How To Become a Section Member
What Exactly Does a Section Member Do?
Bass Trombonist Douglas Yeo performed for many years as a Section Member in one of America’s most prestigious orchestras. The job description of an orchestral musician might seem obvious: they rehearse regularly, play concerts, record music, and sometimes take part in community events, as needed. Yeo breaks it down further. “The Boston Symphony Orchestra, like many major symphony orchestras in the United States, operates on an average of eight ‘services’ each week,” he says. “A service is a rehearsal or a concert. Some weeks have nine services and those are then balanced by weeks with seven services.”
Section Members work with people from all branches of the orchestra (administrative, artistic, operations), but they work most closely with the Conductor), their individual Section Leader, and/or the Concertmaster (if the Section Member plays violin).
Section Members of an orchestra begin their careers performing with high school and college orchestras. From here, many will move on to community orchestras. After a period of time performing and honing their craft, they can audition for more prestigious orchestras. Taking a position with a famous orchestra means increased name recognition as well as a much higher salary.
Education & Training
Most Section Members hold degrees in Performance. There’s no specific education requirement for performers, although they have all devoted considerable training to their craft. “I am a strong believer in college and university education for undergraduates,” Yeo says. “The hard truth, although it is a truth, is that most people who aspire to a career as a full-time member of a great symphony orchestra do not attain their goal. That isn’t to say they don’t end up pursuing a career in music or in the broader arts world, but I believe a broad-based, well-rounded education at a college or university can help a student see beyond the practice room.
Sometimes students pursue an orchestral career through rose-colored glasses. For many people, there might be something else for which they are superbly suited that they had not considered. This is not to say an undergraduate should not pursue [the] dream of working in a great orchestra. But while doing that, the college or university education provides skills and tools that can be very helpful in understanding the options that one might have. Most members of great orchestras also went to graduate school and for that education; going to a conservatory of music acts more like a ‘finishing school’ for the talented player.”
What skills do you need to be a Section Member?
“Demonstrable skill on one’s chosen instrument is paramount,” Yeo says. “One becomes a great player through practice, of course, but that practice must be guided. Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent. If you do not practice correctly, you can become exceptionally proficient at playing incorrectly. Experience playing in a wide variety of ensembles – orchestra, band, jazz band, commercial and studio work – can help a person not only gain experience and confidence but help a player become conversant in a wide variety of styles.”
What type of person will be successful as an orchestral Section Member? Yeo says, “First, you need a focused personality. You need a high tolerance for boredom, the ability to do repetitive tasks in seemingly endless repetitions. You must have an insatiable curiosity and the desire to leave no stone unturned in preparation. You must also be willing to turn your cell phone off when you practice and ‘put the world on hold’ while you concentrate on your preparation. You also need the ability to ‘delay present pleasures in order to attain future rewards.’ A teacher once told me, ‘When you are sleeping, someone else is practicing.’
You cannot do everything. You must focus on your goal. Vic Godin’s book The Dip reminds us of the fallacy of the phrase ‘never, ever give up.’ In fact, every person who has been successful in life has gotten exceptionally good at quitting — quitting things that got in the way of their focus on their goal. I use myself as an example. I don’t play golf. If I played golf, I would want to be good at it. In order to get good at golf, that would take time away from my practice of the trombone. So I quit the idea of playing golf. It was an easy trade: I would never have won the PGA Championship, but I did have a great career in one of the world’s greatest orchestras.”
Yeo says, “A typical week, which actually does not occur very often because of additional activities like recording sessions and tours, might look like this:
Sunday: Day off.
Monday: Day off.
Tuesday: Rehearsal in the morning. Usually, there is a concert in the evening, repeating the program from the previous week.
Wednesday: Rehearsal in the morning, rehearsal in the afternoon.
Thursday: Rehearsal in the morning, concert in the evening.
Friday: Concert in the afternoon or evening.
Saturday: Concert in the evening.”
In regards to rehearsal, Yeo cautions, “It is not the number of hours in a day that you practice that will make you a great player and help you maintain your skills. It is how focused your practice is and how you can put aside distractions to concentrate. In addition to my hours in rehearsal and concert with the orchestra, I would usually practice two to three hours a day. This, of course, depended on the repertoire we were playing in the orchestra. Too many players practice too much, and overuse of one’s body can take a serious, even career-ending toll.”
