Orchestral Manoeuvres leave me in the Dark
December 24, 2013 3:08 AM   Subscribe

I attended a concert last night and I have a question about how the members of the orchestra are paid.

Last night I attended a concert at the Royal Albert Hall - Carols by Candlelight - performed by the Mozart Festival Choir and Orchestra.

Most of the orchestra was on stage for the entire performance, but there were a few people who were able to leave the stage when they weren't required and re-join the orchestra when they were - a double-bass player, the timpani guy, a couple of the horn players.

In particular, we noticed that there was a percussion player who seemed to have only about five things to do all night - he played a snare drum once for about 10 seconds, he tinged a triangle once (just a single 'ting' in one carol) and he played the cymbals three times - in each case just two or three clashes of the cymbals in each particular piece of music.

It seemed inherently unfair to us that someone who was hardly on stage at all and appeared to work for less than five minutes in total might be paid the same as someone who's worked their arse off for nearly three hours.

My question is this: would that percussion player be paid the same as, say, a second or third violin or a clarinet player who had to work much harder over the course of the evening? Would this be affected by seniority? By this I mean would a senior percussion player be paid more than a junior violin or woodwind player, notwithstanding their contribution to the overall music performed over the course of the evening was far less?
posted by essexjan to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I can't answer any questions about payments, but I feel like I should clear up a few things about the relative difficulty or amount of work done by the players.

Playing percussion is very different from playing, say, third violin for several reasons:
  • You have zero leeway for losing your place or not paying attention, since your part isn't doubled by anyone else. You're clearly audible over the rest of the orchestra if you make a mistake.
  • Although many of the individual instruments you need to be able to play are very simple, you need to be able to play dozens of them (not an exaggeration - something like West Side Story, for instance, requires 25+ different percussion instruments)
  • You also need to be able to switch between them at the drop of a hat. Sometimes within the space of less than a bar.
  • Lots of percussion instruments are deceptively complex. Playing the snare drum is something people spend years perfecting. Orchestral percussionists often get overlooked because it's easy to think that anyone can play the triangle, but here's an example of a very difficult and exposed triangle part (staring around 7:52).
In this specific case, although the player only played a few notes, he will have had to attend all of the rehearsals, pay attention, mark up his score to make sure any cuts or alterations don't mean he comes in in the wrong place, etc. He will have been "at work" for at least as long as any other player - and probably longer, because he will have helped set up and put away the timps and any other large percussion (xylo, vibes, bass drum, gong).

Finally, I'm tempted to link to this old chestnut. Even if the parts are very simple, you're not really paying orchestral musicians for what they play - you're paying for their expertise. Sure, in one carol he only played one note on the triangle, but he knew exactly where to put it, and that's a lot more difficult than you think it is.
posted by spielzebub at 3:54 AM on December 24, 2013 [57 favorites]

The short answer is that the orchestral players are payed different amounts at different rates depending on seniority and tenure, union rules, instrument and chair. Instrumentalists in a "standing orchestra" are often, but not always, paid a salary plus extra for overtime (which is why some performances will suddenly get zippy in the last act). Otherwise, everyone is paid on an hourly basis for their time, with an additional performance fee. So, for example, the percussionist is not likely to be paid at the same rate as the fourth chair second violin. Indeed, for reasons explained by spielzebub above, the percussionist may be paid at a higher rate. But, on the other hand, a percussionist may end up being paid less overall for a given concert if it is paid on an hourly basis because percussion isn't used as much and the company may arrange rehearsals so that the percussionist is released earlier than the violins. This is different from performing as a solo instrumentalist or concert/opera singer, where the performer is likely to be paid only a per-performance fee and nothing whatsoever for rehearsals (which, for opera, can take several weeks).
posted by slkinsey at 5:35 AM on December 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Echoing everything spiezelbub said - having to keep track of where you are with dozens of measures of rest separating each time you play is hard! - with the hope that you don't feel bad for having underestimated how difficult and integral their role is. I mean, my boyfriend's a percussionist and even members of his own orchestra don't really get it ("all you do is bang those, right?")
posted by estlin at 5:40 AM on December 24, 2013

Although the differing salaries do apply for the full-time professional orchestras in the UK, if it's a 'scratch' orchestra where it's made up of freelancers (even if they play together regularly), it's likely that there will be a flat fee with a bit extra on top for porterage (for players of larger instruments ie harp, double bass, percussion) and for the leader/concertmaster of the orchestra.
posted by joboe at 5:49 AM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, and most of us don't think it's unfair as we all have very different, important roles to play in orchestras.
posted by joboe at 5:50 AM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Depending on the expertise of the orchestra, it's probably not too much of a stretch to assume that the guy who played the triangle was also trained to do this.
posted by supercres at 6:08 AM on December 24, 2013

I'd be prepared to bet that the "Mozart Festival Orchestra" is a scratch orchestra of freelancers, and that they met for the first time yesterday afternoon :). In which case, they will likely have all been paid the same fee, plus or minus a bit.

The fee is as much a nod to the years of training that is necessary to play those two notes with confidence in the right place as it is a reflection of the quantity of work required on the night.

