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?

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