Open Forum: Independent Musicians

Nohema Fernandez

Note: The College Music Society held open forums during its 2004 National Conference in San Francisco to discuss the Professional Life Initiative reports. This is a brief synopsis of the Forum on Independent Musicians held at the Conference.

In addition to the moderator and recorder, eleven participants attended this Open Forum. As attendees described their professional activities, it became evident that most independent musicians are involved in more than one income-producing activity and that entrepreneurship is an art in itself. The intimate format of this forum was praised as providing comfort and open dialogue.

Private teaching, playing “gigs”, music arranging, church jobs, part-time college jobs, and non-music jobs are some of the most common sources of income for the independent musician. Some of the participants had taught in colleges in the past; others presently combine adjunct positions with private studio teaching or some of the previously listed activities. Two of the participants, like many other independent musicians, take advantage of their flexible schedules to finish a degree or take additional courses in nearby universities.

Moderator Arthur Houle shared his personal trajectory from independent musician to college professor, and then back to independent musician. He stated that “there is life outside of academe” and participants agreed. One participant added that, as an independent musician, it is refreshingly freeing to be able to sleep in after a late evening “gig”. Another stated that, although an academic position offers a sense of financial security, living outside of academe has an entrepreneurial atmosphere that requires creativity in the choice of roads to follow.

One cited advantage within an academic setting is that one can focus on teaching performance issues since students get their other musical necessities (e.g., theory) in other classes. By contrast, independent teachers have to fit in both performance issues and other musical necessities into the lessons.

Participants did cite a widespread concern about elitism in academe. They stated that, frequently, independent musicians feel undervalued by those who have academic appointments.

Ideas that came out of this session:

1. Creative ideas for the recruitment of students:

- Present frequent student recitals and performances – this functions as an effective marketing technique (word of mouth is the best advertising) and makes learning exciting;

- Advertisements rarely work; instead, email or call other private teachers advising them that you have space in your studio, and ask for their referrals;

- Be in contact with those who teach at nearby colleges and universities – they frequently do not have time to take on private students and are willing to refer inquiries out to independent teachers.

2. Other avenues for income outside of teaching:

- Be attentive to unusual opportunities; there are occasional jobs that come up connected with music that have nothing to do with performance or teaching;

- Offer your services as a performer/entertainer at nursing and retirement homes;

- Play organ for services in a church or synagogue;

- Look for opportunities performing at restaurants and clubs.

3. Start a small performance series – identify the need in the community and figure out how to fill it. This helps to network with others freelancing, creates visibility, and helps to find related opportunities.

4. Start a festival. Determine theme and distinctive features, then go obtain corporate support.

5. Above all, be original, then take a chance, and put yourself forward.