Seconding what joboe says - we all have a role to play. I only skirt the edges of professional music, but I do sometimes play for a fee, and those who get steady work (assuming a baseline level of professional playing competence) are those who are easy to work with and who show up on time with the right kit.
posted by altolinguistic at 6:08 AM on December 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

On top of the very good points that have been made, realize that the mere act of appearing on stage is work that imposes costs on the worker. When you have to be at a certain place, even just standing around, you suffer opportunity costs: you can't spend that time sitting around at home relaxing, or earning money at some other job. You have to clear your schedule, be well-rested, and put on nice clothing. And you have to behave appropriately onstage: you can't make noise, you should have an appropriate facial expression at all times, you shouldn't be twitching nervously, etc. Obviously, none of what I've mentioned has to do with the main thing the musicians are paid for — being a musician. But these factors are still economically relevant to why they should be compensated at a certain level.
posted by John Cohen at 6:21 AM on December 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

Here's a radical oversimplification that will cover the high points for you: everyone gets paid union scale except for the big-name first chair violin and the tuba player.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 8:52 AM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The performance itself is the least of it. As a non-orchestral musician, I figure I mostly get paid for waiting around. That and showing up on time.
posted by Jode at 9:10 AM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

slkinsey has pretty much nailed it.

Googling suggests (see here and here) that the Mozart Festival Orchestra is a bit more than a "scratch" orchestra, but not necessarily a full-time orchestra that would be dealing in yearly salaries. The musicians are most probably freelancers and/or employees of other orchestras who seem to get together a few times a year for rehearsals and a handful of shows.

They are almost certainly members of the musicians' union, and paid accordingly. Here's a PDF link for Freelance Orchestral Rates May 2013. (Please note that I'm an American and don't know what some of these abbreviations or terms mean.)

The UK Musicians' Union appears to be quite open about rates & payscale - here's a link to a page that's got a wide variety of pdfs' freely available to download for various orchestra's freelancer pay agreements.

So yeah, as others have pointed out, musicians are paid for their time & expertise, not by the number of notes they play. As slkinsey points out, you can maybe tweak the total cost of the rehearsal & concert by arranging the rehearsal schedule so that not all players need to be there at the same time.

Also, while I don't know if it's true in the UK, here in the US entertainment unions often have "minimum calls" - as in, they're guaranteed pay for a block of time (4 hours is common in my experience), even if they're not actually actively doing something for every single minute of all four hours.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:57 AM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I sing in the Seattle Symphony Chorale, and I can tell you it is painfully difficult work to be idle on stage. You can't DO anything -- your posture has to be good, you can't slump, or scratch your nose, or cough; you certainly can't read a book or check your phone. And you have to stay focused enough to come in at the right time. When your score reads 350 measures of rest and then a sfz-fpp-cresc timpani roll, you REALLY want that to be actually 350 measures of rest -- not 349 or 351.

In a professional orchestra like ours with an annual contract, the "section musicians" get paid an annual salary and the irregulars get paid by the show; the section musicians are the people who are part of a standard orchestra arrangement, which usually includes first and second violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute/oboe/clarinet/bassoon/french horn, and trumpet / trombone. The Irregulars are people who are often but not always needed; tuba, keyboard, percussion, organ, harp. In the winds and the brass, there will be one person who plays multiple instruments, so one of the flutes will also play piccolo, one of the oboes will also play english horn, one of the clarinets will play both Bb and Eb clarinet, one of the bassoons will also play contrabassoon, etc. For truly unusual instruments (electric bass, for instance) they'll contract a guy in just for the gig.

In the case of percussionists, let me just reiterate above that the range of instruments involved in being a percussionist is astounding. Percussion instruments I have seen on our stage, all being played by the same guys, include timpani, snare drums, bass drums, tam-tam (massive gong), smaller gong, church chimes, wood blocks, temple blocks, triangle, cymbals, whip, slap stick, rain stick, bongo drums, a giant crank-turned barrel skeleton inside a canvas belt to provide the sound of wind, a bundle of sticks, a cannon, and a cinderblock dropped on the floor -- to say nothing of the malleted instruments like xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, and vibraphone. I've seen metal tubes struck with a mallet and then slowly lowered into a bucket of water, I've seen a quarter drug percussively across a music stand, I've seen flowerpots played like drums. Composers often get creative with the percussion section; being a professional percussionist means being ready for ANYTHING, and having a sense of rhythm and timing that is both mechanically precise and artistically and acoustically on-target. It is a job I could never, ever do.
posted by KathrynT at 11:16 AM on December 24, 2013 [13 favorites]

Spielzebub nailed it. Another thing to consider is that since musicians are (usually) paid per service, the percussionist may not have been contracted for as many services if (s)he didn't attend as many rehearsals. If the orchestra is well-organized, they will structure their rehearsal schedule so that those musicians who only play on some movements or pieces won't have to be there the whole time.

Another anecdote, for what it's worth: the timpani player is usually one of the highest paid musicians in the orchestra, because it's such an important role. Note that the timpanist will rarely play other percussion instruments, since percussionists often specialize on that instrument (and vice versa, although sometimes the other percussionists will cover a "second timpani" part on something that requires two timpanists).

Famously, John Phillips Sousa's bass drum player was the highest-paid musician in the group.
posted by rossination at 1:24 PM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

As if it hasn't been said enough, percussion is really, really hard. Another factor you might consider, specifically with respect to percussion, is supply. For various reasons, I'm pretty sure fewer people take up percussion than other more popular instruments, say violin or cello or whatnot. (Refer to: every cultural reference to an unmusical kid being relegated to the triangle.)

I used to think that way too, and was sorely, sorely disappointed to be offered the xylophone in band. Although I went on to do choral singing instead, and love it, I kick myself all the time for thinking that xylophone (and by extension perc) was beneath me. But hey, I couldn't have done a good job of it, so I'm happy that some of us sing (which is harder than it looks, again) and some of us play other stuff.
posted by undue influence at 7:08 PM on December 25, 2013

Also there's that bit where timpani players often have to retune the drums during the course of a symphony! Quietly, and without drawing any attention. Amazing.
posted by lauranesson at 6:34 PM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

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