This series is based on my own experiences as a professional freelance classical orchestral musician. While everyone has a slightly (or vastly) different individual path in the freelance world, I believe that these experiences reflect what a growing majority of orchestral freelancers are dealing with in their professional lives.
The traditional pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a student pursuing professional instrumental study at a university is a position in a salaried symphony orchestra. Ever since my early teens I was constantly told that I had the goods required to get one of these positions. That may have been the case (and may still be the case), but the number of available full-time orchestral positions has been shrinking yearly at a regular rate, while the number of students seeking these jobs has grown exponentially.
Before I get into the raw statistics, a brief history of the symphony orchestra in the
The golden age of full-time orchestral employment began with the rapid influx of corporate giving in the late 1960s and began to decline slowly but steadily in the early 1980s. Prior to the 1960s, few of the top tier orchestras paid a living wage. Chicago Symphony musicians mowed lawns in the summer to pay their bills in the 1940s, and orchestras with a more modest pedigree (like the Milwaukee Symphony) were often volunteer community orchestras. Most performing classical musicians prior to the 1960s were essentially freelancers, playing in a wide variety of venues. Symphonic work made up only a small percentage of the income of classical musicians in the first half of the 20th century. Vaudeville, musical theater, recordings, radio work, jingles, and other such work presented the performing musician with a plethora of options for employment, and symphonic music was definitely not the highest paying activity. For years the Chicago Union Hall resembled the Chicago Board of Trade as contractors and musicians bustled about, each vying for the other’s services.
The number of music schools offering performance degrees also mushroomed during this time, as did the number of students entering such programs. Again, there are many contributing factors to this trend, but at least part of the reason for this increase in enrollment and number of programs had to do with the new career paths available to professional musicians. Being an orchestral musician was a “respectable” career complete with pension, benefits, regular hours, and the like. The fact that this salary and benefits package was largely funded by corporate giving and not by ticket sales or other such hard transactions did not matter in the minds of most musicians. There were jobs and this next generation of conservatory-trained musicians was coming to get them.
It is interesting to note that, although more people are listening to classical music than ever before, a strong case can be made that classical music had its widest saturation in the public sphere in the 1950s. Leonard Bernstein’s tenure with the New York Philharmonic, the rise of a stable, prosperous, post-World War II middle-class audience, the rise in popularity of the 33 1/3 LP record—these and many other factors contributed to this period as being, if not the only golden age, then certainly one of the golden ages of classical music popularity.
This era is a good decade-and-a-half before the explosion in corporate giving that precipitated the creation of so many orchestral jobs, and it is worth noting that the popularity of this art form did not coincide with the infusion of cash into the infrastructure delivering this art form.
The jobs created by corporate giving in he late 1960s and early 1970s had both positive and negative consequences for the orchestral world. By 1975 most major (1,000,000+ people metro area) had a full-time symphony orchestra. This created many new employment opportunities for classical musicians, which is a good thing, but it also created large bureaucratic organizations whose purpose was self-perpetuation and growth. Again, this is not necessarily a negative development, but it represents a distinct shift in the world of classical music dissemination. American classical music in the 19th and early 20th century was based on a commercial need. Impresarios from these earlier generations would hire musicians for single engagements with the sole purpose of making a buck. If the production turned a profit the impresario would mount another production in a similar vein and continue mining a profit until that stream dried up, at which point he would mount another type of production.
Contemporary Broadway productions are a great example of this sort of entrepreneurial activity today. Believe me, no one mounts ‘The Lion King’ or ‘Wicked’ as a not-for-profit venture. The backers of these shows are out to make a buck, and they do, or the show closes.
This is not to say that a symphony orchestra should be run like this. In fact, it is a pretty bad idea to run a symphony orchestra like this. A lot of the work I do is for modern day impresarios, and the work is often of dubious artistic merit.
The point I would like to emphasize is that music was expected to turn a profit prior to the mid-20th century. Orchestra jobs of these earlier generations didn’t pay much because they didn’t earn much in profit. Many musicians probably considered these orchestra jobs to be a supplement to a full and busy individualistic freelance career.
As these symphonic institutions (The Cleveland Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra—notice the incorporation of “The” into the organizational names) grew, they naturally took on more employees to maintain and increase corporate and individual giving. The percentage of budgetary revenue generated from ticket sales shrank as salaries climbed ever higher for musicians. Orchestras by the early 1980s resembled museums in their structure more than the entrepreneurial one-shot ventures of impresarios of the previous generation.
Symphonic institutions have had differing levels of success depending on region, economy, culture, local corporate and philanthropic entities, and a myriad of other factors. While some have succeeded and some have failed, it is important to note that the number of orchestral playing positions available in these organizations nationwide reached their highest numbers in the late 1970s and have been steadily declining since that time.
Other orchestras retrench positions as people retire for budgetary reasons. Several prominent professional orchestras recently eliminated their full-time harp position after the previous player retired, and many orchestras have been playing short in certain string sections (using only 10 instead of 12 cellos) instead of filling these positions at an audition.
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)
- Who Killed Classical Music? by Norman Lebrecht
- Mozart in the Jungle by Blair Tindall
- Orchestra – Wikipedia (read 20th century orchestra trends in this entry)
- Norman Lebrecht – Official Website
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