At what point do you expect to be paid?

This is something that I think about sometimes, being near the end of my undergraduate. As music students, we are expected to do a lot of things for free (and in most cases pay to do them). In the real world, one would be paid to play in orchestras, chamber ensembles, and recitals, whereas in school you are expected to do these for free.

It can be a hard transition to make. I know there are many things that I’ve played for that I could have legitimately demanded to be paid for, but didn’t feel in the place to do that. Music starts out as a mere hobby for all of us and we are happy to pursue our art without financial compensation. In fact, we are often paying to be in community orchestras, bands, and choirs or university music programs.

I feel that senior high school years and university age is where¬†can start to be paid for some things. Certainly, I would never play in a wedding or “background music” for free, but I still don’t feel right charging admission to a recital. At my university, I’ve been asked to play in a string quartet for functions in other faculties and I have been paid for those, yet when members of the university orchestra get asked to play an extra concert, we don’t get paid. I remember one time my university orchestra got asked only about a month in advance to play an extra concert with the local symphony orchestra. Of course there were a lot of extra rehearsals off campus and it was actually a significant time commitment. Despite that, they don’t have to pay us because we’re just students, even though we had to make arrangements to make sure we were available for those rehearsals.

When I get asked to play for a gig of some description, I feel bad asking how much I would get paid, or if I’d get paid. I’m still at an age where I don’t mind doing the odd gig for free to get the exposure and make connections, but I am also at an age where I need to establish myself as a business, as reluctant as I am to say that. You would never ask a restaurant to cater an event for free to get the exposure or make connections, so why do we expect musicians to do the same, even if they’re just students? However, since I am still in my undergrad at the time of this post, I also don’t want to be known as that jerk who turns down every gig, but I also don’t want to continue doing things for free and devaluing my art. It’s a tough balance. Recitals done as academic requirements in universities by policy must be free, but if you do a recital off campus “for fun”, should you charge admission? I’ve done both. I don’t really feel right charging admission to a recital yet, even though I know I should. I would always worry that people would be like “Who does she think she is, charging admission for her recital?” But frankly, if people will take that attitude then they don’t need to attend. At university age, I am producing music at a professional level and if I was out of school and working as a professional musician, I would charge admission to any recital I do and no one would think it’s pretentious. Why would it be different while in school? Well, to an extent music still feels a bit hobby-like to me and I’m happy to share my music with people regardless of money.

I remember one particular incident. I was asked to play as an extra musician with my old youth orchestra while I was home for a summer. They usually pay extra musicians so I just assumed I would be paid and never thought to ask. Of course at the last dress rehearsal, I get an envelope with what I assume is my honourarium. It wasn’t, it was just a thank you card. Of course, I can’t really ask the cheque was omitted by mistake as that would be too awkward. I know the organization was doing a lot of budget cuts. But frankly, if they can’t afford to pay the extra musicians, then they shouldn’t hire extra musicians. I probably wouldn’t have done it if I knew it was for free. Pardon me if that makes me sound like a jerk but I did have to take extra time out of my schedule to look at the music, attend rehearsals, and attend the concert. Any professional musician in a symphony orchestra would have legitimately demanded to be paid to do that. I would have been very right to do that same, but of course, I’m just a student that likes playing in things to be a good person and have exposure.

Bottom line, do things for free that are part of your school’s music program. Anything outside of school, you should be paid.

Letter to my first year self

Dear first year viola major,

I’m glad things went really well for you this year! You’ve met so many great friends and improved so much as a musician. You’re so much happier with your life right now in general. I told you it would be so much better when you didn’t have to see people you don’t like every single day. It almost feels like you have the perfect life right now; supportive friends, family, teachers, and you’re doing what you love. 

Don’t get too comfortable. Your first year of university is always deceptively easy, for you anyway. Yes, there are some people who can’t handle it, but it is designed so most people will make it through while still weeding out those who can’t.  Second year is going to throw some curveballs at you that you may not be prepared to deal with, but I know you are a strong person and that you will make it through even when it feels like you want to drop out.  As I like to say, second year is the year that kills. If you make it through second year, you’re set for the rest of your degree. 

First of all, you’re going to meet this violinist who thinks he’s the greatest thing on the planet since sliced bread. He is very good for his age, his technique is virtually flawless and he’s accomplished more before he started in university than some people do in their whole degree. You’re going to feel very threatened by him. Everyone in the music faculty is going to be in awe of him and worship him like he’s some kind of God. You’re going to feel abandoned, like you’re “so last year”. Remember that people still care about you and support you just as much as they did before. Just because this kid exists doesn’t mean that you all of a sudden suck. 

This violin kid in question is going to win lots of the competitions around the school and community. You’re going to feel a bit of resentment as you didn’t even enter these competitions in first year and here he is, winning them with ease. If there is nothing else you get out of this, don’t let him live in your head rent free. He is not any more inherently powerful or better than you as a human being and you can waste a lot of time and energy by obsessing over every little thing he does. It seems like the whole used faculty is in love with him and enthralled by what he’s doing. Why can’t people be equally enthralled by what you do, you ask. Well, consider this, Do you want hundreds of people who barely know you fascinated by what you do? Or, do you prefer the small group of people who you know very well that are genuinely supportive of you whether you win a competition or not? I think you know the answer. 

The important thing to remember about this violin kid is that he lacks a lot of intrinsic motivation. I bet any money that if one day this kid stopped winning every competition and people stopped liking his Facebook posts, he’d just quit. You are a much stronger person as you keep practicing every day regardless of the outcome. One day, your hard work will pay off and this violin kid will get put in his place once and for all. I know it’s frustrating to see people like this, but don’t let them get to you. You’re going to feel like you want to drop out, on account of this kid. That will be the most irrational thought you will have all year. You’re not in music school to impress him or try to be better than him. You’re in music school because you are passionate about music and you want to pursue a career in music.  Never lose sight of that. 

This kid is going to get into the same music program as you. That’s going to be initially a frustrating as you worked really hard for many years to be accepted into that program, and now you have to share it with violin kid, of all people. It still may seem like people care about him more than you, but don’t let that get to you. You know you worked really hard to be accepted and tried many years. It may seem unfair that he gets in on his first try, but I bet he wouldn’t have been as persistent as you if he didn’t get accepted the first time. 

Congrats on a good first year! Second year will be very challenging, but never give up. I know you can do it! 


Your 2015 self