Too many US musicians, never enough orchestra jobs

Too many US musicians, never enough orchestra jobs


norman lebrecht

June 16, 2017

The California-based trombonist Matt Waters has done the maths:

If we’re looking at the numbers alone, the odds of winning a position is astronomical. According to data collected by, 8,133 Music Performance Degrees were awarded in the United States in 2015. As of May of 2017, there are 8 members of the Regional Orchestra Players Association that pay over $25,000 base salary a year, with an additional 49 under other collective bargaining agreements with the AFM. That means there are 57 orchestras that one could theoretically find full-time employment with. Fifty-seven. That doesn’t mean there are 57 positions open a year. That means there are 57 full-time jobs in that industry, that have maybe a few vacancies total per year. Needless to say, the odds aren’t good with 8000+ bachelor’s degrees in music being awarded every year, and that number continuing to grow.

Read Matt’s full assessment here. He can see some hope in the distance.



  • Chris Afulli says:

    So this is a new problem? There are 4 trombones in an orchestra and one tuba. When someone is hired for one of those positions, they can stay for 40 years (and they do!). It’s always been this way. Orchestra jobs are few and far between. Getting one is like winning the lottery. As long as everyone entering the lottery is really good.

  • Dan P. says:

    This situation is hardly new, but I don’t think putting this situation in the context of 8,133 is accurate. How many of that number are pianists – both soloists and accompanists, organists, singers, guitarists, etc. – non-orchestral instruments? Then, how many of the rest actually want to play in an orchestra full time? Also, how many of them want to go into teaching as a primary means of employment? And chamber music? In any case, from my experience most musicians derive their income from a variety of sources – including the majority of orchestras and ensembles in this country that pay per service..

  • Beckmesser says:

    Those graduating with degrees in piano performance have even fewer options for jobs that actually support a middle-class existence. Even the finalists and winners of the latest Van Cliburn competition will be lucky to find a tenure-track teaching position at a good college or university – one with stability and benefits – rather than an adjunct position that pays by the hour.

    • Dan P. says:

      I’ve been around for a pretty long time and I don’t really remember the employment prospects in music ever being much different – at least in the US. And, while I’m sure everyone in conservatory has their hopes and fantasies about the future, I’m also sure that they realize that a salaried career in music – much less a career as a soloist – is little more than a crapshoot, all other things being equal. That’s the chance one takes if one isn’t going for a degree in accounting or computer programming.

      While a good many fellow students at Juilliard did get positions in orchestras, many more became successful freelancers. (After all, not every violinist longs to be 5th desk in the seconds.) Still others moved onto other careers – related or unrelated to music.

  • Larry says:

    Agree with Dan P. I’ve talked to lots of young musicians and tell them this: if you truly love music and want to make it your life, you’ll find a way but it most likely will not be 100% playing your instrument. And that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’re untalented or a “failure.” One of my best friends, and one of the finest orchestral musicians I’ve worked with in my 33 years as an arts administrator, is also the senior vice president of bank. He has talent in 2 areas – music and business – and he’s exploiting all of his talents, and why not. I know him to be a very happy guy and, by the way, last time I saw him he was living in a beautiful house and driving a very large Mercedes Benz. Nothing wrong with that.

  • Jon H says:

    Infinite variety of job positions – never enough degree fields

  • bratschegirl says:

    No, there aren’t “57 full-time jobs in that industry” unless you play tuba, for example, where there is only a single position for that instrument per orchestra. Assuming he’s correct about the number of orchestras and the salary levels, it’s 57 x the typical number of positions per orchestra for that instrument. Not that this is all that much better for many instruments; regional orchestras tend to carry minimum personnel, so triple woodwinds at best, 3 trumpets/trombones, 4 or 5 horns, 1 harp, a few percussion, probably not a salaried keyboard position at all, and strings probably on the order of 12/10/8/7/5.

  • John says:

    Left completely out of the discussion above is the actual decrease in available jobs. While smaller orchestras don’t usually provide full time employment, they provide some money. We’ve seen hundreds of those groups either evaporate or go full amateur.

    Colleges and universities that used to have full time jobs for people now have either phased out their music departments or gone more and more to part time and ‘adjunct’ positions with little pay and no benefits.

    School systems in many parts of the country have eliminated or greatly downsized their music programs.

    So talking about full time orchestra jobs is to talk about the tiny tip of an iceberg of music positions that are either disappearing altogether or are going from full-time to part-time or worse.

    I definitely would not advise a young musician to find work in the profession unless A) they were ridiculously talented, and B) had a realistic back-up plan in mind.

  • Dave says:

    You better be awfully damn good if you want to work in this profession.

    • Sue says:

      A friend of mine is a trombonist and has mostly played jazz since his teens. He recently said that unless you’re as good as a trombonist in a major orchestra by the time you’re 18 you’ll never have a professional career with your instrument in a symphony orchestra. He has had an academic career and still plays jazz.

