Musicians are involved in creating and/or performing music in a variety of genres. They can be composers, instrumentalists and/or singers who perform either in the studio or before a live audience.
Musicians may work on their own, as freelance artists, in collaboration with others, or as a salaried member of a:
- opera company;
- theatrical ensemble;
Competition in the musical field is high and musicians need to dedicate hours of practice to maintain and develop their skill, whatever their preferred style.
They may need to diversify and branch out into other styles of music in order to enhance their employability.
Most musicians have a need to perform/compose through their strong love of music.
Genres of music are many and varied and some activities will differ between musicians working in the classical field and those performing in rock bands. However, the following tasks can apply to all musicians:
- performing in concerts and participating in recording sessions;
- practising regularly;
- preparing for auditions;
- preparing for and attending rehearsals;
- maintaining the instrument;
- setting up/tuning the instrument and other equipment as well as arranging for its transportation, if it is large;
- learning new pieces of music to extend their repertoire;
- handling the administration of business activities such as promotion, handling accounts, negotiating fees and organising distribution of their recordings both offline and online, e.g. making their music available for sale on iTunes;
- seeking out and liaising with new venues in which to perform;
- delivering educational work in schools, businesses and the wider community.
Many musicians also teach, either individual pupils or peripatetic teaching in schools/colleges, in order to enhance their income as a performer.
- Starting salaries vary enormously depending on whether a musician is working freelance or as part of an orchestra.
- According to a survey for solo instrumentalists by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), typical performance fees range from £100 to £250. Most music teachers charged between £25 and £36 per hour across the UK, although this fee can be much higher in London. See the ISM Fees Surveys for details of other musician fees.
- Many singers take unpaid bookings in order to add the experience/role to their CV and also to be heard by the public and influential people.
- According to the Musicians' Union (MU), rates for orchestral rank-and-file musicians range from £92.25 to £132 upwards for concert performances. Rates for salaried musicians vary from orchestra to orchestra but range from approximately £26,000 to £37,000 (in London).
- For salaried musicians, extra payments can be made for overtime, concert fees, recordings, porterage of large instruments and travel expenses.
- Royalties may be additionally paid if the music has been registered with the PPL or PRS for Music.
Income data from the ISM. Figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours for musicians are unsociable, with rehearsals or recordings usually during the day, and performances in the evenings, though this can vary. Musicians do not have a regular Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm existence and private practice can take place any time of the day or night.
What to expect
- It takes time, skill, practice and dedication to develop a reputation as a musician. It is expected that learning music or an operatic role is done in your own time. This can include practising another language or developing technique.
- Opera companies offering short contracts may expect their singers to make their own travel arrangements to venues, and contracts are likely to be strictly adhered to.
- A limited number of orchestral posts are available and tend to be in the larger cities. The number of opera companies is increasing, with strong competition for roles. Globalisation has led to singers and instrumentalists applying to audition throughout Europe and beyond.
- Casual clothes are the norm for rehearsals and recordings but dress code is usually formal for classical performances.
- Performing and auditioning can be stressful for some musicians, and performance-related psychology can be helpful. Repetitive strain injuries are not uncommon.
- Time spent away from home, sometimes for long periods, both in the UK and abroad, is common. This goes hand in hand with touring companies. Musicians need to be flexible and travel where the work takes them, whether this is freelance or contract work. Having a driving licence is useful.
A degree in music is not essential for entry into some genres of the profession, but for the classical repertoire it is highly regarded. However, experience and overall musicianship are respected in every style.
Music colleges are known as conservatoires and these differ from universities as they focus on more performance-led degrees, with an emphasis on practical skills. Some also offer specialist degree courses in jazz and music technology.
University music degrees tend to focus more on the academic side of music.
There are many universities offering music courses, for more details see the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).
The conservatoires administer their own applications via the Conservatoires UK Admissions Service (CUKAS).
For qualifications which are recognised by some institutions in their application process see:
Musicians looking for freelance work should possess the follow skills:
- self-discipline and good time management;
- the ability to work well as part of a team;
- good communication and interpersonal skills;
- patience and understanding;
- determination and perseverance;
- attention to detail;
- reliability and flexibility;
- stamina and dedication;
- a wide repertoire of music;
- accurate sight-reading, particularly if you have limited rehearsal time.
It is important to get involved with relevant orchestras, choirs, music societies, bands and solo musicians. Introduce yourself as much as possible, making the most of your professional contacts and keeping up with social media to promote yourself.
Networking is vitally important as vacancies may be discovered via word-of-mouth and personal recommendations can sometimes lead to auditions.
