Making the Numbers Work

One of the toughest parts of being a musician in new music is finding the balance between making a living and performing the music and concerts you are passionate about. Often times those two don’t line up, with one siphoning away your time and the other siphoning away your income. This is a puzzle that I constantly struggle with.

As someone who is both an artistic director of a growing organization and a pianist, I often switch between practicing, teaching, working on creative projects, and tackling administrative tasks. Before I decided to make teaching my only day job again, I had worked at a creative agency as a production assistant, then as an events producer at a nonprofit that I loved. While working these jobs, I also maintained a small private piano studio. Towards the middle of last year, we at the Nouveau Classical Project were launching our first benefit on top of producing our largest project to date. My gut told me I had to leave the event production job much sooner than I had planned (I thought it would be at least another couple years) because I knew I needed more time to put into NCP. It came down to needing not only the time, but also the energy and the brain space to nurture my vision. But I wasn’t going to quit without knowing first that I had enough teaching hours to pay my bills. I made it my new priority to make sure that I could maintain my 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. practice schedule with time in the evening and weekends for NCP hours.

It used to be about being as busy as possible, playing as much as possible, with the hope that it would line up at the end of the month. Right after I got my master’s degree, I was eager to take on every single gig I was offered. Besides the fact that I needed to find a way to eat and pay rent, I suffered musician FOMO (fear of missing out); I worried that if I did not play in nearly everything I could, I would be hindering my career. I thought this strategy would allow me to eventually become a self-sufficient musician. What I did not account for was how much time it takes to do everything well—and that in order to do it well, I needed a lot of free time to practice for my performances.

This is not a time management problem; I have always been very disciplined about practicing and having an organized schedule. But how do you manage time when you don’t have it?

Just because you can make time to attend every rehearsal and perform in the concert does not mean you can find the time to practice and be prepared. That might mean saying no to performing every now and then. It also depends on the music, of course, and maybe the assessment can be made after you see what is being programmed, but for the most part, it will be obvious if you are spreading yourself thin. We aren’t invincible.

With wedding music or random cocktail receptions, it is easy to offer rote performances and make an easy buck. But for the concerts that I’m sure most of us NewMusicBox musician fans love to perform—the concerts with music by living composers who have poured their energy and love into writing it—we can’t just phone it in. And we shouldn’t. The compensation for these concerts ranges, so it’s difficult to project how much will be coming in from these gigs. Because of this, we find ourselves in the difficult position of taking on as many gigs as possible to cover our living costs, which can unfortunately quickly put us in the corner of over commitment. We aren’t able to fit in the time to practice because we have too many rehearsals and concerts.

You have to be your own boss—to be responsible for creating the schedule for the week—and this isn’t easy. You need to be able to step outside of yourself and, in the case of freelance musicians, become a second person who tells you yes and no. How anxious are we to play everywhere, be everywhere, and do everything? We need to make a living but we also need to be artists and we need to nurture our careers by performing a significant amount to get our names out there. This is the essence of the struggle.

A scene from Potential Energies.

A scene from Potential Energies.

In NCP’s recent piece Potential Energies (a collaboration with dancers) we have a movement nicknamed “It Comes Down to the Numbers.” It’s about time and money, and the turning point where they aren’t lining up with your original goals. In my case, in the past I’ve tried to do too much to make this happen. Some gigs paid well and some did not but were artistically fulfilling. It would be a shame to only think in terms of financials and not see the artistic merit or potential of a project, because oftentimes, especially with projects by less established but talented artists, the numbers do not quite line up with the value of the art. If instead you used some of your time to teach or take a part-time day job, you might be more able to take on the gigs that are more artistically fulfilling than they are monetarily fulfilling. And you could find the time to prepare for them.

How do you make all of these numbers line up?

What worked for me was when I separated what sustains me financially versus what fulfills me artistically until the day comes that I make the two meet. Everyone has their own individual solutions, but I think it is most productive to keep in mind whether or not we are maintaining the quality of our playing and artistry and have a solid source of income while we build our careers. I’ve learned that one of the most difficult things to come to terms with is learning how to tell myself “no.”

5 thoughts on “Making the Numbers Work

  1. Jennifer

    A mentor of mine recently taught me a helpful formula for evaluating whether to take gigs. The gig has to have TWO of the following to be sustainable (i.e. not soul sucking)

    Money – Fun – Reward

    So, a gig can pay well and be a lot of fun but not necessarily be your dream artistic gig, or it might not pay well but at least it will be fun and artistically fulfilling, or the gig will be a slog (no fun) but it pays nicely and is artistically rewarding. And reward can mean many things for different people: getting a review, working with someone you’d love to connect with, playing a piece of rep that’s important to your career, etc.

    Reply
    1. william osborne

      One of the saddest numbers in music seems to be 30. It’s somewhere around that age that so many who have been following their artistic ideals give up. Many quit music and go into other fields. Others lose their ideals to a life of demeaning gigs – often poorly paid and made all the worse because they are scattered over a wide geographical area. Their artistic souls are crushed. How much difficulty is justified? And how much is just plain neglect of culture? I hope your thoughts about ideals and numbers will guide you and others to success.

      Reply
      1. Sugar Vendil Post author

        William it’s so true. 30 seems to be the age when everyone scrambles and is like, ‘Shouldn’t I be famous by now? Shouldn’t my career have taken off?’

        It’s hard to say how much the difficulty is justified, but I think that it really helps to manage expectations. To know not expect to have a really amazing career by the age of 30. Long game.

        Reply
    2. Sugar Vendil Post author

      Hi Jennifer,

      All great things to take into consideration! Thank you for your insightful comment.

      The other thing to think about is how many gigs to take at a time. What if you have 5 gigs that fit all the criteria? I think what’s difficult for many of us is avoiding spreading ourselves thin.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Menyeimbangkan Finansial dan Musik | A Musical Promenade

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