becoming a professional violinist
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!
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.
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
Firstly, what does your teacher think of your chances of getting into a good programme?
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.
Many people who have been in secure, high-powered professional careers are also discovering how fragile their own situations are.
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certified and even the coursework and state exams I took towards certification during the SAS bankruptcy are 16 years out of date--this is leaving aside the obvious issue that I am not eager to start out in a math classroom at this stage of my life.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.
listen to Ms. Goree.
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.
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.
Hi, first, ask your teacher.
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.
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.
Paul, I see it differently, regarding chamber musicians vs. soloists.
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.
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 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.“
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.
"I can’t imagine there being much meaning to do anything else, I would rather die"
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.
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.
Yes, Mary Ellen, that was my intention.
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.
@Scott many of them seem to survive by being the resident quartet at a university (and not necessarily a prestigious one).
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.
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.
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.
I don't think the groups I've been seen coming through our area on chamber concert series are just adjuncts at colleges.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I'd be floored if the Dover Quartet members were tenured faculty members at Northwestern. But easy enough to look up.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
Who is telling their students that?
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.
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.
OP is in Sweden. Things are different over there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.“
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Quoting Mary Ellen:
Hi, maybe some aspects of the matter chamber musician vs. soloist need to be clarified.
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.
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.
"Once you are in an orchestra, you don't have to worry about your living, anymore."
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.
Frieda, that's exactly why a tenure position in an orchestra is such a sought-after thing.
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.
All other things being equal, tutti violinists, first or second, are normally paid the same, aren't they?
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.
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.
”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.“
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?
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....
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.
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.)
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.
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.
George Bailey pricing. Helpful for some, much less for others.
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.
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 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.
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.
Well, as a second violinist, I wouldn’t claim that it is the harder part to play second, or first.
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.
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.
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!
I appreciate your apology. :-)
Jean Dubuisson, I don't think you need to apologize at all for asking a question.
Jean, no problem for me!
" 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."
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)
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.
Irene, I would guess that in that case they were asking for the solos in later rounds? That seems unusual.
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.
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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