What’s the best place for an orchestral player to live?

What’s the best place for an orchestral player to live?


norman lebrecht

April 13, 2015

When we ran the question of best country past opera singers a few months back, the consensus seemed to be that Germany offered the most opportunities, the best living conditions and the greatest satisfaction.

It’s tougher for orchestral players.

Scandinavia and the Netherlands offer great family lifestyle but below-average pay.

Britain has lots of work but not always the job security to go with it.

Switzerland has lovely views and moos.

Across the US, conditions vary widely.

cellos beach

Actually, it comes down to cities.

London, Berlin and New York are magnets for orchestral musicians because of the sheer diversity of work and contacts.

Vienna, Los Angeles and Paris are getting to be that way. Munich may well have the best lifestyle for singles, followed by Amsterdam, Sydney and possibly Shanghai .

Or do you find otherwise?

Where would you choose to live as an orchestral player? And where would you avoid?

What’s the best (and worst) city for a classical musician to live in 2015?

(If we get enough responses, we’ll create a chart).



  • Anonymous says:

    Luxembourg , Zwitserland, Vienna, Amsterdam and Munich!

  • Halldor says:

    You seem to be doing that whole thing of confusing ‘London’ and ‘Britain’, again. Job security in contract orchestras in the UK – ie all the symphony orchestras apart from three of the London bands – is rock solid. Redundancies, and still less dismissal on grounds of substandard performance, are practically unheard of. Which is not to say that there aren’t drawbacks, of course.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      correct. but not just 3 London bands. none of the chamber orchs or early music ensembles offer much by way of security – in London, or beyond.

      • Andy says:

        Really? What about the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Royal Northern Sinfonia? Manchester Camerata have big plans and strong artistic and admin leadership, whilst Ensemble 360 guarantee a certain amount of work and have good long term funding.

      • Malcolm james says:

        But the freelance lifestyle suits many players just fine. It’s largely a matter of temprament.

      • Malcolm james says:

        The freelance lifestyle with these bands suits many musicians

  • anon says:


    • norman lebrecht says:


      • Hank says:

        Not sure why Anon says Cleveland, but I suspect is has to do with the variety of cultural institutions, playable gigs (beyond the Cleveland Orchestra, there are also pick-up orchestras at Playhouse Square and numerous amateur orchestras), and the incredibly low cost of living.

  • Richard Townson says:

    People might not believe this but the city that first comes to mind is Pittsburgh.

    An excellent, if often underrated, orchestra.
    A very vibrant cultural scene.
    A livable, affordable city Boston, which would have been my choice years ago falls down on this point.
    A post-industrial town which has left its old “rust-belt” designation behind–a city with both a past and a future, very much like Manchester, which would be my second choice.
    A city whose fore-bearers took pride in their city and built cultural institutions–a tradition that remains to this day.
    Big enough to have everything you need but small enough not to be overwhelmed.
    No big chip on its shoulder about not being things it is not.
    Finally wonderful people.

    And no I do not live in Pittsburgh but I have had the privilege of spending time there over the years.

  • schubertian1234 says:

    This is from personal experience or word of mouth from close colleagues:

    Larger German cities boast two (or three! Or 6!) world-class level orchestral ensembles per city, including both symphonic and opera bands. The sheer number of ensembles and the cost of living plus average salary makes this my top choice. Berlin, especially. But München, Hamburg, and Köln as well.

    Scandinavian ensembles are also excellent, but the cost of living in these countries makes it hard to compare to others. Oslo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm still come highly recommended.

    The English scene seems to be always fluctuating and job security is minimal. I had a teacher who told me never to audition for the big British groups because the pay was low and the security was non-existent. Some great ensembles, still.

    Of course the great American ensembles pay well, but cost of living in those cities makes it deceiving. I’ve always heard that being in a leadership position in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, etc. than in the NYPhil, Boston, etc. if you’re strictly comparing the finances,

  • MacroV says:

    It depends if you’re a freelancer or if you have a regular gig. In the latter case I’d say Montreal: Most charming city in North America (if you can stand the winters), relatively affordable (not as much as a decade ago), great orchestra, now has a great hall, very rich musical culture beyond the hometown band.

