Bailey Ireland, bassoonist and Words About Music participant at AYO National Music Camp 2023, has written a reflection on the ongoing challenge professional musicians face: crafting a fulfilling and sustainable career that empowers them to meet their musical goals.

Bailey spoke mentors and students at camp to gain their perspective on this undertaking.

Landa Chamber Orchestra perform on stage during AYO National Music Camp 2023.
Credit: Claudio Raschella

For many young aspiring professional musicians, career planning can be inhibited by the fact that landing a secure job as a performing musician is a pretty hard thing to do. This challenge continually camps in the minds of musicians and affects our training and education. The solution initially seems obvious: practise longer and more effectively than the competition throughout tertiary studies and beyond, take as many opportunities to learn as possible, and continue training and practising and performing so that future-you can be best prepared to deal with the earning an income part when it comes to it. But our aspirations shouldn’t just be to have a career. Leading a fulfilling career that we feel inspired and personally motivated within can allow us to reach our own music goals.

The challenge is, how do young musicians without long-term professional experience know what it’s like out there? While at AYO National Music Camp 2023, I spoke with a mix of students and mentors to try and find out just that.

Knowing that a stable source of income from music might take a while to come by, it can be easy to accept that we’ll just survive off any opportunities we eventually land. Tertiary training often provides opportunities to try everything out to be best prepared and open to as much work as possible, be it orchestral, chamber or solo, for opera, ballet, musicals, films or in concert halls. Having all the chances to perform in many of these circumstances as a young musician can be refreshing and inspiring, even if the work is unpaid or underpaid.

For Anna Rabinowicz, who played in the Bishop Orchestra at Camp this year and is currently studying flute at the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne, her training consists of an incredible variety of performances throughout the year:

‘We’re playing side-by-side with some of Australia’s full-time orchestras which gives us an understanding of that workspace and helps us see what some avenues are when it comes to developing careers in orchestral and chamber ensembles. The projects at ANAM mirror different aspects of performing careers that one could have in Australia, so there are a lot of unique opportunities. 

For me, the goal is to keep honing my craft and become a very highly- skilled instrumentalist.’

Photo of a group of musicians dressed in concert blacks waiting backstage to perform.
Credit: Claudio Raschella

The difficult nature of the industry leads musicians to become accustomed to a diverse range of work opportunities, each of which has its own flavour. As musicians then enter professional life, being able to work in different contexts is often desired for a fulfilling career. Sharon Grigoryan, currently on contract as Associate Principal Cello with The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, previously worked with The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and then The Australian String Quartet but returned to the orchestra after missing the other types of playing:

‘I’ve always been one of those people that enjoy playing a whole range of things all at the same time. I love playing in orchestras; it’s very social, I love the huge variety of genres and sounds and colours and volumes you can get with an orchestra, but I also love it because there’s time around the orchestral commitments for me to also do chamber music.

I think probably nearly every musician you’d talk to, if they think about it, needs that variety. Playing in a symphony orchestra helps inform your chamber music playing and if you’re playing in a chamber group, skills you take from that help your orchestral playing.’

An orchestral job is one of the few contexts in music that offers a salary with a stable income over a long period of time. Yet in Australia, positions are limited and vacancies come up irregularly. While many musicians lead fulfilling careers without the stability of an orchestral position, some would also choose not to have to commit to the full-year schedule of a symphony orchestra so that their other career interests, such as teaching, directing, and writing, can be pursued.

Bishop Orchestra perform on stage during AYO National Music Camp 2023.
Credit: Claudio Raschella

Alison Wormell attended Camp with me as a fellow Words About Music participant and is currently on contract playing bassoon with Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, but they also spend time working in the UK and Finland. Alison loves working with ‘people who are inspiring and who want to tell stories’ and started Play Outdoors Productions to make short films that amplify diverse voices and the process of composition. For Alison, playing in an orchestra or similar would ideally occupy a portion of their career, but the current Australian orchestral employment model doesn’t make it straightforward for them to maintain passions across areas to such an extent.

Alison’s experiences had me reflecting on a particular quote from pianist Glenn Gould that my Head of Woodwinds at uni always displays on the first day each year: The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

So, what could orchestras be doing more of to allow for musicians to explore their relationship with music and art and reach this state of wonder?

Horn player Emma Gregan, of the ASO, finds that musicians are often life-long learners who want to continue to grow well beyond winning the orchestral job they have practised their whole life for. If musicians want to have experiences and develop new skills away from the orchestra that they can bring back, this should be encouraged.

While ‘many musicians are extremely grateful to be on a salary and making music for a living’, in smaller cities like Adelaide, ‘we don’t often have a massive pool of casual musicians and then the expectation is on us to be there all the time and be 100% all the time. When things are going on in your life, that’s when things can be challenging, when you start to work late hours and thing change last minute.

In my section, we would welcome the opportunity to have casuals in – I’d like to see a casual in at least once or twice a month, but it’s really hard to advocate for that because often it looks like you’re just asking to not work, but I would be happy to do something else.

That’s where the difficult conversations are to be had, to balance the financial and logistical issues with the potential benefits of a fresh, more fulfilled section. Emma would like to see freelancing supported by orchestras, with strong casual pools that are required more regularly and so receive more training and can be inspired by working at the highest level. So, when the regular section needs more players, there’s less need to go to the expense of flying musicians in from interstate.

Musicians dressed in concert blacks wait in a warm-up room before performing on stage.
Credit: Claudio Raschella

Sharon also agrees that there is room for discussion in this space:

‘I wish that there could be things like half positions, and I honestly don’t know why that doesn’t exist. Why can’t you get, say, one tutti cello position and split the salaries, split everything down the middle and two players share that one position so they then do have that freedom? I just think that surely only helps the orchestra because it keeps the players fresh and happy and then they enjoy coming back to the orchestra.’

With all the talk of extra flexibility though, it’s still vitally important to remember that musicians require some stability in order to feel comfortable, just like in any other job. Lachlan Bramble, Associate Principal Second Violin with the ASO, is involved with the union that represents musicians and adds:

‘What’s important for musicians is that we can have proper jobs and sustainable careers. While I think orchestra players who enjoy their jobs the most are those who do other musical things outside [the orchestra], it’s one of the very, very, very rare places in the music industry where you can have anything that looks like a normal job in terms of salary, having leave and all of those sorts of normal things that many people take for granted in other industries.

Navigating these challenges is part of the discussions that musicians are having so that they can strike a balance between supporting themselves financially, whilst also exploring the life-long journey of discovery that makes a career in music so enjoyable.

Looking back on the conversations I had at National Music Camp, I am left with lots to think about as I move forwards into a career in music. Those I spoke with emphasised that musicians need to have the agency to explore the diverse opportunities available to create incredible experiences. And so it seems to me that for us young musicians to avoid eventually feeling stale and instead lead a fulfilling career, we need to be clear about what we are striving for so that we can continue to grow and be inspired.

Bailey Ireland is an alumnus of the Words About Music program, AYO National Music Camp 2023.