Part I

This blog is the first in a series I’m writing for young adults considering careers in classical music. It isn’t for the faint of heart. This is the industry as I see it.

I’m not going to analyze every possible career in music. Instead, I hope to promote the discussion and sharing of ideas on how to course correct a flailing industry. It’s my wish that, over time, this remote corner of the internet grows into one where bright ideas are more abundant than the harsh realities troubling professional American musicians today. Realities that, more often than not, end up turning bright careers into something resembling the Showdown at House of Blue Leaves from Kill Bill Volume One.

Professionals, please share success stories in the comments below, by all means. Administrators, please share proven solutions. Also, I invite criticism; this isn’t about “being right.” It’s about understanding what young American musicians are up against, and it’s about trying to do right by the legions of young people who are considering entering the workforce.

So let’s get started, but buckle up, butter cup. This is going to be a rough ride.

The Bad, the Bad, and the Ugly.

If you are a young person seeking advice about whether or not to make a career in classical music, here’s what too few have the courage, or confidence, to tell you:

Don’t do it.

Most aspiring young musicians won’t make it. At least, not in the way they want. There are too few jobs and too many musicians on the market. Unless you’re already the very best of the best, your chances of succeeding are remote. Turn back now. Better musicians than you already have.

What’s more, you don’t owe Beethoven anything. It isn’t up to you to save classical music. It isn’t up to you to convince the world to love classical music—which is just as ridiculous a proposition as it sounds. Like trying to catch the eye of that Hollywood starlet you want to marry. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

There’s no shame in turning back, despite the heavy peer pressure you feel to the contrary.

Realism is not pessimism

Fact: There are plenty of musicians in the world today to carry the torch.

Fact: There are scores of conservatories and universities producing future torch bearers in droves.

This advice will strike many as dream shattering. Well, it is. But I’m confident it’s a good idea to suggest to our nation’s most gifted young artists to choose a different, but equally soul-satisfying occupation. Set aside your concern for the future of the arts for a moment, and consider these questions. (You can argue later about the difference between realism and pessimism.)

  1. How is classical music promoted “better” with a greater or equal number of professionals than are already on the market?
  2. Will classical music vanish if the number of professional classical musicians dwindles to below the value of “x”?
  3. Why can’t the burden of outreach be shared by amateurs?
  4. Whose musical experience is more meaningful, professionals or amateurs?

Look, I, too, love Benjamin Zander’s beautiful talks on classical music. I, too, believe the world is a better place to have beautiful intonation. I, too, love a beautifully rendered phrase. I, too, believe in the importance of Beethoven. I, too, believe in the importance of classical music in our society.

When I ask young people to turn back, I do it in the full knowledge that most won’t. You know it, too. There’s no real danger that we’ll all wake up tomorrow and find no classical musicians in the world, but not enough people are saying, “don’t do it.” There is real danger that young musicians are statistically destined for a life in poverty. There is a real danger that they’ll wind up saddled with more student debt than they will ever be capable of paying off. Show of hands, anyone?

Can any of us deny that a significant percentage of the young people who find their way into classical music do so for no better reason than because working musicians recruited them in order to pay their bills? What, too harsh? Think it doesn’t happen?

Wikipedia tells us there are roughly 1,200 orchestras in the United States. Now compare 1,200 to a different number: 1,600. This FAQ sheet tells us that’s how many students are enrolled at the IU Jacob School of Music last year. Now, they’re not all orchestral musicians, and that’s not a single graduating class. But that’s the number that keeps IU in business, year in and year out.

And it’s enormous.

In fact, IU boasts that its students will have “ample performance opportunities” with “6 orchestras, 4 jazz bands, 4 bands, 13 choral ensembles, 7 operas a year, etc.” With the promise of all that thrilling stage time, a young person looking at IU with bright-eyed optimism could be forgiven for not asking two critical questions:

  1. Where will all these musicians go when they graduate?
  2. What would IU do without them?

In fact, that second question becomes indirectly relevant to future music teachers as they struggle to answer the first question. The two questions together reveal a troubling economic black hole, as any professional musician can report from personal experience:

Musicians need work. Musicians teach musicians. More musicians need work. More musicians teach musicians. Even more musicians need work…etc., until the end of time. This bubble’s got to burst. It’s the definition of unsustainable, and it’s the primary reason there are so many options for where a young person can go to study music.

So, once we agree that more musicians isn’t the answer, we can smartly turn our attention to trying to learn what reasonable number of professional musicians are needed to sustain, promote and present classical music into the future. Crack that, and our problems are solved.

For those still soldiering on, the next post will discuss outreach. I look forward to reader comments.

76 thoughts on “Inglorious Basterds: A Young Person’s Guide to a Career in Classical Music

  1. David, I have been enjoying reading your insights into the state of the art. I think you are helping to get out in the open some very difficult questions that are facing the classical music industry. I also have to say that you are absolutely right that it makes positively no sense for a young musician to enter into classical music as a profession this day and age…at least to pursue the traditional orchestral career path. For instance weigh the cost of attending one of the more prestigious music schools which traditionally don’t give out lost of scholarships: Northwestern, Cleveland, all are probably going to cost you about $50k or more a year this day and age. Now weigh that against the number of orchestras in this country that pay over $50k a year and the likelihood of landing a position in one of those ensembles. Now fast forward another 5 to 10 years and how many of those same orchestras still pay over $50k a year? If the current trends tell us anything that number is even smaller.

    I don’t inherently think the music degree is useless, however it needs to look MUCH different than what is currently being offered at music schools across the country. As musicians we brag about putting in 14 hours a day of practicing and sacrificing our body and soul to the art all for that shot at glory. If only I can play that Beethoven excerpt better than everyone else! To me it seems like these pursuits are largely wastes of time. Instead, take that classical foundation of yours and apply that to other musical pursuits. Musicians can be arranging and composing music that fits into a variety of situations. They can be stepping out of the classical art form and lending their expertise to various more popular genres, or even not so popular ones provided they are doing something interesting.

    I think the traditional symphonic model is dying and today’s young musicians need to be ambassadors for what will follow. David, you are right that there will always be better musicians out there to carry the torch of classical music. But, are we getting to a point where we can say “oh, you play like Rostropovich? Get in line behind those other 30 cellists and we will call your name when we are in need of another virtuoso.”

    So my advice to young musicians if they absolutely must choose music is do yourself a favor and cash in 5 of those 14 hours a day of practicing for something other than perfecting your Mozart excerpt. Get together with your friends and do what we as artists are supposed to do: create, don’t just regurgitate.

    1. ED! Thanks for commenting, nice to hear from you.

      Of course, $50k a year isn’t the only way you’re going to pay off student debt, but it does serve to underscore the hilarity of the finances young musicians face. Besides all that school debt, you’re also buying an instrument and working for peanuts.

