Students and paying gigs

July 15, 2016

Sometimes I get phone calls from people hoping to hire my students for gigs. I’m delighted when I can pass a professional opportunity on to a hardworking, high-achieving student, but often these calls are troubling.

Obviously, the callers want students because they assume students will work cheaply. Lots of college students work for not much money, as restaurant waitstaff, custodians, babysitters, and so forth. Those jobs don’t pay much because they are (ostensibly) “unskilled” labor. But “musician” is very much a skilled job.

The Symphonic Wind Ensemble is the premier wind/percussion ensemble in the School of Music.  This highly select, 40-member ensemble represents the finest wind and percussion instrumentalists on campus. The ensemble will perform at this year's Penn State President's Concert at the Strathmore Music Center near Washington, D.C. The President's Concert, a joint production of the Penn State President's Office, the School of Music, and the Alumni Association, has been held at major concert venues including Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Last year's concert was held in Carnegie Hall.
photo, Penn State

Not long ago I was hired to play lead alto saxophone for a gig backing up a singer, and the contractor asked if I had a couple of students who could play in the section. Then he asked what I thought would be fair to pay them. I told him immediately that he was hiring them to do a professional service, and should pay them as professionals. Happily, he saw my point and agreed to those terms.

I suppose some hiring parties assume that students will be cheaper than non-students because they are not as skilled, and therefore can’t negotiate higher fees. (This may or may not be the case—I’ve certainly played gigs with “professionals” who would be far outclassed by undergraduate music students.) Sometimes they want to compensate for hiring less-skilled musicians by planning extensive rehearsals. In most cases, I think they would better spend that same money hiring skilled players to sight-read.

Musicians, enrolled students or not, are specialized, skilled professionals, and should be treated (and compensated) as such.