Friday, 12 December 2014

Tips for Freelancing (Part 3)

Welcome to my third post of freelancing tips!  These are mostly things which I've learned the hard way, "on the job".  I'm posting them here in the hopes that some of you can avoid making the same mistakes.  At the very least, you can enjoy chuckling over my blunders with a mixture of recognition and Schadenfreude.  If you've missed my past posts, you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

21. Be prepared.
This is one point I have to say I've never struggled with.  I have always been very conscientious about learning my music.  But unfortunately I can't say the same for all of my colleagues.  I have seen people show up at the first rehearsal not knowing a single note of the score.  And it is REALLY annoying.  Any musical endeavour is only as good as its weakest link.  And when someone doesn't know their music, everyone else has to slow down their progress to accommodate them.  This is an extremely unfair burden to place on your colleagues.  Not only is it unprofessional, but it shows a complete lack of consideration and respect for others.  And don't think that your colleagues are the only one who will notice you don't know what you're doing.  The director, the conductor, and any other management present at rehearsals will certainly take note.  You can be sure that no matter how talented you are, they won't want to hire you again.

Scar makes a good point.

22. Dress the part.
I'll never forget my first Messiah.  It was at a cathedral in Paisley.  I wore a beautiful sleeveless sapphire-blue evening gown.  And I almost froze my tits off!  If I had put any thought into my attire (aside from the vanity of wanting to wear a pretty frock) I would have remembered that the Scottish winter is pretty cold, and most churches don't use central heating.  I would have worn thick woolen tights, and a dress with sleeves.  At the very least I would have covered my shoulders with a jacket or a shawl.
Any time you are performing at a new venue, or with a new company, make sure you do your research on what to wear.  Do they have a dress code?  How conservative is the audience?  Are bare shoulders and cleavage frowned upon?  Are women allowed to wear trousers?  And most importantly, how hot or cold are you going to be on stage?  It is essential to dress appropriately if you want to avoid being embarrassed or uncomfortable.

23. Make sure you're on the same page.
Here's another fun anecdote, again from Scotland.  I was hired for my first Vivaldi Gloria.  I immediately got a score from the library, and began preparing my part.  On the day of the concert I made a horrifying discovery: there are two versions of the Vivaldi Gloria, and I had prepared the wrong one.  The edition I had prepared had a considerably shortened version of the duet with the soprano.  We were performing the longer version, and there was a big chunk of music which I had never seen before!  After some panicked photocopying and note-bashing, I managed to get through the concert without disaster.  Needless to say, though, it was not ideal.  This is how I learned I had to check exactly which edition to use.  Don't make the same mistake I did!

24. Check, double-check, and check again.

To Do:
-Make List
-Check Twice

Make sure you're absolutely certain about every last detail.  The repertoire, the fee, the timing of the rehearsals, the address of the venue – anything which risks getting confused or miscommunicated.  Be meticulous about this, and do it well in advance of the gig.  Read and reread any information you've been given.  Make sure there's nothing missing, and if there is something missing, ask.  There is nothing more embarrassing than showing up at the wrong place, or at the wrong time.  There is nothing more uncomfortable than having a misunderstanding with your management about scheduling or money.  So make sure you know everything and are ok with it.  This is what contracts are for.  Which brings us to…

25. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
I know, I know.  Paperwork sucks.

"Um... a little help..?"

But most of the time it's there for your sake.  And if you don't pay close attention to it, you could land yourself in deep trouble.  Like any job, freelancing involves important financial and legal considerations.  So get your reading glasses out and protect yourself.  Make sure you're registered for taxes as self-employed.  Educate yourself on which expenses you can claim, and how to prepare and file a tax return.  Get insurance, and if you can, a savings plan.  In Germany we have a wonderful thing called the K√ľnstlersozialkasse (how's that for a mouthful?).  You make monthly payments based on how much you're earning, and in return they pay your health insurance and put money into a pension plan.  This is an invaluable resource for any freelancing musician.  Most importantly, pay careful attention to the paperwork your employers send you.  Any time you get a contract, make sure you understand and agree with everything before signing it.  Remember: you're usually the only one looking out for yourself.

26. You don't have to like everyone, and not everyone has to like you.
This is a hard enough lesson to learn in life, but it's especially painful to acknowledge when it comes to music.  I know we all like to think that music-making is a magical process, and everyone involved is brought together in peace and loving harmony by the beautiful sounds they make.

"Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya...."

