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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 $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 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 these thoughts)....

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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