Starting a Career as a Percussionist: 14 Questions

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The questions below about starting a career in music performance were submitted to me by Peter Ferry, a third-year applied percussion major at the Eastman School of Music.  They are all good questions which are frequently asked by career-track music students.  The responses are never easy or simple, and can be complex enough to fill volumes.   There are no “one-size-fits-all” answers to any of these questions because individual situations are so varied.  However, it can be very useful to gather multiple opinions from people you know and trust, so that various options can be considered before making career decisions.

That being said, there are some general points to be made that apply in most circumstances. At the top of the list, a performer needs to have acquired the necessary performance skills, and that is the main focus at most music schools.  However, performing is only one aspect what is needed to build a career.  It’s helpful to have a good understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and then to make choices that emphasize strengths.  It’s also helpful to have an understanding of what resources are available for support – colleagues, teachers, family, institutions, etc.  And, it’s even better to have acquired basic skills in:

– managing money (budgeting, financial planning)

– gathering and organizing information (marketing and project planning)

– writing and speaking (advocacy and public relations)

– working with others to accomplish goals (management)

With these thoughts in mind, I will do my best to convey my thinking on the issues raised in these questions.

1) Where is a good city to live in?  – near a teacher? – where I have contacts? – where there is a public demand?   The word is that NYC is over saturated.

BC: Ask yourself, “if you could trade places with anyone who is currently doing what you’d like to do, who would that be?”  Your response will likely indicate what place is most likely to provide opportunities for you in pursuing your goals.  I would then suggest that as soon as possible you make contact with the person you named, and make arrangements to meet that person.  This might mean making periodic (monthly, quarterly, annual) visits to that person to take a lesson or to hear a performance, and it might mean eventually moving to the city where the named person lives, but in any case it means inserting yourself into that person’s network.

For example, if you want to play in an orchestra, it would make sense to arrange to be in (or at least to regularly visit) a city that has an orchestra – preferably a major orchestra, and then to get to know someone who plays in that orchestra.  When you meet that person – at a lesson or after a performance – you can also inquire about local opportunities for performance.

If you are interested in Broadway, the places to be are obvious – New York City or London, and possibly Toronto or any large city with regular productions.  If it’s Jazz, try Austin or Kansas City or Los Angeles – again, go to where the action is.

Secondly, there is the matter of finances.  You will need to research how much it will cost to live and how those expenses will be paid.  Instead of living in New York City, it might make financial sense to travel to New York once a month while living in another town with a lower cost of living.  Or, if you already have friends or family (your network) living in New York, you might be able to share costs – rent, food, driving, etc. – thereby reducing the individual costs for everyone involved.  You will need to have an income source.  Since it is likely that performance income will not be enough to pay the bills for some time (expect it to take up to five-years) other income sources will be needed.  The best approach would be to utilize knowledge and skills you already have; teach private lessons, do instrument repair for schools, work for a music company or service.  Keep in mind that it will be necessary to find a balance between income-producing jobs, maintaining your performance skills, and taking care of the business tasks that are required to  build a performance career (see question #3 below).

 

2) Which teachers should I be thinking about?  

BC:  I do not usually recommend graduate school for anyone interested mainly in performing.  Generally, I would advise that upon graduation from a major conservatory, you have already acquired the performing skills necessary to build a career.  If you are mainly interested in performing (as opposed to teaching, for which post-grad credentials are required), stop thinking about teachers and start thinking about networks.  Networks and contacts for jobs can take time to build.  Expect it to take up to five-years to develop a network that can generate regular performance opportunities and income.  Ask yourself – whom do you know who is doing what you’d like to do?  Those are the people whose networks can be most helpful in the short term.

3) How do I find performances? – contact everyone I know? – Use videos of my playing?

BC: You are a small business!  You have a product (your performance) which you want to sell to buyers (your audience/market).  Being a great performer is only half of the equation;  in order to sell your product (ie. ’get gigs’) someone needs to:

– research markets (marketing/identifying presenters & audiences),

– inform the buyers about what you’re selling (publicity/advertising),

– determine costs and expenses (budgeting)

– enter into legal contracts with presenters (negotiating)

– make arrangements for travel (transporting instruments and personnel)

– receive and distribute income (accounting)

– maintain proper files (book keeping, tax records, etc.)

