Making the Leap

Amelia Perron

The question of post-graduation employment is a daunting one for the average music performance major. After four years of practicing, theory homework and rehearsals, a steady job seems like a faraway reality. In a presentation last week, Fox Valley Symphony executive director Marta Weldon discussed the ins and outs of the orchestra world in an effort to guide bewildered Connies through the process.
Any orchestra gig starts, of course, with the audition. Weldon discussed briefly the logistics of auditions – the impersonal screens between performer and adjudicator, the multiple rounds “like a track meet,” the heavy competition – not unfamiliar to music students.
Before the audition, a musician has to actually get the audition, and as Weldon admitted, “Who you know still really helps.” After sending a rsum, an applicant
should give a follow-up call – and call anyone she might know in the orchestra,
including old colleagues, friends from summer festivals and former teachers. “You have to pull strings, use connections,”
Weldon said. Weldon also emphasized
joining the local union chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, the best way to learn about orchestral openings and network with other local musicians.
Lawrence Symphony Orchestra director
David Becker, in a separate interview, shared some thoughts from a performer’s perspective. Before coming to conduct at Lawrence, Becker played everything from orchestral, opera, ballet and quartet gigs, to working at recording studios in Nashville and Atlanta, where he said he “recorded the entire gamut, from soul singer Al Green to toilet paper commercials.” Based on years of freelancing, Becker had advice for musicians looking to get started in a new town: “Find out who the main ‘jobber,’ or booking agent, in the town is. Call him for an audition. Whether you get asked back largely depends on how you do on that first job.” Becker acknowledged the importance of getting along with one’s fellow musicians and making connections, but in the end, what really matters is whether you’re a good musician.
In addition to the traditional orchestra gigs, Becker also mentioned the increasing
opportunities for small groups. With good PR, a chamber group can make “top dollar” playing either classical repertoire or pop arrangements at shows, banquets and restaurants. Small groups these days are “doing quite well,” said Becker. He cited great performing opportunities in recording and freelancing, calling recording
“a great industry to break into.” But, he cautioned, freelancing is only for those willing to “run their tail off.”
Weldon discussed a more in-depth perspective of what might be involved in an orchestra job. “Being a musician is a lot more than playing an instrument,” she said. A huge part of orchestral work today involves outreach programs – going to schools and teaching kids about classical
music. “If kids don’t get excited about music, we have no future. We have no audience,” Weldon said. Consequently, an orchestral musician needs to be ready to work in small groups, make presentations to young children, and get the community involved in the orchestra. Visual presentations
are also becoming a new force in the industry, and musicians who can bring something to that aspect of their job have an edge. Furthermore, it’s often valuable for a musician to be able to persuade donors to continue giving money in order for the orchestra to keep afloat. Weldon predicted a rise in interviews being conducted
along with auditions. “A musician should be able to think,” she said.
Both Becker and Weldon strongly recommended
chamber music experience for the aspiring performer – to learn the repertoire, to gain experience working with people, and to practice sight-reading. Both encouraged as wide a variety of experiences
as possible. Becker remarked how “terribly important” summer festivals are, and Weldon recommended auditioning for the Fox Valley Symphony.
Becker spoke of the challenges of a performing career – the long hours, the unsteady pay, the physical demands – but even still, he concluded that “if you have a chance to spend your life playing, what else can you ask for? It’s an honor.