Worst job? Orchestral player. Best? String quartet

Some timely thoughts from our diarist, Anthea Kreston of the Artemis Quartet:


anthea kreston becker violin

With the recent upheavals of the Pittsburgh Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, Norman Lebrecht asked me to address the differences between a life as a chamber and orchestral musician. So, here goes!

As a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, I was constantly rotating between being completely overwhelmed, inspired beyond my wildest dreams, dejected and convinced that I could never reach the level demanded of me, and soaring with a musical abandon never anticipated. In hallowed halls, which have historically and currently hold the legends of classical music (both as students and teachers), I shared Wednesday teas with students who already had enviable solo careers, management, and recording contracts. Teachers, most of whom had arrived from Europe in the 30’s and 40’s, were most often octogenarians with storied pasts, with incredible careers and direct links to the great composers and performers of Europe.  Alumni are amongst the front ranks of soloists, conductors, chamber musicians and hold leading positions in top orchestras the world over.

It was here that I saw the vast career opportunities available to musicians, and as most of my friends joined top 10 orchestras immediately after leaving school, or simply continued their incredible solo successes, I was adrift with indecision. In search for a deeper meaning, my first quest post-Curtis was to buy my first car (a used Buick Skylark) and drive solo cross country to temporarily join a commune in Oregon and assist in the home birth of a dear friend from high school. From there, I moved to Oberlin to have a musical detox, finding a house (which was immediately condemned and destroyed after I left 6 months later) in which, to get from the bedroom to the kitchen, a person would have to take a running jump across a disturbingly sagging floor to cook their rice and beans.

All the while, old friends would be in contact – I would drive to visit them in their posh apartments and swanky homes – they had adult clothing and matching dishes – leased cars and international touring schedules. Although no one challenged me directly, they would ask my plans – why didn’t I audition for an orchestra?  I didn’t know the answer, but I did know that orchestra wasn’t the answer.

I moved to Cleveland soon after, started a degree in Women’s Studies, and began to experiment with effects processors and foot pedals. Before long, I had a steady gig with a rock band, and I considered the evening a raging success if I left the bar we were performing in not drenched in beer.

One day, my “a” string broke, and I decided to go to the Cleveland Institute of Music and see if they had a music supply store. As I wandered the halls, a tentative voice said “Sarah? Sarah Kreston?”. This was before I changed my name to Anthea. The voice belonged to Nicole Johnson, an incredible cellist I grew up with, and daughter of the esteemed cellist and teacher Mark Johnson of the Vermeer Quartet. She could barely recognize me – in my outsized black army boots, red kilt, white t-shirt with a hand-lettered political statement, and a nearly shaved head, she had to do a double take.

She wondered what I was up to – no one knew I lived in town. She had a string quartet which was going to Norfolk for the summer and their violist just dropped out. Would I like to read with them?  We exchanged numbers, and my obsession with chamber music began.

The first 10 years were difficult in every way, but I loved the challenge and didn’t mind being poor. As my focus eventually broadened to Piano Trio and university teaching, my financial portfolio grew. I had variety, stability, a beautiful farm house in Connecticut, a wonderful partner and friends.

It was during this time that the first break-downs of the American Orchestra machine began. First one orchestra and then the next folded, went on strike, took multiple pay-cuts. Suddenly the diversity of my life offered a financial stability which did not exist for orchestral musicians who were locked into a one-salary position.

In 1996, a landmark study was published by Harvard Psychology Professor Richard Hackman.  It detailed his study of the most and least satisfying jobs in America. A surprise to most, but certainly not to me, was the placing of an orchestra musician low on the list, just after that of a federal prison guard, and sharing the top spot with cockpit crews was the job of a string quartet musician. I guess it was all worth the wait.


In the erratic rhythm of my life, the weekly writing of this diary offers me a calming and thoughtful personal reflection on both the micro and macro of my life. More and more people have been asking specific questions of me, via email, Facebook and through the comment sections, and I try to answer as many as I can, and incorporate big topics into the diary. I would like to invite readers to directly email me at GeigeBerlin@yahoo.com (the hotline email I began immediately after my violin was stolen earlier this year) with questions or topic suggestions.

