ET's Clarinet Studio
Career Options For Musicians
by Eric Tishkoff



Original Email

I am a 16 year old clarinet player. I have been playing for 6 and a half years now. I am thinking about majoring in music at a university. I have won awards for my abilities and I love music! However, I am not sure what kind of career options exist for a musician. I don't care about salaries. I just want to spend my life making music. Could you please tell me what kind of jobs are available to musicians today? I would appreciate any advice you could send to a young musician. Thank you!


You have undoubtedly heard already that music is an extremely difficult way to make a living. I won't dwell on this point except to say that most musicians do NOT end up with the sort of performing career they had hoped for. Musicians tend to be intelligent, disciplined problem-solvers, though, and versatile enough to make a living one way or another.

I will treat your question in the broadest possible sense, that is, how can one earn a living with music? First, consider that a musician by definition is a performer. However, there are also non-performing avenues related to music including: composer, private lessons teacher, music educator at the grade school level, university-level teacher, music therapy, and music administration (working behind the scenes for an orchestra).

Composition is perhaps even more difficult to earn a living in than performance. Very few composers of art-music make it big, and most struggle just to have their music heard at all. With electronic music in such widespread use, a lot of commercial work that used to be done by highly-trained, skilled composers and performers now goes to someone who can operate an electronic keyboard and other MIDI equipment. Some composers are able to make a living by writing for television, radio, or film. However, this is also a difficult industry to break into.

Teaching private lessons is a good way to supplement one's income. With luck, you could build up a private studio large enough to pay your way through college. I find it a very satisfying outlet, although, I accept only a limited number of students. Too much of a good thing... I know people who support themselves by teaching 50 or more half-hour lessons per week. To me this seems nightmarish and masochistic. There are much easier and more fulfilling ways to make a full-time living.

There are by far many more opportunities for employment in music education than any other area of music. As a music ed major, one usually spends at least one semester on each instrument learning to play and teach it. There are also classes in music theory and history, as well as the standard distribution courses and courses dealing with education. You are probably already familiar with what a school music teacher does. At the fifth grade level, they introduce kids to an instrument for the first time. In seventh grade they continue teaching basic theory and technique (on all the instruments) and conducting simple band arrangements. In high school they might be responsible for marching band, symphonic band, pep bands, and orchestra. Besides music making, teachers must deal with uniforms, tours, candy sales, school funding issues, school administration, and parent organizations. This is a career that is demanding, difficult, and stressful, and consequently there is a great need for good music teachers.

Teaching at the university level requires much greater specialization than grade school teaching. The major disciplines are musicology, theory, and pedagogy. There is also applied teaching which I'll describe later. Musicology is the study of music history. Musicologists usually specialize in certain areas of history, for example early Russian choral music, or 19th century American composers. Theorists take a scientific approach to discussing music and try to describe the features that make a piece of music good. Music pedagogy is the science of teaching and is concerned with finding how people learn music and how best to teach the subject. Even at the university level, teaching tends to pay rather poorly, especially when you consider the amount of training required--often 9 or more years of college to earn a Ph.D. And every year many more students graduate with Ph.Ds than there are job openings. Starting salaries range from the low 20s to mid 30s depending on the school and the region.

Music therapy has gained a lot of momentum in recent years. It is the use of music in the area of health. Music therapists are employed by nursing homes and hospitals primarily, and work with the elderly or chronically ill. I have heard of studies showing, for example, that using music therapy, people with advanced Alzheimer's disease have recovered certain memory and mental capacities.

I must plead ignorance regarding the profession of arts administration. In recent years, though, it has become a standard offering at many universities. The skills needed are probably more closely related to business, accounting, and management than to music.

Now for the stuff you are probably more interested in! Most students are initially attracted to music by the thought of a performing career. So, how do people earn a living through performing? There are basically two ways: steady employment and free-lance. Steady employment includes playing full-time in an orchestra or wind ensemble, or teaching an applied instrument at a university. Free-lance playing can mean anything from playing part-time with orchestras or bands to being a strolling accordionist in a restaurant to being in-demand internationally as a soloist.

