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Why Move to Another Orchestra?

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William “Bill” Lucasjoined the trumpet section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1988 bringing versatility and a flair for jazz. He has served on musicians’ Orchestra, Education and Negotiating Committees.  Bill has a national reputation for coaching musicians in the art of audition preparation and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Music where he teaches jazz trumpet.
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In part one of my article series I discussed how grueling and expensive auditioning for an orchestra can be.

So the question becomes, why move to a job in another orchestra if you have one already? Why would you want to play in a major orchestra anyway, even if you are freelancing? With all of the expense, energy and effort required to play an audition against several hundred other musicians, and the likelihood that you will come home empty-handed, why bother to audition at all?

The answer to that question lies in the real magic of playing in a major ensemble, and that word is Ensemble. Typically, in any ensemble upgrade, the money is better for sure, but the act of maintaining a symphonic career is more expensive, as it turns out, than getting the job in the first place. Instruments, dues, insurance, uniforms, exercise, health care, housing, transportation… it all adds up to a hefty price tag. By the time you’re done paying the bills, Disneyland isn’t gonna happen right away. It takes real money to maintain a successful top-ten orchestral career. This is what makes parity among orchestral ensembles a major issue, as they hope to attract talent to an arena where one can afford to support a top-flight career. All of these details involved in supporting an orchestral career make it possible for one thing to happen: Excellence in Ensemble. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link is as true in the modern day orchestra as it is for the flight controllers in a flight tower or the doctors of a surgical trauma team. These are no places for less seasoned performers. As a result, as in business, one of the major ways that top ten orchestras compete with each other for talent is with wage and benefit packages. The upshot of that is a stage full of competent professionals capable of expertly communicating with one another through music, and this is what we describe as Ensemble.

Ensemble is the reason why musicians who already have jobs audition for higher tier orchestras. It is why musicians who don’t have jobs practice long hours to audition for one. Excellence in ensemble means being on a stage full of musicians who perform at your level and all expertly communicate with one another, not with voice, but with music. This is why we do what we do, and, as with most things, there is a cost attached to such excellence.

So how do top ten musicians arrive at these destinations?

Sometimes right out of school, although that is quite rare. It is much more common for a musician to graduate from a college or conservatory, student loans in hand, looking for work, trying to make financial ends meet, hoping for an opening in an orchestra where he may compete to win. The street wisdom for such a neophyte orchestral musician is to find an orchestral job, no matter what job it is, sit in the chair and learn how to do it. Once having accomplished that, learn what the rules are for auditioning, put together your excerpts and hit the audition trail over and over again. That wisdom, as it turns out, produces most top ten orchestral musicians, many of whom have countless stories about their days spent in regional and community orchestras.

In the last segment of this article I’ll cover the reasons why the ensemble of an orchestra can deteriorate and what happens if such a deterioration is left unchecked.

Note: This Bill Lucas Article has been published in three installments. Continue to part 3.