If you want to make a career playing in a professional orchestra, cast, big band, or other kind of already established professional ensemble, the path to your success might seem simple at first.
1. Choose a music program featuring a renowned teacher who plays in an orchestra. The program should also be linked to a major orchestra for maximal exposure to this profession (like Juilliard and the New York Philharmonic, for example).
2. Practice 5 hours a day throughout the course of a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and possibly a Doctoral program. Learn your craft thoroughly and artistically.
3. Pay lots of money to attend and study with famous musicians at summer music programs, like Aspen. They look exceptional on your resume’.
4. Audition for every possible orchestral/ensemble opening when you are out of school, or while you are in graduate school, and hope for the best.
This kind of basic mentality seems to make sense at first, right? It can be easily made analogous to someone who is pursuing another field in college, like mechanical engineering.
Mechanical engineers go to college, study 5 hours a day through one or two degree programs, take internships in the summers, and when they are out of school, apply to every single job opening possible. They usually can get a job that pays well relatively quickly, especially if they had experience as an intern.
It makes sense that this applies to music and with orchestras, right?
It Absolutely Does Not
Getting a job in an orchestra is one of the most brutally competitive jobs ever. And in America, only 20 or so pay above $55,000 for a starting salary. $55,000 is a good salary for one person, but it might be difficult to supportmultiple people on just that salary alone. I guess it depends on where you live though.
A full-size orchestra has about 100 musicians, and there are about 20 good paying orchestras in the US. So, in America, that means about 2,000 musicians are employed in an orchestra that can pay well.
There are also over 100 music schools, conservatories, or departments of music that teach classical music that cumulatively graduate 10,000+ students every single year in the US alone.
That means within the last 15 years, there are, in just America alone, at the very least 150,000 trained musicians that could play in well-paid American orchestras, orchestras that are cumulatively maxed out at around 2,000 total people. Also, plenty of American orchestras hire musicians who were trained in Europe and Asia, which further extends the competition to well over 250,000 trained musicians.
Anyone want to make the mechanical engineer analogy now?
The reason the mechanical engineer analogy fails is because mechanical engineers are considered exceptionally valuable in their particular field and are constantly in demand as new companies and thus new jobs occur; they typically apply their abilities to many different aspects of the technology field, the most lucrative sector in the world.
Now I’m not saying musicians aren’t valuable. Music is among the most wanted material possessions in the entire world.
However, the conclusion is very clear – the demand for musicians to play in traditional classical orchestras is significantly small.
How many major orchestras in America have started up and come into existence in the last fifteen years? How many major technology companies have come into existence during that time period as well that need mechanical engineers?
You see where I’m going with this.
Less than 2% of all classical musicians who graduate with a music degree will end up playing in a well-paid US orchestra. It’s actually probably less than 1%.
True, there are other ensembles that exist that can pay decently outside of orchestras (like the US Marine Band), but I assure you the number of these groups is low.
There are also solid orchestras in Europe and Asia for which you can audition. Kind of expensive to keep booking those plane tickets back and forth all the time though, if you live in the US.
So How Do You Make a Career Outside Or In Conjunction With An Orchestra
Look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing in an orchestra, and there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to learn about your craft more from summer music programs like Aspen. I attended Aspen a few years back and thought it was totally awesome.
But the harsh and cruel reality is that most of those summer music programs train musicians to play in orchestras, or opera companies which are also supremely competitive. Or in chamber ensembles, which we’ll get into.
And the math tells us it is likely that less than 1% of all professional classical musicians ultimately are employed in a well-paying orchestra. Most certainly not more than 2%.
Thankfully, you live in an unprecedented time period to make a career for yourself as a musician independent of classical orchestras.
Why is it an unprecedented time period?
I think it mostly has to do with the visibility of musicians on the internet, the strange power social media has on influencing careers and people’s perception of musicians, and the general attitude of the music industry, shifting away from older-world ideals of major corporations handing out recording contracts or symphonies providing job positions.
The new focus most definitely is on the independent musician or group doing their own thing to be creative, using platforms like social media marketing to establish their clout and brand.
Here are six ideas you can use in order to succeed monetarily as a musician outside of solely getting a job in an orchestra.
6. Be Exceptionally Versatile
In today’s music economy, being versatile is probably the best bet to making money as a musician. The majority of successful musicians I know teach, arrange, compose, and play in an ensemble, or many ensembles.
Sometimes this ensemble is indeed an orchestra, or a chamber group, or a jazz band, or a rock cover group. Many of these musicians also have complementary skills that bring in additional income, like event planning, orchestrating, and engraving, which is the art of copying a handwritten score into a computer.