Most people don't get it - Life as a Freelance/Aspiring Musician

Originally blogged April 12, 2012

Are you still unclear on what I do for a living?
Feel free to get to know me better!

I have to admit that at 31, I'm still amazed by how little people understand about how I spend my time.  Even people who trained in the arts don't really know how freelancers spend their day.  My son thinks I sit on facebook all day...

I can't even imagine what the rest of my family honestly thinks about my "career."

The general public?  At one of my trio gigs a woman asked what we did for a living.  We all smirked and said, "We do this."  She kind of laughed and questioned again, "No, I mean, what do you do during the day?"  Her incredulity that we were "real live" musicians was disheartening.  Especially since she hadn't purchased a ticket to hear our performance.  

The fact is, there are so many careers that are just easier!  That's not to minimize what other people do for a living.  Totally free from exaggeration, I'm confident in saying that being a musician is uniquely challenging.  For many with a bachelors degree from any state university, they will enter their career field earning $40K/year and will see gradual and consistent increases in pay despite changes to their employer.  They will purchase a home, have kids, lease cars, go on vacations, throw money into a retirement account, get an online masters degree from U of Phoenix, earn more money, and barring complete incompetence, continue to advance in their careers.  Certain adjustments may need to be made as the economy dictates but otherwise they will remain employable and maintain their ever increasingly expensive lifestyle.  They will juggle the demands of home, work, church, spouse(s), children, aging parents, and progress through the expected vicissitudes of life.

Then there are musicians.  We have careers that, quite honestly, seem completely ill advised and closer related to an addictive gambler than a well thought out career path.  Racked with huge amounts of debt, musicians will go further into debt competing for jobs that pay $20,000 a year.  They don't buy their first home until well into their 30's (if they are lucky) and when they all but give up - they choose to enter academia but only after getting one more overpriced degree which makes them grouchy and bitter.  Most musicians with a bachelors in music performance will abandon the field, fleeing for greener pastures with a faster payoff in finance, law, computers, and education.  A few who stick it out will win jobs, not always because they are the best but because they held on the longest.  Still fewer will actually land their dream job somewhere in their 30's and then spend the next 30 years fighting to keep their salary while hoping and praying their organization doesn't fold - thus forcing them back into the market with younger, fresher musicians. 

If you want to know what I do for a living, read this:

This is the cliff notes version to what it's like being a professional musician.  It's not a complaint for me.  I feel blessed every day for each gig I play and every check that comes my way.  I'm one of the luckier ones. It's simply reality - it's what I LOVE and have trained to do for almost 20 years.  It's why: I don't volunteer in my son's class, only see a beach and stay in a hotel when I'm on an audition, why we haven't taken a "real" vacation as a family though we have spent thousands on auditions, a trip to see family in Michigan is an exotic vacation and I NEVER go without my bassoon.  All our extras go towards audition flights, a new bocal, and my own ensembles.  It's why at 2:38 today, after a morning gig and before an afternoon rehearsal, I'm cramming in more practice time and reed making.  So I can spend at least one hour tonight with my son before he goes to bed.  It's also why his birthday party was rescheduled 3 times last year and why he hates seeing me walk into my studio on Saturdays and head out for evening rehearsals.  It's not a complaint but it is reality.  At 31 I'm still trying to "get a job." 

This explains why I have stayed in the Army for 12 years despite 4 back surgeries and my constant fear they will just kick me out.

If you wonder why I'm only ever half available or neurotically checking my calendar for double bookings or wonder why you can't always catch me on my phone, don't take it personally!  It's just that I have been pursuing this for a looooooooong time.  I'm not ready to give up.  Until I do obtain something that resembles "the dream job" I'm going to be a little distracted.

Last night I had a reoccurring conductor nightmare, the same one I have been having for almost a year.  Dreams like this are the reason I have insomnia.  Losing 2-3 nights of sleep per week.  Is this serious to me?  You better believe it!  
T he next time you see your local orchestra asking for donations, don't assume it's going to fatten already large salaries for people who "just do it for the love of music."  Remember that these are highly trained professionals who have made incredible personal sacrifices, have alienated friends, missed life events, forgotten birthdays and anniversaries, passed up on "real day jobs" to live like ascetics, have only traveled when an audition came up, and aren't interested in joining in on a family cruise because it will cut into practice time.  We aren't late bloomers, or debauchees, or immature, uninterested in commitment, afraid to take on adult responsibility.  Quite the opposite: we are resolute, determined, disciplined, and have faced years of rejection because we literally live on a hope and a dream that ALL the work will finally pay off...for a job...making $20,000 a year...assuming the orchestra doesn't fold with the next contract negotiation. 


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