Odds are against graduating orchestra hopefuls

Vanska and orchestra
The members of the University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra get a flavor of what it's like to be professional musicians by performing at Orchestra Hall under the direction of Osmo Vanska.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

Casually dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans, Osmo Vanska stands on the Orchestra Hall podium rehearsing Brahms' Second Symphony. But in the chairs usually occupied by the Minnesota Orchestra sit the young musicians of the University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra.

One of them is violist Justin Knoepfel. He's a doctoral student at the U of M's School of Music. While he says it would be phenomenal to find a full-time position with an orchestra when he finishes his degree, he knows that the competition for symphony jobs is strong.

Justin Knoepfel
Violist Justin Knoepfel says even if he doesn't get a job with a symphony orchestra after school, music will always be a part of his life.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"I would definitely love to be in professional orchestra," he says. "I've been working and training hard to be in one and I know that it's going to take a lot of auditions to get a position. Or perhaps luck, I don't know."

An estimated 3,000 music performance majors graduate from American colleges and conservatories every year. Open positions with full-time orchestras annually range between just 150 and 269.

Another doctoral candidate, violinist Conor O'Brien, says it's all rather daunting.

"You hear all these stories of 200 or 250 people auditioning for one violin spot," he says. "It's scary to think that you have to be the one that stands out the most in order to get the job. I'm still not sure if I can make it or not, but I want to give it my best shot that's for sure."

Conor O'Brien
Violinist Conor O'Brien says subbing with the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has helped him understand what it takes to be a professional orchestra musician.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

O'Brien has already passed auditions as a substitute, and played concerts with both the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He doesn't think he's quite at the level to be a regular member of those two orchestras, but he says sitting in with the ensembles has given him a better understanding of what it takes to be a professional orchestra musician.

Minnesota Orchestra cellist Janet Horvath says it's a grueling life. She's been a member of the Minnesota Orchestra since 1980 and is one of a half-dozen of the orchestra's principal players performing with the University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra during this week's rehearsals and tonight's concert at Orchestra Hall.

Horvath says playing in an orchestra is a wonderful, but pressure-filled way to make a living.

"You're playing three or four nights a week," she explains. "The music you see for the first time Tuesday morning, you're performing by Thursday. Every week there is different music. You have to keep up on it. We're real people and have families. I'm a mom and when my son is sick all night and there's a rehearsal, I have to be at rehearsal."

Sarah Boyle
Sarah Boyle makes oboe reeds in her workshop.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

Minneapolis oboist Sarah Boyle took several orchestra auditions after graduating from the New England Conservatory and the University of Minnesota School of Music. The process helped her realize that getting an orchestra position was not what she wanted.

"It's definitely not for me," she says. "It's not that I don't want to play in an orchestra, because I love orchestral music. But in terms of doing auditions, they're expensive. You have to fly somewhere, stay there, audition and come home again. It might cost 600 bucks for just five minutes playing, if you get five minutes."

Boyle went on to discover that she didn't have to be in an orchestra to play the oboe. She established an enjoyable, independent career in the Twin Cities. She plays in a couple of wind ensembles, teaches, works at a music store specializing in oboes and bassoons, and makes and sells her own reeds.

Boyle learned a lesson that Director Noel Zahler is trying to stress at the University of Minnesota School of Music. He wants to strip away the old assumption that graduates are successful only if they build careers as solo performers or orchestra musicians.

Alison Fahy
University of Minnesota violinist Alison Fahy says the orchestral world is so umpredictable that she doesn't know for sure what her future in music will be.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"I think we measure success by our students living a life in music," Zahler says. "That means that they are living in a particular community and playing chamber music or giving solo recitals, teaching, getting involved with the public school system or with a community center. In other words, the life of a musician is a very complex one today."

University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra violinist Alison Fahy says the unpredictability of a future in music can be a little scary, but she says a strong drive and passion strengthens her determination.

"You spend a lot of time building up your education," she says. "Because there aren't many jobs out there, it's a little nerve-wracking. But it's what I love and want to do."

Fahy has another two years before she completes her doctorate. Then she plans to pit her passion and talent against the odds of landing a vacant violin chair. Fahy is already fortunate to be working on another career option. She says she's equally interested in music education.