Chances of making a living as a freelance violinist and violin teacher in Toronto

February 4, 2020, 7:09 PM · Hi all,

I graduated in Northwestern with a master in violin performance 12 years ago, then went back to my hometown in east Asia and worked as both a violin player and teacher. For playing, I was a tutti violin in the number 2 orchestra for the first four years, then I quit and went freelance, now I am the assistant 2nd principal of a smaller chamber orchestra. For teaching, because of the high demand of instrumental teachers, there is no problem in having enough students to provide a decent living, and I teach both group classes in schools and private students.

Unfortunately, because of political turmoil here recently, I find this place is no longer liveable for my family, therefore our family planned to move to Toronto, my wife’s hometown this or next year. So I am not sure if I can still do the same thing in Toronto. I expect a great income drop there, but not sure if I am able to kick off my career there since I have heard that parents expect instrumental teachers playing piano as well. Also, not sure if Asian male will be less desirable as an instrumental teacher. For playing career, Since I don’t have connections there, I will try to play in amateur orchestras first to make connections, but I am not so sure about the level of playing in freelance orchestras, wedding gigs, pop gigs, etc, is it comparable to big cities in US?

Thanks,

Jon

Replies (54)

February 4, 2020, 7:27 PM · Disclaimer: I know nothing specific to Toronto.

I've never heard of parents expecting an instrumental music teacher to play piano. Most in my city do not. I have also never heard of any sort of prejudice against Asian male teachers, and I would expect Toronto to be more cosmopolitan than any city in South Texas.

I would be surprised if playing in amateur orchestras were an effective way to open doors. It would be much more effective IMO to find out who the local contractors are and play for them. I would suggest joining the Toronto local of the American Federation of Musicians (it's international, US and Canada). And perhaps even reaching out to the personnel manager of the Toronto Symphony to find out when/if they hold sub auditions.

Another effective way to get your name out there is to arrange to take a private lesson or coaching from the concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony, perhaps as an aid to auditioning for another orchestra or even local freeway philharmonics. If you do this, please keep in mind that such a lesson is really an audition, and go prepared to play everything at a polished level.

Good luck!

February 4, 2020, 7:54 PM · I suggest that you look into obtaining the proper clearances for teaching underage children. I'm in the US and I believe Canada is similar in how they handle the requirements. Coming from another country may make it difficult or involve a waiting period.

When I last visited Toronto it seemed like a city that was very culturally and artistically involved. It does get cold, though.

Edited: February 4, 2020, 9:53 PM · I'm sure there's a great deal to consider here for you.

You can hang out a shingle, put up a web page, join the AFM local, reach out to the obvious places (community orchestras, schools, churches, homeschool community). Churches are very important for networking in the U.S., not sure about Canada. Mary Ellen had some great suggestions. Building a private studio will be hard work and the pay will never be fantastic.

You can teach out of your home or rent a room in a church. Churches often have a LOT of space during the week that sits idle. You may want to set up an LLC and insure yourself against liability.

You don't need to play the piano. Teach with your violin. For studio recitals hire a pianist (but do consider those fees when you calculate your overhead and your studio rates).

Offer to start an afterschool violin class at a school that has no music program (common in the U.S., not sure about Toronto). You will be paid nothing. You don't need certification to do this in the U.S., but you might have to pass a background check. I know a woman who started an afterschool "orchestra" in the U.S., and she doubled the size of her studio in two years.

Reach out to regular violinist.com contributor Elise Stanley who is an amateur violinist and a recently retired professor at the University of Toronto. She probably knows a lot of cool and possibly helpful people (like her violin teacher for starters).

Your ethnicity will likely have no overall effect on your success -- that's my prediction. One thing my violin teacher does, which is very very smart: He absolutely will NOT talk about politics or religion or any other type of potentially controversial subject with a student or a parent. Not EVER. If you ask him something like that, his answer is very simple: "I don't talk about politics."

Make sure the place where you meet prospective clients has a nice framed copy of your Northwestern diploma, a Canadian flag, a Leafs jersey (suggest Dave Keon or Borje Salming). Be Canadian. (Salming was my favorite player when I was a kid.)

February 4, 2020, 10:30 PM · Take Mary Ellen's advice. Based on what I know from music friends who used to teach in Canada, and experience in the US:

See the AFM's site for Canada: LINK
Join. Read their material. Don't forget to buy instrument insurance and business insurance for yourself in Canada. Play at a union showcase day, if they have them.