– work with others – colleagues, manager, agents, stage crew, accountant, lawyer (managing)

These essential tasks can be done by a hired manager, for which you will have to pay. (more about this in question #6 below).  Otherwise, chances are that in the short term (1 to 5-years) you will have to do some or all of these things yourself, even if you hire a manager.  In any case, the more you learn about these things, the better your chances of success, even if you are lucky enough to find a good manager at the beginning of your career.  How can you learn about these things? – by asking questions within your network,  by reading books and online articles, and from publications by professional societies.  Don’t worry about mistakes.  If and when a mistake happens  apologize (as necessary), learn from it, and move on by applying what you have learned in the future.

 

 

4) Does the hosting venue ever pay rental costs?  If not, how do I talk about payment?  

BC: Almost everything in the relationship between the performer (or the performer’s agent/manager) and the presenter is negotiable.  Normally it’s a balance of interests – how much does the presenter want the performer’s services, and how much does the performer want to provide it for the presenter.  The side that wants it more is usually the side that has to be more compromising.

Normally, the presenter covers all costs associated with the performance venue – rental, stage crew, lighting crew, ushers, cleanup, etc.  The performer normally provides master copies of publicity materials – bios, photos, program notes, etc.   Assuming that both sides are equal in wanting the performance to happen, the following items must be negotiated, with the performer compromising on some items, balanced by the presenter compromising on other items:

– what music to be performed on the program,

– what is the performance fee

– who pays the performer’s expenses – travel, hotel, meals, instrument cartage, etc.

– when and how payments are to be made

– who pays rental (or arranges in-kind provision) of instruments

– who pays performing rights payments to ASCAP/BMI

– who pays for the printed programs

– who has the right to make a recording of a performance

When both sides are in agreement on all points a legal contract can be written specifying the terms of the agreement.  Beware of presenters (and performers) who don’t want a contract.

5) When is an unpaid gig worth taking?

BC: Early in a performing career a performer may have to consider other kinds of benefits that can be derived from an unpaid performance:

– more performance experience (to get all parts of the program working as intended?)

– a prestigious venue (that could attract wider attention from the intended market?)

– attendees (important persons in the audience who could further your career?)

 

6) How do I know if manager is a fair deal when he is asking a set price and not a percentage?  

BC: The standard arrangement between a performer and a manager is that the manager is paid a monthly retainer fee (anything from $50 to $5000) plus 20% of the gross fee income.  Sometimes there is also a startup fee (upfront payment to the manager to cover the costs of new PR materials and advertising). For the performer it’s advantageous to keep the retainer as low as possible and the percentage high as an incentive for the manager to find gigs.  Normally, for performers just starting their careers a low percentage may only mean that the manager intends to derive income mainly from the retainer fee, AND there is never a guarantee that manager will generate any work for the performer.  When considering hiring a manager, it would be wise to research the manager’s history and to seek positive recommendations from performers already on the manager’s roster.

 

7) What does a first interaction with a potential manager look like?

BC: Normally, if the performer is just beginning a career and if a manager is interested, the manager will make a first offer of terms which minimize the manager’s (financial) risk.  It’s very unlikely that in such a scenario the manager would guarantee to provide any amount of work, but it’s always worth asking in order to evaluate the manager’s response.

8) What do I need in place in order to convince a manager to take me on?  and what exactly do I need to convince them?  – Concert experience?  Media (website, videos)?

BC: While a manager may very well be interested in serving the art of music, most managers will respond primarily to the potential – or demonstrated history – of the performer to generate fee income.  For a performer just starting out it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario – you can’t have a demonstrated history without performance experience and it’s difficult to get performance experience without someone doing the managing tasks.

The only sure thing likely to convince a new manager to take you on is enough money to pay a retainer for a year or two – but with the performer’s understanding that there will likely be no guarantee of ANY work in return.   My advice for anyone starting out on a percussion performing career is to become informed and manage yourself, possibly with the help of current or recent arts-business students who are also starting out on their careers.

