The View From The Stage: Real Life in a Professional Orchestra

A few years ago an enthusiastic audience member approached me after a concert.

“I used to play a little clarinet in high school,” she said.  “How do I get  into the Richmond Symphony?”

I explained the long, hard road I had traveled to become a professional musician. Then, with a look of confusion she said, “But you can’t actually make a living doing this, can you?”

Conversations like this reveal the disconnect between real life in a professional orchestra and popular perception.  Dabbling in science does not qualify someone to be a cancer researcher and playing high school sports does not automatically lead to a career in the NBA.  Similarly, no one who has won a job in a professional orchestra plays their instrument “a little.”

Preparing for a professional career begins long before senior year in high school. As a teenager I practiced many hours a day and, although I did well in school, the violin became my highest priority.  I knew that I would face intense competition at the audition to get into a top music conservatory such as the Eastman School of Music.

During my six years in music school I began spending hours each day working on the orchestral excerpts that would be required for orchestra auditions.  It’s not uncommon for over a hundred applicants from across the country to show up to audition for one position. Auditions are held behind a screen so the committee (made up of members of the orchestra and the Music Director) cannot tell the identity of the applicant.  Applicants are assigned a number and at the end of each round only a few players are selected to continue.  In order to be competitive, musicians must be able to perform well under stress.  A significant investment in a good instrument is also important.  This article offers a closer look at the audition experience.

Most of the time professional musicians make their jobs look easy and many people assume that they are having “fun.”  Jeremy Mastrangelo and Holly Mulcahy have written excellent articles that shatter this myth by offering a glimpse at the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

While amateurs and students have weeks to prepare a concert, professionals often have one or more programs to prepare each week.  Rehearsals (which usually last two and a half hours with a fifteen minute break and always begin and end on time to the second) are only part of the professional musician’s work day.  The other part involves hours of personal practice and preparation at home.  Long hours of playing each day put musicians at risk of developing injuries like tendonitis and create other physical stress. Similar to athletes, professional musicians often structure their day to ensure that they will be at their best at concert time.

The polished sound of a professional orchestra does not happen by accident.  It’s the result of years of hard work on the part of its members. As a professional orchestra musician I consider myself lucky to do something that I find so gratifying. At the same time, there is no part of playing professionally that is “fun” in a recreational sense.  It’s still a job.

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4 Responses to The View From The Stage: Real Life in a Professional Orchestra

  1. Jazzy Jeff September 18, 2012 at 8:29 am #

    Hi Timothy,
    Congratulations on your journey, from this Williamsburg musician! Reading your well-written article reminded me of my own journey, which began many years before yours. A professional trumpet player by age 13, I naturally assumed music would be my career of choice. “In those days,” though, music could only be an avocation, at least in the eyes of parents who believed there could be no true career playing the trumpet! When I finally broke out of that misperception, my musical talents led me into professorships, performing, producing, advertising, marketing, writing, story-telling, and many more rewarding pathways. Like you, I’ve greeted many audience members who ask the same questions that you were asked. I give them a simple answer: “It’s Never Too Late.” Stop talking about what you can’t do, and start your own journey towards what you think you’d love to do. Either you’ll arrive at your destination or you won’t, but at least you’ll see the forest through the trees. And you might even hear the branches in the wind.

  2. Sara Avery September 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    Well done, Timothy. I played in Richmond in the mid-90’s, when we averaged 2 1/2 new programs a week. Tell the old-timers I said hello!

  3. Dina September 26, 2012 at 1:20 am #

    Hi,Timothy,

    Thank you very much for this article.I enjoyed reading it and I find it rather informative. I’m not a professional musician. It would be great if I could play the violin, but I was told I had no talent for this. Perhaps, it is true, but music is a part of my life. Now I am working as the manager of musical e-paper. I enjoy going to concerts of classical music. Being a spectator I should say that on the stage everything looks like a miracle. Sometimes we don’t even guess how much hard work it takes. Thank you very much for sharing your experience and for a true life story as a professional musician.
    Wish you good luck,
    Dina

    • Timothy Judd September 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

      Thank you for the comment, Dina. Its never too late to start studying the violin. I have worked with many highly successful adult beginners. Just find a good teacher.

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