Music

Implementing Good Habits to Take Charge of Your Career

The following is the first of a two-part Guest Post by good friend and fellow musician Frank Gulino. In this first excerpt, Frank addresses the importance of practicing effectively. Frank is a trombonist with the Capital Wind Symphony, composer, and entertainment lawyer based outside DC. His website can be found here.

Musicians are among the most gifted, dedicated, educated, focused, and hardworking individuals you will ever encounter, and yet so many of them find themselves struggling professionally. There are a multitude of unfortunate reasons for this, including the declining number of professional opportunities, heightened levels of competition, and the systematic under-compensation of musicians across the board. One phenomenon in particular, however, stands out: the “art” of music and the “business” of music are more disparate today than they have ever been, and too many musicians focus exclusively on developing their art rather than taking the time to develop both facets.

When I say that the “art” of music and the “business” of music have diverged, what I mean is that it is now appreciably more difficult to make a living in music by working for someone else than it has been in the past, making it more necessary for today’s musicians to be entrepreneurial thinkers rather than solely artists. As recently as two decades ago, there were many more opportunities for symphony musicians, more tenure track professorships in music, packed orchestra pits on Broadway, full big bands on cruise ships, and live music was ubiquitous. There were enough opportunities that, by perfecting your art, it was feasible to win the audition or land the pit orchestra job without having to be especially entrepreneurial or business-minded. In recent years, however, with orchestras folding, tenure track professorships being replaced by adjunct positions, and the widespread use of synthesized theater music, opportunities to be employed by someone else in the music field have become few enough that simply being the best player or interviewee is no longer the most consequential determinant of whether or not you succeed at making a living in music.

While artistic qualification and ability can still carry the day at the very highest echelons of the profession, the vast majority of musicians will need to allocate considerably more time to developing their “business” than they realize. Today, musicians have to be more prepared than ever before to work for themselves. And, as with almost anything else, the implementation of good habits is key.

Good Habits for Developing Your Art
1. Practice

There is no substitute for spending time with your instrument. No cutting corners, no feigning familiarity with the repertoire, no fooling anyone into thinking you’re prepared when you aren’t. Music directors, colleagues, and audiences alike will see through a lack of thorough preparation sooner or later. Practice smart and practice enough, but keep in mind that practicing your instrument is just one part (albeit an important one) of building your career.

I am a proponent of breaking up the day’s practicing into three sessions when possible. By practicing once in the morning, once during the day, and once in the evening, your body and mind will get past unhelpful conceptions such as the belief that “I can’t play first thing in the morning!” or “I never sound good this late at night!” You never know when you’ll be the person assigned to the 8:00 a.m. audition slot, or whether that wedding reception your band just got hired to play is going to last all night. Those become non-issues when you are accustomed to playing your instrument at any time of day.

2. Improve Your Concept
Two players of identical innate ability and practice habits will be readily distinguishable from in front of the audition curtain if one has made a conscious effort to inform and improve his or her concept of sound, while the other has never given thought to the matter. Listen to the best recordings you can, attend live performances, study with great teachers, and continue to refine the sound you desire. Take advantage of comp tickets, and familiarize yourself with the variety of genres and styles in which your instrument is used. The more you listen to great artists, the more you will be able hone your individual concept of sound. The informed desire to sound a particular way is what will ultimately set you apart from everyone else who plays your instrument.

3. Stay Healthy
Music is more of an athletic pursuit than many give it credit for. Sooner or later, eating poorly, neglecting exercise, and depriving oneself of sleep will all have an adverse impact on your ability to make music at the highest level. Eat well, exercise, sleep enough, stay hydrated, stretch, read, make time for relaxation, and surround yourself with wonderful people.

4. Play With Others
No amount of solitary, technique-focused time in the practice room will equip you with the ensemble skills necessary to play in most professional settings. Achieving a desired dynamic result with a decibel meter in the practice room does not mean you will be able to achieve the perfect dynamic balance within an ensemble; similarly, tuning a note to a tuner in the practice room is not the same as tuning a chord with other musicians. There is no substitute for making music with other people, and ensemble skills are absolutely essential to being a complete musician.

Coming Soon: Frank’s perspective on the entrepreneurial aspect of being a 21st Century musician.