      • Bruce says:

        A little simplistic, but yes, the level of technical playing has to be very high, very early. You don’t have to be a child prodigy, but it’s not really possible to be an adult prodigy.

        And the state of the art is always improving. Pieces that were considered unplayable 30 years ago are now pieces that promising high-school students use for their conservatory auditions.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Or you could take the route of some musicians who despite a great deal of talent are just short of being at the top. So they sell their souls and take another route to survival. Liberace wanted to be a “serious” pianist. Arthur Fiedler desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a conductor so he could do “real” music and not so much pops. There are many fine musicians playing for Andre Rieu, just like they did for Lawrence Welk a few generations ago. I know many well-trained musicians who would love to play with a major orchestra, or even smaller regional one, but the competition is too fierce. Having a degree in violin performance from a state university pales in comparison to one from Curtis, Julliard, Oberlin or even San Francisco. (Of course there are exceptions: Michigan and Indiana, eg). These people are so frustrated, even angry. That’s another thing: to be in the music business you’d better have a tough skin.

    • Sue says:

      Excellent comments. I’ve wondered about the musicians who work for Andre Rieu, playing their hearts out with schlock. Something doesn’t seem quite right about this as I know the years of training and rigour involved in being a musician that it hardly seems a pay-off to be playing this unchallenging stuff to audiences who clap and dance. Rieu himself is a joke; sorry, but there it is. Standing up their in that ridiculous left-over outfit from “Amadeus” and that mullet haircut, he’s not exactly anything more than a bog standard violinist himself. But the people don’t care; they go there for the ‘event’ and not because of the skill of the musicians and the quality of the music.

      • Robert Holmén says:

        Sorry, but… people who cloak their criticisms in “sorry, but…” never come off as genuinely sorry for it.

        It looks to me that Mr. Rieu has created some employment for talented musicians, none of whom are in a state of bondage to it. They are free to leave anytime, or at least at the conclusion of a season if something more to your approval should come up.

        You don’t like their period costumes? It’s no more ridiculous than what other artists appear in, like opera singers and Shakespearean actors.

        • Sue says:

          Those costumes are all fit for purpose, not just show pony livery. And my ‘sorry’ wasn’t an apology; it means “I’m not buying it”.

  • Fred says:

    I firmly believe that the U.S. government should crack down on the loans given for music schooling just as it has for culinary schools, law schools, and others with dismal placement rates.

    It’s fine to go to an arts school; it’s NOT fine to go to an arts school and leave with crippling debt and no job in the field.

  • Dan P. says:

    I think the situation is a lot more complex and nuanced that Fred has it. Just a few facts:

    Reasons for the Department of Education to deny student loans to students of particular colleges has nothing to do with placement rates (i.e., getting a job in your field – they couldn’t care less if what you do after you leave school) but on default rate. They set a threshold on default rates for all colleges getting loans at 30% – set by federal law. This if for all colleges, public & private, non-profit & profit. Students who apply for loans for colleges that exceed that threshold are refused. It’s unclear whether or not the government has respected that limit in the past. But that’s the law that’s on the books.

    Last year, Bloomberg News quoted the White House as saying that non-repayment rate is 25 % points at junior colleges 12.5 % points for four-year schools, and 30% points for For-Profit schools. This puts a lot of the responsibility on junior college students – who often have to drop out due to financial pressures – and For-Profit schools which have been the most egregious in false advertising about post-college success.

    The quality of education in For Profits is notoriously iffy in these places. Some have now been forced to close. I’ve seen a list of about 20 nation-wide besides 4 that are planning to close. (In 2013 for-profits received $22 billionin subsidized loans and Pell grants. Then, there was the Corinthian Schools and ITT Tech that were forced to close. Then there’s Trump “University.” I don’t know if students were eligible for loans, but they defrauded their customers and Trump settled in a law suit for $25 million. Tons of these places advertise on the New York subways alone offering careers in this and that – and they advertise the availability of loans.

    As a side note, New York State just passed legislation this year providing free tuition (although not room, board, and fees) for the state’s and city’s public universities for middle class families who qualify financially.

    These are just a few things I’ve read over the past few months, but I think it shows that it’s about much more than allowing middle class kids study the violin at Indiana University.

    • Fred says:

      Thank you, Dan. Those are excellent points. I did misrepresent the issue. Thanks for correcting me.

      I guess that one thing the relatively low default rate of music students may indicate is that these young men and women are typically resourceful enough to find a way to economic success even if it’s well outside of their major.

