A Chicago cellist explains: Why we work only 20 hours a week

A Chicago cellist explains: Why we work only 20 hours a week


norman lebrecht

October 16, 2015

David Sanders, cellist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1974, outlines their working culture:

Something that members of a world-class symphony orchestra are used to hearing, especially around contract negotiations time, is that “those musicians only work twenty hours a week” (four rehearsals and four concerts). What is missing from that statement? Let’s see.

Most members of a great orchestra began working at their chosen instrument from the time they were young children, maybe as young as four or five years old. I was a late starter; I started cello lessons at age 14. But it’s not just a matter of taking lessons over a long period of time. Generally speaking, the successful instrumentalists practice on average anywhere from three to six hours a day, every day. Think about that. What have most people been doing from the time they were five years old for three hours a day, or six hours a day. There are very few courses of study or careers that take that kind of dedication, attention to detail, concentration, and a general fanaticism over the course of ten, fifteen, twenty or twenty-five years. And that is before you get a job. A violinist who starts the instrument at five years of age will very likely study and practice that instrument for twenty years or more before getting a job in a great orchestra. That’s over forty thousand hours of practice.

Okay, so you’ve been practicing for 40,000 hours, and you apply for an audition for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. So do 149 other violinists. And your audition lasts somewhere between two (not a good sign) and fifteen minutes (a very, very good sign). You’re called back to the finals, along with two or three others, and low and behold, you win the job. Thank God, you can stop practicing. WRONG!!!!

When I was the lucky one on April 23, 1974 and got my job in the CSO, of course I knew that I was joining possibly the best Orchestra in the world. A year earlier Time Magazine had had a cover article featuring Sir Georg Solti, who was to be my music director, and called him “the fastest baton in the west.” The article also rated U. S. orchestras, and for the CSO it simply said “sine qua non.” I was excited. I was practicing. I wanted to earn my keep, so to speak. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened when I sat down in that great cello section in that great Orchestra. All around me, everywhere I looked and listened, there was such greatness coming from so many instruments. And they were doing it with such naturalness and ease, yet with an incredible intensity. I had the intensity at that time, but I didn’t feel as if I had the naturalness and ease, so I started practicing even harder.

You cannot rest on your laurels in the Chicago Symphony, or in any world-class orchestra. You never want to let your colleagues down,  yourself down, or, maybe more importantly, the music down. Now in my 42nd year, I still don’t want to let my colleagues, myself or the music down. It is a never-ending struggle to continually try to master a musical instrument, to keep improving, be it string, wind, brass, or percussion. And believe me when I say, twenty hours a week is just the beginning.




  • Erwartung says:

    “…got my job in the CSO, of course I knew that I was joining possibly the best Orchestra in the world…”
    Why do Americans think that everything they do is possible the best in the world? It is very annoying and most of the times untrue.

    Guys, you need to travel more!

    • Patrick says:

      Haha, sorry but no. David’s statement is very accurate. You need to listen to the CSO more!

      • Holger H. says:

        I have listened to the CSO extensively, and they are a nice band, their technical ability is second to none. But when it comes to sound and music, they are serving the taste of a limited regional market. Anyway, it all depends, which music, which style we are talking about and what your expectations are.
        The excessive brilliance of many American orchestras in the strings and brass for instance is in my understanding more an “industrial” and corporate culture ideal than grown out off musical necessity. It’s a show off, a commercial idea to impress. Not musical.
        Hopefully Maestro Muti can bring some humbleness and understanding of voicing and how to layer sound to the music making in Chicago.

      • Max Grimm says:

        “Erwartung” has a point in that certain anglophone countries are noticeably more cavalier in their choice of adjectives and demonstrate a distinct proclivity for superlatives.
        While I agree that the CSO is among the world’s leading marching bands orchestras, you will simply have to accept that the title of “the best orchestra” is awarded on a purely subjective basis, varying widely and no amount of listening to an orchestra will change that.
        As a result, I am also a person whose orchestral pole position is not filled by the CSO.

    • Pau C. says:

      Agree, very arrogant.

      • Mela says:

        The CSO is consistently rated as one of the top orchestras in the world. In fact, in 2011it was rated the top orchestra in the world by the international music critics guild (I believe that organization is based in the UK). In their decision, the cited the brass section, whose sound is so unmistakable, among other reasons. So quit America-bashing and go learn some stuff before you type some bullshit, ignorant critique.