      I don’t really think we’ve got a line of Rostropoviches, but I don’t think that’s the issue. I suspect that as the top orchestras’ turnover rate slows, we see middle, then finally bottom tier orchestras employing the same folks, with very little mobility. We’ve seen that scenario for a while (at least in my working lifetime). Those who get tired of the politics of one “gig orchestra” invariably just move and set up shop in another gig orchestra and toil away there.

      I agree with your advice in last paragraph, except I’d also suggest broadening horizons. Don’t just create. You’ve got to plug into the world around you in some way that’s relevant. Otherwise the profession will continue to spiral into the abyss.

      1. Hi Dave! Great to read this blog post… hope you’ve been well my friend. I was hoping you or John here could define “relevancy to the audience base” (as stated in John’s post). I think I know what you both mean, but I’d be grateful if you could state it here… or maybe instead of just replying to this, create a new post below and define it. Thanks!

      2. Hi Carter,

        Thanks for dropping by. Did I mention anything about “relevancy”? I sure didn’t mean to.

        Seriously, I have no idea about that. Beethoven 3 is relevant b/c he ripped the dedication to shreds after Napoleon proved to be a dick, but the notes, the form, the presentation, the folks wearing their tuxedos, all that’s lost relevancy to young people. There’s no sex on stage, there’s no “baby baby baby” lyrics, and there’s no viral videos of people getting kicked in the nuts. So, obviously, that “chick’s never going to love you.” But the music has proven to be relevant to older, more mature folks. Totally different crowd. Different spending habits, work habits, etc. So, if the path forward is to continue targeting older folks, then relevancy means one thing. If we’re targeting younger folks, maybe we need a porn reel playing behind the orchestra???

  2. The sad thing, is you could take out “musician” and add just about any other given career in there and the advice would pretty much be the same … *sigh* I’m doing better as a freelance editor than I did with my last full-time job, and I am working about half as much. Admittedly, I am much more able to work at my own pace during my own hours and not have to worry about getting up and going somewhere, but …

    The trick is to find a niche that you can fulfill very well and get the word out. It’s unfortunate that beautiful things like classical music just aren’t as important to people, but that’s the way of the world – and the way of survival.

  3. Great article, many thanks to Margie for sharing!  And I love the Kill Bill analogy – that picture is going in my locker.  But I confess I do stand on the other end of the divide.  For many people this isn’t a choice, living below the poverty line isn’t a deterrent.  And, for better or worse, we are not the most gifted, but we are certainly the most passionate and, of necessity, creative.  Dancers often work a second job in addition to holding a company contract just to stay dancing.  In educating and performing, my goal isn’t necessarily to perpetuate some illustrious legacy or to get people to become season ticket holders, but to urge people to seek music and art – inspiration – everywhere;  often the most groundbreaking stuff is found in the most unlikely of places: street corners, churches – heck, even Hilary Hahn has been known to busk at Pike Place.  I agree though on the basic gist of your message;, even if you are the best and the brightest, if you aren’t willing to give up middle class trappings, go to law school.

    1. Please DO NOT go to law school. There are too many law schools and too few jobs. I am a lawyer who plays the oboe and loves classical music. A law degree will leave you with more student debt than even a music degree and unless you go to a top tier school AND graduate at the top of your class, it will be extremely difficult to pay off the debt. A lot of the easier transactional jobs are even being outsourced to foreign countries.

      1. Katharine,

        Thanks for sharing. I’d heard about law being a saturated profession also. Sounds like you got a double whammy! Best of luck to you, and thank you for sharing!


      2. Ditto. Law school is a pit right now. I have an undergrad in violin performance from IU and a law degree from Cardozo, worked as an appellate attorney for almost 10 years, did manage to pay off that school debt. But law is so crappy right now — and the balance of power is so unbelievably employer-heavy — that I’ve gone back to school for another Masters in healthcare (medical speech-language pathology). I don’t feel like any of my degrees were a waste (although I definitely wouldn’t go to law school NOW), but the most important consideration before paying for school during economically challenging times is the demand for one’s educational background in the job market. That said, my music undergrad changed my life, changed how I hear music and experience spatial information, and will be used in my new line of work to elicit language and development in my clients. I just can’t imagine my life without it.

      3. Hey Gabriela!

        Thanks for dropping by. You know, I don’t often consider how many folks there are out there who are doing/have done what you’re doing. I know that in the conservatory world there’s a remarkable amount of “shame” that tries to attach itself to folks who are actively pursuing “back up” plans or those who are considering the back up plan. I think a future post in this series should definitely include the back up plan angle. So many kids are just starting out now and may want to heed the advice here, but feel committed to pressing forward. After all, they love it, and they’ve invested an enormous amount emotionally, spiritually, financially and otherwise. What strategy can we suggest to young adults to help them “shuck the shame” that they’ll naturally feel surrounded in the insular conservatory world when they start eyeing other options, or career paths? Did you ever experience any of those feelings?

        Thanks again for posting!

      4. I can’t tell you how many studies out there demonstrate the benefits of instrumental music performance (e.g., lower incidents of Alzheimer’s and cognitive benefits). So many brilliant people in the legal and health industries have serious amateur chops in at least one instrument. When I first graduated from law school, I joined an amateur orchestra called the Lawyers and Doctors Orchestra filled with these people. This is no coincidence; music is… well, everyone here knows what it does.

        Given the effect of my performance degree on my life (see my previous — and others’ — comments), I think I made the correct decision for me. As someone else mentioned above, an undergrad is increasingly worth nothing out in career land. And speaking of “worth nothing” in a way I wasn’t expecting, when the economy first collapsed 3 years ago, I had no legal work, and violin teaching was my only form of income. During that year, my music degree got me through. Ironic, huh?

        I did not experience shame upon leaving full-time professional music work, but maybe that’s because my background was somewhat different from others at IU. I started violin when I was 10, and I was not serious about it for at least 3 years. Then that all changed, and I practiced my butt off, decided to become a professional, and auditioned for IU when I was 16. I didn’t have nearly as many years invested as others, and while I held my own at IU, I was not one of the “superstars.” The other consideration was my disillusionment with full-time music. I just could not imagine playing in orchestra/chamber music/teaching for so many hours per week. I love music and music-making more than almost anything, but doing it incessantly was killing it for me. So that was very sad, and that sense of loss, having to let go of something that had been my dream, persisted well into my second year of law school.

        On the other hand, it was also a relief, in that I was realizing, being surrounded by prodigious talent, that becoming an orchestral violinist was essentially the equivalent of having NBA-level skills, but having only a tiny chance of making maybe $100,000/year in one of the very best orchestras. I didn’t even have that chance, and if I had, I definitely would’ve wanted a bigger payback than $100,000.

