Skip to main content

What Does a Musician DO?

I get asked all the time what I do for a living.  I'm a musician, I say, proudly.
Oh.  But what do you DO?

I was asked to speak on this topic for the South Bend Symphony's Board of Directors this past week, and thought I'd reprint my presentation for those curious about the life of a modern-day musician.

It's a fair question.  People see me playing in the South Bend Symphony, and that's clearly not a full time job, because there's not a concert every day or even every week, so what am I doing the rest of the time?

I have what is called a portfolio career, which is very normal for a 21st Century musician.  I am a full time professional musician, which involves being a performer, a teacher, an arranger, a maker, a marketer, a businessman, a salesman, a treasurer, a self-promoter, a social media manager, and more.

I graduated from Eastman in 1996, and since that time I have never held a full-time job, and I have never gotten benefits from my job.  But at this point, 20 years later, I am proud to be making a solid middle class living.  My husband is also a musician, and we have a nice house and two paid-off cars.  I am the principal oboist of two orchestras.  Adjunct faculty at three universities and a private teacher as well.  I am an active freelancer in Chicago.  I give recitals every single spring, and I tour them as far afield as I can.  I was just in Kansas City giving a seminar and masterclass for the students at UMKC.  I also have a reed business, in which I make and sell customized reeds as well as cane, tools, and supplies to students and professionals all over the country.  I teach reed classes - twice a month during the school year and a 12 hour boot camp offering in the summer.  I have a blog - Prone Oboe.  I have a CD coming out THIS MONTH, of oboe transcriptions that I made myself, which I also sell on my website.

My career and income break down across three major categories: performing, teaching, and reed-making.

Performance: This week I am playing with Music of the Baroque, in Chicago.  Last week I performed a Legend of Zelda concert, with a click track and video.  The week before that I was presenting a Bach Cantata at Valparaiso University, the week before that was a Mahler Symphony with the Northwest Indiana Symphony, and for two weeks before that I was playing Romeo and Juliet with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.  This is all since our [SBSO] Masterworks One concert.  I had different venues, different colleagues, different commutes, different conductors, and different repertoire for each - and that kind of variety means I really never get bored playing the oboe! It does of course require a lot of driving, and a lot of practice to maintain my skills.  If I had all the time in the world, I would practice 2 to 3 hours a day, but 1 is about the minimum I can get away with and most days the best I can get.

Teaching:  Every Monday I go to Valparaiso University and teach nine lessons in a row.  I've arranged that schedule so I have an hour to practice in the morning first, because by the end of nine lessons I don't have any more mental energy to give to the oboe.   On Tuesday I teach two lessons up at Andrews University then four more at home in the evening.  On Wednesday I have three more at home, and one at St Marys College on Thursday.  Of course, as my performance schedule changes week to week I have to reschedule students - in fact I'll be scampering out of here to meet one at home tonight.  These lessons are one on one, and because everyone is different they all require different energy from me.  One after the other I have to meet the student where she is, figure out what she needs that can be imparted in 45 minutes, and try to move the needle of progress forward just a bit while empowering her to work at home successfully for the next week.

Reeds: As a professional oboist I perform on reeds I make for myself.  This is normal.  But I also have a business, selling customized hand-made reeds to students, teachers, and busy professionals all over the country.  I've expanded this business in recent years to include processed cane, reed cases, and some oboe reed tools and supplies. I basically do this work for a couple of hours every night after I put my daughter to bed, unless I have a rehearsal or concert in which case I jam it into the cracks of the day.  I'm mailing 150-200 finished reeds every month as well as maintaining my website, responding to questions and concerns from customers, and of course promoting the business with Google and Facebook ads and a monthly email newsletter.  I've recently added a sub-contractor to help me with some of the early stage reed work, but on the whole I am running the whole thing myself.

