Young musicians – experience is more valuable than cash

Charlotte SmithFri 5th July 2013

Can recent graduates expect a fair wage after leaving music college?

Over the past few days a row has been building between music commentator Norman Lebrecht and the Orpheus Sinfonia. Lebrecht maintains that the Sinfonia, which is directed by the talented cellist Thomas Carroll, has been paying its players at a rate that amounts to worse than the minimum wage. The Sinfonia, on the other hand, counters that as a training orchestra for young musicians straight out of music college, its fees cannot reflect those of a fully professional orchestra – with the name and clout to command high ticket prices and full auditoriums.

As a graduate of the Royal College of Music and a busy freelance musician myself, I have to say that I did balk initially at the idea of a mere £100 offered for several full days of rehearsal plus a concert. But this is only a very small part of the picture. As any recent graduate from one of the UK’s leading music colleges will tell you, finding full-time employment as a performing musician is hard. In fact, it’s the first thing we were told on our first day of a four-year RCM undergraduate degree. ‘Don’t think you’re just going to waltz out of here and into an orchestra,’ they said. ‘Very, very few of you will be lucky enough for that.’

And they were right. Competition for even the lowliest rank-and-file position in a UK orchestra is fiercely fought by large numbers of outstanding musicians from all over Europe. Therefore anything you can do to boost not only your experience, but those vital contacts within the music profession, is a must.

In the old days, music colleges had at their heart a rigorous programme of orchestral training and a large number of opportunities to perform the core repertoire at multiple concerts. But budget cuts and the recession have taken their toll - with the result that there is now less large-scale symphonic training within the colleges. The Orpheus Sinfonia and similar training orchestras are therefore providing a necessary opportunity to get to know other like-minded and talented players, and the repertoire.

And before you think us poor musicians are being made to suffer unduly, you should take a look at similar arts-based industries. It’s not unheard of for those seeking work in the media or fashion to undertake long and gruelling internships paid only in minimal expenses in order to get a foot in the door. At least young musicians have the option of private teaching and regional freelance work (which though less prestigious is often very fairly paid) in order to earn a crust. To say nothing of the satisfaction of forging a career in an area that provides great enjoyment and enrichment, not only for the audience, but for the players themselves.

We would all rather live in a world where everyone is paid a large wage for what amounts to highly skilled work, but the realities of a recession-hit globe, arts funding cuts and an increasingly competitive arena cannot just be tossed aside. The young musicians of the Orpheus Sinfonia will not be bound to unduly low fees for their entire careers. In the mean time, Thomas Carroll and his orchestra are providing a platform from which to launch the next generation of talented musicians – and for that they should be applauded.

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