Life of an orchestral musician in a nutshell

This weekend is the final concert series for the SLSO.  After this, they play with Opera Theatre St Louis and have a few other lighter classics concerts until the end of June.  Then the season is over.

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I was talking about this with Mike the other day and he asked, when does the season start up again.  I told him, September.  He asked, oh, so do they spend the summer rehearsing for that?

No!  They have time off.

It’s not like middle school band when you spend all semester rehearsing for a concert.  Orchestras generally only rehearse the week of the concert for that weekend’s concert.  Let me repeat that more specifically:  orchestras generally start rehearsing on Tuesday for a Friday concert.

I realized at this point in our conversation that most people (yes, I’m taking Mike’s innocent question as what most people think.  I don’t know THAT many non-musicians, so I take these questions seriously.  Statistically I believe that works.)—most people have no idea what members of symphony orchestras do.  I wrote a wonderful post about how to get a job in a symphony orchestra (or not, really) but  then what?

What do they do in the off-season?  I’ll start with this question, even though it might be a bit backwards.

It’s not like sports, where the team needs a few months to get back in shape.  First off, the team (well, orchestra) never gets OUT of shape.  Most of the members continue working during the “off-season” at various summer festivals.  Other members take some time off and travel or relax, but generally keep practicing throughout the summer.  Or, to be honest, they take some time off, but then make a valiant attempt to get back into shape before the season starts again. Other orchestras don’t have summers off at all, and so the orchestra never gets “out of shape.” Either way, please keep in mind that outside of orchestra rehearsals and concerts, the musicians spend several hours a day practicing on their own.  (I know there are people who don’t, but I’m talking about conscientious musicians that care about their skills, their careers, and their self-worth.)

What happens during the season?  What is the work schedule like?

Generally an orchestra’s work week goes like this (and please don’t yell at me about how YOUR orchestra is different or tell me classical music is dead because I don’t care, I’m just generalizing here for the public):

  • Monday:  OFF (Monday is pretty universally the off day in symphony orchestra world.)
  • Tuesday: OFF or perhaps one rehearsal of 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
  • Wednesday:  Usually a “double”, meaning two rehearsals, generally one is 2 hours and one is 2 1/2 hours long.
  • Thursday:  Often the same as Wednesday, unless the orchestra  plays Thursday night concerts, in which case Tuesday might have been a “double”.  Either way there is generally a morning rehearsal of 2 1/2 hours OR a double.
  • Friday:  Depends.  Maybe a morning concert, maybe an evening concert, maybe a morning rehearsal followed by an evening concert.
  • Saturday:  Generally just an evening concert
  • Sunday:  Matinee (afternoon concert) or OFF.

To complicate matters (or further clarify, depending on your interpretation), each rehearsal or concert is called a “service” and each week would have between 7 and 9 services.  Each orchestra has various rules and restrictions on how many services there can be in a given week or perhaps a limit on the number of say, 8 or 9 service weeks over the course of the season.  Also, in each 2 or 2 1/2 rehearsal there is a break in the middle of 15 to 20 minutes.  Generally for the weekend’s concert series of 2 to 4 concerts (all the same), the orchestra will have had 4 to 5 rehearsals.  The number of concert weeks ranges for each orchestra, but even an orchestra that only performs 5 concerts a year generally then only rehearses for 5 weeks.

Some of you might be saying, wow, that sounds like a pretty light schedule.  Is it?  Let’s see, 8 services, why that’s only 16 to 20 hours of work per week!  But add in 2 to 3 hours of practicing each day, and that’s another 14 to 16 hours of work.  Plus it’s not as if you simply show up right when the rehearsal starts.  Most players are there warming up 15 to 30 minutes early for each service, so that’s another 2 to 4 hours of work.  Last but not least, when you are at work, you are working.  You cannot take a phone call, you cannot respond to an email, you cannot eat a snack (well, at break you can), you cannot do countless things that it seems to me people with other jobs do.  Not to mention that it might actually take MORE practicing that 2 to 3 hours a day sometimes.  Let’s average it out to a 35 to 50 hour work week counting practice.  Oh, and remember that many orchestras make 30,000 to 40,000 a year, and many musicians have a master’s degree.  Not a light schedule, and not a cushy job.  And you do have to keep up a certain standard of playing throughout your career, a standard that is constantly getting higher.

Next, the orchestra might expect the musicians to do community service (and they SHOULD do this, community service or outreach is very important.)  This service would generally be extra pay (the symphony here trades for a week off if you do a certain amount of outreach) but would also be extra time.

Additionally, many orchestra members teach.  They generally do this on Mondays as that is pretty universally a day off (note there is no real weekend then…).  Of course, it’s extra money.  But when the orchestra gets locked out, goes bankrupt, or simply cancels the rest of the season,  those students can be a lifesaver.

That’s the day to day life of an orchestral musician (in the USA) in a nutshell.  Any questions?

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(this sums up the life of a freelance musician such as myself)

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