During an ugly time as a musician with the Minnesota Orchestra we were locked out. The predictable arm-chair quarterbacks weighed in speculating that they would be happy to earn the money we were being offered, regardless of the fact that it represented a huge cut. After all, they said…. how hard could it be?
The following was my version of So, You Want To Be A Pro?
Want to land a permanent job with a top orchestra? To get that too-high salary with too-many-weeks of vacation? Here’s what you do:
1) Choose a musical instrument to study and purchase one.
2) Find a qualified teacher of that instrument.
3) Practice for a good 10 years or so.
4) With a good 10 years of primary instruction under your belt, audition for Juilliard, Curtis Institute, The Eastman School, New England Conservatory, Indiana University, The Cleveland Institute of Music, or The Colburn School. Any of those will do. If one of these doesn’t work out, I’ll have a longer list for you of other similar places to try to get into.
5) Study for another 4-6 years at one of those schools if you get in. Once you get in, get ready to take out several loans to go there.
5a) Along the way, attend summer festivals so that you can study more and pay more tuition.
6) Freelance in your city or other locales to get experience playing with professionals in great orchestras. You’ll have to break in based on recommendations and your reputation as a musician and person.
7) Travel nationally and internationally to take auditions at your own expense which include air/bus/carfare and hotels. Stay healthy. It would suck if you developed a cold the day before you play after all that practicing and expense.
8 ) Win an audition in a major orchestra. No, not with a community orchestra—a major orchestra that pays a career-level salary.
9) When you do all that you’ll have two years to prove yourself worthy of tenure so that you can stay. If you don’t pass, you get to start auditioning all over again for another orchestra. Yes, great musicians are sometimes denied tenure because he or she wasn’t the right fit in the section involved.
A key point here… all those weeks of vacation? Nope… you need to continue practicing and playing so that you don’t lose your technique and endurance. Sorry. Out of those “ten weeks of vacation,” I only actually take two off in the summer… and it takes me two weeks after I return to get back in shape for the first rehearsal.
And all that practicing does a number on the body. You’re twisting your limbs in odd ways, repeatedly straining muscles you didn’t know you had. Repetitive stress injuries are common among musicians the same way they’re common among athletes and dancers. Health—and healthcare—are on our minds all the time. When we tour, we always bring doctors, massage therapists, and chiropractors along, as their services are always in heavy demand.
Finally, I failed to mention that the instrument you started your studies on has been upgraded several times… and you’ll probably be needing loans to pay for those if you decided to play a stringed instrument. Non-stringed instruments are generally cheaper but here’s the catch: you will own many more non-stringed instruments than string players do stringed instruments, so, it winds up costing about the same.
My personal collection, you ask? Glad to oblige:
5 C trumpets
3 B♭ trumpets (used to be 4 but I had to sell one after the lockout began)
1 D trumpet
2 E♭ trumpets
That’s a partial list. Those instruments are all made by David Monette. Ask around and find out how much they cost. Be warned, you may need to pick your jaw off the floor… they’re not like the trumpets you borrowed from school or rented to play in marching band. And yes, even casual listeners most certainly can hear the difference.
So, there you have it…this is what it takes to make it to the big leagues.