If Canada is anything like the US in this regard: Do NOT join an all-volunteer amateur orchestra for the sake of making gigging contacts, and you don't want to mark yourself as someone who thinks of themselves as an amateur. You will almost certainly make no useful contacts there except at the lowest, semipro level, and maybe the conductor. If an amateur or semipro orchestra has a principal 2nd or concertmaster position open, it's worth trying for, though, even if it's unpaid; it's nice to pad a teaching resume, and it's fairly common for teaching-oriented pros to do. (Parents have no idea about orchestra tiering, but know that "concertmaster" sounds impressive.)

Take every local freeway philharmonic audition that you can. (Start getting audition-ready ASAP.) Even a lower-tier or semipro group will help you make contacts.

As far as I know, in Toronto, much like in the major cities in the US, a ton of the kids playing the violin are Asian (at the intermediate and higher levels, I would guess actually majority Asian). An Asian teacher might very well be considered a benefit rather than a drawback. In my US city, at least one of the outstanding teachers will only teach in Mandarin.

The standard system in Canada is the RCM. You should be prepared to teach the syllabus. If you want to get a Canadian music-teaching credential, you can get an ARCT diploma. To pass the ARCT, you do need a reasonable level of piano competency. (You must have passed basic piano competency in order to get your BM in music, I assume?)

February 5, 2020, 7:19 AM · In the U.S. there are no required "clearances" whatsoever to hang out a shingle and teach private lessons to underage children. I can't imagine Canada is any different.

Edited: February 5, 2020, 9:05 AM · Hi Jon - I live just outside Toronto and lived within it for ~20 years prior. I've been an amateur violinist for the past 10 years so althought I am local, I'm no expert on the professional scene.

However, I have played in several community (amateur) orchestras and I have had a lot of different pro teachers. What Lydia said about playing in these orchestras is generally true: if you can get a concertmaster (co-concertmaster) position that would give you some cred and exposure but playing tutti would be counterproductive. We do, however, have some high-quality pro orchestras outside the city that you might consider, depending on where you have to move that are all pro and still accessible. For that you probably need to be here to keep an eye open - after learning which orchestra is which.

Can't help you much with teaching except to say that Toronto is one of the most wonderful tolerant cosmopolitan cities in the world and has a very large Asian, in particular Chinese, community. This is definitely not a handicap - but again may influence where you want to live as the large communities tend to be outside the metropolitan area.

Nobody mentioned Suzuki yet - if you want to teach children I think its almost pro-forma now so you would need qualifications.

Good luck in your move. We might be cold weather, but we are warm hearted and, equally important, everything we have is designed to keep you warm - boots, coats, houses even shopping. I moved here 21 years ago and never regretted a minute.

And the place is full of Canadians - one of the few remaining western countries with some social sanity.

February 5, 2020, 10:24 AM · Just a note on getting Suzuki training—it is time consuming and expensive, though definitely worth it IMO if you want to teach young children. You certainly don’t need it to fill a studio with middle and high school students, or from whatever age the strings program begins in the local schools.
February 5, 2020, 10:28 AM · Hi Jon. Disclaimer: This is a joke which is meant to be encouraging in this context. It's just a joke. I think I heard from a colleague who emigrated from Hong Kong to Toronto: "If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere."
February 5, 2020, 11:07 AM · I've don't know about any biases agains Asian male teachers, but...
I think there may be a bias against private male teachers in general. Or, at the very least, if given a choice,
parents feel more comfortable leaving young female students with a female teacher. Naturally, there are other factors in play--general demeanor, age, etc.

Unfortunately, there have been so many cases of male teachers harassing their female students that I don't blame the parents.

February 5, 2020, 2:29 PM · I have not had this conversation with local teaching colleagues (predominantly female anyway) but have learned from meeting teachers at various Suzuki-related events that some have policies with varying degrees of strictness about not being alone with a child (not sure what age). Of course with Suzuki, a parent is supposed to be present, but this extended beyond even the "age (range) of independence" - in order to eliminate the chance of any remarks about impropriety because of the risk that any insinuation, grounded or not, would be career-ending, even life-as-you-know-it-ending. I don't mean to be alarmist, just pointing out the thought process.

Suppose the overall market for female teachers is bigger than the overall market for male teachers (I don't have a claim on either side of this question), then by probability, a male teacher might have a harder time getting students at first. However, there are so many ways for teachers to differentiate that it's not going to matter in the long run. You would either find the segment of the market that does care or you'll be known for your overall value regardless of race or gender.

February 5, 2020, 9:07 PM · Based on my own experiences in Toronto, I think too much is being made of being male or female, Asian or otherwise. I have had two male Asian violin teachers myself, and my son also has a male violin teacher. Both our teachers have several young female students, and teach some of them alone at night in relative isolation, and there is little to no concern about that, in view of the trust they've established, the personalities and manners they bring to their teaching, and because they're valued in this context for their love of music and ability to teach, not gender or heritage.

