becoming a professional violinist

April 15, 2020, 8:44 AM · Hello everybody

What do you think of my chances of becoming a professional violinist? I am 17 years old and I am currently working on the Bruch violin concerto (which I will play with an orchestra in the fall) and Bach partita no 2. I have recently played the Beethoven romance in F major with an orchestra. I usually practice 2-3 hours a day, not counting orchestra rehersals, private lessons and chamber music. I attend a music high school in Stockholm and have a russian teacher who works a lot with technique. I also work with the studies of Kreutzer, Galamien, Sevcik and Schradieck.

Do you think it is possible for me to be accepted into a high-class music conservatory in 2 years? I am aiming for London (probably Guildhall), Oslo, the Sibelius academy or here in Stockholm. Do you think I can aim higher or should I lower my standards?

I know these types of questions are very hard to answer but I would really appreciate answers!

Replies (99)

April 15, 2020, 9:10 AM · Maybe. A lot can happen in 2 years, and while Bruch isn’t Brahms or Tchaikovsky, you have been judged to play it very well.

Has your Russian teacher been swimming with the fast fish? What opinion are you getting from him/her?

April 15, 2020, 9:27 AM · Ester,

Obviously you are a good musician and you are about to make the move to college. The only answer I can give to your question is: Do you know what the life of a professional violinist is like?

The life of the on-stage professional always looks grand and inviting and diving into the universe of music can be either a wonderful life-fulfilling journey or a massive disappointment.

The reality of the world is: always have a backup plan. For example, the owner of this forum is both a professional violinist and a journalist. Being a professional musician doesn't always mean being a celebrity who commands thousands of dollars for each performance along with recording contracts, et cetera.

My career was in Supply-Chain-Management and I was one of the leading professionals who spent a lot of time on-stage giving lectures and seminars. That part looked great but, underneath, I was reading books and articles as well as writing, preparing lectures, negotiating contracts for consulting services, living in hotel rooms, spending lots of time in airplanes,.. Long days and nights, time away from home, work, work, work, work,... I enjoyed it until one day I simply said: "Enough" downshifted and got a mundane job in SCM with regular hours close to home.

My point is simple, at 17 the potential is great but burnout is a high possibility and your income stream will not be exclusively from performing. You need a backup plan.

You are about to jump into the deep end of the pool - make sure you are wearing a life-vest. Enjoy the journey.

April 15, 2020, 9:36 AM · I know the Guildhall only accepts the highest level players. Igs probably the most exclusive conservatoire here. thats why when I get to university level, I will not be applying there
Edited: April 15, 2020, 9:40 AM · Firstly, what does your teacher think of your chances of getting into a good programme?

The Guildhall stats for 2017 were: 653 applications / 133 place, so a 20% admittance rate. They require a standard the 1st movement from a concerto in the standard repertory with cadenza where appropriate. You already tick that box with the Bruch (in my opinion). Have you considered the other London music colleges, or the Royal Northern or Welsh?

It is hard for online folk to be able to answer this, we don't know how well you play!

Maybe is possibly the best way to put it. What are your aspirations, teacher, orchestral or soloist, perhaps something else? A pro, I suppose is anyone that can earn a living playing their instrument.

Another thing to consider, is a back up plan. Can you study something else, with a minor in violin etc? The music world is volatile, and conditions such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, has caused a lot of musicians to lose all of their income from cancellations.

Give this site a search, this question comes up an awful lot, most with very similar answers. Give some other posts a read perhaps.

Aim high though, you never know! Good luck with your future endeavours.

April 15, 2020, 11:37 AM · I write this as someone with a 35-year career as a professional violinist (primarily performance but with a significant teaching component), and as the mother of an 18-year-old who is currently a performance major (not violin) at one of the top music schools in the USA.

Assuming you do get into one of your music schools of choice, what then?

You're not on track for a soloist career and very unlikely to be on track for a chamber music career unless you include playing lots of wedding gigs under that umbrella. That leaves orchestra jobs, freelancing, and/or teaching.

The current pandemic has exposed just how fragile the performing arts are. I have seen projections that public performances won't be able to resume until 2021; my orchestra has canceled the rest of its spring season (we don't have a summer season) and I won't be surprised if my summer festival job is canceled as well, although that decision hasn't been made yet. Such decisions are unavoidably going to have a damaging if not fatal effect on my employers. I am hoping and praying for damaging only.

I am still teaching many of my students online but some have dropped off the radar. With schools and the local youth orchestra shut down, the biggest motivators (contests and auditions) for some of my students have also vanished. I don't know what will happen with my teaching load if, as some are predicting, schools are slow to open in the fall as well.

I have no regrets about my career choice but as someone now in my late 50s and in the prime age and gender range for age discrimination, it is daunting to consider what else I could possibly do for a significant income in a worst case scenario. For some time my Plan B has been to increase my teaching and gigs to the maximum tolerable load but when teaching is also compromised and gigs have vanished, it seems now that my Plan B needs a Plan B.

Please think long and hard, and if you can imagine yourself being happy doing anything else, I think you should consider doing that other thing and enjoying life as a serious amateur with a much more stable income than you are likely to have as a professional musician.

Edited: April 15, 2020, 12:42 PM · Many people who have been in secure, high-powered professional careers are also discovering how fragile their own situations are.

At least math never goes out of fashion, Mary Ellen.

For everyone who currently isn't employed and isn't overwhelmed with other caretaking, has good quantitative sense, and would consider a career switch: Consider the field of data science. You can take quite a bit of coursework free online. (Start here: LINK)

April 15, 2020, 12:47 PM · Math may never go out of fashion, but my high-level math knowledge is covered with thirty to forty years of rust. At this point the most I could do comfortably with math is teach high school, but I never got certified and even the coursework and state exams I took towards certification during the SAS bankruptcy are 16 years out of date--this is leaving aside the obvious issue that I am not eager to start out in a math classroom at this stage of my life. I am pretty confident I could pass the state exams again if I had to, though--I found them astonishingly and dismayingly easy.

To the OP, Lydia is referring to my second bachelor's degree in math, which I got concurrently with my BM in violin performance at Oberlin, where there is a strong double-degree program. My Plan B has morphed and shifted over the years but I have always had one.

April 15, 2020, 9:57 PM · listen to Ms. Goree.
Edited: April 15, 2020, 10:23 PM · If you hang around this website long enough (like a week) you learn which contributors give you unvarnished opinions based on decades of experience. Scroll up -- they have responded to you already.

In the US the first movement of the Bruch is a bare minimum for a third-tier music college.

I am a university chemistry professor. I play in the university orchestra. I enjoy it very much even though my skill is marginal. There are violinists who auditioned for the orchestra with Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. The conductor (himself a fine violinist) told me the Tchaik was "impeccable." The young man who auditioned with it, a freshman, was installed as concertmaster. Wisely, he is there to study engineering, as is most of the orchestra. The university is known for engineering, not music.

I auditioned on the violin with Beethoven Romance Op. 50 (F Major). The director told me my intonation was "refreshing." That made me feel happy for a week. A few days later he emailed me and asked me to join the violas, and I was happy about that too. Everyone else in the viola section is studying engineering.

I have a very happy life. My job is about the most secure job on the planet. I have tenure. My wife is a chemistry professor too. We have a nice middle-class life. I enjoy music tremendously. I play in jazz groups (on the piano) and I study classical violin, and I play the viola in three orchestras. At the same time, my respect for career violinists like Bruce and Mary Ellen is unqualified. They did it because they felt entirely driven to do it. Nothing else would have satisfied them to nearly the same degree. Fortunately, as much as I enjoy music, that is also how I feel about synthetic chemistry -- I am driven to do it.

April 16, 2020, 2:36 AM · Thank you all! My teacher is 70 years old and has been one of the greatest orchestra-musicians in russia. She has taught many students, one of them was applied to Guildhall at the age of 19 last year. She believes I can come into a great music conservatory and become a professional violinist in 2 or 3 years, depending on how hard I word and how much effort I put into it. But I am also afraid that she is twisting the truth so that I can stay motivated.

I don’t believe I can be a full-on soloist, I started way too late for that and my parents are not musicians. But - Mary Ellen Goree - Why is chamber music probably not an option? I have played a bit of chamber music (recently played a concerto with the Rachmaninoff Elegiac trio) and I have played in big orchestras and smaller chamber orchestras all my life. I love music and to study scores. Why is it too hard to become a chamber musician?

But I mostly aspire to be an orchestra musician with perhaps some chamber music on the side. I have very good grades so my backup plan is to go to law school if my music career doesn’t work out the way I want to. I am very passionate about debating societal questions and helping people in need.