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5 Essential Practice Tips

A wise man once said “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” That wise man was Albert Einstein, and he happens to be a pretty smart dude. In fact, he felt most of his scientific breakthroughs came as a direct result of improvising on the piano and violin – so put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Music is a journey. Gaining musical proficiency requires both disciplined practice as well as patience. The process is about developing oneself through your ears and out your soul. If you do it right, you’ll notice changes in yourself – how you play a piece, how you perform with others reflects your personality and your day to day life.

Whenever I am struggling with a piece, technical exercise, or memorizing a new program, I find myself falling back on a variety of methods to dig myself out of a hole. Everyone is different, some may need to focus on only one or two of my tips below, others may need to do a little of everything. Below are the best ways I know of how to improve dramatically – even over the course of a day – and really begin to understand problems in your playing in an objective manner.

Listen to yourself: I firmly believe that the better you are at listening, the better you become as a musician. When you practice or perform a piece, how often do you really listen to yourself? Are you aware of that slight noise when your fingers touch the string – or do you just let it slide? Do you hear that gap when you shift from one fret to another down the neck? Take the time to listen to the sounds you create. Listening to each note from its inception until the last audible vibration is the best way to honestly appraise your playing. Start each day by playing/singing one note or chord, close your eyes and listen to it ring out. Take a breath. Repeat. Now you’re ready to move on.

Record yourself: This goes hand in hand with listening. If you record yourself playing for practice or even a performance, and objectively create a map of the things you want to improve you set yourself up for success. Hell, use a webcam, cell phone, video, audio – doesn’t matter. In fact, if you manage to sound great on a terrible recorder you know you’re practice is beginning to pay off.

Stop whatever you’re doing and do the opposite: Want to get faster? Forget speed for a few weeks and go back to basics at a snail’s pace. If you find yourself hitting a wall in your practice, sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break. Spend two weeks practicing something entirely different. Cultivate an awareness of your body and instrument and truly own the notes.

Perform for others: This is the biggest way to improve. Play for others. Play for friends, set up a small house concert. It doesn’t matter if you crash and burn – you’ll be better off after running the gauntlet. I’m convinced that the reason people get so nervous and notice what can seem to be an insurmountable amount of mistakes in performance comes from that fact that not only are you no longer on practice-room-autopilot, but you’re actually listening to yourself – AND – so are other people.

Set Goals:
This is simple, but it’s amazing how often people forget. My personal favorite is writing a weekly practice log. Sometimes I break it down into small daily goals. At the extreme, there have been times where I’ve written up a sheet of paper for each piece I’m working on as well as every gig I had coming up. I wrote dates and goals on each page and taped them to my bedroom wall. Every time I accomplished a goal or finished a piece, I checked it off with green marker. Learn to love the green marker. Even if you come up short, aim high. You can only end up ahead.

These are my 5 go-to practice techniques – if you have any other effective ideas, post below!

Setting a Fair Rate

In my previous post I highlighted the importance of self-evaluation and knowing your worth as a performer. Now that we know the importance of setting a comparable monetary value for one’s work and how settling for low-paying gigs only brings more competition and frustration, this post will explore how to set a fair rate for an event.

Location plays a huge part in setting a quote that is reasonable to the client and fair to the performer. Having lived in major cities like Baltimore and San Francisco where cost of living is rather high, any quote for an event is going to be more expensive than it would be in a smaller city/town for an event of similar duration. For major cities like New York, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, you’d be a fool to charge small town rates in the big city.

Flat Quote or Hourly Rate? There are benefits to giving a flat quote or using an hourly rate for events. Personally, I like giving flat quotes – it’s straightforward and I avoid itemizing charges in contracts like hours, breaks, travel, etc. I simply give a number and don’t hassle the client with minor details. This works great for weddings and gives the Bride-to-be one less thing to worry about. However, for a small concert or an event that needs background music for a specific amount of time an hourly rate may be more appropriate.

Part of setting a fair rate for an event is having a feel for how much you believe your performance is worth in the context of a reasonable budget. As I’ve said before, there’s always somebody willing to work for less. You need to command a higher rate to stand out – and also DELIVER THE GOODS! This means consistently playing your ass off, being social with guests/audience members, and being sure to take the time to thank the person who hired you – they’re providing you with work, and you’re providing them with an irreplaceable service: live music!

