Musical talent - and complete dedication

It may be your dream, but it takes years of practice to become an orchestra player, says Hazel Davis
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The Independent Online

It's a nice idea, sitting down all day and playing along to your favourite tunes, stopping occasionally to sample a boozy social life and seeing the world on a giant tourbus. A nice idea - but not necessarily an accurate representation of life as an orchestral player.

We may see them as travelling minstrels with flowing concert dresses and few cares, but the reality is different, as Ariane Todes knows only too well. Todes graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 1996, having focused on the violin. At the time she thought she would go to Edinburgh and play in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra or soak up the sun in a Spanish regional orchestra.

But the reality of how competitive it was hit home when she found herself unable to face auditions. "The low point came as I sat on a park bench in Amsterdam trying to convince myself to go into an audition for the postgraduate course at the music college there," she says. "I didn't make it. I came straight home and didn't take my violin out of its case for a whole year."

Todes gave up her dream of being an orchestral player and now edits a magazine for string players, The Strad. She also plays on an amateur basis for Kensington Symphony Orchestra and is in a band, Los Desterrados. She laughs, "I think my playing is better than it was when I was practising six hours a day. Of course, that's probably because my standards have gone down, but it doesn't matter, because music has become a pleasure for me again."

It's not just the competition that's harsh. According to the Musicians' Union, the average gross annual income for a rank-and-file orchestral player is £22,500. On top of this, players shell out around £3,200 for clothing, instrument maintenance and insurance; as many as 86 per cent of musicians take on extra work to make ends meet. Those supposedly glamorous tours can be stressful, expensive and tiring, and the hours can often mean lack of contact with a peer group outside the music business.

Todes says one of the most difficult things about being an orchestral player is that "it's really hard balancing the high level of self-criticism required to improve your playing with the self-confidence needed to sell yourself (both musically and professionally). I ended up with way too much of the former, so the violin became a burden and I felt very negative about playing it."

Claire Jones has been freelancing for 10 years. She has played with many of the major UK orchestras and wouldn't have it any other way. "It's great to have job doing what I love," she says. "The variety is lovely and being my own boss is brilliant. On the flipside it can be very difficult to justify having time off. In an office you can take two weeks without penalty, but in our career that can't happen."

She also agrees that the hours aren't enviable. "Because we tend to work evenings and Saturdays, musicians tend to marry each other," she says. "This causes huge childcare problems. And you can never go to friends' weddings."

Like any dream job, the downside of doing what everyone wants to do is that everyone wants to do it, so you have to work doubly hard to stand out from the rest. Stories circulate of sleeping with conductors to get places, taking performance-enhancing drugs to stay on top of the game and collapsing from exhaustion after not sleeping for a week.

These are extreme and, thankfully, rare cases but it's a reminder that being a professional musician isn't just about getting paid to play. While the rewards are immense, the work is no musical joke. As Jones explains, "The key is to stick at it, be a reliable, safe pair of hands. Never be late and never be ill and you'll be all right..."


Most players have trained at a conservatoire or university. Make sure you get the best training you can afford and try to play with as many different ensembles as possible

Buy the best instrument you can afford. It's not a case of bad workmen blaming their tools; they must have a workable tool in the first place

Practise, practise and practise. It's not enough just knowing the music; you have to know it backwards and in your sleep

Never be scared of auditions. Go to as many as you can and use each knock-back as a lesson in how to approach the next one.