The View From The Stage: Real Life in a Professional Orchestra

A few years ago an enthusiastic audience member approached me after a concert.

“I used to play a little clarinet in high school,” she said.  “How do I get  into the Richmond Symphony?”

I explained the long, hard road I had traveled to become a professional musician. Then, with a look of confusion she said, “But you can’t actually make a living doing this, can you?”

Conversations like this reveal the disconnect between real life in a professional orchestra and popular perception.  Dabbling in science does not qualify someone to be a cancer researcher and playing high school sports does not automatically lead to a career in the NBA.  Similarly, no one who has won a job in a professional orchestra plays their instrument “a little.”

Preparing for a professional career begins long before senior year in high school. As a teenager I practiced many hours a day and, although I did well in school, the violin became my highest priority.  I knew that I would face intense competition at the audition to get into a top music conservatory such as the Eastman School of Music.

During my six years in music school I began spending hours each day working on the orchestral excerpts that would be required for orchestra auditions.  It’s not uncommon for over a hundred applicants from across the country to show up to audition for one position. Auditions are held behind a screen so the committee (made up of members of the orchestra and the Music Director) cannot tell the identity of the applicant.  Applicants are assigned a number and at the end of each round only a few players are selected to continue.  In order to be competitive, musicians must be able to perform well under stress.  A significant investment in a good instrument is also important.  This article offers a closer look at the audition experience.

Most of the time professional musicians make their jobs look easy and many people assume that they are having “fun.”  Jeremy Mastrangelo and Holly Mulcahy have written excellent articles that shatter this myth by offering a glimpse at the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

While amateurs and students have weeks to prepare a concert, professionals often have one or more programs to prepare each week.  Rehearsals (which usually last two and a half hours with a fifteen minute break and always begin and end on time to the second) are only part of the professional musician’s work day.  The other part involves hours of personal practice and preparation at home.  Long hours of playing each day put musicians at risk of developing injuries like tendonitis and create other physical stress. Similar to athletes, professional musicians often structure their day to ensure that they will be at their best at concert time.

The polished sound of a professional orchestra does not happen by accident.  It’s the result of years of hard work on the part of its members. As a professional orchestra musician I consider myself lucky to do something that I find so gratifying. At the same time, there is no part of playing professionally that is “fun” in a recreational sense.  It’s still a job.