As mentioned, RCM and Suzuki are common programs here, which also have teacher training / certification processes. These and a recognized degree in music should be sufficient credentials. If I was a parent looking for a teacher and didn't have a specific recommendation, I'd probably start either by looking for Sukuzi schools or the RCM web site. Bonus for RCM + Suzuki I suppose. E.g. RCM Toronto violin teachers

Toronto has a relatively hot real estate market, so there are additional challenges with respect to finding affordable housing and potential issues with location and travel, for yourself and prospective students.

February 5, 2020, 9:17 PM · In any city where the driving times between locations are not entirely trivial, parents will almost certainly attend a child's lessons simply because there's nowhere else to go for an hour. Unless the teacher lives in a downtown area where there's a coffee shop or bookstore or the like down the block, the parent is pretty much stuck hanging out while they wait. That reduces some of the concern about leaving a child alone with a teacher, of whatever gender. I agree that parents tend to be more paranoid with male teachers.
February 5, 2020, 11:50 PM · My daughter's teacher is male. I stay during lessons not because I don't trust him but because he thinks she still needs me to stay.

I did not think my child was ready for a male teacher until she was 6 yo and that was only after having a male PE teacher for 2 full years.

February 6, 2020, 4:46 AM · Thanks for all the wonderful advices! I guess I will have a look on the RCM teachers training program.

The reason I mentioned about piano skill is because I have heard that students in Toronto would expect their teacher to play accompaniment for them in violin exams. This is quite surprising to me cause here in my place, students will hire a professional accompanist to do that, that means they need to pay extra for that.

It’s such a good advice not to play as tutti in amateur orchestras? Which I may do if I become desperate for something. Are there anyone here knows about the locations of semi pro orchestras? I think I will be living in north Toronto, around Richmond Hill, Aurora.

Edited: February 6, 2020, 7:51 AM · I have a male violin teacher and he was also my daughter's teacher. I had no concern about leaving her with him, ever.

However, I also know that parents of students who have been abused might have been just as confident -- before it happened.

I teach university chemistry. If there is a female student in my office, my office door is open -- always.

If I were setting up a private violin studio, one of my first purchases would be a Sony Handycam. The rule would be that you must bring an empty, functioning SD card to your lesson, because the lesson will be recorded, whether the parent is present or not. No chip, no lesson. (I'd have a few spares of course.) At the end of the lesson, the chip would be given back to the student to take home, whereupon they may erase or archive the file. I would also require a non-disclosure agreement with each family, whereby the videos cannot be shared to social media, etc. (Many studios already have these kinds of agreements to protect photos taken at recitals that might contain the images of other children, etc.)

When I had piano lessons back in Evanston in the early 90s, my teacher (Jack Hubble) recorded all of our lessons -- the rule was that I had to bring an empty cassette tape. And -- I still have the cassettes, because I never erased or discarded them, and that was 25 years ago. Even though it was just a junky old cassette recorder sitting on top of his piano, it worked fine.

February 6, 2020, 8:19 AM · What a great idea Paul - and the student and parents have a full record of the lesson.
February 6, 2020, 9:15 AM · I agree that the video recording is a great idea and very useful regardless if the student is alone or not.

Indeed, I take video of part of my son's violin lesson.

February 6, 2020, 9:23 AM · If you present yourself as an amateur, you will be forever branded as an amateur. Don't do it.
Edited: February 6, 2020, 9:54 AM · It's possible that there's a semi-pro group in your area where a lot of pros have a sort of "busman's holiday" -- i.e. it's a mostly-pro group but they're playing as volunteers for the sheer fun of it, or it's an all-pro group that pays token gas money and isn't under a union CBA. That can be a good place to make contacts, since people are there in significant part for the social experience. Most of those people will primarily make their living by something other than orchestral performance (in my experience, it's been people who mostly teach or who do a lot of quartet-based gig work; in my city there's a constant stream of chamber music demand for fancy embassy dinners and whatnot, so it's quite feasible to make a living that way).

The good thing is that such groups tend to have a lot of churn, since gigging pros are tucking it into their lives wherever they can, which means that you meet more people and they almost always welcome new people. If you're lucky, a few people who are active union contractors will play in that orchestra and turn out to be excellent contacts to have.

Edited: February 6, 2020, 10:37 AM · Jon - please take Mary Ellen's words seriously.

Playing in an amateur orchestra sends a signal about who you are (= amateur).

I know people who moved cities and made the mistake of playing as volunteers in amateur orchestras. Here's a minor example of the reputational costs: if an amateur orchestra hires professional ringers to play tutti, you won't be on that list or other groups' lists. The personnel managers will always expect you to volunteer, and they may overlap across groups and talk to each other.

