While reading the last few editions of International Musician, the best reference orchestra musicians can use to find the latest job openings, it seemed as though there were far more job openings than usual. My initial reaction was one that I've had ever since I was in college: excitement from all of this opportunity.
I used to look forward to those first days of every month when the new jobs openings were posted. To my friends and me, it was like Christmas; a gift of new opportunity and a monthly chance of "shopping" for that perfect, ideal life as a professional orchestra musician. On certain occasions there would be three or four violin openings in a particular orchestra, which were usually accompanied by openings in several other sections.
Back then, multiple openings meant a higher percentage of winning a job in that orchestra along with some of my friends. But the difference between now and when I was in the protective cocoon of a conservatory is that now I know not all opportunity is what it seems. Instead, that moment of excitement is quickly replaced by a little voice that whispers "you know better."
Now I look at multiple job openings with a very different view. Any time I see orchestras advertising more than two or three violin openings at the same time it sends off warning signs. Although this isn't the case all of the time, orchestras usually have numerous openings following some sort of dreadful event. The most recent International Musician lists 14 positions in one orchestra is several weeks behind on paying musicians (and staff) and another orchestra with five openings is coming out of period where the musicians were locked out (over the Christmas holiday no less).
It doesn't take much to see a pattern here: when jobs get tough for orchestra musicians many would rather leave a job and risk not finding another playing job than continue in a job that is bad for the body, spirit, and mind. Some musicians end up leaving their career altogether and others have to move back with parents while they get back into the audition circuit. To these musicians who have endured some of the worst this business has to offer, the luster is long gone, sapped away by the realities of an unhealthy workplace.
But to the thousands of conservatory students who feel the same sort of excitement I did at that age, a flood of openings in the same group are nothing by sheer opportunity – a wide open battlefield to test their newly honed skills. Thankfully, I dodged more than a few potentially lethal bullets on that battlefield due to some wisdom from my violin teacher.
I remember asking him about whether or not I should take auditions in Tulsa, Colorado Springs, Louisville, and San Diego. "You should take the auditions, but don't accept employment if you win," he would say. At the time, I couldn't understand why on earth you wouldn't take a job if you won the audition but luck was on my side because I trusted his advice over my own youthful instinct.
I advanced at most of the auditions and actually won a position in one (not listed above). But even so, I followed his advice and declined the position. And after each audition I would call my teacher to fill him in on what happened and although I was terribly disappointed, he told me that in a few years or so I would likely be glad things didn't go the way I wanted.
He wouldn't say why exactly and that only added to my frustration but as it turns out he was right on the money and within a few years, each of those ensembles suffered their own dreadful event. And following each of those events, the orchestras ended up posting numerous openings.
All of this finally hit home after watching a few of my friends from conservatory win a job only to be out of it within a few years due to the ensemble filling bankruptcy or the stress becoming too much to handle. Although I always felt very sad, I couldn't help but notice that a great deal of strife and heartache could be avoided if conservatories and schools of music did a better job at preparing students for these aspects of their career.
For me, hindsight has shown that my teacher's simple advice helped me to avoid potentially devastating career decisions and over the years I've learned to see the same warning signs that guided his suggestions for myself. The positive in all of this is that learning about this part of the business doesn't require a career of experience to obtain. On an even more upbeat note, learning about these issues in college won't add too much to an already busy academic workload. In fact, I would have gladly done away with a mandatory bibliography course in lieu of some mandatory "reality" training. But why it isn't that way now is a mystery to me.