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What does it take to get a job in Classical Music?


Photo Courtesy of Justin Bartels

By Justin Bartels

What does it take to get a job performing Classical music? If you are a young artist and want to pursue the career, here is a brief overview of what an instrumentalist would need to do to get a job in an orchestra, opera company or ballet.

First of all, mostly all jobs today are won via an audition. There are many different types of groups to play in. There are community orchestras, regional orchestras, ballets, operas, military bands, chamber music groups, and large professional orchestra. The quest is a long and difficult one but it can be very rewarding.

Many instrumentalist start at a very young age. I've known string players that have started at the age of three, most wind players were members of the high school band. The bug usually hits one day and it just seems like the appropriate thing to do. Almost all instrumentalists go to school for their craft. Usually a student will audition for a music school that is affiliated with a university or conservatory. Most musicians usually hold masters degrees or doctorates and usually go to one, two or more school. While at school they learn how to play their instrument by taking lessons with a professor, play in a university orchestra and take core curriculum classes. The core curriculum classes usually include music theory, music history, ear training, and regular math, english, foreign language and science courses.

Upon graduation or even before graduation many musicians begin the grueling process of taking an audition. In any city, even including the regional orchestras as few as ten to one hundred candidates apply for each position. I have heard of national auditions where five hundred violinists have applied for one position. The candidate starts by sending in a resume with their professional experience, who they studied with, some contact information and their education. After this simple one page resume is sent, there is a little bit of mail tag that goes on. The candidate will send in their resume, the orchestra will return an info sheet, the candidate is then required in most cases to send in a refundable deposit to reserve their time, then the orchestra will turn around an send an exact audition time. Only then does the candidate makes their own travel and hotel arrangements and goes to the audition.

For local purposes, for local purposes there are jobs available now in the Denver area. It's the beginning of the season for the area's local arts groups. Local job postings are usually available by joining the Denver Musicians Association (DMA) which is affiliated with the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).  The Colorado Springs Philharmonic just held a few auditions for substitute horn, violin, and principal Clarinet. The Boulder philharmonic is looking for a new Principal Trumpet, Third/Bass Clarinet as well as a substitue audition for Clarinet. The Cheyenne Symphony is looking for an Assistant Principal Violin, Section Violin, Assistant Principal Viola, Principal Bass and an Assistant Principal Bass. The Fort Collins Symphony is looking for a Section Violin, Section Viola, Assistant Principal Bass, and a Principal Flute. The Greeley Philharmonic is looking for a Principal Cellist. It is a competitive field, in the Denver area alone there are only a handful of jobs and a lot of local musicians who would do those jobs. Nationally it is very much the same issues, more players than jobs as an example the Colorado Symphony Orchestra currently has no posted openings. For informational purposes all the local information is available on each orchestras respective websites

When you have made it to an audition and been accepted,  the candidate usually checks in and is given a number. All auditions are usually anonymously held behind a screen during the first round. Candidates play a select list of popular snippets from orchestral pieces. Common violin auditions usually include Richard Strauss's Don Juan, and Mendelssohn Scherzo movement  from A Mid Summer Nghts Dream as well as many others. Depending on the rules of the orchestra, a committee made up of members of the orchestra vote on each candidate. If the candidate recieves enough votes, he or she is allowed to move on to the next round.

The semi-finals (second round) are held after the preliminary round and another list of excerpts are chosen. This list may be a repeat of the first round, or entirely new, usually based on a list sent to the candidates before the audition. The same rules applied, a screen may or may not be used depending on the rules of the orchestra and the candidates with enough votes make it into the coveted final round.

In the finals the committee repeats the process, usually with the screen down and the winner will be chosen if a candidate gets enough votes to qualify for the position. A qualified candidate is either given the job outright or is asked to come and play a temporary trial with the orchestra. It is a long grueling and rewarding process, but it is well worth it.

For the concertgoer, for a more fulfilling experience at a concert, check the openings in an ensemble before you go. It is always a thrill to hear the new musicians and listen to how the groups change over the years.


  • Michael 5 years ago

    It is unfortunate that many great musicians that I've heard of, do not want to realize that regardless of length and difficulty of the process of getting a job it is definitely well worth it. It is understandable for me when musicians without great education and training decide to change their career and do something else. But what about musicians who got full scholarships in a major schools of music, including Curtis, and after all those years, dedication, and even experience of performing as a soloists with major orchestras decided to give up? There are definitely many factors and each individual's situation is different, but I thought that in United States people "Never ever give up". As 3 little examples out of many, here is the following: 1)A trombone player auditioned 48 times and got a job in the Boston Symphony 2)A violinist auditioned about 40 times and got a job in the National Symphony 3)Violinist auditioned about 40 times and got a job in New York Philharmonic.

  • Justin Bartels 5 years ago


    I never quite understood why people would simply want to give up after all that work. The intersting thing that I've noticed is that if a musician thinks there are no more opportunities out there, they may actually not know where to look. I've taken over 50 auditions for professional ensembles, but that doesn't mean I was ever close to giving up. There was always work out there. I've heard countless musicians complain that they never get work with ensembles, when all a lot of them needed to do was just do a bit of networking, call up the locals pros in their town and take lessons or just play for them. I know this is different than auditioning but work experience helps the player stay calm and collected at an audition, but how do people expect to get work, if the people that are giving out the work don't even know players exist.

    A little off tangent, but something that I was thinking about today.