Orchestral playing is probably the most highly coveted job among musicians. There is simply no higher position than playing in the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, or New York Phil. Once past the one or two year probationary period, an orchestral musician is essentially tenured. Base pay in the major orchestras is probably somewhere in the $60-70K range and up. The problem is, there are easily HUNDREDS of QUALIFIED applicants for each opening. One wins the job by competitive audition, the thought of which has discouraged many a would-be orchestral musician. And most orchestras are not like Cleveland, Chicago or New York. There are countless regional orchestras that are just as demanding as the big ones and pay only a barely living wage, even though the audition is just as hard. Something else to consider about orchestras is that many are perpetually struggling financially. Over the past few decades, a considerable number of orchestras have had to close clear the stage and turn off the spotlights. Some re-form, usually with drastically reduced wages, while others never make it back.

There are not many professional wind ensembles in the world. The few I have heard about are in Europe and Japan. In the United States, there are numerous opportunities in the military bands. My understanding is that these can be a good experience. In the past, military bands served as training grounds for orchestral wind players. The pay and benefits are on par with or even better than some regional orchestras. Getting into a military band is no small feat. Like orchestras, they are very competitive. You had better have your technical and sight-reading skills in order before showing up to audition.

The other form of steady employment is as an applied teacher at a university. Applied is the term used to describe performance oriented courses like private lessons, orchestra, and chamber music ensembles. Applied music teaching positions almost always include a performance component, which is why I characterize this occupation as performing. A clarinet instructor typically teaches 8-15 clarinet students, a clarinet pedagogy course, and coaches a chamber ensemble. However, there are many variations on this theme. Most universities require the applied faculty to perform a recital once per year. And most teachers prefer to perform much more than the minimum. Some form permanent ensembles with other faculty members, others do free-lance playing outside the university. Pay and employment prospects are similar to those for musicologists and theorists.

Free-lance playing can mean almost anything. Some performers are able to make a decent living through free-lance playing alone. For most, it is only a supplemental income. Clarinetists do not have nearly the opportunities to gig that violinists, saxophonists, bassists, and pianists have. However, free-lance playing encompasses a certain entrepreneurial spirit. Put together an exceptionally good chamber group, or some kind of unique musical offering, and you could be the next Kronos Quartet or Verdehr Trio. This is an area I find particularly appealing. Forming your own group with a personalized musical agenda puts YOU in control of your musical future. You and your group will thrive or perish according to your skills as a musical artist and business person. Unlike orchestral playing, you choose what you play, and you choose the circumstances of the presentation. To find out what others have already done, go to a good CD shop with a large classical music selection. Check out all the classical music, including orchestral, chamber music, and solos; also look through the jazz and world music sections. There are many varieties of good music that you may not be familiar with.

I have tried to touch upon the major directions that a hopeful musician can take, but confess I may have missed a few. I strongly urge you to go to Borders or Barnes and Noble and get a few books that deal with the music industry. Some books serve as how-to manuals for putting together, packaging, and promoting a music group. There are also plenty of books that relate anecdotes about famous musicians, or tell the history of a particular orchestra. These are enjoyable to read, and also help paint a picture of how musicians work together.

It is practically an obligation to paint a pessimistic picture of careers in music when answering your question. Despite the fact that you "don't care about salaries," making music on a professional level means playing with other professionals. Who else can afford the time needed to maintain their musical skills? So, unless you are already financially independent, earning a living wage for your music-making must be a consideration. I do admire your idealism, though.

It is important to keep an open mind and stay connected to the world. Music is such an intensive and rewarding endeavor that it is easy to shut out or ignore certain realities. By developing your musical skills and simultaneously staying plugged-in to the world, you are in an ideal position to take advantage of new trends and new ideas--to innovate.

Finally, listen! Listen to as much music as you possibly can. Listen also to what working musicians say about their jobs and lives. Ask them what they do specifically, what their daily schedule is like, what training was most helpful, and how they like their work. When you attend an orchestra or chamber music concert, try to speak with the musicians afterwards backstage. Tell your private teacher all your ideas; this is a particularly good subject to bring up on those rare occasions when you are not completely prepared for the lesson.

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Copyright © 2001, Eric Tishkoff. All rights reserved. This article may not be used commercially without the express written consent of the author.