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Careers in classical music: The crazy tightrope between encouragement and reality

By John Terauds on May 11, 2013

A cartoon depicting conductor Thoedore Thomas (1835-1905), from Ezra Schabas's biography.
A cartoon depicting conductor Thoedore Thomas (1835-1905), from Ezra Schabas’s biography.

Some days, it seems that translating musical talent into a career capable of supporting more than a small dog in a cardboard box has the same probability as winning a major lottery. But people keep doing it, because of a love that’s grown into a major compulsion.

It’s a compulsion that needs encouragement, but it also needs a reality check.

Should we be telling all but the most enterprising (note how I didn’t write talented) young musicians that they had better consider some alternatives, or do we let them dash madly towards the inevitable realisation that only a tiny fraction of their graduating class will ever make a living from playing their instruments?

The latest trigger for these thoughts was seeing a reference to a post on WikiHow about becoming an orchestra musician.

Welcome to dreamland — requiring only nine easy steps, not the usual 10. What follows is the post in its entirety:

An orchestra or symphony consists of both a conductor and orchestral musicians, and many orchestras such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony offer a stimulating work environment as well as good compensation to their musicians. Becoming an orchestral musician is best accomplished by attending a 4-year music school or conservatory prior to auditioning for an orchestra in order to gain not only the musical skills, but also the necessary knowledge of music history and theory, as well as the ability to perform with others to participate at such an exceptionally high level. Read the following steps to find out how to become an orchestral musician.

  1. Learn how to play an instrument. Whether you choose to play the flute, the French Horn, or the violin, you’ll need to become proficient at playing many different kinds of music, and most specifically classical music.
  2. Join an amateur orchestra, symphony or quartet in your area. You’ll learn the basic skills of performing with other musicians for a critical audience, and you’ll also be exposed to other pieces of music than the ones you practice during music lessons and school recitals.
  3. Attend a 4-year music school or conservatory. There are excellent schools across the globe where you can study music in depth and train to become an orchestral musician. You’ll need to prepare a portfolio, an audition, or both for the admissions process, which is a good training for professional auditions later on in your career.
  4. Use your time at music school or the conservatory to hone your knowledge of music theory and history, and to practice performing with your peers. You’ll learn a lot from interacting with others, both peers and instructors, who play the same instrument as you. Just as importantly, regular practice and performance with ensembles will enhance your technical and social skills, as well as your ensemble skills.
  5. Attend summer music camps and festivals that offer periods of intensive orchestral training. In the United States, some of the most notable are the Tanglewood Music Center, which is sponsored by the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the Aspen Music Festival, the Pacific Music Festival, the Spoletto Music Festival, and the National Orchestral Institute. This will allow you to experience a period of total immersion in orchestral training and performance, with working professionals, that will help you be better prepared for a job as an orchestral musician.
  6. Audition for an intensive program in orchestral training either during your regular studies or after you’ve graduated from the conservatory. Depending on where you live, there may be training orchestras that offer aspiring musicians high-level, regular orchestral experience. Some of these programs may offer a monthly or yearly stipend.
  7. Search for openings at professional orchestras or symphonies. Some may list positions on their websites, but you can also check the monthly newspaper of the American Foundation of Musicians, The International Musician, for job listings.
  8. Apply to do an audition with the orchestra you’re interested in. You’ll need to send a cover letter, resume, and a demo tape of your performances. It’s a good idea to ask professionals you’ve worked with for letters of recommendation.
  9. Audition with the orchestra of your choice. Accept a position as an orchestral musician.


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