It’s been four years since I switched from a full-time university staff pianist gig to living as a freelance musician. I thought I’d share my experiences so pianists can get a feel for the depth, breadth and weirdness of the life. As a musician, there’s always a point where you have to define success for yourself - and this lifestyle demands that you have your priorities firmly set. Because noone’s ever said, “Actually, I got into music because I love driving”.
Since moving to the DC area, I sought out every opportunity to collaborate that I could think of. I’ve worked with a broad spectrum of talents - from the dedicated professional to the amateur, as well as the non-musician. I’ve played in churches, high schools, theatres, community theatres, universities, the Netherlands Embassy, the Kennedy Center, an elementary school and the lobby of a business building.
In these venues, in addition to using the training of my classical piano background, I was often required to function in completely different roles than I was used to, pianistically and personality-wise. To give you an idea what the life is like, I’ll go through and mention what the jobs were, and what additional skills I was required to learn.
Job #1: The Church Gig
This was a very reliable gig, with familiar music since I grew up in the church, but it still had its challenges. Improvising on traditional hymns came to me pretty easily, but the contemporary christian music rankled my classically trained soul at the beginning. I often took the charts provided and wrote out everything via Finale (by the way, another important skill I picked up and developed as a freelancer). Only through constant performing of the pop/rock/etc pieces was I capable of really cementing an understanding and comfort with the style.
This job also taught me about using music to create flow in a service - to enhance one moment, draw it to an end and to usher in another. ‘Mood music,’ or ‘moving music’ was music to calm, music to focus, music to keep people from craning their head around and wonder why nothing is happening. Providing perfectly timed underscoring as pastors walk or offertory is collected is no small feat (especially when you have to look directly behind you as you are playing). Nor is it easy to loop a song around, say, 3 times, all the while mentally yanking people towards the front when they are late. But I did it - and helped make everything run smoothly.
I also learned about problem solving with a smile - because many situations were just “the way things are”. If nothing was going to change, I found the best thing to do was make things work, no matter what. So if I was accompanying from wretched locations - say the soloist is completely across the room, or visibility of the conductor was nil - or there are live performance snafus or coworker miscommunications, the healthiest thing to do was to do my best, shrug and move on.
My favorite thing about this job: I loved the feel of leading a congregation of 500+ voices singing hymns. Some downsides: finding a church sub sucks - experienced church players already have church gigs, so those who can make it often aren’t quite used to the gig. And forget finding a pianist who can both sightread difficult music and handle reading pop charts (lots of fun to be found with sightreading pop’s bizarre vocal rhythms, as well).
Another difficulty is the actual act of taking time off [AKA replacing oneself with a sub] to be at another gig. Juggling multiple gigs can get problematic when say, the music director feels you are getting a substitute for too many rehearsals within a certain time period. When you are getting part time salary and you get the flu and you need to accommodate another gig - it can suck.
Location: 15 minutes down the road. Stability level: VERY
Job #2 The Community Music School Gig
Here I was a catch-all type pianist: voice juries, performances, honors student recordings, fund-raisers, faculty auditions, etc. Another thing I did was work in their music library, briefly. I was also their musical theater program music director, which I’ll go over separately.
Juries and performance accompanying are pretty much the same everywhere, the main difference at this place was the range of ages and talent levels. There were freakishly talented 11 year olds and 60 year olds taking lessons for the first time. There was always a quick turn-around in performing - typically I’d get a brief rehearsal with anyone before a performance: about 30 minutes for instrumentalists, and 15 minutes for vocal juries. I found that trying to establish tempi with an 8 year old shy violinist can be difficult. Honestly, tempi were always hard to ascertain so I just kept my eyes open and hoped for the best.
In the recording sessions I learned that any great take for me would be the absolute worst for the student. And vice versa.
In the Levine music library, I processed the weekly check-outs/check-ins of music scores and books. They had a pretty decent collection, but my true fascination lay in the attic-like rooms off to the side, which housed hordes of sheet music donations. Like a musical Indiana Jones, I pawed through the dark, dusty catacombs, gleefully going through dilapidated cardboard boxes of music to extract and file usable tomes. Definitely a great playground for a music geek.
Locations: The rather large downside to these gigs was just getting to whichever of the five locations I was heading - driving through DC, on the I66 or the 495 Beltway up to Maryland made for hellish commutes that could range from 35 minutes to 2 hours (all depending on the time of day, traffic and random acts of god).
Stability Level: Steady, some busy seasons
Job #3 - Levine Musical Theatre and Music Directing Gig
In this position I played for show auditions, accompanied and led rehearsals, taught parts, helped decide instrumentation for the shows, acted as a liaison for band instrumentalists and was the keyboardist/conductor for the pit bands.
Most of this job was everything I was never taught in school. As a music director, I mainly learned by doing, although I additionally found it incredibly helpful to go to a couple of ‘Music Direction Workshops’. I somehow managed it all, magically, by building upon theatre experiences and theatre contacts I’d made since moving to DC.
This job involved playing for a lot of auditions - which is always a crash course in humility, unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire. I learned a huge amount of MT repertoire doing this - not just the classics (MT written before 1960, which is what most classical pianists run into).
Music directing includes a lot of decision-making, and all the calls are based on what voices, age ranges, and abilities are staring you down in the rehearsal. When I was first starting out, doubts would lurk in the back of my mind (that voice that questions, "Am I doing this right?" or "Was that the best call I could have made?"). I also used to worry about vocal warm-ups, which one was ‘right’ or ‘best’. Eventually I felt much more comfortable with dividing up and assigning parts, warming the group up, etc.
Leading rehearsals involved planning out what music to teach, and how best to fill the time of the people who you are scheduled to work with. This was a challenge for me, mainly because I was working with children who often would not show up on time - or at all - for their scheduled rehearsal. So quite often I would have to instantly replan the rehearsal based on who showed up for the day. Another issue in teaching theatre to children is figuring out how to continuously reinforce what you are teaching so that not only do they learn it correctly, but they retain it and perform the music correctly with choreography. There’s nothing worse than, after painstakingly choosing which harmonies to teach, and to whom, watching them proceed to sing an entire song in unison while they execute their blocking and/or choreography.
When it finally came to production time, I found that leading a band can be the biggest blast, ever. It’s also incredibly strange realizing the entire pit is essentially following your head. As a collaborative pianist, I always loved being able to ‘fix things’ on the fly - accommodating anything a performer does, and just going with it. It’s much harder with a band, though. Due to my young cast, I had several occasions where I would realize the singer had jumped to another part of the song - and had to go with them, shouting out the measure # they were at and hoping the band would follow.
Picking out orchestrations and band members is another thing they don't teach you in school. Much can depend on budgeting, and also what instrumentalists are available. I learned to start recruiting early for the best results (!) Because I had done a lot of community theatre playing, I had access to musicians who were comfortable in a theatre pit. And they had plenty of people to recommend - the theatre musician world is a small world.
Learning to program Mainstage and Korg or Kurtzweil keyboards was mostly a self-taught endeavor - time consuming, painstaking and full of swearing. Good times.
Probably the most important thing I learned was: if a theatre director asks you “Can you do ____?”, your reaction should always be, “Yes, I’ll make it happen.”
Location: 30 min-2 hour driving time
Stability Level: Steady, all-consuming during production weeks
Part II coming up as soon as I finish writing it.