Becoming a professional musician

person holding white paper

Sometimes when my students get paying engagements for the first time, I joke with them that they are now “professional” musicians. That’s true in a sense, but I think there’s more that goes into being a true professional.

If you are a college student aspiring to be a professional musician, here are some things you might ask yourself:

  • Am I reliably on time to things?
  • Do I always have a pencil? Extra reeds? Whatever else is needed?
  • Do I show up to rehearsals with my parts learned and ready?
  • Am I self-motivating when it comes to practicing?
  • Am I pleasant and cooperative on a gig or in a rehearsal?
  • Am I easy to contact, and prompt about replying?
  • Is my closet stocked with clean, sharp gig apparel?
  • Do I keep my instruments well-maintained?
  • Do I have a sense of what my time and talents are worth, and a firm but polite way of expressing that?
  • Do I meet and exceed my teachers’ expectations?
  • Am I willing to play any part, including the less-prestigious ones? Am I willing to put my best into supporting someone else’s solo moment, even if I think that opportunity should have been mine?
  • Have I recorded myself lately? Did I come away from it with some ideas of what needs improvement?
  • What are the most common issues my teachers or ensemble directors mention about my playing? Am I addressing those in a focused way?
  • Am I responsive to useful criticism, thick-skinned against non-useful criticism, and able to tell the difference?
  • Is there anything about my playing or demeanor that would cause stress to someone who hired me for a gig? Am I currently stressing out my teachers, directors, or fellow students?

Graduation from college doesn’t guarantee you any gigs. Become the person that other musicians want to work with.

Don’t work for exposure for brands, either

money pink coins pig

It’s a common rallying cry among freelance musicians that you shouldn’t play gigs that pay in “exposure.” Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, and playing for free devalues your skills and others’.

But there are more ways that musicians become convinced to work for someone else’s bottom line and get nothing back but maybe a little “exposure.”

Unsolicited product endorsements are a common one. An endorsement deal with a company should involve some kind of tangible benefit to the musician: money, free or significantly discounted products, or maybe something like funding to support travel or musical projects. If you’re hashtagging your favorite brands in every social media post, and the companies aren’t supporting you back in a meaningful way, you’re working in their advertising department for free.

Creating online content for companies is also often the same as working for exposure. If a business wants you to provide them with articles, educational materials, videos, photos, artwork, etc. for their social media posts or company blog, they are asking you to do creative work without compensation. (Sometimes these efforts are creatively described as “contests.”)

I’ve gotten many “offers” to have my blog posts “reblogged” (copied) onto corporate websites, with a vague promise that this will generate “traffic” to my site. I fell for it a few times in past years, and it always resulted in a small handful of clicks that dried up after a day or two, and then my content lived on for free on someone else’s site. Now my content all stays here, where these days I get more traffic than the corporations offering me “opportunities” to hand over my work.

Whether it’s gig work, writing web content, or attaching your good name to a product, value yourself enough to ask for what you’re worth.

Advice on multiple-woodwinds graduate degrees and teaching careers

I often have university students bring up the idea of graduate school and a university teaching career, and I have previously given general advice about that.

Perhaps since my graduate degrees and a teaching career are in multiple woodwinds, my students sometimes wonder if that’s a path they should take. Here are a few thoughts:

I’ve mentioned previously that, even for talented and hardworking folks, a graduate education is far from a guarantee of employment. Does a multiple-woodwinds degree help? I think it helped me, but I also had some significant luck.

The year I was on the job market, I applied for a small handful of multiple-woodwinds jobs and got a small handful of interviews. I landed in the job that was the best match. I kept an eye on job listings in subsequent years, and years went by without a single multiple-woodwinds job being listed. If I had graduated a year later than I did, I may well have been unemployed.

During my job search I also applied for single-instrument teaching jobs, and got zero responses. Having been on the hiring side of things a few times now, I understand why. Faculty jobs get dozens of applicants that need to be narrowed down quickly, and the ones whose qualifications and experience are laser-focused for the job in question rise to the top. Though I felt I had things to offer, my multiple-woodwinds background wasn’t a precise enough fit, and somebody else’s background was.

So is a multiple-woodwinds education better, employability-wise, than focused study of a single instrument? It’s a calculated gamble. When you’re on the job market there might happen to be a windfall of single-instrument jobs, and if you’ve been focused on multiple woodwinds instead, you may be out of luck. However, there are fewer multiple-woodwinds graduates, so if a multiple-woodwinds-geared job opens, your background might prove very valuable.

Multiple-woodwinds teaching jobs tend to be common at smaller schools with smaller music departments, and that may or may not affect your decision. I have a mixed but mostly positive relationship with my small-university job. If your heart is set on teaching at a major university, then most of the jobs won’t be multiple-instrument jobs, and your competition will mostly be highly-specialized, highly-focused single-instrument players.

