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Professional cellists play most types of music, from jazz and classical through show music, film scores and folk music. Cellists are even in military bands. They perform both as soloists and in ensembles ranging from small to large. Unless the cellist is part of a major ensemble or is active in studio recording, he usually has to supplement his income by teaching or working other jobs on the side. Successful cellists usually travel all over the world performing and teaching master classes.
Unlike many professions that require applicants to hold specific educational degrees, the only requirement for a performing cellist is that he plays well. Cello teachers, however, are usually required to have bachelor's or master's degrees in cello performance to teach at an accredited institution. Job auditions for major orchestras are usually "blind" in that the applicant auditions behind a screen, which ensures that there is no gender, race or age bias. For smaller ensembles or for teaching jobs, though, face-to-face auditions are required since the way the player interacts personally with the other players or with students is an important component of the job.
Cellists need to have different skills depending on the type of work they do. For instance, orchestral cellists must have perfect intonation and flawless technique. Jazz cellists must be skilled at improvisation while studio cellists (i.e., for recording film scores) must be excellent sight readers since recordings of new compositions are made after only one or two read-throughs of the music.
Jazz cellists usually work in small groups like quartets and quintets, although there are a few professional jazz orchestras, like the Jazz Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Jazz cellists more frequently play in bars and clubs rather than concert halls. They also perform almost exclusively at night and into the early hours of the morning. Many jazz cellists play for the love of music rather than for the level of compensation it brings. According to Simply Hired, the average salary for a jazz cellist is $15,000 per year.
Orchestras tend to be rated in tiers. Cellists in top tier orchestras, like the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra or the San Francisco Symphony can earn a salary of up to $200,000 a year. The principal cellist in the orchestra might earn an even higher salary. Cellists for mid-tier orchestras, like the Columbus Symphony or Indianapolis Symphony, typically earn between $50,000 to $60,000 annually. Orchestral work is usually based on an eight-month season. If the ensemble plays during summer festivals, the musicians earn additional money.
Many cellists supplement their income by playing various gigs. High schools, for instance, often produce musicals and need to bring in cellists to play in the pit orchestra. Typically musicians are paid $100 to $200 (depending upon the geographic area) for a three-hour gig. Cellists who play in festivals can expect to earn $225 per day. And cellists who play for parties (i.e., as part of a string quartet), can expect $100 (and free food) for the gig.
Cellists who do recording work for television and film must be members of a union called the American Federation of Musicians. In 2009, recording sessions paid all musicians a flat rate of $62.66 per hour with a three-hour minimum. Cellists who record music for retail sale, such as CDs, are paid the basic hourly rate plus an extra percentage depending on the number of pressings that will be made of the recording.
Micah Rubenstein has been writing professionally since 1985. He was the editor of the online publication GrailWorld Magazine, the host and producer of the weekly "Message In Music" radio series and a former professor at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He teaches at Columbus State Community College and Granite State College in New Hampshire. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in music from Brown University.