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An Orchestra Career and What That Entails

by Doug 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-clas 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) for the 1997-98 season is approximately $1500+/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) of over $40,000/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 $300.00 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 allowance 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 ina 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 less their musicle 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)....

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 Acentral 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 an 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.

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