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.