Let's get real though.  Music attracts all kinds of personalities, including the difficult and unpleasant ones.  Don't get me wrong here.  I hope the majority of your employers and colleagues will be lovely, kind, and friendly people.  I hope you will have lots of things in common, and enjoy each other's company.  But the fact is, not everyone is going to become your new bestie.  In fact, some people might be downright mean to you.  The sooner you learn to accept and cope with this, the better.

27. …But you do have to get along.
You don't have to have go for chummy beers together after rehearsal, but you do have to be civil to each other.  No matter what you might think of someone personally, at the end of the day they still are your colleague.  You have to be able to work with them in a pleasant and respectful way.  And this may not be the last time you work with them.  So stay on good terms.  Don't burn any bridges.

28. Learn to manage your diary.
As a freelancer, your diary can look pretty crazy – especially in December.

What the Christmas season looks like for most of us.

But until you get your own management or can afford a personal assistant (sure, that'll be the day) managing your diary is up to you.  Before you accept another gig, take a good long look at your calendar.  Are you sure you're not double-booking yourself?  Are you sure you're not taking too much on?  Think twice before accepting new commitments.  As for the time between gigs, that's important to manage too.  You'll likely have a long to-do list and a lot of unstructured time in which to tackle it.  Learn to prioritise.  What's urgent?  What's important?  What can wait a bit?  Pay attention to your energy at different points of the day, and try to schedule your work accordingly.  Ideally you would want to do your practising when you're feeling the most energetic and focused. You can save your paperwork and emails for when you're feeling more mellow.

29. Know Yourself
Everyone is always talking about how you have to "sell yourself" in this business.  But how can you sell yourself if you don't know what it is you're selling?  Before you start "getting yourself out there" – auditioning, building a website, networking with prospective employers and so forth – you have to do some soul-searching and answer a few important questions.  What are your unique talents and skills?  What kind of musical and performing personality do you have?  What kind of repertoire suits you best and why?  What kind of work do you want to do?  Your answers to these questions will inform a lot of decisions, such as how you market yourself and who you audition for.  It will also help you feel more focused and confident as you continue to build a career.

30. Add some strings to your bow.
Very few musicians make a living doing just one thing.  It's tough out there, and work is hard to come by.  So if you are going around looking only for work as a concert pianist, you are narrowing your possibilities considerably.  How about being a concert pianist who also accompanies, teaches private lessons, and composes arrangements for their own ensemble?  Now we're talking.  Everyone has their own variety of skills and talents.  So find out what else you can do well, and capitalise on that!  The more diverse your skills, the better your chances of survival.

The most important thing to remember?  Freelancing is a tough business.  And despite all the anecdotes and tips I've tried to share with you on here, you will probably make your own unique set of mistakes.  Don't sweat it too much.  Mistakes are normal.  Just make sure you learn your lesson and move on!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Tips for Freelancing (Part 2)

And we're back, with more tips for freelancing!  If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.  Trust me when I say, I've learned each and every one of these from personal experience.

11. Respect your elders.
It seems these days the music industry is getting more and more age-ist.  Everyone is fascinated with the emerging artists, the rising stars.  The newest and hottest young people to hit the scene.  Whatever happened to the respect and awe we used to hold for experienced professionals?  The truth is that older musicians have a LOT to teach you.  They've been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt.  And if you take the time to listen, they'll have some amazing advice and anecdotes to share.  Don't write someone off because their age doesn't begin with 2 or 3.  They may become an amazing friend and mentor for you.

Pierre here could teach you a thing or two about the accordion.
Also, beards and looking stern.

12. Be curious.
When I'm chatting with a friendly colleague, I always try asking what they've been up to lately, and what's coming up next.  Oh, who's the conductor for that again?  And how might I get in touch with them?  This can be one of the best ways to find new professional contacts and eventually get more work.

13. ….But know where to draw the line.
At the same time, you can't expect your colleagues to spoonfeed a career to you.  Some people can be incredibly generous and forthcoming with their information.  But even the most helpful colleague will have their limits.  If a colleague feels like you're just using them for all their contacts and tips, they'll get fed up with it pretty quickly.  Nobody is going to begrudge you a couple of email addresses and tips, but you can't expect them to hand you all of your work on a platter.  You have to do some of the research yourself.  Why would you want to copy their career anyway?  It's their career, something they've tailored over the years to suit their particular skills, talents, and personality.  If you want to be a happy freelancer, you have to build up a combination of work which is right for you.  You have to find your own way.

Back off!  Get your own career.