This link between the professional and social aspect of being a musician is part of why I prefer setting flat quotes on a per event basis. Breaking down an event to hourly rates tends to give the gig a feel of a transaction – paying for time as it is. Like putting coins in a parking meter. This can leave the performer feeling like a human jukebox and the client only concerned with putting enough coins in to keep the tunes coming.

To command a good fee, you need to go above and beyond simply playing for the allotted amount of time and this is something you want to make very clear to potential clients via your websites, emails, and phone calls. This is why I prefer to give a flat quote. Somebody emails me saying they need classical guitar for an event in a couple weeks. I email them back thanking them for their interest in my music and tell them I’ll happily play for them. I may only be playing an hour and a half, however, when I give a client a quote they know that also comes with my guarantee to arrive early, set up, provide my own amplification as well as set up a microphone if someone may speak at the event, plan the music program, and learn any song they may require for the performance.

This is where I differ from other musicians. In the same city for the same event, a lesser experienced guitarist may give that same event a quote based on their hourly rate. At $100 an hour for 1.5 hours total = $150. They may then include travel expenses or booking fees, all of which feels like getting a bill from Verizon or Direct TV rather than giving your client a personalized, all-inclusive musical package. It’s cheaper, may be easier to quote and convenient, but you’re basically selling yourself short. Lots of people may book you, and that’s not bad, but the main reason they book you is because it’s a cheaper option.

Breakdown This should serve as a guide for event price range and is my average of 75 gigs between 2012-2014.
• Short Wedding (less than 1 hour) $200 – $400
• Wedding and Cocktail Reception (up to 2 hours) $350 – 800
• Private Event (Wineries, Universities, Hotels) $400-1000
• Corporate Events – $400-1000 (my experience has been corp. event budgets are about 1k for music)
• Small Concerts, House Concerts – $300 – 600

These are the ranges that I use when quoting an event to give an idea of what is possible and as you can see there is room for flexibility. I was booked for considerably more weddings than anything else, and I’ve also had to turn down several events that didn’t align with my price ranges. When this happens, work with the client and their budget, however, if you can’t agree on a number you can always refer a friend who would love the opportunity.

Everything is an Opportunity

Early on, finding success can seem like a total mystery. You hear about friends and colleagues winning competitions, recording a CD, or having a concert and you wonder how they got so lucky – “why can’t it be me?” And this is the problem. The competition or gig or CD was not their “success” – it was the manifestation of the fruits of their labor, the intersection of timing and preparation. It was the moment when their hard work paid off. Success is total commitment to the process of work and practice.

With that in mind and after working long and hard on your craft, only then will what seems like luck to the untrained eye will reveal itself as opportunity. Everybody you meet and everywhere you play has the possibility to lead you someplace new. You just need to keep your eyes opened.

A rather wealthy, older gentleman who comes to many of my performances took me to lunch one day. We ate and spoke and we tossed around the idea of putting together a CD release concert, with him playing Host and taking care of the audience. Over the course of lunch, I asked him what he was doing when he was my age and how he ended up in the position of being able to help young musicians. What he said has stuck with me ever since: “Instincts – I look at everything and everyone as an opportunity.”

3 Simple Tips for Emailing Clients

1. Start with a friendly greeting. This may sound simple, but this needs repeating. Many people have no idea how they come off over email – let alone in real life – but somehow think that communicating behind a computer screen is some sort of safety net. What would amount to an awkward first impression in real life results in an email that either falls flat or comes off as insincere and unprofessional. I recommend making the first sentence of any email a “thank you,” stating my appreciation for their interest in my music and that I’d be happy to discuss their event further. If this is a newly engaged couple – especially if it is the bride you’re emailing – this goes double. Thank them for their interest AND congratulate the couple on setting a date to tie the knot. The vibe you want to established is friendly-professional. They want to know that you’ll not only be a great performer, but somebody who is enjoyable to be around and could possibly be hired again in the future.

2. Keep it simple, stupid. The first email should fit on the screen without need for scrolling. Be polite and friendly, but get to the meat of things fast. I like writing, “just to be sure I understand you correctly…” and then following with a bullet-point list that includes arrival times, duration, event address, repertoire, and my quote. This will make things much easier when you are juggling multiple gigs. You’ll thank yourself later when sorting out the details of an event, and the client will be happy you aren’t wasting time with endless banter.

