Without question, many music performance majors pursue a music degree to attain the lofty, lucrative, ultimate classical music employment prize – a position within a top orchestra in the world.
And why not? After all, this is the kind of dream that fuels the passions of many young musicians, driving them to the practice room on a daily basis hoping to take the edge over their competitors the day the professional audition dawns on them. This is the hallowed, placed-onto-a-sacred-pedestal position that many young musicians who practice 4, 5, or 6 hours a day work for – don’t tell me you haven’t heard trumpeters rehearse Mussorgsky’s trumpet excerpt from “Pictures” a thousand times just for giggles.
If you look at the salaries for the top orchestras, one would reasonably expect that having an orchestral job is one of the most lucrative positions available in the world. Click on this salary guide for musicians published by Berklee and you will notice that the starting salary for top orchestras (like the Boston Symphony and Chicago Symphony) is over $130,000. Damn!
Look, if you are absolutely born to play orchestral music, then follow your efforts and work for it – it can pay off for the few who attain a position in a top orchestra. Trust me, I absolutely love orchestras, have subscribed with season passes to the BSO, and believe that an incredible amount of orchestral repertoire, from Beethoven to Adams, is masterful and worth playing until the end of time.
However, to make a great living as a musician and to be happy, you absolutely do not need an orchestra job and may not even want one. Here are seven reasons why.
7. Most Orchestras Don’t Actually Pay That Well
Sure, the Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Phil, San Francisco Symphony, and a few others pay extraordinarily well. Then there’s a tier of orchestras below them that pay pretty well. Then the large majority of orchestras below that pay about $100 per performance, a pittance compared to what the musicians in the top orchestras make. It can be a great musical experience to play in an orchestra, but the fact is the majority don’t pay too well.
Also, the number of openings per year in a top orchestra are incredibly small if actually non-existent; this is probably the most competitive six figure job ever. Obviously I am being hyperbolic, but the truth is, when one opening of an orchestra occurs, there are hundreds upon hundreds of musicians choosing to audition for that spot. Truly, when an orchestral opening finally occurs, every graduating class from just one school like Juilliard for the last thirty years could apply to that position – that would be at least 150-200 qualified musicians from just one school!
Although that figurative scenario never happens, the truth about orchestral positions is that the competition is brutally intense for a top orchestra job, which leads me to my next point…
6. You Live In An Unprecedented Time to “Make It” As an Entrepreneurial Musician
I want you to open up the music section of the New York Times and tell me that you aren’t finding young, entrepreneurial musicians who are really working their degrees and talents.
As a trained musician, you have the unprecedented ability to start something new, to establish your brand, to network with musicians and audiences, and most importantly, to create a career for yourself in an unparalleled space – online. My good friend David Bloom, conductor of the young new music ensemble Contemporaneous, is one of my favorite examples of this – in just 2010, he started an ensemble at his school out of sheer passion for modern classical music – less than four years later, he has now conducted at the Carnegie and Merkin Halls (he’s only 22 or 23) not to mention he has released a CD on a Grammy-nominated label.
Sure, getting an orchestra position can be lucrative and rewarding to a select few, but the opportunities you can achieve for owning an entrepreneurial spirit are remarkable. When you focus on your future, on your own terms, you commit to yourself with passion.
AND WOULDN’T you rather be a passionate musician than be the following…
5. A Study Was Done That Showed This One Really Weird Thing
In 1998 a study was done that seemed to demonstrate prison guards (Yes, prison guards) had greater job satisfaction in their profession than orchestral musicians. Can you even believe this statistic? Musicians work 4-6 hours a day to obtain the most hallowed position in classical music, only to be outdone by prison guards (also: flight attendants) in terms of general overall job satisfaction.
Although this fact might be bewildering at first, it actually makes quite a lot of sense…as an orchestral musician, there is no way to be promoted (except to concertmaster/principal), and you are doing the same job for up to 50+ years. Even worse, you have been playing the same repertoire professionally you learned by age 12. Unless you are the concertmaster, or you choose to pursue independent projects in the summertimes (which admittedly many orchestral musicians do), you rarely get the opportunity to be the shining light in front of the audience.Not to hit the nail on the head even more, but this all leads to a really solid fourth point…