The Magic Word

15 Jul

Hello again, dear readers!

It seems I reneged on my promise to upload the Ligeti video. I wont’ bore you with excuses. Suffice it to say this has been a busy and productive summer.

And one thing that has been making this summer so busy and productive is that wonderful, magical word, fiercely sought out and coveted by freelance musicians far and wide: gigs. This has been an incredibly fruitful summer for me in the freelance department. In May I played in college commencement bands, in June for friends’ recitals, weddings, and other outdoor gigs. Of course I played the quintessential 4th of July pops gig. I’ve played outdoor gigs, indoor gigs, gigs with friends, gigs with strangers, gigs with professionals, gigs with amateurs…It’s been quite the summer.

The freelancing world is a strange and mysterious place. Beginning a freelance career or moving to a new city can be extremely challenging for a musician without some kind of connection. Most people know that one outstanding player who doesn’t seem to land many gigs, while the musician with a sound that is just okay seems to be performing everywhere. It begs the age-old question: where to gigs come from? I am still relatively new to the freelance world, but I’ll share a bit of what I’ve learned so far.

1. Sometimes It’s Who You Know

In fact, it’s almost always who you know. In fact, I can’t think of a time when getting gigs isn’t at least partially related to who you know. This was a difficult idea for me to accept at first. I want to believe that my freelancing career is based entirely on my own merits, not someone else’s actions. But the fact is that everyone has to start somewhere, and if no one knows you exist, they can’t book you very easily. I was extremely fortunate to have made a good impression on an older student in my freshman year of college, and she started recommending me for gigs because she wanted to help me get a good start in the Cincinnati area. I hope to play a similar Gigging Guardian Angel role for a young musician in the future. It was incredibly helpful for me! So I recommend getting to know local freelancers and making friends. Which brings me to my next point:

2. You Are Always Networking

…For better or worse. It’s human nature: consciously or unconsciously, we are always judging one another. In college, especially in the conservatory bubble, you spend a lot of personal time with your colleagues – present and future! Even if you are a phenomenal musician, if you are negative, constantly gossiping, or starting unnecessary drama, people remember that. And chances are they will not want to work with you. Be genuine and be yourself (people can also tell when you’re being fake or playing it too safe), but keep in mind that your attitude can have a profound effect on your career based on others’ opinions of you.


Performing the Böhme Sextet on a recital

3. Flexibility Is Key

When I started getting my first paying gigs, my thought process went something like this:

“This is awesome! I’m actually getting paid to do something I love! How rewarding and fulfilling!

You want me to play what?”

I’m sure I’m in good company. In school and youth orchestra, things are extremely cut-and-dry. You rehearse with the same people for weeks, your schedule is pre-ordained, you have the music for plenty of time, and then, after much detailed preparation, you perform a concert for an attentive audience.

Dear future freelancers,
This will almost never be the norm again.

You will often get music the day before or the day of a gig. I have sight-read concerts before. Brass players, always be ready to transpose – you may end up playing another instrument’s part. Horn players should be experts at C transposition. You never know when someone will drop a C instrument part in front of you. Your boss and colleagues expect you to be able to transpose. Prove them right. Most importantly, make it look easy! Sometimes you may have to fake it, but if you look calm and sound good, it’s likely most people won’t know the difference (sneaky musician secret). Just don’t make a habit of being unprepared, especially if you have a chance to prepare!

Another note on flexibility: you may have every last duck in a row, but life is full of surprises. At some point we’ve all been here on the way to a gig:


Action shot: God help me this is my warmup for the day.

A few months ago, I had a gig at a local university. I was dressed and ready to go, my instrument and music were in the car, and somehow my car keys ended up right there with them. My spare key was conveniently located in my horn case, which was very inconveniently locked in my car. I had to call parking services for my garage and break into my own vehicle, slowly watching the precious warmup time I had budgeted at the hall ticking away. This was an intense and taxing concert, and I was not looking forward to playing without a good warmup. Luckily, I had budgeted that time and managed not to be late. I did, however, end up buzzing my warmup in the car. It happens. Plan ahead, but if things go wrong, stay calm. Call someone, apologize, and get there as soon as you can.

4. Make Their Life Easy

“They” in this case being the person who booked you, your fellow ensemble members, and anyone else you come in contact with. Take the time to go the extra mile. Answer emails promptly, be thorough, plan ahead. Bring clothespins or clips to outdoor gigs. Practice your music when it’s given to you ahead of time. Be proactive and positive. People will remember you, and you will get called again.

5. Being “Solid”

I’ve talked a lot about networking and personality things, but this is not to disregard the importance of being a “solid” player. Not perfect, just solid. This means competency in sight reading, playing accurately, keeping good time, and communicating well with your fellow performers. These are all crucial to a successful freelancing career. This skill set helps you impress the people you need to impress, which goes back to networking. It’s all connected.


Performing with the Patriot Brass Ensemble in Cincinnati

6. Have Fun!

Talking about freelancing can cause a lot of stress. The “dos” and “don’ts” pile up, and it feels like you’re constantly in danger of making a mistake. Conversely, to the well-established freelancer, dealing with people who are not as experienced or street smart, come unprepared, or behave inappropriately can be extremely frustrating and lead to a cynical attitude. Money can also cause stress. After playing a number of gigs, I know what the basic “going rate” is, and I know when I’m being taken advantage of. But I am not at a point in my career where I can really turn any jobs away.

All of these things make it easy to forget the joy of freelancing. Every gig is different, so you get a great deal of performance variety. You meet lots of other musicians who are passionate about what they do, and you get to share music with them – a spontaneous, living, breathing art! You bring music into the community and make events more enjoyable and inspiring. Rather than being frustrated and nervous about difficulties that arise, look at them as exciting challenges that grow you as a musician. And never forget how blessed you are to make money doing what you love!

May your opportunities be plentiful and your traffic jam car warmup sessions be few. Go forth and gig!


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