I’m a commercial musician and I also teach lessons.
How would you describe what you do?
I play saxophone, flute, and clarinet. I also teach. I give private lessons because it’s pretty standard for any musician out there to end up teaching something. I work at a high school right now and I have gigs, when they call. It’s not a real consistent thing; it’s more that you just go and play whenever you’re called. I teach out of the academy at Winthrop University and I teach at Northwestern high school.
What does your work entail?
It entails being able to work with people, lots of communication skills – and also it entails being flexible. Pretty much, you’re selling yourself when you’re a musician. We go out and we give people what they want. So, lots of flexibility, communication skills with people and obviously a lot of time devoted to practice. The majority of my work takes place in a practice room and it’s pretty much practicing my technique and making sure that any gig that I have a call on I’ll be a good reader and also have the ability to improvise, produce a good tone, and provide pretty much any musical need that anybody would have for me.
I have played gigs ranging from a wedding gig at a church playing in front of a back-end track, playing, for example, Elton’s’ theme to the Lion King. I have played for people who didn’t even speak English, and they would nod to me and I could figure out the key signature and everything, pretty much just improvise whenever they nodded to me and stop whenever they nodded to me again. It was pretty crazy. So the job just really entails playing music, improvising, practicing, and doing my best to be good at what I do.
What’s a typical workweek like?
It really depends. It’s not an extremely consistent job. I think the busiest I’ve been is if I’m playing a musical at a high school or something like that, generally that work week can be six nights a week. I’ll have school in the morning and then at night go to rehearsal and then you have another full week of shows the next week. So, you have six nights of rehearsal, six nights of shows. That’s only been for one performance.
my goal is to show people music is important, and that without music we would lack so much in our culture and I want people to understand that. Without music life would be very different.
Also church gigs are probably the most common thing I get and those usually have, if it’s a big church they have Saturday services and Sunday services so I’ll go to the rehearsal at two o’clock on Saturday. Then they’ll have two services that night, one usually at four o’clock and one at seven o’clock. Then I get up early the next day and since we did sound check the day before we just have four services in a row. It really does vary depending on the gig, because I don’t have a consistent gig right now; it’s hard to say exactly the hours that I work.
How did you get started?
I got started when I was in high school and my high school director got me really involved in things. He would advertise our jazz combo in our high school and then we’d go on his gig. The very first big thing I had was a recording session with these guys in Charlotte. I went up and I recorded with them for three hours and played on two of their songs on their CDs and then I got called for various other recordings after that. It’s a full time job – but you have to keep in mind I’m also in college, so I’m taking currently 24 hours of class. I’m in five bands at five bands at Winthrop University. And then I pretty much practice. I get all of my stuff done for my other classes and then with what time I have left, I practice. I don’t get a lot of sleep.
What do you like about what you do?
I like the amount of expression that I have, it’s not the highest paying job but I at least get to do what I want. I mean, every musician is unique in his or her own way. No two players play exactly alike even though they may play similarly; it’s kind of a defining factor in your musicianship. So, if someone hears you and then likes the way you sound, you feel you have something of value because they’ve heard you and that’s what they want to hear on their album. So, I would say if there’s anything I like about it’s the amount of expression I can put into my playing and the fact that it’s such a unique job.
What do you dislike?
I dislike finding gigs. It’s very hard. I mean, you know, you make business cards and you hand them to people and you kind of hope they call you. And then when they end up calling you, they’ll offer you a really low price. I feel like oftentimes musicians are under appreciated and people forget that while we’re not spending our time in an office working, we are spending it in a practice room. It’s really the same difference as any other job.
The number of hours that you practice is what makes you what you are. So, it’s the same as any other profession because the amount of work you put into it determines how many gigs you get. But, people really don’t see it that way sometimes, and a lot of times they under quote you and sometimes you have no other choice because there’s no other gig.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Most of the gigs are compensated with food and then we might get paid gas money if it’s a free gig. If it’s at our university usually I play free gigs and I’m compensated with people just broadcasting my name. Those kinds of gigs are just as valuable in many cases. Then obviously we get the occasional paid gig as well.
How much money do you make?