One other factor to consider is what kind of multiple-woodwinds education you want to get. Do you want to have a “primary” and “secondary” instruments, or study them in an equal way? Do you want to do a masters degree and a doctoral degree both in multiple woodwinds, or one in multiple woodwinds and one in a single instrument? How you focus your studies will affect which theoretical future jobs you will or won’t be a match for. (Each degree program is a little different, so check with the schools you’re interested in to see how their programs are structured.)

Graduate study in multiple woodwinds can be valuable preparation for a career in higher education, but the job opportunities are limited and hard to predict. I suggest pursuing that path if you have additional reasons or motivations for doing so, like a fascination with the woodwind instruments and woodwind doubling.

Wind playing and contagious diseases

I’m not a (medical) doctor or disease expert of any kind, but I’ve been thinking a bit about the instruments I play and the risks of catching or spreading disease. (At the time of this writing, Covid-19 is foremost in many people’s minds.) I’m presenting a few thoughts here in hopes that people with real expertise will be able to address them in an authoritative way, and I’ll update this post as appropriate with links to additional information if/when it becomes available. Update: I have created a separate page with links to research/resources.

As a player of reed instruments, I am of course concerned about reeds and mouthpieces (and related items like mouthpiece caps and reed cases, tools, and workspaces), and would like to implement some more structured, methodical ways of keeping them clean.

But the thing that worries me more is what is in the air when I am playing wind instruments, or near people who are. Some research/modeling (the accuracy/relevance of which I am unqualified to judge) seems to suggest that “aerosol particles” from a cough can travel far and remain in the air for a long time:

I can only speculate on how this relates to playing wind instruments, but it does leave me feeling uneasy. Some concerns that spring to mind:

  • If I am teaching lessons, even in my relatively spacious university studio, are my students and I both filling the air with potentially infectious particles, by blowing large amounts of well-supported air over sustained periods of time?
  • What surfaces in my studio are receiving these particles, and how long can germs survive there? Should I be altering my routine of teaching lessons all morning, then eating lunch at my desk? Do I need a routine for cleaning music stands, metronomes, and other items that are in the line of “fire?” Should I be concerned about what is settling on the bassoon reeds drying on pegs in a corner of the office?
  • When I or my students perform (especially in ensembles), how close are we to other people? I’ve certainly played orchestral gigs where there’s hardly enough elbow room to swab out a clarinet. What is being put into the air or onto surfaces when the entire wind section starts to play?

Contagious diseases certainly aren’t new, and I think some basic courtesies and hygiene will continue to be adequate to keep ordinary disease risks in check. But at the time of this writing we find ourselves in an age when we are more attuned to physical (“social”) distancing, handwashing, and mask-wearing, and when we receive somber daily tallies of those affected by a public health crisis we don’t yet fully understand.

Let’s all be listening to experts and thinking about how we can continue to share music with our students, teachers, collaborators, and audiences, safely and in good health. Stay well.

When things get canceled

I had a very busy final semester of my bachelor’s degree. I was performing with six different university ensembles (one of which was planning a month-long international summer tour), doing woodwind doubling for a musical, teaching at a nearby music school, and preparing for graduate school auditions.

Then I broke my arm. I slipped on something in a parking lot and landed on my elbow. The doctor put me in a cast from fingertips to shoulder.

At the time it seemed like the world was coming to an end. But things worked out. I canceled some things and modified or delayed some others. Some kind professors gave me advice and perspective and helped out with some logistics.

Looking back, it’s barely a bump in the road to where I am now. But I think of it now and then, when the next gig or recital starts to feel like the most important thing I will ever do.

For my college students, lots of things have been canceled this semester. Some of them won’t get to do their recital class performances or their Honors Recital auditions or their ensemble concerts.

It’s a shame to miss out on things. But right now there are bigger things going on in the world that demand some changes of plan. And in another year or two, those missed opportunities will be crowded out by all the new ones. A few missed performances will be a war story, not a lasting tragedy.

(That said, we shouldn’t forget that some musicians’ livelihoods are threatened by things like shutdowns of venues. Now is an excellent time to buy your favorites’ albums and merch to enjoy at home.)

Stay well, and look forward to the opportunities to come.

Calculating gig fees

It took a while in my freelancing career to get a handle on how to respond when people ask what I charge for my services as a performer.

I live in a remote, rural area (where my university day job is located) and there isn’t a musicians’ union presence, so I’m on my own in these negotiations. When a gig call comes in, I have to make the decision whether the offered compensation is enough, or be able to name a fair price on the spot. I’ve developed sort of a mental formula for this calculation, which I have converted into an online spreadsheet with sample numbers so you can see my process:

Gig fee calculator

If you have a Google account the link should prompt you to create a copy of the spreadsheet that you can play around with. Try changing some of the numbers and see how it works.