        And I had other interests. I’ve always been an enthusiastic feminist, interested in civil rights, etc. Thing is, even terrible attorneys make decent money; it’s much easier to be an attorney “superstar” than a top violinist.

        There are quite a few degrees that require only a Masters (after any undergrad degree). Speech is one, and law is another, so that was a big draw for me. (Frankly, anyone who studies pre-law or business in undergrad is wasting their time not learning about something else.) Schools wanting a diverse grad school student body love seeing music undergrad work.

        Anyway, you’re correct that there is much to say on the subject of back-up plans that become the main career path. I’ll cut it off here. 🙂

      5. “when the economy first collapsed 3 years ago…my music degree got me through.”

        Interesting observation. I wonder about the “why/how” of that phenomenon. I have had the thought before that musicians will be among the most resourceful at surviving troubling economic earthquakes, b/c:

        1. They’re already cobbling together several things to make ends meet. They know how to do that.
        2. They’re already used to living with very little money.

        But, somehow I don’t think you’re exactly making either of those points with that statement.

  4. Hi David,

    I enjoy your candid views on as subject that people often talk about, but don’t actually take real action. I recently also posted on a post by Norman Lebrecht on his blog “Slipped Disc”, about the current state of the arts in the US.

    What I find most compelling about your argument, is that you are not sending a message of doomsday prophecy (at least in my interpretation) but rather an ultimatum that if we don’t change our models we will eventually lose the arts because we won’t be able to sustain them. Truthfully, we already aren’t able to sustain them.

    I am a performer and music educator, and I agree, more musicians is not the answer. I’m trying to devote my time to create more sustainable models and creative ways to diversify in the arts. For an industry that is built on creativity and imagination, when it comes to the 99% of life off the stage, creativity and imagination seem to be absent.

    I am interested to hear more on your thoughts of amateurs sharing the load of “outreach” or “community engagement”. Also, I am beginning to believe that music education is not suffering as badly as we have thought it once was. After all, if we have more musicians than ever graduating from colleges and universities, doesn’t that mean that we are creating a culture of people who value the arts? Just food for thought.

    Nice work, keep the hard questions coming.

    1. John,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I think your assessment of my piece is accurate in that I’m not intending to send “doom and gloom,” but inaccurate in that I don’t actually believe we’re in danger of “losing” the arts. My feeling is that too many musicians conflate a musician’s quality of life, or paycheck, with “losing” the arts. I’ve not seen data to see how many jobs are in fact “lost” in music. We’ve seen tons of data for down negotiated salaries, service counts, pension plans, etc. It’s in the news all the time. In this way, I think that “saving” the arts too often is code for “saving my paycheck.” Of course we want to save our paychecks–but if we’re confused on the distinction between our paychecks and the arts in general, then our outreach effort gets confused also.
      For instance, training more student musicians DOES educate a generation of future music lovers. But moving those kids into careers indirectly hurts your paycheck. It floods the market. The best talent will continue to heed a calling, and professionals will have to be fleet-footed with their ability to measure the market in the event that our future professionals begins to dwindle. But that day isn’t coming anytime soon, b/c we’ve created so many darned institutions where kids can go get music degrees, and those institutions have professionals who want to save their paycheck too!

      I’ll get my thoughts together on amateurs and put it in a future blog on this subject.

      Thanks again for commenting!


  5. I’m afraid the numbers are the same in any performance medium… what would you say to an aspiring Shakespearean actor, or ballet dancer, painter… don’t do it? That is giving up on our cultural history, and squashing the dreams and passions of the talented. It goes against the internal human spirit, and is just wrong. Possibly the correct answer? Do what you love to do, become the best you can be, and apply your talents to fulfill your hearts desires within your obligations as a citizen, spouse, and most importantly, parent. If that path synchronizes with your passion, you are a very lucky person. If not, utilize your talents learned in your medium the best way you can within your given responsibilities. Never surrender your passion.

    1. Michael,

      I’m not suggesting anyone “surrender their passion.” I’m suggesting that young people consider what they’re willing to trade for their passion. Many will choose poverty, or potential poverty, if it means following their dream. By all means, they should, if they’re so inclined. But we disagree about what it means to “give up on our cultural history.” Flooding the market place with professionals isn’t increasing a society’s commitment to culture. Boosting the demand for culture is increasing a society’s commitment to culture. I’m arguing that we need to acknowledge the difference between these two points or risk discovering what it means to “lose the arts” as people fret over so much.

      Interesting that you mention Shakespeare, btw. How much greater is the demand for classical music than a live production of Twelfth Night? I think this could be a classical musician’s future if we don’t seriously turn around our preconceptions about promoting the art form in a sustainable way. For me, that means fewer professionals, more audience members and a greater number of amateurs who, let’s face it, don’t have to “squash their dreams” in order to pursue classical music performance.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.


  6. Excellent! An honest talk about reality. In my experience, it is not classical music against every other style of music, it is about developing modern and relevant musicians, not just a classical musicians. There are so many opportunities out there for great musicians who are trained in a wonderfully fulfilling and far reaching concepts incorporating great sight reading skills, arrangement talents, improvising, and many other talents that are mandatory in today’s society. This is the future, and the future is exciting, creative and lucrative!
    I Love David Beem…….he’s talking about things everyone at Juilliard/Curtis etc, are afaid to talk about!!
    My company and I are collaborating with several music universities, and music schools to incorporate my curriculum embracing American music and improvising.
    I’m committed to bridging the wide gedap in string pedagogy to incorporate these very important skills need for being a total all inclusive musician.

      1. BTW, you are fantastic! In some of the interview’s with me, I like to quote you as much as possible,
        Check out what I’m doing:
        Mark Wood
        Juilliard trained……Founding member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
        Proud 7 string electric violinist.
        LOVE YOUR BLOGS!!!!

      2. I’m humbled and honored you think so, Mark. You’ve quite an impressive career! We should chat sometime, I’d love to pick your brain about ways to revitalize the industry. THANK YOU for your kind words and sharing your thoughts here.

  7. Wait, hang on: “As I write this, half the country is living below the poverty line.” If that were true, there would be rioting in the streets, where millions of people would be living. In the census graphs you link to, it gives the % of persons below poverty as being 14.3% for all races in 2009 in report 711. That’s high, and bad, but you’re doing no one any favors by making the situation out to be even worse than it actually is.

    1. The census data isn’t that simple. I thought about linking to a New York times column on the poverty rate (dated) but scrapped to defer to a primary source. Most talking points today are discussing this stat, so I felt comfortable using it for my piece. Poverty is determined also by the size of family, besides just income. I stand by the stat.

