Musical Big Leagues?


To wear the uniform in the elite league, your first 10 minutes need to be a highlight reel of epic proportions, without a fumble, bobble or slightest hesitation.  Your first years need to be Pro Bowl performances.  And you’d better make some friends, too. When you retire, there is no Hall of Fame to enter.  Being perpetually at the top of your game is the expectation of the profession.

Such is the pressure cooker world of top shelf orchestras in this country.  Many people wonder what it would be like to play for a professional orchestra.  A recent article from Boston Magazine sheds some light on the audition process from the outside.  It follows two young percussionists and their experiences with the Boston Symphony.  One is on his way out, having been denied tenure.  The other is taking the audition for the job of a lifetime.  The BSO is arguably one of the finest orchestras in the world, so we are talking top echelon here.   The article provides good insight and also provides opportunities of reflection for those musicians who are climbing that particular ladder.

“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” – Milton Berle

One of the finest cellists of the past century, Janos Starker, put this into perspective for me about 10 years ago.  I was on a panel at a conference where he was a featured speaker.  His grandfatherly talk to us, an assemblage of several hundred string players and teachers, was quite memorable.  While I cannot recall his exact words, here is the gist of what he said:

“So many of you are worried about making it to some supposedly top level.  This is not the case outside of America.  Europe is filled with music masters and teachers in most every city, and town.  My advice is to be happy wherever you are.  You make a difference no matter where you are.”

That’s probably small consolation to the two percussionists in the article: one who just lost the job of a lifetime, and the other who was never given the opportunity.  But I think Mr. Starker’s advice is worth noting for anyone traveling down the road to becoming a professional musician.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

You can read the article by clicking this link:

The story was also covered on NPR.  See their classical music blog here:

In full disclosure, I have never played in a “major” orchestra, nor auditioned for one.  I have “subbed” with professional orchestras and did win a few regional orchestra auditions (a few as a principal player, one with a salary where I could nominally survive).  For my career, I chose to pursue collegiate teaching instead.  I’ve never regretted the decision (Mr. Starker’s philosophy certainly helped put it into perspective, though).

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin


One thought on “Musical Big Leagues?

  1. A fascinating read. I’m in awe of the discipline, and the obsessive drive. And I loved the inclusion of so many details of his routine – it’s hard for someone on the “outside” to imagine it.

    I entered college intending to major in music, but after one year, I knew I didn’t have the discipline or the drive to make a career of it, so it was on to other things. Wise move on my part.

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