February 6, 2020, 11:50 AM · " At the end of the lesson, the chip would be given back to the student to take home, whereupon they may erase or archive the file."

Technology fails on a regular basis. If the student's SD card fails or your device fails, then you don't have a recording to prove to the parent that you're not misbehaving. And if the student throws away the recording and falsely accuses you of abuse, you have no evidence to protect you from reputation damage. The point is that if you're relying on technology to solve social or potential legal problems, that might take a lot more than what you've planned for. And there's nothing to prove that you're not a risk for young boys (or girls) regardless of your gender.

But I think parents should attend lessons regardless of all that, for the benefit of the student. Even sullen teenagers actually value the appreciation and approval of their parents, and conversely might be sullen due to a lack of it. Trading that off, of course, with the appearance or reality of forcing the student to attend and behave in certain ways, contrasted with liberation and the development of independence, which happens to be my excuse for stepping back from my sometimes sullen teenager.

Edited: February 6, 2020, 12:40 PM · I agree with Frieda and Mary Ellen, and am writing this in the hopes that if you see the same piece of advice three times, you will heed it. I can't think of one thing you gain by joining an amateur orchestra as a professional musician.

You say that you may do so "if I become desperate for something". What do you mean by something? We've already touched on the lack of professional connections, so are you referring to musical fulfillment? You have extensive pro experience in east Asia, and are probably used to playing with high level musicians. I doubt it will fulfill you to perform with amateur musicians, even if it is a work you love.

I'm not saying this to diss amateur musicians: I think community orchestras are great and that people are able to still perform their favorites while working other jobs is incredible and a testament to the power of music. But as a professional, you have pushed yourself to such a high technical standard that playing even in a high level amateur orchestra will likely hold you back. Playing with musicians whose techniques are weaker than yours will make you a weaker player.

If you are so isolated from other professional musicians that you feel your only access point to performing symphonic repertoire is by joining an amateur orchestra, I'd recommend that you talk to professional musicians in your area (take a lesson w/ a concertmaster or just reach out) and see what opportunities are out there. Many semi-pro orchestras (i.e. per service) have a regular list of subs that play on each concert. This would give you the fulfillment and professional connections you need.

February 6, 2020, 1:23 PM · "If I were setting up a private violin studio, one of my first purchases would be a Sony Handycam. The rule would be that you must bring an empty, functioning SD card to your lesson"

Good idea...a decade ago. Who in their right mind is going to go out and buy a Handycam at this point? And even if you do, who has got a card reader? And even if you have a card reader now, you probably won't be able to connect it to anything. I just bought a new iPad, and with the new power connector, my peripherals--credit card swiper, headphones, connector for desktop--are all obsolete now. It's kind of a pain when you have to keep buying adapters at extortionate prices. If you can even get them.

Have them use their phone or iPod or iPad. Maybe all the teacher needs is something to prop it on. Does anyone really not have a video recording device in their pocket at this point?

February 6, 2020, 2:07 PM · I recently pulled out my old Handycam, got a micro SD adapter, and have been happy with it so far. It mounts nicely on a tripod, has a remote, and good battery life. I was using my phone for some videos but my battery would die, some one would call, or I would run out of storage every time I was in the middle of recording. Soon, I will get something a bit more modern.

Cameras are everywhere, school buses, stores, dash cams, etc.. and having video to check progress is very effective.

In my area, back ground checks and clearances are required to work in a school or even to volunteer regularly in your own child's classroom. I think it is a good idea to have them even if you are a private teacher so parents will have that to consider. Plus the process provides you with information on how to handle difficult situations and avoid them.

Edited: February 6, 2020, 2:43 PM · Timothy: what is your area? I've never heard of a private violin teacher doing a background check on him or her self in the U.S. If a private teacher advertised that they had done one, I would wonder what they are trying to hide. Of course, for working in a school, the school will need to do one.
February 6, 2020, 2:51 PM · I'm in Pennsylvania. I am not saying it is required to teach privately, but I would not be surprised if it becomes a requirement. If you are an offender that has been caught, it is doubtful that you could hide anything and still have the clearances. They are pretty thorough, but not bulletproof. https://www.education.pa.gov/Educators/Clearances/SchoolVolunteer/Pages/default.aspx
Edited: February 6, 2020, 7:14 PM · I agree with Jocelyn. I’ve been teaching private lessons for almost 35 years now and not one parent has ever asked for a background check nor have I ever heard of any other private teacher having one done. I’m in Texas.

I have to have them done to work with kids in schools but that’s entirely different.