    • Dubious says:

      Because at that time and currently it is one of best in the world. You pretend as if the Chicago symphony has not performed all over the world. Many if it’s great musicians are from across Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. Perhaps, you should take a listen to this great orchestra and appreciate the diverse international cast of one of the worlds greatest orchestras.

  • Holger H. says:

    Did somebody require a justification? Doesn’t everybody know that musicians – as many other professions do – work many more hours than the hours that are bottom-line counted as “on duty”? Why do we even need justifications?
    Pilots get paid for the time the airplane is actually moving. Teachers are getting paid for the time they are spending in front of their classes.
    Only bankers are getting paid for the hours somebody else is working.

    • Amy says:

      It’s hard to imagine needing to justify this, particularly readers of classical news blogs and criticism. Quite a number of orchestras have been involved in either labor disputes or contentious contract negotiations recently, and one common reaction by commenters unfamiliar with the world of professional music is along the lines of “Huh? Must be nice, getting a hefty salary and all that time off.”

      In short…no. Everybody doesn’t know the story behind what musicians are paid for.

    • John says:

      Perhaps it could be that some view the salaries of CSO musicians to be exhorbitant when measured against the time they actually spend ‘at work’. I’ve seen this come up every now and then. I think he makes a good case.

    • Barb says:

      Actually, although teachers are paid for the time in front of the classroom, there is usually a great deal of (unpaid) prep, materials development, and grading involved not to mention office hours which are often uncompensated. Moreover, many teachers purchase some of their own classroom supplies.

      That being said, this doesn’t mean that musicians’ compensation should not be determined with consideration for all their extra time and efforts.

  • Herasmus Bedragon says:

    All musicians have to do is explain it in sports terms. How long do baseball players play daily? And their season is much shorter…

    Musicians are also athletes; athletes that are required to execute their art in a refined artistic manner, in a specified amount of time and error free!
    Perhaps figure skaters can relate to it.

  • Jon H says:

    As a professional musician, it should be that you are as good as your last concert. Doesn’t matter what happened when you were a child. What about all the other children who studied music? Do they deserve to be paid for it? Nobody wants to hear someone in the CSO or any professional orchestra unless they have spent more than 20 hours a week at it – recently. Maybe that’s the argument that should be made.
    Speaking of ticket prices – the prices of CSO box seats are already around $200 per seat. To all the people who think their orchestra’s seats are too expensive. But people rightly have very high expectations.

    • Jon H says:

      In fact, for concerts I think will be in the realm of a CSO concert, I make a point of paying the Chicago figure towards a better seat and give the difference as a contribution. I encourage people around the world to do this.

    • David Sanders says:

      It’s true that the box seats are very expensive, but there are seats available in the Gallery, which has great acoustics, for about $40.

      • ML says:

        May I correct you just a tiny little bit: the subscriber price in the gallery currently runs at $32 per concert for a 10-concert package, and subscribers have the benefits of exchanging tickets without a fee.

        Most importantly, gallery is good for the pocket as well as the ears: last season the first concert of Bychkov’s Bruckner 8 only had main floor and lower balcony. I was almost deafened by the huge volume in the lower balcony. I agree with you and would say that gallery (center-left) likely has the best sound in the hall.

    • steve cheston says:

      Have you priced sports tickets recently? I am a CSO subscriber, and the effective ticket price of $35 per concert I pay is a BARGAIN. The best music in the world played by one of the top orchestras led by one of the world’s finest musicians. And the ho-hum attitude about the CSO’s musicianship shows that you must not have listened to them lately.

  • V.Lind says:

    The simple fact is that musicians do not “work 20 hours a week.” Their official services to the Orchestra have set, negotiated limits, usually between 12 and 20 hours a week, depending mainly upon orchestra size and number of performances per season. They WORK as many hours as it takes to keep in the sort of nick that Mr. Sanders so eloquently describes.

  • Roy Lisker says:

    Never in the history of economics has anyone ever suggested that one’s salary should reflect how hard one had to work to be able to perform a certain job. Salaries are based on public demand for a given product. A classical musician can work 80,000 hours to get to play as well as he does, but if he finds no audiences it wont make the slightest bit of difference.