To someday land a job with a well-respected orchestra, Yeo says, “you start at the beginning and go from there. Play in your high school and then college ensembles. Look for opportunities to play with better groups. You may or may not get paid; that doesn’t matter in the beginning. You want to surround yourself with better players in every group. Prepare well, take auditions, keep taking auditions, keep taking auditions. Study the orchestral scores to the music you are playing. Read biographies of Composers. Keep getting respected input on your playing. Make adjustments. Ask questions. Speak honestly to yourself about your playing and progress. Find that one person to be part of your life who loves you enough to tell you things you don’t want to hear. This is the rarest of people and also the most important.” After following these steps and putting in time with college and community symphonies, dedicated individuals should keep an eye out for auditions with more well-known groups.
How Much Does a Section Member make?
“Top orchestras pay players a weekly salary,” Yeo tells us. “Orchestras have a base salary that is the minimum that every player receives. On top of that, many players receive an over scale payment (additional money over the base salary that a player negotiates with the orchestra’s management). Many orchestras pay a weekly radio or electronic media fee. Recording sessions — for audio recordings, videos, movie soundtracks, commercials, etc. — also pay an additional fee. For those kinds of electronic media activities, royalties accrue and are paid out once a year through several funds administered by the American Federation of Musicians, the musician’s union. Your paycheck might also contain per diem for an upcoming tour. It was a rare week when the only money in my paycheck came from my salary; it seemed that there was always some extra payment of some kind.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
“You should certainly be a member of your instrument’s association, such as the International Trombone Association,” Yeo says. “These kinds of organizations usually publish a regular journal that will give you an idea of what is going on with players of your instrument. You need to know what’s going on.
The International Musician, the monthly publication of the American Federation of Musicians, publishes job openings.
Seek out the websites of players you respect. Read voraciously, put things into the big soup pot of your artistic being and keep stirring. There are many books — they are legion — that can offer some insight into how to better prepare to do your job at the highest level. I can’t recommend one or another since those recommendations would be specific for each individual.”
- “Listen to music and work to understand how it is put together.
- Practice. Practice well. Don’t waste time practicing when you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish.
- Practice with the TV off. Literally and figuratively.
- Forget about social media. It’s a waste of time. You don’t need to be bragging to others all day long and spending time managing your image for others. The two to six hours a day you spend on social media platforms (add it up someday; you’ll find this average, verified by many studies, actually does apply to you) can be spent much more productively on other things.
- Attend live concerts of great orchestras. Listen to recordings and live broadcasts.
- Balance your life with interest in other forms of art. Visit museums, take hikes in the great outdoors, enjoy sporting events. These things will inform your personality and give your musical expression more interest. If the only thing you do is sit in a practice room, your playing will be boring.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Work hard. Most people don’t know what those words mean.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“They waste time practicing improperly.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Why are you a trombone player?
Because it is my calling; it is integral to my being; it is the way for me to express my artistic personality; it is how I honor God with gratitude for the gifts and talents He gave me.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Why did you choose to play the trombone?
Answer: I didn’t. The trombone chose me. I wanted to play trumpet, but by the time my band director got around to students whose last name began with “Y,” the trumpets were all gone. I was unceremoniously handed a trombone. Of course, I was disappointed. But I went home, put it together, played my first note and embraced it. It is an example of how right at the beginning of my life in music, I took a situation that didn’t give me what I want and I turned it into something good.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Douglas Yeo was Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University from 2012-2016, a position he assumed after a 27-year career as bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1985-2012. Upon his retirement from ASU, he was given the title of Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Music in recognition of his service to the University. Before coming to Boston, he was a member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a freelance musician in New York City where he played several Broadway shows and was a member of the Goldman Band, and a high school band director. A graduate of Wheaton College, Illinois, where he studied trombone with Edward Kleinhammer (Bass Trombonist of the Chicago Symphony, 1940-1985), and New York University, he was bass trombonist of the Baltimore Symphony from 1981-1985 and was also Music Director of the New England Brass Band from 1998-2008, leading it to two National Championship titles in its section at the North American Brass Band Association Championships and recording five CDs with the band, the last of which, Be Glad Then America, won the NABBA 2007 “Recording of the Year” award. He has been a member of NABBA’s Board of Directors, served a term as Vice-President, and was Editor of its Journal, The Brass Band Bridge.
Photo of Douglas Yeo by Timothy Hutchens. Used with permission.