becomes a lifelong labor of art and obsession.
His high school years at Interlochen Arts Academy in Traverse City, Michigan were transformative, demanding a collegiate level of commitment, even before attending the Cleveland Institute of Music.
“I got on that track when I was quite young. I was well-focused, but maybe not well-rounded. I was really into it,” he noted emphatically.
Symphony positions throughout the Midwest led to a three-year stint as principal oboe in Cape Town, South Africa. That’s where his passion for photography was born.
“I found myself transported by Africa, drawn to the wildlife,” Royse said. “I came home to visit my parents in Cleveland, and there was an audition with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra—so I took it.”
That was nearly three decades ago, and Royse has been here ever since.
“When I moved back to Ohio, it was birds that fascinated me and they continue to do so,” Royse explained. “I find their songs fascinating as well. I can walk around and identify birds by their song, then look for the most likely place to find and photograph them.”
That keen ear and philosophy of fidelity bind both of his passions.
“When a composer writes something beautiful, your job is to interpret it as beautifully as possible,” Royse explained. “As a photographer, when I’m presented with something beautiful, I look at the background, the light, the color, the detail—then I try to make it as beautiful as it is in nature.”
To see all three in action at their day jobs, visit columbussymphony.com.