What is it *really* like to be a pro orchestral musician?

October 10, 2020, 10:19 PM · 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!

Replies (26)

October 10, 2020, 10:28 PM · Is it the money?

Probably that is part of it. Yes, you can make a decent salary playing for the LA Phil or the Chicago Symphony, but on those wages you can't live close to where you rehearse. Also, it's hard to separate the salary issue from the salary-security issue. It's not much good to be earning $65,000 a year if your orchestra suddenly decides to have a lockout or lay everyone off or go bankrupt. You can supplement with other activities such as teaching, and if you're good enough player to get a salaried orchestral job you ought to have at least the technical skills to teach at a pretty high level and the "instant credibility" that your position affords to command a decent fee.

The amount of time it takes to get into a reputable one (that will pay enough money to live off of)?

Well, there's that, but it's not any worse than going to grad school and doing two or three postdocs so you can get a tenure-track academic job and earn 75% of what you would earn in the private sector. And then there is medical school and law school, which will put you hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Is it the atmosphere?

My guess, having never played the violin professionally, is that atmosphere depends on the orchestra generally and your section and principal specifically.

The lifestyle itself?

My guess is that many orchestral violinists also teach and the private-teaching lifestyle is tough if you have a family because all the teaching happens during prime family hours.

Edited: October 11, 2020, 1:15 AM · There are really several types of pro orchestra violinists. I'm giving them convenient titles for discussion purposes.

Top-tier orchestral violinists hold salaried-with-benefits full-time 52-week positions with the one of the ten very best orchestras in the world -- Chicago Symphony, New York Phil, LA Phil, Berlin, Vienna, and so forth. They make good professional salaries (going into 6 figures, with reasonable benefits), and still have enough time on the side to be able to teach for some additional income. They play with great conductors, great artists, and in very nice venues. They have pretty good lives -- but getting a position in such an orchestra is nigh-impossible; you have to be one of the very best players in the entire world.

Full-time orchestral violinists hold salaried-with-benefits full-time positions; some of these orchestras may have a 52-week season, but, say, a 40-week season is not unusual (so you need to cover the gap with summer festivals and whatnot). They make middle-class salaries, and almost always need to teach on the side to be able to maintain a lifestyle equivalent to professionals with similar levels of education (i.e. buy a modest house in a neighborhood with decent schools, own a reliable car, be able to take the occasional modest family vacation, save for retirement). Quality of conductors, artists, and venues vary. These jobs are generally unionized in the US and have a fairly decent amount of job security -- the job is usually held for life, but the orchestra may run into financial woes, making this more precarious than it might initially seem.

Part-time core orchestral violinists typically hold a contracted position in a regional orchestra that pays them on a per-service basis. They are guaranteed a certain amount of work, but that work isn't sufficient to live on, necessitating some kind of supplemental income -- usually a substantial amount of private teaching. Such players often take other freelance gigs as well. These jobs generally do not come with benefits.

Freelance orchestral violinists play in orchestras that pay on a per-service basis. If they're lucky, this is on a union contract with a guaranteed union minimum wage per-service; if not, the per-service fee can be quite low. Such players cobble together a living through playing with multiple such orchestras, often colloquially called "freeway philharmonics" because of the amount of long-distance commuting to rehearsals/performances that these players do. These players often obtain a substantial percentage of their income from teaching. Some may also hold a "day job". There are variants of this for Broadway orchestras, Hollywood gig orchestras, etc.

Gigging violinists have a day job (which may be music-related, such as being a public school music-teacher, or working at a violin shop), but play in one or more per-service orchestras, or otherwise take gigs. (Gigs include pickup orchestras, weddings, background music at restaurants, etc.) They do not derive the majority of their income from orchestral playing.

These jobs share a couple of things in common.

1. They are difficult to get. Even freelance work isn't easy to obtain; you need the right contacts, or luck at auditions. (At a local level, contacts tend to be more important.)

2. They are demanding and stressful. You are learning a lot of music, much of it difficult, on short timeframes. You're expected to perfect it.

3. The income is somewhat unpredictable. The size of teaching studios fluctuate. The fortunes of orchestras have been unpredictable, even pre-pandemic.

Not all violinists love orchestral playing. You are a cog in a wheel, required to blend perfectly with your colleagues. You have relatively little musical discretion of your own. You will , over the course of a career, play certain warhorses to death. Some people love it; others don't.

A professional orchestra rehearsal is very different from the type of rehearsals that one typically encounters at the school, youth, or community level. It's even different than the rehearsal atmosphere at many conservatories. Just because you enjoy those rehearsals doesn't mean you'll enjoy a professional rehearsal, with its heightened expectations and level of intensity. (On the other hand, union rules require mandatory breaks, helping to reduce the odds of injury.)

During your student years, you should ABSOLUTELY get some experience playing with your local professional orchestras. You need the experience on your resume, and you need to learn the professional expectations and approach. This will also teach you more about what you want to pursue post-graduation. If you're interested in playing professionally, you should be, during your conservatory years, studying with an orchestral musician, studying excerpts, doing audition preparation, etc.

