Orchestra Tiers in America

Edited: August 1, 2017, 3:04 PM · Hi all, I’m curious about the growth of a professional orchestra musician in the US. It piqued my interest a long time ago with this archived discussion:


"Consider (a) people who win titled chairs in 52-week orchestras; (b) people who win section jobs in 52-week orchestras; (c) people who win titled jobs in smaller ICSOM orchestras; (d) people who win section jobs in smaller ICSOM orchestras; (e) people who win titled core positions in ROPA orchestras; (f) people who win section core positions in ROPA orchestras; (g) people who win freeway philharmonic jobs."

If we go by that, these are the tiers:
a) 52-week orchestras (i.e. NY Phil, LA Phil, CSO, Cleveland, Milwaukee, etc.)
b) Smaller ICSOM orchestras (i.e. Dallas Symphony, Houston, San Antonio)
c) ROPA orchestras (Illinois Phil, Ann Arbor Symphony)
d) Freeway philharmonic (???)

So then, my questions are:
1) Where do orchestras like Washington National Opera or Quad City Symphony fall under? How about those that are project-based like Starwars, Disney on Ice, or Game of Thrones?

2) How does a fresh BM/MM graduate enter into the profession? Can someone out of a mid-tier BM college get into orchestras A or B? Or does someone have to be in tier-1 to get into A right away?

3) How is the job mobility within the profession? The previous discussion briefly touched this. i.e. Freeway Phil is not expected to get into a 52-week orchestra. Does it become like a caste system, where the 52-week positions are reserved for the chosen ones that started Tchaik at the age of 8? Or can someone work their way up from C to A, albeit in a decade or two? What is the limit or the people’s usual experience with this?

Just a brief backstory with this discussion. I’m an amateur violinist starting out in a whole other unrelated profession. This is just a pure curiosity-based question. Yes, I have a teacher, and she’s awesome. No, I have no plans or skill to become a professional violinist. (Just dreams and fantasies.) I use a shoulder rest, Dominant strings with Pirastro E, and I have no idea what rosin I’m using. :)

That being said, professional musicians (including the quartet players, teachers, freelancers, etc.) seem to live in an entirely different world. They are almost a species of their own --- with their own language and culture. It’s always so fascinating to read or hear about them. I cannot waste too much valuable lesson time for discussions like these with my teacher.

Any thoughts or comments would be appreciated. Thank you.

Replies (28)

August 1, 2017, 1:30 PM · Unfortunately I'm out of town and don't have my ICSOM wage scale chart with me, but I am pretty sure Dallas and Houston are both 52-week orchestras and they are certainly much bigger jobs than San Antonio and possibly bigger jobs than Milwaukee. I am not sure if Milwaukee is 48 or 52 weeks. San Antonio is definitely a smaller ICSOM orchestra.

Here is a list of ICSOM orchestras: http://www.icsom.org/history/docs/F_Member_Orchestras_by_Year_of_Entry.pdf

Here is a list of ROPA orchestras: http://ropaweb.org/about/member/

Touring, studio or project-based orchestras are basically gigs, made up of freelancers, and are not ICSOM or ROPA.

The way to get a job is to win an audition. Before one can win an audition, one must be invited to that audition. Juilliard graduates are likely to be invited to any audition they apply for. Graduates of liberal arts colleges with undistinguished music departments may have trouble getting invited to an audition except perhaps at the lowest levels. When I am screening resumes for our auditions, I look for a name teacher, a name school, a name summer program, and/or relevant professional experience. (Playing weddings is not relevant.) This is not to say that a fine player can't be found outside of those categories but the odds drop precipitously.

Re job mobility, the way to move up is to win an audition. Certainly there have been violinists in low-level jobs who won big jobs but those players were always better than their first jobs. A violinist who has struggled to get a job on the bottom tier is unlikely to be competitive at the top. It isn't a caste system, it's just reality.

