It's that time of year, when everyone who's not heading back to school is starting to look around and wonder, "what next?" I wrote this article back in 2014 and it has been published in a couple of places, but I don't think anything much has changed. For further reading, however, the landscape is looking brighter all the time. Shout-out to Brandon Upshaw's Startup Musician blog and his downloadable book, This is How We Do It.
So You Want to Be a Freelance Musician
So You Want to Be a Freelance Musician
The musical community is becoming a more creative, dynamic place. Never before have there been so many opportunities to develop your own path as a music entrepreneur. You may decide this is the path you choose to take after school, rather than pursuing the more traditional graduate school-to-professorship trajectory or devoting yourself to orchestral auditions. This will often mean moving to a more urban environment with an arts scene after college. Moving to a new city is challenging if you do not have personal or musical connections there. You will start out in the back of the line behind local professors and their graduate students, recent graduates who stayed in town, important people’s spouses, and those who have been a part of the local scene since you were a toddler! But don’t lose heart--you will eventually be recognized for your reliability, talent, pleasant social skills, and humble, hard-working attitude as long as you consistently display those qualities whenever you have the opportunity. Some tips:
Be ready to self-promote. Get your one-page resume looking as good as it can, and make it easily available. You can carry paper copies with you wherever you go, but paper is becoming a thing of the past. It’s better to also have all the information you want to convey on a website (resume, bio, performance calendar, teaching philosophy, sound clips, etc.) and get some great-looking business cards made to share your information quickly and easily. Study other websites from people in your field and copy the best. Do some shopping for hosts--new companies are constantly forming to offer affordable package deals on the domain name alongside some pretty professional-looking design help.
PS--a website filled with bravado and not much else is rather annoying (and ubiquitous, unfortunately); create a website that celebrates your victories while also allowing people to get to know you as a musician. This is why I think a well-written teaching philosophy is so important: it allows potential students and their parents to make a connection to you and feel comfortable choosing you as their teacher. Share your particular interests, whether it’s classical-jazz crossover music or Latin American folk music. Your website helps you get past the awkward stranger phase.
Stay in shape. The imposed down-time of having no gigs in a new place allows you to be in the best shape of your life. Design an efficient regular practice routine so that you are always ready at a moment’s notice to fill in at a gig--these will most likely be your first calls. Scales, long tones, orchestral excerpts, and sight reading practice should all be prioritized, as well as familiarizing yourself with any common chamber music literature you haven’t yet learned (woodwind quintets, flute trios, etc.). Your goal is to be able to say yes to anything that comes along and to play so well that you get called again. No excuses.
When I was new to a previous city where I worked, I received a call at 8am asking me if I could step in for a sick piccolo player for a days’ worth of recording demonstration CDs for band programs. The gig started at 9:30am, and with traffic, I had to leave my apartment as soon as I hung up. While I don’t normally consider myself a piccolo player, I had been practicing it hoping it would increase my chances of getting called, and so I was ready to pound through Hal Leonard arrangements for four hours. My paycheck that day was the largest I had received up to that point, I met several movers and shakers in the local gig scene who remembered me for future work, and I got credit with contractors for being willing to drop everything and save the day.
Make calls. Contact local band directors about coming in to teach pull-out or after-school lessons. Call the personnel managers of local part-time orchestras and ask if you can audition for the sub list. If there is a good college or full-time orchestra in your area, contact the flute professor/ principal player and take a lesson, expressing your interest in subbing and other side work if you hit it off (be prepared to pay a premium for these lessons, though). Learn who the contractors in your area are and email them your press packet of headshot, resume, bio, and links to pertinent information on your website. In short, make sure people know where to find you.
Look for a faculty to join. Any faculty, whether it’s a tiny private college or a community music school whose clientele are mostly fresh out of diapers, is a great place to meet other active freelancers. By making friends with the other adjuncts, you can learn about gigs, create chamber music groups, and generally learn the lay of the land. Teach flute, music appreciation, aural skills—in short, teach whatever you responsibly can.
Create performance opportunities. Give a recital at a local church, theater, or chamber music venue if it exists. And be sure to promote that recital aggressively--contact local newspapers, classical radio stations, and arts bloggers to announce the program and offer yourself for an interview or review of the show. If it goes well and you are meeting like-minded musicians at your part-time teaching job (see above), consider creating a chamber music series in your town.
Say yes to everything. Any work even marginally related to performing could lead to more performing. Just do anything you feel capable of doing that will allow you to work with other musicians and let them see you shine. Entry-level arts administration work, becoming a sub-contractor for gigs, or just teaching or playing in situations you didn’t imagine for yourself are all fair game. I don’t spend a lot of time with small children, but I have played my well-worn Peter and the Wolf excerpts and Harry Potter themes for them a number of times in their elementary schools, and I am always playing with great musicians, some of whom have great gigs. And eventually they mention my name to their contractors.
Consider working for free. It’s a painful concept after so many years of playing for free as a student, but I think you go back to square one whenever you move to a new place. You have decide if the situation is right for you. If the unpaid gig will ingratiate you with a busy, overworked contractor or allow you to play for influential musicians in the area, you can consider it an extended audition. However, if it’s playing for some out-of-towner’s outdoor wedding in January, skip it.
What to do once you get a gig: by the time you start getting calls, you will have gone through periods of frustration, mild depression, and panic at the thought of having wasted your college years practicing your instrument instead of doing something marketable. Don’t let it show. Whether you are playing beside brilliant musicians or people who seem ready to retire, address everyone as a respected colleague. That means patting your thigh in appreciation after orchestra solos in rehearsal (good or bad) and thanking the regulars in the ensemble for letting you play with them. And it most certainly includes good social skills in general: make direct eye contact, smile, offer your hand and introduce yourself. Act happy to be there, even if it has been a difficult week filled with rejections. There are far more good musicians than there are jobs, so no one has to suffer your inflated ego for the privilege of hearing you play. They can just call someone else.
And whatever you do, treat every rehearsal, no matter how mundane the music, as if it is the most important performance of your life. You are being judged every time you make a sound as people decide where to put you on the sub list.
It takes time to establish yourself, and that calendar can vary. Every musical community is a small one, and every action and statement you make will follow you. If you consistently--even when you think no one is looking--present yourself as willing to work, hold yourself to a high standard, and act generously and with kindness in the face of others’ struggles, people will want to work with you. And the longer you remain that excellent colleague, the higher your name rises on the sub list.
Nicole Riner ©2016