What *Does* it Take to Be a Professional Orchestra Musician?

Same song, different verse… yet another round of labor disputes is rippling through the world of classical music.  Earlier this month the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra went on strike, and today the venerable Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike too. [Edit: Scant hours after this posted, the musicians of the great Philadelphia Orchestra also declared a strike… although it was resolved 48 hours later.]

Something I’ve noticed… each time news of a strike, lockout, or even difficult negotiations breaks out, there’s a chorus of people unfamiliar with the business of running an orchestra who, after hearing a couple of sound bites bandied about in the press, decide musicians are wildly overcompensated.  Again and again, these people ask, “Where can I get a job with 10 weeks paid vacation, full benefits and $70K, $100K, [or whatever the so-called ‘inflated’ salary is that’s been ripped out of context and floated around by the press]?”

When we’re lucky, these folks are asking this as an honest question.  When we’re unlucky, it’s simply a sarcastic retort meant to belittle the musicians.

A few thoughts.

It is always uncomfortable to be put into a position to defend your salary—I doubt many of us would be eager for the national press corps to publicly publish stories about our salaries, or to demand that we justify them.

But let me point out that musicians certainly do earn theirs.

Let’s drop the romantic notion that musicians just do this as a hobby, for fun.  Most folks don’t realize that to land a permanent job with a major symphony orchestra or opera company, it takes years of highly specialized training, constant conditioning, and huge investments into equipment.  This is non-negotiable, as competition for those positions is fierce.

But don’t just take my word for this… let’s talk to an expert.

A few years back during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, a reader posted a rather uncharitable comment on my blog, demanding that someone explain why musicians’ salaries were so high. The unmistakable sentiment was: “How hard could it be to get a job? What did they do to actually earn that money when they’re only working a few hours a week? Hell, I could do that!”

Well, he asked… and Manny Laureano, the long-standing and much-respected Principal Trumpet from the Minnesota Orchestra, answered.  His response reflected his own life story, but in the broader sense it provided a vivid account of what it takes to be a professional musician, and why they earn their pay.

As this is an important topic that keeps coming up again and again, I wanted to share Manny’s words with the broader public.  With his permission, I’m adapting this as a stand-alone piece, edited for clarity.  Perhaps other professional musicians could chime in with their own experiences, too.

* * *

Want to land a permanent job with a top orchestra? To get that too-high salary with too-many-weeks of vacation? Here’s what you do:

1) Choose a musical instrument to study and purchase one.

2) Find a qualified teacher of that instrument.

3) Practice for a good 10 years or so.

4) With a good 10 years of primary instruction under your belt, audition for Juilliard, Curtis Institute, The Eastman School, New England Conservatory, Indiana University, The Cleveland Institute of Music, or The Colburn School. Any of those will do. If one of these doesn’t work out, I’ll have a longer list for you of other similar places to try to get into.

5) Study for another 4-6 years at one of those schools if you get in. Once you get in, get ready to take out several loans to go there.
5a) Along the way, attend summer festivals so that you can study more and pay more tuition.

6) Freelance in your city or other locales to get experience playing with professionals in great orchestras. You’ll have to break in based on recommendations and your reputation as a musician and person.

7) Travel nationally and internationally to take auditions at your own expense which include air/bus/carfare and hotels. Stay healthy. It would suck if you developed a cold the day before you play after all that practicing and expense.

8 ) Win an audition in a major orchestra. No, not with a community orchestra—a major orchestra that pays a career-level salary.

9) When you do all that you’ll have two years to prove yourself worthy of tenure so that you can stay. If you don’t pass, you get to start auditioning all over again for another orchestra. Yes, great musicians are sometimes denied tenure because he or she wasn’t the right fit in the section involved.

A key point here… all those weeks of vacation? Nope… you need to continue practicing and playing so that you don’t lose your technique and endurance. Sorry. Out of those “ten weeks of vacation,” I only actually take two off in the summer… and it takes me two weeks after I return to get back in shape for the first rehearsal.

And all that practicing does a number on the body.  You’re twisting your limbs in odd ways, repeatedly straining muscles you didn’t know you had.  Repetitive stress injuries are common among musicians the same way they’re common among athletes and dancers.  Health—and healthcare—are on our minds all the time.  When we tour, we always bring doctors, sports massagers, and chiropractors along, and their services are always in heavy demand.

