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  • Nick Drozdoff

So You Want To Be A Professional Musician? Day Gig or No Day Gig?

So You Want To Be A Professional Musician? Day Gig or No Day Gig?

Before I continue I want to make it clear that, if music is your passion, your way of making the world a little better place to live in, and this is how you want to spend your life working, then by all means, follow your dreams! I would NEVER discourage a budding young professional from doing what they love to do the most as their profession. How committed am I to that position? When my son was considering his life’s work and decided to go into music, my wife and I ENCOURAGED HIM to go for it! He is now a full time commercial/rock/classical keyboard player in the Chicago area.

My father and his father were (not my step dad) full time concert pianists, with the proviso that they had private students. This tradition runs in the family.

That position having been taken, if there is only one thing you take away from reading this blog post, I hope it would be this: that if you decide to become a full time professional musician, that you do so with the rose colored glasses completely removed and no illusions of easily achieved grandeur.

So, with the set up, let’s get down to business.

Message to all budding professional musicians: If you want to be a professional musician, by all means go for it!

Now, that statement by itself is going to sound glib. Let me elaborate a bit. If you are driven by a passion for music and are willing to work like a dog for this, and you want to do this for a living, yes, go for it. However, you MUST realize being a professional musician is a labor of love that will require an incredible amount of labor, thus requiring an unlimited amount of love. You also must know what the pitfalls facing you are. The old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney sort of “we’re going to make music and big stars” coming out of a garage band or something like that, is pure fantasy. In fact, that sort of thing has always been fantasy.

Note: the following discussion is from the point of view of a trumpeter, though much of this can be adapted to the needs of other instrumentalists.

What is waiting for you in the real world of professional music?

There are cynical musicians who would argue, “not much.” However, that has been going on for a long time. I remember, back when I was a younger musician, just starting out, having a more seasoned musician (a jazz pianist and college adjunct faculty member) tell me to “take my horn out to the driveway, place it in the middle and then drive my car over it a few times the next time I think about becoming a full time professional musician.” I THINK he meant well, but he was wrong to take this position.

As a seasoned professional musician (I’ve been at this for over 38 years) I would argue that it is very difficult to clearly articulate what is waiting for a younger musician in 2018 and beyond. The music business has always been in a state of flux but the rate of change and fluidity has ballooned to a degree that is hard to reckon with.

Every year our music educational institutions crank out far more skilled artists than there are jobs or openings readily available to them. The orchestral scene is really the only way to quantify this in any way.

I’m going to offer some references here. Some present a rather dark outlook. Here is an article titled: “The Orchestral Dream Is Dead.”

I invite you to read it. However, don’t be discouraged. Just be informed. Author, Matthew Waters, points out that, in 2015, over 8000 music performance degrees were awarded. He also points out that there are about 57 full time orchestras that employ professional musicians. Now, let’s do some math. Assuming that every one of these orchestras has 100 musicians employed, that means there are 5700 musicians working full time in symphonies. If every one of them all retired simultaneously, that means, at best, we would still be looking at 2300+ unemployed musicians. The reality is that, most musicians, once they get into an orchestra like this will stay till they drop. I’d be willing to guess that typically there are only one or two openings annually in these orchestras. Again, assuming that each orchestra has two openings per year, we have about 114 openings for 8000+ candidates. Clearly, if you are looking to become a symphony musician, you are fighting a loosing numbers game.

Now, my analysis above is grossly oversimplified, but I challenge you to find an analysis that will lead to a different conclusion. That conclusion necessarily is that “getting a job in any symphony orchestra that will allow you to play your instrument exclusively as a means of making a viable living and representing a solid career, is extremely difficult, at best.”

Here are some other resources on this issue. These are directed at trumpeters, but they can give insight to ANY musician.

Podcast: “The Other Side Of The Bell” episode 57, with Mark Zonshine

Zonshine shares his experience as principal trumpet of the Honolulu Symphony as the symphony closed it doors.

Podcast: ‘The Other Side Of The Bell” episode 58, with Jennifer Marotta

Marotta outlines her career path and if you “listen between the lines” you’ll see that she had to evolve and adjust to this challenge.

I have a link to this podcast at the end of this article.

Stanley Curtis has a very clearly structured article on this very subject, with the numbers broken down even further. The article is titled "Trumpet Job Numbers."

This could easily be very discouraging. However, put it into this context. At least you know what you are up against. Now what are you going to do about it?

Now, what if you are a jazz musician or commercial style trumpeter? Is it any better? Probably, no, it is about the same. The days of the traveling big bands (eg. Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, or even, more recently, Harry Connick, Jr.) are gone. This is no longer available as a means of developing a reputation or making a living. The big trade shows of the 80’s are gone as a resource for musicians. The recording business is under serious threat by technology and the internet. Jon Faddis alludes to this in his interview on episode 54 of “The Other Side Of The Bell.”