14. Choose your projects wisely.
One of the toughest freelancing dilemmas is when you get offered two different contracts which conflict with each other.  Sometimes you can negotiate with both parties and find a way to do both.  But usually you're faced with a difficult decision.  Which project to choose?  As someone notoriously bad at decision-making, I know just how stressful this can be.  When faced with a choice like this, I often spend ages agonising over my options and their various pros and cons.  (Seriously, just ask my friends).  There are a lot of factors to consider.  Obviously money is important, but it isn't always the tipping point.  One project might pay less, but still offer a unique and career-building experience – for example, the chance to sing an important role, or work with a well-respected mentor, or perform for important agents and managers.  Perhaps this is a project you know you would really enjoy, because you would get the chance to work with great colleagues, or travel to a country you've never seen before.  In the end you always have to decide what is best for you, right now, at this point in your career.  Is it time to think of your long-term career trajectory, and invest in some professional development?  Can you afford to earn less in the name of fun?  Or is it time to buckle down and do some (perhaps less glamorous) work, so you can pay the bills?

Decisions, decisions...

15. Honour your commitments.
Once you've made your decision, stick with it.  It's important to stay on good terms with an employer, even if you don't think you'll work with them again.  And nobody likes getting the shaft – especially at the last minute.  Sure, sometimes cancelling is unavoidable.  Illness, accidents, family emergencies – these are all justifiable reasons to cancel.  But if you're given the choice, you should always opt to be a loyal and reliable artist.  You can only back out of so many contracts before you start getting a bad reputation.  People talk.  What they'll say is up to you.

16. Pay your dues.
I see a lot of young singers coming out of music college with big heads and starry eyes, thinking they're going to be the Next Big Thing.  And who knows?  Maybe they will.  But they're probably not going to get the big contracts right away.  Everyone has to start somewhere, right?  A lot of the work you do at the beginning of your career will be exhausting, boring, and badly compensated.  It sucks.  I know.  But have courage – you're just at the bottom rung of the ladder right now.  If you do a good job and behave professionally, you'll be on your way up in no time!

Time to get climbing!

17. …But know your worth.
When I arrived in Germany, I accepted some work for very low pay, only to find out that colleagues of the same age and level of experience had negotiated up to a considerably high fee.  Now every time I work for these organisations they'll expect me to be ok working for peanuts.  Why did I agree to work for so little?  I'm a well-educated, well-trained musician with valuable skills to contribute.  And I need to pay my bills just like everyone else!  I've learned this lesson the hard way.  Negotiating fees is a tricky task, but you need to learn to advocate for yourself if you want to pay rent.

18. Keep the big picture in mind.
The problem with gigging around is that it can make you a bit myopic.  You only focus as far as today's rehearsal, or perhaps next weekend's concert.  But what about the bigger goals?  What do you want to accomplish as a musician this year, this decade, this lifetime?  How do you want to build your career?  How do you want to express yourself as a performer?  How do you want to grow as an artist?  If you don't keep thinking about these big questions, you won't have any direction.  Before you know it your whole career will have flown by, and you won't have accomplished half the things you wanted to.

"Remember: we're going THAT way!"

19. Keep getting better.
I know this sounds obvious, but when you're going from one rehearsal to the next, it's easy to get lazy and complacent about your technique.  Maybe you forget to warm up today, or don't bother scheduling a lesson for next week.  Before you know it your sound has gone down the toilet and nobody wants to hire you anymore.  Never take your technique for granted!  You should always be trying to build and maintain it.  After all, that's what's great about being a musician, isn't it?  You never stop growing.  So even if you have a super-busy day, try to take at least 20 minutes to do some technical work and make sure everything is working as it should.  Take pride in always striving to be the best you can be.

20. Fuel your passion.
Sometimes a freelancer gets stuck in a rut.  Shuffling from project to project, never really doing anything they care about.  Everything they do is for money and nothing else.  Not because they love the music, not because they enjoy working with the conductor – only because they need to earn some cash.  This is an incredible demoralising way to work, and if you're not careful it can turn you into a bitter, jaded, and passionless musician.  Ok, so life is not a fairytale.  Sometimes we have to do work that's just that – work.  But we also need to do things which inspire us, which drive us, which feed our musical soul.  Otherwise we may forget what made us choose music in the first place!  So make an effort, on a regular basis, to do a project which really matters to you as an artist.  You may not be able to make money from it.  You may have to set up the whole concert yourself, from the marketing to the venue and reception.  But it will pay off in the long run, because you will be a passionate and inspired artist.  Keep nourishing your love of music and reminding yourself why you do what you do.

Fill 'er up!

I'll be posting more tips soon.  In the meantime, good luck and happy gigging!