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What realistic career paths do percussionists have available?

Mim plays cymbals

Below I am reporting what is posted on the website of the Adria Conservatory, where I studied for five years after a 8 years Diploma in Percussion from another Conservatory. In the section for the Master Degree of every musical instrument, in the paragraph titled “career paths”, you can read the following:

The theoretical, methodological, and practical knowledge acquired by the student by the end of the biennium will allow him/her to pursue the following career paths:

  • Soloist
  • Orchestra conductor
  • Member of a chamber music ensemble
  • Orchestra soloist
  • Solo opera singer
  • Choir artist
  • Concert artist (specific reference to voice-piano duet)
  • Jazz music concert artist
  • Choir director
  • Music teacher in private schools
  • Cultural promoter in the field of music
  • Event and concert season organizer
  • Composer of soundtracks for movies, radio, and television
  • Composer of music for musical and drama theater
  • Composer of music for the multimedia publishing industry
  • Recording studio producer
  • Radio station or recording studio consultant
  • Music consultant and organizer for public or private institutions
  • Independent composer, researcher, and publicist
  • Record company producer
  • Technical supervisor for theaters or opera houses

These trained professionals will have a definite advantage in finding career opportunities in the following areas:
•group activities of various types (permanent and temporary positions, contracts);
•independent entrepreneurial activities within the different “sectors” of a project.

Graduates will be able to autonomously manage their own business activities (companies, partnerships, co-ops) because by the end of their course of studies, they will have the tools and knowledge – professional, both theoretical and practical, legal and institutional – to be able to move forward with independently managing their career.

Aside from the last paragraph, which does not at all reflect reality (I wish we could study some entrepreneurship instead of so much useless “fluff”), is it really true that you can pursue all those career paths with a second level degree in, for example, percussion instruments? Yes, certainly, except for the “solo opera singer” and “choir artist” part, unless you have a truly exceptional voice…

However… although all these options should be listed because they are indeed options available to you, what are the real and realistic career paths for a percussionist who has graduated from a conservatory?

Let’s talk about it.

 

1. TEACHER

How many percussionists do you know who don’t teach? I know some of them, but very few. Of these few, 99% have a permanent position with an orchestra (see section 2).

Teaching is a job, probably the one feeding the largest majority of percussionists around the world.

Teaching is ALSO a passion and can ALSO be wonderful, but this is a whole different story and in any case, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion…

First of all, let’s start with this thought: you need to teach what you know how to play. It is such an obvious concept that it seems impossible to have public school and Conservatory teachers who can’t play their instrument. And yet it happens…

Moving back to my own experience, I do not teach neither ethnic percussion instruments because I can’t play them (except for a few rhythms on conga), nor jazz improvisation on the vibraphone because I never seriously studied that technique. And I don’t teach many other things.

That being said, the second question is: teaching where? Well, basically:

  • in music schools, cultural groups, or in your personal studio. In other words, privately. Remember that “privately” goes hand in hand with “99% of the time you will exclusively teach drums”;
  • in public institutions, such as middle schools and high schools, and Conservatories, where you will have the opportunity to teach all the percussion instruments you have available.

And last but not least, …drum roll…. in 2016 you will also have the option to teach ONLINE! I am not only talking about Skype lessons – which I have personally never been a fan of even if it is indeed an option – but mostly about online courses. I myself did try it and this month I will receive my first $100.00 payment (wow!) for my courses on curious.com.

Online music courses are still, in my opinion, an unchartered territory definitely worth exploring.

 

2. ORCHESTRA PLAYER

orchestral triangleIn Italy, orchestras are dying and from what I’ve heard, they are not doing too well in the rest of the world either. Despite this, orchestras still represent a safe option for many percussionists, maybe because there are not as many of us percussionists as there are players of other instruments. Speaking of which, try asking a flutist how many candidates there are on average for an audition for flute in an orchestra…

Orchestras have, in my opinion, great music, great theaters, great people, and great money. Sometimes.

In reality, orchestras are an interesting career path for both those musicians who want to be full time members and for those ones who, like me, have another main occupation (teaching in my case) and only play in an orchestra as a freelancer.

The most interesting aspect of playing in an orchestra is that, unlike other working environments, everything is already organized and set. You just have to show up on the days of rehearsal and concert, play (well) and then good-bye and good riddance. The very best part is that, most of the times, you’ll find the instruments already set in place with the added bonus of not having to fight with club owners to get paid (see section 4). And that’s huge!

The only problem is that those who dream of becoming permanent members of an orchestra have a long road ahead of them, a long road of auditions. But remember, everything is possible.

If you are one of these brave percussionists, I am sending you a virtual pat on the back, wishing you good luck, and giving you a couple of tips:

 

3. CHAMBER MUSIC GROUPS

chamber music percussionEven in chamber music groups there is no shortage of work for percussionists. You can play in early or contemporary chamber music ensembles and even in ensembles of percussion instruments, one of my greatest passions.

Most of all, you can create YOUR OWN chamber music ensemble and/or YOUR OWN ensemble of percussion instruments. I already wrote an article titled “5 Good Reasons for Starting a Percussion Ensemble” on this subject.

What is the context in which chamber music ensembles play? In many different contexts, but mostly within the regular concert season and in festivals organized by various local entities and groups.

Once again, I can safely say that playing in a chamber music ensemble means great music, great concert halls, great people, and great money, sometimes even more than when playing in an orchestra.

BUT: there is indeed a different kind of organization (“figure it out for yourself” kind of organization) and most of all, you have to bring your own instruments. Once again, that’s huge…

Have fun!

 

4. DRUMMER

Every classical percussionist should play in a rock or jazz band, if nothing else to have the opportunity to fight with club owners in order to get paid after a show. Obviously always within the limits of a fight between gentlemen. Learning these sort of things is also part of the “job”.

Although there is a density of about 1 million bands per square kilometer (I came up with this estimate after very reliable calculations…), only less than 1% of these bands perform in more than 3 concerts a month – paid concerts (this estimate is also a product of very reliable calculations…). However, being part of that 1% is not so impossible; all you have to do is put together a good show and be musically prepared. Since this is a secret known to very few, keep your mouth shut and don’t broadcast it to everyone in the practice rooms.

Beware though: there is an increasing number of good drummers around; just look at how many will sign up for the various drumming courses at the different Conservatories. Consequently, having a degree in Percussion Instruments and being able to play the hardest contemporary marimba repertoire is not going to help you in the world of drums.

Study this instrument very thoroughly because it definitely provides a better job opportunity than some of the other wonderful toys percussionists love so much. If nothing else it provides a great teaching opportunity.

To recap: if you are interested in earning a living also as a drummer, your should play “less Keiko Abe, more Guns N’ Roses”.

(P.S.: even if I like Keiko Abe more than listening Axl Rose’s voice…)

 

5. G.S.P. GREAT SOLO PERCUSSIONIST

Percussionist hat

Why shouldn’t you strive to become a Great Solo Percussionist like Evelyn Glennie? Simple… because there is only one Evelyn Glennie and it isn’t you.

Just joking. Honestly though, we have to admit that today there is hardly anyone, other than Evelyn Glennie and a few others, who can make a living playing in solo recitals and concerts for percussion instruments without being “forced” to teach in a Conservatory somewhere. It’s a fact.

Yet, there is nothing wrong with dreaming of becoming great soloists, au contraire.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars

Les Brown

And best of luck!

 

Question: in your opinion, which career paths does a percussionist have available? Put yourself in the shoes of a teacher who was asked this question by one of his/her students. Leave a comment!