Finally, I failed to mention that the instrument you started your studies on has been upgraded several times… and you’ll probably be needing loans to pay for those if you decided to play a stringed instrument. Non-stringed instruments are generally cheaper but here’s the catch: you will own many more non-stringed instruments than string players do stringed instruments, so, it winds up costing about the same.

My personal collection, you ask? Glad to oblige:

5 C trumpets
3 B♭ trumpets (used to be 4 but I had to sell one after the lockout began)
1 D trumpet
2 E♭ trumpets

That’s a partial list. Those instruments are all made by David Monette. Ask around and find out how much they cost. Be warned, you may need to pick your jaw off the floor… they’re not like the trumpets you borrowed from school or rented to play in marching band.  And yes, even casual listeners most certainly can hear the difference.

So, there you have it…this is what it takes to make it to the big leagues.

* * *

And this is why compensation packages are so critical.  The musicians’ salaries reflect that they are tops in their field. They’ve gone through extensive, specialized training, and in most cases bought instruments (and insure them) for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And to be in a major symphony orchestra means they have to spend hours every day honing their craft. They are working with their instruments daily, in much the same way that an athlete needs to work out daily to stay in shape. This is all done above and beyond their group rehearsals.

The athlete comparison is really quite apt. In many ways, assembling an orchestra is similar to a pro ball franchise fielding a team.

And just like a top spots team…you have to pay for quality if you’re going to play at the big-league level.

.

 

Xochipilli

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18 thoughts on “What *Does* it Take to Be a Professional Orchestra Musician?

  1. It’s nothing for a top lawyer or physician to make $200,000 or more, and look at the big-salary banker/trader positions. It’s time our society values artistic talent (and training!) just as much.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Well put and written! Musicians are some of the hardest workers I know. Practice is a daily routine and full time job in itself. If I skip a day of practice, I can tell, if I skip two days my friends can tell, and by the third, everyone can tell! I have so much respect for the FWSO and many other working musicians who can play at that level. They deserve every penny.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ““Where can I get a job with 10 weeks paid vacation, full benefits and $70K, $100K”

    You could be a plumber, a baseball player, a conductor, an engineer, a teacher (in some school districts) . . .

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    • Engineers don’t get 10 weeks paid vacation. And we often work overtime hours on stressful deadlines. And we have specialized education, and don’t forget continuing education (because technology changes) and advanced degrees and certifications. Out of pocket costs for technical conferences.

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  4. Please don’t forget: there are plenty of us that have done ALL of the above, just to work in a small orchestra. We get paid 20K-30, IF we’re lucky. MOST of us are in that boat. So please don’t go around thinking all professional musicians are making that kind of money. We’re not.

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    • Paula, I am a musician who plays in regional orchestras where we are not salaried by are paid per service. I agree that our situation is different but I believe that so many of the points Manny made and Scott shared hold true: the incredible amount of training and education, the costly instruments, the continued practice, the competitive auditions…in the end, we all deserve a fair wage and fair working conditions. Anyone who has won an audition in a regional orchestra knows that it is still highly competitive. Winning any of these jobs is something we are proud of. I support my colleagues in orchestras like Forth Worth, Pittsburgh, Hartford and Philadelphia – we went to some of the same schools, studied with some of the same teachers, and all strive for a high quality of orchestral playing. I stand in solidarity with my AFM orchestra colleagues around the country.

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  5. A major portion of the performer’s job is to make the job look easy. How does a performer make things look easy?

    Thousands of hours of practice, rehearsals, and hard work seen outside of the audience eye.

    My background in the performing arts, covering all the bases from musician to actress, singer, and professional ballroom dancer. Each performance and competition came with a minimum of 100 hours rehearsal time, plus all the hours to get ready for rehearsals whether that was running lines, choreographing routines, taking extra dance classes or whatever else was needed for the part. However, this isn’t seen by anyone on the outside. At most if you’re friend, family, or in a relationship with a performer you get really used to hearing the phrase, “I can’t. I have rehearsal,” or “I can’t. I have to practice.”

