Orchestral Musician – Career & Salary Overview


Securing an orchestral position is the goal of many classical musicians. Although obtaining a job in this field is a difficult task, it can be extremely rewarding for those who cannot dream to do anything else but obtain a job in an orchestra.

There are several types of orchestras in the minds of professional musicians – professional orchestra, semi-professional orchestras, and amateur orchestras. Many musicians who obtain a job performing in any orchestra supplement their income with teaching, performing, studio session work, and other music-related jobs.


Varies widely, depending on the economics, location, and popularity of each orchestra. Here is a sample of ten general orchestra salaries.

All of the following are average starting salaries in the orchestra, according to my knowledge. Certainly, principals, the concertmaster, and of course the artistic director/conductor can earn far, far more.

  • Chicago Symphony: $140,000 – $150,000 (1)
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic: $140,000 – $150,000 (1)
  • Philadelphia Orchestra: $100,000 – $110,000 (1)
  • Dallas Symphony: $90,000 – $100,000 (1)
  • San Diego Symphony: $55,0000 – $60,000 (1)
  • Alabama Symphony: $35,000 – $45,000 (2)
  • Opera Cleveland: $151 Per Performance, About $40/hr for rehearsal (3)

Sources: (1) (2) (3)

As you can see, there are some orchestras that pay well. According to source no. 1, which is an article in the Star Tribune, only 20 orchestras pay better than 55k a year. 55k is a very good salary for a musician, but it might be difficult to raise a whole family on just that amount per year, which is why at least 75% of musicians employed by orchestras supplement their performance career with independent and college teaching posts.

However, like we see in Opera Cleveland’s orchestra, musicians are only paid per performance. This type of income caters only to those who desire to work in orchestras on a very part-time basis. Unfortunately, the majority of symphony orchestras in America are like this.

If you dream of nothing more than to play in an orchestra and absolutely believe you were meant to do it, then I encourage you to do two things. One, make a concerted and consistent effort to apply not just for American orchestra openings, but also European and Canadian ones as well. The classical music tradition in Europe is visibly powerful, and there are many orchestras in the nation that pay well. Certainly much higher than just 20 orchestras.

The Intriguing Link Between Colleges and Orchestras

A variety of colleges, universities, and conservatories have extremely strong affiliations and ties to top-tier orchestras. If this is truly the career path you desire, I strongly encourage you to pursue training at the college level with a teacher who either has connections to an orchestra or actually plays in an orchestra. Many of the top music schools in the US boast faculty that perform with these orchestras.

Here is a partial list of schools with excellent performance programs and their affiliations to top-tier symphony orchestras.

  • Boston Conservatory – Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • Boston University – Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • Carnegie-Mellon School of Music – Pittsburgh Symphony
  • University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music – Cincinnati Symphony
  • Cleveland Institute of Music – Cleveland Symphony Orchestra
  • Colburn School – Los Angeles Philharmonic
  • Curtis Institute of Music – Philadelphia Orchestra
  • Eastman School of Music – Rochester Philharmonic
  • Indiana University, Bloomington – Indianapolis Symphony
  • Juilliard School – New York Philharmonic / Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
  • Longy School of Music of Bard College – Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • Manhattan School of Music – New York Philharmonic / Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
  • Mannes College of Music – New York Philharmonic / Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
  • New England Conservatory – Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • Northwestern University Bienen School of Music – Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Oberlin College-Conservatory – Cleveland Orchestra
  • Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University – Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
  • Rice University Shepherd School of Music – Houston Symphony
  • San Francisco Conservatory – San Francisco Symphony
  • University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance – Detroit Symphony
  • University of Southern California Thornton School of Music – Los Angeles Philharmonic

My final recommendation, if your goal is to play in a major symphony orchestra, is to supplement your normal collegiate training with instruction from professors at the top summer music programs. Many members of major orchestras also teach at a variety of workshops and festivals. Some good summer programs for college-level musicians include the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood Music Center, the Verbier Music Festival, and the Sarasota Music Festival, among countless others. I will be making lists for these very soon.

Featured Image by foilman Via Flickr Creative Commons


  1. William December 12, 2015
    • Nitzan May 4, 2016
    • David Blumberg August 15, 2016
  2. Mike Hunt May 4, 2016
  3. Jack May 4, 2016
  4. Chendy June 10, 2016
  5. Robert Rÿker October 7, 2016
  6. felix February 7, 2017

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