  • heyfigaro says:

    I’m sorry – but this is a skewed argument. Many professions (surgeons, university lecturers, lawyers) train extensively and expensively from their student days and have to keep abreast of developments in their fields on a regular basis. Very few of them earn a handsome salary for only 20 hours contracted work per week. There is no price for dedication to one’s job,of course, and nor should anyone be exploited for doing what they love – but Mr Sanders should remember that he is one of the very fortunate elite at the top of his profession. How his working week is perceived by the huge number of his colleagues further down the orchestral food-chain should moderate his complaints.

    • David Sandert says:

      I have to say that I, and all of my colleagues in the Chicago Sympnony, know exactly how fortunate we are to have the honor and privilege of playing in this great Orchestra. This article was absolutely not meant as a complaint. It was meant as an explanation of the amount of work that goes into getting and keeping a job in a great orchestra, something that some people don’t seem to understand, especially around negotiations. The whole point was that our salaries may be given for the contracted 20 hours a week, but that is just where it starts.

    • ML says:

      Not quite. Professors in colleges or universities have fewer hours: if you teach more than 2 courses per quarter or semester, you won’t be able to do any damn research. That said, you still have to spend hours and hours preparing class, meeting with students, and, if there is any time left, doing research.

    • Chris says:

      Heyfigaro you clearly missed the point of the article. They are not contracted to work only 20 hours per week. They are contracted to attend 20 hours of rehearsals and concerts. If they don’t prepare for these rehearsals, then they are not meeting their professional obligations. So they are contracted to practice as many hours as necessary in addition to the 20 that they are present in the concert hall.

    • Holger H. says:

      Heyfigaro, several misconceptions.
      Most Orchestra musicians, at least those who win the top jobs, usually practice hard since their childhood. That sets classical musicians apart from other hard working professions like surgeons, lawyers etc.
      “There is no price for dedication to one’s job”
      Now that’s true, but actually it seems it is even the other way around. If you are passionate about your job, often you are paid lower salaries, because too many of your trade do it “just for fun”.
      And it was already pointed out that musicians who are scheduled for an average of 20 hours “on duty” are not contracted only for their physical presence on stage, but for delivering something to the team, that needs preparation many many hours outside of the core duty hours.

    • steve cheston says:

      Baloney! Being a member of a great orchestra is a goal of most orchestral musician.It is the creme de la creme. Rather than envying Mr. Sanders’ status and salary, they aspire to achieve it.

  • FreddyNYC says:

    Can’t decide which is more loud and brash – NY Phil or the Chicago…….

  • Will Roseliep says:

    It’s a grind in a pro orchestra. That doesn’t include things like outside gigs, solo opportunities, private teaching (that all-cash lifestyle), and the many, many other things that go into being a professional musician. Now, I don’t think a musician in the CSO is more put-upon than a player in your average full-time orchestra, but it’s still a grind, and you have to respect the hustle no matter if it’s four hours or (more likely well over) forty per week.

  • Harlan says:

    On top of the time spent performing, rehearsing, and practicing, a little-known fact is that professional double-reed players (oboists and bassoonists) make their own reeds by hand. The task of cutting, crafting, and testing dozens of reeds to find the few suitable for performance can take 20-30 hours per week!

    • Will Roseliep says:

      Very true. I’m trying to think of an equivalent for string players … might be re-hairing their own bows, making their own strings…… but clearly we’re not doing anything like that. Reed players have it rough!

    • William Safford says:

      Very true, plus the extra cost for the equipment and tools, and the recurring costs for cane and other supplies.

      Furthermore, I have to make both bassoon and contrabassoon reeds.

      Who knew when I started playing bassoon that I’d have to add (reed) carpentry to my list of skills!

  • Nick says:

    Totally agree that the number of hours spent learning one’s craft should have nothing to do with the number of hours one works. It’s a false argument! Certainly daily practice is essential to maintaining standards and so keep one’s job, but I have never been convinced that this is a valid reason for counting these as hours worked and paid for. To an extent, this practice is equally relevant to maintaining quality to attract paying students and outside paid employment. Should an orchestra payroll have to cover all this time?

    Nor, I believe, should all the hours taken by all musicians to acquaint themselves with the scores to be performed be taken into account. Sure there needs to be a study of the variations in what each conductor wants. But many will already know many of the scores having played them several times before.