  8. Remember: Leonard Bernstein, who was one of our greatest conductors, pianists, and brilliant composers, when filling out his tax returns, under “occupation” he wrote musician. This says everything! Also, during the time he was writing the American Icon piece “West side story” his mentor maestro Koussevitzky, conductor of the great Boston Symphony, hated that Lenny was writing for popular audiences. The maestro felt that he was wasting his talent. And here lies that dilemma with classical music pedagogy. We should be end up with supreme musicians, yet what generally come out of these conservatories, is a thorough breed horse…only trained to do one thing.
    Unfortunately the battle of “old school” “new school” continues this ridicules argument that continues to de-rail potential musical innovations and future musical leaders. It’s musical Xenophobia!!

  9. Thrilled to read this brilliant set of statements—– And the main point here is still that sadly NO ONE is telling people this stuff from any alleged position of experience. When I first started going to conduct/perform/give master classes at Universities the first thing out of my mouth when giving any sort of general ” talk” was : ” Hello. If you think there is ANYTHING else you can do for a living right now instead of being a musician and be fulfilled , Quit and go do it RIGHT THIS INSTANT.” And this was several years ago BEFORE the orchestral horrors and bankruptcies were so rampant. Indeed, this life which I DO treasure, is just too hard and getting harder for the next generations all the time– there need to be more people bluntly stating the ugly truth to people for them to see what they are getting in to !!

  10. I agree. I’ve created an alternate approach to the typical starving artist. I’ve been playing guitar for 30+ years and now I take short, well-paying, work from home IT contracts for a few months here and there. The rest I spend practicing guitar (jazz in my case) as I love learning and improvising. I do YouTube videos/lessons and teach here and there with some online courses as well. Early 40s with no mortgage or any other debt, good savings and hopefully a realistic approach to staying involved in music.

  11. That was the most depressing thing I have read today. But I’m glad you wrote it. OK, at some point, the profession was more self sustaining. What can be done to get back there? Clearly the overall employment situation must improve, so that people have some income to spend on something they find beautiful instead having to scramble every day to day for food and shelter.

    Are there places in the world where the arts are doing reasonably well? If so, what are they doing that we are not? Should we be emulating them?

    1. Shooting from the hip, I’d say young people need to climb out of the box given them: private teaching, adjunct/full time college teaching, orchestra gigging, etc. Find other ways to earn comparable money from the cello, market it, build it. If you can climb out of the box successfully, others may follow.

      As for the modeling on other cultures, that’s kind of hard b/c America is its own thing. If you want to work here, you’ve got to build something that works in this country, this culture.

      Thanks for reading/commenting. Sorry it was such a downer!! 😉

      1. You can’t change reality, but you write about it well. I tend to think America over-estimates its uniqueness, but that’s another topic for another day. But, in marketing, if we believe it’s true, it is.

        I guess really, when you boil it down, there’s just teaching in various forms, and performing. Teaching breaks down into private teaching and Skype and media teaching (writing, youtube, and some hybrid web-experience)

        One thing that we no longer have, that drove the market in the 18th century, is people wanting to make their own live music in their own homes. There are no more court musicians, and no more church musicians. Yet the world continues with its old system. I’m impressed that my teacher doesn’t starve to death, and I’d count him as one of the successful ones.

        Wrapping this up, I think we have to solve larger societal problems and then start training the younger generation to value music as being a valuable means of self expression, even if you’re not particularly “good” at it. I look forward to checking out your fictional works, which I noticed elsewhere on your blog.

      2. Thanks, Michael. I think you’ve got a smart head on your shoulders but be careful: “Solving societal problems” may be putting the cart before the horse. Have a gander at how well our politicians are managing that issue. Fitting into the shoe you’re given is all Darwin…

      3. One could easily argue that the industry was never really sustainable. Without the generous Ford/Rockefeller gifts during the 50s and 60s and the WPA initiative earlier in the 30s would we even be in a position to have full time orchestras with “livable” wages?

      4. I think that’s jsut where some of the “false security” came from. It’s a classic business fail–when the cash flow is good, expand your operation even if there is no guarantee of that continued inflow of cash in the future and hope that your growth will be sustainable. The irony is that the pop music industry and sports industry did the same thing at around the same time–expanded when record labels and broadcast media became a part of the subsidizing revenue for the performers/players and neither of those industries are doing as well as they had maybe 20 or 30 years ago. The post WWII economic boom created all kinds of bubbles (similar to the dot com boom and the housing market boom) which are all close to bursting. This is one of the reasons I think it’s misguided to use the pop music or sports industries as models for sustainibility for the classical music world.

      5. I think personal entrepreneurship is key for folks just starting out. For some that’ll mean just “common sense.” But, for others, it’ll mean creating opportunities where there were none.

        One thing that I can tip my hand on a bit. I’m preparing the next blog in this series and its been brought to my attention that there was a ruling in Milwaukee some years back that said that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra wasn’t exempted from a 5% sales tax on ticket sales under the arts/education clause in 501(c)(3). The Milwaukee Supreme Court decided that the orchestra was an entertainment group. The problem is that the orchestra is now pretending to be one thing at the federal level and another thing at the state level. If this ruling ever went to the US Supreme Court, could it tank (probably) every single American Symphony Orchestra who relies on it’s 501(c)(3) status? If so, are we looking at a MAJOR reconstitution of ALL US orchestras? And: What does that mean for the workforce?

      6. Just read your guest blog about the Milwaukee situation–fascinating. And I think, very much in line with what we’re talking about. Though orchestra musicians tend to discount Flanagan’s economic analyses of orchestras, one of the important things he does discuss in his recent book is how much tax law affects revenue for orchestras–if donors couldn’t write off a gift (or could only write off far less than is currently allowed) that’s another thing that could significantly affect total revenue.

        Basically we have all kinds of infrastructural support that made it possible for orchestras to survive (albeit, barely) and those things are changing (or being contested). Sadly, most of these big infrastructures can be little affected by any kind of initiatives done by orchestras.

  12. You know what else strikes me as odd? In the midst of all this, the price of quality musical instruments continues to soar. Investors more than musicians are driving these prices higher, but along with the rest of the situation, this trend seems particularly perverse.

  13. Instead of recommending “Don’t do it” to aspiring musicians, why not recommend “Get a second major in a practical field” or “Learn a second trade because music alone will not pay your bills?” I started San Diego New Music with $2000 out of my own pocket which I had because of my day job, and have been able to continue donating to the organization. Not having to worry about taking every single gig that comes your way gives you the luxury to concentrate on the projects that you really want to perform/compose/conduct.

