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Laurie Niles

March 24, 2005 at 6:52 AM

As editor of this website, I get all kinds of e-mails with various questions. Today, a fifth-grader wrote to ask how much money a violinist makes and how much education a violinist needs. Here is what I told him, and everyone feel free to chime in with comments! (I'd love to find a website that posts specific salaries, too.)

It's wonderful that you are so interested in the violin. It is hard to say what the annual salary of a violinist is, because it is very different for different kinds of violinists. If you are in a top orchestra like the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra or San Francisco Symphony, you can make enough money to live on just with the orchestra job. You also have to work very hard and play a lot when in such an orchestra. Those particular orchestras are very hard to get into. For example, I auditioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic last year and there were hundreds of people auditioning for one position. I didn't get in! I'm trying again this year, along with hundreds of others!

With just about any other orchestra position, the money you make is only about half of a salary, and of course that is different in different cities because the cost of living is different in those cities. To make more money, you have to freelance, teach or have another job entirely.

Most orchestras have blind auditions, meaning that the people deciding can't even see you. So the most important thing is how you play. That said, in order to play well enough to win an audition, most people need at least a bachelor's degree in music or to study with a very high-quality teacher. It is best if you can go to a top music school such as Juilliard, Curtis, Indiana University, Cleveland Institute of Music, Northwestern University, Oberlin Conservatory, Peabody or Manhattan (and I'm sure I'm leaving some out). Another consideration is that sometimes you have to apply to audition, and they look at your education and experience on the application (or resume) that you submit.

Now, as far as being a concert soloist, I'm not one, and I do not know a great deal about it. But here is what I do know: you get paid by the performance, and you usually need an agent to make sure that you continue to get work. It's very difficult, and unless you achieve very high stature, it is always a challenge to get that next job. Even if you are very good!

Violinists have other jobs, too. You could teach private lessons full time and make enough money to live. Or, you could teach music at a school or teach violin at a university. If you want to teach at a university, you probably need a doctoral degree.

I am sorry I do not have specific numbers for you, but I'll say that violinists in general do not make high salaries. Just enough to live on. To be successful, you have to have a very high level of education and an interest in continuing to work at and improve your craft for the rest of your life.

Best wishes in your endeavors!

From Christian Vachon
Posted on March 24, 2005 at 7:17 PM

Actually, the salary in major orchestras is quite high. The starting salary in San Francisco for example is $99,000 a year. In most of the major symphony orchestra, the starting salary is between about 90,000-95,000 to I think 115,000 for the Metropolitan Orchestra. The salary info is available through AFM, possibly even on their website. These salaries are for section jobs.

Most people who win auditions have more than just a degree from a big school. The ones that I know personally are also accomplished soloists, sometimes with prizes from major international violin competitions. Every one who I know who has one a job in the top major U.S. orchestras in recent times was a multiple prize winner in several major international violin competitions.

The salaries for University professors is not as high in most places, but many of them also have performing careers or do other things on the side, so it works out equally. Nonetheless, the average salary is quite low comparitively.

As for being a soloist, there are a lot of factors that go into a career, but generally these days, you have to be exceptional as a teenager at least, and you need management. As a general rule, if you are not on the circuit by the time you are 18 and signed on with a major agency such as ICM, the odds of a large-scale soloist's career are pretty much non-existent.

Soloists can get paid a lot, but a lot of money goes to the agency (usually 20%) as well as your travel expenses. This said, a major top soloist like Pinchas Zukerman or Itzhak Perlman earns about $50,000-$60,000 dollars a concert when they play as soloists with orchestra. I don't know the exact fee for recitals, except that it is lower. Most soloists however, earn less than this. The average I guess at this point would be anywhere (for a solo performance with orchestra) about $10,000-$40,000, unless it is a small orchestra and they are doing them a favour, or trying out rep before a performance with a known orchestra.

As for overall living conditions, in general, the higher up in the echelon, the better the salary and living conditions. People in the major symphonies make for the most part enough money to live quite well, even very well. Way more than just getting by. The lower down you go, the harder it becomes.

As for degrees from major schools, they are not mandatory, but in general, people who have studied in major schools tend to fare better in orchestra auditions, so, it's a plus.

