Monday, October 13, 2008

Freelancing in the “New” Economy (Part 2)

This is the next installment post about ideas for retooling freelance careers. See Part One for the first four ideas.

Here are more ideas for making a living as a freelance musician in a precarious economy :

5) Get a church job.

Here's another one that is mostly intended for keyboardists, though some of the bigger places are now employing larger ensembles that can involve other instruments. These jobs can be about as secure as it gets for a musician. People will still go to church in good times and bad, and a recession might just make attendance go up! Look for these gigs on the web and be sure you're on the call list at your local union or college career services office for church work. If you can play a little organ that makes you even more valuable as a candidate. (See #7 below.)

Having a church job can also be very healthy for a classical musician, and I'm not necessarily talking about the religious aspect. It puts you into a whole new social circle and opens up an entire community to you that can help provide some needed perspective. I know a lot of musicians who seem to really know only other musicians, and this can get insular and tired. One of the things in my life that keeps me "close to the ground" is my supportive community at the church. They can also all be potential audience members for your other performances as well.

Here's another benefit – you might get a lot more work once you've settled into a church gig. I have gained private students from families at the church, and I can also make additional income for weddings and funerals. (Please see my post on playing for funerals for guidance if you do not know much about this kind of work.) As I have said before, even in a recession people will continue to marry each other and they will also continue to pass on. It's a fact of life. You might as well be the one who gets paid to provide the music.

If you're lucky to be in a place that supports a concert series, you could really have an excellent situation fall right into your lap. Not only could you be involved in committee work (an experience that is valuable in itself) but you could get opportunities to program your own concerts. It can provide a wonderful outlet for doing some chamber music or solo recitals.

6) Pursue an adjunct appointment at a college or university, or provide tutoring for students.

Let me preface by saying that adjunct work is not all it is cracked up to be. (See this excellent article on the drawbacks.) There are no benefits, pay is skimpy, and there is not much hope for promotion. It is most definitely not suited to some musicians. But if you can get into a good situation as a freelancer, you may be in for a pleasant surprise.

I can vouch for teaching coursework at the adjunct level rather than private lessons. Teaching private lessons as an adjunct professor can be grueling and worth very little financially. But coursework can be different. The first time you teach a course is the most difficult since you need to research and prep everything basically from scratch (especially if your class does not use a textbook). But once you have done the course a few times, your workload can actually diminish. I have taught a chamber music literature course at UC-CCM two times (so far), and the amount of prep-time for last year's class was 50% of what I had to do the first year. It is true that when you do a course for the first time, you are earning less than minimum wage for your time. But the thing to keep in mind is that the first year is basically an investment – you won't need as much time in the future once the groundwork for the course is laid.

I want to assert that I do not condone simply recycling coursework year-over-year, which is common practice for some adjuncts. Ethically speaking, adjuncts should keep modernizing and updating their material in order to continue to be effective teachers. The worst situation for students is to be stuck with some uncaring adjunct who hasn't incorporated important new field research for twenty years. Don't be that professor.

But even with the need to evaluate and develop new material, adjunct coursework can be quite friendly to your schedule after the initial year. It's not gravy and you may be better off in the long run with #4 from Part 1, but if you can find the right niche it can be rewarding and fun part-time work.

In a recession, it is possible that the need for adjuncts may increase. As full salaried professors retire, more and more of the full-time positions are being split up into adjunct positions so that the institutions save money. While it is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all of the implications of this (most of which are NOT good), it could be a good thing for a freelancer looking for an additional (small) paycheck.

In lieu of adjunct work, tutoring could be a consideration for those who have good academic skills and a reputation in the community as a knowledgeable mentor. If you are a whiz at theory or have a knack for music history, there may be a whole pool of graduate students who could benefit from tutoring. Find out if the local university music department requires qualifying exams for their graduate students, then alert teachers that tutoring is an option for students who need help with preparation. This option has the added benefit of little to no start-up cost (outside of pertinent texts on your subject material); another one is that word-of-mouth "marketing" might be all that is needed to keep the community aware of your tutoring business.

7) Get comfy with the other instruments in your instrumental family.

The more instruments you can play competently, the more work you will get. I won't speak for clarinetists who can play saxophone or guitarists who can hammer away on a mandolin. They can write their own posts. But I can definitely speak for the keyboard group! I can estimate accurately that a full 20 to 25 percent of my performance work comes from continuo work on harpsichord or organ. It is extraordinary to me that pianists rarely learn the other keyboard instruments! The real world (the one that writes checks) will not care that much if you can play Rach 3. (They could always get Yefim Bronfman.) On the other hand, if you can play continuo parts for Baroque suites and large ensemble pieces (e.g., Handel's Messiah requires BOTH organ and harpsichord continuo parts) you could find yourself getting paid next week.

