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
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 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.
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
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
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.
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?