Orchestral Music Librarian
How To Become an Orchestral Music Librarian
Of his work, Paul Gunther, Orchestral Music Librarian with the Minnesota Orchestra says, “We Librarians are responsible for the care, upkeep, distribution and research involving all the music that’s performed, whether it’s sheet music or whether it’s digital. We’re responsible for making sure that music reaches the people playing it in the best possible way so there’s as little barrier as possible between the musicians playing and the audience listening. That can range from a task as mundane as contacting a Music Publisher or Printer and saying, ‘We need these parts, please send them’ to something much more profound such as ‘Which version of this music do you want and how do we know what’s best for this Conductor and these Players?’ For example, there are compositions that have many different versions and compositions that are hard to find because they aren’t particularly popular. It’s not just Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, but contemporary Composers with their own websites or a Composer from New Zealand someone heard on YouTube. We have to know how to do research and have connections. That’s one reason we have an international organization [the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association].
We rely on our computers and the internet but we also rely on reference books and the telephone. In one day we might have communications from the Conductor, several musicians, the Personnel Manager, the Stage Manager, the Education Director, and from IT to talk about a database. It would be entirely typical to share information with all those people. If you ask who’s my boss, I’ll tell you I probably have 150 bosses because I could get a call from any department or position in the orchestra and that’s my job [to help]. We have three full-time Librarians and extra part-time help as needed. It’s a big task and I’ve been doing it for decades and never get bored.”
He adds, “Music librarianship is a profession in public libraries and academic libraries, but it’s not the same profession as in performance libraries. They intersect somewhat but they [Music Librarians in public or academic libraries] can go to school and get a degree in that field specifically. For example, the Hennepin County Library [in Minneapolis] employs one or two people who have degrees in Music Librarianship.”
Orchestral Music Librarians begin their careers as Interns, volunteers, or part-time workers. Not everyone starts off working with an orchestra’s music library; ballet companies, opera companies, and other performing arts organizations also have music libraries where the relevant skills can be learned. After on-the-job training, an Associate or Assistant Librarian position is the next step. From here, advancement means securing a position as a full-time, salaried Music Librarian with a prestigious, well-known orchestra.
Education & Training
Unlike Music Librarians in a public or academic library, Orchestral Music Librarians cannot enroll in specific degree training programs to learn the necessary skills. Instead, you’re more likely to meet Orchestral Music Librarians who have degrees in Music Performance or a similar course of study. “The way most people get there, with variations, of course, is first being a musician — studying music, learning music, performing music,” Gunther says. “I think that’s probably a common factor of every single person involved. There is no schooling for this, no upper-level education. It’s one of the few bastions of on-the-job training. You pick it up on the job and sometimes it takes years.
For example, when I started, I had moved to Minneapolis and I knew only one person. This happened to be my old percussion Teacher, the timpanist in the orchestra, the late Jack Moore. I had studied with him for ten years or more. I was talking to him on the phone one day and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to Minneapolis? It’s a cool place.’ So I picked up and left and said, ‘What do I do about a job?’ He said maybe there was something at the orchestra. There was a part-time job for someone to open the mail and distribute it. Someone said to me, ‘You’re a musician, right?’ and they said the library needed part-time help. That’s how I started. I did whatever the Librarian asked me to do. I did that for almost two years, picked up a lot of stuff on the way, and really enjoyed it.
Now it’s a real profession. When I first started, the Librarian historically was the Conductor’s helper who took care of his scores, who was sitting in the violin section when they needed someone to pass out the music and collect it after concerts. It was a part-time job and the profession was for whoever had the time, energy and know-how to copy music by hand. [That person] got the appointment and maybe they made a few dollars extra a week for that.
Eventually, in the ‘40s and ‘50s in the United States, there became more weeks in the [orchestral] season and more concerts to play. Pretty soon the job became more demanding and maybe someone who had retired from playing would become a Librarian. They were always musicians. There was never a time when someone moved into the job and didn’t know music. After that, starting in the ‘50s through the ‘60s, there were a few people who were just Librarians who weren’t Players. Around the time I started there were several orchestras in the country who had one or two Librarians, like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis.” In today’s world, although all major orchestras now have a Music Librarian on staff, the training requirements and opportunities haven’t changed — which means aspiring Orchestral Music Librarians need to have a “take charge” attitude in building their own careers.
