One of my former trombone teachers (Ned Meredith) told me that when he retired from the San Francisco Symphony, there were about 200 trombonists who sought to fill his position. You won't find 100 or 200 trombonists competing for every gig – only for the choice jobs that pay well.
Never has it been easier to learn to play the trombone skillfully. We have many fine trombone teachers, excellent method books, a multitude of CDs and videos to learn from, and a wealth of helpful advice on the Internet. Being a highly skilled trombonist gives no assurance of earning a high income as a player. The supply of competent trombonists far exceeds the demand for professional trombonists, especially in metropolitan areas. Young trombonists need to be aware of this before committing to focusing on the trombone in college.
"The biggest mistake students make is not developing enough career options. They put all their eggs in one basket – performing – and run up against the reality that there are 100 to 200 auditioners for every available position."
… Stuart Dempster
Former Professor of Music
University of Washington
For musicians who can handle regimentation, military bands provide one of the few remaining ways to make a living as a professional musician. Military bands in the Washington, D.C. area offer high quality musical experiences, but can be very difficult to qualify for. If your goal is to join an armed forces special band, one way to get there is to enlist in a regular military band and work your way up. Another option is to join a part-time National Guard or Reserve band and then transfer to a full-time band. For more information check with military band websites.
If You Care About Being Prosperous,
Don't Spend Too Much Time Playing the Trombone
The above guideline does not apply to the military trombonist, the trombonist employed by a major orchestra, or a retiree with a secure income. Trombone playing is a skill that the civilian job market does not reward well financially. A few people make good money at it; a lot of people make a small amount of money as performers.
"The job market is definitely difficult, but I still feel that if you have a strong passion for what you do, there is always a way to make a living. I encourage my students to get a well-rounded education. I do think that orchestras are making a lot of progress recently in marketing themselves better and changing with the times. I encourage my students to learn jazz, contemporary and classical styles to maximize their job opportunities. Doubling on bass trombone doesn't hurt either."
… Dr. Natalie Mannix
Delaware Symphony Orchestra
U.S. Navy Band Washington, DC
If your main interest in music is to be a performer, don't assume that being a public school music teacher is the right day job for you. Stuart Dempster in the Windplayer Magazine article quoted above wrote that many of his university trombone students learned a computer-related skill while studying trombone.
Public school band teaching jobs exist in relative abundance; however, when school budgets need to be cut, music programs become targets for reduction in some regions.
Profiting by giving music lessons occasionally works for trombonists, especially those who obtain a high-profile performance job. Factors that have reduced the need for trombone teachers:
- School band directors have easy access to superior teaching methods and instructional aids;
- A vast amount of free trombone recordings and information is available through the Internet, greatly aiding self-guided learning; and
- Trombonists who regularly play along with high quality recordings do not need continuous lessons to improve.
In the civilian sector be prepared to do some volunteer playing. If you only play when you get paid, you may not do much playing. A healthy focus for most skilled high school and college players is to decide how they are going to finance their trombone hobby.
- Freelance Tips
- Shut your mouth, play great, smile a lot, and listen! (George Roberts)
- Make a long-term commitment to one region.
- Study Robert Fraser's article on Ensemble Etiquette – great advice on getting re-invited to gigs, not burning your bridges.
- Marry someone who is willing to subsidize your trombone hobby.
Trombone playing can be a fulfilling lifetime pursuit, regardless how much money it generates. Your trombone playing can bring joy to many people.
For more viewpoints on the job market, refer to Trombone Forum threads such as What can I do to make music a career.
Jerry Fallenberg has been active as a professional and volunteer trombonist in the U.S. since the 1970s. He has been publishing articles on play-along practicing since 1995 (e.g. Symphonic Play-Along Practicing for Trombonists).
Professional Experience: Carmel Bach Festival, Bakersfield Symphony, San Luis Obispo Symphony, Lexington Philharmonic, Western Stage pit orchestra, Fort Ord Army Band, 562nd Air Force Band.
Volunteer Playing: Arizona Symphonic Winds, Washington American Legion Band, San Luis Obispo Wind Orchestra, Hawaii County Band, Central Kentucky Concert Band, Santa Barbara City College, Cuesta College, Cal State Bakersfield, Pacific Brass Band, Lake Oswego Millennium Concert Band (and many others).