5 things to know about … being a professional musician

By Emily McAuliffe

Trinity alum and flutist John Wion has played in orchestras on Broadway, for the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera and the New York Philharmonic in a career spanning more than 40 years.

In high school, John Wion (TC 1955) attended a music camp at Geelong Grammar. His first rehearsal began with Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite, and John admits he was nervous, having never played in an orchestra before. With fingers poised, waiting for the downbeat from the conductor, John didn’t realise how much the ensuing moment would change him.

‘Suddenly life opened for me – this beautiful sound all around me and in me, divided in its textures and components around me, and centred and united in me,’ John recalls in his memoir Wood, Silver and Gold – A Flutist’s Life. ‘I sat stunned, and it was some time before I was able to join in. It is hard to define this being in an orchestra – all-encompassing, vibrating. No other experience in my life is like it.’

Here, John shares five things to know about being a professional musician.

It’s hard to make a career out of it

For a classical flutist, playing in an orchestra is generally the only option when it comes to a viable career. A few have found alternative routes as soloists or chamber musicians, but, for most, these are additional activities. In a city like New York, one can have a career playing Broadway musicals, but a show rarely runs for more than a year or two and there can be quite a wait until something else comes along.

Following a college undergraduate degree, many people start auditioning. A flute orchestral opening may have some 400 fully proficient applicants, and there are only a handful of auditions each year. It is rare for anyone who has not won an audition before the age of 30 to expect to, and, if successful, very few wind players are performing beyond their seventies.

Teaching is another career path. In my case, this developed from my performance career, but much more typically it develops from earning a tertiary performing degree.

Some musicians spend their time totally out of the public eye, recording commercials, movies and TV shows.

There’s a significant time commitment

A major orchestra in a large city might play four concerts a week, prefaced by four rehearsals. When I joined the New York City Opera (NYCO), we performed seven times a week, plus five rehearsals over a six-day week. That eased during my 37 years there, but after adding a teaching professorship, my work week was seven days for some months of the year.

My career before NYCO consisted of freelance work. I played with orchestras that were assembled for a single concert, I played a four-month season with the Royal Ballet (three of which consisted of a North America tour), I played Camelot on Broadway for a year, I subbed with more permanent orchestras, and I played the first three seasons of Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony. I was also a member of a woodwind quintet – so, I always had a lot going on.

It is a truism of freelancers that they don’t have time to spend money when they are busy, and are scared to spend it when they are not.

A photo shown on the back cover of Musical Heritage Review in March 1977, featuring the release of John’s album 'Virtouso Flute Concerti'

Musicians can be specialised (like a surgeon) or general (like a GP)

While most musicians are classically trained, there is a basic division between the professional requirements for a classical, jazz or pop career. I, for example, never developed the skill for jazz. Nor did I ever become proficient in other instruments. But more and more musicians are developing the skills to perform across a range of disciplines.

At the highest level, some might argue that an opera player does not play symphonic music as well (and vice-versa), but more typically musicians are like GPs, handling a variety of styles. 

Performing and composing require different skill sets

Generally speaking, composing is a different track to performance, though composers need to have instrumental skills. Composing is creative, performing is re-creative.

Training starts early … very early

An audience sees the glamorous side of a performance without often appreciating the required preparation. Most musicians begin their training before the age of 10, and typically spend several hours a day practicing, seven days a week, throughout their career. A doctor, by comparison, begins training at the tertiary level.


John’s memoir Wood, Silver and Gold – a Flutist’s Life is available to purchase online. You can read his full bio here.

02 Jun 2021
Category: People