    Professional performers sacrifice their entire lives to their art. Good management honors this with a fair contract.

    Just because the performer loves their job doesn’t mean they deserve to be taken advantage of and not properly compensated. Just because the best performers make the job look easy doesn’t mean that it’s not real work or that they don’t deserve proper compensation.

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  6. I really appreciate Manny’s extensive, specific, and detailed list. Having studied with and / or known members of at least two orchestras, I can confirm that it takes a great deal of just plain work (HARD WORK) to just get to audition for an orchestra and then even more work to maintain one’s health.

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  7. As a professional musician, I don’t try to defend my pay based on how hard I work. Tree climbers work hard. Surgeons work hard. Musicians work hard, too. What justifies the orchestra musician’s salary is a community’s desire for excellence in orchestral music, the magical, mature voice that sometimes happens when you assemble a group of the finest musicians and give them an environment where they can work together for decades. A great orchestra is not the result of so many brilliant players, it is the result of the right players playing together as one instrument. That comes from selecting members that are not only great players, but the right fit, and it comes from years of working together. Stability.

    The great orchestras, therefore, are super selective in their auditions, and pay what could be called a comfortable living but is actually only as much as they must in order to keep their musicians. Musicians want to play in the best orchestra they can, and the best orchestras want the best players, so competition has placed salaries at the point where the VERY BEST musicians can live a reasonably secure life. They are not getting rich, by doctor/lawyer/banker standards, but they are buying houses (in the suburbs), having families, making their communities better and making their orchestras awesome.

    In the major symphony world, it is big news when a player moves from one orchestra to another. If, say, the Chicago Symphony hires the principal bassoonist of the Cleveland Orchestra, it is a coup for the former and a slap for the latter. And if New York hires an amazing young violist, they don’t want him or her to audition for Boston when there’s an opening. So the orchestra world is stratified, with each orchestra living in a strata where it can attract players from some orchestras, and other orchestras can attract players from it. An orchestra that pays, say, $40,000 a year will attract very good young players to audition for it. But the only players who stay will be the ones who fail to move further up the ladder before their competitive window closes. An orchestra that pays $60,000 will also attract more qualified, experienced professionals from the $40k class to audition, who may not win, but who raise the level of competition. But the best musicians at this level will probably move to the majors at some point, and so it goes, on up until you reach the big five and Berlin. This is not to say that any orchestra is bad, it is to show why the best orchestras pay, if not the most, at least enough to keep movement to a minimum.

    Now, to play in the big leagues you do have to work insanely hard. But nobody really values your work, they value your playing, and this best player/best orchestra thing sorts itself out. This is why pay cuts (and raises) are such a big deal, at least to the musicians, because they change the orchestra’s quality. Unavoidably. A rung or two on the ladder is all it takes. Some managers would like this to not be true, and some seem to have convinced themselves that there are so many great, hungry young musicians that cutting an orchestra’s pay and losing the best players will have no effect, or at least too little to notice. This plays well to the jealous man on the street who hates the idea of musicians getting paid at all, but if it were true all orchestras would be equally good and the Boston Symphony would play for gas money and a hot meal. It’s not just the quality of player you get, it’s the quality of player you keep.

    This will never suffice as an explanation for those who regard music as no more than a hobby, but in most communities people are proud of their orchestras and want them to be as good as they can be, even if they don’t go to concerts. As one colleague put it today, it’s like the rain forest. He’ll never go there, but he knows it’s important and he doesn’t want it cut down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Extremely well put.

      > Some managers would like this to not be true, and some seem to have convinced themselves that there are so many great, hungry young musicians that cutting an orchestra’s pay and losing the best players will have no effect, or at least too little to notice. This plays well to the jealous man on the street who hates the idea of musicians getting paid at all, but if it were true all orchestras would be equally good and the Boston Symphony would play for gas money and a hot meal. It’s not just the quality of player you get, it’s the quality of player you keep.

      I live in Brazil, and this is at the crux of the devastating crisis the Brazilian Symphony is going through. Many of the musicians, new or old, are already leaving. It’s depressing to watch.

