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Pros and Cons to a Career in Orchestral Music

Gandalfe

Admin and all around good guy.
Staff member
Administrator
By Douglas Yeo

Those who know me well are aware that I view my job as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as in inexpressible gift, an answer to a long held dream and an enormous privilege. Having been a full time orchestral musician since 1981, I am also well aware that many of my colleagues are either inexpressibly happy with their positions or dismally unhappy. I speak about this some in my article The Puzzle of Our Lives, a detailed look at my own personal journey to a life as an orchestral musician.

At the same time, while each person will view a career in a professional orchestra through a slightly different lens, allow me to point out several distinct advantages and disadvantages to consider for those thinking about such a career. Please note that what I am writing below is from my perspective as a member of the Boston Symphony, an orchestra that is in the top tier of world-class ensembles. Working conditions, salary and benefits in other orchestras may be vastly different that what I describe here as many other major, regional and metropolitan orchestras have much lower scale salaries, benefits, and less optimum working conditions. Musicians in many orchestras are paid "per service" and the trombone is not always part of the "core" group of players in the orchestra. But here is one viewpoint from where I sit, as I assume most people who are aspiring for an orchestral career would like to play at the top level.


The Good News...
An opportunity to do something you love as your job. There are not many jobs that provide one the ability to do exactly what one trains to do. If you love playing your instrument, a career in a symphony orchestra provides a chance to do that on a daily basis and, on concert nights, have the satisfaction of 2000 people on their feet congratulating you for a job well done.
The potential for a stable career with excellent job security, salary and benefits. The base scale pay for members of the top American orchestras (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia) is approximately $2000+/week (minimum guaranteed scale). These orchestras typically offer 10 weeks paid vacation, full medical and dental coverage, generous sick leave, a pension (after 30 years service or the "rule of 85" which provides a full pension to players whose age and years of service combined equal 85) of over $70,000/year, and many other excellent benefits. After passing an initial probationary period (of one to three years depending on the orchestra's policy), tenured members enjoy job protection and security as members of the American Federation of Musicians. Dismissal can only be made for cause which must be proven to an arbitration panel, often made up of peer members of the orchestra.
Recording benefits. Many orchestras make either audio or television recordings. Current AFM scale for a three hour recording session (symphonic scale) is approximately $350.00 not including yearly residual royalty payments made to the individual musicians.
Tour opportunities. Top orchestras regularly go on tour to various places in the world. Since I joined the Boston Symphony in 1985, I have toured (in most cases several times) Japan, China, Hong Kong, South America, Europe, The Canary Islands, and the United States. Orchestra members are provided with a private, single room in tour hotels as well as a daily food per diem alowance of approximately $60.00+/day.
Instant credibility in the music market. Simply by virtue of the fact that a person is a member of top symphony orchestra, many other doors open easily, particularly in the realm of teaching. For those in orchestras in large metropolitan areas, colleges, universities and conservatories of music usually draw their faculty from the ranks of the local symphony orchestra. In addition, upon retiring from the orchestra, symphony players often become leading candidates for full time jobs in colleges because of their vast experience.
An appealing schedule. While work in a symphony orchestra is demanding (see below), the fact is that the average 8 service week for most major orchestras is an attractive schedule. A typical Boston Symphony Orchestra work week will usually include four 2.5 hour rehearsals and 4 concerts. If a player chooses not to teach or engage in other work outside the orchestra, it is possible to be home for three meals a day on most days of the week and enjoy a "work week" of about 20 hours on the job. Of course, individual practice adds up to make a full work week, but such practice can be done on a flexible basis and usually at home. For players with young children, the job is one that provides significant time at home. For players with a spouse who does not have a full time job, having Sunday and Monday as days off (as is the case most weeks in the BSO) provides time for relationship building and time off when (on Mondays) most of the rest of the work force is busy at the office.