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  • My second year at university we welcomed a new viola professor. He had played in the Philadelphia orchestra for seven years. One day a group of us students were chatting with him and he was asked why in the world he would leave such a prestigious position to start teaching at a fairly undistinguished mid-western university. He chuckled and told us that he had spent most of his life studying and practicing and training, all with the goal of joining one of the major orchestras, and one day, after seven years, he looked around and realized just how much he hated it. Things are not always what they seem.

  • I totally get that playing in an orchestra can lose its charm, especially for a section string player. But I wonder how much it varies by orchestra. If you’re playing in an orchestra where everything is decided by the music director or management, I can certainly see it. But in orchestras with what appears to be a higher degree of self-governance, say Vienna or Berlin – where the players decide on the music director, choice of guest conductors, soloists, possibly programming, as well as running the Digital Concert Hall, I wonder if it’s equally true. And of course different people react to it differently, too.

  • I know happy people in orchestras and I know frustrated people in orchestras. I think that each individual has to make a decision about their musical career choice based on what they love to do and the life they build outside of their musical lives.

    For some, music is all consuming and that is all they want to do. For others, hobbies, families, and friends are as important as making music.

    I don’t think there is a perfect answer to making a musical career but slamming orchestra life is quite short sighted, even if there are some orchestras that are having labor disputes. Most large orchestras, even with setbacks, provide a middle class life in the cities in which they operate.

    If one has the opportunity to perform as a soloist or top chamber musician and make a living that is wonderful but that means touring, constant practicing, and a long runway to success. And you can still play the same repertoire outside an orchestra job with friends and colleagues within the orchestra.

    So I am not sure that one track is better than the other. Just really a life decision about what makes you happy and satisfied.

  • I fell in love with playing string quartets during a summer at Charlie Castleman’s wonderful Quartet Program I didn’t pursue it as a career because I didn’t want to have to balance the demands of raising children with constantly being on the road, which is required of string quartets.

    My dream job was–and is–playing with a great symphony orchestra.

    I am 30 years into it, have played with 2 different orchestras, and I’m still enjoying it. There is magic in being able to create/recreate beauty and emotion with 98 other musicians.

    Music still makes my heart soar.

  • One of my beloved teacher, Victor Liberman, former concertmaster of Leningrad Phil and Concertgebouw once told me: “you know Giovanni, even the best orchestra in the world is always an orchestra”

  • The music is what it is all about. Many legendary composers put their greatest effort into writing for symphony orchestra.Their results are everlasting. One marvels at the colors produced by Debussy, Elgar, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss etc. One has to concentrate on making music, performing their instrument well and the results are satisfying, even after 30 plus years. Every now and again a renowned conductor or soloist will inspire the well intentioned musician to validate his discipline. Of course it has always been important to me to have an active outside musical life whether it be string quartet performances, piano trio or solo work. But this may not be the ideal for all orchestral players, who are content with the steady work, steady paycheck and just a few days away from home each season. All in all a wonderful way to make a living.

  • Chamber music for me has mostly been a parade of inflated egos, disrespectful colleagues, thin-skinned insecurity, one member deciding that they’re in charge, smugness in victory or resentment in defeat depending on whether one’s idea wins the “let’s try it this way/now let’s try it this way” contest, and on and on.

    I appreciate the increased freedom of self-expression that chamber music affords individuals, and there’s no arguing with the value of a variegated paycheck; but I would never want to play chamber music professionally. There’s [usually] much less clash of temperaments in an orchestral setting.

    • P.S. some might see the unpleasantness I describe and call it “animated give-and-take in a collaborative spirit.” That may be fair. Some people like to argue; some don’t.

  • Great comments! My oldest sister was co-concertmaster of L’Orchestre de Paris for many years, and Jason’s father just retired from principal cello of Vancouver (Canada). They have both had wonderful careers as orchestral musicians and have been deeply fulfilled. I love hearing orchestras (I just got back from an orchestra concert which was incredible!!!). No harm was meant – just sharing my personal path.

  • I’d like to point out that life as an orchestral musician does not preclude playing chamber music. Many of us in orchestras play in smaller ensembles as well, usually (but not always) with other orchestra members.

    I think it’s misleading to paint them as mutually exclusive, or as polar opposites.

    Under the best of circumstances, playing on a symphony orchestra can feel like playing in a very large chamber ensemble–particularly in halls with great acoustics, like the Philharmonie in Berlin.

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