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!


Pam said...

I'd like to note that church work is also a staple for singers. In most cities I have lived in there are plenty of paid section leader or cantor positions available. This work by itself can be a good addition to your income, but also, can lead to other jobs, such as singing weddings and funerals, which is good money and you actually get to sing solos! Also, while singing for Trinity church in Boston, I had the opportunity to sing the soprano solos in their yearly performance of the Messiah, which was a very popular Boston event with a packed house.

It always upset me that conservatory voice teachers / voice programs discouraged us students from singing in choirs. I agree that conservatories are poor at training musicians for realistic careers (perhaps I am putting words in your mouth). Every singer should have the musicianship skills to sight read choral music if s/he wants to make a decent living. Also, s/he should work on her/his acting skills so s/he can take opera and musical theatre work as well. I love art song and would probably rather sing recitals of lieder, melodie, and contemporary american song than anything else, but honestly, giving recitals is NOT a realistic way to make a living -- or really ANY money, so why do we spend SO much time working on that repertoire?

In terms of teaching work, I have to say that some of the private school teaching work I've done has been more enjoyable than the college teaching I've done -- classroom teaching, that is. It depends on the level you're teaching, I suppose. When you're teaching an introductory music class to freshmen for one credit, you're much less likely to get serious students than if you're teaching a class that is part of the required curriculum to smart middle school students. Just a thought... Private lesson students are another issue. They vary so widely, you never know where the best students will be.

Thanks for another interesting post, Josh!

Joshua Nemith said...

You provide some excellent additions to my examples - thanks for sharing your thoughts on your own church work and private school teaching.

It's true that private lesson students can vary widely. I would argue that over time (a scale of years rather than months) one can begin to "filter" the student pool towards what fits best with a given teaching style. Smaller communities within larger urban centers (like where I live) can also vary a great deal. It's amazing to me how things can be so different between south and north, east and west. Work ethic is one area where things can be vastly different depending on locality. I'm not sure why this is, but I do have some ideas. Perhaps it is something researchers could's an interesting phenomenon.

Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

Excellent posts. I must say, I agree with you more than 100% about the short comings of conservatory's and art schools in general in preparing there students for making a living in the real world.
Would a marketing course or some business courses make the students worse musicians?
The whole snobbery factor in the art world of all or nothing or being the best or not being at all is a real killer and should be dealt with and eliminated.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the enlightening advice. I totally agree about becoming versatile on the other instruments in your instrument family. I myself earned my undergraduate degree in woodwinds (specializing in clarinet, flute, and saxophone) and it has paid off in several important ways:

1. I feel it really allowed me to explore a lot of repertoire that I probably wouldn't have been exposed to- music of the baroque (which I love, but sadly, does not really exist for the clarinet), and more modern pieces (which make up a large part of the repertoire for the saxophone).

2. It has exposed me to a lot of different pedagogical techniques from different instruments which has been very beneficial in my own teaching.

3. It pays to be versatile! While I'm not asked often to do shows, I was hired to play the run of "The Producers" in Dayton. The book I played included clarinet, Eb, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and flute. While I had to dust the cobwebs on my sax and remember which end of the flute to blow into, it allowed me to participate (and earn a good deal of money) from studying these additional instruments.

Thanks again for an excellent article!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting posts. I want to go back to Part 1 #1 where you say it like it is: don't be lazy. I know you are writing from the point of view and experience of a freelancer, but am curious on your thoughts on those who have professional orchestra gigs, then during the summer or "down" time apply for unemployment instead of finding other work either in the music field or *gasp* outside music.

Thanks again for giving us all something to consider during these economically questionable days to come.

Anonymous said...

a most interesting post . . . here is another suggestion, for what it is worth-- scare up your own untraditional gigs. I have converted from being a bass player to being an author/ speaker, and there are many opportunities if one is willing to do some imagineering to come up with a program. I know some people who do a single instrument interactive kiddie presentation for kindergarteners. i am off to foreign shores next week to give a series of talks to kids about music.

Musicians tend to think of their work opportunities as a finite circle of gigs-- orchestras, ballets, shows, etc . . . that are put together by someone else. But if you think in terms of offering a small musical program you might start to come up with ideas and possibilities to sell your services to people who traditionally have not bought live music directly. remember, all the money that left the stock market went somewhere, and people won't know they can have a string quartet at their dinner party unless you suggest it to them. to promote, just $40 buys 100 full-olor flyers from staples (you have to design it of course). libraries have small budgets for programs, and you would be amazed at how interested non-musicians are at hearing you play close up. more money: make a CD of yourself to sell at the end of the show. I am always being asked if i can "bring my bass" (fortunately i sold them all, otherwise i would be schlepping it all over). time share hotels, assisted living complexes, are often looking for low budget programs for their guests. it's not automatic, but it's there.

Music school taught you to be precise in your playing and then either take auditions or wait for the phone to ring, and little else. go look at some books on marketing (Peter Drucker is a good one to start). and seth godin have ideas too. your competitors are passive about the sale of their product. you don't have to be. -- justin locke ps i am available to speak at your school for a nominal fee :-) (see how easy it is? ;-) --jl

Anonymous said...

Its interesting... a friend of mine who passed away some years back switched from engineering to music during the depression era. Between the symphony and lessons, he was able to keep his family afloat, something near impossible in engineering when the markets did a major crash and burn back then.

Now it seems I'm following in his footsteps, I'm finding there is a lot more customer interest in the music side of my offerings, as contrasted with custom engineering and design. Its interesting how history has an odd way of repeating itself.

Anonymous said...

Teaching musical instrument such as playing the piano is also a good way to earn some cash.

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Peter said...

Congratulations for this great post. I am a freelance musician and found it really helpful!

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Excellent two part series on supplemental income for music teachers! You got me thinking on a new blog post for my own blog, where I can lay out ideas for music teachers to supplement their incomes besides just teaching. Nice articles!

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