I am currently a member of the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra and Elgin Symphony, two regional orchestras that also happen to be included in the American Federation of Musician’s Regional Orchestra Players Conference. Working in these two organizations has provided me with some insight into the benefits and challenges of regional orchestra employment.
My experience with regional orchestras has been that they provide the musician with steady employment and good pay for the week–but only for the week. The typical regional orchestra plays one concert cycle per month (two on a good month). Orchestras like the Elgin Symphony play three concerts per week, which results in a seven service week, while the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra will do four or more performances in a work week—not bad in either case for the freelance musician.
The compensation for regional orchestras can vary greatly, and it is not always commensurate with the quality of the orchestra. Some regional orchestras pay $375 per week, and some pay $1000 a week or more—it all depends on location, quality of the group, number of services, and other such factors.
Playing in a regional orchestra can, for the weeks in which one is employed, closely represent playing in a full-time orchestra in terms of working conditions, repertoire, and pay, and it can serve as a satisfactory option for musicians looking to pursue a career in orchestral playing.
The problem with this kind of work is that it typically only happens one week per month. Most people can’t pay their bills on one week of work per month, and musicians are no different. Regional orchestra musicians often audition for positions in several different regional orchestras to assemble a patchwork orchestral performance career.
Having a patchwork career can have pluses and minuses. In Part II of this series I wrote about how most full-time orchestral musicians are also freelancers to some extent, and in Part III I discussed how recent the phenomenon of full-time orchestral positions is historically. Many people enjoy the variety that comes with playing with different organizations, and they appreciate not having to depend on a single income stream (if you have a full-time orchestra job and it goes belly-up, you’re in a tight spot).
It is theoretically possible to hold several different regional orchestra jobs with 10 week seasons each and assemble a 38-40 week job out of them. I have come close to achieving this several times. In the last seven years, I was a member in or played significant portions of the season with the following regional orchestras:
- IRIS Chamber Orchestra
MilwaukeeBallet Orchestra Lake ForestSymphony
- Chicago Opera Theater
ChicagoPhilharmonic Des MoinesMetro Opera RockfordSymphony IllinoisSymphony
USAFestival RacineSymphony WaukeshaSymphony
- Present Music
MemphisSymphony Northwest IndianaSymphony ChicagoMaster Singers
- Midsummers Music Festival
- Music by the
- L’Opera Piccola
Scheduling is the single biggest problem facing freelance musicians playing in regional orchestras. Along with the better working conditions associated with a regional orchestra job comes minimum service requirements. Most regional orchestras have some sort of policy requiring a musician to play anywhere between 50-95% of all offered services. Again, this figure can vary greatly depending on the particular organization, but there is usually some sort of minimum attendance requirement to remain a member of any regional orchestra.
As an example, let’s take a musician who is a member of three regional orchestras. Each of these orchestras has ten subscription weeks of work, which in an ideal world would total 30 weeks of work. This idealistic scenario would give the musician approximately eight months of work, which would resemble an ICSOM orchestra that had no summer season. The musician would still typically not have any benefits provided, but 30 weeks of work plus some teaching and other freelance work could easily make for a successful career.
The unfortunate reality is that at least ten of those weeks would conflict with each other, resulting in about 20 weeks of actual employment. Also, the minimum attendance requirements that many regional orchestras maintain begin to cause problems. These conflicting weeks mean that one has to sub out of one orchestra in order to play with the other ones, often putting the musician in the precarious position of being perpetually at the maximum number of allowed absences. This 1/3 reduction of work from the ideal three orchestra schedule not only reduces the musician’s income but locks those remaining 20 weeks down, often preventing the musician from taking any of those remaining weeks off for more lucrative subbing opportunities, auditions, and the like.
I currently hold four contracts with the aforementioned regional orchestras, and I am constantly in danger of being fired from all four of them due to scheduling conflicts. This means that when I get called to sub in a prestigious orchestra I have to weigh the dangers of being fired from my current tenured positions for the prospect of better, but more irregular (and not guaranteed) work.
For more about the complications of contractor/player relations, check out Road Warrior without an Expense Account Part VI – The Vicious Cycle.
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)
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