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A brief guide for the freelance percussionist

Freelance percussionist

The phone rings. Unknown number. Who can it be…? Here are three options:

  1. someone who dialed the wrong number;
  2. a poor telemarketer from your phone company whose only job is to legally defraud you;
  3. someone who offers you a role in a new production because he/she needs the best percussionist in town, and that happens to be you.

If you are a freelance percussionist, you’ll always hope for the third option. Even if you are not a freelance percussionist, you will still hope for the third option because, let’s face it, unknown and telemarketers would scare anybody.

Anyhow, the true question really is: how do you become a freelance percussionist? Here are a few tips.

 

CHOICE OR NECESSITY?

First of all, you have to ask yourself the following question: is being a freelancer a matter of choice or necessity?

I’d like to start with a thought: all musicians are freelancers by nature. Pretty obvious, right? The only partner you have and will ever have in your professional life is and will always be yourself (and your instruments). Being a freelancer is therefore neither a choice nor a necessity. It simply is part of the nature of being a musician. Like plumbers, lawyers, doctors, and craftsmen, we live thanks to the product of our art. And in case you are wondering, yes, a plumber is an artist too.

Of course, some musicians do forget their nature, comforted by a paycheck and by a more or less stable employment situation, like, for example, a public school teacher of percussion instruments who decides to hang up the marimba (that will never be me and in any case, a hook strong enough to hold a marimba doesn’t even exist). These people choose not to be freelancers and at the same time, they stop being true artists.

Nature or not, being a freelancer is also a necessity. Not all percussionists are part of an orchestra or teach in school. Musicians who choose orchestra as a career path, will still have to make a living while they go through the auditioning process. The same can be said about those future teachers who are studying for the last (damn) credential exam.

Basically, you need to put food on the table. Therefore, you better be clear on how to do that.

 

STUDY

Practice. A few hours a day. Many hours a day. The more you practice, the better it is. Period.

Music teaching department

This is a typical music teaching department. Beware of these people.

And don’t believe those people who tell that a half hour of “hard work” is enough. Mainly, do not trust teachers who are not artists, in other words, those ones whose professional career is teaching not playing music…. You understand me, right?

Stay away especially from music teaching departments. They are packed with full-time teachers. NO REAL MUSIC. JUST WORDS. Trust me.

 

CONNECTIONS

If you really want that phone to ring and that job offer to arrive, you need to network with the right people.

Being a great musician is not enough if no one knows about it. I know you have heard this a thousand times before but it is indeed true.

The best way to develop the right connections is to make a good impression when you perform. No marketing strategy, website, or business card is as valuable. Your greatest resource is word of mouth. In other words, being a professional and skilled musician is the best way for your phone number to be passed from person to person.

All of this actually brings us back to my earlier advice: study.

 

WHICH INSTRUMENTS YOU NEED TO OWN

Whether you like it or not, owning many great instruments doesn’t make you a good percussionist. I already wrote about a similar topic in my post “Better equipment vs better musician?”.

That being said, if you want to be a freelancer you need to purchase instruments sooner or later. After investing on yourself (let’s not forget your parents’ patience) and on developing the right connections, the expense to purchase instruments is definitely the most important investment you can possibly make.

Below is a short, hopefully exhaustive list, in random order, of the instruments and accessories that each percussionist should own:

  • 1 pair of congas (conga and tumba), 1 pair of bongos e 1 pair of timbales;
  • woodblock – the red and the blue one and the “granite” blocks of Latin Percussion are perfect;
  • tambourine;
  • castanets;
  • 1 triangle;
  • 1 orchestral snare drum;
  • 1 glockenspiel;
  • 1 xylophone;
  • 1 marimba, possibly a 5 octaves;
  • 1 vibraphone;
  • a pair of 20” orchestral cymbals and maybe another 18” or 16” pair for the quicker passages or to have more timbre variety;
  • an orchestral bass drum, possibly a 32”, the best size in my opinion (you need to put it into a car!);
  • a set of two 26”-29” portable timpani. Do you know why I didn’t say a set of four? Because it would be impossible to transport four timpani in any “normal” car and because an orchestra that requires you to bring four timpani is not an orchestra, it’s a circus;
  • 1 drum set with a 18″ bass drum with a set of jazz cymbals for jazz or acoustic genres;
  • 1 drum set with a 22″ or 20″ and a set of cymbals for pop-rock music;
  • a ton of drumsticks and mallets;
  • a ton of cymbal and other stands;
  • instrument cases to actually be used and not to be lazily left at home;
  • a very large car (I use a Volkswagen Turan) or a van;
  • a frac;
  • a smoking;
  • a ton of other instruments and accessories, that for one reason or another, are not included in this list.

 

MONEY

Rule number 1: don’t be afraid to talk about money. If you really want to purchase all those wonderful things we talked about in the paragraph above, you will need quite a bit of money

Ok, wait a minute Paul. Didn’t you just say that you make money only THANKS to those instruments…? Yes… actually… no. Anyhow it is really complicated. So let’s move on.

Let’s talk about how much to ask for. Money, cash, dough! How much should you ask?

Smoking money

Be really careful because the formula to calculate the pay of a freelance artist can be as complicated as the most complex mathematical equation. So pay attention while you read this paragraph and mostly don’t fall asleep.

Let’s start from the fact that all freelance artists exchange their time for money. You might find this a bit crass but that’s the reality of it. Whether you play music, fix faucets, save human lives, the issue doesn’t change. You are still exchanging time for money.

Consequently, the question you have to answer is this: how much is an hour of my time worth?

Be careful though, because time doesn’t just refer to the duration of your performance. The concept of time also includes the following:

  1. ST: it is the study time you need to prepare a piece, in other words, your personal learning time. This value is actually directly proportional to another variable, which is the complexity of the pieces you are studying. The harder the pieces, the more time will be needed to master them.
  2. RT: rehearsal time (if you play in an orchestra, a band, or an ensemble).
  3. TT: travel time to arrive at the location of the concert and/or the rehearsals.

Once you have considered all these variables, you still have to add additional expenses to your equation. These expenses are as follows:

  1. TE: travel expenses, including gas and highway tolls.
  2. SE: survival expenses, basically…. eating and drinking.

At this point, you have come up with an amount which approximately represents the net value of the gig you were called to do and that can be summarized with the following formula:

MONEY = ST + RT + TT + TE + SE.

This is the magic formula. Now forget all that you have read in this paragraph regarding money and just remember the following four simple things:

  1. take it easy, don’t get carried away with calculations. Use common sense;
  2. use common sense. Did I already say that? Well, I am going to say it again. Use common sense;
  3. don’t underrate yourself. If you think the amount of money you are offered is not enough, ask for more. If your request is not accepted, turn down the production (unless this endangers your own survival since MONEY = FOOD);
  4. if the subject of money is not brought up, which is very common here in Italy, you bring it up. Sometimes it seems that talking about money makes you appear arrogant but it’s not like that at all. Whoever doesn’t talk about it, just wants to cheat you.

 

CONCLUSIONS

I am sure that after reading this post your career as a freelance percussionist will take off. If that should not happen, I decline any responsibility for your failure. It’s your fault, it’s just your fault.

One last advice: study!

Ciao.

 

Question: do you have any good pieces of advice for those who want to pursue a freelance career as percussionist? Leave a comment!

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