Edited: April 16, 2020, 4:48 AM · Hi, first, ask your teacher.
Then, look at the schools that you are interested in. What do they demand? You might have to start preparing that repertoire, now.

Then, get to know teachers you are interested in. Visit masterclasses, or ask for private lessons.

Then keep in mind: The most famous schools have the most applicants. So chances to get accepted are much lower than in other, not so famous places. But in the end, everything depends on the teacher. If you have a superb teacher, at a not so attractrive place, this might be the best solution. Take some private lessons, in advance, and then the teacher will tell you if he/she wants to work with you, further.

I wouldn't consider a plan B outside music, at this point. You can give 100% now, and still later study something else. Sometimes, you reshape your career during your studies. So, you cannot know that, beforehand, anyway.

Here in Germany, it is often easier to be accepted not for the performance classes, but for the pedagogic education, or even for music studies to become a high school music teacher. This is a great chance for many who are not at the highest level to begin with. You might not get the best teacher, but you get in and you learn who the best teacher is. Then you can get into contact with him/her. And you win a lot of time to improve.

I myself couldn't have played the Brahms concerto beofore my professional studies! At the end, I can say, I was not a lesser player than the average of those who did play at that level, earlier.

Teachers should know that. Students can develop remarkably. Some don't, though. That's why teachers want to take students with a good potential. And that they can judge by knowing you before the audition.

April 16, 2020, 4:55 AM · Carving out a living in music is very possible as long as a person maintains a realistic view of what is possible. Every year thousands of music schools and universities around the globe churn out many thousands of very competent graduating violinists (and all other instruments, too!) with very little chance of following a full-time professional orchestra career. Even in a time when all professional orchestras are working their usual schedule.

But that doesn't mean that those many graduating musicians can't find work at some level in music. Most musicians who survive in the musical world do so by combining teaching private lessons, performing in a variety of groups, from being a wedding soloist to paid-per-service gigs, to some lower-paying full-time orchestras. Many others learn other skills as well, such as music-business skills, helping other musicians.

Personally, I knew I didn't have the personality to make it in a big music school, so I attended a very small college with a fairly worthless music major. After graduation I attended music instrument repair school. After that I landed a job in a music store as their only repair technician (woodwinds and brass, not strings) and I taught private lessons in the evenings and performed wherever I could find paying gigs, even playing in community music groups for no pay simply to stay in shape and for the fun of making music. Nine years later I went into business for myself and have been doing that for the past 36 years.

It's been 45 years since I graduated from college and instrument repair school and in all those years I have earned my income entirely from music and have never been unemployed. And I've had a very happy musical life because I've never felt the pressure that I had to always be better on my instrument than everybody else, something which full-time performing professionals need to do in order to get and keep full-time playing gigs. There's always someone better coming along who is hungry for your chair in an orchestra, or a new conductor who doesn't like your tone or your attitude or something.

So my advice is to go ahead with your goal of getting into a good music school, work your buns off being the best musician you can be, but do so with a realistic view of what lies ahead. Do what many of us have done -- also get a marketable skill that will better guarantee a source of income while trying to pursue your musical dream.

If you don't study music in college now, you most likely never will. Being young is the time to follow your dreams and none of us knows whether or not you'll be one of the lucky .001% of music graduates who lands a full-time playing gig. But at the same time think of something else that might interest you, either some aspect of the music business or some other field that you can shine in.

As others have said, the current coronavirus crisis has shown how fragile a performing career can be. But it has also shown that other fields and other careers can be just as fragile. With record numbers of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression there are very few careers which are not in jeopardy. So don't let the precariousness of a performing career dissuade you from studying music at university.

Follow your heart but have a safety net.

Edited: April 16, 2020, 6:55 AM · Chamber music requires a much more mature and refined professional technique than most students realize. My guess is that successful chamber musicians nowadays (and perhaps in the past as well) are nearly all people who were preparing themselves to be soloists until the very end of their musical educations, which included training from the best teachers at the top conservatories. Why did they choose the chamber music route then? Maybe they just loved that particular part of the literature. Maybe they felt they had some kind of small insufficiency in some intangible thing like memory confidence or charisma that we commonly attribute to soloists. I don't really know.
April 16, 2020, 7:39 AM · Paul, I see it differently, regarding chamber musicians vs. soloists.
From what I observe, most soloists are on a professional level in their youth, already. They have practically started their professional careers with concerts, competitions, agencies and recordings before they reach the age of entering a university.
On the other hand, the professional education you get during your studies at university level produce all kinds of musicians, among those being the ones that establish chamber music groups. Sometimes, they just play with friends and develop from there on, sometimes, some professors bring together students that in their option match. Some groups start out playing very low level gigs and improve, and so on.
I have come across many players who ended up in chamber music and they were much closer to the orchestra musicians than to the soloists.
Of course, that doesn’t mean groups as legendary as the Beaux Arts Trio. Just as not every orchestra player is in the Berlin Philharmonic.

As long as there are orchestras around, new musicians will be needed. Plus, all those chamber musicians and freelancers playing and teaching.
If someone really loves dealing with music, all day long, then they should go for it. Great intrinsic motivation is the key to become good in any area.

Edited: April 16, 2020, 7:57 AM · Paul is correct; those who have a successful chamber music career (think Juilliard or Tokyo string quartets) were also on the soloist track in their youth. It is extraordinarily competitive.

Many members of full-time professional orchestras play chamber music on the side but it’s not their main source of income.

Wedding quartets are a different story. A violinist with the right personality and work ethic can build a decent income as long as their playing is adequate. Someone who combines a successful wedding quartet with a full private teaching studio can make a solidly middle-class income, even if they themselves are quite mediocre. But it requires living in a large enough city to support that, it is an exhausting way to live in my opinion, and not everybody has the right personality to pull it off.

Emily is in Germany where the situation for orchestra musicians is very different from that in either the USA or the UK. But even in Germany the market for orchestra players is not infinite.

April 16, 2020, 7:54 AM · Paul, a few years ago, I would have wholeheartedly envied you! There was a phase when I thought how enriching it must be to know chemistry. I took a few science classes at the Open University and found that so interesting that I thought, if I could afford it I would take a four-year-sabbatical and enroll in our local university and become a student, once again, this time in chemistry.
I also took a maths class, but I had to realize that I just don’t have the time to really dig into it. Whenever I learned anything, I could easily understand it -while at the same time feeling the process of forgetting it, already. I gave up, pretty frustrated, and thought had I gone into science, earlier, then I could have had that and additionally played the violin with the same joy as I do now.

It took me a few years to acknowledge that playing in a professional orchestra isn’t the same as in an amateur group. We have to play a new concert, every week, playing very difficult symphonic repertoire. The depth of experience reaches farther than I could have imagined before making my career decision.
It is this kind of depth that I cannot reach in another field without dedicating simply as much time to it.

Too bad, everyone has only one life!

Edited: April 16, 2020, 8:09 AM · I need to address this: “I've never felt the pressure that I had to always be better on my instrument than everybody else, something which full-time performing professionals need to do in order to get and keep full-time playing gigs. There's always someone better coming along who is hungry for your chair in an orchestra, or a new conductor who doesn't like your tone or your attitude or something.“

That’s not how it works, at least not in full-time professional orchestras in the United States. We are unionized and we have collective-bargaining agreements. Typically the first two years of employment are probationary but upon signing the third year contract, one has tenure. It is possible to be fired for cause (misbehavior such as drug use or other gross unprofessional behavior), but while it is still possible to be fired for artistic insufficiency, the process for such a termination is lengthy and difficult, with appeals processes. In my experience the latter is very very seldom done. A conductor who doesn’t like a musician can make that musician‘s life miserable but he cannot just summarily fire someone.

I am sure there are hot young musicians who could now beat me in a blind audition but they can’t come after my job. “Challenges” are not a thing in a professional orchestra.

April 16, 2020, 9:48 AM · Freelancers have their own problems, though. And even if there is no direct challenge, there are still people who have to want to keep inviting you back.

For chamber music, there are many opportunities but also challenges. You are part of a group, and are part of the group’s management. That gets into potentially weird personal territory at times. Then, you have to get hired, often one gig at a time.

There is a reason that string quartet performers top the list of people with high job satisfaction: survivorship bias. Any quartet that doesn’t continue to function perfectly eventually blows up.

Edited: April 16, 2020, 10:18 AM · "I can’t imagine there being much meaning to do anything else, I would rather die"

I think this is a very unproductive, and even toxic, attitude. The problem lies in the first part of the statement: "I can't imagine..."

I too was unable to imagine, but now I've found many other things to do that are satisfying in ways that music never could have been.

