What is it *really* like to be a pro orchestral musician?
I am on track to become a professional orchestral violinist, and I would like to know what it really is like to be one. Every time I search "what's it like professional musician?" online, I always see comments or responses like "It's not worth it" or "I know pro musicians who don't recommend you become a pro." Never have I seen any evidence of WHY this may be the case. Is it the money? The amount of time it takes to get into a reputable one (that will pay enough money to live off of)? Is it the atmosphere? The lifestyle itself? I have also seen comments like "As a cellist, I have a good time, but violinists are more cynical about it." What's up with THAT??? Does this mean the competition makes it not worth it (due to wanting to be the concertmaster?) I'll take any feedback, but if you are a professional orchestral violinist, PLEASE don't hesitate to answer! Thank you!
Is it the money?
There are really several types of pro orchestra violinists. I'm giving them convenient titles for discussion purposes.
It's ALL about job satisfaction. I love classical music with a passion but (maybe for that very reason?) playing the standard orchestral repertoire day in, day out would bore me. I'm sure professional players often draw inspiration from their colleagues, soloists and conductors, but that's not to be relied upon and to be constantly under the baton of a chief conductor whose musicianship (never mind his/her personal qualities) you don't respect must be a nightmare. A friend who's been a violist in the BBCSO for maybe 30 years stresses the importance of not allowing yourself to become cynical, but clearly finds it hard. Each time I watch a broadcast of an orchestral concert I try to devine whether the players are enjoying themselves or not; it's usually pretty clear to see!
Boring, not stable, will probably force you to travel, will make you have to work on weekends and holidays. All things I don't like, but some people prefer a different lifestyle, so maybe you could enjoy. I prefer teaching, when students are committed of course.
These podcasts by Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto from the LA Philharmonic may give some insight. https://www.standpartnersforlife.com/#
Nathan Cole is maybe not in the "average" category. He has one of the most coveted orchestral chairs anywhere, and his 12-week online summer course probably grossed over $300,000.
David did anyone ever tell you you look a lot like Oistrakh?
Jean, when I was a teenager I specially liked Oistrakh because we have the same first name.
The podcasts provide useful information. If the daily work in a top orchestra doesn’t sound appealing, then it’s not going to be that much better the further down you go in the orchestra hierarchy.
Here's the thing, and this goes for any profession. Everyone is different and what you find fulfilling can be vastly different than someone else. Don't think about it as finding a musical career based on what you think will be the most practical, base it on what you enjoy doing most on a day to day basis. Remember that what you do for a living will be what you spend most of your waking hours doing. More so than spending time with your loved ones. If you absolutely love every moment of being part of an orchestra, then go for it. Don't do it for that one day way in the future where you make it to some top-tier orchestra. Do it because you love the journey.
Frieda, you're right those base salaries are higher than I thought. I didn't expect to find them on the open internet but here they are:
I'll just note that the OP has a very nice video practice journal and appears to be a student at a big-state-university conservatory of decent quality, but is working on intermediate-level repertoire (Vitali Chaconne, for instance). Their context for this question is therefore unlikely to be a future in the LA Phil.
Two factoids that sometimes get frequency: a survey of job satisfaction showed that string-quartet players were at the top of the list, and orchestral musicians' satisfaction was down near the bottom, next to grave-diggers, etc.
Most of my career has been in the second of Lydia’s categories (full-time orchestral violinist) although my orchestra is well known for its financial woes and pre-pandemic we were just hanging onto our 30 week season. Prior to a bankruptcy in 2003 we had a 39 week season. I have a summer gig and I also teach a lot. Fortunately I very much enjoy teaching.
Paul, "within commuting distance" in large cities like LA or NYC can be 45 minutes, which can extend to over 60 minutes during rush hour traffic for those who drive (before COVID-19).
One aspect that has not been mentioned specifically is the impact of the coronavirus on classical music opportunities and professional orchestral performance schedules, at least in the near term. If a job search is imminent, this of course should be considered when making career decisions.
Joel my guess is that fresh conservatoire grads who are not able to audition for salaried orchestral positions will do the same thing that graduates in other areas do whenever there are not enough jobs to go around: Live in their parents' basement whilst underemployed or dig themselves deeper in debt and go to graduate school.
"I'll just note that the OP has a very nice video practice journal and appears to be a student at a big-state-university conservatory of decent quality, but is working on intermediate-level repertoire (Vitali Chaconne, for instance). Their context for this question is therefore unlikely to be a future in the LA Phil."
I didn't intend the comment to be unkind; if I had, I would have said something a great deal blunter.
Hi, thank you all for the answers! This gives me a lot to think about. (EDIT: I deleted the rest of this post because I realized my mistake! Ignore the previous version if you saw it before.)
Mood-wise I think that a lot of it depends on your own attitude setpoint.
Occasionally I will be in an orchestra for a good performance, with a good conductor,good colleagues. It can be grand; I have the best seat in the house, and they pay me.
To succeed as a professional orchestral musician you ALSO need to be able to play very well.
Well said Carlo! I could add don't complain about conductors.It wears thin on the players around you.Also say hello to extras if you have a moment.Be positive, especially in these times.
I gave up violin and went to law school, now 30 years leter have returned to play for pleasure and to entertain people occasionally with a string quartet, community orchestra, and weekly dance. It’s interesting to read these realistic descriptions of life as a musician. There are many parallels to life as a lawyer, it seems, including the increasing rarity of well-paid, steady positions, the scrambling for gigs, retention of clients, finding health insurance or marrying into it, the cynicism and burned-out feelings of some colleagues, the politics of the firm, the necessity to have people skills and reliability in addition to technical skill, constant preparation of new and difficult material, lots of competition. I guess I’d say pick a field- classical music or some other- that you love so much that all of that will be no big deal, and you’ll greet each day with a smile in spite of it.