Now that I'm a working "stiff" in an urban setting, it is becoming more and more clear to me that the conservatory schools spend way too much energy focusing on training people for solo careers. (This subject may be suited to a separate, longer, and more heated post…) I received absolutely no training whatsoever on organ or harpsichord in my TEN years in degree coursework. I know of what I speak – I've attended three different institutions and in none of these places did anyone even encourage me to get even just a tiny bit comfortable with the other instruments. This reveals an incredible lack of insight about the field. Sometimes performance professors just don't really know what goes on outside of their little ivory tower studios…

But I digress. The point is that people actually really LIKE Baroque and Classical ensemble pieces (I just played organ continuo in a Schubert mass last week) so they will always be an important feature of classical music programming. If you can be the go-to gal for harpsichord or organ work, you may be in yet another "recession-proof" situation. I've got my Messiah gig before Christmas. Do you?

8) Join or start up a local rock band/jazz combo/experimental ensemble.

Classical musicians are notorious for their inability (or unwillingness) to engage in different styles and genres that require improvisation (I include myself). While I have not pursued this option in recent years, there is no reason why others cannot. Heck, you can even start just a simple cover band and get work in bars and clubs around town. (This won't happen overnight of course.) You might not even have to learn a different instrument. If you can write some tunes, get yourself a cool group name, and market yourself like crazy, you could end up like these guys.

You could also start an experimental group of varying instrumentation. One could find a unique market niche with this approach. One of my favorite ensembles in the country, pulsoptional, is a self-professed "band of composers" that plays all kinds of music that defy genre classifications. They are a good example of what I am talking about here.

9) Finally – one more! You could change careers.

Wow, what a cop-out, I can hear detractors say. But this might not be as drastic as you think. The idea is not to give up professional music-making, but rather make it your part-time job. Many people today work more than two jobs (most simply need to in order to just pay the bills) so why can't a musician? Because you won't have time to practice, right? I say "deal with it."

Even if you work forty hours a week, a hard worker could manage to keep at music-making on the side. One of the keys to being an active professional musician is maintaining efficient practicing strategies anyway, so there really is no reason why someone can't work a day job and moonlight as a musician. It could be much more secure than trying to scramble for gigs all the time. You could pick and choose what you actually want to do as well, rather than having to take that dreaded gig that pays you less than dirt.

I have always liked the story of pianist Jon Nakamatsu. He was a high school German teacher when he won the Cliburn competition in 1997. He never went to a conservatory and never pursued a music major in college. His background provides proof of what a determined musician can accomplish while doing something else for a living. Granted, he doesn't need to teach high school anymore, but look at how he got there.

I can foresee plenty of problems with this choice for many musicians. (For example, if you have kids this kind of thing could be difficult.) But I feel that too many people in the business overlook this option, perhaps out of emotional needs or because of fears of stigmatization in the musical community. There is no shame in career change – people do it all the time. Liberating yourself from the stress of needing to freelance for income could provide huge benefits – not just to your income, but also in terms of health, job satisfaction, and other important life aspects that musicians sometimes ignore at their own peril.


Well, there you have it! Those are some of my ideas for shoring up freelancers' work in this difficult economic environment. In the future I will also try to give some additional side "pointers" in an addendum to these posts. If anyone would like to expand on topics I didn't cover, please comment. Good luck out there, fellow freelancers!

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Freelancing in the “New” Economy (Part 1)

Remember that little catchphrase from the late 90's, when internet stocks were soaring and there was no end to rising profits? I think that today we are in for a new "new economy" that reverses the simplistic overconfidence of the previous era. Let's face it: times are going to be tough for everyone (except, perhaps, for the golden parachute boys of Wall Street).

But I'm really not writing this to pour more grim news down throats or complain vociferously. It's time, I feel, to regroup and retool freelance careers. For musicians who do not have full salaried work, now is the time to plan ahead for a recession and its probable impact on our field. While there is some cheerleading about how great things are in the classical music world, I prefer to take a more cautious approach. I believe that the immediate future will most likely bring a serious dollar-diet to many arts organizations, especially those that are dependent on yearly corporate donations. I don't think the sky is falling, though – crystal balls about finances for the arts have usually been quite wrong on the worst-case scenario coming to fruition.

