To perform or not to perform - for free, that is. Opinions vary*.
My two cents on the subject: Sometimes.
If you don't have financial security, the question's a no-brainer (you gotta eat). But if you can afford to play for little or no wages, the next question is: what's the end goal? I've addressed the topic from a few angles . . . 'cause it depends.
Opportunities to extend one's education isn't always paid - especially when performers are inexperienced. Volunteering is one way that beginning collaborative pianists can acquire the marketable essentials: repertoire, skills and experience.
Repertoire: What does your repertoire list look like? (Do you have a repertoire list . . .) Standard rep played by oneself is good, standard rep performed is better. Offering a freebie to a cash-poor-but-excellent musician can give you an excuse to learn (insert song cycle/instrumental literature here) and perform it as well. If its for a recital and you get a recording out of it, even better.
Skills: Chops are not enough. Do you know how to:
- Be useful in a choral rehearsal - follow a conductor, help rehearsals go smoothly by anticipating a conductor's needs, read open-part scores and listen to the choir for sections that need 'help'?
- Function as an orchestra member by playing orchestral keyboards/celeste - this is very different from most pianist experiences
- Play an opera or music theatre audition without terror/train wrecks? There is standard rep in both of these genres you have to know on sight, as well as adjust to each singer's interpretation of it (offering to turn pages is a good introduction)
- Read a musical theatre conductor's score and know what to leave out? Most universities do shows of some sort, get started by 'sitting in' or volunteer to substitute for rehearsals
Experience: An experienced pianist is much more appealing than a pianist with chops who does not know the ins- and outs- of playing for (fill-in-the-blank). This is why it can make a lot of sense for a student to volunteer to play on the cheap in order to say, "Why yes, I've played Dichterleibe/weddings/church service/choral rehearsals before" - and even better, be able to back it up with references. Another angle: If you are a starving student, consider quid pro quo. Barter your piano skills for voice/Finale/tapas cooking lessons.
Professional musicians may want to increase their knowledge/skills base and marketability. Say they want to try their hand at:
- Accompanying dance classes
- Church and temple work
- Providing wedding and funeral music
- Providing 'background music'
- Transitioning into musical theatre pit work/music directing (MDing) from a classical background
You may be lucky enough to find a paid training opportunity that gives you an 'in' to learning about a new workplace. But if not, you can create your own training by 'sitting in', watching, offering to substitute or any number of things that will get your foot in the door. Most of these situations do not follow a direct career path, people kind of 'do what they know'. And they've learned by doing.
After moving to a new area, many musicians trip over the scary reality: people use who they know. Volunteering is a way to gain visibility in circles that generally go by word of mouth when looking for pianists (higher education environments, private studio teachers, musical theatre circles). Consider:
- Community theatre pits usually offer a small stipend - and are also comprised of private studio, elementary and high school music teachers. That an excellent source of referrals for solo and ensemble, audition recordings and recitals etc.
- Volunteer to play for a lesson or two of private voice students. Their teacher may have students who need pianists
- Meet other musicians and possibly form a duo/trio/etc, offer services at social functions
My own experience: playing at a university for free/low wages has gotten me hired at two universities since moving to this area. People use who they know.
Sometimes, you do things because you can. Once I played for a solo mandolin recital for a very modest fee - why? because when else will I ever be asked to play a mandolin recital? For you, maybe its a singer with a gorgeous instrument but no cash, a fringe music festival or a jazz opportunity. Pursue music-making experiences that intrigue you on some level - it helps you remember why you chose music in the first place.
Doing things for low cash, food or effusive thanks and a meaningful handshake does not pay the rent. And yet, education and experience, exposure and enjoyment are all important. Which means, evaluate each situation: will this interfere with actual paying gigs, will this benefit me in some way and/or be fun? Your call.
* Musician bloggers Dave Hahn (article 1 and article 2), Jonathan Jaeger, Geraldine Boyer-Cussac and Stephen Taylor have all commented on the subject.
** In these circumstances, be clear what you are doing and why (you don't want to set a precedence of permanent nonpayment). Just have a plan. For example, Jaeger's blog suggested aspiring background music providers "offer to play at a discount at the beginning until you establish a relationship with the venue", or "offer to play five gigs a month with the last one being free".