In this second installment of my series on professional freelance life as a musician, I would like to offer some commentary on trends that I see in the world of professional classical music performance. This installment of the series is geared toward orchestral performance. Other musicians, educators, and industry professionals may find value in this commentary, but it will be focused on people who have chosen this particular specialty as their life’s work. I welcome any comments on this or any other part of the series. You can read the first part of this series here.
Different modes of freelancing
Before I continue, I would like to note that there are many different types of freelance careers. In fact, most professional musicians do some degree of freelance work whether or not they have a full-time orchestra or university job. For example, here in Chicago a significant number of Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians play in the freelance ensembles Music of the Baroque or the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra, and members of the Lyric Opera of Chicago perform in a variety of other freelance ensembles as well. Members of the Northwestern University School of Music faculty also play a variety of freelance jobs in the Chicago metropolitan area. Nearly all professional musicians are also freelancers to some extent.
This article will cover some topics that people who are attempting to pursue orchestral freelancing should consider. A future article will cover “jobbing” (weddings, parties, receptions, church jobs), which has a very different set of parameters than orchestral freelance work and some of the specifics of working in regional orchestras. This information is specific to the United States, but musicians in other countries may find value in this material as well. Also, when I refer to “professional orchestra musicians”, I am referring to musicians with full-time orchestra positions. I know that freelancers are also professionals, but I call them professional freelancers here to highlight the difference between musicians with a full-time job and musicians with no major single stream of income.
Ratio of orchestras to population
With only a couple of exceptions, each city in the United States (large or small) can support a maximum of one full-time symphony orchestra per city. In smaller towns, orchestras may not have any full-time positions. Mid-sized cities often use a core of full-time musicians filled out with part-time per-service musicians. The largest metropolitan areas have completely full-time orchestras, and they on rare occasions also support full-time opera orchestras and ballet orchestras. Most larger metropolitan areas also support one or several universities, some of which may have a music program. Some of these music programs may have full-time instrumental instructors, although most universities do not.
In cities with full-time orchestras, these university positions are often held by the same players holding the professional orchestra jobs in that city, which is a good thing for everybody but the freelancers. I believe that orchestral instrumentalists SHOULD hold these university positions. For young instrumentalists interested in a career in orchestral performance, studying with a top-tier orchestral professional is a must. In the world of the double bass the vast majority of double bassists winning full-time orchestral positions have studied with a professional orchestra player. Feel free to check out my Advice for Aspiring Music Performance Majors for more information regarding this topic. The downside to professional orchestral players holding these positions is that it further reduces the job market in a metropolitan area for freelance musicians. The most desirable (and highest paying) adjunct teaching positions and lecturer positions in instrumental studies are therefore held by people with another primary income stream in the professional music world, squeezing even more water out of the freelance sponge. If one wishes to teach at a university, on must often find an institution so far that it would be undesirable for professional orchestral musician. I can think of dozens of freelancers who commute 60, 80, 100, or more miles each way (without mileage) to hold these adjunct university positions. Click here to read more about some problems associated with these sort of positions, or follow this link to read about some of the ethical problems associated with these adjunct positions.
Even those “undesirable” university positions are often held by full-time orchestra professionals. Many orchestra musicians enjoy teaching, and these positions provide a channel in which the orchestra musician can pass along his or her knowledge and give something back to the music world. This is a good thing. People should be studying with orchestral professionals if they want a job in an orchestra. It is also true, however, that each one of these positions could prove to be the cornerstone of a career for a freelancer were it available.
The same is true for many freelance work in a city. I can list at least a dozen freelance ensembles here in Chicago that are made up predominantly of musicians from the Chicago Symphony and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This is also, I truly believe, a good thing (please don’t send me hate mail, freelancers–I’m one of you!). If an ensemble has the opportunity to hire and use players of this caliber they would be foolish not to do so. These players are where they are for a reason, and if they want to perform outside of their full-time orchestral job, it is their right to do so. I love playing gigs with players of this caliber, and I know that audiences appreciate knowing that they are watching “players from the __________ Symphony Orchestra” rather than random freelancer #3275. As a result, many of the best freelance orchestral playing is done by these same players with full-time orchestral positions, squeezing even more water out of the freelance sponge.
Is this a raw deal for freelancers? I guess it is. Having a full-time orchestral position gives a player legitimacy in the eyes of many people that freelancers do not get, however, and fair or not, this is the reality, and it is something that one should be aware of when considering a freelance career. As a freelancer you are not the first pick, and you simply never will be without being a member of a full-time orchestra.
When one first looks at a major metropolitan area (I will use Chicago as an example), one sees all sorts of orchestral activity and all sorts of orchestral (and university) employment opportunities. The Chicago Symphony and the Lyric Opera of Chicago are both full-time professional ensembles, and the list of freelance orchestras (Chicago Opera Theater, Chicagoland Pops, Music of the Baroque, Chicago Philharmonic), and the list of universities with music programs (Northwestern University, DePaul University, Roosevelt University) goes on and on. When one looks more deeply, however, one realizes that a significant number of those ensembles and institutions are populated by musicians from those two major ensembles.