    1. Fair enough. More enterprising folks like yourself are needed, but I suspect my advice wouldn’t have deterred you when you were starting out. This blog is definitely directed at those who are unaware of the economic realities and who might–might–choose otherwise if they knew. Most artists lead with their hearts, and will go into it anyway. Many will respond to this by doubling down and trying harder, I suspect. I’d like to see more folks jump out of the box and do exactly the sort of thing you’re doing. If a graduate is given three choices for income: Teach, University teach or perform in orchestra/chamber music, that graduate will likely fall in step. If a students are instead taught to realize that there are other ways to earn 9k a year from your cello, ways that are “upwardly mobile,” then we’ll begin to see real change in the market place.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and for reading.


      1. I went the whole academic route as a composer through the Ph.D. level, and at the end of the road was: Nothing. Some adjunct jobs here and there, but not enough to pay back my loans or even make a living. I stumbled into a career that just happens to have something to do with music, but it wasn’t anything I planned.

        You’re right, of course. There’s nothing you could have told my 18-year-old self to dissuade me from pursuing music as a career. Nevertheless, it’s good to have a second skill to fall back on–and that goes for just about anyone these days who’s not in engineering or healthcare.

  14. I couldn’t disagree with this article more. A bachelors degree in almost *any* field today, be it music, English, philosophy, history, or even law are all relatively useless in providing for a full-time occupation upon graduation.  More importantly — that is not the point of every degree pursuit, ultimately, anyway.  (To simply make a living? Is that all?)

    Bottom line: (a) if you *can* be talked out of going into music, then you should consider another career; (b) if you’re going into any of these careers specifically to make money/earn a good living, again, consider another career.

    However – I know MANY former music majors who went on to very successful careers in disparate fields and remain today among the biggest fans and financial supporters of the arts in their respective communities!  And that is something we will never have too much of.

    1. Hi Michael, thanks for your comment.

      First:When I was in school (BM’94) it was generally accepted that most were at least getting their masters as a “safety net,” but the DMA was considered the greatest “safety net”. The extra cost incurred from all that schooling IS significant as compared to the likelihood of finding work when you’re done.

      Second, you made one of the same points I made: I give this advice in full knowledge that most won’t take it. I give it in the spirit of full disclosure.

      Third: I didn’t suggest that you should do something only to make money or that would make you miserable. Many musicians go into music b/c they have nothing else. But many DO have alternatives–they should consider those. Who in good conscience CAN’T give that advice?

      We don’t choose a profession with the only goal of “being successful”. But many young aren’t including in their decision-making process today’s tuition costs + fine instrument, + the statistical likelihood of what they’re going to earn after. If anyone wants to start a family, how giving can they be to a child if they’re still paying off ten years of school and a cello when they’re 65?

      1. Ok – I don’t really disagree with your reply, in theory. But based on my experiences with college students of the age we’re talking about, SO few of them are practical about career choices until it’s too late. I hear your logic, and I agree… but I also feel like you’re asking very young people to start making decisions as if they were informed by everything you and I and other adults have lived through and learned from. I think that is simply part of the human condition – young people take irrational risks, and I wouldn’t want to change that about us even if I could. Also – we’re only now beginning to emerge from years and years of a *very* difficult economy. The job market is not a static state of affairs. And in my heart of hearts, I believe that beyond having a sober discussion with them about career choice (which almost EVERY parent would do upon hearing their child is going into music, of all things) – we need to allow them to make their choices and learn from them. That’s life!

        Regarding expenses – there are many ways to minimize and greatly reduce college expenses. And instruments themselves are a hard asset, so that money is not *necessarily* ever lost. Many, in practice, will increase in value over time.

      2. We’ve got two cellos in the home that aren’t selling, and we have to conceed there’s no guarantee they’ll sell in our lifetimes.

        No one is saying it isn’t their choice. I am saying that an informed choice is better than not. Also, the more “backed up” the economy gets, the greater the pressure it is on a young person to have a sense of direction for their lives at a younger age. That’s not really “my” law–just an observation of logic.

      3. “Many musicians go into music b/c they have nothing else. But many DO have alternatives–they should consider those. Who in good conscience CAN’T give that advice?”

        Honestly, and with all respect, this statement makes me wonder if you are a parent. (?) Do you actually think parents are *not* having this discussion with their children? What’s the solution you’re suggesting? Because I now feel like we’re just griping that our society is far too non-Utopian.

      4. No worries with the “respect.” 😉

        I know parents are having these discussions. That’s why I’m blogging on this.

        I am a parent, and I would advise my kid, who’s likely to be pretty gifted in music, to do something else. I’ll promote something else as he grows up. But, it’s his decision, and I’m sure I’ll “hear the music” soon enough,(i.e. learn what his interests are–he’s three right now,) and support the things that nurture his sense of self-esteem, etc. If he goes that route, I’ll be sure he has every opportunity to succeed as is humanly possible. I see that issue really as one that is all about wanting the easiest life for our children. No one wants them to suffer undo hardship.

        The “solutions” are emerging in these comments. People who needed to go into music b/c they felt a calling, and sharing/reporting on where their lives have taken them, what’s working and what isn’t. The back up plan is paramount today for the vast majority of those entering the workforce.

        Thanks for commenting, Michael.

  15. Thank you for the thought-provoking post, David, and the fascinating discussion!
    As a 40-something living the life of a performer/adjunct instructor/teacher and “music entrepreneur” after having had a small but salaried orchestral position that died in a previous wave of orchestral carnage, I can say that I did hear the “Don’t do it unless you can’t do anything else” speech early on in my career and it obviously didn’t dissuade me. BUT… it did prepare me to enter the musical world with open eyes and a realistic outlook. I am married to another musician (who was employed by the same orchestra), and while we don’t live below the poverty line, we wouldn’t be able to do it if we had kids. That was the sacrifice we had to make, and it IS a big one. Perhaps there is a caveat needed in the speech? “If you want to have children who aren’t poor, start that secondary field now.” I also think that having a “back-up plan” is not enough. Most of us initially have back-up plans but very few are prepared for the psychology of pressing that Plan B button. After spending years trying to make it in music, the back-up plans can be as worthless as the B.M. or M.M… or DMA.

    One thing I see that is also not spoken of is the Achilles heel of our own passion. When we musicians NEED to play and will live in poverty to do it, we can hardly expect other people to pay us to do it. Most classical musicians have this drive… this urge… this NEED to play, and are totally willing to put up with long drives, unsustainably low fees, abusive (and often poor) conductors, etc., to get their fix… and if WE aren’t willing to put up with that, the truth is there is another generation of younger, more eager musicians that are happy to step in. Almost every conservatory/school of music out there now has graduates that have gotten together as entrepreneurs to form their own cutting-edge orchestras. They play wonderfully, with a passion and drive that often is lacking in the older traditionally established orchestras. These new orchestras are generally all young and don’t need to worry about things like pensions and health care, etc. They get to play with each other and they do it amazingly well, but the clock keeps ticking. Classical music isn’t dying, but full-time professional jobs have a very steep hill ahead. It’s just supply and demand. (I’m not judging these musicians as “wrong” in any way. I’m just saying that entrepreneurship could ironically speed up the death of the old model.)

