How hard is it to prevail as a symphonic violinist? What kind of competition does one face and what are the odds of success? What does the job market look like?
According to The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), 52 orchestras currently pay a living wage. In the 2003-2004 Season, Minimum Salary in these orchestras ranged from $23,000 to $104,000. Of these 52 Orchestras, approximately 21 pay minimum salaries above $60,000. The size of the violin sections in these orchestras ranges from 26 to 34, with smaller complements being the norm. Therefore, there are an average of 30 violin positions in 21 orchestras that pay serious salaries, for a total of approximately 630 symphony orchestra violin positions in the US. If an average career is estimated 25 years in length, there should be an average of 25.2 positions open in one of the 21 top paying orchestras per year. (Observation over the last 25 years seems to indicate much less!)
It is widely recognized that success as a professional athlete is exceedingly difficult to achieve. The National Basketball Association has 29 Teams, each with rosters of 15 players or less for a total of fewer than 435 jobs, almost 200 fewer than exist at the top of the symphony orchestra food chain. But careers in the NBA can be estimated to be much shorter: using the average of 6 years for career length we can predict an average of 72.5 jobs per year available in the NBA.
Without taking into consideration the current contracting trend of the Symphony Orchestra industry it would appear that a symphony orchestra violin job is rarer than a position on the roster of an NBA team!
Nearly every schoolboy dreams of playing professional sports, so perhaps demand for jobs in the NBA is greater leading to greater competition? Try telling that to anyone who has shown up at a major symphony section audition with over two hundred of their “best friends.” In the symphony orchestra industry women compete on an equal playing field.
The fact is that jobs in major symphony orchestras in this day and age are extremely rare and difficult to win. One saving element of being a violinist or being a basketball player is that success can be achieved in other ways within the field. Just as aspiring basketball players can begin to think about life as a coach or a sports announcer/commentator, etc., aspiring violinists need to be encouraged to think about broader career possibilities from the beginning of a course of professional training.
Acknowledgements to Robert Bein for the concept for this article
Editor’s note: The following was received from a knowledgeable reader asked to critique the above article.
Yo Red Bull!
Your piece is worthy and persuasive and should be seen by thousands of young violinists and their teachers worldwide. Your calculation of average job availability due to retirement is sound…so far as it goes. But it would be more persuasive if you let the reader know that your figures for annual openings in top orchestras are probably biased upwards.
I don’t know all the facts. But I would be terribly surprised if the 60K jobs had the same turnover rate as the 104K jobs. To the extent that turnover (from retirement or any other reason) is higher in the lower quintiles of the “rarified” range, the average of 25.2 annual openings is overstated. By how much? Enough to change your conclusion that becoming a violinist in a top paying orchestra is a “Hoop Dream”?
I doubt it. In childhood the potential supply of future NBA players far outstrips the potential supply of future violin players. But by age 18 or 20 the difference is much reduced. To take just one example, when Scottie Pippen retired from basketball, the Chicago Bulls did not consider replacing him with one of 200 or better different players. A much smaller list of finalists were interviewed and considered during the recruitment season. But when [name famous violinist in orch here] retired, the [name orchestra] did look at 200-some different players. On average, getting a top spot as an orchestral violinist is a Hoop Dream.