Take any opportunity that arises to gain experience; you will build your confidence and professional network and extend your repertoire. Examples of where to gain this experience include:
- amateur orchestras;
- student society music groups;
Orchestras and opera houses have different selection methods for their auditioning procedure. Some hold auditions on a yearly basis, while others only audition when a current member leaves. Keep a record of when the different organisations audition by closely following their website or call them in person.
Entry for orchestras and opera houses is through an audition, commonly followed by a trial period where the musician is paid on a sessional basis for several concerts. This is not the same as a probationary period and it cannot be assumed that a permanent contract will necessarily follow. Several musicians may be on trial at any one time and trial periods can last for any length of time.
Entry to full-time posts in orchestras is very competitive and it is usually necessary, at least initially, to build a musical career incorporating performance work in a number of different settings and groups, teaching and arranging music.
Agencies can be useful for gaining work, though some musicians are able to succeed without an agent.
Competition is tough in the industry, but a love for your style of music combined with a steely determination to succeed should improve your chances.
Many professional musicians are self-employed, with the exception of some classical musicians.
Although orchestral musicians usually work on a freelance basis, occasionally they are full-time members of a specific orchestra.
There is a great variety of orchestras and ensembles in the UK and they differ in terms of size, style, location and repertoire. For orchestral players, employers include ballet, symphony, opera and chamber orchestras, some of which will be large enough to employ musicians on full-time contracts. For a list of member orchestras and ensembles see the Association of British Orchestras (ABO).
The most common employers of classical singers are opera companies, as there are very few professional choirs, though opportunities can be limited.
Some of the larger choral societies employ opera singers for solo and oratorio work.
There is also occasional work offered by independent fixers for recording sessions and outdoor performances. Freelance musicians or permanent staff can take on this ad hoc work.
Organists are attached to a specific cathedral or church and their full-time post may also include the role of choirmaster and director of music. The majority of organists will work part time and combine their role with teaching at an associated school or conducting a local choral society.
The Corps of Army Music employs over 700 musicians in a wide range of instruments.
Other employers of musicians include holiday camps, cruise ships and theatre companies for work in musicals, for example.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Association of British Orchestras (ABO)
- Musical Chairs (classical music jobs).
- Music Jobs UK
- Individual orchestral and opera company websites.
- National press.
One of the most common ways to learn of vacancies is via word of mouth and networking, and a good list of contacts is vital for gaining new opportunities.
Choral societies sometimes visit classical music festivals to listen out for suitable soloists.
It is also possible to find work through an agent.
Many musicians continue training to improve their performance and professional development, with most paying for lessons themselves throughout their working lives.
Training is available from a range of organisations. The Royal College of Organists, for example, offers diploma examinations from Certificate level through to Associateship and Fellowship, in addition to the Choral Directing Diploma and Licentiateship in Teaching.
For direction to professional development opportunities for all tiers of management and musicians see the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), which helps to develop the skills and knowledge of its members.
Some of the large opera companies offer training through young singers' programmes, such as the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. For alternative professional development courses, see the National Opera Studio.
Membership of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) is also useful. The ISM is the professional association for musicians and provides professional development courses for members and non-members.
Individuals are required to have a degree level or above qualification in music or references from two music professionals to join the Society. Members of the ISM have discounted rates for the professional development programme, which includes:
- an annual conference.
For information on funding and grants, talent programmes and the Music Student Health Scheme for emerging musicians see Help Musicians UK, a UK charity for professional musicians of all genres.
As most musicians are self-employed, business and financial management courses may prove useful.
The ISM and the Musicians' Union (MU) also provide access to careers and business advice for employed and freelance musicians on issues such as fees and contracts, as well as networking and professional development opportunities.
The number of musicians who become very well known as soloists, and make a huge amount of money, is very small.
The majority are more than happy to earn their living by working as full-time musicians in regular work.
Many strive to sing or play their instrument with individuals or groups whom they admire in their chosen genre.
Generally, it is quite rare for a rank-and-file orchestral player to move up to other positions in an orchestra. Exceptions include some back desk strings moving into numbered chairs. In these cases, every post would be entirely re-auditioned. Principals, who are required to play solo, are usually recruited specifically.
Principals and section leaders of an orchestra may have additional duties such as organising a section of the orchestra (if appropriate), editing the music if necessary and discussing options with conductors.In some cases a principal may move to the role of conductor.
There is not a great deal of movement within the orchestral profession, so bottlenecks do occur and progression can be slow. Movement to another orchestra may be the only way to advance in this situation.
Solo performers may start their career within an orchestra or amateur choir and then progress to become a soloist, but very often they start their career from day one as a solo performer with a mixture of freelance solo work and teaching. As a performer's reputation builds, they will receive more work.
Only truly exceptional performers would expect to achieve a career as a soloist.
It is also possible to develop your career as a composer or conductor, start your own ensemble or move into related areas of work such as music education, administration or community arts work.