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The 5 Key Roles in an Orchestra That You Never Heard of

When young string musicians envision a future in the orchestra, they most likely think of themselves as professional musicians or the conductor. Yet it takes far more than the players and the conductor to keep a large orchestra together, rehearsing, and putting on multiple performances each year, especially if they partner with a dance or theater group.

If you are interested in a musical career, it’s important to expose yourself to the wide range of options out there. Not everyone will make the cut and get to play in a symphony or orchestra — it’s a highly competitive career after all. And not everyone who loves playing or even listening to music wants the pressure of being a professional performer. Even if these other options aren’t your first choice, being hired in one area or field of interest often paves the way and forges the connections required to open the door to a more preferred position.

Behind the Scenes of the Professional Orchestra Cast

Here are five orchestra roles you may not have heard of in the past. And, who knows? Perhaps one of them has your name on it. Don’t forget that landing an internship in an orchestra is one of the best ways to get a first-row seat to the inner workings of orchestras and the range of jobs available to you there.

1. General Manager (Also called the Managing Director)

In the corporate world, the orchestra manager would be the CEO. Just as the neck, tuning pegs, and tailpiece keep your strings together on the body of your instrument, the orchestra’s general manager works to keep all of the moving administrative, functional, and personnel components together within the orchestra family. 

They oversee every aspect of the orchestra’s function, from administration and hiring procedures to contractual agreements with the musicians, as well as scheduling personnel and overseeing the production calendar. 

Other examples of an orchestra general manager’s tasks include:

  • Connecting with and recruiting musicians and conductors
  • Commissioning new works
  • Creating schedules for rehearsals and performances
  • Negotiating contracts and fees
  • Getting clearance for music rights
  • Overseeing the management of the orchestra library (see below)
  • Securing and preparing venues for rehearsals and performances
  • Being the liaison between various orchestra departments
  • Traveling as necessary when the orchestra is on tour

In smaller orchestras, the general manager may be akin to a “one-person orchestra.” In larger orchestras, they oversee and delegate to staff. You will make a great general orchestra manager if you have an equal love of music and musicianship paired with a head for music or theater business, finances, and management. 

2. Personnel Director

In larger orchestras, the General Manager has the luxury of a Personnel Director. The Orchestra Personnel Director is the human resources manager of the orchestra. Among other duties, they oversee the hiring of the musicians and other personnel, negotiate contracts within the parameters set by the Managing Director, and prepare the payroll.

As the Personnel Director, you would also handle or facilitate:

  • Any personnel issues that arise
  • Hiring substitute or extra musicians
  • Managing the personnel budget
  • Coordinating recruiting, applications, and auditions processes
  • Serving as the liaison among the Music Director, musicians, staff, guest artists, and administration

In addition to a bachelor’s degree in music, administration or HR experience is a bonus, and most orchestras will also want to see some experience in orchestral administration. Your people skills and personal integrity are also essential because of the legal and confidential nature of your responsibilities.

3. Stage Manager

An orchestra concert is a performance. Those performances can be simple such as the orchestra performing a single symphonic work. Or they can be very complex such as an opera, ballet, or musical theater performance. As with traditional theaters, orchestras employ Stage Managers, who work under the general manager and in partnership with the Music and Artistic Director(s), to handle all of the stage aspects of rehearsals and performances.

The Orchestra Stage Manager is responsible for all of the technical, production, and general stage management aspects associated with any performance, which are all planned well in advance and executed on-site. This includes:

  • Setting up and striking shows
  • Determining and organizing all equipment required
  • Working with Personnel Director as needed to bring on additional technical staff and performers
  • Negotiating all technical needs
  • Creating a safe working environment for everyone involved, both on and off stage
  • Coordinate logistical arrangements in support of development, marketing, education, public relations, and special events.
  • And the list goes on.

This is a very intense position and requires the right education (typically a degree in music or arts management), prior working experience in the field, and extreme attention to detail.

4. Orchestrator

This is not to be confused with a music arranger. While arrangers reinvent a complete work of music, Orchestrators pick up where a composer left off. As a string player, you’re used to seeing a complete music score, with all parts intact and with pre-printed markings for tempo, dynamics, etc. However, what you may not realize, is that the original composer may have only composed the melody and some sparse harmonics and passed it on to the Orchestrator.

From there, the Orchestrator collaborates with the composer or simply works through experience and intuition to develop the piece fully. In the 21st century, most Orchestrators work in the film or TV industries or with pieces of music that were commissioned for a particular event or performance or to honor a certain theme.

From the skeletal composition, it’s the Orchestrator’s job to:

  • Create or develop harmonies and chords
  • Assigning instrument parts
  • Create tempo and dynamic instructions
  • Work in collaboration with the composer, director/composer, and other Orchestrators
  • Transpose works into different keys or adjusts them to suit a guest soloist’s preferences, range, and abilities

In addition to being music composers in their own right, most Orchestrators begin working as music assistants to other Orchestrators to gain experience and a name for themselves. Getting an internship in a TV, film, or symphony orchestra is also a smart way to gain desirable work experience and connections.

5. Orchestra Librarian

Do you love to spend your days looking at amazing musical scores? Has music history been a favorite part of your musical education experience? Are you highly organized and love the idea of working in an orchestra but have no desire to stand out as a performer or conductor? If so, Orchestra Librarian may be the perfect career fit for you. 

The Orchestra Librarian plays an essential role in the orchestra. They work closely with the Music and Artistic Director(s) as well as all of the musicians but enjoy their acclaim outside of the limelight. In addition to maintaining the orchestra’s own archives of music, and managing rentals and check-outs of these resources by staff and other personnel, the Orchestra Librarian also:

  • Arranges the purchase or rental of music from other sources
  • Procures and disseminates music scores well in advance, so there is time for the Music Director and/or Concertmaster to assign bowing 
  • Checks in/out and reviews all incoming and outgoing music scores (and, potentially, equipment or other archived materials) for quality, replacing damaged or aged copies as needed
  • Accurately transcribes all bowings and music notations from the Director and Concertmaster into the collection
  • Erases all previous notations from prior musicians when music is returned
  • Assembles and arranges music in orchestra folders
  • Attends all rehearsals (arriving at least an hour early) and performances to take notes of any changes or mistakes and to amend those on musicians’ copies
  • Organize and track reference materials
  • Manage orchestra library staff

Most Orchestra Librarians have a college degree, music and/or library science preferred, and have some level of experience working with an orchestra. The ability to expertly read music is essential, as is a love of classical and orchestral music.

What do you think? Each of these five key roles in an orchestra can be a wonderful way to enjoy a career in music while also celebrating and honoring your other interests and gifts. Any of them appeal to you? If you want to learn more about them, why not reach out to your local orchestra or symphony and see if you can interview the folks in these roles?