    As a public relations exercise, I suggest Mr Sanders’ points do not make for a very convincing case. I fully agree that 20 hours is just a beginning. But surely there have to be more persuasive arguments to justify those extra 20 hours to a sceptical public – i.e. the vast majority?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Isn’t it the quality of execution that is paid for, and not the number of hours that are ‘on duty’? This whole discussion seems a moot one to me.

      • Nick says:

        Not according to Mr. Sanders nor Musicians’ Unions in many countries, their point being that the 3-6 hours practice each day is essential for the maintenance and improvement of that quality – hence it should be considered part of the weekly hours worked. If musicians only worked in an orchestra, that becomes a reasonably valid point. The fact is that many/most don’t. They receive additional recompense from freelance work and teaching. Quite a few receive salaries as tutors/professors at Conservatoires etc. In those cases, part of that daily practice certainly ought not be considered as part of their orchestras’ nickel!

        • John Borstlap says:

          Maybe orchestral players should practice in special rooms accorded to them and for this purpose so that these hours can be counted as ‘work’? Concert halls extended with hundred sound-sealed rooms?

          Yet, I can’t see what would be wrong with orchestral players ‘working’ only 20 hours of official duty and being paid well for them. Too many working hours and too many concerts do not seem to be very good for the orchestra’s quality. In former times, orchestras were less than a machine turning-out concerts at every available moment, going on tour every 2 months, seeing 10 guest conductors in a month, etc. etc. An orchestra is not a factory.

          This matter makes me think of the court case of Whistler, who had to defend himself against the accusation of a rich client who had paid a hughe sum for a canvas but found-out that Whistler had produced it in only a couple of days. When the judge asked: ‘Is is correct that you received this sum for only a couple of days work?’ Whistler answered: ‘No, it was for a whole life of experience.’

        • steve cheston says:

          OMG, how ridiculous! Maybe they should just punch a time clock. One cannot compare apples to kumquats. Have you ever sat through labor/management negotiations? No one seems to begrudge management their salaries, but labor has to fight for everything. The “marketplace” argument does not fit symphony orchestras. Read about the recent Minnesota Orchestra lockout to see the type of idiocy musicians have to deal with.

    • green girl says:

      “…many will already know many of the scores having played them several times before.” I disagree. There is so much orchestral repertoire that for at least the first ten years, an orchestral musician will have to learn unfamiliar music 99 times out of 100. Also, every time they play a piece may be different, depending on the conductor’s interpretation — tempi may change, articulations may change, etc. These changes require practice.

    • William Safford says:

      If an orchestra hires a musician, it expects that musician to be able to perform at a high level of musicianship.

      The work a musician must do is not limited to the time between when the conductor gives the downbeat and when he (since most conductors are still male) ends the rehearsal. The musician must not only hone and maintain his or her skills, but must also learn and relearn the repertoire.

      Musicians must practice outside of orchestra rehearsal time to maintain that level of musicianship and learn the music.

      That certainly seems like a job requirement.

      Here is a blog entry from a bassoonist in a regional U.S. orchestra:


      Here is the repertoire on her stand:

      STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20\
      PROKOFIEV: Concerto No. 2 in G Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16
      TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
      GERSHWIN (F. Campbell-Watson, arr.): Strike Up the Band
      DVORAK: “Allegro con fuoco” from Symphony No. 9 in E Minor,
      GOTTSCHALK (Hershey Kay, arr.): “Grand Walkaround”
      ARR. (David Frost, arr.): Yankee Doodle
      WILLIAM SCHUMAN: “Chester” from New England Triptych
      SCOTT JOPLIN (Gunther Schuller, ed.): Maple Leaf Rag
      AARON COPLAND: “Variations on a Shaker Melody”
      JOHN WILLIAMS: “Harry’s Wondrous World”
      JOHN PHILLIP SOUSA : Stars and Stripes Forever
      IVAN RODRIGUEZ – Luminis
      ROSALIE BURRELL – Paved in Gold
      SAAD HADDAD – Kaman Fantasy
      PATRICK O’MALLEY – Even in Paradise
      BERMEL: A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace
      BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1
      BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2

      That repertoire is for the next *two weeks* of her season (as of the date when she posted the blog entry).

      There is some seriously challenging music in that list. “Chester” by William Schuman is fiendishly difficult; in fact, it rarely appears on audition lists because it’s so hard! Entire monographs have been written about how to play just that one part. Tchaik 4 and Don Juan are also challenging. Very little on that list, aside from the Sousa, is technically easy to play. (N.B. I am not familiar with every work in that list.)