Now in middle age (can't believe I have to say that), after 30 years in music, I can say with certainty that the world is full of professions that are meaningful, fun, and (sometimes) profitable. It's too easy, especially for young musicians, to get trapped into the mentality that there are no choices besides music. There are plenty of options. Try using some imagination, because if you really don't have any, you will not make it as a musician either.

We see this on the nightly news: "I've been laid off from the chicken processing plant after 30 years and I just don't know what to do" or "I can't stop selling drugs--there's nothing else to do."

It's not that there's nothing to do--it's a lack of imagination or education about possibilities. This is what college is for, to expose people to possibilities. Conservatories, unfortunately, continue to shelter music students from those other possibilities.

Simply loving music is not enough to sustain a career. There are too many variables, including the economy, the whims of audition committees at every level, the lottery of finding the best teacher when we're young, and even the unpredictability of our own psyches.

"Do you think I can aim higher or should I lower my standards?"
Ester, in answer to your question: if you lower your standards you will not make it as a professional.

That I can guarantee.

Edited: April 16, 2020, 1:10 PM · I wasn't thinking of the Emersons or the Tokyo Quartet, but when I say "solo performing career" I'm also not thinking of Anne Sophie Mutter or Joshua Bell. The next couple of "tiers" of soloists are filled with amazing, competition- and Avery-Fisher-grant-winning players who just never gained the same level traction in the industry. At least not yet. Look at the list of Queen Elizabeth laureates and count the number of players you've never heard of -- perhaps because their careers are not taking place at a theater near you.

I think if you want to look at a group that has a shot at making a living playing chamber music, you'll consider the recent winners of the Banff competition, and they include the Rolston and the Dover quartets, and if you go back a little further the St. Lawrence Quartet. I picked out these groups because I have heard all three of them in recitals right here in Blacksburg, and believe me, and I was floored by the totality of their technique and musicianship. Joel Link and Geoff Nuttall were prodigies and very likely on soloist trajectories from a young age. A good friend of mine who teaches locally (and still performs all over) was the first violinist in the Audubon Quartet for many years. That's an exceptionally fine violinist (who also started out on the soloist's track from a young age). He and his colleagues had to work unbelievably hard to maintain and build their repertoire and keep a schedule of performing and recording. With respect to ensemble it might actually require more control to play Haydn string quartets than it does to perform the Mendelssohn concerto with an orchestra.

In one of the recent blogs on the home page there was a comment from a fairly respected soloist (her name is just slipping my mind at the moment) who said that with the pandemic she doesn't know how she's going to meet her bills in May. That means she doesn't have two months' pay in savings. Most tradesmen (carpenters and plumbers) are better off than that. When you have a quartet, the exact same gate receipts get divided by four! I paid more for my Josh Bell tickets than I did for the St. Lawrence Quartet in the same venue (the Fife Theater at Virginia Tech's Moss Arts Center). I paid more to see Mark O'Connor than I paid to see the Emersons -- in the exact same venue (the Lyric Theater in Blacksburg). I think my tickets to hear the Rolstons (in the local Unitarian Church sanctuary) were like $20.

Edited: April 16, 2020, 10:29 AM · Paul, you are actually supporting my point that those who make it as professional chamber music players (not giggers) were on the soloist track very early on. This is not a path likely to be open to the OP.
April 16, 2020, 10:29 AM · Yes, Mary Ellen, that was my intention.
April 16, 2020, 10:33 AM · From what I've seen, in recent years there has been a flood of young, talented chamber groups. They're all fantastic, they've all won prestigious international acclaim, they're all very photogenic and hip, and frankly It's hard to believe there are gigs for all of them.
April 16, 2020, 10:48 AM · @Scott many of them seem to survive by being the resident quartet at a university (and not necessarily a prestigious one).
April 16, 2020, 12:34 PM · My version of all that is: After getting my BA in music I worked as a musician in Los Angeles for several years, then made the big break. I took two years of science courses at a community college, then worked as a lab. tech. for several decades. It paid for the living expenses, medical insurance , and a modest retirement fund. During that time I also did music jobs on weekends. After getting an involuntary early retirement during the great recession I started violin teaching and continued weekend music jobs as a supplement to social security and retirement money.
April 16, 2020, 1:09 PM · Resident quartets at universities are basically a way to hire four adjunct string professors as a package, with a little sprinkle of apparent prestige on top. And a lot of universities don't have a resident faculty quartet. They have a resident graduate student quartet, and those students carry teaching duties.

Playing as part of a professional quartet requires not just amazing individual playing skills, but also finding a group that has the right chemistry and long-term willingness to tie their lives together. It's another traveling lifestyle, which is unpredictable.

Now if your intent is to have a quartet that plays pop covers for weddings. that's a very different situation but that's not what most people mean when they say they want to play chamber music professionally.

Edited: April 16, 2020, 1:17 PM · If you're going to play weddings then you need to understand electronics and digital music production so you can take advantage of technology and be more than just four players doing unplugged Beatles covers. Just my two cents.
April 16, 2020, 1:24 PM · I don't think the groups I've been seen coming through our area on chamber concert series are just adjuncts at colleges.
April 16, 2020, 1:45 PM · This is my non-professional opinion; I'm not a professional at all; I studied piano from age 5 and was classically trained through my 3rd year of university, then switched to engineering but still play and study piano and violin daily.

Personally, I would say that if the OP is already playing in orchestras and trios, and has a very good teacher, then she has a good chance to be accepted at a good conservatory / university, and being able to perform professionally afterwards.

I do absolutely agree that having a backup plan in mind is always a good idea, and the career advice from the professionals on here is always incredibly valuable since they're speaking from many years of experience.

Last, I'd say that in my opinion, a university / conservatory with a 20% acceptance rate (Guildhall for example) means pretty good chances, considering that many other majors have a 5-7% acceptance rate at top schools. IF applying to conservatories in Europe is similar to the US, then it's good to apply to more than one; especially ones where you could use the same pieces for performance.

Edited: April 16, 2020, 2:23 PM · Never in my life have I needed to understand electronics or digital music production to play a wedding gig—we are acoustic, as is every other group I know of.

Editing to add that many quartet wedding gigs are outside anyway.

If only acceptance into a good music school did guarantee a successful career in music. It does not, of course.

April 16, 2020, 2:16 PM · Mary Ellen, of course you are totally right; several friends of mine from university went on to master's performance programs at very good schools; some have solid professional careers and some do not. Though that's largely true of any profession; acceptance to a good school is a great start, not a guarantee.
April 16, 2020, 4:35 PM · Correct. Some of the quartets are "artists in residence". They are not tenured or tenure-track. They are usually on fairly short-term contracts, and they are not full-time employees of the university, AFAIK.
Edited: April 16, 2020, 6:46 PM · The point of the electronics is to do something different from the mainstream, to increase one's portfolio. I knew that comment would be controversial. Of course there will still be conventional wedding-quartet gigs, probably the clear majority of them. But maybe there is a market for someone who offers something different.
Edited: April 16, 2020, 6:43 PM · I'd be floored if the Dover Quartet members were tenured faculty members at Northwestern. But easy enough to look up.
April 17, 2020, 5:14 AM · More and more universities seem to be moving to adjunct faculties, except for the currently tenured professors. Adjunct means not having to pay benefits, health insurance, retirement funds, and the ability to release without cause whenever the budget needs to be cut back.
Edited: April 17, 2020, 1:13 PM · Universities are still hiring tenure-stream faculty, but it's not a growth area. Tenure-stream faculty are hired when there are retirements, deaths, departures, or attrition. My department has held steady at about 30-33 tenure-stream faculty members since 1980 (I joined in 1995 as an assistant professor and was tenured in 2001). We have increased the number of teaching-only faculty (we call them "instructors"), and we only use adjuncts in fill-in situations (such as the over-enrollment we saw in the Fall of 2019 because our admissions office made too many offers), or sometimes in the summer. Our instructors are paid a decent middle-class wage. Almost all of them are full time 9-month employees with benefits). Our adjuncts are paid basically the same as our instructors, pro-rated for the amount of teaching they do, but unless they are full time they do not receive benefits. Again, we hire very few adjuncts. It's not practical for us to be training and acclimating different people all the time, and that's what you're going to be doing if you can't provide a living wage and a measure of job security. So while there is definitely some truth to the horror stories that you hear about adjunct and non-tenure-stream teaching, there are places where it is done in a civilized way. However, I teach in a chemistry department, and I think there are market forces at work, which influences both opportunity and compensation and makes the whole situation very field-dependent.

There is a simple reason why we cannot add tenure-stream faculty members at a rate of more than about one per year (which replaces deaths and retirements only, if you consider an average career length of 30 years and a faculty of 30 members). In chemistry, tenure includes research output, and output requires input. Hiring a new chemistry professor at an R1 university costs somewhere in the vicinity of $800,000 (plus any special equipment such as lasers) to provide funds for the newly minted scientist to set up a lab and bring it to a state of productivity. The funds come mostly from skimming the overhead on existing research grants and contracts -- funding that is only becoming more scarce, especially at the Federal level.

