In the summer of 2021, I knew I wanted to continue to build my C.V., but my schedule was a bit weird and I was about to move across the country. The pandemic prevented many festivals and conferences from happening in person (and I procrastinated too long to have auditioned for the few in-person festivals), I didn’t have an active studio, and I was in the middle of two degrees. How could I show future employers I was still active and growing as a musician over the summer when there seemed to be no available opportunities?
What I learned that summer (and am still learning) is that as musicians, we must always strive to create our own opportunities. We must be the captain of our own ship – no one else will set sail for us. We must take responsibility for our own success.
Here are a few tips I’ve gathered along the way regarding how to do this and why it’s so important.
You Must Act Professional 100% of the Time
Presenting yourself as a professional during every encounter will strengthen your reputation, and your level of professionalism could easily be what provides an opportunity (or prevents one).
This doesn’t mean you have to wear slacks and a suit coat, but to the best of your ability you should wear nicer clothing (i.e., not shorts and a t-shirt). Dressing professionally allows you to make a strong first impression, communicates to others that you take your job seriously, enhances your credibility, and can often stimulate self-confidence.
Be aware of what comes out of your mouth
Your words are a direct representation of your character. Is your speech filled with profanity? Are you gossiping about other people in rehearsals? Do you complain all the time? Make sure what you say places you and others in a positive light. Learn to listen more than you speak.
Thank people for their time, attention, and support. Using basic manners and treating people with respect can get you very far. People will remember your kindness more than they remember your teaching or playing abilities. Always make sure to genuinely thank the person who gave you the opportunity.
Professionalism in action: I consider it a compliment when people think I’m older than I actually am because maturity is often associated with age. At a recent festival, I had a few people assume I was older than my actual age because of how I carried myself, how I dressed, what I said, and how I thanked donors, etc. Ensuring you act professionally at all times (even when your peers may not be) allows you to make a lasting impression.
Be Willing to Cold Call
Even if you are an introvert like myself, you must be willing to make cold connections. One of my mentors always says “no askie, no gettie,” and in my experience, this is 100% accurate. Reach out to organizations you’re interested in working for, interning for, playing for, etc., and get over the awkwardness and the fear of receiving a “no.” Musicians should expect to get 29 “no’s” before they get a single “yes.” Start getting those “no’s” now so your “yes” comes quicker!
Cold calling in action: While at the University of Kansas, I served as the Orchestra Librarian and LOVED everything the job entailed. This was a bit of a stretch – it was during the height of the pandemic, they didn’t have any openings for interns, and I only had about a month that I was available. In that awkward summer of 2021, I had the idea to reach out to the Kansas City Symphony and ask if I could intern with their librarians. This was a bit of a stretch – it was during the height of the pandemic, they didn’t have any openings for interns (they didn’t even have a “librarian” internship in the first place), and I only had about a month that I was available. I reached out via email with a copy of my C.V., a letter of recommendation, and a cover letter and received an email back saying they were happy to have me. Turns out, I was able to help with an inventory project as they were prepping to move to a different location.
Use Your Existing Network
People like to do projects with people they know and like. Therefore, one of the easiest and fastest ways to build more opportunities for yourself is to leverage your current network. Who do you know at school or work? Who did you meet at a conference, festival, gig, etc.? Who do you know outside of your instrument?
Collaboration can be a big win for you as a professional. I once played in a reading session for a composition class and stayed after to get to know the composers (network). This led to a gig the following summer, and likely more in the future.
Form an ensemble
Forming an ensemble is also one of the better ways to advance in your career (and playing!). In addition to making new connections and growing as a musician, you will likely get access to the networks of the other members of your ensemble, which could lead to opportunities in the future.
Using your existing network in action: Last fall I helped form a woodwind quintet at Florida State University. We text each other about opportunities we come across as individuals and utilize each other’s networks. This system lead to four gigs this past summer with a local orchestra – all landed by our bassoonist. This gig even has a high likelihood to turn into future opportunities.
Lean into your Skills and Passions
Developing a creative outlook on your skills and passions can help you think outside the box. Brainstorm ways to turn your passions into opportunities:
- Do you like teaching more than playing or vice versa?
- Could you form an ensemble and go play somewhere (i.e., at a park, a nursing home, a church, for a club etc.)?
- Could you volunteer your time and go teach a masterclass once a month at an area high school or offer to play in a local music organization’s fundraising recital?
These passions can lead to relationships, which could lead to paid gigs/students for your studio (think “if you give a mouse a cookie…”).
Leaning into your skills and passions in action: This summer, I was eager to have another opportunity to play for an audience, and a colleague had the great idea to put a flute quartet together and play for a local nursing home. Afterward, she used that “in” with the staff at the nursing home to give her own private students the opportunity to perform a mini recital for the residents – boosting her offerings as a private teacher and therefore being able to raise her rates. And it all began with a passion to perform more.
Be Flexible and Adaptable with your Expectations
I say yes to as many gigs as I can, even if they “don’t pay well” or “aren’t worth the drive” because you never know when it could lead to something else or who you will meet while on the job. Also keep in mind that things may not always fall perfectly into place, and you may not be paid (at least not right away) for your work. But having the grit to seek out opportunities and the determination to follow them through will pay off in the end!
Being flexible and adaptable in action: During my master’s degree, I taught for free to get experience and practice. My schedule changed quite a bit during the consecutive semester, and I was no longer able to be a part of the program through which the lessons were provided. However, one of my students asked to continue with lessons and was willing to pay me to teach. Being flexible with my expectations (in this case, monetary expectations) gave me experience, and eventually led to payment as well.
Watching my peers get (or not get) gigs has helped me answer the question “how does a musician land opportunities to grow their career?” It boils down to an internal decision to be a creative professional who is willing to play the long game. I’ve found I can create opportunities for myself – and so can you.
Want to add to the conversation? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or shoot me an email at email@example.com