    As teachers, I see many musicians looking to train people who are younger versions of themselves. Sure, we all relate to and love working with that kid who has that passion and talent… but maybe that is only musical reproduction and not true growth? My hope as a teacher is not to create the next orchestral musician… My hope is to help inspire a kid to have drive, intelligence, high standards, and artistry in whatever they do. I’d much rather they be high salaried achievers in other fields but with a love of music, and a personal knowledge that musicians don’t work a “20 hour work week.”

    One last thing… someone mentioned there not being a culture of amateur musicians getting together to make music. I think there is a lot of untapped potential waiting in amateur classical experiences if we can get around the amateur/professional divide. As highly trained specialists, we “pros” learn to be extremely critical and NEED higher and higher standards, therefore it can be hard to mix and relate with those who have a passion for music but don’t have the training, or talent, or share our need for the highest standards. I teach many adults who have started an instrument as adults. I also work for a community organization that helps put them together into a small ensemble that I coach. They love this, and seeing their unbridled joy at trying to just make it to the next line of music is very inspiring and valuable. I have also noticed that those same people tend to become some of my most dedicated audience members for my own concerts..

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I wanted to comment on this phenomenon of working for peanuts/helping our young folks move forward. It’s true that if older folks don’t take the work, there’s always the next generation (or other old folks) who’ll swoop in and seize the opportunity. But this is the box we need to climb out of. Perhaps the older folks need to be better trail blazers at finding alternative ways of replacing the money from these gigs. Alternatives to adjunct teaching and low income gig orchestras. If enough folks start blazing a trail away from these tired “sure things,” then others will follow. There are a few trail blazers who’ve left comments here–their paths don’t look easy, but they ARE paths, an unorthodox. (In fact, we have a founding member of the Trans Siberian Orchestra lurking around in these comments…) 😉

      The amateur thing is fascinating to me. I want to do a blog on this soon. I think there are a lot of practical things we can do here. Most of us teach/have taught adult amateurs, but we don’t think to give them professional opportunities b/c it’s “taking” from our pockets. An amateur may rightly decide to do something for peanuts, or for no better reason than to have a performance opportunity. And why not? They’ve got a day job. If someone is saving money on that performance we passed on to an amateur, isn’t that more money in your pocket for some future gig?

      I’m just spit-balling on that, but I see opportunity there. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!


  16. Hi David,

    I’m a flute performance major currently at a mid-level US conservatory. I should forward my response to your article by saying that I have been critical of classical music in the ways you have expressed above. I was originally a music therapy major (which has a great job market currently), because I convinced myself that being a performance major would give me a death sentence on the job market. However, I decided to drop my music therapy degree because I’m too in love with playing my instrument for the time being. For grad school, I’ll probably go back for my music therapy post-bacc, but at the moment, I find myself wishing to simply enjoy my undergrad. Many of the music majors I know are on hefty scholarships. Thus, I find that the degree isn’t as financially binding as one would expect.

    There is a place for those of us who truly love their instrument, regardless of talent level. We function as the Ambassadors to Classical Music. I come from blue collar backgrounds, and people who think my music is the best damn thing they’ve ever heard. They call me a “virtuoso,” and I would never be rude enough to argue in front of them for it. The majority of people I know find music performance a novel experience, and even though it’s not with the New York Philharmonic, it’s still appreciated. My ensemble director studied with Nadia Boulanger “back in the day” and went to all of the best schools for music. He tells us that “if you have a passion for it, you can do anything you want.” So even if I’m just “some dumb, naive, undergraduate,” I’m happy pursuing what I want to, and touching the lives of “the little people.”

    1. Good for you, Rachel! I would never think someone “dumb” or “naive” for electing to pursue something they were passionate about. I hope I didn’t make you feel that way. My intention in writing this is to paint a clear picture of the market so young people can make an informed decision. Going forward, we’ll examine reasons for the condition of things, possible solutions, useful things to know, etc.

      Also, I should point out that you’re one step ahead of the game. You’re considering your education in components. You’re thinking “this is what I’m doing now, and I may have to pursue a plan B later.”

      I know there’s a lot to read in these comments, but I urge you to scan through them. Some folks have shared some enterprising solutions for finding your way out of the box. If music therapy doesn’t continue to hold your interest in a few years, and you find that the performance bug just has hold of you too tightly, you’ll want to consider finding a career path that isn’t dependent on university teaching and orchestral performance. Those two markets aren’t promising. But that doesn’t have to mean that a performing career is closed. It only means you have to think creatively for a path forward. For instance, one of my former students has gone viral on YouTube as the “beat-boxing cellist” and won the Sing Off (on NBC?) as a member of the Pentatonix. Not everyone is seeking alternative careers such as his, but there’s nothing to say that you can’t perform commissioned flute rep on TV reality shows, launch a viral career through YouTube or strike up something that ignites a fire in your imagination. Young people HAVE to break out of the box so the rest of the workforce can figure out how it can be done.

      Thanks for your comments, and good luck to you, Rachel.


  17. Another prudent, thoughtful observation, David. Like you and so many of our friends, I wish someone would have shared these insights with me when I was much younger. I’ve been so lucky to enjoy many rewarding experiences and friendships in my career as a musician. I’m also lucky that I was able, early in life, to obtain other degrees and experiences, too, that provided steady, reliable income, without which I could not have afforded to continue my involvement in music. I’m certain that if I’d had spent decades chasing gigs, recruiting students, reaching for every scarce dollar I might have been able to earn as a musician, I would have burned out young. Thankfully, because I built an alternative career at a fairly young age, I can still enjoy playing my instrument after 30 years of playing professionally and semiprofessionally. Thanks for this post, David!

    1. Hey Trish!

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Your career is interesting b/c you’ve enjoyed making music side by side with some of the most gifted young musicians of a generation b/c of the orchestra’s proximity to such a prestigious music school. At the same time, you didn’t have to slave away in poverty in order to do it, like so many young people seem to believe.

      Thanks again for sharing!


  18. Hi David,

    Yes, those are the haunting questions I face. As an undergraduate piano performance major, I think about my future all the time. I am slightly anxious when I think about the real world outside of my “college-of-music bubble,” with tons of other pianists out there looking for teaching jobs at universities. Where’s my place? What am I going to do? I was originally planning on going the Pre-med route because I like science and the idea of helping people in physical, measurable ways. Plus, I’d always have a steady job and paycheck.