April 17, 2020, 3:57 PM · Paul,
You are in a different academic universe than music. At this point, there are practically no TT jobs for musicians. It doesn't mean zero--after all, there are always openings somewhere (and often for good reason, like a hostile work environment, low pay, or terrible students). But pretty close.

As for sound equipment at weddings: I have no intention of buying, schlepping, and setting up/breaking down a system for a wedding. They'd have to pay me A LOT more. Another issue with microphones is that
it would be quite difficult to gossip about the tacky wedding dress etc. with my group.

Edited: April 18, 2020, 9:08 AM · Scott, I guess what I'm seeing at my own institution is that when TT music faculty retire they are replaced with new TT faculty. We just had a retirement and a hire this year. Probably there are some institutions where the deans are slowly consuming the TT lines and passing out coupons for adjuncts, but so far, that doesn't seem to be happening here.

The most important fields to have tenure-stream faculty lines are the fields where collaboration among faculty is important, and I would include both chemistry and music in that list. These fields don't benefit nearly as much from an adjunct who just comes to campus to teach his or her own class (and/or lessons) and then leaves. You want someone whose expertise and interests will contribute more to a collective and who feels invested in that collective for the longer term because they're going to get something out of it as well. My impression is that history and English are perhaps less collaborative at the university level than music or the sciences, but, really, I have no idea. Even chemists can collaborate at a distance -- sharing data and materials by email and FedEx. Much much harder for musicians to do that productively.

April 18, 2020, 2:22 PM · I don't know if it's the same as when I was going through college but I remember certain teachers having no imagination as to careers. Some violin teachers would discourage any distraction from the path that every violinist takes. For some reason violinists are in more of a bubble than other instrumentalists and tend to look to orchestras for careers almost exclusively. That would be after they realize that the dream of being a soloist in Carnegie Hall is out of the question! Some of those things that the teachers said were distractions turned out to open doors: technology and recording opens doors, composing, arranging and improvising opens doors, playing other styles brings more opportunities and even playing another instrument or two. Don't have the audition panel mentality - there are no gate-keepers in the real world if you make your own destiny. Teachers, please don't keep telling your students that it's soloist/ top orchestra or bust!!
April 18, 2020, 3:11 PM · Who is telling their students that?
April 18, 2020, 3:24 PM · Hi! As a fellow youngin who has seen a bit more future, I think I can chime in with some insight that feels relatively real.

Firstly, why do you want to become a musician, and what does being a musician mean to you? Is it the fame and glory of being on stage? Or is it that you want to do music? Keep in mind you don’t have to be a performer to make a living as a musician. There are also music teachers that are in demand. My friends, who are graduating this may (sadly without commencement) are all music majors, yes, but they are music education majors and will likely practice music until they retire. Being a performer isn’t the only musical career, there is a whole world of music you can explore.

As for the claim that top universities in other fields have 5-7% acceptance rate; okay, yes, but also you don’t have to go to MIT to make a career in science (or literature or philosophy or what have you). The demand for other fields is indubitably higher than performers, which is a very specific profession, and you can make a decent living having attended an institution with 50%+ acceptance rate with a non-performance major.

Which brings me back to the first point—do you want to do music, or do you want to be a performer, and why? It’s a safer path to, say, music education, than performance, and you will still be a musician. I think the real question you need to ask is what it is that you really want.

April 18, 2020, 3:54 PM · Furthermore, why do you want to make a career out of music? You don’t have to make a living out of it for it to be a significant part of your life. I’m on a premed track despite having a passion for music because I realised I could have music be a part of my life without having to have a job related to it. I decided to become a doctor for a very specific reason, beyond “I want to help people.” To make an analogy, wanting to helping people alone doesn’t warrant wanting to become a doctor because there are lots more ways to help people than being a physician. Likewise, liking music alone doesn’t warrant wanting to become a performer (or any type of musician, really). 17 is such a young age and I think it’s unproductive to think you’re stuck on one career path. You should be exploring what array of jobs exists out there and making an informed decision.
April 18, 2020, 6:23 PM · OP is in Sweden. Things are different over there.

Ester, is cost not a factor at all? I would imagine studying in UK is rather expensive compared to other countries in EU. For the next school year, EU students still would pay the same as UK students but it's all up in the air for the following years. As a parent, I would not want to commit to sending my daughter there without knowing the total cost.

Edited: April 18, 2020, 7:24 PM · Cassio I’d say that making a living with a degree outside of the performance field depends on the profession and the motivation and preparation of the student more than the school yes.

But many fields are still insanely competitive, for example in my role as an engineering director I hire a number of recent graduates, some from top schools and many not, but the hire rate at my company is about 2%, one hire for every 50 candidates regardless of the school they attended. Most of my colleagues at other companies in the US and Europe say about the same, and for top companies like GE or Google the hire rate is even lower. One in 500 at Google for example.

I have no idea how that compares to hire rates for violinists though, it would be great to hear a professional’s input on that.

Edited: April 18, 2020, 7:46 PM · Not a pro, but I'm around pros regularly. I understand that the "hire rate" even for regional orchestras (part-time orchestras in the bottom tier of fully professional orchestras) is well below 1%. Around 0.5% is typical.
April 18, 2020, 7:43 PM · The hire rate in tech isn't really a reflection of the real odds of getting the job. The vast majority of candidates will never get past the basic resume screen. A huge number will then fail the phone screen or automated assessment. Of the people who actually get an in-person interview, a significant percentage will be hired -- probably out of three or one out of five.

Part of the problem of taking pro orchestra auditions is that you're usually flying, unreimbursed, to a variety of cities, where there may be dozens, if not hundreds, of candidates auditioning in-person for a single open position.

If you get a degree in computer science, you are virtually guaranteed a good-paying job in your field, unless you prove to be completely incompetent; positions may be selective but there are more open roles than there are graduates to fill those roles. That's not even vaguely true if you get a music degree. The absolute number of roles relative to the number of candidates is just not there.

Edited: April 18, 2020, 8:30 PM · Lydia, actually it is a very accurate reflection in tech, speaking as someone with over 25 years experience in the field. Also, very few companies do automated assessments. In person interview pass rate is typically less than 10% at my company, and again that’s fairly consistent across the industry. Of course this is for full time positions not contract work.

Id also say that a degree in computer science definitely does not guarantee a good paying job. Just like any highly competitive field it depends on the person more than the degree, and there are many CS graduates working in contract job shops with few or no benefits for $40 an hour or even less, and absolutely no job security.

Yes there are more open positions than graduates, so in that respect it’s a good career option, and I personally find it very rewarding. But success also very much depends on the person; I’ve had candidates fail an interview who had masters degrees from top 10 universities and others from state universities pass through with flying colors. It really depends on how well the person learned to think versus just learning the material.

The idea of having to pay to fly to an interview is a very good point though, that’s essentially unheard of in the tech field and would indicate a company to stay away from.

Edited: April 19, 2020, 1:34 AM · I have great friends who graduated from a university with 77% acceptance rate and found jobs with relative ease, all pertaining to their majors (two of them were hired right out of college—one is an engineering major and the other a CS major). My point was merely that pointing to those 5% acceptance rate schools to say that OP may have a better chance at becoming a musician is inadequate considering it’s unnecessary to attend an astronomically selective school to be competitive as a non-musician.
April 19, 2020, 1:37 AM · Yes from that perspective you’re totally correct. Generally speaking, in any career graduating from a good school is a great start, but as Lydia said, not a guarantee. In engineering and CS, the person’s ability to think usually matters far more than the school they attended, which probably accounts for your friends’ easy success.
April 19, 2020, 3:22 PM · I noted "unless you prove to be completely incompetent"; a nontrivial but significant percentage of people get a degree without getting reasonable mastery of the skillset. Quite a few of them find jobs where the actual technical work they do is minimal, though -- they go into project management, business analyst jobs, work in sales or marketing, and the like.

When I was an engineering director about twenty years back in my career in Silicon Valley, we hired probably one-third to one-fifth of the folks who made it to the in-person interview, but we did a fairly significant phone round prior to it, and I was hiring so quickly for so much demand that I'd have rather taken an imperfect candidate who could do some useful work than to wait for the perfect candidate. As far as I know, the 20% rate remains pretty typical.

Now I work for a company with a famously tough hiring process, and we probably hire half the folks who make it to the in-person interviews for roles, but they've have gone through an extensive set of phone interviews prior to that, and the number of candidates who never make it all the way through the pipeline to an in-person interview is immense. We're far more likely to go after a candidate from LinkedIn who isn't actually looking, actually, than to accept from a mass of applicants.

