Pros and Cons to a Career in Orchestral Music
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
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
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.
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 may
sound 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 -
- 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?
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