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  8. Great post. Now can you please dismantle the other canard that inevitably pops up on the comments section: “These classical musicians must accept what the market can bear.”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I used to joke with people who asked about my work that it was probably easier to get a job playing third base for the Red Sox than winning a principal chair in an important orchestra. It doesn’t seem like a joke any more.

    Many years ago I saw a documentary on the Kirov Ballet. One of the dancers spoke about the demands of the company: “If I miss a day of class, I know it. If I miss two days, my colleagues know it. If I miss three days, the audience knows it.”

    Like

  10. Manny Laureano forgot to specify some VERY IMPORTANT details in his letter:
    1-in this 10 years of practice, you had to spend something between 4 to 8 hours daily practicing, otherwise, you would never be able to get in one of the mentioned schools.
    2-To just get a good teacher is not enough. You need to get THE teacher, that besides teaching, will prepare you for these auditions.
    3-Of course the teacher mentioned above costs much more than any other teacher. At this point, studying with this teacher, you upgraded your instrument at least one.
    4-It is important to make clear, that a professional instruments costs around 15k or more.
    5-Also very importante to make clear that there is NO vacation, Weekend, break. If you forget your instrument for a day, it will treat you as it has been forgotten for a year.
    6-What about the stress of auditioning? The amount of professional musicians that need to take medicine in order to be able to play for an audition? The stress, the anxiety, and all other emotional disorders that some times require professional treatment.
    7-What about all the times you could not go anywhere, because you had practice? You could not travel with your family because you had to be in the music camp, you could not go to that party because you had an audition in the next day and so go on.
    8-And more than anything, which profession does require expertise of the candidate before attending college? Or I should say, as a requirement to get into college? None. All professionals will learn about their career in college or graduate school. A musician needs to be proficient in this instrument much before starting college. This per se, it is enough to justify why a salary between 70k to 200k is definitely not enough to a top orchestra.

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  11. While I do agree with many of the points from the post and comments, especially the part that it takes a professional musician thousands of hours to perfect one’s craft (been there, done that), the plain truth is that not enough people care about what you do to generate the kind of compensation package that you deserve. I know not many people want to mention this part of the argument but from strictly the supply/demand perspective, some of the major cities don’t have the wealth and interest to sustain a world-class orchestra. It is very difficult for most of the listeners to discern between a really great musician and a very good musician. And for the management, it might not be worth paying for a really great one, when a very good one, like a sub, would suffice, especially when they can cut the pay buy 20-30%. Is this wrong? probably, but it makes sense. Also, subs in the Classical music world are not the same as in other industries…they sometimes are better — and play with more passion than the tired, full-time members.

    How does an organization, like the Philadelphia Orchestra or Pittsburgh Symphony , sustain paying the musicians at the level they deserve (including health benefits, I assume a 403b match, plus pension) when the major donors are slowly dying off and still meet current pension liabilities. This is of course not all one sided, the administration should also take a pay cut, not just the musicians.

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    • Hi, and thanks for the message. This is a common question, which deserves a thoughtful response.

      For one, we certainly can look at the issue as a strict supply and demand issue… but the results don’t necessarily support the managements’ position. As I’ve written in a different post, the 2016 Giving USA report shows that total charitable giving in 2015 was a record $373.25 billion, which averaged out to more than $1 billion given each day. Moreover, contributions to the arts have grown wildly over the last five years, with record growth in 2015. I’ve done a rundown of some of the major successes classical music ensembles have enjoyed over the last year; Douglas McLennan form ArtsJournal has posted a list of recent successes, too. I’ve found the notion that classical music is just plain dying to be an oversimplification… and if other groups are able to make it work, the question becomes why those who can’t are failing.

      Also, I’ve written extensively about the danger of striving for “good enough.” It’s a problem that hits nonprofits and for-profits alike. In this post, I showed how the “oh, no one will know the difference” mentality brought down Howard Johnson, which up into the 70s was the country’s largest food/hospitality network… by far. Essentially, the chain died “the death of a thousand cuts” until it reached a tipping point and its customer base collapsed.

      I’d also point to my thoughts on sustainability, and what it truly means for an arts organization.

      I agree that balancing art and finances is challenging, but I remain optimistic that it can be done… and people are doing it. Thanks for posting!

      Like

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