What do you consider professional?

During a recent concert intermission, I struck up a conversation with an orchestra patron newbie. I always enjoy talking to patrons about their experiences and observations and this conversation was no exception, save for one small question. Toward the end of our talk he asked a question about the musicians: “So what do these guys do for a day job” Unfortunately, the house lights were flickering and we had to get back to our respective seats so I had to give a short answer of “exactly what you see”. But the patron’s inquiry spawned an even larger question in my mind: What is a professional orchestra? I have my opinions and you probably have yours. But first, here are some definitions among industry insiders:

According to Jack McAuliffe, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for the American Symphony Orchestra League, I obtained the following definition of a professional orchestra:

“The League considers an orchestra that pays the majority of their players, a professional ensemble.”

According to Eric Beers, Contract Administrator for the American Federation of Musicians:

” the union does not have a formal definition for what qualifies as a professional orchestra. All of the orchestras that are represented by the union are considered professional, however, they divide each ensemble into three categories: major, regional, and community. Each category is determined largely by the orchestra budget, length of season, and number of core musicians”.

It’s certainly a fuzzy area and one that does not have a simple answer. For example, a professional player that plays in several regional orchestras with short concert seasons (say, only six) may earn a living above that of the national poverty level. Even though each of the individual orchestras pay an annual salary below the national poverty level. However, I feel that it is possible to stop playing the “name game” and come to a more precise classification. Here are a few guidelines that I think will help.

Professional Orchestras

  1. Pay their players a living wage. I know the term “living wage” is arguable in regard to spin, but let’s be frank. Paying the base players of an orchestra anything less than $25,000.00 a year without benefits is not a living wage. If the musician can not afford to pay for the basic necessities of running a professional career: rent/mortgage, car payment, food, bills, and insurance, then they are not being paid as a professional should. Then take into account cost of living variances in different cities across the country. It takes much more money to live an equal lifestyle in New York City than it does in Tulsa.
  2. Have a minimum season of 32 weeks.
  3. Employ a minimum of 36 full time musicians, whose primary vocation is performing in that ensemble.

I’m especially interested to hear from musicians and non-musicians alike. What are your thoughts? What do you consider a professional orchestra?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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