I bet there's an element of that in orchestral recruiting as well -- a conductor might want player X who is tenured at orchestra Y and could request they audition.

Edited: April 19, 2020, 4:19 PM · “I bet there's an element of that in orchestral recruiting as well -- a conductor might want player X who is tenured at orchestra Y and could request they audition.“

That happens on occasion with the top orchestras and solo winds or maybe a concertmaster or other string principal. Not likely with lesser orchestras, and never with tutti players.

April 19, 2020, 5:07 PM · Yes we sometimes intentionally recruit someone from LinkedIn also. Or from an internal recommendation. For those, the hire rate is probably close to 1 in 3, but for outside advertised jobs it’s more like 1 in 10 in person interviews, and that’s been consistent in my roles in Southern California and Seattle and Texas for the last couple of decades. Definitely far more candidates fall out at the phone screen process than in person, and more fall out from just my review of their resumes. But I still expect to interview about 10 in person to get one hire. That’s been true across automotive, medical device, Microsoft, etc. Job shops and cheap commercial software is a different world, but I wouldn’t call that engineering either.
April 19, 2020, 5:14 PM · I have generally been of the belief that a high rate of no-hire from in-person interviews indicates a failure in the pipeline process. In-person interviews are a significant corporate expense (especially for candidates who don't live in town), and a big drain on everyone's time and energy. If the phone process isn't generally identifying candidates who have a high probability of getting the job, that's problematic. Now, if you've got three/five/ten awesome highly-qualified candidates and you're trying to pick between them, that's one thing, but if you interview people in-person and decide most aren't qualified, that's another.

For orchestral auditions, I would expect the vast majority of candidates for higher-tier orchestras to be well-qualified, which is part of the problem. (And Mary Ellen, when I was thinking of conductors picking candidates, I was thinking wind/brass and maybe the concertmaster. Similarly, tech companies don't pick lower-level engineers; those they get from the mass cattle call recruiting.)

April 19, 2020, 5:24 PM · I disagree, being selective is much more important than hiring someone to fill a slot. In person interviews are far more effective at a very small cost of a plane ticket and hotel room. The most common reason I see people fail is the whiteboard coding exercises, maybe 75% get a correct solution ( to a simple first year CS type problem), but only about 15% can explain their solution, discuss failure points, error handling, performance optimization, etc, hence my previous comment that many recent grads and experienced engineers simply haven’t learned to think effectively.

For me the process works since I’ve had zero turnover in 6+ years on my teams, aside from one engineer who left for a management role I couldn’t offer. Do more work up front and you have that kind of result, which benefits the employees and the company. Having to retrain new engineers every couple of years costs far more in lost time and productivity.

April 19, 2020, 6:05 PM · I'm guessing you've never worked in an environment where you were told you needed to double the size of your division in a year, requiring you to be able to hire a new engineer roughly every other day in order to meet your hiring targets, in an environment where everyone else is also hiring like mad, and everyone else in the company is also growing their teams at an exponential rate so you are competing for good candidates. Sometimes good enough is better than perfect. You have to make sure your hiring bar is high enough that you don't have people who essentially generating negative work, but at some point you take reasonable candidates rather than continuing to wait for "forever" employees, especially when the boom economy and environment around you discourages people from staying forever. (During economic downturns, it's possible to be far more selective.)

Whiteboard coding exercises are easier in person, but not impossible to do on the phone using the same tools you'd use for pair programming. I'm guessing right now lots of tech companies are learning to hire entirely virtually. Tech jobs are likely to come out of the global recession relatively intact.

My current company has next to zero turnover so our hiring bar is really high, but by and large we hire people who are senior enough that we're more concerned with their architectural abilities than their ability to write code.

Going back to the orchestral scene, the search for perfect candidates tends to dominate because of the gigantic pool of possible hires, and the use of tenure, which means that if you make a bad choice you could be living with it for the next forty years.

April 19, 2020, 7:07 PM · Yes the pass rate for senior engineers is higher I totally agree, though not by a huge margin, maybe double. And yes I’ve had to actually triple my teams in a year, but never by compromising standards.

Tenure in orchestral positions changes the dynamic hugely, I can imagine. I wonder if that’s as true outside the US though.

April 20, 2020, 9:50 AM · Quoting Mary Ellen:

"Who is telling their students that?"

My college violin teacher certainly was telling people that the career option was soloist, orchestra or perhaps chamber (classical). I went to Dartington (no longer with us) in UK which had a large world music program. I loved it and took virtually every class I could. My violin teacher suggested I should cut all of those as they wouldn't help me. He was wrong as it happens. When I did a jazz post-grad at Guildhall I met a guy who was learning classical violin, but they got wind that he was active playing Irish music gigs. They asked him if he was serious about the violin and eventually he was kicked off the course and he claimed it was because of him playing non-classical music. This was back in the late 80's and I hope professors/teachers are more open minded these days.
Teachers generally are pushing the reach for the stars (classical soloist) but reach the top of the trees (orchestras) mentality and, in my opinion, in this day and age it a bit two dimensional and mostly outdated as a career choice and doesn't really set up amateurs to have a long life of music making either.
Also, look at every discussion like this one. A young kid will say "Can I be a pro..." and everyone will talk about getting into orchestras pretty much exclusively.

April 20, 2020, 10:31 AM · Hi, maybe some aspects of the matter chamber musician vs. soloist need to be clarified.
My first teacher during my professional studies was a string quartet primarius. He had lived from playing string quartet, only, and then added some teaching at university level.
He had been raised like any other student, and I don't know if he had thought of becoming a soloist. He was definitely not at that high level of playing as you need to be as a soloist.

So, does it mean, playing chamber music is easier? Well, regarding certain aspects, yes, I do think so. If you look at the music in depth, you will have to be able to make great interpretations, and you have to have an extremely sensitive and precise playing technique, in order to shape the color of tone, or to be extremely precise in intonation, and so on, for chamber music. But there are additional demands for a soloist. It is possible and in reality not so rarely the case that you can build up a huge repertoire of string quartets, such that you can always fill up a concert calender plus be able to say yes to spontaneous occasions. Those players would not necessarily all be able to have that same huge repertoire of solo concertos. (Some would, of course.)

I don't want to lessen the chamber musicians' qualifications, here, but that first teacher of mine would certainly not have been able to perform all major violin concertos within the shortest periods of time. Without underestimating the challenges of chamber music, it is frankly said easier to learn a string quartet by Brahms than his violin concerto.
Then, also mental strength is an aspect. There are many extraodinarily fine musicians who can handle the pressure of a chamber music performance, but not the one of a solo concerto (one solo concerto, maybe, but not all the time, in order to live from it).

That teacher of mine, by the way, used to have a substitute teaching position at that school, but when the few vacant positions of violin professors were to be finally awarded, he (and some fellow chamber musicians) failed in the audition, which were won by soloists (I as a student listened to these public auditions, and I continued my studies with one of those, later.)

Well, a few decades later, that person has now a professorship for chamber music postgraduate courses. He is still touring worldwide with his string quartet. He is not an imposter, just not a soloist, definitely.

In the end, however, if you study for a performance degree, it depends on you and your choice of teacher how you develop. At least in Germany, there is no separate chamber music track or soloist track. All such are postgraduate options. The main studies are all the same, and you study some of the big concertos as well as chamber music. And before you start, you cannot say where this will lead you on your personal track.

I have even seen fairly good, but not exceptional students, who became friends (and even girlfriends) with their soloist professors and got invited by them to perform chamber music with them. This is not the idealistic way, but it certainly leads some people to perform on stages they would otherwise only have dreamed of. And once they get to know further people in such environments, they somehow suddenly find themselves engaged with fancy chamber music during festivals, and sometimes form new ensembles.

Whereas I have never observed someone to have become a soloist, that way, at least not in the long run.

All these things happen. Living from chamber music is something a very good player with enough passion and perserverance can make true, if she doesn't assume to become automatically rich and famous, by doing so.

April 20, 2020, 10:47 AM · Christopher, becoming an orchestra player is certainly a pretty secure way of living. That's probably why it comes to mind, so easily, when talking about professional careers.
From what I understood from Mary Ellen, it doesn't even matter so much, if in the US or in Germany: Once you are in an orchestra, you don't have to worry about your living, anymore. You can even regard it like a job as an official, where others determine your schedule, others determine what and how to play. I very much prefer the passionate type of player, in the orchestra, as well, but once you are in, passion is only an option.

The soloist track is simply highly improbable, and normally, the kids that are on it, know it and don't ask.