Edited: August 1, 2017, 2:28 PM · The Washington National Opera Orchestra is an ICSOM orchestra.

Quad City looks like a freeway phil (looking at their site, 35 services a year, and on their payscale, it looks like a typical player would make less than $3k a year).

Game of Thrones would be a studio orchestra, made up of freelancers.

Disney on Ice and its ilk -- shows, pit orchestras, etc. -- hire freelancers. Some of these things can go on for years. For a view of pit life, check this article out: LINK.

Edited: August 1, 2017, 8:31 PM · @Mary Ellen

I see. I was looking at those lists. And how about orchestras that are not listed under ROPA? Does that mean that they are immediately in a lower tier than the ROPA orchestras --- an in-between of ROPA and freeway?

"Certainly there have been violinists in low-level jobs who won big jobs but those players were always better than their first jobs."

Interesting. So, these players would be similar to an undervalued or a mispriced stock? But how about growing in your career or learning on the job? Are orchestra musicians supposed to be at/near the epitome of their technical abilities right out of college (of course, lacking in experience to his older colleagues)?

Pardon my many questions. If there were a book about the lives of an professional musicians, I would love to read it. I enjoyed reading Arnold Steinhardt's autobiographies a lot.

August 1, 2017, 2:31 PM · @Lydia

Wow. That is ridiculous. I watched Quad City last year, and they were really good. It's crazy how high the standards are for even the small freeway orchestras!

So up to ROPA orchestras, most musicians have to rely on "patching up gigs and lessons" to sustain a decent lifestyle? Or does the minimum start at ICSOM?

Edited: August 1, 2017, 6:54 PM · ICSOM and ROPA are essentially professional orchestra leagues. Orchestras that don't belong to them are generally lower-budget. Less budget means fewer services and lower per-service fees.

Not all ROPA orchestras are full-time for all players. Some ROPA orchestras may have a tenured core, but everyone else is a freelancer. Below that, the orchestra may be all freelance, even if the musicians are all unionized and have a CBA. Not all freeway philharmonics are either fully professional or pay union wages, though.

August 1, 2017, 2:39 PM · Players are generally better (at least in terms of being in audition shape) near the beginning of their careers. Once they have a job, time to practice for improvement (as opposed to practicing repertoire for the job, teaching lessons, etc.) tends to vanish. A player who wins a job might continue to devote a lot of time to improvement (taking lessons, etc. still) in order to try to audition for a better orchestra, but that will come at the expense of additional income and a personal life.

Even a lot of players in ICSOM orchestras will still teach for additional income. For instance, the San Diego Symphony -- on the article I saw, a top-20-highest-paid orchestra in the US -- pays a bit less than $60k/year. You cannot live comfortably in San Diego on $60k.

Edited: August 1, 2017, 7:01 PM · Another thing I would add is that the classical music world tends to strongly favor early bloomers over late(r) bloomers, and this is a trend that continues to grow even more extreme with time, especially when it comes to a tiger parent's instrument like the violin. The violin world has a prodigy addiction. Though I would say that out of the mainstream career paths, the orchestral path is probably less subject to this tendency than some others, certainly less than the soloist path.
August 1, 2017, 8:26 PM · Based on the lists that Mary Ellen shared, our local orchestra, the Roanoke Symphony (RSO), is not a member of either group. And there's some really good violinists in there.
Edited: August 1, 2017, 8:53 PM · I agree, Paul. The standards just sound so high! No wonder people always chime in on threads about deciding one's college future.

@Lieschen, I think tiger parents are needed in such a strict discipline. Think of all the famous composers and violinists who were driven by their parents. No way you can get such an awkwardly held instrument in a 7-year-old's hands. I disagree though with parents who spoon-feed and are tiger parents... I know one who actually does her kids' homework just so that they're top in their class!