February 6, 2020, 8:24 PM · The Kitchener Waterloo Symphony is just an hour or so away from Toronto.We are a full time professional orchestra and always need good extras. You could send your résumé to our personnel manager Nancy Wharton if you want Jon.
February 7, 2020, 4:31 AM · Fully professional orchestras in Toronto that I am aware of:

Toronto Symphony (world class)
Tafelmusic Baroque (world class)
Peter's KW symphony above
Espirit Orchestra (New orchestral music)
Synphonia Toronto (String orchestra)
Canadian Opera company

There are several strong professional/community orchestras too with more or less professional appointments such as (in no particular order):
Guelph Symphony
Cambridge Symphony
Orchestra Toronto
Toronto Community Orchestra
Toronto Philharmonia
Brantford Symphony
Burlington Symphony
Milton Symphony
North York Concert Orchestra (NYCO)
etc

Look through the groups at these web site (its not entirely up to date):
http://www.grahamnasby.com/misc/music_local-resources.shtml

http://www.grahamnasby.com/misc/music_local-resources.shtml

Edited: February 7, 2020, 11:06 AM · Mary Ellen wrote, "I agree with Jocelyn. I’ve been teaching private lessons for almost 35 years now and not one parent has ever asked for a background check." Fine ... but neither of you is male. I haven't heard of anyone being asked, either (male or female), but we do live in weird times. It's not unthinkable. I still wouldn't do a background check on myself. If you're concerned about your online reputation, there are companies that can manage it for you.

Also, I understand the technology can fail -- but I think it's better than nothing, and there is an ulterior purpose (and the only purpose that gets advertised to the studio) which is archiving the lesson for pedagogical reasons.

The advantage of the Handycam is that it's dedicated to a single purpose. Of course, if you want to buy yourself a second cell phone just so you can make videos with it, yeah maybe that's okay. You could transfer the day's lessons to cloud storage at home using wireless, and share them out to your families, but then you're looking at an extra couple of hours of work every week.

I also didn't even come close to suggesting that having a camera was all the legal protection one might ever need. That's why I also recommend liability insurance. I'm no lawyer, but I think if I were sitting on a jury and learned that the plaintiff destroyed their own evidence, I would not view their case very favorably. But you'll lose students if you insist that the parents of teenagers who are old enough to drive themselves around attend their lessons.

About painting yourself as an amateur, I agree with what others have said. Your interaction with an amateur orchestra, especially a low-level one, could be to offer to help with sectionals, with music selection if they struggle with that (my orchestra does), and so on.

February 7, 2020, 11:58 PM · Sorry for causing misunderstandings, I mean I would have play in amateur orchestra if I haven’t seen these advices. :)
February 8, 2020, 11:45 AM · The way professionals, especially those who are NOT playing professionally, feel about playing with amateurs is interesting.

I wonder if ex-NBA/ex-NFL players would absolutely refuse to be in a pickup game with regular folks. My guess is they would not.

February 8, 2020, 12:12 PM · If what you need is constant archive, a Nestcam with cloud archive is reasonably priced and you can grant other people access to view clips, which gives you a certain degree of ability to provide attestation to an unaltered video.

Pros and amateurs mix at casual chamber music events all the time when it is clear that it is not specifically an "amateur event". Around here, even members of the elite orchestras (NSO, BSO, Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra, all world class full time jobs) will sometimes play chamber music with (skilled) amateurs.

Pros, however, have a mental tiering of who they are. Pros who primarily teach for a living (whether in a school or privately) will frequently play in volunteer community orchestras. Pros who are good enough to play in fully pro freeway philharmonics generally will play in semipro groups as well but will not play in amateur groups unless they are string principal; I suspect this is a matter of time as much as anything else. Pros who are only good enough for semipro groups may also play in amateur orchestras.

Edited: February 8, 2020, 1:19 PM · The OP (Jon) is not ex-NBA and he's not retired. He's an unknown quantity with some foreign experience who is trying to join the "NBA" (or minor leagues) of music and make a living at it.

There's a difference between playing a pickup game - analogous to a one-off informal quartet reading (common for pros to mix with amateurs) - and committing to playing in an adult league at the YMCA - analogous to volunteering as a section player for an amateur orchestra for a concert or season, and having your name be introduced formally as an amateur. This affects someone more if he is unknown and trying to establish himself as a pro in a new city. Playing in an amateur orchestra also takes up a lot of time.

Edited: February 8, 2020, 5:08 PM · "The way professionals...feel about playing with amateurs is interesting."

Back when there was a real possibility I might end up teaching high school math due to my orchestra's bankruptcy, I actually gave this question some thought. And I have played with amateurs in a church setting, so my thoughts are based in experience. I find it neither enjoyable nor relaxing to play the violin in a less than fully professional setting; I often end up acting as an unpaid teacher or coach, and expend a lot of internal energy stuffing down my frustration at how bad the sound is, in order to avoid hurting people's feelings. So if it isn't going to be enjoyable, why do it? And honestly I suspect that retired NBA players would probably feel the same about a casual pick-up game. I'm guessing it would require a lot of slowing themselves down in order for others to get the ball, and what fun is that?

