Musician (orchestral)

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Christopher, 25

A viola and sheet music. Orchestral Musician.What does an orchestral musician do?

I'm a professional full-time viola player. I started working professionally when I was 19, and I’m 25 now, so that would be about six years. I’ve had my current job since 2011, so just over three years in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

How did you become a musician?

I went to a musically selective high school, and music was very much emphasised every single day. We had music teachers and music classes, and they were very amenable to us having lessons during other classes.

In terms of being an orchestral musician, I started playing in youth orchestras when I was rather young as a violinist, and I just really loved that. I didn’t have one of those "this is what I want to do for the rest of my life" moments - it just turned into the thing I really wanted to do.

I finished high school and there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to study music. I wasn’t academically minded - I basically failed high school except for the music bit, and they were initially rather reluctant to let me into the Sydney Conservatorium because my marks were so low.

I went and did a Bachelor of Music, one year at Sydney Conservatorium, and the subsequent years in Hobart. I had a great teacher in Hobart. She taught me everything that I ever needed to know. About six months after I changed to her I won my first full-time audition, for the TSO (Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra).

I worked there on and off for about four months before I decided I wanted to move and do an extra year of study in Melbourne. Bigger city, more opportunities, and a more vibrant musical life was what I was told, and it ended up being very true.

I studied at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) for a year and did a bit of work with the MSO on a casual basis. The first week that I ever worked there was when they asked me to fill in for someone, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

I was worded up that there might be a job in the next twelve months, so I knuckled down, found out when it was, did the audition and won that, and I’ve been here ever since.

What do you like best about your job?

If I can steal a very well used quote, the best thing about our jobs is that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.

We get to play the best music in the world every single week, and it’s different every single week. I get to work with the most amazing people who are excellent at what they do, and it’s very inspiring.

What's the hardest thing about your job?

The hardest thing is keeping, and this is going to sound really corny, but… keeping the magic, and not turning it into a nine-to-five thing.

Sometimes it’s really hard to rock up and give it your all, because you know it’s going to be something different next week, or it doesn’t really matter if you don’t play 100 per cent.

That’s the hardest thing and that’s the most important thing as well. To not let it turn into a regular nine-to-five job, because it’s not. The hardest thing about my job is also the best thing about my job.

What does a typical working week involve?

Today I went to work at 10am and we rehearsed what we have to play tonight rather succinctly, just playing through everything to make sure it’s all good for tonight. We finished at 12:30pm, and I have a concert at 8:00pm.

On a general day, we go to work and we rehearse. Once we’ve stopped rehearsing we’re in concert mode, and we usually have two or three concerts a week.

This week, which is a typical working week, we start work on Tuesday. We work from 10am until 4pm on Tuesday and Wednesday, rehearsing the repertoire we’re playing, and 10am until 12:30pm general rehearsal on Thursday morning. We have a concert Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday night. That’s a heavy week for us.

What sort of skills do you need to do your job?

You have to be interesting, you have to be a little quirky, and possibly a tad eccentric. You have to be very tactful, you have to be very good at what you do, and you have to have a passion for it.

You also have to be very flexible and have a capacity to listen and to understand. Basically what we do every single week is we sit there and we follow the directions of someone who is interpreting music that we’ve played before, but with someone else interpreting. So we have to be flexible, and observant.

What advice do you have for people thinking about doing this job?

It’s very difficult to start music late - not impossible, but very difficult. It takes a load of work. You’ve got to have some guts, and you’ve got to go for it.

I have really excellent musical friends who are in their thirties who haven’t passed an audition. They go for it every time, they come close, sometimes not, and they can’t get jobs. There are about nine professional symphony orchestras in this country and in the MSO we only have eleven or twelve viola positions. Once you get a job, if you like where you are or you don’t get another job, you stay there until you retire. So you can imagine that there’s not a huge amount of jobs out there, and when they come up, dozens of people go for them. If you’re not the best you don’t get anywhere near. It’s really tough. You could wait for the rest of your life and never win an audition.

The advice I have to be a good musician is to surround yourself with the best musicians - better musicians than you are. The best experiences I’ve had are when I’m the worst musician in the room. You learn so much. Never try and be the best in the room, because then you’re not learning anything. 

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).