Douglas Fisher  

Professional Sacrifices Define the Lives of Orchestra Musicians

Douglas Fisher
May 3, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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.

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Comments (Click to Hide)

Great article Doug, Bravo! I especially liked your comment about the lack of advancement pay for career symphonic musicians, other than the contractual raises we fight for each time, and some seniority pay, if the contract provides for it. At retirement, musicians deserve to have much more to take with them than just memories, and maybe a fake Rolex. Bravo again!
nathankahn on May 4, 2019 at 4:58 PM
Very good points! I wish there was a way to articulate some of these facts to the general audiences out there. But more importantly, we musicians need to be reminded of these sacrifices we make every now and then, too. It is far too easy to forget what we put into the product sometimes.
katin on June 9, 2019 at 7:59 AM
All so true, Doug.. but dare I add that there are 'sacrifices' - and great artistic privileges as well, at one remove, of course - which are experienced by the partners / family members of musicians, as well as the performers themselves?

You are right that thre aren't many professions which demand so much for so very little material reward. But partners don't even get the privilege (for such it is) of being 'licensed' to perform at the highest level the most wonderful music ever written; they just get the lonely shift as the babysitters, more often than not.

That grip over, however, I do think there's another aspect to all this which reflects both on the esteem of artists, and on the frequently antequated ways of management: Where's the in-service training and professional development (if only...)?

Managements all seem to find money also to pay performers to become community musicians (which is great); but many of them spend not one cent on maintaining the core function of an orchestral performer - i.e. playing his / her chosen instrument at an international level of expertise.

And then, when the going gets tough, maybe after two decades of service, they put players through the mill. What a way to let people know they have no value... there's always another bright young thing awaiting their turn (and oblivious of the sad fact that the same may well happen to them in due course).

I really do think this dreadful negligence of the very meaning of many orchestral players' existence is a blight both on them as individuals and on the organisations which employ them... a most unfortunate irony, given that it's that very commitment to the music which makes the appalling pay and conditions worthwhile.

I'd be very interested to know what others think, either here or on my own blog (see e.g. this article ).

Thanks again for raising such important matters - and good luck.
HilaryBurrage on August 28, 2019 at 5:03 PM

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