@Lydia, it really doesn't sound like an efficient way of making a living in terms of effort per $-earned. Really, if they applied their same work ethic in other professions, they'd probably go very far.
But then again, money is money. And music is an end by itself. :)

August 1, 2017, 9:59 PM · If one is not playing Sibelius by the age of 10, one really shouldn't consider a career as professional violinist.
August 2, 2017, 12:27 AM · I certainly wasn't playing Sibelius at age 10 and most of my colleagues weren't, either.
August 2, 2017, 8:18 AM · "Players are generally better (at least in terms of being in audition shape) near the beginning of their careers. Once they have a job, time to practice for improvement (as opposed to practicing repertoire for the job, teaching lessons, etc.) tends to vanish..."

That's true, but it's not the whole story. Experience gives us something called "intuition," which can be just as valuable, and is acquired with time. Even if the experienced player's fingers and technique are no longer at a soloist level required to win an audition, they have other advantages: they don't fall into all the newbie rhythmic traps in the standard repertoire. They know how to prioritize. They've been exposed to a wide range of phrasing ideas. They've honed the reflexes necessary to play in an ensemble. They become better sight readers over time.

At least, this is what I tell myself....

Edited: August 2, 2017, 11:38 AM · Mary Ellen, ok, 15 then : ) The demand and supply curve is somewhat different now than, say, 30 years ago.

On youtube, there is a very bright kid who gave a convincing performance of the 3rd movement of Sibelius with the Houston Youth orchestra while in high school and she is studying engineering in Stanford.

Edited: August 2, 2017, 11:49 AM · Scott,

In my profession, if university professors who earned tenure years ago have to be in the job market again for whatever reason, very few if any would be able to get a tenured position in a different but similar institution.

I wonder how many tenured orchestra members hired years ago could win the same seat back if they have to audition again.

August 2, 2017, 12:16 PM · David, I agree. Supply of able people in either music our academia far outstrips demand; regarding the violin, unless one is getting paid as a soloist in high school, I would not recommend becoming a professional violinist--the chances of never getting a decent job are probably 50%, and for the amount of work that is absolutely terrible odds compared to almost any other career outside of professional sports. Better to study engineering and play the violin as a hobby.
August 2, 2017, 12:40 PM · Scott, I agree, but the OP was asking about the likelihood that a player could basically work their way up the tiers over a long period of time. I think you've supported my point that a player is unlikely to win successively bigger auditions over a long period of time (as opposed to when they are just starting out, when a fine player from a no-name school may have problems passing a resume screen, for instance, and needs to work his way up into being able to audition for bigger things, over just a few years).

Edited: August 2, 2017, 12:47 PM · Jason, you have to remember that there are a lot of ways to make a living in music that don't require you to be a virtuoso (and beyond just public-school teaching).

For instance, one of the violinists I grew up with, who loved the instrument but did not seem to really have much aptitude for it, became a Suzuki teacher and is now director of a very large community music school. She's still not all that good of a violinist, but she's making a comfortable, stable living and has a satisfying job.

Someone else I grew up with, who was an enthusiastic but not very talented pianist, went into music therapy, and also specializes in teaching piano to children with disabilities.

August 2, 2017, 12:57 PM · Are the levels really that far apart? To my untrained ears, there seems to be no difference between a good ROPA performance vs. a 52-week "world class" orchestra performance. They play the same repertoire, so that covers the difficulty of the work. So, how would you describe the differences?
Edited: August 2, 2017, 1:02 PM · The difference between the Cleveland Orchestra and a good ROPA orchestra may not be obvious to an untrained ear but it is discernible to those of us in the field. The difference in paychecks, however, is huge and obvious to anyone.

Personally I am very tired of having guest conductors tell my orchestra that we play much, MUCH better than our salary level would suggest. I would rather have a bigger salary and fewer surprised guest conductors.

Also, many tenured players would likely have trouble winning their jobs again. That's why we have tenure. :-) What it takes to win an audition is unsustainable over the long haul for anyone who would like to have a family or even just a life away from the music stand, and at any rate winning a job requires very different skills from doing one's job well day in and day out.