I once had a conversation with a heavy hitter in the LA studio scene when I was part of the parents hosting team when he was a guest artist at the high school at which I taught for 25 years. He was lamenting the fact that studio work in LA was being impacted by the fact that movie producers could easily turn to England or central Europe for their scores facilitated by the fact that huge music and video files can easily be sent around the world. Movie producers can bid out to a lowest bidder any where in the world.

So, the situation is extremely difficult for someone looking to launch a career as a professional PLAYER. I put player in all caps to make a point. All of this is working with the presumption that the ideal performance career is just playing your horn and doing nothing else. There is an alternative way of thinking, and I’ll circle back to this remark later.

The big theater orchestras of yesteryear are also gone. Most musicals today are covered by pared down orchestras bolstered heavily by synthesizers and even looping software and specialized CD setups. Many of the ballet’s I’ve been to over the years have used recorded music. I’ve heard the venerable American Ballet at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago perform the Firebird with a recorded track – no pit orchestra.

The fact of life is that a STEADY JOB, such as playing principal trumpet in the New York Philharmonic, or equivalent, is not likely to exist for most musicians, regardless of how good they are.

What is a viable alternative?

Free Lancing:

What does it mean to “free lance?” Historically a free lancer was a medieval mercenary. Nowadays, this means you are a trumpet for hire: “Have Trumpet: Will Travel,” to parody the old TV series title. There are advantages to being a free lancer.

A.) You work for yourself, hiring yourself out to anyone who needs a trumpeter. You are not tied to anyone. Your schedule is your own and you’ll be able to play a wide variety of music. This will NOT be boring.

B.) You can, to a certain extent, set or own price per job. However, remember the numbers game cited above, particularly if your market is near a large college or university that has a strong music program. Check out their websites. Most of them have a link tiled “hire a musician.” College musicians are notorious for undercutting local pros by 50%.

C.) You control, by and large, your own schedule. If you need some vacation time, this will not be a problem. Obviously, you will not have income during your vacation time, but such is the life of the self-employed.

Being a self-employed musician has always been a solid way to survive, but this will require an immense amount of extra work developing our business – a client list. However, in the internet age, this is a lot easier to do and manage than it ever was before.

There are pitfalls in developing this kind of work. Let’s look at a few.

What are the pitfalls? How do you deal with them?

Over the years the pitfalls have changed form, but by and large the substance of these pitfalls hasn’t changed much.

Nobody is just going to call you to play. You must know how to get your name and playing skills out there. You’ll need to get to jam sessions. If you are a classical player, you’ll need to get your name and reputation out there. Look for opportunities to play in brass groups as a sub or community orchestra. Get to know other players. Seek out teachers and take a lesson with the understanding that you are essentially doing an audition to get your name around.

You’ll need to spend as much time beating the bushes for contacts are you will practice. Back in the day, one had to use Yellow pages and other “black book listings,” that existed. Nowadays, it is quite easy. Just Google search on the Internet. Pick your search strings carefully. For example, if you are looking for work in Chicago, Google “big bands in Chicago” or brass ensembles in Chicago” or “orchestras in Chicago.” You could Google trumpeters in Chicago. Google “jam sessions” in Chicago. You can even search things like this in Facebook.

When you start sitting in, make darn sure you know what you are doing. If you’re at a jam session, don’t call a tune you are not 100% sure of. Make sure your sight-reading is up to speed. If you are at a jam session, avoid using a fake book at all costs.

Back in the day, demo tapes were often used as a calling card, included with some sort of promo kit. Nowadays, YouTube or FB videos are the way to share your skill sets with musicians you’d like to work with. In lieu of the old calling card, a web page can be the means to put the word out.

Be patient. Some regions can yield a very territorial mentality and you must be mindful, courteous and kind in dealing with this.

Be very careful not to appear to be a threat to anyone in the town you are trying to work into. As you start sitting and soliciting sub work, you will have to be careful about not appearing to trying to steal someone else’s gig. It is remarkably easy to come off that way.

Here are some ways to deal with this. First, NEVER march in and set up on the lead chair unless you are specifically asked to! Always set up on the 4th chair. This is out of respect to those who have a longer standing relationship with the band.

Also, when you are making calls or sending out emails always make it clear that you are seeking to be a substitute only if one of the regular members can’t be there.

One another thing you can do is reach out the other trumpeters and let them know that you are willing to sub for them.

ALWAYS show respect for those who were there ahead of you.

Never take a gig you are NOT ready for, just because you need to earn money. If you get in over your head and play badly, this will follow you around for a while. You certainly can redeem yourself, but you need to be mindful.