Basically, I’m thinking in terms of:

  • A base rate, which is the minimum I charge for even the smallest gig.
  • Additional fees if I’m expected to double on multiple instruments. (I’ve written previously about my rationale for that.)
  • Additional fees to cover my travel time and expenses.

This gives me a way to think through what I am charging in a consistent way, and a nice clear breakdown if someone asks why I’m charging what I’m charging, or wants some kind of itemized invoice. If I feel put on the spot, or I just want a little more time to think it through, I have had good success getting the details, then telling the caller I’ll get back to them within a certain time frame. (Maybe five minutes, or an hour, or the next day.)

Depending on the type of gig, what works for you, and what’s common in your area, you might need to adapt my system to include things like preparation/practice time, bringing and setting up PA or other equipment, downtime between sound check and downbeat, and expenses for things like special wardrobe. And of course you should adjust the base rate and other options to suit your financial needs, your clout in the local gig scene, and what’s common/appropriate in your location.

You should also think through what to do when the gig offer doesn’t meet your pay requirements. Turning down low-paying gigs contributes to an attitude that musicians should be treated as professionals and compensated fairly. But often weekend warriors or younger musicians trying to break into the local gig scene are willing to be a little more flexible. (The rights and wrongs of that are a larger topic than I will address here. Do what is best for you and your career.)

Think carefully about what your time and skills are worth, and expect to be paid in a way that is fair to both you and your employers.

Does woodwind doubling prevent you from being the “best?”

My recent post about woodwind doubling has been cited lately on various social media sites to fuel discussions over whether doubling is a good or acceptable pursuit.

Many of those arguing that woodwind doubling is a bad idea raise the issue that the “best” players of such-and-such instrument don’t double, and you can’t be the “best” at such-and-such instrument if you are doubling. If you think that, I could name a dozen prominent doublers who might change your mind, but that’s not really the important point.

As an undergraduate saxophone major, I daydreamed occasionally about being the “best” saxophonist. For me it probably wouldn’t have been a realistic goal, and the pursuit of it wouldn’t have led me to happiness, nor to success as I would have seen it through that lens.

When I made the decision to commit myself to woodwind doubling as a career path instead, I knew that would mean my progress on the saxophone would slow down. But it has been a very worthwhile choice for me: I get to play interesting music in a variety of settings, I get to spend all day at my university teaching job talking about the music and instruments that fascinate me, and I even have an audience of like-minded folks who stop by to read my blog posts. Now it’s hard for me to imagine myself being content to play just saxophone music all day.

Most of us won’t land a top orchestral job or tour the world as a concert soloist. And, believe it or not, not all of us want that anyway. We should be encouraging aspiring musicians to seek out niches that they enjoy and are motivated by.

Very, very few of us will ever be the “best,” so if that is your goal then I wish you luck. But for many of us, myself included, that’s not the goal at all. Mine is to have a successful and enjoyable career doing what I love, and so far, so good.

What should be on your musician website

It’s cheap and easy to create a website. Any serious freelance musician (or aspiring musician) should have one.

This should be a website about you, an individual musician. It should be separate from your ensemble’s website or your academic institution’s website. It should exist long-term, and serve as a sort of permanent address for finding you online. If you do most of your online stuff on social media sites or on your organizations’ sites, that’s fine. Your individual website doesn’t have to replace or duplicate any of that. It can simply point people to those resources.

I won’t go into any technical details here, because there is very extensive information available online about the ways to make websites. Suffice it to say that if you have only enough technical skill to send and receive email and post things on Facebook, there are website services simple enough for you to operate. Or if you want to roll up your sleeves and code every line from scratch, you can learn how to do that too.

Here’s what you need, content-wise:

Mandatory items

  • A domain name. Preferably this is something very simple and clear, like your name. Mine is bretpimentel.com. It works well because there aren’t a lot of Bret Pimentels, so web searches for my name usually put my site right at the top of the results.
    • If you have a more common name, you might need to add something meaningful to it. bretpimentelwoodwinds.com might work well, or bretpimentelmusic.com.
    • Pay for a real domain name. It’s not expensive. Something like bretpimentel.freewebsites.com looks unprofessional.
  • At minimum, a simple indication of what it is you do and how to contact you. That’s enough to be your whole website if you like. Here’s an example: “Bret Pimentel is a performer and teacher on the woodwind instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone. Reach him at bret@bretpimentel.com.”
  • Some longevity. Go ahead and prepay the domain name and whatever hosting services you need for a good long time, maybe five or ten years, or set it up to renew automatically.