    If a freelancer…no matter where you live you might want to find a steadier and lucrative line of work.

    • Rod says:

      I am really wondering what you mean. I am from Canada and the freelancing scene in Montreal is not good, maybe only for students because you cannot raise a family on what you make from freelancing.

      If you have a job with the symphony, then that’s a different story.

  • Emma McGrath says:

    Pittsburgh is truly a gem of a city in so many ways! The orchestra is world-class and on that salary, one can live very comfortably. The weather is not great, and it is a small city, of course not in the ranks of cities like London/New York. Even then, for its size, there is a surprising amount of culture.
    From what I remember, the orchestra has an excellent 52 week contract with generous time off over Christmas/New Year and in the summer. They usually tour internationally every year. Possible ‘negatives’ as a musician: Lots of pops shows, and lots of run out concerts. I’m not saying that these things aren’t valuable, it’s just that in my experience musicians don’t tend to enjoy those things as much.

    I now play in Seattle and we play very little pops and do very few run-outs. However, we do a lot of recordings and sometimes (and this is getting better) this means sight-reading (and by that I mean no rehearsal) and then it ends up on a Naxos disc. The other negative to Seattle is so many programmes, it is not uncommon to be playing 4 different programs in a week (for instance, kiddie shows, one-off popular music gig, Opera, and conductor workshop.) In terms of salary and quality of life, Seattle I think has more to offer long-term than Pittsburgh, but is therefore more expensive. Which means the salary in Seattle does not go as far. And you are busier.

    This is a tough question and I’m looking forward to hearing more people’s responses!

  • schubertian1234 says:

    This is from personal experience or word of mouth from close colleagues:

    Larger German cities boast two (or three! Or 6!) world-class level orchestral ensembles per city, including both symphonic and opera bands. The sheer number of ensembles and the cost of living plus average salary makes this my top choice. Berlin, especially. But München, Hamburg, and Köln as well.

    Scandinavian ensembles are also excellent, but the cost of living in these countries makes it hard to compare to others. Oslo and Copenhagen, especially.

    The English scene seems to be always fluctuating and job security is minimal. I had a teacher who told me never to audition for the big British groups because the pay was low and the security was non-existent. Some great ensembles, still.

    Of course the great American ensembles pay well, but cost of living in those cities makes it deceiving. I’ve always heard that being in a leadership position in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, etc. than in the NYPhil, Boston, etc. if you’re strictly comparing the finances,

  • anon says:

    Exactly. In addition to the Cleveland Orchestra, whose faculty are heavily involved in education at the excellent Cleveland Institute of Music, there is CityMusic Cleveland (a fantastic chamber orchestra conducted by rising composer Avner Dorman) and other high-quality professional groups (Canton Symphony, Akron Symphony, Erie Philharmonic) nearby.

  • Visiting Muzoid says:

    I visited Pittsburgh recently while on tour, and attended a rehearsal of the Symphony. Great band, and their conductor relates to the musicians in an effective but gentlemanly manner, at least to my eyes and ears. Our host was one of the musicians, who had turned down a position in LA to remain in Pittsburgh. It is quite a lovely city, contrary to my expectations.

  • Alex says:

    Anywhere in the Ruhrgebiet is probably THE best place for irchestral musicians in the world. Within an hours distance from Cologne you have the WDR, SWR, essen, dusseldorf and duisburg symphonies. The Gürzenich orchestra, the radio orchestra of WDR, and that without counting the many smaller orchestras in Monchengladbach, Aachen (where Karajan started) and Dortmund/ Bonn. You have the largest Piano festival in the world, and other major festivals within the same time it takes a musician to go from an affordable part of Brooklyn to Carnegie Hall. Irrst my case. Musician’s lala land is somewhere between Düsseldorf and Cologne.

    • william osborne says:

      There are 11 full time opera houses in a 30 mile radius in the Ruhrgebiet — which further increases the orchestra count. On the other hand, it is often seen as one of the least desirable places in Germany to live.