I do enjoy our orchestra's side-by-sides both with the youth orchestra and with local adult amateurs. But those are one-offs where we are encouraged to coach our student or amateur standpartner, and the end product is pretty good not least because half the players are professionals.

But as Frieda has already pointed out, this really isn't germane to the OP's question.

Editing because on reflection I think the tone of my response could be taken badly, which was not my intent. I have the utmost respect for those amateur players who seek out opportunities to make music with others. It's just not something I would likely find satisfying *for myself* as an outlet. Additionally I suspect that the vast majority of professional musicians are like me in that they simply don't have time to add additional, non-compensated music making to what we are already doing for compensation. I was writing my answer above from the hypothetical of "what if I no longer had a professional orchestra position, what would I do."

Edited: February 8, 2020, 8:33 PM · I suppose in a perfect world, a true professional can perform with anybody they wish at any time and not have to worry about having a stigma attached to them that could affect their income. But I think it is incredibly professional and kind for the ones that take the time to work with us amateurs and find a way to enjoy it. Sometimes, I think the reason and purpose of music making is completely missed!
February 8, 2020, 9:10 PM · When the St. Lawrence String Quartet had a play-in in my community, it never occurred to me how bad it must have sounded to them and how potentially frustrating and irritating that activity might have been for them. They do it because it's a form of outreach, because it generates goodwill in the communities they visit, and because they get to be the pied pipers of Haydn. But that's way different from joining a community orchestra.
February 8, 2020, 9:53 PM · "The way professionals, especially those who are NOT playing professionally, feel about playing with amateurs is interesting."

Playing with amateurs (as a paid CM/principal in a community orchestra), or playing effectively as an amateur (i.e. unpaid)? There's a significant difference in the way these two things would be perceived.

I've seen multiple people go from (paid) community orchestra string principal chairs to professional orchestras, including professional concertmaster positions. Of course these were people playing with amateurs but not as amateurs.

February 8, 2020, 10:53 PM · Here (and in other cities I've lived in), it's common for community orchestra string principals to be professionals serving as unpaid volunteers -- individuals at the freeway philharmonic level, though, not people who hold full-time tenured orchestra positions (ROPA core or ICSOM positions). This may come with some perks like the occasional concerto opportunity, and whatnot. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that most of the community orchestras here have at least a pro as concertmaster, even if they don't pay them.
Edited: February 9, 2020, 3:41 PM · I can totally see that tenured members of full-time orchestras have little time to play with amateurs since they are working full time as performing professionals.

However, majority of "pros' defined in this discussion (i.e. those with a degree in performance) make their living in another profession - teaching. It is hard to see how playing with amateurs could be such a stigma for them.

My own experience has been consistent with those of others. I have played in community orchestras with players who are professionally trained and are often compensated as "ringers".

February 9, 2020, 2:27 AM · One of my daughter's former teachers volunteers as concertmaster for a community orchestra. In exchange, she could get a concerto opportunity for her students every other year or so. It wasn't a big deal to my child since she was 6 at the time and we declined the opportunity as it was a big deal for some of her high school students who was presenting violin as their main EC on their college application. It gets all so complicated sometimes.
Edited: February 9, 2020, 8:26 AM · Hi David - you're right in that, for an established professional teacher, occasionally playing with amateurs is fine. I think that depends on the level of your students. However, the OP is an unknown quantity to his community, and having that that be the first thing he does will automatically brand him as an amateur. He won't be considered for those compensated "ringer" positions because he has sent the message, by joining the amateur orchestra, that he doesn't expect (or even deserve) to be compensated for his time.
February 9, 2020, 10:41 AM · Regarding the basketball analogy, at a division 1 school in the year they won a national championship in the 80s, my brother in law who attended school there would regularly play pickup games with the guys on the starting lineup, because playing and hanging out with just decently-good but like-minded folks can be fun when you don't have other more important things to do with your time (like kids and a full time job).
February 9, 2020, 11:51 AM · Some teachers still define themselves as a performing pro, even if 90% of their income comes from teaching and 10% of it comes from their freeway philharmonic gigs.

If you normally are paid for your orchestral work, you will generally not give it away for free. Your compensation might be effectively non-monetary, in some cases, though.

Mary Ellen's commentary about frustration applies, too. Better players often leave community orchestras whose overall level lead to an unsatisfactory and painful rehearsal experience. Better players will generally not even read chamber music with others who don't at least meet a minimum bar. (I used to go to chamber music meetups locally, which is fun socially but musically can be an exercise in frustration if the levels are too mixed.)