Edited: October 11, 2020, 2:13 AM · 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!
Edited: October 11, 2020, 7:58 AM · 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.
October 11, 2020, 8:07 PM · These podcasts by Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto from the LA Philharmonic may give some insight. https://www.standpartnersforlife.com/#
October 11, 2020, 8:35 PM · 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.
October 12, 2020, 4:14 AM · David did anyone ever tell you you look a lot like Oistrakh?
Edited: October 12, 2020, 9:40 AM · Jean, when I was a teenager I specially liked Oistrakh because we have the same first name.
You look a lot like Frosty,the snowman.
Edited: October 12, 2020, 10:36 AM · 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.

The LA Phil and Chicago Symphony pay enough to live in homes within commuting distance of the concert halls. (Before COVID-19, commuting in LA was a shared complaint among everyone who couldn't afford a helicopter.) Real estate in those cities is more affordable than in New York or San Francisco. The section player starting salaries for those two orchestras are similar to salaries of other urban upper middle class professionals. Principals earn more, and concertmasters earn significantly more. But getting into these orchestras is like getting into the NBA.

October 12, 2020, 11:30 AM · 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.

I don't suffer through practicing my violin for hours a day for that one day where I will be able to rage through Caprice 24 with perfection, I practice hours a day because I simply love practicing. Even when it's the same passage over and over and over and over and over and over and over...

Edited: October 12, 2020, 11:33 AM · 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:

https://graphics.latimes.com/la-phil-2/

I agree that anyone drawing $150-200k ought to be able to live "within commuting distance" of Disney Hall. I guess it depends on how you define "commuting distance". A close acquaintance lives in Altadena, which is 25 minutes from Disney Hall according to Google Maps. They have a neighbor who is a professional violinist in LA (a desirable, salaried gig). The average home price in Altadena is about $900,000. The homes in my acquaintances neighborhood are in the $1.5 to $1.8 million range (according to Zillow). I didn't pay anywhere near ten times my annual income for my home, but I guess I could have. "Commuting distance" for me is 25 minutes too (but that's walking).

October 12, 2020, 11:37 AM · 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.
October 12, 2020, 12:16 PM · 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.

Much of that is survivor bias. Successful string quartets must be a real gas to play in, but any that aren't 100% successful in every way will vaporize. Orchestral players, on the other hand-- at least those in the top drawer-- are tenured and paid so much they have few incentives to leave even if they find it isn't the best job for them. So the complainers will stay and complain.

Edited: October 12, 2020, 4:16 PM · 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.

I love what I do and I would not have chosen any different life despite having academic credentials which would have permitted another path. That being said, even getting such a position as mine requires a brutal audition process and my entire career has been one of financial instability by my employer.

Thanks to decades of pay cuts from my perpetually financially stressed employer, my pre-pandemic symphony income would be a stretch to call middle class though we are a full-time orchestra with benefits. I cannot stress enough how difficult it is to win even such a job as mine. The silver lining is that by necessity I have expanded both my teaching and my contracting efforts which are not only lucrative but which allow me to use skills and talents that I would not otherwise be able to take advantage of in my symphony job.

The pandemic has been a blow indeed; I am unemployed from the symphony until February and my colleagues and I have taken a very significant pay cut for this season. I don’t know of any orchestra that is holding auditions this year. it requires some faith to see a return to business as usual on stage but I am optimistic that we will get back to that. In the meantime musicians like me who had already diversified income streams are somewhat better off than musicians who may have had higher paychecks from their orchestras but had not diversified as much.

I would say that among my colleagues as well as myself, those who have developed interests beyond the orchestra on stage, whether that be their families, chamber music, private students, or some combination, seem happier than those for whom the symphony is their only gig.

By the way, full-time professional orchestras are 100% unionized in the United States.

My suggestion to the OP as well as to anyone else seriously considering an orchestral career is that if your primary violin teacher does not have significant professional orchestra experience, arrange to play for somebody who does and ask them to be straightforward with you about what you need to do to become competitive and if that is in your future. Even better, play for a titled player in a major professional orchestra, someone who listens to auditions year after year. and take what they have to say seriously. “Follow your dream” is only workable advice if your dream is within reach. It breaks my heart when somebody who wants to win a job like mine comes to play for me and I have to tell them that they are not competitive at all, and how much they would need to do to become competitive, and if that is even possible in my opinion.

That being said, there is money to be made even for the mediocre level professional player— someone who is unlikely to get any orchestra job beyond the freeway Philharmonic circuit— if they enjoy teaching and are good at it, and especially if they have a warm and outgoing personality and a high tolerance for stress. For the freelance violinist, there is a lot of money to be made in weddings. You can put together a middle class income from teaching and gigs if you are just good enough as a player, 100% reliable, completely pleasant to work with, and willing to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. Of course self-employment has its own issues; you will need to pay for your own health insurance or be married somebody who has a job with benefits, you will not have sick leave, you will not have paid vacations, and you will pay a large amount in self-employment tax.