9) How do I find students? – by emailing school teachers and all contacts?

BC: First, use your network; contact (email, snailmail or telephone) people you know who could pass the word that you are seeking students.  Specify what level of student you’re seeking (for example, all levels – beginners, grade schoolers, high schoolers, college students, professionals).

Secondly, research a list of schools – public and private – in your area and contact their music teachers by telephone (or email if telephone is not possible).  Ask them if they have students who might be interested in studying with you (an Eastman graduate with performance experience).  You might also ask if there is any possibility of you teaching their percussionists at their school one or two days a week.

Thirdly, you can post notices with your contact information on school and college bulletin boards in their music departments (with permission first from the music teachers).

Fourth, you can advertise in local newspapers and advertising flyers, usually for a small advertising charge.

10) What are examples of income that would help my career (timing, demands, salary, connections)?  

BC: As indicated above The best approach would be to utilize knowledge and skills you already have – teach private lessons, develop and present school programs (eg. Young Audiences), do instrument repair for schools, work for a music company.  It will be necessary to find a balance between income-producing jobs, keeping up your performance skills, and taking care of the business required to continue building a performance career. (see questions #1 and #3 above).

11) Is it a bad idea to rule out a teaching position by not going to grad school?  Most good percussionists I know have teaching positions.

BC: One reason that good percussionists have teaching positions is that there are not enough performance opportunities for everyone to sustain performance-only careers.  In other words, the market for highly-trained percussionists is small – mostly existing in symphony orchestras and college music departments.  In my opinion, this best chance to become a successful performer is by devoting your full energy to that goal.  In most cases, graduate school is a diversion away from that goal.  (In fairness, there are successful performers who would disagree.)

12) Are there any programs/residencies that do for soloist/chamber musicians what the New World Symphony does for orchestral players? (& Carnegie Hall Academy, Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society Two) and why are the members and alums of these all Yale percussionists?

BC:  To my knowledge, there are no such formal programs because there is not a large enough market to support one.  However, the institutions cited above – which have focused programs that do not require full time students – do have the potential to provide a network for individual collaborations.

13) What opportunities/demand do you see in the world? (you mentioned mixed chamber)

BC:  I think there are opportunities for mixed-instrument and mixed-repertoire ensembles with creative ideas about identity and promotion in order to serve specific tastes in the music market; good examples are Eighth Blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, and Break of Reality.   That being the case, it is still essential to build relationships with other musicians who have the time and interest in becoming a part of an ongoing ensemble.  It is also essential to clearly identify a market – either in a single large city, or among several cities.

14) What factors should I be considering to choose a marimba after I graduate?

BC:  First, what do you want to do with it?  What repertoire do you want to play? Does the repertoire require a 5-octave instrument, or something less than 5-octaves.  For example, there are a few players who have had solo marimba careers performing transcriptions and original works on 4-octave marimbas.

Second, what kind of sound do you want?  All of the major manufacturers have great instruments, but the characteristics are different.  Some are very resonant; others have a focused dryer tone.  Some have great low octaves and others have thinner bars in the upper octaves.

Third, does the specific marimba (the one you are considering for purchase) have balanced voicing? Are all of the bars matched in tone?  Are all of the resonators equally balanced in resonance?  If they’re not all matched, will the seller be responsible to replace the unmatched bars or resonators?

Fourth, does the marimba have to be a new one?  The cost can be lowered if a previously-owned marimba can be found in good playing condition.  The money saved can be used to obtain other instruments.  If possible, have the seller verify  in writing the condition of the marimba.

Fifth, how sturdy is the frame?  Is it very heavy and difficult to transport?  Is the frame height adjustable?  Do the frame sections setup and break down easily?  Will you have to spend a lot of money on cases?

Sixth, in any case you should physically check every bar (or obtain a written promise to replace unmatched bars without objection), and you should completely disassemble and reassemble the frame to check for problems BEFORE you purchase.

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