The Bad News...
Cynicism. Despite the fact that an orchestral job provides stability, a good income and the satisfaction of a life in music, many players become cynical and jaded because they feel their work as individuals is not appropriately recognized. Many musicians (particularly string players) train aspiring to a solo or chamber music career; a life in a symphony orchestra often seems "third best" to them. After years as a tutti player, some players become frustrated and choose to dwell on negative aspects of the job. Because most orchestras have contracts with the American Federation of Musicians, the union can also have a negative influence, beyond the average 3% (per week) work dues involuntarily attached from one's paycheck. Union activism can at times be frustrating, and while allegedly "democratic" in nature, players are not given a choice about many decisions made by the union. It is, however, always possible to find something to be unhappy about - scheduling, overtime, tour conditions, etc. But happiness is a choice, and one can make a calculated decision about whether he will focus on the positive or the negative. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see my article The Modern Symphony Orchestra: Turmoil, Liberation and Redemption.
Limited advancement opportunities. Wind and brass players are usually hired to individual positions in an orchestra, say principal trombone or second trumpet. While some positions require specialty players (such as bass trombone, tuba, contra-bassoon, bass clarinet, english horn, piccolo, etc), second players (and most section string players) have few opportunities to move up to principal or premium chairs. Because players who are tenured often stay in an orchestra for a lifetime, the possibility for moving up in a section only comes when another, higher positioned player, leaves or retires.
The work is demanding. Keeping in daily shape for performing in a major symphony orchestra is hard work. Personal warming up and practice time can occupy many hours a day. Even on vacation, musicians must continue to practice lest their musical skills diminish. When one is not at work, the need to continually keep in shape is always there.
Diminishing public support for the arts. In recent years, public support for the arts has been diminishing as other forms of entertainment have begun to erode the symphony orchestra base. Because of this erosion, orchestras are increasingly turning to lighter, more commerically viable musical fare and the symphony orchestra as an institution is undergoing fundamental changes. Many smaller orchestras are having serious financial difficulty and some have folded or changed from full to part-time jobs. Even major orchestras have been undergoing a period of labor unrest as players in many cities have gone on strike to preserve what they consider to be a way of life to which they feel entitled. In a classic "Catch-22", such strikes have done little to engender public support for the musicians, and often contribute to the ever shrinking audience base.


More Questions...
Having given you some of my thoughts about the pros and cons of playing in an orchestra, there are still many questions a person must ask himself before embarking on this career path. It maysound attractive to play in a major symphony orchestra, but before you set yourself on that path, ask yourself some of the following questions (I am grateful for discussions I have had with my friend Bob Fraser in working through these thoughts)....

  • Do you love music?

  • Do you love all kinds of orchestral music? (Orchestras don't just play "classical" music anymore.)

  • Do you love ALL kinds of music?? (Solo, chamber, choral, opera/operetta, band, jazz/big band, rock, easy listening, country, new music.) Do you crave both live performances and recordings of music?

  • If you don't love all kinds of music, are you prepared to accept the fact that playing something you may not consider to be great (or even good) music with great skill will bring great joy to someone in the audience and that you must be content with this because this is your job?

  • Is your primary motivation for being an orchestral musician to do what you enjoy for a living for the benefit of humanity? Remember that most of the time you will NOT be playing music that prominently features your instrument (especially if you are a brass player). If your primary motivation to play in an orchestra is stardom, prepare for a big disappointment.

  • Many orchestras below the top tier pay salaries far below a comfortable living wage for the community that they are in and in order to work in these cities you will need to teach, freelance, or work in a job outside of music. Are you prepared to do this?

  • If you play in a regional orchestra and your specialty is an instrument not found in all the orchestral repertoire (trombone, tuba, bass clarinet, 4th horn, harp, percussion, etc.) you will likely be paid less than many of your "core orchestra" colleagues. Can you accept this?

  • Do you love music so much you wish to strive for the highest playing standard possible for yourself even if those around you don't - and even if circumstances beyond your control don't always permit you to play your absolute best? (For example when you have to deal with uncomfortable orchestra pits, outdoor venues, bad acoustics, unclear conductors, etc.)

  • Will you continue to work on improving your "fundamentals" (intonation, tone, rhythm, technical facility) right up until your retirement? Will you constantly seek out new musical experiences, ideas, repertoire, ways of doing things? In other words, will you continue to grow as a musician and a human being, or settle into a rut?

  • Are you the type of person who will be continually upset by circumstances partially or totally beyond your control (such as the aforementioned)? Will you complain about things you can't possibly do anything about? Can you live your professional life by the Alcoholics Anonymous' prayer, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference?"

  • Playing in an orchestra is very demanding physically and mentally. Are you currently in good health and capable of holding your instrument for three hours or more at a time, seven or eight times a week, 30 to 44 weeks a year (this is the life of an orchestral string player)? Are you ready for the demands of being "swept along" by a huge section of players in a huge group? Do you exercise regularly? Do you practice efficiently (that is the highest possible accomplishment/time ratio) and know when to put the instrument away?

  • Speaking of putting the instrument away - even though music will be A central part of your life, by no means should it be THE central part. Are you the type of person who will let your career overwhelm the other important things you may choose in life - family, recreation, spiritual well-being? Music is a great friend, but it can be a terrible master.

  • Can you work effectively in close quarters as a team with a large group of people who come from every different background and personality type imaginable?

  • Can you get along with people that are difficult to get along with?

  • Are you prepared to work as a team to make a bad conductor look great or a not-so great piece sound like Beethoven's Ninth? Or will you abdicate all responsibility to someone else?