By the way, I did a podcast a couple of weeks ago about my younger self as a musician and the path I took to get to where I am now. It might be of interest to the OP and to others. I hope it is OK to post the link here.
https://pod.link/1524124846

Editing to add one more thought: sometimes honesty can come across as harsh but it is ultimately kinder than sympathetic words that skip around issues. People who come to play for me know that I will tell them the truth, even if the truth is not what they want to hear.

Edited: October 12, 2020, 3:36 PM · 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).
Edited: October 12, 2020, 2:33 PM · 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.
October 12, 2020, 2:39 PM · 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.
October 12, 2020, 3:41 PM · Na'ila,

What is it like to be a professional musician? Pretty much like being a professional at anything - both hard and rewarding.

I'm not a professional, but in my life I have become friends with a number of them. They are almost constantly working because few orchestras provide a sufficient income to have a single "gig." So, most teach, play with a variety of ensembles, are on call-lists for gigs, and some even have flexible day-jobs. On top of that, maintaining professional level skills has to be folded into the mix.

I would describe the reality as a "Calling" in that playing music must be something that you simply have to do, that you cannot put down your Cello and pursue something else. Monetizing that calling is the problem that all musicians (and other professionals) face on a daily basis.

If it is a true calling, nothing should stand in your way. If your mental picture is a solid chair in a major orchestra that allows you to make a decent living - you need to re-think your priorities.

October 12, 2020, 4:02 PM · "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."

Where I come from, this would rank as an incredibly unkind, snobbish and condescending comment. I hope Na'ila ignores it.

October 12, 2020, 4:39 PM · I didn't intend the comment to be unkind; if I had, I would have said something a great deal blunter.

The context of the question is important. Where the violinists of the LA Phil or Chicago Symphony can or can't afford to live is not likely to apply to the OP's future. For them, the freelance lifestyle is much more likely, and that's quite a different set of considerations.

Freelancers don't necessarily need to live in big cities. The OP may want to remain close to home and family, for instance. Freelancers tend to derive a much greater percentage of their income from teaching; if the OP hasn't taken pedagogy classes yet, they might want to do so before they finish university. Freelancers have a lot less job security, and no health care or other benefits like retirement contributions. Freelancers work a lot of nights and weekends (and indeed round the clock), which can make family life (and a social life) very difficult.

I assume the OP asked this question because they're contemplating the pros and cons of their future career. The documentary "Freeway Philharmonic" (LINK) is going to capture that far better than looking at the lifestyle of a pair of LA Phil concertmasters -- as a power couple they're probably the best-paid pair of orchestral musicians in the US, I imagine.

The OP is presumably planning on grad school for an MM. That, for many people, is another round of debt, and before embarking on it, the OP probably needs to consider how much ROI getting the MM will have.

Going back to another element of the OP's question: I think the reason that cellists may seem happier than violinists in orchestras is that cellists very rarely regard the orchestra as a consolation prize. Many violinists, on the other hand, hope to be soloists or maybe chamber musicians, and ended up in orchestras instead. Pro orchestras aren't internally competitive; there's not normally concertmaster envy, as the OP speculated.

Edited: October 13, 2020, 12:36 PM · 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.)
Edited: October 14, 2020, 3:10 PM · Mood-wise I think that a lot of it depends on your own attitude setpoint.

I know violinists in the Chicago Symphony who think it's the greatest job in the world, love to be part of that big sound, and have no need to be out in front of everything as the center of attention all the time, don't care if they've played the piece 300 times before, etc., and just love being part of a big, important machine. And some players hate orchestras, hate being just an inaudible 1/30 of the violin sound, can't stand half the music they have to play, play for a couple of years, and then try to find another way to make a living on violin.

They aren't the same type at all in person.
So I'm thinking personality is a huge factor.

October 14, 2020, 10:28 PM · 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.
My personal dream job would have been something like the Vienna Volksoper. I like doing the opera and music theater orchestra pit, but I do not want to do Wagner.
Edited: October 15, 2020, 2:57 PM · To succeed as a professional orchestral musician you ALSO need to be able to play very well.
The other important skills; being friendly, networking, being organised and always on time, wearing appropriate clothing, don’t be a gossip, don’t criticise other players or conductors, be genuine with your praise if colleagues play a great solo, always know the music before the first rehearsal even if it is awful and modern, don’t be a moaner, don’t be the one with the weird chair, have a great instrument but don’t boast about it, be private with your political and religious views, have outside interests, avoid romantic relationships whist on tour, enjoy working at odd hours, do the job because you absolutely love it.
I’m sure there are many more...

Cheers Carlo

October 15, 2020, 3:19 PM · 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.
October 15, 2020, 3:39 PM · 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.


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