      Germany has 133 full time orchestras owned and operated by state and municipal governments. That’s one orchestra for every 600,000 people. In the USA there is one full time orchestra for about every 14 million people — around 1/23rd the amount in Germany. If one factored in part time orchestras the ratios would be better for the USA, but still less than 1/10th the ratio in Germany. It is not unusual for cities with 200,000 people in Germany to have a full time opera company that also presents a symphonic season. I think the only city in the USA that size with a full time orchestra is Salt Lake City. Are there others?

      The country with the highest ratio of full time orchestras (or close to full time) per capita is Finland. That’s why conductors from a country with a population of 5.5 million dominate the world stage. Norway and Sweden have similar ratios of orchestras.

      • Alex says:

        Its their culture, obviously they will cherish it more, and their government will prioritize it more, the same way Peru supports gastronomy, for example. There’s probably 1 salsa band for every 100,000 people in Colombia, or 1 rapper for every 10,000 people in NY, yet one does not go around the world claiming it should be the same. Nor do other long lived musical traditions (Chinese music, Indian music) make claims that their music makes babies smarter, or is ‘better’. That would be patronizing.

        Western “Classical” music simply grew bigger than it should have, and the market is doing its job. Things are unlikely to change IMHO. What is happening in the US and the rest of the world is a re-definition of what classical music is. Essentially, Classical music is anything played in the violin or the cello, even if it is rock, pop, or whatever. As long as there’s a violinist/cellist/pianist doing epileptic moves/fat tenor with a tuxedo pretending to sing high notes, IT IS classical music. The futile attempt to capture a larger segment simply eroded the artform of its differentiation, until all was left is a cliche.

  • Angela says:

    Aren’t London and NYC past their time? About London, I hear so many times that musicians need to balance two jobs just to stay alive, all the while living so far away to afford housing, especially if you have a family. NY is not much different, except if you go with a job already won and on tenure track (I suppose that would be the Phil or the Met?), it seems to be more manageable.

    But the question posed seems to be, Where would you pick up and move to, if you were an orchestra musician. To pick up and move without a contract, I would say NY and London is the worst. IMO, I think Germany is a good place to be for an orchestra musician – even for a freelancing one. Of course, learning German is a huge advantage. Luckily for those who speak English, it is becoming more and more international (read: more English) which, from my understanding, is not the case in Paris. I’m happy to be corrected on that, however.

  • Robert Hairgrove says:

    The best:
    Zurich has a high cost of living, but so much to offer. But you can find much cheaper flats or houses to rent a little bit outside of the city if you are willing to take advantage of the excellent public transportation system (driving a car in downtown Zurich is definitely nerve-racking, and very hard to find parking space). The quality of life is very high, and crime rate pretty low in comparison to big metropolitan cities. Besides, there are lots of schools with teaching opportunities for instrumental lessons if you don’t insist on being employed only by a conservatory — public schools as well as subsidised music schools. The pay scale and job security is very good. And such a beautiful country!

    The worst:
    Basel, if you are a non-EU citizen … I’m sure everyone has heard of this by now: http://www.badische-zeitung.de/basel/kulturstadt-basel-dutzenden-berufsmusikern-droht-die-abschiebung–93817841.html

  • Peter Shi says:

    I just wonder why Shanghai is listed there… Yes Shanghai has modern and historical concert halls, one professional orchestra and one good conservatory (both based on the standard of Mainland China), but its artistic life is not as vivid as Beijing (at least 3 pro orchestras, one major music festival, and one big opera house), and the pay for orchestra musicians cannot be compared with Hong Kong, Singapore, even in the orchestra of Macau there are many musicians from Shanghai for a higher pay and easier life.

  • Don Quixote says:

    I vote for Spain! Yes, Spain! With 26 full time professional orchs., tremendous public support for the arts, and ample teaching opportunities, Spain is an unexpected paradise for orch. musicians. Spain loves its orchestras!

    Although salaries are only a fraction of what US and German orchestras make, guest conductors from the UK have sniped that we earn more and work less than many UK orchs.