      Fewer than half of those works are what one would consider “standard repertoire” (e.g. Tchaik 4, Brahms 2, Dvorak 9).

      If all those works were on my stand right now, I’d be pulling what little is left of my hair out.

  • MacroV says:

    Mr. Sanders’ point about musicians working more than the 20 hours (8 2.5-hour services) a week is well taken, as is the one about the years of training it takes to become an orchestral musician. However, that’s true of a lot of professions. And of course there is also the matter of salaries generally being set by market demand, not by number of hours on the job.

    I would say the more persuasive argument is to compare orchestral musicians to teachers, professors, and professional athletes. We don’t expect teachers to be in the classroom for 40 hours/week (though they get the same criticism as musicians, also about summers off), and we don’t count the 2-3 hours of a typical baseball/basketball/football game as the only work that counts by an athlete.

  • Paul says:

    The point is, it doesn’t matter how many hours they work per week. These players are worth this kind of money to their employer. End of argument.

  • Rufus Jones says:

    This entire discussion is irrelevant. The bottom line is that if the powers that be have agreed to pay them well for the hours they work, end of story. I would never waste my time justifying my salary to anyone! We should all be so fortunate.

  • gomez de riquet says:

    $225K/yr* is not really a lot of money for a professional considered (by peer review) to be at the top 1/1000th percentile of talent in his/her field in a major us city, irrespective of field. see banking, engineering, sports, medicine, legal work, real estate, development, programming, IT, etc etc. the fact that anyone would question this is a little absurd. (fyi: i’m not talking about overpaid CEOs, just manager-level professionals in NYC, LA, Chicago, Seattle, etc.)

    * i googled that amount, btw, i actually have no idea what it is.

  • Ross says:

    The flaw in this argument is that amount of work is used to justify compensation.
    If you work 20 hrs/wk, practice 6 hrs/day, but play in some tiny regional orchestra, there is no way to justify compensation on par with that of The Chicago Symphony. No matter how hard any musician works, they have to be good enough to play in The Chicago Symphony.
    Hard work helps, but it is the end product (with some luck) that justifies compensation. The same applies to any pro field as well as study period; a teacher will not grant an A to a student who does poorly on an exam because of hours spent studying.

    • John Borstlap says:

      So, no discussion necessary: the players are paid what they are paid, for the quality of their work, whatever the nomber of hours.

  • Casbah says:

    You give up your childhood. Period.
    What is that worth?

  • William Safford says:

    I think that much of the negative criticism, both here and elsewhere, really misses the point.

    It’s not as if I can claim to be entitled to 20% more pay than another player if I were to practice 60 hours/week instead of the 50 hours/week that the other player does. It’s not a strict quid pro quo.

    However, there is an implicit expectation that a musician must do work that goes well beyond rehearsal time. A musician cannot just show up for the rehearsal or gig, without any practice outside of the rehearsal/concert time. Even if I’m offered a gig with exclusively trivially easy orchestral parts (it’s been known to happen), I still need to maintain myself in good performance condition, and make sure that I do a 100% perfect job playing the easy music.

    Here’s a way to think of the issue.

    How many careers require an employee to, say, supply his own tools? There aren’t many, although car mechanic comes immediately to mind. The aggregate value of their tools can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. However, how many jobs require the (salaried, per diem, or per hour) employee to supply tools that often cost in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars, with no recompense?

    How many careers require an employee to engage in extensive and intensive daily work outside of the job to maintain his or her skills for the job? Music? Definitely. Ballet? Definitely. Other careers? Do even brain surgeons work four or five hours per day, every day, outside of the operating room, practicing on cadavers? I do not think so. And that’s brain surgery!

    A bit off topic, but how many people expect professionals to donate their services for free? How many, say, accountants are expected to do accountancy work for a firm pro bono? (Maybe a charity, but not a business.) Churches hire accountants; why do some expect musicians to play for free?

    Musicians are professionals. Musicians in an orchestra such as the Chicago Symphony are among the finest musicians out there. They are paid high salaries because of their training, their hard work, and — most important of all — their ability to deliver the goods. That pay accomplishes several goals, including freeing up the musician from the need to work at other jobs, especially ones that are not music-related, so that they can maintain their high standards of performance without worrying about putting a roof over the heads of themselves and their family members, and food on the table, etc.