To be ready for any gig, make sure you know lots of tunes and horn lines. Be sure you can sight read and transpose at the drop of a hat. Be sure you know your styles. If you show up for a traditional jazz gig and start playing be-bop, you’ll sound out of place. If you show up for an orchestral gig and pop in a screamer mouthpiece, once again, you won’t fit. Now these examples might seem a bit extreme, but you’ll get the idea. Always think this through before you take any gig.

I’m going to lump a bunch together here. Be on time for gigs, which means show up at least a half hour before the gig. Make sure you know what to wear. Maintain proper professional decorum on the gig. If you don’t know the leaders or other players yet, maintain a quiet sense of dignity about the job. You’ll be able to relax a bit more after you become more of a regular. Until then, stay alert and watch and learn.

Those are some very basic ideas, many of which should go without saying, but I felt the need to include.

What Are Some Possible Types of Jobs You Can Create as a Performer?

I’ll just present a list here. You can certainly imagine many more.

A.) Jobber

In other markets this type of work is often referred to as “casuals.” This is playing weddings, trade shows (few and far between these days), corporate gigs, and private parties in general. There are useful skills here that you can develop to set you apart in getting work as a sideman on bands that work this vein.

You should know tunes – LOT’S of tunes. There was a time that showing up with a fake book meant you would never get called back again, but that has changed. However, if you know your tunes you can work much faster and adjust to the keys demanded by singers.

This type of work was decimated in the 90’s by the advent of DJ’s. As of now, iPod and Smart Phone mixes are the rage. Clients only need to have the consultant arrange to have a PA brought in and people can play iPod mixes for their private party. The elegance of a live band is not what it used to be. So, you’ll need to do more than just job.

B.) Community Orchestras

Many community orchestras have hired ringers to play their principal parts.

C.) Service Bands

Military bands and orchestra offer solid steady employment to a few musicians. Check out Jennifer Marotta’s interview (episode 58) on “The Other Side Of The Bell.” She played in the Marine Band. From that she evolved into a solid career. These gigs are time sensitive, however. Once you pass a certain age, they will not accept you.

D.) Cruise Ships

This area of work has returned as a solid way to make a living, though it can be quite challenging from the point of view of life style. You are essentially trapped on a ship and your quarters will not be elegant. However, they do employ many musicians. Finding that work is easy enough to explore with a simple Google search.

I’m sure you can think these ideas through and develop your own searches and ideas for exploring and developing work as a free-lance musician.

Day Gig or No Day Gig?

I tucked this part near the bottom of this post because this could certainly be the most controversial.

I will argue that virtually EVERY free-lance musician has a day gig, and I do mean every one. Let me explain.

Do you teach? Do you have over 40 private trumpet students?

You have a day gig.

Are you a college or university music professor?

You have a day gig.

Are you a high school band director?

You have a day gig.

Are you a sales person at a music store?

You have a day gig.

Are you a landlord, renting out rooms to bring in extra money (my father and grandparents did this)?

You have a day gig.

Of course I could go on and on, but I have a point.


Professional musicians have been surviving this way for eons. Let me offer my own experience as an example.

I was a full time professional musician for about 13 years. I did have a lot of trumpet students, mostly from Libertyville High School in the northern suburbs of Chicago and the College of Lake County and at the summer graduate school of Vandercook College of Music. So I had a small day gig.

In the early 90’s, upon completion of my music masters at Roosevelt University, the free-lance business in Chicago went totally sideways, and an entire industry was just flattened. Folks who would never be caught dead jobbing were clambering for the work, even though the DJ’s were rearing their heads. That was about the time my son was born. Our family was growing as my work was dwindling. I had to get a day gig.

I chose a different path (note: my concluding remarks in this article will be titled “think outside of the box”). I had a music masters and a BS in electrical engineering. I chose to get certified in high school physics teaching. I had rationalized it this way. As a high school physic teacher, I didn’t have to deal with marching band, after school musicals or potentially contentious band parents. Yes, it was hard work for the 25 years I did it, but this allowed me to use one side of my educational background to bolster the other side.

In short, I led what I call a dual career lifestyle. I was a serious high school physics teacher. Just because I led a double life didn’t mean I took my day career lightly. I still maintained a full time music career – about 100 gigs a year or more (this was a mere shadow of what I experienced in the 80’s, when I had upwards of 300 gigs a year). This meant many hours of practice and hard work after school.

It was an exhausting 25 years, but it paid off. I retired early with a pension and am back to my music exclusively. However, my free-lancing as of NOW is totally on MY TERMS. This gives me a sense of independence and fearlessness I never experienced before. Before I developed my dual career life, my musical life was one of almost constant fear. That fear was having a dramatically negative effect on my playing that took years to undo.