Analyzing the classical double bass scene in Chicago, one finds nine full-time double bass positions in the Chicago Symphony and six full-time double bass positions in the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Over the past twenty years four double bassists have won positions in these ensembles–three in the Chicago Symphony and one in the Lyric Opera of Chicago, averaging out to one full-time double bass position every five years in this metropolitan area. Don’t even ask what the statistics look like for an instrument like trumpet, harp, or oboe. The only large non-adjunct university position not held by one of these fifteen players is the double bass position at Northwestern University. This position is held by the remarkable double bassist DaXun Zhang.
Let me reiterate this: there is only ONE non-adjunct university position in this metropolitan area of over nine million that is not held by one of these fifteen full-time orchestral bassists! And even this one position is a lecturer position, not a tenure-track professorship. Think about that for a while before investing tens of thousands of dollars and a decade of your life getting a B.M. , M.M., and D.M. in music performance. If you want a tenure track position at the university level and you’re a bassist, don’t plan on moving to Chicago anytime soon.
Classical Double Bass Employment Statistics for Chicago:
- size of metropolitan area: nine million
- number of jobs: 15
- number of jobs/population: one job for every 600,000 people
- vacancy rate: one vacancy every five years
Statistically speaking, your odds of becoming mayor of a city like Milwaukee, Wisconsin (population 578,887) are better than your odds of obtaining a full-time double bass position in Chicago.
In addition to those fifteen players there are a handful of double bassists based in Chicago making a full-time living doing freelance orchestral playing and university teaching. A couple of these players manage to work predominantly in Chicago and the nearby suburbs. The rest (like me) drive long miles across multiple states, balancing three, four, or five regional orchestras, maxed out on attendance requirements, staying in hotels or renting apartments in different cities. There is a definite pecking order for the freelance community as well, and young musicians may have a difficult time making any headway in this arena as well. Regardless of what a musician still in college may think, it is NOT easy to just walk into a new community as a freelancer and get good work. The better the work, the more likely players are to hang on to it. Most beginning freelancers, therefore, will have to drive for their dollars.
If one were to put a push pin in the dead center of a metropolitan area and start to draw concentric circles (I call them gig circles) radiating outward, the farther away one gets from that push pin the worse the gig usually gets–the pay gets less, the working conditions get shadier, and the quality of the ensemble decreases. Freelancer income decreases exponentially as they radiate out from that push pin until they run into the gig circles of another metropolitan area. Pay and conditions tend to go up as one approaches the center of the new metropolitan area, but the odometer on the car keeps ticking, and those hidden freelancer expenses start eroding that paycheck. Again, more on that topic in a future installment of this series.
Young musicians focused on a career in orchestral performance need to get some experience performing in orchestras, and the positions that are available tend to be in the furthest reaches of these gig circles. Even these positions can be extremely competitive, but they are more attainable than the work in the closer gig circles. Most freelance musicians seeking to earn a living playing orchestral music must make long commutes in different directions radiating outward from their metropolitan area.
I have been doing this sort of work my entire life. When I lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota I regularly commuted to Sioux City, Iowa to work. Conversely, many musicians came in from places like Minneapolis, Omaha and other nearby cities to play in the South Dakota Symphony. When I got out of college I started working in various orchestras in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. This is the norm rather than the exception for freelancers.
The number of freelancers is escalating every year as more students graduate from music school and discover the jarringly low number of professional positions. When I auditioned for the Elgin Symphony in 2000 only a couple of bass players showed up to the audition. The next audition in 2003 brought out 25 bass players, including many with advanced degrees from major universities and players with significant ICSOM orchestra experience. When the Charleston Symphony (S.C.) held auditions for principal bass in 1999 eleven bassists showed up for the audition. In 2002 they held another audition and 75 bassists showed up.
As more and more players enter the freelance scene nationwide, the competitiveness of these jobs rivals the competitiveness of professional jobs from an earlier generation. These part-time gigs have become the “new jobs” of the current generation of music students. The level of experience and education one needs to land a position in the Elgin Symphony, Canton Symphony, or other such job is now in many cases the same as what a full-time major orchestral position requires. The level of education needed for these jobs (most people landing even part-time freelance orchestra positions have at least a B.M. and usually a M.M.) escalates every year as university tuition continues to skyrocket. What used to put one on the path of a full-time orchestral performance career now may not even get one into a part-time regional orchestra.
The disparity in pay between full-time and part-time orchestras can be huge. An orchestra like the Elgin Symphony (one of the best paying gigs in metro Chicago) only pays a section player $8000 or so before taxes. Many of my contracted gigs only pay $1800-2500 for the year. A freelancer must stitch all of these gigs together into a Frankenstein career. Scary and disturbing, but nevertheless alive. The challenges of balancing all of these numerous part-time positions will be the subject of the next installment in this series.
My freelance career! It’s alive!
Read the complete series:
- Part I – Adjunct University Teaching
- Part II – Realities of Professional Freelancing
- Part III – The Rise and Fall of the Full-Time Orchestra
- Part IV – Rising Tide, Shrinking Pool
- Part V – Regional Orchestras
- Part VI – The Vicious Cycle
- Part VII – Private Teaching
- Part VIII – Burnout
- Part IX – Rethinking Music Performance Degrees
- Part X – Refocusing (Musical Entrepreneurship)