3. ALWAYS LINK. Always, always, always, always include a link to your website. If you don’t have a website – you should, and that will be discussed on the blog soon – attach mp3s or a resume (or both!) to every email you send. Every email I send ends with a link to my website immediately under my name. If you have an impressive site, this is a great way to show it off to clients, and it speaks volumes about your sense of professionalism.

Again, these are my simple tips and rules that I follow when I email event planners, clients, potential students, and concert venues. If anyone would like additional advice or an in-depth look at emails I have sent (I save everything) feel free to comment or email Gigsmarter@gmail.com

No Gig is a Sure Thing

Performing on a regular basis is a humbling experience. It requires a sense of dedication which comes as a result of hard work, making and taking opportunities, and a bit of luck. One lesson best learned early is that no gig is a sure thing. Just as the walls of a hallowed concert hall would be lucky to be graced by your talent, you are just as fortunate to be on stage in the first place. Whether a formal recital, opera, corporate event, house concert, or wedding – somebody else may get hired. Many things are completely out of your control. The bride may have second thoughts, there may be a rain check for an outdoor event, a performer may get sick, and the list goes on. Any number of things could happen that are entirely out of your control to make a gig fall through at the last minute.

The key to moving forward?

Understand that until you are sitting on a stage physically playing your instrument at said contracted venue, no gig is a sure thing. It’s only real when you’re there. Never count on others to follow through, never count on one “special” gig to come through and present itself to you out of thin air. Granted, those things are great when good fortune smiles upon you, but the rule is you need to be the one to make things happen. Book events, coordinate, arrive early, follow through, and play.

In the ever-changing world of music, the key to making a decent living in performance lies in two things: 1 – Taking charge of everything that you can control
Set up arrival times, send contracts, set rates, select repertoire, and bring CDs and business cards. The more details you can take care of – often only requiring a few minutes of emailing – the better, and you’re clients will remember you for it.
2 – Understand that nothing is set in stone
Don’t get frustrated when things don’t go your way. Have faith in your ability as a musician and understand that change is part of nature. Just because an event falls through or you get a lousy turnout, doesn’t mean you totally suck. After all, Led Zeppelin’s first gig was playing in a teen hall for a whopping 12 people, and the rest is history. Stick it out and chalk it up to part of the process.

Smartphones can save your ass

For years I avoided upgrading my phone. I hated seeing people out at restaurants giving their phone so much attention that they might as well have given it a menu and a chair. And I sure as hell didn’t want to become an iPhone zombie, inseparable from my fancy new device. However, after incessant prodding, I finally caved in, ditched my taped together, pink Sony Ericson (I miss you) and got an iPhone 4.

i don't know what I was thinking...

i don’t know what I was thinking…

My dad was right – since getting a smart phone, it’s way more convenient to respond if you get an urgent gig request than having to find a computer. Having access to email, websites, and Google Maps has a HUGE impact on booking gigs. Remember: time = $. Booking gigs = $. Gig = getting to perform. More gigs = reputation. Reputation = you’ve successfully put yourself out there.

Since getting a smart phone, I’ve consistently gotten 3-4 more gigs a month and have been able to respond to more leads WAY faster than I would have with just my laptop. As soon as I hear the email alert go off, I check my phone and if it is a gig I’m interested in, I send a short email right away. (The short, preempt email will be detailed in a post of its own.) And for bonus, even if I don’t end up getting the gig, nearly everyone who emails me back compliments me on my concise, timely manner. This is a good thing and can lead to future bookings.

Anyway, here are the huge bonuses to having a smart phone:
• Check and respond to email = give better service, book gigs faster
If you use a site like Wedding Wire or Gig Masters, this is an ENORMOUS advantage, as most performers’ response time falls between 1 and 2 days.
• Look up directions and Maps
No excuse for getting lost on the way to an event.
• Access to websites
You can keep track of your website and email links – all things that can’t be done with a phone call.