    Job security and benefits for tenured orch. players in Spain are excellent. Although the recent economic crisis has taken a bite out of everything it’s still a pretty good deal. Excellent free health care, with the option for inexpensive private health care coverage if
    you choose (I pay about 50 euros/mo. for this), unlimited yes UNLIMITED paid sick time, ample paid maternity and paternity leave time, and full govt. pension at retirement age, with the option for early retirement. And with only a very few glaring exceptions, these jobs are secure for life once you get tenure.

    Our orchs. pay instrument insurance, rotation time, obligatory one month paid vacation in Aug., and paid time off at Xmas and Easter.

    The best part is the artistic! Spain is still a rising presence in the orchestral world. Great artists, world class conductors and soloists are eager to come here to try out new concertos, prepare for major engagements and generally enjoy the marvelous Spanish lifestyle. Spanish audiences are enthusiastic and appreciative & these artists invariably return again and again.

    The level of Spain’s young professional orch. players has been on a dramatic increase during the past 25 yrs. Spain is now turning out orch. players who are taking their places in major orchs. around the world, from NY Phil to Berlin to Concertgebouw.

    The upswing in available young Spanish talent makes it less probable that foreign players
    will win permanent tenured positions in Spanish orchs. – the trend now, of course is that far more Spanish nationals are being hired by Spanish orchs., which is logical.

    There are downsides, of course, Spanish orchs. are very stingy right now, coming out of the crisis, about offering tenured positions. Some orchs. are suffering minor pay cuts. There’s no official musicians’ union and recording and tv appearances are fairly unregulated and often uncompensated. Spanish orchs are govt. subsidized and maintained, which means that politicians are basically your bosses. Not generally a problem, but it can be.

    The brightest part is living in the land which inspired de Falla, Albeniz, Rodrigo, Arriaga!
    Playing for audiences which span all walks of life, from construction workers to butchers to seamstresses to university professors, classical music in Spain is enthusiastically received by everyone. It’s not elitist. Classical music and orchestras are considered an important part of everyday life in Spain. This is probably what I enjoy most about playing here!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Surprising and great to hear all this!

    • Erica Snowden-Rodriguez says:

      Hola Don Quixote! I’m am an American cellist considering relocating to Spain. Which orchestra do you play with and might you know where to find out about any upcoming auditions? Many thanks!

  • Halldor says:

    Manchester surely has to be in contention. The UK’s cultural second city, with two contract symphony orchestras (rock-solid job security plus – at the BBC – silly-money salaries), a thriving chamber orchestra, a major music college and specialist music school, substantial pop, recording and broadcast scene; two more contract orchestras within easy commutable distance (RLPO and Opera North), plus excellent quality of life in a liveable-sized city surrounded by stunning countryside, at a far lower cost of living than London – all linked to the outside world by fast rail services and the UK’s biggest regional airport.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed. I had my first premiere in Manchester…. and some of my best fan mail. The concert hall is quite ugly though, but has excellent acoustics.

  • herrera says:

    The best city for an orchestral musician to live is the city where s/he got a job!

    Rare, extremely rare, are those who truly had a long term offer from, thus a choice between, different cities: principal clarinets choosing between Chicago vs NY vs Philadelphia or principal flute choosing between LA, Chicago or Berlin, or principal oboe between SF, NY or Chicago. (Those in the know, know whom I’l talking about.)

    That being said, for those few elite musicians, even when they choose a city, they don’t live in the suburbs of those cities. Who lin the ranks of NY Phil or the Met live or can afford to live in the City, much less Manhattan? They all live in Long Island or New Jersey.

    So, there you have it, the place to live if you are a musician at the New York Philharmonic is New Jersey, lol.

    • herrera says:

      Oops: “they don’t live in the suburbs of those cities…”

      *they LIVE in the suburbs of those cities…

      • M2N2K says:

        You are very wrong. A substantial majority of musicians in both NY Phil and Met Opera Orchestra do indeed live in Manhattan.

      • M2N2K says:

        You are very wrong about that. Most musicians of NY Phil and Met Orchestra live in Manhattan.