I offer my story as yet one more idea to pique your curiosity about different lifestyles as a musician.

Think Outside The Box:

Here is where my experience intersects with those of younger musicians. I am re-stating my music career. I have resources that didn’t exist when I was in grad school. I have the internet. I have a website. I have YouTube. I have iTunes. I have CD baby. Heck, I even have Facebook, even though that is quickly becoming yesterday’s news. I’m exploring Twitter and Instagram, and if I can see a model that fits my product and how I market things, I’ll jump in there as well.

Interestingly enough, as a high school teacher, I had to become adept at using the internet and technology for my teaching of physics. So, I’ve been using the internet for quite a few yeas in my work in music already.

Since I am in the same boat of many of my younger musical peers, I’ll share my thinking about creating new work and exposure for my music.

I re-developed my website. I wanted to make it more driven by my performance work as a trumpeter and bolster my reputation. As an obscure artist from Chicago, I need to keep the word out there.

If you’re reading this, you know I’m blogging. Yes, the purpose of my blog is to offer ideas and even some resources to trumpeters and other musicians to help think through their own experiences better. However, there is a clear ulterior motive. I want you to snoop around my website and consider supporting my work, hopefully financially, in some way. Both motives are compatible.

Here’s an idea I am just developing now. I write original music and I have a band (The Variable D Postulate Ensemble). The traditional way to promote or get the word out is to find nightclubs and bars and get your band in there. I question that wisdom. If your band plays in a bar, the bar flies that drift in are not necessarily even listening to you. Sure you can pimp your family and friends to come out and hear you, but that will only work for one or two iterations. So, the bar scene I see as incredibly limited. The bar owners get free entertainment and yet they will not lift a finger to help the musicians develop any sort of income. Gone are the days when a club would “hire a band” for a given evening.

However, when I post on YouTube I can get many plays for my music – often thousands (OK, I’m not Bruno Mars, who gets millions of hits). This is many times more people who actually listen to my music that ever do in a nightclub. So, I plan on concentrating my band exposure with videos, reserving nightclub dates for those rare gigs where the club owner/manager actually cares about the musicians.

Next, I am developing a podcast. That’s all I’ll say as of this posting as I don’t want to give away my idea. Here is the point, however. I plan on developing sponsorship for the podcast. It will also help me develop my reputation as a trumpeter and, perhaps, as an educator.

I have recently done some recording for an excellent indie rock band. They have added horns on some of their tracks. They do travel, tough without horns. From conversations with the band it is apparent they barely break even on their tours. They make more money selling merchandise than they do with cover charges. They also offer “samples” of their music with a few free downloads. As stated in the previous paragraph, I have a different outlook on getting the word about original music out there, but I am watching these folks very carefully. I’m looking for ideas!

In conclusion, the internet has leveled the playing field so that obscure free-lance musicians such as myself, can get the same access to exposure as the heavy hitters. The drawback? Any level playing field allows water to spill out all over it spreading the exposure rather thinly. ANYONE can set up YouTube channels. ANYONE can set up a web page. ANYONE can blog.

Even me!


Concluding Remarks:

Here is something to think about as you consider launching your career as a professional musician. There is no reason in the world that you have to adopt the starving artist position in life. However, there are some things that make this all easier. For example, if you live in the Chicago area, the cost of living can be a lot more manageable if you live just over the border in Indiana or Wisconsin. The next thing to consider is are you planning on being married and having a family? This will have a profound impact on how you survive as a pro musician. I know plenty of full time pros who have a day gig of the private teacher variety who have families and their own homes just over the borders. Living in Winnetka or Kennilworth is a LOT tougher to do on the exclusive income as a professional trumpeter. You have to be realistic about this, but if you are, you'll do fine.

I hope this lengthy article that has offered you some food for thought. The ideas here have been nagging at me for sharing for some time, and now that I have a platform more appropriate for a lengthy piece such as this, I am grateful to be able to put these ideas out there. Of course, I need to add that I do not regard myself as an expert on this. I am just sharing what I have learned so far and hope to learn some things from all of you, as well.

Now, if you are reading this, you made it through the post. Thanks! I hope you'll consider subscribing to my blog. If you found this interesting, please read the blogs in the archives. I also hope you'll consider supporting my work. As the blog evolves and as I get ready to launch my podcast later this summer and as I continue to record audio and video, please remember, I am totally self funded. If you enjoy my music and have benefited in some way from reading the blogs and or watching the videos, please consider a donation to the cause. I am seeking advertisers and backers, but every individual can contribute in some way. No donation is too small, and no donation is too large! ;-) This is tantamount to digitally passing the hat on a no cover gig, but so be it. If you wish to make a contribution, just use and send your tip/donation to me via Paypal.

Respectfully submitted:

Nick Drozdoff

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