That’s a great question to ask.
Many high school students decide to major in music because they love playing their instrument in band or orchestra during high school. They have dreams of performing in a symphony orchestra dancing in their heads.
This is potentially the wrong decision for many of them.
Simply being a good musician isn’t a valid reason for majoring in music in college. For string players, you may be able to get into an orchestra–if you’re very, very good. For winds and percussion? You better be phenomenal!
Consider the number of orchestras in the United States. As of 2007, there were 117 U.S. orchestras with annual budgets of $2.5 million or more. The total number of orchestras is just over 400. It’s important to note that most of the orchestras are small and don’t pay a living wage. There are typically three flute positions in an orchestra. If you include an additional spot for a piccolo player, that’s four. So in total in the United States there might be around 1,600 orchestral seats for flutists. Does that sound like a lot? It isn’t.
Think about how many flute majors are coming out of colleges and universities every year. Just from the top music schools alone, hundreds of flute performance majors graduate every year. You can see that there aren’t enough symphonic jobs for the flutists from institutions like Juilliard, Eastman and the New England Conservatory, let alone small colleges or state universities.
Consider this advice on how to get a playing job in a symphony from musicschoolcentral.com:
1. Choose a music program featuring a renowned teacher who plays in an orchestra.
2. Practice 5 hours a day throughout the course of a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and possibly a Doctoral program.
3. Pay lots of money to attend and study with famous musicians at summer music programs, like Aspen.
4. Audition for every possible orchestral/ensemble opening when you are out of school, or while you are in graduate school, and hope for the best.
Getting a job in an orchestra is one of the most brutally competitive jobs ever. And in America, only 20 or so pay above $55,000 for a starting salary.
A full-size orchestra has about 100 musicians, and there are about 20 good paying orchestras in the US. So, in America, that means about 2,000 musicians are employed in an orchestra that can pay well.
There are also over 100 music schools, conservatories, or departments of music that teach classical music that cumulatively graduate 10,000+ students every single year in the US alone.
That means within the last 15 years, there are, in just America alone, at the very least 150,000 trained musicians that could play in well-paid American orchestras, orchestras that are cumulatively maxed out at around 2,000 total people. Also, plenty of American orchestras hire musicians who were trained in Europe and Asia, which further extends the competition to well over 250,000 trained musicians.
There are other careers for people with a music performance degree, including arranging, composition and the business field, such as being an agent or manager. See this interesting article for more suggestions.
It’s important to realize that if you really want to play the flute, the path is very, very narrow.
Create your own ensemble
What are the possibilities for creating your own music ensemble to play in? Of course, that exists. Combine the musical opportunities with selling CDs through your web site and offering masterclasses. This won’t happen overnight and you’ll need an alternate source of income while you’re building your career. But it’s still a possibility.
If you want to freelance, this will also involve evenings and weekends. Think dances and weddings.
Another career path for becoming a professional musician is the military. My own daughter did this, right out of high school. She entered the U.S. Army and played French horn in an Army band for four years.
She is now studying accounting at a state university while playing in the wind ensemble and orchestra, and taking lessons. Her tuition is paid through the GI Bill. She loved the military band experience, but it wasn’t easy for her. She had to go through basic training and everything else involved with being a soldier. However, she was a professional musician, being paid to play her instrument.
The number of military bands is decreasing, though, and the number of musicians being accepted into the military is shrinking, too. Instead of large concert bands, many military bases have jazz bands or rock bands.
On the positive side, because more men enter the military than women, there are often more positions available for flutists than other instruments. One of the flutists that my daughter went through basic training with quickly secured a position with the West Point Band, which is a great performing ensemble. Keep in mind, of course, that you have to be a top notch musician.
If you’re interested in this opportunity, contact your local military recruiting office. They will put you in touch with the band liaison who will set up an audition for you.
Determined to teach?
However, if you know that you really want to teach high school band or elementary music classes, great. Go for it!
There are many weekends and evenings required with band jobs, including music competitions and concerts.
If you’re a terrific pianist, would you be happy running a private piano lesson studio in addition to playing for choir practice on Wednesday evenings and for Sunday services, while picking up accompanying jobs here and there, and maybe tuning pianos?
Being a professional musician not so appealing?
If you’re starting to realize that this isn’t the life you want, but you still want to be part of the collegiate music scene, you can have the best of both worlds!
Select a major that is much more easily marketable–accounting, engineering, premed–and become part of the large ensembles–wind ensemble, orchestra or choir. You could even take lessons, too.
Yes, your schedule may be tight, but even if you end up going another semester or taking classes during the summers, it could very well be worth it. The college music experience is fantastic. There’s nothing like it and it won’t come around again. Grab it while you can and enjoy it.
Then when you’ve graduated, you can go out and get a good-paying job and savor the memories of that great university marching band or orchestra.
The problem for music majors is that the pretend “professional” musician scene comes to a screeching halt upon graduation. Then what? Continue going to school? Get a master’s degree just so you can keep playing in the band? Many people do that, but it’s still only a temporary situation.
Sadly, many music majors end up teaching not for the love of it, but because there are no other jobs that utilize their education. Or, they are under employed in clerical or retail type jobs.
So think long and hard about being a music major. Go into it with your eyes wide open and with a solid plan for what you will do four years later.