The United States holds approximately 350 to 400 professional orchestras as of 2011, according to the League of American Orchestras. Though you may not think of an orchestral career as "lucrative," you can earn a substantial amount, especially in top American orchestras like the National Symphony Orchestra or even the Cleveland or Philadelphia Orchestras. If playing musical instruments is your passion, orchestras offer an experience that can take you traveling and performing in front of millions of people.
Minimum starting salaries for symphony orchestras in the United States generally range from a low of $30,000 to a high of more than $100,000. The lowest-paid orchestras include the Virginia Symphony, Alabama, Louisville and San Antonio Orchestras, where 2010-11 season base salaries range from $26,000 to $36,000, according to settlement bulletins from the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. The highest-paid orchestras include the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Fransisco, Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras, where 2010-11 base salaries range from $128,000 to $136,000. The salary you receive is typically paid to you over the number of weeks in your orchestra season, which varies by orchestra and can range anywhere from around 30 to 52 weeks.
In addition to base pay, orchestra members may receive additional pay according to seniority, as well as their role in orchestral performances. The ICSOM reports that of its 52 orchestra members, seniority pay can be around 3 to as high as 15 percent or more, on average. Concertmasters, first-chair players and other orchestra members with key roles also get paid more than the base salary. Some orchestras may also offer off-season weekly pay.
Each orchestra offers different benefits, depending on its contract with union organizations like the American Federation of Musicians or the ICSOM. Most orchestras offer paid vacation, with some top orchestras like Boston, New York or Philadelphia offering 10 paid weeks of vacation, on average. Many also offer sick leave, full medical and dental coverage, and attractive pension benefits, according to the website of Douglas Yeo, bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. You also enjoy flexible work schedules, and travel allowances during tours.
Symphony orchestras primarily depend on private donors and other contributions. For the 2008-09 season, the League of American Orchestras estimates that approximately 39 percent of orchestra revenues came from private contributions, while 35 percent came from concert revenues. Smaller revenue amounts come from government grants and other orchestra-earned income. As of the 2010-11 season, orchestras may be facing a "historic decline," according to National Arts Journalism Program writer, Nancy Malitz, in her August 2010 article. Gradyon Royce, in a June 2011 article in the "StarTribune," reports that orchestras face declining ticket sales and audiences. Orchestras that have cut budgets and salaries for the 2010-11 season include The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.