Experience & Skills
Research and communication skills are essential for Orchestral Music Librarians, as is an understanding of how an orchestra works. Gunther explains, “Some of the funniest and brightest people I’ve ever met have been my colleague Librarians. These are people who know a lot about a lot of different things. I consider myself a specialist; the specialty is being a generalist. You have to know a lot of things, like how to find stuff using clues you might have gleaned ten years ago from something else. You have to know how to communicate very clearly because everybody needs information and most orchestras run on too few people. It’s a non-profit ensemble and no one is getting rich.
There are a lot of details when you think about a music score. For example, [when] you see a Conductor’s score [it] has notation that moves both vertically and horizontally at the same time. That’s a good metaphor for a Librarian’s mind because we have to be thinking globally while working on very meticulous data. In other words, you’re not just opening a box of music and passing it out. The music has to be marked and categorized at any specific time. The Minnesota Orchestra probably has 10,000 titles in different formats. Some are digital, some are print. Some are piano vocal scores, some are chamber music.
Another favorite example of mine is in baseball when a player is batting 400; that’s considered very good and that would be a valued player. They’d get around two hits at bat out of every five. Now, if I need to find a piece of music and I do it two times out of every five I’ll be fired. Even if I only find it nine out of ten times I’ll be fired. (I might be forgiven if I can’t find something once a year.) Out of those tens of thousands of titles, with all the different parts comprising from two to forty sheets of paper, keeping track of stuff is a major task and that kind of details matters.”
“Librarians, in general, are researchers and helpers,” Gunther says. “Nobody goes into any kind of library business without wanting to serve and this is no exception. I like to say that Librarians are the strange marriage between a musician and a Librarian, which means a Music Librarian is both a high-strung artist and a complete nerd. So you get the best (or possibly worst) of both worlds.”
The work lifestyle of an Orchestral Music Librarian depends on the orchestra’s schedule. “It can vary from week to week or day to day,” Gunther says. “There’s no set schedule. We are able to set our own schedule and (as I explained already) there’s always a lot to be done. That schedule could average anywhere from forty to eighty hours a week. There are weeks that are easier and weeks that are harder. For example, we might be in multiple venues so we work with Stagehands to make sure music is transported properly to every venue. There’s always a Librarian on tour when the orchestra travels, whether it’s in-state or out of the country.
Today my day is going to start in the early afternoon and go till around 10:30 tonight because there’s a concert tonight. We also work weekends. There might be a day off or there might not be. There are usually at least six days a week when we’re at the concert hall. A typical day might have two rehearsals or a rehearsal and a concert. Each is two and a half hours. We’ll be there before the first of them to the last of them; that could be eight to ten hours. That’s not every day but that’s many days.”
Since there are no degree programs funneling aspiring Orchestral Music Librarians into the workforce, students seeking work in the field must contact individual orchestra libraries to see if there are any training or entry-level positions available. Gunther says, “Nowadays if someone wants to come into that world — because there’s not schooling available — they have no choice but to usually volunteer at a major library. We almost always have Interns, part-time workers, or volunteers who are interested in learning more about the profession. There are summer internships at music festivals, from the supreme one which is Tanglewood to Sarasota (which is only a couple weeks) to full summers in Aspen, Breckenridge, or the Grand Tetons festival. The Santa Fe opera has one, too. If a person has some experience volunteering as a Librarian for a college or university ensemble, that’s a good way to enter the profession. Be a musician, a music student, a music major. Volunteer for a performance ensemble. Talk to bands. Volunteer for a larger professional orchestra. Try to cop an internship, either through the year as part of your study program or through the summer. Just keep going. Keep plugging. There’s no way to just magically do it.”
Orchestral Music Librarians receive a salary through the orchestra that employs them, although it’s possible at times for Librarians to pick up gigs with other, smaller ensembles to earn some supplemental income. “I earn more from my salary with the Minnesota Orchestra but I also get hired occasionally by ensembles who want help with finding things or preparing music,” Gunther explains. “From time to time, I’ll take jobs like that. In some of the very large cities, there are freelance Librarians who actually can make a living working with different ensembles piecemeal. Then there are the part-time workers who have proven themselves over the years to be adept at the things we need them to do, like String Players marking music or something like that. They’re trained musicians in their own right, but they don’t necessarily have a full-time job anywhere so they might teach or work in the library or with smaller ensembles.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
“There is an international group of Orchestra and Performance Librarians, MOLA,” Gunther tells us. “There’s a public website and a private website for members. There are around 300 member groups and members within those groups. It includes major orchestras and performing ensembles of all sizes all around the world. The Minnesota Orchestra is a member.