      • Dan P. says:

        You’re very welcome, Fred. Actually, what you said about the resiliency of musicians is quite true too. A few months ago I was going through the Juilliard alumni directory look for a few familiar names and it was surprised to see the number of people – some I knew well – who listed their current careers as something other than music – and not the hourly wage jobs we had as kids to get by, but real careers. In my personal life, I’ve met an attorney who had a degree in voice from Manhattan School of Music, a fine horn player who later became the classical music radio announcer for years. Other friends of mine have become artist reps, worked in advertising and lots of other things. And these were VERY good and savvy musicians. In fact, when I was a kid, my first experience with a first class string quartet was one led by a physics professor at a local college. And he was no amateur by any stretch of the imagination.

        • Chris Afulli says:

          But that’s the great thing about a music education. Even if you never play a note for pay, you have skills (critical thinking, creative problem solving) that are sought out by business. While I do not play the instrument on which I was trained professionally anymore, I use the skills I learned in my Bachelor and Master of Music degrees everyday in business. And I make more than the highest paid professional on my instrument. I would say my music education was a success.

          • Fred says:

            Fair enough, Chris, but you might have been making even more money and achieving even higher success in your current field if you hadn’t had the long music education diversion. Food for thought….

  • Yes Another Trombone Player says:

    And when you take into consideration the even worse pay and conditions for regional pit musicians, 25 grand per year seems almost generous. There are companies out here in the SF Bay Area that pay their musicians $75 a service…the same rate that was paid in the 1990s. Yet there are professionals, really fine players, who accept that pay- gladly, even. $75 or less: one person on a Facebook group supposedly focused around the freelance community here opined that they would take a gig for $40/service as long as it was close to their house. Well, why even bother trying to make a living as an artist when your fellow musicians will undercut you, drive the wage floor down, and willingly accept sub-minimum-wage pay?

  • Jaime Herrera says:

    So, after due consideration of these numbers, I conclude that even if Affirmative Action were operational for orchestras (imagine that!!!), the chances would still be extremely slim? I never got a performance degree but I had luck on my side more than once. I also had a backup plan (unrelated to music) and that worked well for many years. It’s amazing how many different ways to make a nice living one can dream up when one has to.

  • Ben says:

    I am sure it’s extremely hard to get an professional orchestra job, but on strict math terms, winning the Power Ball lottery qualifies for ‘astronomical odds’ way way more (one in 230+ millions in odds)

  • Hrl. says:

    On top of this, what I find criminal is the high tuition conservatories charge their music students. 40, 50, 60, 65 thousand a year!

    It’s beyond base and irresponsibility of music faculty and administration to do this. Also, you can’t really make the argument that the students “chose” to go into it because the constant advertising propaganda about a college degree and the pressure from parents to get do so effectively destroys 95% of free will for a 18 year old.

  • William Safford says:

    Many of the comments focus on the demand side of the equation: how many jobs are available.

    Even more important is the supply side: the vast number of graduates with music degrees and trained for a career in performance, vs. the number of jobs available, whether fixed positions (e.g. in orchestras) or less so (e.g. what one can create through entrepreneurial effort).

    There are, of course, many other ways to make a career in music than joining an orchestra. Growing areas include music therapy and arts administration. The skills used to become a high-level classical musician can be applied successfully in other areas, which is why one can often find conservatory-trained musicians in high-level careers such as medicine and law. Etc.

    That notwithstanding, there is a vast oversupply of musicians vs. the available jobs, alas.

    • Chris Afulli says:

      There is so much more to a music education than playing your chosen instrument. The skills learned in music schools (creative problem solving, critical thinking) are sought by business. Even though I do not play my chosen instrument anymore, I use my music skills every day in a job for which I am highly compensated. Music students must think beyond making music for a living. They can use their skills in many ways for rewarding and highly compensated careers.

  • Blair Tindall says:

    The US National Endowment for the Arts has compiled these statistics for decades (available to anyone on the NEA site), and the number of American orchestras and there sizes have remained constant through that time. This is nothing new or alarming. What *is* alarming is the number of conservatory graduates who may need to gain additional training for a second career, either concurrent or successive to their musical careers. Currently, many music schools charge tuition equivalent to that of Ivy League universities, although at least two are fully endowed and tuition free.

  • Matt Waters says:

    Thanks for the great feedback, everyone. William Safford is absolutely right about my point. We’ve been in a glut from the supply side for a while, and there’s no signs of it slowing down. While quite a few of that 8k+ number will not be pursuing and orchestral career, many will, and even more troubling, the universities that are training these musicians are focused around and orchestra career as a sole determinant of success. That is what needs to change more than anything else.

  • Max Fuller says:

    Not to sound insensitive, American born and raised players need to be given first consideration when hiring for an orchestra or other institution heavily funded by U.S. tax dollars and patrons. This is a nationalist view that many other countries already, and have for many years done.
    Of course there is a great disparity between supply and demand. But we as a country, bound to support each other and not tribalism need to look at who we should hire….American born and raised citizens of the U.S.A first.
    We cannot change the past. But we can certainly help our future by doing so.