What is involved in the education and training of orchestral musicians?

Musicians usually begin their training as young children. String players typically start learning their instruments at the age of four or five. Wind, brass and percussion players generally start in fourth or fifth grade, though many have had piano lessons before that time. The seeds of a dream of playing in a professional orchestra are often planted while playing in a band or in youth symphonies in middle school and high school.

Before beginning the competitive and rigorous process of winning a coveted spot in music school, young musicians must have already studied with a knowledgeable and supportive teacher and devoted the many hours of practice necessary for mastery of their instruments. The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra attended acclaimed music schools such as the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music, both of which have a lower acceptance rate (Juilliard 5.5% and Curtis 4%) than Harvard (7%). By the time orchestral musicians complete their studies, refining their instrumental and ensemble skills, most earn post-graduate degrees. Many go on to win prestigious solo competitions.

Musicians also spend an abundant amount of time and resources “cross-training” in other aspects of the orchestral discipline by studying at music festivals, chamber music festivals and master classes. In addition to practicing, musicians’ training is ongoing. The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra continue to spend time studying scores, recording ourselves, and listening to recordings of the music we are preparing. In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve this mastery in a field. This is undoubtedly true for every musician in the Minnesota Orchestra.

Negotiation Update

On June 15, the Musicians’ Negotiating Committee met with the management and six Board members in two sessions, totalling five hours.  The Committee continued to press for answers, explanations, and rationale for management’s sixty-nine page proposal, which seeks over 275 changes on virtually every single page of the current contract (a contract built over more than half a century of good faith negotiations). Management provided limited answers and promised more to come.

The Musicians’ Committee repeated deep concern that management’s proposals, if adopted, would seriously compromise the artistic quality of the Orchestra, but committed to continue to meet and negotiate in good faith.

The parties agreed to meet again on July 20.

Is playing in the Minnesota Orchestra a full-time job?

Yes, this is every musician’s full-time job and career. Minnesota Orchestra audiences are able to hear what Allan Kozinn, New York Times, has called our “extraordinary music-making”  because this is a full-time job. Musicians rarely take a day off from practicing; most of us take our instruments along on vacations. Like athletes, we always need to “be in shape”, enabling us to produce the quality performances that our audiences and music deserve.

Life in the Real World by Marcia Peck


Life in the Real World
by Marcia Peck

If I had the power to grant the best possible life to young musicians today, I would grant them a musical life just like mine.  I have been lucky enough to play in a great American orchestra for forty years, during which time the level of music-making as well as the level of compensation have risen steadily.  Nothing in my early life pointed to such an outcome.

My father was a music educator in a working-class New Jersey town eleven miles from the Lincoln tunnel.  When my piano lessons with him threatened to ruin our relationship, he chose the cello for me, and I began lessons at the relatively late age of eight.

From the first, I had excellent training with teachers I adored, but never did it include what we now think of as career counseling.  At eighteen I entered the Curtis Institute of Music with only a vague sense that I wanted to be the best cellist I could be, and I graduated without having revisited that goal.  I did further study in Europe, went to competitions and finally sought an orchestra position feeling like a failure because when I did win an orchestra audition, it was for a section position.  Not even principal chair.  I didn’t know yet that in a great orchestra every chair matters.

When I began what many said was the perfect job, I was terribly lonely.  I had no preparation for the transition from conservatory to a professional life with colleagues twice or three times my age.  And, naïvely, I had given scant thought to the fact that few orchestras paid well.

Little did I know at the time that the symphonic world was beginning to undergo a transformation that would place American orchestras among the very best in the world.  Medium-sized cities that wanted to be taken seriously now began to establish or expand their orchestras.  Major orchestras went to fifty two-week seasons.  The formation of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) helped musicians to obtain increasingly decent contracts, which in turn attracted finer and finer musicians.  My colleagues all over the country worked hard to secure effective and meaningful roles in all artistic matters, including hiring, programming and the evaluation of conductors.  They served on committees, helped with fund-raising, and safeguarded their own musical development by teaching, organizing chamber music societies, commissioning new works, and continuing to musically challenge themselves and each other.

We have taken seriously our role in keeping great music, well-played, alive and available across our country.  But we have had to grope our way, often improvising, stumbling, or taking the least direct route.  No one anticipated that this was to be part of our lives as symphonic musicians.  No one had spoken to us about self-authorship, entrepreneurialism, or interpersonal skills.  Quite the contrary.  As students, we had been discouraged from letting anything distract us from our central goal—mastering our instruments.

I am truly grateful that my career has coincided with a golden age of American orchestras, an age which musicians themselves have had such a hand in creating.  And I have always felt that this golden era was only the beginning of what we can achieve.  Yet in spite of our best efforts and considerable success, this model that has served our cities so well seems to be in peril in the twenty-first century.  Threats come from many corners, not least of which is the increased marginalization of classical music in our Pop-Culture culture.

The challenge today is no different from when I was starting out: how to define and create authentic musical lives in the real world.  And how to ensure that truly great music touches as many lives as possible.  No one is more invested in the success—financial as well as artistic—of our profession than musicians themselves.  This website is part of our effort to shape the musical world in which we live and work, to forge our own vision of music’s role in the world, to communicate our ideals, and to promote effective paths toward satisfying professional lives immersed in the music we love.

Adapted from my Foreword to Life in the Real World: Making Music Graduates Employable.  Editor: Dawn Bennett. Publisher: Common Ground 2012
Marcia Peck, cellist
Minnesota Orchestra

Welcome to our website

We are the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.  Welcome to our website! Through it we hope to convey our commitment to the community we serve, our dedication to the orchestra, and our love for the music at the heart of our lives.

We invite you to explore this site to learn more about our musicians, our views, and what motivates and inspires us. You will read of the passion that drives us, the enjoyment we experience performing with our colleagues, and the pride we have playing in an orchestra internationally recognized for artistic excellence, an ensemble hailed by the New Yorker as “the greatest orchestra in the world.”

On our website you will find free music downloads, practice tips, links to articles and videos, negotiation updates and news of upcoming concerts and community events. Please check back often for updates!

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