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A Life in Music

How do people come to play in symphony orchestras? What is life like for a professional musician?

People playing french hornsMost musicians in symphony orchestras prepare many years for their jobs. Typically, they begin studying an instrument as children and participate in school and private musical programs throughout their student years.

Often during or after high school, aspiring professional musicians study with highly skilled teachers either independently, at a conservatory, or in college. Many musicians also participate in summer music schools or camps.

In addition to instruction, experience is very important. Most players who end up in a professional symphony perform in many smaller school or community orchestras during the years of their training. Performing in the orchestra pit for school and amateur theater groups is another way young musicians get valuable experience that can lead to a career in music.

Experience helps young musicians develop in several important ways. Being part of an ensemble (a group of musicians who perform together) helps instrumentalists improve their sense of pitch and rhythm and also provides a chance to learn how conductors work -- to follow their tempos (the speed at which a piece is played) and interpretive directions, for instance.

Early study, lots of practice, and experience at school and for fun might remind you of an activity that has a lot in common with music: sports. Both require a sense of teamwork and physical and mental skill, and both are very competitive for those who hope to become professionals.

One aspect of this competition is the audition, an unavoidable part of musical life. Just as a baseball or soccer player may have to compete with other players for a spot on a team, musicians have to audition for a place in an orchestra or a music school. Sometimes the applicant provides a recording in advance, but a live performance for a small number of people is generally required. Sometimes the people listening to the audition and the auditioner cannot see one another; these are called "blind" auditions. A screen is put up so that the music can be heard, but visual impression of the player is not taken into account.

When through a combination of talent, hard work, and luck a musician joins a large symphony orchestra, it's a full-time job, with several performances per week during the season (from fall to spring, just like the school year) as well as rehearsals every week.

Some orchestras (including both the Boston Pops and the Boston Symphony) perform on tour in other cities in the United States or abroad. Every single instrument is packed up and shipped by truck or airplane and then is unpacked and loaded in to a concert hall in a new city.

In addition to their job with the symphony, some orchestral musicians are involved in other musical activities. Often they teach or perform in smaller ensembles like string quartets. They may be composers as well. Some also play other types of music, like jazz, or instruments other than the one they have mastered professionally. (Musicians of all kinds begin their studies on the piano, and many continue to play their whole lives.)

What about practicing? I'd love to play in a symphony someday, but do I have to practice?

Photo of orchestra practiceStudents learning how to play instruments often ask: Why practice? Practicing may not seem like much fun at all, and sometimes drags on and on -- no matter how good you are. Here are a few ways to think about practicing that may make it easier.

Musicians have to practice just as athletes have to practice; both must work hard to gain control over their muscles, whether those are being used to shoot free throws in basketball or bow a violin.
Just as athletic teams have regular schedules for practices, setting regular times for your practicing helps a lot. Schedule a daily block of time and ask others in your household for help in keeping to that time.

When that part of the day comes, go to a private spot -- or if you must practice in a room everyone uses, ask for as much privacy as possible. It's best not to be interrupted by distractions such as phone calls or the television.

Once you've got a routine place and time, don't worry about it anymore. Just like brushing your teeth, it's a built-in ritual that you won't have to make a decision about every day. Once that routine is established, don't get frustrated by what seems like slow (or even no) progress. Music is tough, and you may hope to hear changes in a day or two, or a week or month, but you may not hear any at all. This doesn't mean that things aren't happening; sometimes you'll make what may feel like sudden progress -- something works that wasn't working before and you've gotten better. This is because you have been making small steps -- too small to hear -- all along. Learning music, like learning anything, doesn't necessarily go fast or slow. It takes its own time and will probably surprise you if you stick with it.

Photo of woodwind practiceSet small goals and give yourself positive feedback when you achieve them. Carnegie Hall dreams may be in your mind while the next five measures of your piano exercise are in front of you. Stick to learning those next five and the five after that -- and enjoy how each measure builds to a larger piece and to better playing. Carnegie Hall will come along if it's meant to -- and even if it doesn't, you've been enjoying your music along the way.

Use your mind when you are practicing. Concentrating is a great way to keep things from getting boring. Pay attention to how you are playing and what the sound is like. Really listen. Even if what you are working on is not going as you would like, you can always gain by listening each moment.

Keep a notebook of your practicing. Your teacher has probably already asked you to take notes on what you have done and what you are still working on. You can also keep track of things that worked particularly well or didn't work at all, or questions that might come up that you would like to ask your teacher.

If you miss a day for whatever reason, don't beat yourself up about it -- or worry about making up for lost time. Just pick up the next day and keep working in your regular manner. Step by step, note by note, you'll become a musician.

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Photos courtesy of Michael Lutch.

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