And all these other options, including playing as a freelancer, or having a chamber group, or playing also non-classical music, are all so individually different that one couldn't possibly give any advice for that, from the outside, besides go for it and try, and be open to new ideas, insights and opportunities.

April 20, 2020, 12:52 PM · If you are looking at professional musicians with secure employment in the USA, the vast majority are in orchestras or in one of the U.S. military bands. I would not presume to speak for conditions in Germany or in any other country, not regarding employment and certainly not regarding tenure, although I have been given to understand that age is a factor in Germany in a way it is not here--i.e. while I could theoretically win a blind audition here despite being 58, in Germany I could not get my foot in the door at this age.

Usually when someone asks about becoming a professional, they are thinking about a secure career. As Emily says, the kids on the soloist track already know it and aren't asking here. That leaves orchestras, at least in the USA--I mean, sometimes the original questioner is thinking about being a soloist but 100% of the time that is manifestly not in the OP's future.

Every one of these threads that I have seen has included discussion of freeway philharmonics, freelancing, teaching, and other gig types of employment but that is very seldom if ever what the original questioner seems to want to know about.

Edited: April 20, 2020, 4:13 PM · "Once you are in an orchestra, you don't have to worry about your living, anymore."

I don't know how anyone can think that, especially at this time, where classical music, a field that wasn't thriving, is hit with widespread disruption that will possibly eliminate some of the hard-fought jobs for some time if not permanently.

Music performance is like athletics, where a single injury can be career-ending, and there's a risk of stress injury over time. And now, with even some of the supporting organizations at risk, if the idea for a performance fallback was for being a music administrator or working in some other supporting role, that'd also be at risk.

It's no contest for IT or other clerical work having greater security and flexibility, let alone ease of entry.

The balancing factor is love. If you're not doing it for the driving love of music, but as a hopefully pleasant job, there are much more generally successful ways to that end. You can always have music in your life in addition.

Edit: To go even further, if the love of music is the driving force for your aspirations, there are likely to be better ways to express that than in being an orchestral performer. Being a great high school music teacher, for example, you would bring the love of music to many more people for their lives than as only an orchestral performer.

Edited: April 20, 2020, 7:37 PM · "Once you are in an orchestra, you don't have to worry about your living, anymore."

Nice catch, J. Ray.

My orchestra is notorious for its decades of financial instability. We had a big pay cut in the 90s, we famously had a bankruptcy from 2003 to 2004 after which we came back at 2/3, and we had another big cut in 2008 - these aren’t the only cuts but they’re the ones that stick in my mind.

If you take my contract for my very first season, 1988 - 1989, when I was a brand new section player with no title and no seniority, multiplying that amount by an inflation calculator tells me that I was paid $5000 more my very first year here then I was paid last year as principal second violin with 30 years of seniority.

During the first part of the bankruptcy year, I had no reason to think that my job would ever come back, and so I was taking classes to get certified to teach high school math. Thankfully it didn’t come to that.

In the current crisis, all performing arts organizations are vulnerable.

When we came back at 2/3 pay in 2004, I vowed to myself that my family would never again be so vulnerable to the financial problems of the San Antonio Symphony, and while I had always been teaching lessons, that is when I more than doubled my teaching load. I am now learning that lessons are also vulnerable.

Tenured players in the top US orchestras have a reasonable amount of job security although even they can have serious issues with their managements—google the symphonies of Detroit, Minnesota, or Atlanta for some upsetting reading. The rest of us either accustom ourselves to the incessant background noise of financial instability or we change careers.

April 21, 2020, 9:53 AM · J Ray, you are right, of course, you never know if you get severely injured, or if public funding will decline due to change of politics, but in my reality, here, these are not perspectives of a very high probability. On the contrary, I know so many parents of my kids' classmates of all kinds of professions, and what I observe is that they tend to change their jobs, quite often as if this was the most normal thing to do. There are IT experts, business and science professionals whose companies close down or reduce their number of employees, and then, these experts must look for some other job in their field.
This is not a realistic threat for me, as I just sit on my orchestra position and even get my pay cheques during all these months of Corona crisis (well, money will get a bit reduced, soon).

I would like to adress one other point, you said: "if the love of music is the driving force for your aspirations, there are likely to be better ways to express that than in being an orchestral performer. Being a great high school music teacher, for example, you would bring the love of music to many more people for their lives than as only an orchestral performer."

I have heard this assumption several times, in my life, and I personally strongly disagree, here. I might say about myself that my driving force is a very strong love for music. That love is greater than my urge for recognition. It is also greater than any egoistic wish for playing the main melody. My orchestra is of good professional middle class quality, I would say, and sometimes, we have fantastic guest conductors who make it possible to get into the pieces at such a deep level that the whole orchestra is suddenly playing much better. There are so precious moments of highest professional work, that I am satisfied with such rehearsals, completely, I personally wouldn't even need the concert, afterwards.
Never will the audience really acknowledge what my part was and how exactly I contributed.
Some people even ask: "Oh, you play violin, first or second?", and when I respond "second", they utter an awkward "Oh..". That doesn't affect me.

So, being an orchestra string player is not for you if you want to get all the credits for great concerts. It is perfect for you, though, if your love of music goes way beyond that.

If I look back at my high school times, music lessons were like sports: Some few students were experts, already, and 95 % of the rest was not interested. I have the highest respect for teachers who are passionate to make a difference, here, and to share their love of music with some kids who would have never thought of that, otherwise, but here you are dealing with music at some very different level. You would never discuss with them about how to articulate notes with dots in this or that century's music.
As much as I love performing music, as much I would personally get bored by explaining to kids what the differences are between Mozart and Bach.
That would have never been a career option for myself. This requires a completely other type of personality.

And that's why I wouldn't recommend to someone who wants to perform music, professionally, to look for some other music related fields, instead, as if this was comparable.
If someone could imagine being a school teacher, she should have the passion for teaching, first, I'd say, and then see which subjects she would like to teach.

Edited: April 21, 2020, 10:04 AM · Frieda, that's exactly why a tenure position in an orchestra is such a sought-after thing.

All the freelancers who sometimes play as substitutes with us, are in great trouble, right now.

I wouldn't set the actual crisis as a fair example, though. It is such an exceptional period of time and it was not something that anyone could have taken into account when choosing their jobs. I also never thought of what would I do if there was a war situation, before I chose to go into violin - if we all thought that way, nobody would ever become a professional in an artistic field, anymore.

We have to accept that music is just not a necessary thing for bare survival. But for other times, society has been established to afford entertainment, professional sports and all kinds of performing arts that go beyond just surviving. And I would always encourage a kid that has the passion to go into that instead of advising against it.

April 21, 2020, 10:31 AM · "I wouldn't recommend to someone who wants to perform music, professionally, to look for some other music related fields, instead, as if this was comparable."

Emily, thanks for your response, and for adding elements and perspectives. Of course you're right too - if your love of music expresses itself as a personal pursuit of excellence in performance and playing challenging works well, then you'll miss that when teaching (at all levels, let alone beginner). So you would have to find an outlet for that, and I agree that anything less than professional performance is likely to be not entirely satisfactory. But there are different avenues to that, and some people might get more satisfaction out of playing in excellent small groups where they have more input into the music than in large ones (that sometimes play along to movies to draw crowds and more often than not play warhorses, just sayin') for example.

I also agree that there's much more to being a great high school teacher than might meet the eye. School and school systems generally don't make teaching music a priority, so it takes some greatness/support/luck to overcome that and be successful.

I chose that example because I had a great high school music teacher who changed my life though his passion and skills, and did so for many others as well. I couldn't say that about anyone I've heard in an orchestral performance, and moreover, I and many others wouldn't have been likely to attend orchestral performances without that learning experience. That teacher supplemented teaching with chamber music performance and opportunities to conduct or develop better groups.

But that was just one example, and it's certain that high school and earlier teaching wouldn't suit the capacity or liking or ego/esteem needs of many or most people. The greater point is that there are many many ways to express and enjoy love of music in life other than orchestral performance, and orchestral performance is and will tend to be for very few.

Emily, it seems that you're in a country and area where orchestras are well funded and supported, and even has much of the historic Western classical music as part of its national identity. This is the exception, not the rule elsewhere, and the times, they are a changin'.

Edited: April 21, 2020, 11:43 AM · I agree wholeheartedly that school music teaching and music performance are two separate fields and that someone with a passion for one should not necessarily try to do the other.

I also agree wholeheartedly that Germany is not necessarily representative of very many countries when it comes to supporting its professional orchestras.

Emily, regarding this: "Some people even ask: "Oh, you play violin, first or second?", and when I respond "second", they utter an awkward "Oh..". That doesn't affect me," I have had similar experiences. This conversation has happened more than a few times:
Stranger: Oh, [you play violin in the symphony] first or second?

