Al Payson’s Response

     Al sent this response to my articles, Choosing the Right Percussion Program: Parts 1 and 2. I thought it was compelling enough to post up on the site.
     Although his perspective is different than mine, I’ve found myself, at various times, working in a number of the career options he lists below. Some of them were more rewarding, artistically and financially, than others.
     But his response has convinced me that we need to get more feedback from successful percussionists in different career paths in order to create a balanced overview of the employment possibilities for our younger brothers and sisters. It occurs to me also that those brothers and sisters might have some strategies of their own that we hadn’t considered, but that they might like to share.
     Any ideas? Email me and I’ll post them up on the site.

Don Skoog


Dear Don,

     I read with interest your two very fine articles. I would just like to amplify on the issue of employment opportunities in the field of “art music” (embracing symphony, opera, ballet, chamber music, concert band).
     The job situation, while extremely competitive, is not as bleak as many perceive. If you log on to and click on ”JOBS”, you will find a list of all the member orchestras of ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians), along with annual weeks of employment and minimum annual salary. The list comprises forty-five symphony orchestras, four opera orchestras, and two ballet orchestras. Then there are foreign orchestras. I have former students in Hong Kong and Germany.
     While I know of no professional civilian concert band, there are many fine military concert bands (Marine Band, Army Ground Forces Band, Navy Band, etc.). Two former students of mine were members of the Marine Band. (Both were women, by the way.) They did not have to go through basic training, they entered at the rank (and pay) of sergeant, they did not have to live on base, they had four weeks vacation, full military benefits, etc. In many ways it was like a civilian job. Another DePaul alum is a member of the Army Fife and Drum Corps. It is a Revolutionary War reenactment group that performs for special ceremonies in and around Washington, D.C.
     The last twenty years has seen the proliferation and/or season expansion of regional orchestras, such as Fort Wayne, Dayton, Austin, Sacramento, and many other communities across the U.S. In the Chicago area this includes the Elgin Symphony, Northwest Indiana Symphony, Chicago Sinfonietta, Lake Forest Symphony, Chicago Pops Orchestra, etc. There are fifty regional opera companies in the U.S. In Chicago it is the Chicago Opera Theater. There are many regional ballet and modern dance companies. In Chicago it is the Joffrey Ballet, and others.
     This “blooming” of regional activity means that no longer is a musician forced to choose between a 100% salaried (secure) income vs. a 100% freelance (insecure) income. He or she can have a solid foundation or base of, say, 50% salaried income (regional orchestra), and the other 50% chosen from a great variety of sources. For DePaul alumni, this has included:

Regional opera orchestra
Regional ballet and/or modern dance orchestra
Chamber music (from baroque groups to contemporary groups, and everything in between)
Commercial casual engagement drumset work (club dates, jazz, etc.)
Teaching, at all levels
Orchestra librarian
Orchestra stage manager
Music copyist
Salesperson in drum shop
Percussion instrument, rental/cartage business
Percussion ensemble demonstration concerts in schools
Show work (industrial, Broadway, etc.)
Cottage industry manufacturing (alum Mike Balter)
Music booking agent
Music publishing

     Now a word about a subject you mentioned, specialization. I would like to add this: if and when a student decides to specialize, it just makes sense to study with a working professional in that specialty. An analogy would be a medical student who wants to specialize in cardiology, and decides to study with a doctor who is a general practitioner, or whose specialty is dermatology. The dermatologist might be very highly regarded in his field, but obviously it is a wrong match. Even if the student was offered a full scholarship, it would be a bad decision, right? Yet it happens all the time in percussion.
     Finally, as to choosing between music performance and music education: at DePaul the program is the same the first two years for both performance and education majors. This gives the student plenty of time to decide which major he prefers, or to go for a double major. Why the same program, and for the student who opts for the music ed. major, wouldn’t it be better to study with a music educator? Our answer is that music is a performing art, and sooner or later, music training must lead to performance. So if one only teaches, and his students in turn only teach, and their students in turn only teach, the direction can easily veer away from the musical mainstream of our society to the musically inconsequential. Having music ed. majors study with working professionals prevents that from happening.

Best regards, and a big bravo on your web site,

Al Payson
Chicago Symphony Orchestra (retired)
DePaul University.