February 9, 2020, 12:52 PM · Evan summed it up perfectly for the OP and his current situation.

Personally I think the way forward for the OP is to get on as many sub lists as possible for orchestras like KW, and perhaps even for the Toronto Symphony. It's impossible to discern exactly what the OP's playing level is but a fairly recent master's from Northwestern combined with overseas professional performance experience suggests that he can realistically be taking auditions for full-time orchestras.

February 9, 2020, 10:05 PM · " on reflection I think the tone of my response could be taken badly, which was not my intent."

While I appreciate the sentiment behind the back-tracking (as such), and fall into the category of those who might have been offended, I think it's fine, and actually good to have something of the "elitist" perspective. It expresses dedication towards excellence, realized through hours of daily effort over years and sacrifice of other options for that time, and as such it's understandable why one wouldn't want to play anything less than their "best game".

But it's not necessary to be a superb player being paid for playing in order to be a rewarded and recognized teacher. Teaching warrants its own level of dedication, and one probably needs to make some choices about goals and relative priority.

Edited: February 10, 2020, 1:37 AM · Frustration may be off-topic, but it is certainly relevant to the decision not to play in lower-level orchestras. I'm very much an amateur, but I recently resigned from the principal viola chair in a community orchestra because of that kind of frustration. In the first couple years I felt it was rewarding because I was learning to lead a section. I stayed as long as I did (6 years) because I felt the obligation to give back after learning to play mostly through mini-lessons from other community orchestra musicians. But at some point I just no longer had the time or energy to deal with it.

One important aspect of that frustration hasn't been mentioned so far: the length of the rehearsal cycle. For me, this was the biggest one. I got used to a 4-week rehearsal cycle in my other (higher-level) orchestra, with a conductor who is consistently well organized and efficient. It became hard for me to sit through 10 weeks of rehearsals where the conductor wasn't well organized and the same things were often said over and over because so many people weren't practicing and weren't marking their parts. I'd imagine this would be even more frustrating for pros who are used to rehearsing only two or three times and only in the week of the concert.

I don't mind playing with less proficient players, as long as they are conscientious about preparing for rehearsals. I still play as principal violist with a church orchestra for charity concerts twice a year. Even though the overall playing level is probably a bit lower than the orchestra I left, it's not nearly as frustrating because the conductor is much better at time management and people actually practice, which means I don't feel like my time is being wasted. (The fact that it's a charity fundraiser probably helps too.)

February 11, 2020, 12:52 AM · I totally understands why pros generally do not play with amateurs. First, pros are not machines which can switch between the “pro mode” and “amateur mode” whenever they like. They need ongoing exposure on a high level music making environment, I see so many good players deteriorating quick after they graduate because of the lack of professional opportunities. Second, pros are not in a very advantageous position in our society. They have to spend all their energy to make connections within the industry, doing marketing constantly, and labelling themselves as paid musician is not because of arrogance, but for survival.
Edited: February 17, 2020, 11:00 AM · Good grief. Playing a duet with a student is called teaching. It's not "playing with amateurs" even if the teacher is playing one of the parts in a performance.

(note that the post to which I responded has apparently been deleted)

February 17, 2020, 8:42 AM · (With due respect to the Mary Ellen Gorees of the world, to those who've done their time with us amateurs, and to wonderful places like this where professionals of varying ilks mix with students of all stages...)

Since this has drifted to a thread about professional vs amateur playing rather than how to make a living as a professional teacher in Toronto, I feel the need to point out that this is very much the opposite to how I've been watching professional jazz and folk musicians behave. (And remember, the best of those have at least one uni degree in music, so I'm not just talking about people who taught themselves to play well in first position).

If we want classical music to be performed within an elitist mindset - with an enormous divide between revered professionals and ever-diminishing, non participatory audiences - then this is a great way to continue keeping the community small and aging. Pop music like sport, has the celebrity status to balance elitism, but those musicians (or otherwise!) have an enormous marketing power that few classical musicians can match.

Perhaps we need to develop a session-based mindset which includes playing with musicians of varying skill levels. I have seen this happen in the Sydney amateur chamber music community, where some meetups are simply read throughs for the fun of making music together, so maybe the problem is the performance-orientation of the amateur orchestra scene. I'm not sure how to solve this.

I personally learned more, musically, from being handed my (postgrad music degrees, opera trained in europe, violin her second instrument) singing teacher's violin at a post-gig jamm in all manner of bizarre and changing time signatures with her jazz-balkan band and being told "drone on the d", than in any single sequence of formal violin lessons, including those given by my professionally-performing teachers. It wasn't just about being in a low- risk situation where I could experiment with rhythms and even start to hear which chord changes didn't use the d, or participating in context (I'd been drumming on my legs and then she saw me trying to figure it out with an imaginary bow) but also the close exposure to stunning musicians, all of whom also did professional classical gigs, some at pretty high levels.

