Our Play is Work — The Orchestra Profession

by Tim Scott

“So you play in the Symphony. What do you do for a living?”

That’s a question orchestra musicians often hear. Contrary to what some might imagine, however, playing in the Oregon Symphony is a demanding, full time job and our primary — often our only — source of income.

In the course of a symphony season, which runs from mid-August to early June, we play about 236 rehearsals and performances. In addition to our time on stage, we are expected to learn our orchestra parts at home, and we must practice many additional hours to maintain and improve our playing skills.

Although our training is mostly in the classical tradition, we are expected to perform in many styles, including avant-garde classical music as well as big band, jazz, blues, Latin,and songs from Broadway musicals. We also have to satisfy the varied musical demands of our three regular conductors and the eight or ten guest conductors we work with each season. In one season we perform at least 60 different classical works and over 100 shorter, light works. In one day we may rehearse Mahler and Mozart in the morning and perform Gershwin and Ellington in the evening. A typical full-season concert schedule would include the following performances:

Rehearsals are two and a half hours long. We generally rehearse four times for each classical subscription concert, twice for Pops and Family and Kids’ concerts, and once or twice for specials and Music for Youth concerts. Often we meet the guest conductor for a special Pops concert on the morning of the performance, and sometimes they bring some of the music with them requiring sight reading and learning difficult parts in a very short time.

Our jobs also require that we work when most people are relaxing with activities such as attending our concerts; we perform at night and work almost every Sunday and many Saturdays during the season. We also have a split schedule, which means we often rehearse in the morning and perform the same evening. Sometimes we return home from Salem at midnight, and we must be in our chairs ready to play at 9:30 a.m. the next morning. Although we have such an unusual schedule, it is not uncommon for musicians to have a perfect attendance record over many years, and being late is of course not possible. A 9:30a.m. rehearsal does not begin at 9:31 a.m. Many orchestra musicians routinely arrive one-half to one hour early to warm up before every rehearsal and concert.

The musicians love music and feel a need to bring the beauty of great music to the world. We must work very hard to do this. At times, just reading the small print of some of the music, or figuring out what some difficult notation might mean, requires much study, imagination and just plain good eyesight. To make our 200th performance of a Beethoven symphony come alive for the audience, or to perform beautifully in a piece of music we may personally not like, requires a high degree of professionalism, hard work, and inspiration.

This is what we do to make a living. It is very demanding work to “play” and produce such passionate joy.

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