Orchestra Curiosity

May 22, 2011 at 04:48 PM ·

What is the money like playing in a professional orchestra?

Replies (8)

May 22, 2011 at 05:12 PM ·

I imagine it varies quite a bit.

Our orchestra pays ~ $18,000 to it's paid performers.  The rest is made up of qualified volunteers. 

I don't know if principals get more than the others in more prestigous ensembles.  I do assume the concermaster would get more though.

May 22, 2011 at 05:31 PM ·

Compensation varies from barely $10,000 to over $100,000 for a base musician (such as section violinist).  Concertmasters of major orchestras are very well paid (over $500,000 in a good year).  See this report:


Not to discourage you, but auditions for an opening in a top-tier orchestra are extremely, extremely competitive. 

May 22, 2011 at 06:17 PM ·

There are basically three tiers of professional orchestras in the U.S. in terms of pay -

The top tier pays six-figure salaries and offers generous benefit packages (health insurances, retirement fund, etc.), but there are less than 20 of these.  If you are good and fortunate enough to get in, it's as good as winning the lottery in my book. Many of these musicians also hold faculty positions in esteemed colleges, and have solo engagements. Of course, they can also charge top dollars teaching privately. So, they are doing very well financially.

The middle tier are the full-time orchestras which include most of the ICSOM members (excluding the top-tier).  There are less than 40 of these. The pay can range from below $30,000 to near the top-tier, and they also provide benefits (Benefits are expensive, therefore should not be overlooked). Despite many offer barely livable wages, these are still prized positions, as they enjoy certain prestige in their local communities.  Many of the musicians also teach and do gigs (They can charge higher rates than most), and live a comfortable life.

The 3rd tier are the vast majority - these are regional orchestras and most of the opera/ballet orchestras that pay "per service" meaning that they don't offer regular salaries and benefits but pay the musicians for their rehearsals and performances.  The pay varies widely, but most in these orchestras must play in multiple orchestras and/or teach, do gigs, or have a second career to supplement their income if they are the main breadwinners.

Anyone who is thinking about going into performance but doesn't have a trust fund to live off should read this thread first:www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm

May 22, 2011 at 06:40 PM ·

Actually, you may find that less-than-top-tier orchestras are extremely competitive also.  Be prepared to try as many as ten or fifteen times before securing something really solid.  I was lucky to get into ONE orchestra pretty early; I recently showed up at another audition where two spots were open and only one was filled at the end of the day.  My personal goal is to get into three.  In an area like mine where there are several decent-size regional orchestras and many smaller ones in close range, it seems to me that they find it's in their interest to try to avoid scheduling their performances on the same weekend...although it's not always avoidable.

On a typical concert run (5 services including rehearsals) I can expect about $400.  There are ones that pay more.  Bear in mind that cost of living in some places is much higher than in others.

May 23, 2011 at 01:21 AM ·

From the ROPA (Regional Orchestra Players' Association) "Wage Scales & Conditions in the Symphony Orchestra"  for the 2009-10 season.  (I get this because I'm in a ROPA orchestra; I don't have access to the ICSOM charts.)

MINIMUM ANNUAL SALARY*, section base, core players

(of 65 orchestras listed, 19 list a minimum annual salary*)

California Symphony:  $2,976

Charleston Symphony:  $18,888

Colorado Springs Philharmonic:  $7,471.20

Dayton Philharmonic:  $17,910

Flint Symphony:  $2,846

Fort Wayne Philharmonic:  $24,856.56

Grand Rapids Symphony: $35,574

Hartford Symphony:  $22,258.80

Knoxville Symphony:  $24,417

Memphis Symphony:  $22,895

Mississippi Symphony: $7,210

Omaha Symphony:  $29,691

Portland [ME] Symphony:  $6,000

Richmond Symphony:  $31,205

Sarasota Orchestra:  $27,600

Spokane Symphony:  $17,460

Symphony Silicon Valley:  $6,120

Toledo Symphony:  $24,950

Tucson Symphony:  $14,185

*( Minimum Annual Salary means management is contractually not allowed to pay less than this amount)


The amount of outside work you will have to do depends on the cost of living wherever you live (also the lifestyle you wish to have, the amount of your student loan debt, etc.).  For some in my orchestra, for instance, another job on the side serves as a supplement for their orchestra income; for others, the orchestra income is the supplementary income.

May 23, 2011 at 04:59 AM ·

The concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra in Pa. A fantastic violinist by any standards, I must add. In NYC and the SF Bay Area, both expensive locales, it would, from a financial standpoint, be a pittance. This, after practicing the instrument for hours upon hours for many years in a field that demands perfection, not version 1.0 with several mistakes before intermission, version 2.0 with fewer mistakes after intermission, and version 3.0 with no mistakes when the audience is about to file out of the concert hall screaming for a refund.

Compare this, for example, to software professionals, who might write code with bugs in it, and then release versions 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 2.0, etc. followed by more patches, all the while earning more money than the concertmaster of the HSO.

May 23, 2011 at 06:57 AM ·

That's not a very good analogy. Software is constantly changing to adapt and incorporate new concepts and technologies. New versions of software do not get released solely to fix problems, but also to introduce new features. The equivalent among musicians is not a symphony musician, who's able to pretty much play the same work written two centuries ago, unaltered, and for the most part does not change notationally, but the modern day studio musician that not only sight-reads near-perfectly on cue but can also improvise and create new material on the spot.

Either way, the amount of money each kind of professional earns in their profession is based on the demand for their product. I fail to see why a software developer that constantly improves and releases multiple versions of their product should have their salary connected in any way to what a musician makes?

July 13, 2012 at 02:01 AM · 2011-2012 annual base salaries for the musicians of the 51 ICSOM member orchestras:


Seattle Symphony is not an ICSOM member, but based on this report, its annual minimum base pay is $78,750.

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