Playing for peanuts

New tax legislation means that life in Britain's orchestras is getting harder - as if it wasn't hard enough. Jessica Duchen hears the inside stories

Orchestral players have greeted this latest financial development with a certain ennui. British orchestras are political footballs: falling down the crack between the floorboards of European subsidy and American, tax-broken sponsorship, they benefit a little from both, yet substantially from neither. They're accustomed to lurching from crisis to cock-up, as subject to the latest government whim as nurses or teachers; they're underpaid and undervalued, given the extensive training and expertise demanded by their jobs; worst, they're often misunderstood by a public who sometimes ask them, "What's your real job?"

Orchestral life means lousy pay, antisocial hours, extremely hard work and huge stress. But the focus, the excitement, the team spirit and the thrill of making music with up to 99 other people in front of an audience can prove utterly addictive. "Playing in an orchestra is a vocation," stresses the LPO second violinist Fiona Higham. "If you thought of it simply as a job, you wouldn't do it."

British orchestras have a unique system for appointing new members: after auditioning, several prospective appointees are taken "on trial". The process can take a year or more. Still, most musicians are convinced that this system works.

Once a player is in, the pressure is on. The French violinist Philippe Honoré recently joined the Philharmonia as principal second violin, a half-time post in that orchestra. A long-time member of the Vellinger Quartet, he hasn't been in a symphony orchestra before. "I'd never thought I would enjoy being part of such a big noise so much," he laughs. "I'm enjoying the social aspect and the repertoire. But we have very little rehearsal for a demanding schedule and difficult programmes. British orchestras work two or three times faster than any in continental Europe, and the amazing thing is, they are better, too. Working under such pressure gives the concerts an edge; but the downside is that there isn't time to explore the music in more depth."

That's the musical side, but life outside is equally pressured. Orchestral players are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet. A rank-and-file player can earn up to £40,000 per annum in the London Symphony Orchestra, but the equivalent post in the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras is unlikely to be more than £30,000 - in the North it's nearer £25,000.

Musicians in the self-governing orchestras are on Schedule D, and if they don't work, they don't earn. These orchestras offer their members no pension schemes, no health insurance beyond in-house benevolent funds and, in some cases, no fixed retirement age. Players in salaried positions with the Hallé and BBC orchestras, for example, have increased stability, but less flexibility and less ready cash. Money was more plentiful in the 1980s; now there are fewer recording sessions, less sponsorship and more competition for work such as film scores and advertising. With house prices high and instrument prices soaring, players are increasingly turning to alternative sources of income: teaching, property development, massage and more.

Bringing up a family becomes a logistical nightmare. One LPO violinist, a father of two, found an orchestral job in Germany, where life is duller but more practical. Another dad now installs bathrooms for a living. Some couples decide not to have children. Miranda Davis, a freelance orchestral viola player, is among them. "I couldn't think how I could do it," she says. "You only earn enough money if you work extremely hard. And kids can feel absolutely bereaved if their mother vanishes off on tour."

Performance stress and stage fright can take a huge toll, especially for a principal player, whose personal sound is constantly exposed. Annie, a veteran, says: "It can be terrifying. We had 10 years of difficult 20th-century repertoire under Simon Rattle, which was hard for the percussion - and you're on your own at the top of the orchestra!"

That's one reason healthy living plays a bigger part in orchestral life than it used to. The old drinking-culture has disappeared. Increased competition for jobs means that nobody can afford to rest on their laurels.

The oboist

Emma Ringrose
Sub-principal oboe, BBC Philharmonic

I've been playing the oboe since I was nine. By the time I was 15, I hoped I might be able to play in an orchestra, but it seemed like a distant dream. I studied at the Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester, graduated in 1995, then freelanced for six years before joining the BBC Philharmonic.

My twin boys are just over a year old. I took a year off when I had them, the maximum time that I could, to get some sanity back into my life. It's tricky to manage the schedule, but we're incredibly lucky to have a flexible part-time nanny - without her, we'd struggle, because two nursery places would cost more than my salary.

I don't tour at the moment, as I can't travel with the boys; the orchestra allows me unpaid leave. Fortunately my partner is an accountant and is supportive. It would be much more difficult if we were both musicians.

I do feel secure in my job in terms of the warmth and emotional support among my colleagues, but with any orchestra in the current climate you can't be certain where it's going to go in the future - with all the movement, you're never sure what's going to happen. The whole orchestral scene is like that: we love it, but sometimes other people don't see the necessity for it.

The double-bassist

Matthew Gibson
Double bass, London Symphony Orchestra

I've been playing with the LSO since 1990 and have been a full member since 1992. I studied at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in London. I started the cello aged eight and was so bad that my teacher said I should try the double bass. Once I started playing in groups with other people, I caught the bug.

I'm involved in the LSO's education programme, Discovery, which is wide-ranging; 60 to 70 per cent of the orchestra participates. I think orchestras have become much more flexible in what we offer the community - which justifies our existence.

The sheer talent of all the musicians, hearing what we can do together on a daily basis - that's very inspiring. The effort and dedication are amazing.

The violinist

Fiona Higham
Second violin, London Philharmonic Orchestra

I grew up in London and studied at the Royal Academy of Music, but was launched into the profession accidentally, when I was offered work touring with an excellent chamber orchestra. When I had my first taste of playing with a symphony orchestra, that was it.

For the past 13 years I've been a single mother to two daughters. This is a hard profession even if you have a spouse who can cover the antisocial hours; my children both play instruments, but they don't want to become musicians.

One huge reason why orchestras struggle is because conductors' fees are so high - a conductor can earn up to £15,000 for one concert, while we're paid around £100.

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