Me: I am the principal [or "first chair" if I am speaking to someone with zero musical knowledge] second violin.

Stranger: Have you ever thought about trying to get into the firsts?

Me: Yes, if I ever decide I want a demotion and a pay cut.

That usually stops the conversation.

April 21, 2020, 12:05 PM · All other things being equal, tutti violinists, first or second, are normally paid the same, aren't they?
Edited: April 21, 2020, 2:31 PM · Yes but titled players are paid more than tutti, and the titled second violinists outrank the tutti firsts. Tutti in either section are of equal rank.
Edited: April 21, 2020, 6:14 PM · First-violin players are usually stronger violinists than second-violin players in the experience of many -- but that's because the experience of many is limited to scholastic or low-level community orchestras, in which first-violin seats are given to players that can actually read and play notes above third position.

In pro orchestras these distinctions do not exist. In the Chicago Symphony, the person on the last stand of the second violins (the one sharing a stand with Pinchas Zukerman going incognito) is going to be a very strong violinist.

I would expect the principals to have superior skill, musicality, experience, and leadership qualities. Otherwise I would expect the orchestra to place its tutti players to achieve a balanced sound. I'd be interested to learn what other factors are at work there.

It always surprises me when a leading pro orchestra hires a new concertmaster who is very young. Erin Keefe was installed at the Minnesota Orchestra when she was 31 years old. But apparently she is truly special. Osmo Vanska certainly seems to think so. :)

Edited: April 21, 2020, 7:27 PM · ”I would expect the principals to have superior skill, musicality, experience, and leadership qualities. Otherwise I would expect the orchestra to place its tutti players to achieve a balanced sound. I'd be interested to learn what other factors are at work there.“

We have rotating seating as do many other orchestras, titled chairs excepted of course. Orchestras that have fixed seating will announce an audition for whatever chair has been opened by a retirement or resignation. There is no such thing as strategic seating.

”It always surprises me when a leading pro orchestra hires a new concertmaster who is very young.”

We hired ours straight out of graduate school and he is excellent. Those that have it, have it.

April 22, 2020, 7:59 AM · While there are certainly orchestral pieces that are more difficult for the seconds than for the firsts, when we amortize over say an entire season or perhaps even over a few years, isn't it honestly true that a first violinist simply has to put in more hours of practicing, as, averaged over all pieces, first violin parts have more non-sightreadable passages? Then it would actually be fair to pay them a bit more than the seconds?
April 22, 2020, 8:07 AM · No. Wow.

It’s been a long time since a v dot com comment left me speechless.

Edited: April 22, 2020, 3:01 PM · OK, now that I have a keyboard instead of a phone to respond on, and my jaw is properly back up in its usual position....

Jeewon made a couple of the points I was going to, but I'm going to say them anyway.

First, an orchestra is a collaboration of artists and are we seriously going to argue that the principal tuba should be paid a fraction of what the first violins are paid because the tuba has far fewer notes? The truth is that the personal practice time required to remain at a professional level is not less for second violins than it is for the first violins, or for anyone else in the orchestra, and someone playing at less than the highest professional level is unwelcome in the orchestra on any instrument.

Second, the physical effort required to play second violin is greater than that required to play first. This is because we spend so much more time on the D and G strings, where it is more tiring to play, we have accompanimental passages which often require a suspension of the bow not needed when playing the melody, and certain frequently played composers (ahem, Beethoven) will often give the seconds page after page of sixteenth notes to be played under the melody. My heart sinks when I see Beethoven sixth, any Bruckner symphony, or a New Year's Eve gala of Strauss waltzes on a program because I know I will be in pain by the end of the evening. Violists, of course, have all the same physical issues but with a heavier instrument to hold up.

Third, there is plenty of difficulty in the second violin parts of pieces played by professional orchestras. There may be less of the high-position work (though it does exist) but fitting in as a middle voice on frequently ungratifying lines has a difficulty all its own. 8th position is not the only way to write a challenging violin part.

There are tiers of pay in the professional orchestra world. Concertmasters are paid the most. Principals are paid more than assistant principals, and assistant principals are paid more than tutti players. Some principals (cello, solo winds) are likely paid more than other principals (second violin or double bass)--this has to do with the amount of actual solo playing required, the star power of the musician, and his/her corresponding ability to negotiate a favorable contract. Collective bargaining agreements lay out minimums--weekly scale, percentage overscale for title players, and seniority--but not maximums.

Tutti firsts are not better than, more deserving than, or higher ranking than tutti seconds, tutti violas, tutti cellos, or tutti double basses, and any suggestion otherwise is completely offensive.

Edited: April 22, 2020, 4:01 PM · Mary Ellen I appreciate your answers to my questions. Since I've never played in a pro orchestra and obviously never will, there are many unknowns. My teacher plays in a freeway phil, but he get shy whenever the discussion turns to something that might approach finances or politics. In his orchestra, he pretty much always plays in the same place, on the second stand of the second violins. He is quite happy there. Years ago that orchestra (Roanoke Symphony) had the opportunity to "capture" an exceptional violinist because she was in a string quartet that suddenly disbanded (Audubon), and RSO's then-concertmaster (himself quite a fine violinist) graciously stepped aside so that she could have that appointment.
April 22, 2020, 8:08 PM · Plus you're closer to the violas and they're always out of tune and generally neurotic. (Disclaimer -- I play the viola in three orchestras.)
April 22, 2020, 8:12 PM · I know you’re joking, Paul, but it’s important to understand that the violas in a professional orchestra are also playing at a very high level.
April 22, 2020, 9:43 PM · Thoughts on the side issue of orchestra players' pay. One way to judge their value is; what would happen if a player got very ill and missed the concert, without time to call in a sub? There would be 3 tiers, with different pay.
1) principal oboe, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn, concertmaster, conductor. If they are missing there will be huge holes in the music that everyone would notice, and possible train wrecks.
2) All other winds, brass, percussion, and the other principal strings. There would be missing notes in chords that the musicians would notice, but not everyone in the audience.
3) All other section strings. If one out of 8 in a section is missing, there is very little reduction volume or quality.
Of course, in a fully professional orchestra all the second chairs can move up and do a good job, when needed.
I doubt that any orchestra does that.
April 22, 2020, 9:48 PM · George Bailey pricing. Helpful for some, much less for others.
Edited: April 22, 2020, 10:44 PM · The level of disrespect here for individual musicians’ contributions to a professional orchestra is mind-boggling and I think I need to quit reading this thread.

There is always a sub, by the way. There is no such thing as playing a concert with a missing part. If a principal wind is taken suddenly ill, the assistant principal steps into the principal chair and a sub is hired for the resulting vacancy. If it’s the concertmaster who is sick, the associate concertmaster moves over.

Edited: April 22, 2020, 11:03 PM · Mary Ellen, just remember: This is why you have a union. So your pay is not at the mercy of clowns who don't get it.

I like this line of reasoning though. My wife teaches a course that nobody else in our department (and probably only two other people in the university) could teach. So maybe she should get paid more ...

And of course I'm kidding about violas. But I've played first violin in orchestra and second violin and viola. And it's harder to get the middle parts in tune. The first violins can blast away knowing they're in tune "by definition" and assume that everyone else will acquiesce to their ledger-line greatness, but the seconds and the violas need to figure out how to blend that information together with what is going on behind them in the winds. At least that's what I've experienced in amateur orchestras (with my decidedly amateur level of skill).

And by the way Jeewon I'm a neurotic violist, so now you have. LOL

April 23, 2020, 1:05 AM · I think the level of effort and talent required to play any position in an orchestra is extremely high, no one should disrespect anyone who can do that. Most of my piano performances were solo recitals ( long ago) but I have played in small groups (non classical) a few times and even there the required level of coordination and cohesiveness and ability is high. Magnify that several times over and I suspect it’s close to what’s needed to play in an orchestra.
April 23, 2020, 7:06 AM · I play the piano -- playing in a jazz combo is infinitely easier than playing even the easiest Haydn trios. And when you play in a chamber orchestra -- say you're one of two violists, which I often am -- then your teammates are counting on you to get it exactly right. I find it's a great deal harder than just playing the notes on the page.
Edited: April 23, 2020, 11:34 AM · Well, as a second violinist, I wouldn’t claim that it is the harder part to play second, or first.

It requires a certain level of skills to be able to produce a uniform quality of sound as a group, no matter which string section you are talking about. That you need - whatever you have to play, be it a melody or an accompanying part, each of which taking place in any part, by the way.

As a consequence, it is ideal for an orchestra to look for the highest possible level of players.

