The Working Musician: Full-Time Orchestra Member

Tens of thousands of classically trained musicians dream of obtaining full-time employment in a top-tier orchestra.  In some cases, they believe this is the only desirable prospect available for achieving a successful life in music (though anyone who has read The Savvy Musician surely understands that many other exciting and feasible paths exist!).   In their minds, an orchestral job is the ultimate professional goal and a near utopian career.

The truth is that orchestra work, like any other profession, has advantages and disadvantages.  It’s an excellent fit for some, but not for everyone.  As you read the pros and cons below, consider whether this dream is one worth chasing for someone with your personality and artistic/life objectives.

PROS

  1. The experience.  Orchestra members have the opportunity to perform some of the greatest music ever composed on a regular basis. In addition, players contribute to an artistic vision that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  2. Financial security.  Full-time orchestra work provides a dependable and sometimes substantive paycheck (see below for base salaries). Additionally, many positions include full medical coverage, sick leave, a generous retirement pension, and other glorious benefits.
  3. Job security.  Full-time orchestra positions are typically tenured, meaning that members can’t be fired unless they do something horrible and the err in their ways is proven to an arbitration panel. Earning tenure typically takes 1-3 years, depending on the orchestra, and involves reviews along the way focusing on playing, professionalism, and compatibility.
  4. Built-in opportunities.  Many orchestras tour and record, providing fulfilling experiences and additional income. 
  5. Credibility.  Landing an orchestra job boosts credibility and unlocks opportunities.  For example, many music schools hire their applied faculty from professional orchestras.   
  6. Schedule.  Orchestras maintain fairly regular and reasonable schedules.  Musicians are typically required to perform 8 services per week (around 20 hours, not including practice time).  Some groups provide 8-10 weeks of paid vacation.  These arrangements allow members to pursue additional work (teaching, chamber music, etc.), spend time with their families, etc.
  7. Community.  Working in an orchestra places you among a community of accomplished musicians.  These colleagues probably share similar interests, and are potential partners for chamber music and other ventures.
  8. Service. Orchestral players have the opportunity to influence young people through educational programs and contribute to the identity of their community. Making a meaningful difference is part of the job requirement.

CONS

  1. Dissatisfaction.  With the advantages above, it’s easy to understand why so many performers aspire to join the ranks of a major symphony orchestra.  Yet, despite these perks, many players are dissatisfied with their work.  According to Harvard researcher Richard Hackman, orchestral musicians rank among the lowest in terms of overall job satisfaction compared to other professions, below even federal prison guards.  (Incidentally, chamber musicians are the happiest.)
  2. Dysfunction.  Some orchestras are permeated with a culture of cynicism.  In particular, problems arise when conductors are condescending or in-fighting becomes prominent. It can be difficult to stay positive when so much negativity is in the air.
  3. Lack of control/creativity.  An orchestra is no democracy. The conductor determines musical decisions.  An artistic director and advisory committee program concerts. Staff members and the board oversee most other issues.  Members are paid to play as they are told. As a result, musicians often grow frustrated with the bureaucracy that surrounds them, as well as the lack of control and creative input they are allowed.
  4. Anonymity.  Some orchestral musicians originally hoped for a career as a soloist or chamber musician.  In the orchestra, there may be few opportunities to shine and their talent to be celebrated.  This is particularly true for non-principal players.
  5. Limited career advancement.  After securing a position, the possibility of career advancement is limited. Because principal players often keep their jobs for 30+ years, there are few opportunities for section players to move up.
  6. Boredom/disappointment in literature.  Orchestras are notorious for programming the same repertoire repeatedly, causing some players to grow bored from this monotony. Additionally, some “serious” musicians become frustrated with the large amount of “pops” concerts scheduled by their orchestra.
  7. Extra work.  Some ensembles require members to do additional work beyond their contract without compensation (i.e. donor relations, marketing, etc.). While these actions may be necessary for the group to thrive, some musicians have reported dissatisfaction.
  8. Diminished funding. Most orchestras are faced with extreme financial challenges, especially during the current economic downturn.  Several have cut back their seasons, reduced pay to musicians, and shrunk their forces.  

COMPENSATION

Below are sample base salaries for various orchestras.  Principal chairs and players with seniority receive more. While some full-time orchestras pay handsomely, others do not, requiring members to secure additional income sources to survive.   

Chicago Symphony   $130,000 Pittsburgh Symphony $109,700
Houston Symphony    $78,000 Rochester Philharmonic $42,000
Honolulu Symphony $36,000 Virginia Symphony $27,000

GETTING THE WORK

Obtaining a full-time orchestra position is extremely competitive.  Because the marketplace is oversaturated with outstanding performers, not all qualified applicants are able to secure work. To emphasize this point:

  • There are just 18 American orchestras with a 52-week schedule.  Around 60 work 40+ weeks per year.
  • Between these 60 groups, there are circa 250 full-time openings per year total, all instruments.  The most openings were in 1986 (328), and the least in 2006 (192).  The number of advertised jobs is trending downward*.
  • Not all spots are awarded to newcomers—many are offered to those with previous appointments.
  • Some orchestras now favor subs over full-time members, to cut costs.
  • Openings typically have 150-300+ applicants, depending on the instrument.  The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently received over 500 audition tapes for a single flute post.
  • Some instruments, such as tuba and harp, typically have 1 or 0 openings in a given year.
  • Each year, music schools graduate 11,000 undergraduate music majors, 4,000 with master’s degrees, and 800 with doctoral degrees.  Around 5,600 are performance majors.  There is no concrete data on the percentage of these students actively pursuing full-time orchestral work.

Every musician I’ve met who dreams of becoming a full-time orchestra member understands that winning a job is competitive.  At least theoretically. But they often don’t understand the tremendous odds they’re up against. The statistics above are not meant to discourage anyone from their aspiration, but rather to present an honest picture of the reality.  

If this kind of work suits your personality and you’re prepared/lucky enough to land a desirable job, wonderful!  But if not, please understand that there are many other fulfilling and important opportunities available to musicians.

 —-

* This research was provided by Brandon VanWaeyenberghe, who is currently working on a comprehensive study on the supply and demand elements in the orchestra field for the past 25 years.  More updates are to follow and I will be linking to his work in the near future.

For information about auditioning, see Competitive Auditions.

 The Working Musician Series examines the kinds of opportunities available to musicians.

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