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Professional Sacrifices Define the Lives of Orchestra Musicians

douglas-fisher Editor's Abstract

Do I spend the money to fix the roof and pay for my son’s travel soccer league dues, or do I buy the new bow the music director insists I need? Do I spend the next two hours making reeds for next week’s Mahler, or do I help my daughter with her math homework? I just finished Thanksgiving dinner. Do I watch the game with family and friends, or do I practice my solo that I had some trouble with at the last rehearsal for this weekend’s performance?

Columbus Symphony bassoonist Doug Fisher touches on these daily dilemmas and more which invariably end up helping to define what it is to be a professional orchestra musician. Doug draws on his personal experiences to help characterize some of these issues and presents an array of unique solutions.

Drew McManus

Among the highly educated and skilled professions, orchestra musicians make some of the greatest professional sacrifices in order to earn a full-time living. Just ask yourselves the following questions:

Except for business owners or partners, how many professionals do you know who must spend thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to purchase and maintain the equipment necessary to do their jobs?

  • 1. How many highly skilled professions can you name where someone with an advanced degree and thirty years of experience earns about as much as a newly hired employee in their early twenties?
  • 2. Are there any other professions where one might sit next to the same person for decades doing the exact same job the day before retirement that they did on the first day with no promotion and no raise in-between, other than cost of living?
  • 3. With all of these sacrifices, how many professions do you know where there are thousands who compete like Olympic athletes for at best, a few dozen openings each year?

Indeed, life as a professional orchestra musician is filled with unique sacrifices. When I compare notes with close friends in other professions they are amazed that in some cases we must spend as much as a full years’ salary to buy an instrument and sometimes spend thousands more each year to supply and maintain it. The thought of having to buy and maintain their own computers along with the business related software they need to do their jobs horrifies them.

A friend of mine recently retired as a school teacher at the age of 55 after thirty years of service with 70% of their full salary for life can’t believe that after twenty years in my orchestra I have only two years of salary sitting in my employer funded retirement accounts. Even though he did basically the same job throughout his tenure, he received numerous raises by virtue of his degrees and seniority so that by the time he retired, he was earning almost four times what a new hire would earn doing the same job. Although seniority pay exists in many orchestras, at maximum level it often amounts to less than 10% above the minimum salary.

Another friend of mine, who works in the “for profit” world, earns roughly the same salary I do as a mid-level marketing specialist for one of the largest internet companies in the world. Due to stock options, after ten years of service my friend became a millionaire at the age of thirty-two doing a typical desk job without a graduate degree and without unusual sacrifices, other than extra time occasionally needed to meet critical deadlines.

Talking with friends and comparing their professional lives to mine sometimes causes me to question if I would have pursued a career as an orchestra musician knowing now what I didn’t know as a teenager. At that age, I would have simply defined an orchestra musician as someone lucky enough to get paid playing Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms for life. What could possibly be better?

I knew the risks of pursuing an orchestra career and the high rate of failure among those who tried, but I did not know the sacrifices that would be required even for the small percentage of those who are successful. When finally faced with the decision of whether or not to try, I received great advice from one of my teachers, Bernard Garfield, former Principal Bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who told me to pursue this career only if I could not imagine myself doing anything else. I couldn’t, so I did.

Today, after two decades in a mid-budget level orchestra, ten years as a union officer, and the experience of many highs and lows, my own definition of an orchestra musician is more complex. Even after performing most of the standard repertoire numerous times, I still love to make a living playing these works with colleagues who really care and are committed to playing their best. It has also been wonderful to perform with many of the greatest soloists in the world and a few great conductors.

Regardless, all of my high points have come at a great price. Along with the sacrifices discussed above, on two occasions my orchestra has been on the doorstep of bankruptcy which required large financial concessions from the musicians in order for the organization to continue. I’ve endured a six-month strike caused, amazingly enough, not by economic issues but by the desire of a former music director to effectively do away with tenure. Such authority would have provided this music director with complete control of the orchestra, including the right to force a musician to replace their instrument if its quality was not acceptable in their opinion; all at the musician’s expense.

During our second financial crisis, as a union officer I was forced to fight with the board leadership over whether or not they were required to employ previously tenured musicians from year-to-year. They wanted to “redefine” the meaning of tenure to allow them to cut the number of full-time musicians at will, this time for financial reasons.

When an orchestra of only 52 full-time musicians with minimal turnover in personnel goes through all of these ups and downs over many years, our relationships with each other become strained, sometimes creating wounds that may never heal. Having served on the orchestra committee and as a union officer over the past 14 years, at one time or another I’ve regrettably been in conflict with almost all of my colleagues.

Can any of these sacrifices and their consequences be minimized or eliminated? These are among the most difficult issues that many of us have struggled with for a long time. All of them will likely remain in varying degrees but perhaps a few can be addressed.

Some musicians have been fortunate to have extremely valuable string instruments given or loaned to them without cost, the most notable examples are those orchestras who own such instruments. But unless great instruments are donated to the orchestra, the cost of purchasing them is prohibitive, even to large-budget level orchestras. Perhaps during contract negotiations an allowance for instruments and supplies at a level relative to the typical expenses associated with particular instruments could be created.

As with all economic items however, unless the budget for musicians is increased, such an allowance would only come at the expense of increased wages and other benefits. At the very least, perhaps symphony boards could negotiate on behalf of musicians, discounted loans at local banks for the purchase of expensive instruments.

The issue of pay relative to education and experience is more difficult to address. Our union typically adheres to the “equal pay for equal work” philosophy rather than a multi-tiered salary structure. Such a structure might not work anyway because there is not enough money available for musician salaries in most orchestras. In order to work, the minimum salary of a multi-tiered structure would have to be high enough to offer a living wage and high enough to attract the very best musicians from other orchestras or college teaching positions. Once again, budget resources for musicians would have to be increased and this is unlikely in today’s climate.

Managements and music directors could boost the morale of those musicians who desire a change of environment by creating an exchange program of some type. As long as there was no financial loss to musicians, wouldn’t it be wonderful to trade jobs with a counterpart in a different city for a short period of time? The gains for musicians could be substantial and they could return to their home orchestras refreshed and revitalized.

Many musicians shy away from leaving home to perform in summer festivals because of the expenses involved. Perhaps managements and music directors could encourage such participation by assisting with expenses or by helping musicians find festival positions. Since few would likely participate in an exchange program or festival work, the expenses to management could be minimal.

These are just a few of the possible solutions which might be used by musicians, managements, music directors, and boards to help offset the many unique professional sacrifices made by orchestra musicians.

I believe there is also a place at the college/conservatory level to educate aspiring orchestra musicians of the risks and sacrifices associated with this career. Orchestra musicians and their elected representatives could meet with students to discuss the facts of orchestra life so that they are better prepared once they graduate. Schools may be concerned that such discussions might discourage students or even reduce future enrollment but I believe there will always be plenty of students eager to try despite these realities.

Today, my own definition of an orchestra musician is someone who feels lucky to earn a living doing what they love to do most but who knowingly makes many professional sacrifices as a consequence. Despite these sacrifices, when I compare my situation with friends who are financially far more successful and secure than me, I’m still grateful to be doing this - because I still can’t imagine doing anything else!

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