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Paycheck to paycheck | An occasional feature

Talented musician gets creative to survive

Brandon Beck, 26, has no idea what he would do if he couldn't make a living playing in the orchestra. And as the economy worsens, deep down he's scared he won't be able to. Fear blurs the line between artist and survivalist. Keeping his dream alive is a Darwinian struggle of music and finances.

"With a bad economy, the first thing to go is the arts," says the principal french horn player in the Florida Orchestra. "This year our base pay was cut down to $27,800. We've had so many cutbacks in recent years. They cut six weeks out of the season … that's a huge cut. Everybody's feeling it."

Beck puts his faith in working hard to be independent. Independence means freedom. Freedom means better odds of survival as a musician.

To keep expenses down, he and his wife, who is also a horn player, live in an RV, moonlight in churches, stay with their parents over the summer, budget to the penny, cook inexpensive meals at home and pack lunches. They're even planning a sustenance garden to lower grocery bills. But for a member of the Florida Orchestra fighting the economy, gas prices are the worst predator.

"We're a traveling orchestra, and I drive probably between 450 and 600 miles a week. That's a lot of fuel," Beck says. The cost of just getting to the shows was killing him.

So Beck and a fellow orchestra member, armed with instructions from the Internet, built a diesel still to brew their own fuel. They make about 40 gallons a week from used restaurant grease.

Producing gas himself costs him about 80 cents a gallon, saving him hundreds of dollars a month, big step toward independence.

"The future of this country is all about energy independence at this point. You've got to start somewhere, and you've got to do your part," he says. He worries about the direction the country is headed in, and how he and his wife will handle hard times.

"This economy could get rough. We're pretty self-sufficient in the RV, but if things go downhill, we could be out of a job. Done. We're just hoping that it doesn't get to that point.

"You plan for the worst and hope for the best."

About this feature

Seventy percent of families in the United States say they live paycheck to paycheck. American savings are in the negative, the lowest level since the Great Depression. In the Tampa Bay area, the financial pressure for many is acute: Average wages are lower than in comparable Sun Belt cities, and median home prices have doubled in a decade. Add a related surge in property taxes and insurance bills (not to mention higher gas prices) and the challenge to make ends meet is quickly becoming pervasive. It's not a fringe problem. It's your neighbor; it's us. Times photographer John Pendygraft is seeking stories that put a face behind the phenomenon. Are you living paycheck to paycheck? Or have you? Share your story with John Pendygraft at

Talented musician gets creative to survive 06/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 5:15pm]
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