  • CA says:

    Let’s see the worst cities……

    In the US, that probably means anywhere in the southeast (not counting DC in the definition of southeast, as it’s mid Atlantic) or Texas (which is mid-West).

    Why? In part because of a lack of what I perceive to be a general “cultural sophistication” (for lack of a better phrase)in the southeast, compared to older/larger cities of the northeast particularly, which have strong cultural and philanthropic histories. Though orchestras everywhere struggle, in the southeast, it is seemingly even more difficult to raise and significantly increase the needed financial support from the community so as to avoid concessionary musician contracts in most if not each round of cba negotiations. And this is in spite of there being a few cities in this region where there is significant per capita wealth-even one city here surpassing by far that of large northern cities: it does not (yet) translate into the level of needed support to sustain/grow an orchestra much beyond a concert season that is somewhere in the range of only 30-35 weeks. So for the remaining 17-22 weeks, musicians must rely on unemployment benefits or, for the lucky few, have meaningful off-season employment. Some but by no means most musicians do summer music festivals (usually in other states) and those festivals don’t provide anywhere near the needed level of income to the musician, even though the artistic rewards may be very high.


    • Joe says:

      I know a number of orchestral musicians (including freelancers) who make truckloads of money in Texas and who are very happily living in cities like Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. They seem to have a much easier time than many of the musicians freelancing in NYC, Boston, or DC.

      • CA says:

        In not surprised by that but if you re-read my post, I was not including Texas specifically because I’m in — and referencing — the Southeast.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, for instance, is a wonderful ensemble, playing in a great hall, and being deeply rooted in the community, it really seems like an example to be followed elsewhere.

        • CA says:

          Texas is not part of the southeast, which was the point of my post. Is it that easy to confuse Texas as being in the SE?

          • M2N2K says:

            Your original comment stated very clearly that “the worst cities” are “anywhere in the southeast or Texas”, so do not blame others for reading exactly what you wrote. If you meant to exclude Texas, then you misplaced your parentheses.

  • Anon says:

    Bamberg has to be a contender.

    It has a top orchestra and is an extraordinary city with low living expenses, great food and beautiful landscape – and the Joseph Keilberth hall too!

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:


  • Sam Schlosser says:

    I think you have to be in city you like, first of all. I can’t imagine how much you’d have to pay me to move back to the rust belt from California. Enough to commute there every day from the west coast, I think! So, be happy in te city you’re in. Then you have to be satisfied artistically with the things you’re doing, and you have to be able to “live”…pay the rent, save for retirement, commute without Gettin stuck in traffic for 2 hours every day, provide for your family, spend time with your loved ones. Then your own reservoir of happiness, as well as the attitude of your colleagues, is very important. That could be anywhere, but I think that when the other things in this list are there your chances of having that are higher. Playing in an orchestra where everyone but you is negative will get you down no matter how happy you are when you first get there. I don’t know if any city has it all…it comes down to personal preference and priorities, but to me San Francisco Opera has been fantastic, in spite of how expensive it is to live here. I think it really depends on what specific job/orchestra you play in and who you are.

    Low cost of living and relatively high salary is not going to make you happy if you don’t like the city you’re in. Sometimes there’s more to life than having a few more dollars in your bank account! You could have a McPalace in Oklahoma or a studio in San Francisco with a view of the Marin Headlands… Depends what you like!

  • Andrea Cavuoto says:

    Decidedly not Italy!

  • Dimtorch says:

    Doha 😉

  • Sam says:

    -Salary/Cost of living
    -Orchestra’s overall artistic level/tradition of excellence
    -Immediate section (same instrument) artistic level/playing style
    -Larger section (same instrument family) artistic level
    -City quality/quality of life
    -Management quality/Player/Labor relations
    -Music director

    These are the considerations. After accumulating data on and ranking the first six, you could get a pretty solid list, taking into account your instrument.

  • Jason says:

    Prague! Even though the salaries of the Czech orchestras are lower compared to US and UK, the cost of living is much lower too. Also it’s a major European cultural centre where musicians are held in high regard.

  • Torontonian says:

    One of worst unless you win a job by audition: Toronto. Very thin freelancing scene, high rents, cold and dark winters.