    But then, I found out my passion is piano. It’s what I’m best at and what I love doing. And, as someone else correctly commented, I’m young and like taking irrational risks with my life….. 😉

    For a time, I thought I could get a degree in piano and also take prerequisites for med- school, but then reality hit me– only super humans can do that. And if I pursue another career, I know I would be sacrificing music– maybe not completely, but in a big way. I’m not willing to do that. Music is what makes me who I am. What I’ve spent hours and hours practicing. Music has taught me so many things about life in general that I never would have learned had I not studied it.

    Unfortunately, for those who want to support a family and be financially well-off, I agree that music may not be the best path to go professionally. It’s just the reality of life. Family should come before everything, even your own dreams.

    So, my solution? Well, I don’t have an answer just yet, but I am finding out that music helps people in ways that medicine can’t….. 🙂 and THAT’S something worth pursuing.


    1. Hi Heather,

      Thank you for leaving your thoughts here. Question: What year are you in school? How do you feel about pursuing back up plans? For someone with a love of science, your blend of natural gifts makes you an employable person in pretty divergent fields. Piano is ALWAYS there, whether you get a degree in music or not.

      I have a former student who is one of those super humans you’re talking about. He went to Yale, and did (I think) pre med and Chineese. At the same time, he’s launched a musical career for himself from YouTube.

      It can be done. His story sounded a bit like yours when I first met him. He was sure he had to choose, then he forged his own direction.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting!


  19. Why doesnt traditional music education take a leap of faith and try to take a more progressive aproach. While music schools are fixated upon preserving the past, and continuing an age old tradition; the world is moving forward. Im am not saying that learning music history, performance practices, or music theory is unimportant. Obtaining knowledge of these things should be crucial for any music student. However, it is not taught in music school how to market one’s self, or how to use technology that is applicable to todays world.

    There is a wonderful Recording Engineering program at my school where students do learn those things. There is also a conservatory on campus at my school yet it is completely seperate and segregated from the audio production department. While recording students may lack in knowledge about the musical language they are working with, because they arent being taught it; music majors are. Why not combine the two? It would create an opportunity to educate more students about “classical” music aswell as provide new useful tools for students that are fixated upon making a career out of music.

  20. The situation as described for orchestral instruments – cello, violin, et al – applies ten fold for Classical Guitar. Instead of hoping to find a chair in the orchestra, we dream of finding a chair in a restaurant (to play at). And good luck with that in the current economic environment.

  21. The article doesn’t state what a musician who is not in a top-tier orchestra but wants to be a performer needs to be: a small business. (though it might be hard for bassoons…)

    I would rather deduct (yes, tax word) the concerts I attend than spend 40-80hrs a week practicing law/ medicine or any other profession. And as most small business owners will say, “It’s worth it, I don’t miss the vacations.” Or to paraphrase Zappa: “I don’t need to jump out of plane. I play music.” (loose paraphrase.)

    I stopped keeping track of the amount of hours in a week I spend working in music, which includes time on the computer (insane amount), press creation, programs, teaching (private, conservatory, community music school, and university), tons of administrative and some practice (never enough), but not a second is wasted. For me it was a not a choice; it is life.

    As a classical guitarist, an orchestra was never an option, though I have enjoyed playing concerti recently, but the idea of being the next Segovia was a joke (thankfully), as I had to be me.

    I’ve created and been blessed by many opportunities and learned many lessons. After spending years looking for venues to share music w/out breaking the bank, the latest creation is Greater Boston House Concerts ( Supporting other musicians, which does not happen nearly enough in the music field, is important, and building bridges in communities also matters. My community is not wealthy and mainly immigrants yet we attract them and people from throughout Greater Boston.

    When I speak to students about Being an Artist Entrepreneur, I say create beautiful music (not just fast and loud) and have a decent character and people will listen and want to work with you.

    Beethoven is great and so can be the composer who lives next door. Knock on the door and be the change.

    ps. I do think conservatories are too expensive and I think the apprenticeship method could work substantially better. I did it for 7 years following my undergrad and as I entered the real world, but it seems more and more paper are required…sad.

  22. Hi David,

    Found your blog post through a link on Facebook. Great post. I’m a classical singer who was faced with a career break after an injury took me off the stage for a couple of years. I was lucky in that I had already started another degree (in translation) – not actually as a backup plan, but out of my own interest. When I suddenly found that I *needed* that backup, I finished the degree and then built up a business as a freelance translator. Now my so-called plan B is giving me a great deal of freedom. I strike a healthy balance between my two careers and find that they actually inform each other. I consider myself very lucky.

    As part of my rehab, I spent a lot of time hanging around athletic therapists and gyms. Lately I’ve been thinking about the way professional musicians are trained versus professional athletes. Hundreds of college students get sports scholarships every year, yet no-one ever graduates with a degree in football. I’m not an idiot – I know that music requires intense study and years of dedication, and the cocoon of a music degree is a great place for that to happen. But these days, is it really the best model?

    If a pro sports player can get an unrelated university degree (without the ‘shame’ of following a plan B) and still perform at the top of his or her game, I wonder if there’s a lesson to be had here for the music world. Athletes with business degrees are currently playing hockey at an arena near you, making far more than any musician I know. And no-one ever told them they had to get a degree in “sports performance.”

    Of course, there are plenty of other costs and sacrifices involved in becoming an elite athlete. But even before one enters a music degree, the price of private lessons, instruments, etc. can rival the cost of participating in most amateur sports. I also realize that comparing the economics of professional sports and professional classical music is comparing apples and oranges (if apples cost $1K and oranges were three for five cents). But if we’re talking strictly about university degrees here, I think we should throw away that ridiculous, shame-inducing “Plan B” moniker. How about a “Plan A that actually has a fighting chance?”


  23. Meh. I write symphonies for myself. I understand that years ago you might have to go to a school to be able to hear your compositions played by an orchestra, but this no longer is the case…. let me elaborate…

    I started writing music with my wife who at the time was DJing EDM at clubs and on radio stations. She only played her own tracks, and remixes, and had spent several years working on her mastering and production skills exclusively. I learned how to write music though sequencers, I can’t even read sheet music actually… yet I have written hours of polyphonic orchestral arrangements in sample based programs. Firstly though Garritan Personal Orchestra, though I’ve been branching out to other programs like Quantum Leap’s RA World Instrument Library. Hopefully soon I will buy some of Hollywood Strings’ data. These programs are cheap, and even if you don’t have the money you can still pirate them. (Although I would ethically disagree with someone pirating the software if they are actually making money off the music they create in it.)

    I didn’t go to music school. Instead, every town I go to, I check out all the used book stores. I pick up books from the 1880s-1940s, usually ones written by arrangers/composers about orchestration. Some portions of the books I don’t get because I can’t read sheet music, but much of it I can. Now a days they have OCR for sheet music, and so I’m going to start taking the books (Some of which I’ve read 2-3 times) scanning them and making midi files of them to be able to hear what they are talking about.

