By Don Kaplan | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
Joshua Bell. Frank Huang. The Emerson Quartet. String players grow up with these kinds of stars in their eyes: the soloists, the concertmasters, the quartet players of legend. And as inspiration goes, players with such burnished résumés serve as important role models. But it is the unvarnished truth that not everyone can look forward to building a career as a soloist or orchestral player. There are simply more performance majors than jobs in those areas. So if you have a passion for music and want to be a performer, how do you support yourself?
The members of the Town Quartet have a few ideas. This San Francisco Bay Area ensemble was founded by Corey Mike (violin), Jacob Hansen-Joseph (viola), and Lewis Patzner (cello). They have been performing together along with guest artists for close to nine years, have all worked as freelance musicians, and are around the same age (34–41). I recently sat down for a round table discussion with the group about their lives as freelancers, and how they feel about their career choices.
All three members of the quartet agreed their training in school had been directed toward orchestral and solo work but not toward other performance opportunities. They had to prepare for “real world” jobs by studying with coaches and taking classes outside the required curriculum. Mike explained: “The job market itself wasn’t part of my education. Nobody ever talked about what was practical, and my classmates had very little idea of which career path to take. I definitely improved at playing orchestral repertoire but wanted to do chamber music. I followed my own path by studying with as many teachers as possible and playing as much chamber music as I could.”
Patzner was also more interested in performing chamber than orchestral music in school. “If I had chosen to take only the bare minimum of required courses, I would have been best prepared for orchestral playing. But I chose to play extra chamber music every semester and participate in the school’s jazz program. Freelancing was a way of life in my household, so I always knew I was going to be a professional musician and freelancing would be part of it.
“At first I wanted to be a rock star and part of a touring band. I did tour as a side musician for rock bands and with my own metal band. That gave me opportunities to record and perform with different groups, write instrumental parts, improvise, and get some counterculture mixed in with my background”—experiences that would qualify him for a variety of jobs later on.
Hansen-Joseph went beyond the basics by studying with a private teacher “whose idea was to be the most well-rounded you could be. I kind of modeled myself after him . . . private teachers didn’t focus on playing in an orchestra.”
Freelancers aren’t bound by 9–5 positions and lead more flexible lives than musicians who are employed by orchestras. They can often choose their own repertoire, decide when they want to perform, write and play their own arrangements, schedule rehearsals at any time, work at venues of their choice, and get free food at some of those venues (always a plus!).
Freelance musicians become part of a community that develops both professional and casual relationships. “You play these gigs and spend time with these people and they become your friends,” says Hansen-Joseph. “That’s part of how you maintain your freelance career: by being friends with people so when they can’t play a concert, they call you to fill in. Sometimes you have to perform with people you would rather not perform with, but every day, every interaction, every new person you work with, you learn how to work with other people.”
However, every week is different, and the benefits of being a freelancer are matched with challenges. In the absence of steady work, income is variable. This economic uncertainty can lead to freelancers accepting work they would rather reject, playing music they would rather not play, or having to play the same pieces over and over because that’s what employers or agents want.
Building a Career
Building a freelance career is an exercise in creative, relentless multitasking. You may need to teach, record for promotional purposes at home instead of in a studio, and play in venues like museums, cafes, bookstores, churches, or private homes. “To be a fulltime freelancer, you absolutely have to multitask,” says Mike. “And being flexible helps get gigs. The more different genres you play, the more gigs are open to you.”
Establishing residencies or a donor base can be key in sustaining an ensemble. The Town Quartet started as the result of a contact at a local cafe. Mike, who had been working there, told the owners he wanted to form a string quartet, and the owners agreed to pay a weekly stipend so the quartet would perform there every Sunday. Although the quartet plays at other venues, the Berkeley cafe has been its home base since 2011.
High-profile groups like the Kronos Quartet can hire managers and grant writers to organize concerts and arrange bookings. As a freelance ensemble, you’ll need to do all that work on your own.
As Patzner points out, “There’s the inevitable administrative work that goes into any music career as a freelancer. You’re dealing with so many people. You have to communicate with clients, fill out forms, send photos, create schedules . . . I’m pretty busy so I don’t advertise very much, but I do have business cards, sometimes create posters and videos, have a podcast to announce events and projects, and have paid for Facebook ads.”
“Being a freelance musician is a juggling act,” adds Hansen-Joseph. “You’re constantly trying to squeeze as much as possible into your day, moving gigs around when you get better offers, and contacting the people who hired you. It comes with the territory.”
Says Patzner: “I see myself doing this for the rest of my life. I would like to do more chamber music—that’s the most fun. I see myself becoming choosier and choosier about the work I want to do—and if it’s music I don’t really care about, then the money will have to be really good!”
For these freelancers, in their own words, they’re close to “living the dream” while still pursuing their ideals: playing even more chamber music, having more time to pursue personal interests like composing and arranging, and having more control over what music they play and where they play it. Everyone was in agreement: “Right now there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”