The individual human beings are called Member Librarians or Librarian Members. There are well over 400 of those because some organizations have more than one Librarian. It’s a professional organization so it is considered a requirement that you have to be paid for the work and employed as an Orchestra Librarian.”
- “If this [career] is something you think would interest you, by all means, take music classes. Study an instrument. Study compositional technique, music theory, and music history. All of that will help.
- If you really feel like exploring the options with an orchestra library, I would say it’s pretty crucial you see what a working library is like. If you happen to be attending school in a smaller town and not near a big city, you’d be at a disadvantage because you wouldn’t be able to figure out what’s going on. You need to see it for yourself, otherwise, it’s just pie in the sky and you won’t be able to see if it holds any appeal. I strongly urge people to bite the bullet, take a leap of faith and even blindly contact their local orchestra library. Even if it’s just by email, ask a couple of questions. Most of my Librarian colleagues are fully aware there’s no way to be in the business besides to be in it. Again there are no college courses [for this career path], so I encourage anyone who’s curious to contact their Librarian. You need to see the orchestra library and get the grand tour — even if the grand tour only takes a few minutes.
- If you’re really fascinated, ask if they have any way for you to shadow the Librarian for a day or a week, or if they have any kind of unpaid internship possibilities. If you’re in school, maybe you can work something out with your music department to have course credit for something — a study project.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“It’s the same suggestion I give to my playing colleagues when they say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve only had three auditions! I’ll never get a job!’ I say, ‘Sure you will. You have to keep auditioning or you’ll never get a job. You have to keep trying. You have to keep working. You have to stick with it. It will not just come to you.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“If you’re a person who has gotten far enough to be considered a serious candidate for a position, the only real mistake I can think of is communicating your interest to the Librarian and then not being available. If you want to learn the job you have to do the work.
Just be yourself. Don’t try to be somebody else. It’s going to come down to who has the personality and attributes who are the best fit; there’s no way around that. You can’t change who you are.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“I think most people don’t even know about this work, so anything about it is new stuff!”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Communication. I’m not saying I’m really good at it; I’m just saying that’s one of my main focuses. I can explain a little bit. Originally, I got into this field because of my musical background, studying and playing music for twenty years. I always knew music was a thread I’d follow on my path, but I didn’t know until many years later what was equally important and goes hand in hand with music is the people who make the music, publish it, create it, who listen in the audience, who purchase and listen to the recordings (whether it’s on Spotify or on a cd), the people with whom you work, the people with whom you perform. That’s just as important as the work you do. I believe music is the greatest invention of the human race and for the human spirit. It’s the thing that draws people together more than anything else — apart from possibly spirituality.”
- 1Multiple. "orchestral Music Librarian Salaries in United States". Glassdoor. published: . retrieved on: Dec 18, 2019
A macrobiotic chocoholic, Paul Gunther is a study in contradiction. Having played percussion since age 7, he performed in a United States Army Band for two years and then was honorably discharged in 1969 as a conscientious objector. His most recent percussion teacher was Jack Moore, former Minnesota Orchestra principal timpani. Gunther worked as Assistant librarian with his Minnesota Orchestra Librarian predecessors, John Tafoya and James Berdahl. His degree is in music theory and composition; his eyes are hazel, his hair salt-and-pepper, and his favorite book was voted greatest novel of the 20th century in England.
The Minnesota Orchestra Library staff, under Gunther’s supervision, ensures that the correct 100,000 pieces of sheet music each year are placed on the right music stands at the right time for the players onstage. Also, all performance data (more than 100 years’ worth) – titles, composer names, duration of pieces, places performed, artists’ and conductors’ names, publishing sources, and so on – must be filed correctly for posterity.
Gunther is a founding member and twice president of MOLA (Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association), an international organization of over 200 institutions and 400 individual members who are orchestra and performance librarians. He invites any interested visitor for a tour of the Minnesota Orchestra Library.