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.
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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.
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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.