There's loads of chances for highly talented students (at least those few with parents who can pay enormous sums for tuition and competitions, not too speak of beautiful instruments) to meet and play with or for professionals as part of their musical education.

For those of us with less talent or lacking the financial investment, or (in my case) adult learners, this kind of 'pick-up game' interaction almost never happens, unless we're in a community orchestra who can afford a few paid chairs. All of this contributes to our society's view of classical music as out-dated and elitist.

(And to an almost complete lack of string shops or teachers outside affluent areas, to classical performances in expensive venues, to tiny-tot preschool music lessons that are available only during the day when single parents work, to primary schools being oblivious to the benefits of music programmes etc etc.)

Sorry if this is the wrong place for this rant!

Edited: February 17, 2020, 11:14 AM · Your point is well taken. With regard to jazz musicians, I've seen both kinds -- pros who will run and grab their horn from their car if they find themselves in a restaurant with live jazz. Others who won't come even if invited repeatedly.

But when it comes to the alleged decline of classical music, I don't think it should be professional musicians' responsibility to do more and more pro bono outreach. Because I'm assuming that the "meet-ups" that you're wanting pros to attend are not paid functions. What Jon said is true -- they're already using a lot of that "spare time" to hustle more wedding gigs and other paid opportunities to help cover the mortgage and start college savings plans, not to mention lengthening their workday by increasing their studios or adding "features" onto their studio to make it more attractive to prospective families.

The best kind of such events are the side-by-sides where it's a function of the orchestra, the pros are getting paid at least something (hopefully scale), and there is a clear demarcation between who's who. If I had the opportunity to do a side-by-side in the Roanoke Symphony that would be a blast and I wouldn't be the slightest bit put off knowing that the violinist sitting next to me was a paid pro. In fact that would make it even more exciting.

I think sometimes there is kind of an attitude toward pro musicians that goes like this: You got yourself into this mess. You wanted to play the damned violin for a living so don't complain about it until you're working so hard that you have health problems and a shattered family to show for it. Honestly, we really need to be working against this kind of thinking. It's time to recognize and respect professionalism when we see it.

February 17, 2020, 1:14 PM · THANK YOU, PAUL!!!!!!

:::::applause:::::

Edited: February 17, 2020, 5:26 PM · Bravo, Paul.

Also, there's an ENORMOUS difference between "open" events that are fundamentally focused on participation, and performances aimed at delivering the highest-quality music to a paying audience.

Most performing pros that I know don't play casually in public because they feel like their reputation is on the line every time they do so. They feel obliged to be intensely prepared. They worry that someone taking a video of their friends will also capture them at a less-than-purely-perfect moment. Every side-by-side I know of (whether pro/amateur or pro/kids) has strict rules about social media, because of the potential that the pros are captured not sounding their best, or playing with inferior partners. The more elite the pro, the more this seems to be of concern.

Low-level freelancers have lives that overlap amateurs more, especially if they define themselves as a musician but not as primarily a professional performer (for instance, many music educators). That's why you see less of a distinction there.

The pro/am distinction is certainly not unique to classical music. I'll point out that the rock band at your local bar might be content to jam with random people at an open-mike night or the like. But you don't expect Metallica to do the same. And afaik, Lindsey Stirling doesn't play open jams, either. Fiddler Alasdair Fraser does, but it's specifically in an instructional setting. In the places I've lived, when pro fiddlers have played with amateurs, it's generally been in an instructional jam setting, and people generally throw some money in the pot so the pro gets paid. You generally don't see pro fiddlers performing with amateur fiddlers except in very specific open settings. (And for that matter, a nontrivial number of pro fiddlers have day jobs, so again the "amateur" distinction there is blurry.)

I agree with Paul that community music organizations -- whether community music schools or community orchestras or the like -- are the ones who have the opportunity and responsibility to try to bring in more pros if they feel that pro/am interaction is important. This gives pros the opportunity to opt into teaching, which is what such interactions are. Amateurs in such situations should be under no illusions that we are "sharing". We are being taught, and we should be paying for the privilege.

February 17, 2020, 2:49 PM · Lydia has it right, except that the strict rules about social media at pro-am events are more likely the exact same rules that govern all of our orchestra's public performances. When we are (officially) recorded and/or broadcast, we are being paid under a union agreement. Being recorded and worse, shared on social media, outside of approved channels means that we have no control over the media and we aren't getting properly compensated.


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