However, for many of us who have freelance careers a good deal of performance work could dry up. (I include myself even though I hold a few part-time positions that provide steady income.) It is likely that in some places orchestra seasons could shrink, people may need to stay at home more, and the regular side gigs many of us enjoy could simply vanish. What do we do in the meantime, wait out the storm and just hope for the best?

Remember the Pasteur quote, "Chance favors the prepared mind." Here are some of my ideas for securing work and income in the near future, some of which are applicable to all musicians while others are strictly keyboardist-oriented. Good luck out there!

1) Don't be lazy.

Let me start with a brazen (and politically incorrect) statement: far too many musicians are lazy and less productive than they could be. Those of us in the field know this to be true – we've seen it in colleagues and students. None of the plans below are an easy out – they all take some legwork and determination. Let us all be aware of this tendency (I include myself) and combat it by hitting the bricks to make things happen.

2) Teach private students if you do not do so already.

I know that most of us do this no-brainer already, but many musicians do not teach. Some claim to not have the temperament, but that is something a pro-active person can change. Teaching an instrument to young people is one of the most rewarding activities we can do. It is win-win – you get paid for your time, you get to share your expertise, and you are providing all kinds of benefits to the people who will be in charge of things thirty or forty years from now.

There are many ways to get started. If you are uncomfortable due to lack of experience, look into a pedagogy course at your local university or college music department. You can start a studio at local community music schools relatively easy and with very little start-up cost. Most of these places are small businesses themselves and carry a good reputation with the community if they have been around for many years. Go to the established places and inquire about starting a studio. You might only get a student or two at first, but then you can build from there. If you are lucky enough to catch an opening when a teacher moves, you could inherit an entire studio. This is what happened to me when I started teaching in northern Kentucky in 2002. I have had 15-20 students at all times since then. It can be very secure once you get established.

You can also try preparatory departments in your local university (though in many cases these teaching positions are only available to those on the inside: graduate students, alumni, etc.) Another option is to open up a studio in your home or apartment. This option is really attractive since you can advertise in so many inexpensive ways now via the web. Another bonus to teaching home lessons is that YOU keep all the income, rather than paying a portion of your earnings to a community music school. It also reduces travel costs: I don't hit the gas pedal when I go from my desk to the piano in the living room for my in-home lessons.

Finally, you may be skeptical about this when money is tight for families. But parents will still spend money on their children's education and music lessons will always be popular. It's really a recession-proof job!

3) Accompany students at a university music department.

This one is for pianists. Do you happen to know the core repertoire for a given instrument? Did you learn a lot of lieder in your bachelor degree days? Put it to good use by sending out feelers to local teachers. Here's an example: if you know a lot of trumpet repertoire, give the local trumpet professor a call (or send an email) and let her know that you are available for lessons, recitals, juries, etc. In most situations these people will be delighted to know someone they can call. Even if they already have a list, you will get a call when the first-call folks are too busy.

The downside of this is that a lot of students do not have much money. But you can still earn something significant if you can respond to advantageous situations. A few years ago, I made a killing playing TWO pieces for a lot of flutists. I knew about a national competition that was coming up, looked at the repertoire required, and offered my services to record those two pieces with students looking to send in an application. The best part was that I did not need to learn twenty different pieces, but made the kind of money that looked like I should have!

There are MANY situations out there that are advantageous for good collaborators. This one is also very recession-proof: students will still need to graduate, so they will need to do their required recitals, juries, competitions, etc. If you're really good at what you do and you impress the professors, you might also get asked to work with them in the future.

4) Hone a skill set outside of the music field for part-time work.

Since the early summer I have been back working a part-time office job for extra income, balancing spreadsheets and doing other clerical duties. If you know how to do spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel, for example) and are good with numbers you have a potentially valuable skill. It doesn't have to be office work – you could drive a delivery van, become a handyman in your neighborhood, babysit, etc. Part-time work can be scarce, but if you find something decent it can save you from debt when you hit a no-gig dry patch for a couple of months.

I am always amazed at how some musicians often look down on doing work outside of their field for extra income. I can speak from experience: doing some outside work can actually be mentally healthy, and I've always found that it gives me a little more confidence when I know that I can actually produce something other than pretty sounds at the piano. Another benefit is that a lot of part-time work is left at the work site – you don't necessarily have to take it home with you. Music is usually the opposite: we almost always take our work home with us in the form of practicing or other kinds of preparation.

PART TWO will provide more at a later date – please check back for the next installment!


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