10 Basic Working Tips for Musicians

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It occurred to me that even before exploring work options for musicians, it might be helpful to go over some basic principles that may be ridiculously obvious for non-musicians, but for some reason seem to completely escape the mindset of too many artists who seem to think that their talent somehow magically absolves them from all sense of personal responsibility. In addition to my musical duties as a collaborative pianist at Curtis, i'm also responsible for overseeing the concert activities of the students, particularly when that involves hirings for both internal school functions (like backstage concert work) and outside venues ("gigs", in the musical vernacular). Time and again, i see so many talented students tripping up their own hire-ability - here are a few examples:

  • not showing up for assigned work

  • showing up late for a job

  • showing up on the job, but not doing anything (the old "clock in and hide")

  • leaving in the middle of a job

  • submitting proposed programs with incomplete information (key signatures? movement headings? the name of your pianist - ahem ahem - ?)

  • trying to change pieces at the last minute in a program that was set well in advance

  • canceling scheduled performances at the last minute

  • accepting a job, then grumbling out loud about the fee

  • being too lazy to respond to a job offer

  • I could go on and on, but you get the point. And i should emphasize that i've seen this behavior in professional as well as academic contexts (and, yes, i should confess, i've been guilty of several of these shenanigans myself...like the time i was on my way to New York to accompany someone on a major audition, forgot the music (back in the day when i used paper music), showed up 30 minutes late...needless to say, i didn't get paid, and i felt horrible for ruining someone else's career opportunity...)

    With that in mind, i humbly present 10 basic working tips to help musicians not only get work, but to actually make themselves MORE hire-able:

    1. Say "YES". A good friend of mine was approached by a presenter after an audition and invited to perform in a high profile concert with only 1 week's notice. Not knowing the repertoire, she initially said "no". After some gentle cajoling, i convinced her to take a chance, call that presenter back, and accept the offer. Turns out the concert drew some terrific publicity and a prominent mention in a major newspaper, effectively launching her career. You never know what wonderful opportunities you will discover unless you take a chance and say "YES"!

    2. Say "YES". It's one thing to accept a big offer, while admittedly it's not very exciting to accept small ones. But if you will take a long-term view of work and realize how small things eventually grow to larger ones, you'll eventually see opportunities that the vast majority of musicians will miss simply because they are waiting around for the "big one", the spectacular job that will launch their career into the stratosphere (with the same statistical rate of success as the mega-million-dollar lottery...) i was trained as a solo pianist and had my sights set on a "solo career", whatever that meant. It just so happened that my friends were always asking me to help out by accompanying their lessons, coachings, and student recitals - i did it for fun, mainly because i love working with other people, not thinking that these little "jobs" would actually one day give me the sight-reading and social skill-sets to become a professional collaborative pianist with far more work (and a steadier income) than i could've hoped for as a struggling soloist.

    3. Say "YES". Particularly when everyone else is saying "no"! Many times, fear of being unprepared will prevent us from actually using that fear to propel us to greater performance and better opportunities. i call this "perfection paralysis", and it's particularly rampant among classical musicians. Too many times, i see musicians wait until every note is perfectly in place and they can spit out a performance on "auto-pilot" before they'll accept a job, then wonder why nothing's available. More often than not, using the fear of a deadline can actually be used to heighten your musicianship and free up your creativity - and certainly to grab those job offers that everyone else is too afraid to take on!

    (ok, enough of the "yes" answers - now for some nitty gritty)

    4. Communicate promptly. Timely responses will win over your hiring resources and presenters big time - they'll be reassured that you are reliable and professionally capable.

    5. Present complete information. Few things get under my skin as a contractor than to see incomplete repertoire information like "Sonata #2 by Brahms" (Piano and Violin? A major? Op. 100? Johannes?) Why not impress your presenter by showing that you really know your repertoire? Take the time to check those umlauts! Use Google to look up that BWV catalog number! If you need help typing in diacriticals and other international markings for your titles and movement headings, check out http://www.starr.net/is/type/kbh.html.