Although all of the things I do can be exhausting sometimes, the advantage is really that I'm too small to fail.  Any one student could quit, any one orchestra could fold, any one customer could leave - and I'd still be just fine.  Some months are leaner than others, but the money always comes from somewhere.

What do I DO all day, though?  Yesterday I got into my studio at 9 and I practiced for an hour, working on the music for my Bach gig this week and some of the material for my spring recital.  I finished, packaged, and mailed 6 shipments of reeds for customers in 6 different states.  I took a photo of the reeds and posted it on my FB fan page to hopefully bring more customers to my reed business.  I worked a bit on this presentation, which I'll edit down and publish on my blog when we're done here.  I sent emails to confirm my student schedules, to arrange for my reed-business-helper to meet and bring me blanks, and to try to understand my ACA open enrollment options.  I processed cane for my business and made reeds for an hour.  I had rehearsal at night in Chicago, which was only two hours of work but of course required 6 hours of my life to accomplish between commuting, parking, and arriving early enough to have a comfortable cushion of time.  I also spent an hour or so on the new update of my website and web store which will be rolling out soon.

My calendar may look empty - I rarely have to leave my house during the day  - but in fact like most self-employed people and entrepreneurs I am always working.  The rest of the musicians in the South Bend Symphony are busy as well. They are performers, teachers, composers, arrangers, conductors, contractors, recording engineers, accompanists, arts administrators, etc.  It takes a lot of effort, work, driving, and drive to make a living as a musician, but there is absolutely a living to be made.  Mine plays to my strengths - performing, educating, communication - but there's a niche for everyone!

Does anyone have any questions?

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Self-Talk

When we started the opera cycle (An American Dream, showing at the Harris Theater tonight and Sunday afternoon), the four woodwinds were sitting stacked in a rehearsal room.  In other words, the flute to my right, the bassoon behind me, the clarinet behind the flute, just like in the orchestra.  And it was OK.  We were fairly close together, the room was resonant, and we were working on orchestral details.  But when we moved into the pit, this seating felt VERY isolating.  The four of us were far apart, on two different levels, the wall was right next to me, and intonation and ensemble were very much more difficult.  Our entrances and releases were not clean together, and because we had to balance to the singers on stage, I found my playing getting more and more tentative.  Don't be too loud, don't come in early before the clarinet, keep everything in the box, try to lead the entrances but stay in the texture... And it felt like everything that was not quite great was my fault…

Generosity in Programming

I had the most interesting conversations with a few of my students after my first recital performance last weekend.  One thanked me for exposing her to so many interesting new pieces that she had never heard before.  One admitted unabashedly that his favorites were the familiar ones, the ones he already knew from his previous listening.  And both of these observations rang true to me.

See, I LOVE learning new music.  I really enjoy digging into a piece and breaking through an unfamiliar harmonic language to get to the depths of it.  To discover the composer's intention, and to find the universal emotion or experience at the heart of the work, and then to communicate that meaning back out to an audience.  This challenge is fun for me, and I think I do it well.

I have to be fair, though.  By the time I have put that kind of work into a new piece, it's not new to me anymore.  By the time I get it to the recital stage, it's an old friend.  I find great pleasure in performing i…

Discouraging Words

I can remember at least two old cranky violinists coming to talk to young me about NOT going into music.  There was a session, for example, during a Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra retreat in which a real RPO professional (who was probably 47 but whom I remember as ancient) told us that, statistically, no one who graduates from music school wins auditions for jobs because there are only like 4 jobs out there in the world and 7000 hotshots coming into the job market every week. 

Quit NOW. 

I may have misremembered the details of this speech, but I remember the emotional jolt.  It was designed to discourage.

Last weekend I was presenting at a Double Reed Festival, and heard some oboists grumbling about another presenter who had evidently given something of the same talk to a roomful of masterclass attendees and participants.  High school students and cheerful adult amateurs.

And look, there's an element of truth to this.  Classical music is not a growing field, and it is leg…