Ascending the Orchestral Ladder

By: Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

In recent weeks, I received two excellent questions that concern advancing as an orchestral musician. In preparing my answers, I was aided immeasurably by feedback from leading orchestral principals, personnel managers and educators, to whom I am immensely grateful. They confirmed my instinct that neither question has a black and white answer and that a lot depends on the circumstances of the individual player and the identity of the particular orchestra. The answers to the questions below are a summary of our collective thinking.

Dear Edna:

In terms of advancing a career as an orchestral musician, is it better to take a job of leadership in a lesser orchestra or to take a position as a section player in a better orchestra? –grateful for your guidance

Dear grateful:

I regularly read that there are hundreds of applicants for many orchestra positions throughout the world and in light of that, I wonder how often any single musician is faced with simultaneous job offers from orchestras such as you describe that would necessitate making the choice you mention. Perhaps you are really asking whether a musician should focus on auditioning for one type of job versus the other. Anyone who auditions for principal positions should have a strong desire to assume a leadership role, as well as an indication from teachers and musical colleagues that they possess the necessary gifts and abilities. Having said that, there is some wisdom to the notion that any musician just beginning to embark on an orchestral career should cast their net a bit more widely, taking a variety of auditions that potentially interest them so as to get comfortable with the experience. (A former student of mine at the Colburn Conservatory, Rachel Childers, recently won the second horn position in the Boston Symphony in what was her 35th audition for orchestras of all types!)  If a musician feels that they ultimately wish to win a principal position, they should certainly include auditions for such a position in lesser orchestras. One doesn’t become an accomplished leader overnight. The experience of leading, even in a lesser orchestra, will undoubtedly prove valuable as one moves up the professional ladder. It will also reflect favorably on the musician if they make it into the final audition round of a larger orchestra.

For someone who aspires to a leadership position, there are certainly lessons to be learned from being a section player in a major orchestra, especially early in one’s career. These range from observing such an orchestra’s operations and politics to learning a broad amount of repertoire and availing oneself of the variety of opportunities (e.g. educational, chamber music) that present themselves to those who want their orchestra life to be as rich and varied as possible. Add to this the opportunity to work with leading conductors and to learn from experienced colleagues in principal positions, and there is clearly much to be said for this approach. However, there are those who caution that if a musician is strongly determined to one day win a principal position, it is best not to stay as a section player for too long, even in a very good orchestra. The soloistic edge that music directors are often looking for in final auditions may start to diminish after too many years as a section player. It is also not a given that even a valued and loyal section player will succeed in advancing to a principal position within the same orchestra.

Dear Edna:

If you are in a full-time orchestra and want to audition for another orchestra, should you take the entire week off? If other members of the orchestra find out, could it affect your chances of getting tenure?—Kathy P.

Dear Kathy:

The consensus among those with whom I spoke was that it is best to take a week off,  if at all possible, so as to give maximum attention to the impending audition and ensure that you will be sufficiently rested. Wind players, in particular, might need extra time to adjust to changes in climate. If other members of your orchestra find out that you are taking an audition, it is not likely to affect your chances of getting tenure, provided you abide by orchestra regulations and discuss your planned absence with the personnel manager. Still, it is wise to be discreet about your plans, if for no other reason than to minimize the pressure of having to let everyone know how things went upon your return. You might say to the personnel manager something like this: “I want to keep this pretty quiet. I appreciate my job here but I feel I have to try for this opportunity.”  I was very heartened to hear a veteran and highly respected personnel manager tell me: “I have always felt that it is ‘healthy’ to work with the musician to take an audition if the orchestra schedule allows. It gives the player an opportunity to excel and improve.” Even if news of your audition plans does get out, you generally need not be concerned about your future with your current orchestra and shouldn’t underestimate the mutual respect that musicians have for one another.

At any time that you might consider moving to a new orchestra, do not hesitate to seek counsel from those closest to you whom you know you can trust and who are in a position to guide you. It is prudent to weigh all the pluses and minuses of such a move, including the financial stability of the new orchestra you are considering. Be sure to take all necessary steps with the maximum degree of tact and sensitivity. People rarely falter when they take the time to be classy and they are remembered for that, as much as for their excellent playing.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

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