August 2, 2017, 1:21 PM · Paychecks! Ha! But does that infinitesimal difference justify the huge paycheck difference? My guess is not. But that already depends on the supply of sponsors, grants, ticketholders, local state funding, etc.

In connection to the demand of classical music, I recently attended a masterclass of a very renowned violinist. He describes the declining popularity of classical music as inevitable as the shift of the tectonic plates. It was pretty sad to hear that from someone who stood as one of the pillars of classical music in the 20th century. But I guess as he was comparing the 1970's to the current age, it's hard not to feel helpless about it.

August 2, 2017, 1:43 PM · It's not an infinitesimal difference if you have the discernment to hear it. :-)

In the strings, you can hear it in a certain cleanliness -- an absolute precision of ensemble. But you can also hear it in the musical unification, the way the line is carried through the whole section.

You can definitely hear it in the quality of the wind and brass sections, especially instruments playing solo. These people are world-class soloists at the top, and it is reflected not just in their technical command of the instrument but in their interpretive skills and musicianship.

August 2, 2017, 2:09 PM · Carl,

Also, even if differences seem to get smaller between players in different tiers as one moves up the ladder, not only do seemingly small errors make a bigger difference than you might think, especially when present throughout a group in small quantities, but the work needed to make seemingly incremental progress increases as one continues up the ladder.
The bulk of the skills that musicians need for viable careers are probably learned within the first, maybe 5 years, give or take a few, but usually so much more time is spent getting from say 85 percent satisfactory to 99 or 100 percent satisfactory, and that is what separates the mediocre from the great.

Though that is not to say that every once and a while, you don't see someone who is too "good" for their initial job, or someone in a top tier job that makes you scratch your head.

And of course, there are many issues with pay structure that are worth taking a closer look at, it's certainly worth asking, "Is the concert master of the LA Phil really 3 times better than the assistant concertmaster? Is the LA Phil really 3 times better than San Bernardino? Is a New York Phil non-titled clarinetist worth more than a non-titled oboist or a section bassist within the same group? Do we generally compensate enough given the time musicians spend training? If the answers are yes, how do we justify all of it?"

August 2, 2017, 2:59 PM · Pay scale is never linear once you go beyond a certain range. Appreciation of classical music is considered a luxury, and prices associated with luxury items are almost always exorbitant. C'est la vie!
Edited: August 2, 2017, 5:39 PM · Mary Ellen wrote "at any rate winning a job requires very different skills from doing one's job well day in and day out."

Well, that is interesting. If that is the case, why wouldn't people who serve on audition committees fix the audition requirement so that the skills needed to win auditions is consistent with what is needed to do one's job well?

Edited: August 2, 2017, 5:48 PM · @Lydia and Lieschen: Someday, I would love to learn how to listen. I feel like many pieces have inside jokes and many of them go over my head!

@David: I don't think it's possible to have anyone of any profession to be at an "audition" shape for the rest of his/her career. I'm thinking of medical licensure exams, CPA and CFA tests, etc.

It's a different skill set. The exams require you to know your subject matter well. After that, day in and day out skills differ.

August 2, 2017, 8:02 PM · The skills needed to play at one's best when playing musical excerpts alone, behind a screen, in an unfamiliar room, for disembodied voices, and then do it again and again an hour or three or four later, or the next day, until the screen comes down...there is no way to make such an audition equivalent to playing in a section. And to actually test 100 different people's ability to play in a section would be cost-prohibitive, although trial weeks are not unusual in the case of finalists for solo chairs.

Or I could just ditto Carl.

August 3, 2017, 5:54 AM · There is a simple reason why orchestras take only those with ridiculously high levels of skill.

Because they can.

As Mary Ellen said the ensemble skills are harder to assess ... but maybe also better suited to learning on the job.

Edited: August 4, 2017, 12:04 AM · I'm afraid it'll all end in tiers ...

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