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The Dream Job

I wish my job as an orchestra musician was as easy as some make it seem.

by Holly Mulcahy
February 1, 2010

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The Dream Job

In the outrageously funny movie, Office Space, there is a scene where the main character Peter Gibbons, a lowly cubicle dwelling worker, has to meet with a pair of efficiency consultants the company has hired to recommend cutbacks to define what he does during an average work day. One of Peter's co-workers accurately describes the process as "interviewing for your own job".

It is a hilarious scene due to Peter's honesty in telling the consultants (both named "Bob") that in the course of any given week, he spends most of his time avoiding his multiple bosses and making it look like he's actually working. He concludes by telling the Bobs that in the course of any given week, he only does about 15 minutes of actual work.

"…my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired."
 
As a result of his candor, the Bobs recommend the company offer Peter a position in upper management.
 
During the past several months, there have been a number of orchestra contract negotiations that have generated local and national press attention. Newspaper articles report statements from orchestra boards and executive managers at orchestras that pay musicians as little as a few thousand dollars a year to over a hundred thousand dollars a year that the average orchestra musician only works 20 hour per week. Those working in orchestras know that this is nothing more than a sad and ignorant tactic to build sentiment against musicians in an attempt to make it seem as though they are overpaid for the work they do.
 
Just so everyone is clear on this issue, the 20 hours per week is roughly the time musicians spend in rehearsals and concerts together as a group at the concert hall. But in order to make that an efficient and productive experience, musicians can practice 20-40 hours per week more depending on things such as the difficulty and length of music involved and the regular amount of maintenance practice related to preserving fundamental skill sets and instrument maintenance.
 
So in the fashion of Office Space, I want to walk you through the not-nearly-so-funny average day of an orchestra violinist's work life.
  1. Stretch the body to limber the muscles, play through scales and warm-up exercises: 30-60 minutes.
  2. Practice music for this week's rehearsals and concerts: 1-2 hours.
  3. First rehearsal service: 2-3 hours.
  4. Second rehearsal service: 2-3 hours.
  5. Go home, more stretching and/or yoga then teach a private lesson or two: 2 hours.
  6. Practice music for next week, or next month: 1-2 hours.
The times above fluctuate based on whether or not that day is a one or two service rehearsal/concert day. Days with less rehearsal/concert requirements are spent with the longer amounts of practice time as well as periodic instrument maintenance.
Explaining this to a non musician can be tricky since it isn't a career path that is easily to understand a typical office profession. It is easy to accept why those folks don't readily understand and I'm always happy to explain it; in fact, I see it as a responsibility of the career I've chosen. But it is entirely unacceptable when board members and managers from my own organization not only believe but go out of their way to make others buy into the twisted notion that orchestra musicians only work 20 hours per week.
 
When I was a member of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, our in-school concerts were a way to help educate future concertgoers about classical music and the orchestra. After playing a few pieces for the children, we would have a question and answer time. Whenever possible, we found ways to explain the time commitment of a professional orchestra musician. Since education was at the foundation of in-school concerts, openly sharing who we are and what we do is critical to understanding the value of what we provide and why orchestras are an important part of a community.
 
What I don't understand is why there aren't more efforts to educate the public about who professional orchestra musicians are. This would be such an easy campaign to start, I could easily see a parody of the Office Space interview scene mentioned at the start of this article becoming a useful YouTube staple and it would certainly be more helpful than trying to explain all of this in a newspaper article (are you listening Jeff Curnow?).
 
In addition to educating audiences about classical music, history of composers, soloist biographies, etc. it is imperative to include an ongoing narrative of orchestra musicians. It's not meant as self aggrandizing; it is simply sharing facts so there is a richer sense of appreciation behind why orchestras - and orchestra musicians - are important to our communities. 

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Kristen Sonneborn writes:
February 3, 2010
In Naples, we have a popular series of lectures called, "Meet the Musicians". The featured musician has about an hour and a half to play or discuss anything they wish. During my lecture a couple of years ago, I brought in all my reed equipment and made reeds in front of the general public (and our CEO who happened to be in attendance), starting with a tube of bamboo up to the finished product. That was a jaw-dropping experience for everyone in the room, I can assure you. They had no idea how much is involved.

My husband Matt made up a "mock audition" for his lecture, where he had volunteers from the audience read three or four short tongue-twisters or excerpts from poems (some in different languages no less). He then had the individuals go through "rounds" where they would be asked to say things louder or softer, faster or slower, with different inflections and so forth. It was an effort to describe the hoops we must jump through to get a job.

Your point is well-taken. We must educate to survive. Thanks for all you do.

Marc van Bree from Chicago writes:
February 3, 2010
There is nothing agreeable with the 20-hour work week comment. I know sports analogies get tiring, but I haven't really seen any comments like that in sports. "Oh, well, the Chicago Bears only work 20 hours a week" won't fly either.

But I do take issue with one aspect of your walk through the average life of a musician: "teach a private lesson or two: 2 hours" Teaching private lessons is not part of the job, so you can't count that. A writer can't count his freelance writing assignments as part of his job at the newspaper either.

I realize, however, that teaching is part of a musicians responsibility to the community. But if you want to count it as part of the job in an orchestra, then perhaps it should be regulated through the orchestra as part of its community outreach and education efforts.

That's perhaps a loaded statement. And how exactly it would work, or be compensated, could be discussed by brighter minds than mine. But I have been wondering if and how education and community outreach could be made part of a musician's job requirements. I think it's an important discussion.

Holly Mulcahy writes:
February 3, 2010
Thanks Kristen for the innovative ways you and Matt share musician experiences.

Marc, you do have a good point but increasingly, orchestras are incorporating teaching duties and responsibilities into job requirements for musicians. While many musicians teach on the side and that has nothing to do with their orchestra job, the trend is to include a teaching component. In fact, in one of my previous orchestras, this was a requirement associated with regular performance duties. My apologies for not making that clear in the article.

kathryn goodson from Ann Arbor, Michigan writes:
February 4, 2010
I found this to be well-written and forthright! It's encouraging also to remember how all that extra work on the body and music is par for the course for most every musician...

THANKS!

Phil Brooks from Portland, Oregon writes:
February 9, 2010

I had a surgery recently and found that my surgeon only operates one day per week. The rest of the time is spent with followup, pre-op appointments, hospital rounds, etc. I would guess that most people would readily understand this.

Regarding getting to know the musicians, I think a PBS sort of reality show of an actual orchestra audition process would make very compelling viewing. A crew could follow each step of an audition process from start to finish -- following both the auditioners and the audition committee through interviews, following them around at home, practicing for the audition, and finally through the selection process and first concerts on the job. What would you do if, when accepted for an orchestra audition, you were told that you needed to let a PBS camera crew follow you around for a few days and take part in interviews about the audition process?

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