Orchestra Tiers in America
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.
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.
The Washington National Opera Orchestra is an ICSOM orchestra.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I agree, Paul. The standards just sound so high! No wonder people always chime in on threads about deciding one's college future.
If one is not playing Sibelius by the age of 10, one really shouldn't consider a career as professional violinist.
I certainly wasn't playing Sibelius at age 10 and most of my colleagues weren't, either.
"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..."
Mary Ellen, ok, 15 then : ) The demand and supply curve is somewhat different now than, say, 30 years ago.
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.
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).
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).
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?
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.
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.
It's not an infinitesimal difference if you have the discernment to hear it. :-)
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!
Mary Ellen wrote "at any rate winning a job requires very different skills from doing one's job well day in and day out."
@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!
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.
There is a simple reason why orchestras take only those with ridiculously high levels of skill.
I'm afraid it'll all end in tiers ...