Nutcracker, and the job that is impossible to get.

So this weekend I played the Nutcracker. There were a lot of notes. And a lot of the time I got both the right pitch and played it in the right place. Playing the Nutcracker is somewhat of a major milestone for me, but for a reason that’s hard to explain. Let me first, tell you about the job that is impossible to get:

In every professional symphony orchestra, there are 2 clarinets. In the United States there are probably 25 symphonies in which you can make a very comfortable living as a clarinet player. (Philadelphia orchestra base pay is $100k if I remember right.) The next 25 symphonies down on the list will be a good living. (Milwaukee advertised an opening for oboe at $70k) And probably 50 or so after that will pay you a salary comparable to a school teacher.

Being generous and padding the top tier orchestras with a Bass Clarinet / 3rd player, that means on my purely back-of-the-envelope calculations there are maybe 225 career professional orchestra clarinet jobs in the United States.

Wikipedia has a list of Colleges and University Schools of Music in the United States with about 100 entries. I’m sure there are more, but it’s a nice round number so lets go with it: 100 degree granting institutions that are teaching music majors every year.

A middle sized college will have two bands usually, and at least one orchestra. Generally they will have 10 to 12 soprano players per band and 2 players in the orchestra. There may be overlap between ensembles and there may be additional students. I’m sure the numbers at the larger schools are far bigger, but I’m going to estimate that it will work out to around 24 clarinet students per your average music department.

Students graduate. Assuming roughly 4 years a student, that’s about 6 freshly minted degree-holding clarinet players each year at your average college. (Which is about the rate my own college graduated clarinet players.)

6 new clarinet players a year. Across 100 schools. That’s 600 potential new professional clarinet players each year.

Symphony jobs are usually held for some time. In many music groups, seniority is respected and symphony music itself is a respected art where people stick around and enjoy their job. Referencing some well-known players being around for more than 30 years, I could easily spitball that your average clarinet player, when entering a full time symphony gig, sticks around for at least 25 years.

That means that every year, there are an average of 9 jobs open for a professional symphonic clarinet player.

9 jobs for 600 people. That’s a 98.5% guaranteed unemployment rate.

Careers in the arts suck. Ask any artist.

(And remember that every person in that 98.5% unemployed stat has a degree to pay for. Makes you wonder how they will pay those loans back.)

And the 98.5% item above doesn’t consider how the unemployed and underemployed players out there are still in the market trying. Many potential professional symphony players will spend time teaching, giving lessons, playing in community groups, working day jobs, etc. And I haven’t even begun to figure in the players who didn’t bother with a formal degree. It is not uncommon for several hundred players to go after a good job opening.

Basically, it is very very hard to become a professional symphony player. And it is not just because of the notes and standards of playing. A lot of very qualified people show up to apply for that job. There are just magnitudes more of players than jobs.

The professional world does not exist in a vacum. Much like the peak of a mountain, most good orchestras sit on a groundswell of a good music community: community bands, orchestras, choirs, operas, good schools, etc.

The same pressures that cause it to be hard to be a professional symphony clarinet player apply to community groups. The numbers are just bigger: while there may be a thousand community orchestras, to play clarinet in them you are competing against all the folks who might play in a community orchestra: generations of retirees, current music majors, people who played in high school but not college, etc.

To that end, I have never, ever had the chance to play (sorpano) clarinet in a symphony before. Never mind if I could get the notes are not, that 98.5% crush rate makes it hard to get into the door.

For example, in PA, I played in several bands for about 5 years before I was invited (by people who knew me) to cover for a part in a local orchestra on bass clarinet. I showed up, smiled, did a kick-ass job, and after another call like that, did another good job, and was then asked to join. Mind you, this was a no-pay community group. It took musical skill, 5 years of good social karma work, and luck on timing to get a call and work my way into playing. And bass clarinet is an instrument with far fewer people competing for it!

Which brings me back to playing the Nutcracker.

It is great music. And this will be the first time I’ve really played it in a performance.

Hopefully from this post, you have a inkling of just how special that is. The music is awesome, yes. But so is the fact that I’m getting a chance to sit in the seat to play it.

For the first time in my life, I’ve played a soprano clarinet part in an orchestra performance.

Achievement fucking unlocked.

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