    The first such book I got was “The Orchestra and Orchestral Music” and it was 10 dollars. The pages are so old they smell vaguely of vanilla, the text antiqued enough to hyphenate today (to-day). If you know where to look, they are freely available on line quite commonly…

    So to me the idea of music school seems like a dramatic waste of money, being self taught and all. I understand this whole world of scanned 150 year old books freely available at the touch of a few keys/mouse clicks, and sequencers which terabytes of samples ready to spring to life as as symphony is a very new concept. Nonetheless, it’s the world we now inhabit.

    A world which also is seeing collage become one of the biggest scams around… as a self taught “outsider artist” (I guess that is the term) maybe I’m bias… but mostly I see art schools chew up and spit out the people which I have seen the most talent from. It seems to me that I’ve seen at least 4-5 young artists that showed real potential hate art after art school.. and I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone being the person I am. I understand some people may thrive in these situations, but I am certainly not one of them.

    The truth is regardless of if there is money in it, regardless if history remembers me, I will never stop writing music; because I do it for myself. I like being accomplished, I like incrementally becoming better at something. Put me on the street in a cardboard box and I will still walk around town humming and beat boxing my newest track, written in the sequencer of my mind.

    If the idea that you couldn’t make money off your music makes you shy away from creating it, I think you already need to asses your true motives. Yet if the idea of not making,writing,living,breathing music is not only unfathomable, but impossible for you… why not at least try? Because some jaded blogger says so?

    Just do so fully knowing that you need a plan B. To be honest I think most art school is a scam, commonly full of people who couldn’t make it, and can teach you how to not make it as well. If you can’t teach it to yourself, maybe you don’t have the talent and drive to make it work. It just seems like such a much larger gamble to go to collage and end up with so much debt. But if you can get your lottery tickets for free, why not at least try?

  24. Wow. What a wonderful discussion. Thank you, everyone, for your contributions. I am on the other end of the continuum, as it were. I am an amateur ex-classical singer who’s found my true home, a lot more opportunities, and a more joyful, less competitive, more open camaraderie in jazz. I am also the parent of two passionate teenage musicians who nevertheless know already that they don’t want to do it for a living. (We know a lot of musicians and we know how much they sacrifice.)

    From our point of view, as a family of dedicated amateurs who want to play and sing as much as possible, this discussion is valuable for its perspective on maximizing and inventing non-professional musical opportunities in one’s life.

  25. I have a degree in classical music in ‘cello and have taught it, performed etc. ADVICE: Marry someone who is a Doctor or Banker and then do ‘the arts’ on the side. Or become a nurse and do music on the side. Or marry a dentist and do music on the side. I married another musician (how dumb is that?) and now rather wished I had gone for the mate who was in another well-paying profession. IF you go into the arts as a career (and are not attached to a medical-world person) be prepared for shopping in thrift stores your entire life, going to food banks, and worrying about finding cheap rental housing where you can practice. And this is WITH excellent performing and promotional skills….I shudder to think of what happened to the people who were at the bottom of my university-music-degree class.
    I wish I’d studied something else. Classical music is not worth it in 2013.

  26. Agreeing with all the people above. Am 35 and about to leave a career in classical music (a career which has pretty much been partially dead for the last five years, I might add). Rather than repeating the points already offered above (which I share), I offer my own personal timeline:

    Ages 7-22: Pursuing a classical music education, at top level, winning some international prizes, going to top conservatories

    23-25: Graduated, started teaching to make money on the side (hated it), got barely any freelance pro orchestral gigs because despite graduating top of my class my teacher didn’t have the “right” connections and I couldn’t afford to live in the city and network every night.

    25; went abroad to try and find better work, did a masters. Spent a few years doing both good and bad gigs to build up a network, meanwhile dealing with making friends, learning the language, finding adequate places to live, etc.

    29: achieved a small network but not getting any “big” gigs due to the fact that native students were given preference by the teacher. Not all teachers did this, but mine did. Did some valuable interesting work though, which I enjoyed.

    30: cultural crisis occurred, coincided with financial crisis, all work dried up, including all teaching. This basically killed my small, non glorious, but sufficient career I was working on.

    31-33: two miserable, barely employed years. Got ill and went back to live with my parents for half a year.

    33: met partner during a visit back abroad to the country where I studied (thankfully not a musician), we moved in together and I got a standard customer service job with minimum wage salary.

    34: quit customer service job to have another stab at going freelance, total disaster. Found freelance teaching which either was unreliable or dried up in 3 months. Stopped and managed to find a contract job as an English teacher. I couldn’t do it anymore, either to myself or my partner, with our impending wedding coming up (which we did very cheaply) and the fact that we had to move out of our 25sqm studio and couldn’t find anywhere else for the same price.

    35: Now we live in a city further away, I am still English teaching and playing about two professional gigs a year, though still paying out for road tax for the car I need for my instrument plus instrument insurance. I could do more gigs but they pay so badly that it would cost me money to go and do them. Ditto for doing ensemble work. Am already too old for doing orchestral auditions abroad, often don’t get invited.

    Am considering whole new other career path that actually makes me some money for a change!

    Thanks for listening ;P

      1. Wow, didn’t expect my comment to get picked up, was mainly posting for me 😉
        Um…not sure, but am considering working in political journalism or translation, depending on how I manage to get my previous studies upgraded (have translation experience and have an academic BA- sadly only in musicology, but it’s from a good university and hope it’s transferable). Definitely don’t want to do any freelance work- I have a contract at the moment, so that’d be a downgrade- so will see which path seems the most suitable once I’ve sussed out what I need to do to get there.

      2. Well, it took me a while to get to my computer to approve comment as “not spam.” (Sorry about that.) Busy weekend here! Good luck to you, Anon! Drop by again and let us know how you’re doing once you change gears. It’s perspective changing to actually make the plunge. Musicians sacrifice so much for their careers it’s easy to lose track of one’s life and priorities. Not saying that’s everyone’s experience, but I’m definitely happier not doing it anymore, although I wouldn’t have suspected that until I actually started doing other things I found more fulfilling.
        Best wishes,

  27. Also, not to be a downer on anyone considering pursuing music in Europe at the moment (I’m assuming the majority of posters here are from the US?), don’t do it unless you win an audition, and if you do win one, please check the status of the orchestra carefully, even the big names. Orchestras are collapsing left, right and centre, and even in Germany, that last bastion of salaried positions, are starting to close auditions to foreign applicants. My German friends who have been at the top of the freelance circuit for years trying to get in there are still on temporary contracts after 40+ auditions…so not to be negative, but just to inform how it is over the pond right now.

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