Orchestral Contracts – Preparing for Your World as a Self-­Employed Musician

Mike Lawson • String Section • February 13, 2017

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Editor’s Note: It’s often said by students that they don’t think they learn enough about the real world in school, like finding a job, contracts, taxes, and other important life skills. Jennifer once again delivers street ­level experience for your students on the path to a symphony career.


Near the end of the season, the symphony provides a schedule for the following year. It is very important that the orchestra has your correct email address and that you are diligent in checking that email.

When you fill out your availability, be sure to plan well so that you do not end up with conflicting obligations. Once you state your availability, contracts are drawn up. Barring emergencies, missed services can result in termination or other consequences should you end up canceling after your contract is sent. Availability forms are not contracts. They are used to determine the capacity in which you are willing to be hired for the coming year.

If you are a member of multiple symphony orchestras, it can be difficult to co­ordinate this process, as not all forms arrive at the same time. Some may have deadlines that occur before you even receive the schedule from another organization. In such cases, you must be aware of your priorities regarding each ensemble and send in the documents accordingly. you may have to miss out on other concerts or employment opportunities. It is one of the downsides of playing the regional “orchestral circuit” if the orchestras are not in communication with each other regarding overlapping dates.

In this line of work, there are times when payment or compensations come late, not at all, or entire concerts are cancelled at the last minute with no recompense. All of this can cause financial distress. This is a hard reality to accept. At some time I hope to talk about how one can set up some protections for yourself. We do what we can to find safety measures against those who would take advantage. Some forgive and hope for better treatment in the future. There are only so many paying symphony jobs in a given area.


Unless indicated otherwise, one can assume that the terms of a contract will be roughly the same as the one currently being used. There are exceptions, of course. Some years can be nerve­-wracking. If a new conductor, new executive director, or new management has been implemented, the musicians are usually prone to high levels of anxiety between the time that availability forms are returned and when contracts arrive (they can be finished and sent to you anywhere between late May and early July, unless there are problems within the organization).

It should be noted that if you are not available for a rehearsal within a concert set, you should not expect to be hired for that concert unless you are principle of your section. It follows that if you mark yourself available for every concert, you are more likely to be hired for all fully orchestrated services in the season. If you only make yourself available for a few of the concerts, there is a good possibility you will find yourself moved off the regular roster and onto the sub list. It is so important to be aware and decided while submitting your availability for each paid group. The one you choose to be most available for is likely the one you can count on being re­hired for.

Just because you play one season with an orchestra, that does not necessarily mean they will hire you the following season, regardless of how you came into that position. There are many politics at play in these jobs, rarely a reflection of your actual playing abilities or professionalism.

This is a another hard lesson to learn and a hard one to accept for many professional musicians earning their living through the available paid performing ensembles within reasonable driving distance. Sometimes you have to let it go. Sometimes you fight for your spot. Sometimes you have no options. So the best advice I can give is to completely commit to the job(s) you value the most and within the season, be as competent, prepared, professional, and properly attired as you can be.

Social Media and the Modern Symphony Orchestra

Orchestras are adopting online practices for the use of not only contracts and hiring, but for the entire season. Dropbox is a commonly used form of posting bowed parts. All string players are expected to arrive at rehearsal with these bowings and all markings in their part , inside chair or not. There are “musician­ only” private websites in which one can access information such as seating for each concert, scheduling and venues with directions, carpooling rosters, suggested recordings or videos to study etc. It is important that the musician keep up with the postings and use them to prepare ahead of time, per the director’s wishes.

Regarding Email

Most of today’s youth are internet savvy, but as an instructor, I have come to the unhappy conclusion that many students have foregone the use of regular email accounts.

I assume that the majority of music teachers are from a generation comparable to my own, or perhaps older. It is hard for me to digest that the world of media and devices and the consequent digitalization is almost obsolete. It can be a shock to the way one manages their life.. In the professional world, however, it may be useful to include some basic instruction on how to use a google account with Gmail and Google drive storage. Among other things, it also has the least dependence upon both the internet connection stability while creating, and the least difficult to keep separate while using various devices which can change material in which valuable time has been spent fine tuning (yes, I went there…).

We are in a world where the management of our digital devices (phones, operating systems, storage and sharing etc.) is changing at an almost unmanageable pace. Having the skills to use a Gmail email account with the ability to send, receive, and store files can be of immense use for all things related to and necessary for organizing one’s professional career in music or otherwise. Without this skill, it will be hard to keep up with all the various documents, deadlines, scheduling, and communication needs of it requires.

Contracts: Compensations and Clauses

Lodging: Housing is provided for musicians in one of several ways. Some organizations pay for a designated hotel room, for any or all of the nights in which one would require lodging for rehearsals and concert dates. There are quite a few orchestras which require you to agree to having a roommate (double rooms); if a single is preferred, then they will either pay for or reimburse for half of the hotel room cost. Almost all symphonies try to offer “host housing” in which members of the community open their homes to the musicians of their local orchestra. Many musicians prefer this and find it comfortable. Regardless, most will still give you the option of a hotel with or without a roommate.

Mileage: Most contracts designate a specific amount they will pay per mile (ex. $0.40) beginning with anyone driving more than 25 miles to arrive at the designated venue. Basses can claim an additional agreed upon sum for “cartage”. If musicians decide to carpool, typically the driver will be compensated with some percentage of what their riders would have been paid, had they driven (kind of like “time and a half”). The mileage cap is around 200­250 miles, with the symphony stipulating how many trips are covered. Most will cover one round trip. For the past few years, it has been policy for the personnel director to use “google maps” to determine the mileage using the most efficient route, rather than the musician submitting an actual mileage count on their vouchers.

Payment/Vouchers: This refers to work forms that the musicians fill out during the concert weekend; the details marked determine the compensation one will see represented in their paycheck for that concert. This practice is also going to an online format in which musician can scan in a code and digitally submit the information after the first rehearsal. This speeds up the process to the extent that now we are paid at the concert as opposed to waiting for payment to arrive in the mail “sometime”. All orchestras do these a little differently, but that is the general idea.

Dress Code: This is a topic I plan to use as an article standing on its’ own. It is not until recently that I asked assistance from some colleagues as to what it was I wasn’t getting just right. It was the shoes. Really? Well. So I am going to quote directly from the contractual agreements (same in both) and include the exact picture, taken from that wording and used on the Musicians’ Only website as an example. Notice it is just the men who have a very specific way to present themselves. It is an expensive set of clothes, whether tails or tux. On the other hand, us females are left to guess what is meant by the term elegant and how to factor in the examples of other musicians in the same kinds of orchestral standards. There are different levels of casual or elegant depending on the kind of performance or job. So, yes, this will be engaged upon later in more depth.

Understanding the Union Negotiations: A number of local professional orchestras employ members of the Musicians’ Union and therefore must negotiate with the local Musicians’ Union in what is called a “bargaining agreement”. When I sign my personal symphony contract, it stipulates that I am also committing myself to the attached union agreement contract, which goes into much more detail regarding both the rights and responsibilities afforded the symphony and the musicians. I am not a member of the union, but I am very glad one exists and is active enough in the local professional environment to set standards to all be held accountable. Personally, I need to be able to take all suitable work offered me, so it is not currently a good option. I have immense gratitude; there are some fought ­for standards which have become expected in the profession from both musicians and organizations.

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