The Orchestral Dream (has been) Dead

The Phantom Brass blog recently posted an article by Matthew Waters where he declares, quite accurately, The Orchestral Dream Is Dead.

If we’re looking at the numbers alone, the odds of winning a position is astronomical. According to data collected by Datausa.io, 8,133 Music Performance Degrees were awarded in the United States in 2015. As of May of 2017, there are 8 members of the Regional Orchestra Players Association that pay over $25,000 base salary a year, with an additional 49 under other collective bargaining agreements with the AFM. That means there are 57 orchestras that one could theoretically find full-time employment with. Fifty-seven. That doesn’t mean there are 57 positions open a year. That means there are 57 full-time jobs in that industry, that have maybe a few vacancies total per year. Needless to say, the odds aren’t good with 8000+ bachelor’s degrees in music being awarded every year, and that number continuing to grow.

If I understand correctly, I think that Waters means there are 57 full-time orchestral “employers,” not jobs, since many musicians are employed by each of those 57 orchestras. His point, however, is quite valid. If you’re looking for a full-time orchestral job your chances of finding one are quite small. Waters also comments on how the music scene in southern California, where he is based, is difficult for even very fine musicians to earn a living.

This solution is simple, but certainly not easy. It requires the individual and institutional realization that there is a huge amount of space in the music industry for more than just tenured orchestra performers. We have the opportunity to be live-streaming artists and YouTube clinicians. Private instructors and ensemble founders. Arts administrators, music directors, arrangers, composers, and copyists. The problem in most of the training grounds today is that players are funneled into preparing for a job that they have little to no chance of winning, while totally neglecting all of the other possible jobs that are likely be a part of a successful music career. In performance degrees especially, we’re trained to do only that- perform.

Personally, I find it odd that music students in performance degrees are trained only to perform in orchestral styles, but that’s perhaps biased by my own education, teaching experience, and personal interests. I went to a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies, majored in jazz studies for my masters, and my doctorate is in trombone performance, but I maintained my interests in a wide variety of different musical styles and topics and my degree track emphasized pedagogy. So when Waters comments, “If we’re not going to summer festivals, winning mock auditions, and outplaying everyone else in our studios, we feel like failures,” I find it an unfamiliar feeling.

But what is one to do if your dream is an orchestral job? Give up before you even try? Get a fall back degree? Go for it and risk failure?

I’ve never been particular interested in a full-time job in an orchestra, but I have been able to get paid to perform with regional orchestras regularly in the past (for disclosure, I don’t do a lot of orchestral playing these days, but that’s largely due to being busy doing other performing and not making an effort to do more than the occasional subbing). I don’t see orchestral playing as being any different than being a successful freelance musician in the first place. We all have our wheelhouse, and if yours is orchestral playing than you can focus on that side of your playing and make that your primary performing goals. Don’t neglect your skills in other types of playing too, however, and be ready to do a lot of different types of performing if your goal is to be a successful music professional.

And as Waters suggests, be ready to do some things that are peripherally related to your musical performing and get some background and education in those things. Teaching is the obvious one, but I generally don’t recommend you go into music education full-time unless that is your goal. Too many music students get a music education degree as a “fall back” and then end up miserable because they don’t enjoy it enough to justify all the non-musical stuff that goes along with it.

Keep in mind that overall, Americans change jobs between the ages of 18 and 48 an average of 11.7 times. That can be in the same career, but in non-musical fields people change careers all the time and still are happy and successful. The bottom line is that you, as an individual and as a musician, cannot be defined by your job, but by who you are and your attitude towards what you do.

This is the new reality for anyone pursuing a music career, and it’s time that we faced that. The skills that are needed to win an orchestra position are developed at the cost of excluding almost of all these other skills. It is a single-minded pursuit, and it is destructive for the vast majority of music students. We need to broaden our training and bring musical education into the 21st century.