  • Are you prepared to join a profession that is more like joining a cause than a profession? That is, are you willing to champion the cause of great music to a non-supportive community/government/granting agency/school board? Are you prepared to use live orchestral music as a weapon to battle the assimilating advance of the 500 channel universe?

  • If your bent is toward serving on an orchestra players' or union committee, what is your motivation? Personal/financial gain? Securing your position politically within the group? Will you make gains by bullying, intimidation and back-stabbing, or by working as a team focusing on common problems and goals, not personalities or positions?

  • If you have to present an opposing point of view on an issue, can you do it in such a way as to convey respect for other people?

  • Do you know when it is appropriate to stand up for your point of view and when it is more appropriate to keep your mouth shut?

  • Can you work within a hierarchy: you - your section principal - the concertmaster - the conductor - or are you "always right" and must lead the orchestra from your chair?

  • Can you accept the fact that, regardless of your instrument (concertmaster or triangle), you are part of a team and that YOU are not the most important thing on the stage - even if you have the melody or an unaccompanied solo? Remember that the most important person on the stage is usually long deceased - the composer.

  • If, after working in the profession for a while, you discover that the orchestral life is not for you; that you would be happier or better off doing something else, or simply that you've accomplished all you want to as an orchestral player, or if your abilities have diminished and you are no longer able to play in a way that will always contribute positively to the ensemble, will you have the courage to leave the profession, or will you "hang on" and continue to embitter yourself and your colleagues because you lack the necessary drive to make a big career change?

  • Do you want to become part of something so much bigger than yourself: working as a team to recreate great works of music, to continue to improve on that re-creative process in a sometimes difficult and misunderstood profession, and bringing edification, joy and delight to hundreds of thousands of people in the hopes that they will cherish music as you do and continue their own daily discovery and re-discovery of one of God's greatest gifts to humanity.
For more questions and a further discussion of how much of this applies specifically to life in an orchestra as a brass player, see my article Me, Myself and I: Are Orchestral Brass Players Losing the Concept of Being Teamplayers?
 

TMHeimer

Tom Heimer
It's an interesting read, nothing very shocking. I think the only real Bad News is--- How many jobs are there not only in the top symphonies (worldwide), but in ALL symphonies where one can make a decent living-- as opposed to how many great players on each instrument are there in the world? Like maybe a 1,000 to 1 ratio? Clarinet chair opens in the ________ symphony and 200 people audition, paying the expense of flying there. Are the %s worth practicing like 12 hours a day?
I've got a Masters in performance and have been a featured soloist here & there over decades, even played the Nielsen Concerto with piano in 1990.
I once figured out that I've sat next to at least 40 clarinet players over the decades that are in my area of ability. These people are not what you'd call household names.
For me, playing the Nielsen was a ton of work and worry. Anyone having thoughts of making a living in a symphony better be able to play that flawlessly and backward with eyes closed.
When studying with Russianoff back in college I asked him if he ever witnessed or heard of someone in the NY Phil. making a mistake (not solo interpretation, but like wrong note, counting mistake). He said honestly no. The only thing he ever heard of was there once was a horn player who was an alcoholic. He played everything perfectly but once and a while just a little too slow. He was fired.
 
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pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
I'm not quite sure why I never came back to this article. I have a lot of problems with it, particularly with the "More Questions" section. Let me at just the second one:

Do you love all kinds of orchestral music? (Orchestras don't just play "classical" music anymore.)

Let me relate this to my job. There are things I strongly dislike doing, but I either do the task at the best of my ability or I try to become better at doing it. That doesn't mean that I like the task any more than I used to. Heck, when I'm on vacation or out sick, my coworkers hate having to cover me because of some of those tasks. (They tell me and my boss, that's how I know.)
 

TMHeimer

Tom Heimer
I'm not quite sure why I never came back to this article. I have a lot of problems with it, particularly with the "More Questions" section. Let me at just the second one:




Let me relate this to my job. There are things I strongly dislike doing, but I either do the task at the best of my ability or I try to become better at doing it. That doesn't mean that I like the task any more than I used to. Heck, when I'm on vacation or out sick, my coworkers hate having to cover me because of some of those tasks. (They tell me and my boss, that's how I know.)
I agree. A job is a job, whether it's your life's calling or something other. A professional musician's job is to play what is presented to him/her (unless you are the conductor/leader, then you have some other worries).
I thoroughly enjoy playing orchestral transcriptions in our concert band-- can be interesting to try to get all those notes on clarinet that were meant for the violin. Other stuff we do can be fun or just OK, and some you just want to do your best and get through it.
I should have printed this circa 1985 and passed it out to my school bands.....
I once kept the Gr.7 Band like, 5 minutes late at rehearsal. One kid complained, saying it's much harder to play clarinet than it is to conduct. I tactfully explained that I, too, play and "take my word, it's not".
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
... saying it's much harder to play clarinet than it is to conduct. I tactfully explained that I, too, play and "take my word, it's not".
Yah! It's really difficult to remember when to throw the baton at the tympani player to wake him up.
 