I guess this is a different perspective, but I hope that it helps!


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on March 24, 2005 at 9:36 PM
Christian, thanks so much for your perspective and for all that information. I'm glad that some violin soloists make as much money as professional football players.
From Sue Donim
Posted on March 24, 2005 at 9:44 PM
Christian, I can only assume from your post that your salary estimates are based on US symphony orchestras only: here in the UK, a member of a top London orchestra can expect to earn maybe half of the salary you specified (£23-24k) - even after many years' service. Nearly all professional orchestral players in this country are forced to teach to supplement their income sufficiently to reach a decent standard of living. And these are the musicians who, as you say, were exceptional as teenagers, went to the top conservatoires, and are capable of solo careers in their own right.

This is an international board: I'd be interested to hear the lay of the land for orchestral players in countries outside the US.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 24, 2005 at 10:23 PM
It is true, the starting salary in maybe seven U.S. symphony orchestras is high. But in hundreds of other orchestas, it is not. Most violinists in the U.S. are employed in the hundreds of other orchestras!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 24, 2005 at 11:32 PM
Anybody have a feel for how much is ticket sales, vs. corporate welfare (which I'm quite a fan or actually).
From Ben Clapton
Posted on March 25, 2005 at 3:30 AM
I'm not sure what the exact situation in Australia is. I know that with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, they have one day a week set aside to allow them to teach. But from what I can gather they do fairly well. I believe section leaders get around AUD$90,000/year.

Inthe Australian Chamber Ochestra, which is the top orchestra in Australia, section Violinists are paid 85-90k a year, but you are required to live in Sydney, where the orchestra rehearses. Other players usually just travel over for a few rehearsals before the concert. I know the chief Bassoon for the ACO is also chief Bassoon for the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, and Director of Instrumental and Orchestral Studies at the University of Western Australia. Says something either about how little he gets paid, or how well he wants to live...

From Sue Donim
Posted on March 25, 2005 at 3:40 AM
These articles about the financial plight of British music graduates appeared in the Independent today. Read it and weep:

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 25, 2005 at 6:22 AM
Those were interesting articles. I see some solutions for you I think, but I don't really know how things work over there.
From Christian Vachon
Posted on March 25, 2005 at 12:46 PM

Sue: Yes, I was refering to the situation in America. I know that elsewhere salaries are much lower. Here in Canada for example, the salary for section players in a top orchestra like the Montreal Symphony is about $50,000CND a year. I know that in the U.K. the situation is much worse. I couldn't get the article, but I wanted to ask: is is still the case that only the title chairs are permanent and everyone else is on a per concert contract?

Laurie: Yes, that's the salary for the top 10 or so major orchestras. Let me see, in the 90+ range there is Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York Phil, The Metroplitan Opera, Philadelphia, Boston, National Symphony. But that are also many other in the 60,000-80,000 range, like Detroit, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cinncinati, Houston, Dallas. That is still way mroe money than getting by. It is true that other orchestras can't match that of course, but the centers are smaller as is the clientele. Overall though, the salaries in the top 15-20 American Orchestras are considerably better than elsewhere, although, the contracts secured by the AFM have created other issues as well...


From mike garner
Posted on March 26, 2005 at 2:31 PM
I think it is wonderful this site and so honest. I do not play the fiddle at all but am a great admirer of it and of those who do. I think there is something great about the idea of making just enough to live on by playing the violin. What a fullfilled life!! Beacuse money is not everthing in life and in fact it is nothing at all except that vital thing which enables us to live somewhere and eat and keep warm and discover ourselves aand realise ourselves. so ofcourse we need money, but we can actually be happier with just enough money to live a decent life than if we had masses of money. I do actually play the fretless banjo which is why I got interested in this site because playing a fretless banjo has similar problems of intonation accuracy as plaing the fiddle. Mike
From Gregory Lee
Posted on March 27, 2005 at 3:28 PM
I think teaching can generate good income, if you charge a high hourly rate and have a lot of students (and you cash earnings are not declared to the IRS, but of course this is illegal). College teaching doesn't bring in a lot of income unless you are ranked "professor" (but this takes 20+ years often) and teaching at a top university.

Also music professors are paid considerably less compared to Business, Law, Engineering, Computer Science, etc.

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