It’s amazing how much one small device can save your ass if put to good use.

not like this

not like this

Year in Review

2013 Wrapped up to be a great year for me. In fact, it was the busiest year I’ve ever had. While I’m still a fulltime student, I managed to book 46 private events and about 10 formal concerts. I finished recording a CD project of Spanish guitar music with a friend and we’ve just about sold the first batch of CDs – the good ol’ fashioned way – at concerts. The best concert was the Fayetteville Theatre in West Virginia. Not only was it a great show, but we were the first guitarists to EVER play that venue – the whole town showed up simply out of curiosity. Oh, and we stayed at a haunted mansion…

My teaching has been going great and my students are doing well, however, it is starting to bite into my performance opportunities. I got a new job at a private arts school and have two job offers from other music organizations to consider so 2014 has me weighing the benefits of each position – it’s nice to have choice.

In private bookings, I already have 10 concerts booked for 2014 and a short concert tour of Texas thanks to my good friend Jake who’ s the founder of the Aranjuez Outreach Series – they are a KICK ASS music nonprofit that puts on concerts at free master classes at universities throughout Texas. In the coming weeks I will be posting in more detail about how to book events including email and networking techniques.

I’ve managed to break the $700 barrier and $1000 barrier for a single event which is great progress! My average amount of gigs in 2013 was 3.33/month. Not bad, however, I had some months like March and June where I had no bookings, but then had tons of events in August and September. My goals for 2014 are to start my own event business, average 4+ gigs/month and break the $1500 barrier!

Setting high but attainable goals has been a huge part of my process. Even simple things like “wake up, figure out how to update blog email” is a step forward for me (I’m quite technically inept) and that old motto of “a really freaking long, crazy journey starts with a single step.” Or something like that.

What are YOUR goals for 2014?

How to Get More Gigs: Keep a Contact List

Part of being a professional musician – which implies a successful musician – is keeping a contact list.   Every time you perform or exchange business cards, whether playing a wedding or meeting somebody backstage, add their information to a master document.  This master document could be as complicated as an Excel spreadsheet complete with names, dates, and venues or as simple as a Word document that lists current email addresses.

Music, like all business, is about networking.  You never know what could end up in your pipeline because of a brief exchange at a gig you played months ago.  This gets you more performances, more exposure, more fans, and more money – win, win, WIN!  Personally, I’m not fantastic with technology.  That’s probably part of the reason why I’m a classical guitarist…But anyway, I find that keeping a Microsoft Word document is the easiest way for me to keep track of my contacts.

Keep It Simple

Add the new contact to your list as soon as you possible.  I find it’s effective to write where you met as well and I’m in the habit of logging the info as soon as I get home from an event.  Some will advocate keeping your entire list updated of any and all of your activities.  I find being effective – emailing those who have a greater probability of buying your CD, hiring you again, or coming out to a performance – to be a better use of time than forwarding a mass email.

Compile a List of Prospective Venues  

Another overlooked aspect of the contact list is keeping track of venues and concert promoters.  These can be people you have never met or played for, but may be interested in contacting about performing at their venue in the future.  Have a new CD to sell?  Have an exciting new program to debut?  These will be the people to contact to set up that event and send your press materials to since most venues book out months in advance.  It gives you an immediate feel of any and all musical activity in a given location, as well as a bird-eye view to laying out a potential string of concerts.

Summary

  • Keep a list of all contacts from any event you perform
  • Update the list regularly for email changes, new additions, and new phone numbers
  • Keep a separate list of local concert venues and promoters
  • Target members of your list for emails relevant to your career

Hello World!

About Me

Let’s face it, if you’re not world famous – you haven’t been doing enough to put yourself out there.  This is what separates a moderately talented musician who achieves fame and success vs. the best pianist you’ve never heard, who sits alone in his room practicing all day.  Part of making money as a working musician comes down to the amount of value you can add to your student’s, client’s, and audience’s lives.  Practice and playing just for yourself is a hobby at best and selfish at worst – music is gift to give to others.

I started this blog as a means of keeping myself accountable and continuing to improve my success as a musician.  Over the years, many friends and students have asked me for advice regarding teaching jobs, practice habits, emailing event planners, and booking gigs.   The biggest part of the process is staying humble and living in a constant state of learning from your mistakes, trying new things, and from interacting with the world around you.

Gig Smarter will show you how to give others that gift and make money in the process.