Gandalfe

Admin and all around good guy.
Staff member
Administrator
That kid, spoken like a person who has never directed before me thinks. Reminds me of when I was out in the field in baseball, I was maybe 7 or 8, and I was really giving *our* pitcher a hard time. The coach final paused the game and put me in as pitcher. OMG was I ever embarrassed... almost as much as I am when I'm called upon to direct, one ... two ... one, two, three four.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
I have both played in a band and directed a different band where the bass player started playing way too fast during performances. In the former case, the director was able to stop the player after a few measures. In the latter case, the guy was so focused on his sheet music, he didn't see me. I also had no way to physically get to him: there were a couple rows of woodwinds and brass. I don't remember how I got out of that. I've blotted it out of my memory.

My, that was almost 30 years ago and I still remember. Definitely traumatic.
 

Carl H.

Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
Pete, I did that once on a tour in college. I was a percussionist and had to go to the bathroom REALLY bad. So I pushed the last piece of the concert much faster than the conductor wanted (Timpanists are unstoppable!!) and just barely made it to the bathroom. I did get chewed out for it, but it was entirely worth it.

Here's a BIG CON to playing in an orchestra professionally. If you aren't married to a musician you will seldom see them. On weekends while they are home alone or out doing things with friends you are either in rehearsal or performing. Throw in a few regional groups that rehearse in the evenings and you may never see them. I'm married to an architect and was pulling down the same money as she was, but I was mostly home while she was at work and almost always gone when she was home. Throw in a teaching gig or two and a couple small musical projects and the money is pretty good, but the cost is pretty high.
 

TMHeimer

Tom Heimer
Pete, A fellow school band director was doing a concert with his Jr. High jazz band. Bass player not very good. Another director witnessed the director unplugging the bass cord. That's one solution I guess.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
Here's a BIG CON to playing in an orchestra professionally. If you aren't married to a musician you will seldom see them.
In my first church music job, where I was assistant to the director, I was playing some sort of instrument AND singing in 6 services on the weekend and sometimes on Wednesdays/Thursdays/odd occasions. Of course, I'd also be doing most of the set-up, so that essentially wiped out those days for me. My first wife played in that group. My current wife played in the orchestra that backed up the choir (different church) I sang in. So, yeah.

Article said:
... Even though music will be A central part of your life, by no means should it be THE central part.
I live and die by analogy, so I shall use one here.

You ever hear an interview of a top tier pro athlete? They always talk about how they practice non-stop. Interview their coaches and they'll say how the best player on the team will arrive hours before even the practice sessions and start training. I see no reason why that wouldn't be applicable to top-tier musicians. Heck, I've never even been near a top-tier player and I used to practice six hours a day in college (homework first, then practice), just so I could get into the sax program.
 

TMHeimer

Tom Heimer
The most I ever practiced daily was 3 hours a night in 11th grade. Now, in university I played a lot more daily-- including practicing, concerts, rehearsals, etc. I've got a M.M. in performance like a million others. Would not begin to consider the daily practice required to even have a prayer of making a major (or minor) symphony.
I have cut my practicing to a bit over a half hour at this point-- more than enough to continue what I do and occasionally be a soloist with the band.
I have always felt that if you practice enough eventually you get to a point where you can play anything. What divides these players at one level from others at a different level is how much practice on a particular piece/part it takes to perfect it. Eventually, both levels players can.
I have also noticed over the decades that there are certain pivotal points when you "feel" you have gotten over a certain barrier and now are a better player or sight reader.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
I have also noticed over the decades that there are certain pivotal points when you "feel" you have gotten over a certain barrier and now are a better player or sight reader.
You definitely have a point. I remember, very distinctly, when I was having problems playing Bb to C ("playing over the break") on clarinet that my instructor said, "Hey, why are you taking a breath between the Bb and C? Just play it in one breath." That worked and it was a revelation. There was also the time I learned that you could get a different clarinet mouthpiece that wasn't junk and that would make your playing so much easier.

The flip side of this is that I also learned that, even with really good instruction and practicing that bazillion hours, I wasn't getting enough better to make me into even an OK soloist. I then changed my life, arguably for the better. Hey, if you have a several dozen horn collection and invite me over to play a few, I will definitely still geek out. I also don't regret any of the time I've spent playing or singing.
 
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