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The Dream Job
I wish my job as an orchestra musician was as easy as some make it seem.

by Holly Mulcahy
February 1, 2010

In the outrageously funny movie, Office Space, there is a scene where the main character Peter Gibbons, a lowly cubicle dwelling worker, has to meet with a pair of efficiency consultants the company has hired to recommend cutbacks to define what he does during an average work day. One of Peter's co-workers accurately describes the process as "interviewing for your own job".

It is a hilarious scene due to Peter's honesty in telling the consultants (both named "Bob") that in the course of any given week, he spends most of his time avoiding his multiple bosses and making it look like he's actually working. He concludes by telling the Bobs that in the course of any given week, he only does about 15 minutes of actual work.

"…my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired."
As a result of his candor, the Bobs recommend the company offer Peter a position in upper management.
During the past several months, there have been a number of orchestra contract negotiations that have generated local and national press attention. Newspaper articles report statements from orchestra boards and executive managers at orchestras that pay musicians as little as a few thousand dollars a year to over a hundred thousand dollars a year that the average orchestra musician only works 20 hour per week. Those working in orchestras know that this is nothing more than a sad and ignorant tactic to build sentiment against musicians in an attempt to make it seem as though they are overpaid for the work they do.
Just so everyone is clear on this issue, the 20 hours per week is roughly the time musicians spend in rehearsals and concerts together as a group at the concert hall. But in order to make that an efficient and productive experience, musicians can practice 20-40 hours per week more depending on things such as the difficulty and length of music involved and the regular amount of maintenance practice related to preserving fundamental skill sets and instrument maintenance.
So in the fashion of Office Space, I want to walk you through the not-nearly-so-funny average day of an orchestra violinist's work life.
  1. Stretch the body to limber the muscles, play through scales and warm-up exercises: 30-60 minutes.
  2. Practice music for this week's rehearsals and concerts: 1-2 hours.
  3. First rehearsal service: 2-3 hours.
  4. Second rehearsal service: 2-3 hours.
  5. Go home, more stretching and/or yoga then teach a private lesson or two: 2 hours.
  6. Practice music for next week, or next month: 1-2 hours.
The times above fluctuate based on whether or not that day is a one or two service rehearsal/concert day. Days with less rehearsal/concert requirements are spent with the longer amounts of practice time as well as periodic instrument maintenance.
Explaining this to a non musician can be tricky since it isn't a career path that is easily to understand a typical office profession. It is easy to accept why those folks don't readily understand and I'm always happy to explain it; in fact, I see it as a responsibility of the career I've chosen. But it is entirely unacceptable when board members and managers from my own organization not only believe but go out of their way to make others buy into the twisted notion that orchestra musicians only work 20 hours per week.
When I was a member of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, our in-school concerts were a way to help educate future concertgoers about classical music and the orchestra. After playing a few pieces for the children, we would have a question and answer time. Whenever possible, we found ways to explain the time commitment of a professional orchestra musician. Since education was at the foundation of in-school concerts, openly sharing who we are and what we do is critical to understanding the value of what we provide and why orchestras are an important part of a community.
What I don't understand is why there aren't more efforts to educate the public about who professional orchestra musicians are. This would be such an easy campaign to start, I could easily see a parody of the Office Space interview scene mentioned at the start of this article becoming a useful YouTube staple and it would certainly be more helpful than trying to explain all of this in a newspaper article (are you listening Jeff Curnow?).
In addition to educating audiences about classical music, history of composers, soloist biographies, etc. it is imperative to include an ongoing narrative of orchestra musicians. It's not meant as self aggrandizing; it is simply sharing facts so there is a richer sense of appreciation behind why orchestras - and orchestra musicians - are important to our communities. 

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