Optional items

  • A more detailed biography.
  • A nice picture of you, especially one that helps reinforce what you do (like one where you’re holding your instrument).
  • Links to your social media profiles, YouTube channel, or other online things you want people to find.
  • Links to the websites of things associated with your career, like your performing ensembles or the institutions where you teach.

Optional items with caveats

Most of these things have to do with updating the content of your site on some kind of regular basis. That’s worth doing if your intention is to bring people back to visit your site again in the future. If you prefer to use your site as just sort of a digital business card, with no updating content, that’s fine too, and is much less effort to maintain.

  • A calendar of your upcoming performances. Only do this if you are thoroughly dedicated to keeping it up to date. An expired calendar makes your website look abandoned.
  • Recordings (audio and/or video) of some of your performances.
    • If you are hoping your website will help you get hired for things, only include recordings that you think appropriately and honestly reflect your current abilities.
    • Only post material you are certain you have the rights to post. For most individual-musician websites, chances are slim that anyone will take legal action against you for posting copyrighted material, but it’s still decent and polite to respect others’ intellectual property. (Acknowledging your non-ownership doesn’t make it okay to post something that isn’t yours. The copyright owner has to specifically give you permission or license the material to you in some way.)
  • A blog and/or some articles or other resources.
    • Again, this should be your own intellectual property or something you have explicit permission to post.
    • If you start a blog, start with a post that is about something, not a post about how you intend to start blogging soon, or asking people for ideas what to blog about. Lots of blogs start that way, with a single post promising big things to come, and then nothing more ever.
    • You don’t have to blog on any particular schedule if you don’t want to, just post when you have something to say.

Don’t include these

  • Lists of who you have played with, unless they are significant and career-defining.
    • As a graduate student I got to play at a university event honoring Dave Brubeck, including playing in an ensemble “with” him. For years my professional biography indicated that I had played with Dave Brubeck, even though after the one gig was over he almost certainly wouldn’t have remembered me, much less considered me some kind of collaborator. Listing him on my website was a pretty transparent inflation of the truth. (If he had hired me to join his quartet and go on the road for a few years, that would definitely be worth mentioning on my site.)
    • There have also been many less-famous names I have performed with, and why list those?
  • Lists of the equipment you use. One possible exception is if you have official endorsement deals that contractually require you to include this information. Otherwise, what is the list for? To prove how much money you have spent? To encourage others to blindly buy the same products as you?
  • “Links” lists, except in the rare case that your curation brings something valuable to the table. Lists of sites that you think are interesting or somehow related to your site are an artifact of earlier days of the web. Now if people want to find sites related to a topic, they just do a web search or follow related entities on social media.
  • Gratuitous photo albums, unless there’s a good reason to post them. Being attractive and/or vain isn’t a good reason, if you are hoping people will focus on what you have to offer musically. And you do need permission from the copyright holder.

A simple website is part of the modern musician’s professional face—you need one the same way you need a phone number, an email address, and black clothes for the gig. You can start for a few dollars and finish in less than an hour, or spend years building it into a powerful communication outlet. Get started today!

Clarifying woodwind doubling goals

A couple of months ago, I wrote this as part of a sort of tongue-in-cheek FAQ:

Q. Should I be a woodwind doubler?
A. In most cases, no. If you already feel driven to do it, and have the time and resources to devote to it, then maybe.

I got a comment on this by “C Lee”:

I’m a teen who started playing pits last year on flute and piccolo a year ago. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with pit, have played in four more musicals and am actively seeking out other gigs to gain experience. In addition, I’ve also taken up the saxophone and have plans to learn as many woodwinds as I can if not all of them. Do you think I should be a woodwind doubler?

It would be irresponsible to make a recommendation based on so little information, and of course it’s ultimately a very personal choice. I’ve previously suggested some questions worth asking oneself before pursuing woodwind doubling, so I won’t rehash those here.

But I think it’s also worth considering exactly what you mean by being a “woodwind doubler:”

  • Playing as many instruments as possible?
  • Playing a select group of instruments?
  • Playing multiple instruments as a hobby or part-time semi-pro gig?
  • Studying multiple instruments at a university/conservatory level?
  • Playing professionally or semi-professionally as a specialist on one instrument, but adding doubles to increase employability?
  • Competing for the highest-profile doubling gigs in a major market like New York City or Los Angeles?
  • Performing recital repertoire, orchestral music, and/or chamber music on multiple instruments?
  • Using multiple instruments in the creation of a unique personal repertoire (jazz, avant-garde, electronic, etc.)?

Your individual goals might include several of these, or others I haven’t listed. And your goals might be a little fuzzy or might change, which is okay. But just “woodwind doubler” isn’t a very clear path. Having some sense of direction might help you make decisions about education and training, investment in instruments, location, practice strategies, and more.