What Kind Of Salaries Do Orchestral Musicians In America Earn ?
In these difficult economic times, the livelihoods of so many superb orchestral musicians in America are in Jeopardy, in all 50 states. But what kind of pay do these musicians earn for their hard work? (And believe me, it's definitely hard work).
It varies a great deal depending on the orchestra. American orchestras are classified either as major or regional, depending on the size of the orchestra's operating budget, the musician salaries, and the number of concerts per season. Not all US orchestras operate on a 52 week full time schedule; some play far fewer concerts than the top ones, that is ,a different program every week from September through May, and then a Summer residence at a music festival.
Some play only about seven programs a year, and do not offer enough pay for the musicians to earn a living. Therefore, the musicians in these orchestras have to do free lance work and teach to get by. Instead of offering a weekly salary, they pay on what is called a "Per Service" basis. In orchestral musician's lingo,a service is either a rehearsal or a concert. If a musician is not needed for a particular concert, he or she is not paid. But in the major orchestras, each musician is guaranteed a steady weekly salary.
The top orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras, and orchestras of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other major cities offer the highest salaries, generally a minimum guaranteed one of $100.000 or more. That is, starting salary. It increases with seniority,and musicians in principal chair positions get paid more than rank-and-file ones.
In the key postion of concertmaster in a top orchestra, a violinist here can make about $ 300,000 or so. The next position,associate concertmaster,sitting next to the concertmaster would pay slightly less. Musicians in the less wealthy orchestras might make considerably less, possibly from circa 20-40 thousand a year.
There are great bemnefits in the top orchestras,too, and eight weeks paid vacation ! Musicians in the less wealthy orchestras don't have it quite as good, but they get by. They often supplement the pay with freelance work and teaching at colleges,universities and music schools. Musicians in the top orchestras also teach, usually at the conservatories of their city. Many New York Philharmonic musicians teach at Juilliard and other music schools in that metropolis.
Some musicians lead a hectic existence playing freelance in a variety of part time orchestras. These have been described as the "Freeway Philharmonic". They are constantly on the go .
It's not easy to get these jobs in orchestras at all. Some months ago I posted a description of my own experirences auditioning. Landing a principal chair position in a top US orchestra has been compared to being appointed to the faculty of IVy league universities such as Harvard, Yale , Columbia and Princeton etc. It's not an inapt comparison.