I would say I average probably, $5,000 a year, which is like a fair number. And on teaching lessons it’s probably more like $5,500 a year. Give or take a little on both.
How much money do you make starting out?
Well you don’t make anything starting out. If you can get before the public and play for people and be heard a lot of times it leads to other gigs. So a lot of times a free gig will lead to many other paying gigs. For teaching lessons I’m compensated right there on the spot and then also I get the teaching experience if you wanted to consider that compensation.
What education or skills are needed to do this?
For me it kind of started with my high school education and then into college. The private lessons that I have taken have been helpful as well. But I’ve met others who have not had either and they’re doing fine. Improvisation is also very important. Being able to make up music or create music on the spot is important, because a lot of gigs and music nowadays are based around improvisation.
Knowing your keys, knowing your skills, understanding what sounds good and what you can play in front of certain audiences are all very important too. I would say improvisation I would say is very, very important for any commercial musician though.
What is most challenging about what you do?
The most challenging is keeping up with the other musicians and sustaining a reputation for yourself. The other challenge is not getting paid very much.
What is most rewarding?
Most rewarding is when you meet somebody, they like how you’re playing, and they hire you. If the gig goes well and they want to hire you back, you just made a friend in the business who will help you out. So, it’s obviously a networking thing; a good network in the musical community is very rewarding.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
If there were a recommendation for any musician out there I would say to marry somebody who makes a lot of money:).
Be extremely flexible and be prepared to give up certain things. You will have to have the mentality to realize that you’re self-employed, so when you’re not practicing there are a 100,000 people that are out there practicing the exact same thing you should be practicing. So you have to give up a lot of your social life in order to be the best, which is your objective if you want to make money.
So, I would say be prepared to give up things. Obviously don’t smoke, and don’t do anything that’s going to be damaging to your body because anything that hurts you is hurting your playing.
How much time off do you get/take?
Well right now a lot. I haven’t had any gigs in a while so; I would say you get time off when you’re not playing gigs, if you consider that time off.
Are there any perks associated with this job?
Yes, meeting people, people that you would normally have not met if you had not been a musician. I’ve met a few famous musicians, such as Wynton Marsalis. He actually did one of the first iTunes commercials. He was playing trumpet and he had his iPod, his ear buds in, you know that whole thing. I’ve met a few of the brothers in the Marsalis family. I’ve also met various other artists who I’ve had the opportunity to meet as a result of playing music.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
A lot of people say that a musician is a waste of job; it’s for somebody that couldn’t find anything better to do with their life. That’s not true, some of the smartest minds are musicians. I’m a music major at Winthrop and I’m a commercial musician on the side and with teaching. I can’t see myself really doing anything else except for playing music and I feel it’s my calling; that’s not a reason for anybody to say I could not find anything else to do with my life.
Also, saying that musicians don’t work hard is a very common misconception because like I said the number of hours that one person makes in one day doing their job is the same number of hours that we spend in the practice room doing our job.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
My personal goal will always be advancing music. If I don’t make any money doing what I do, at least people will know it was important to me. It’s not all necessarily about money, but my goal is to show people music is important, and that without music we would lack so much in our culture and I want people to understand that. Without music life would be very different.
Ultimately I would like to be a college professor. I kind have modeled my career plan after my teacher, Mr. Thompson, here at Winthrop and he’s the person I would love to become eventually. He teaches saxophone and he teaches Jazz band here at Winthrop and he also commissions the players to play up in Charlotte. He just seems to love his life and have a great time.
The way he did it, he went straight from college to being a college professor here. He went through to get his master’s degree, and then he got a college teaching job. Realistically, that doesn’t happen nowadays, you have to have some kind of public school teaching experience if you want to get hired for a college gig. I would love to teach middle school or elementary school because those are the two jobs that allow the most time that I can play outside of my job. I can play my instrument and perform.
What else would you like people to know about what you do?
I would definitely say from a teachers standpoint is to have respect for teachers in public schools and understand they are helping you create the workers in the future on every job. From a musical standpoint I would say, have respect for the musician and understand that they do a lot of work and what they do is in many cases, just as important as what a doctor does for people, but from an emotional standpoint. It is a release for many people. It’s much more than just playing music.