I agree, though, that sight reading second violin is often easier. But that simply doesn’t matter, at all. There are lots of good sight readers among the firsts, as well as not so brilliant sight readers among the seconds. It is each player’s responsibility to make sure they can play their parts. New members will practice the most, as they are less experienced and haven’t played most of the pieces. In Germany, the salary normally rises in a few steps. But it is the new members that get the least, although they are the ones who practice the most.

A brilliant orchestra violinist can play, say, their offbeats in such a differentiated way that he or she can adjust to any required articulation, bowing, speed or dynamics, and make sure to stay synchronized with the rest of the section.
But the hard work to make sure to have these qualities had taken place during the musician’s education, thus long before entering the orchestra.

Or, in other words, even a beginner could sight read the offbeats of a waltz, very soon. Still, the beginner would never be able to play even one single offbeat like the professional.

April 23, 2020, 7:47 PM · I honed my offbeat-skills playing pit orchestras for amateur Broadway-style theater groups as a teenager. You can tell section players who have never had to play offbeats. It's hard for them.
April 23, 2020, 8:17 PM · My experience is that in pickup orchestra gigs at least, and for lower-level freeway philharmonic sub occasions, freelancers tend to prefer to play second violin, where the preparation for a one-off gig is considered to require less practice to play second than to play first -- and given that the pay is the same, that they'd prefer to disappear into the back of the seconds.
April 24, 2020, 5:50 AM · thanks for the responses, and apologies for the speech loss and jaw dropping that I caused. I always was taught that there are no wrong questions, only wrong answers ;-) anyway the answers given here are certainly not wrong, thanks again and apologies again!
April 24, 2020, 8:06 AM · I appreciate your apology. :-)
Edited: April 24, 2020, 8:57 AM · Jean Dubuisson, I don't think you need to apologize at all for asking a question.

The orchestra I play in makes all the tutti players rotate between 1st and 2nd, so I know how it feels to play both regularly. I think both Jean and Mary make good points about why 1st and 2nd are difficult in their own way.

I would say 2nd violin has a greater physical difficulty in terms of raw physical effort. It's also really tiring to play all those soft passages with your right elbow up high when playing on the G string. On the other hand, the difficult passages up high are more mentally exhausting for 1st violins, as I personally think much more intense focus is required. So it depends if you prefer to be physically or mentally overworked.

I don't know if a tutti wind player gets paid more than a tutti violinist. If they did, however, then I could actually see a case for first violinists being paid very slightly more than 2nd due how exposed they are. The consequence of screwing up something high in first violin is much larger, and it hurts the impression of the orchestra more.

I actually had this exact discussion with a cellist friend a few weeks ago. We both came to the conclusion that 1st and 2nd should be paid equally, except in an opera orchestra, where the difficulty of 1st violin compared to 2nd violin tends to be widened, and that a 5% pay gap could be fair. Of course no orchestra is ever going to do this, it was just a hypothetical between us.

All this being said, I notice that over the years I have tended to disagree with Mary Ellen on a lot of subject matters. So please don't feel like further jaw dropping is necessary with my post now, I am just happy to discuss!

April 24, 2020, 8:45 AM · Jean, no problem for me!

I actually prefer it if people ask their questions instead of keeping them to themselves in order to avoid offended replies!

Your question showed us players of professional orchestras that not so much of what we take for granted is known to the public, among which being even high level amateur musicians, and I have to admit, even my parents, being pianists! Until my professional studies, they also thought that first violin was something better and more desirable and better paid than second. Maybe because that's often the case in amateur groups where playing above third position is regarded as an achievement that needs to be acknowledged.

We know so little about other fields, even within an orchestra, and it is really hard to evaluate what can be regarded as general knowledge and what not.

A few months ago, we had an audition for double bass, and most members of the orchestra weren't aware that the candidates couldn't just audition on the orchestra's instruments (as one colleague put into the discussion), not only because they are bigger and let you play less agile, but also because the solo basses are tuned a whole note higher than the orchestra instruments. (You can change strings, on each of them, of course).

It didn't occur to the bass players to mention this, though, as they wouldn't have thought that their own colleagues wouldn't know such a basic fact.

As a result, I try to be very humble in estimating my own knowledge about anything beyond my own instrument, let alone professional field.

And I am happy to answer whenever someone is interested in getting to know more.

April 24, 2020, 10:28 AM · " The first violins can blast away knowing they're in tune "by definition" and assume that everyone else will acquiesce to their ledger-line greatness, but the seconds and the violas need to figure out how to blend that information together with what is going on behind them in the winds."

This is not true in professional orchestras. Everyone's responsible for listening to the bass line.

"We both came to the conclusion that 1st and 2nd should be paid equally, except in an opera orchestra, where the difficulty of 1st violin compared to 2nd violin tends to be widened, and that a 5% pay gap could be fair. "

I don't understand this. Opera parts tend to be less exposed than symphonic works since they're mostly accompaniment to the singers, and Mozart opera 2nd violin parts are notoriously some of the worst works in the repertoire to play for stamina. The 2nd violin parts also tend to be a lot less intuitive than the first.

"A few months ago, we had an audition for double bass, and most members of the orchestra weren't aware that the candidates couldn't just audition on the orchestra's instruments"

I've never heard of any orchestra providing instruments for basses for auditions - is this a Germany-specific thing? In the US bassists play auditions in orchestral, not solo, tuning since a lot of the audition is orchestral excerpts.

Edited: April 24, 2020, 10:54 AM · right, but providing instruments for them? I just can't imagine that even coming up as a possibility for bassists here (of course, done for timpani / percussion, piano, etc)
April 24, 2020, 12:19 PM · Hi,
no, the basses are never provided to the candidates, in Germany, either!

But during that specific audition, there were players who had much weaker instruments than others (of course, this is an issue in other auditions, also, but this time, it happened to appear pretty extremely).

And our bass section loved one player, whereas the rest of the orchestra was in favor of someone else. Then, one of our bass colleagues argued that some weak aspects of that player were only due to her instrument, and this wasn't relevant, because if she got the job, she would play on an orchestra's bass, anyway. This, in turn, raised a tedious discussion - one other colleague then asked how we were supposed to assess one's abilities if the players had so "different from real life" instruments, they should rather play their audition on an orchestra bass provided by us, and we could judge all of this, more objectively...

Well, this was a stupid suggestion (see above) that only cost a lot of time during that audition.

Jeewon, I know that you should prepare to have your complete concerto for a Berlin Philharmonic audition, but I cannot imagine they listen to the whole concertos, at least not from everyone. Otherwise, the auditions would be endless. But as I am not a member, there, I don't know it exactly. What I can say for sure, though, is that they are always very special in about everything, so their procedure is not comparable to any other German orchestra.
One fellow student of mine got in there, and what was certainly true at that time (about 15 years ago), was that they didn't demand any excerpts. And they had a general audition for "violin", and decided afterwards, whom they wanted to put in the second or first violin section. That is also unique.

Normally, you apply for one very specified position, you have to prepare the standard concertos (Mozart plus romantic), plus orchestra excerpts.
You play only a part of the first movement by Mozart, you cannot know how much exactly, though. Then the cadenza, and sometimes the beginning of mov.2. Then the romantic concerto, normally only maybe half of the first movement, and rarely the cadenza. I had heard that some orchestras might demand the beginning of the third movement, although I never ever had to. But because I had heard this, I never played Sibelius for an audition. I would have liked to play its first movement, but I had never really been able to nail the stroke of the third movement. So I chose Brahms.

Is there any orchestra, outside Europe, Jeewon, that does not require concertos in string players auditions? For the reasons as stated in your quote, I like to hear the concertos, too. The Berlin Philh. get even better players, but we also search for as strong as possible musical personalities, as well, of course.

Only in something very different like percussion auditions, there are no concertos. They have very interesting excerpts, and even had to play some etudes! All attending string players somehow felt like visiting a zoo to watch and listen to something very exotic.

April 24, 2020, 2:23 PM · I took an audition for a major american orchestra where they had the standard romantic + mozart concertos on the list, but never asked for them.
April 24, 2020, 3:46 PM · Irene, I would guess that in that case they were asking for the solos in later rounds? That seems unusual.

We like to give our candidates a chance to work their nerves out on something familiar so we always hear the romantic concerto (the first part of it) in the first round. Later rounds might include whatever Mozart or Bach was on that list, or perhaps no solo at all.

April 24, 2020, 4:07 PM · They may have heard them when they were down to the last two people, but they didn't at any point before then. Maybe they were experimenting with something or another.
April 24, 2020, 4:25 PM · James, re: the opera pay: Operas often have torturous 2nd violin parts that demand a great deal of physical and mental endurance. I imagine that by the time players pay for their massage therapists, the 2nd violinists profit less. ;-)

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