On Being a Professional Musician

There have been some comments in the press lately, both locally and regarding the Jacksonville Symphony lockout, that bring into question what constitutes a "professional" (and with this, an implied "quality") orchestra. So now seems a good time to write about what the life of a professional musician is like.

A day in the Life (and pocketbook) of a Pro

In reference to the ongoing Jacksonville Symphony labor dispute, Chairman of the Board Jim Van Vleck was recently quoted as saying, "I really do respect our musicians, but there's something about a 37-week year and 20 hours a week that doesn't seem too onerous."

I wish I had a 20-hour workweek! That 20-hour average (typical for most symphony orchestras) only counts the time we spend in front of the conductor, and it's comparable to saying that you should pay the same price for food at a restaurant as you pay at the grocery store because you don't see the work the chef does in the kitchen.

As a "professional," we're expected to play perfectly at the very first rehearsal. I'm a member of the orchestra that plays for Florida Grand Opera, and before we had our first rehearsal for Cosi Fan Tutte earlier this month, I had spent 3 hours listening to the opera, several hours practicing the technical parts, and a few hours making oboe reeds. Plus, musicians generally try to arrive at least a half-hour before the curtain both to have time to warm up, and to have a cushion against any traffic delays...if we're late, it's not like we can make up the time at the end of the day. Can you imagine what would happen if it was kick-off time and the quarterback was stuck on I-95?

As a south Florida freelancer, I'm paid about $44 an hour for my time on stage. But that number is deceptive. Let's add it up:

3 hours of paid work a day on stage or in the pit, less:

But that's not all...musicians are also responsible for providing and maintaining their own instruments. It's not unusual for a musician to spend $10,000-$50,000 or more of their own money to buy their "business equipment." String players have to buy new strings a couple of times a year, woodwind players go through several reeds a week.

But that's not all...as a freelancer, I'm paid as an Independent Contractor. That means I have to pay double the Social Security tax (15.3% instead of 7.65%). I'm on my own for health insurance. I get no vacation pay. If I call in sick, I don't get paid for that day.

Add it all up, and despite the fact that I've been training for this profession since I was 10 years old, I might be better off if I worked at Wal-Mart!




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