    6. Read. Slowly. i'm amazed at the number of times i've received phonecalls from musicians i've hired asking for the phone number of the presenter and the address of the concert - THE DAY OF THE CONCERT! My answer is usually, "um...did you read the email i sent you?" Again, this is another opportunity to dazzle your presenters with your intelligence and professionalism. The alternative is usually called a "blacklist" - why deal with difficult-to-manage musicians when there are so many others out there that are more than willing to do a little extra homework? Presenters like to work with artists who present the least resistance to professional protocol.

    7. Keep your word. Those last-minute program changes can end up being very costly for printing costs, as well as wrecking whatever publicity was set up ahead of time. Bowing out of a gig with a poor excuse can cost you future hiring opportunities. Presenters generally appreciate simplicity - if you simply do what you say and communicate that clearly, everyone is happy. You'd be surprised at the ratio of re-requests for reliable musicians as opposed to those who put on a prima donna debacle.

    One the time management side of things:

    8a. Know your schedule. I'm amazed that in this day of ubiquitous calendar apps on cell phones and even old Palm Pilot PDA's (passe as they may be these days) there are still students that walk around with no idea of their availability a week from Tuesday! There are two terrible sins here - 1) Not being able to commit because you don't know if you're available, and 2) committing to something that conflicts with your schedule because you thought you were free "off the top of your head", then having to deal with correcting that afterwards. Remember, you'll always be in control of your schedule IF IT'S ALWAYS WITH YOU!!

    8b. Don't be on-time - BE EARLY. i'm personally guilty of this one several times over - i tend to estimate my travel times to arrive right on the dot. One of these days i will learn to get to my hired event with plenty of cushion time. You simply never know if traffic will be snarled, the train is delayed, or if American Airlines suddenly cancels 300 flights due to inspections...

    9. Be flexible. Many times a gig will present us with unexpected situations - perhaps the acoustics are too dry, perhaps the stage is a lot smaller than what you're comfortable with, or just maybe the piano is out of tune (heaven forbid!!) Whatever the case, work opportunities will tend to flow more often to the musician who has the flexibility to adapt to varying situations.

    One time, i was scheduled to have a recording session for a new string and piano sonata. The string player was full of confidence and bravura during the rehearsals, but the minute he stepped under the microphone, he completely froze. Suddenly, the microphone wasn't placed right - the balance was off - the room was too dry - the session basically ground to a halt as the string player sat down for 4 hours and sulked about everything that was wrong about the recording studio.

    Don't get me wrong, i'm all for pursuing the highest quality in my art, but there comes a point when flexibility needs to overcome "perfection paralysis" in order to accomplish the job at hand.

    Remember my example of arriving late for that NY audition? Turns out that there was another pianist there who had the flexibility to step in for my absence at the last minute to accompany my friend's audition. I'm sure the level of gratitude heaped on that pianist led to several more opportunities, thanks to that person's flexibility!

    10. Be grateful. Nothing makes a job more unbearable than a bad attitude. A prima donna will put the tiniest problems under a microscope and make mountains out of anthills. A grateful artist, on the other hand, will appreciate the opportunity and make something wonderful with whatever's at hand. Now if you were the hiring presenter, who would YOU want to invite for a return engagement?

    Look, i'm not saying that being a page turner or playing in an environment where the dinner plates clink louder than the music is going to be much fun. But you never know if that page turner can discover a better page-turning system or if that gig musician meets an investor willing to front the production costs for a new CD project! You'd be amazed at how many opportunities can be generated from just having the right attitude - and conversely, how many of them get repelled by a sour spirit.

    There you have it, a 10-point checklist of working tips for musicians. Believe me, there are several areas that i have to work on improving myself, so i'm not holding myself above the fray! If you have any other suggestions, please leave comments. Now, back to work!

    [ 30 April, 2008 ] • [ Hugh ] •[ ] •[ Link to this article ]