Symphony Musician Careers

Symphony musicians contribute their instrumental expertise to ensemble orchestral performances.

Complex orchestral music calls for a number of specific sounds, which all need to happen at the right time in order to work. Rhythmic patterns, intricate harmonies, and melodic passages all interact, Symphony orchestras are a callback to the old days of unamplified music, and do not make use of microphones or amplifiers. They don't need to - when you have over 40 instruments playing simultaneously, volume isn't a problem. Orchestras come in all sizes, from string quartets and small chamber orchestras to a full symphony orchestra of a hundred musicians. Each instrumentalist has a part to play, and sections will interact musically, with small, precisely timed contributions combining to form a cohesive piece of music. The person who cues these parts is called the conductor; symphony musicians interpret a conductor's gestures in order to know when and how to play.

Most professional orchestra players start their training young and participate in orchestra or band through primary and secondary school. Learning to play an instrument is the most important thing for an aspiring symphony musician, and choosing the right instrument is key. There are four instrument families in a symphony orchestra: strings, winds, brass, and percussion. Symphony orchestras will also occasionally feature a pianist, in either a supporting or solo context. Many of the skills within an instrument family are transferable - a bassoon player may pick up the clarinet and find it easier to learn than a violinist would. Of course, each individual instrument has its own quirks and techniques that a good player must be intimately familiar with.

Work as a symphony musician may include...

  • Performing music in front of an audience
  • Rehearsing pieces individually, in sections, or with a full orchestra
  • Reading sheet music and notation
  • Taking cues from the conductor
  • Auditioning for orchestral ensembles

Symphony orchestras exist at all levels, from local community orchestras to world-renowned classical ensembles. Some perform regularly at a dedicated venue, while others may tour or play special events. Student orchestras often hold recitals, which can give young players the opportunity to experience performing. Stage production companies will often hire pit orchestras, which provide the instrumental music that accompanies musical theater. Pit players differ from recital players in one way: they play from a special area called the pit, which is usually in front of and below the stage a performance occurs on. Finding a position in any performing orchestra involves an audition process, in which a player performs a piece of rehearsed music for a small panel of judges. Most professional players will find themselves in numerous auditions over the course of a career as they strive for a prestigious position.

The most important thing an aspiring symphony musician can have is mastery of an instrument. Many pick up an instrument as children and practice well into their teens, with some joining conservatory programs or pursuing music performance at the college level. Those who follow this path tend to study music notation and develop their technique in a structured setting. Some choose to continue their studies, obtaining Master's degrees in music performance, which can help them gain experience with auditioning and performing in a formal environment. It's possible to learn an orchestral instrument later in life, but doing so requires training, dedicated practice regimen, and a strong commitment to the music.

If you dream of being a part of something incredible and have the musical chops to get there, becoming a symphony musician might be an amazing career move.

The League of American Orchestras leads, supports, and champions America's orchestras and the vitality of the music they perform.

The American Federation of Musicians is the largest union of musicians in the world, working to make the music industry work for musicians.