A Weekend in the Life of a Freelance Musician
As a musician living in a big city, many people often ask me about how I spend my time, how I make my money, and generally speaking, what my life looks like. General small-talk questions like, “where do you work?” or “what do you do?” may not be so simple for many of us. Sometimes I answer with one of my many job titles. Other times, I mention a little bit of this or that. Most of the time, I just laugh. With this in mind, I decided to ask a few of our own Verdigris musicians what a general weekend might look like for them. I begin by reviewing my own weekend. Please enjoy the craze:
Friday afternoon, I walked out of Park Cities Baptist day school after teaching my five classes of music and play with the adorable pre-K kiddos. These children are precious, but as anyone who spends time with this age group knows, they are extremely high energy! Hoping to get a nap in before my next rehearsal, I rushed home and snoozed for about twenty minutes before grabbing another coffee and rushing out the door. I always have an extra set of black clothing and my black flats and organ shoes in the back seat of my little car, along with five or six black binders full of my music. The challenge is keeping track of which binder is which. This particular night, I was singing a concert with a small chamber choir, rehearsing from 4pm-6pm, at which point we had a brief dinner break and the concert at 8pm. When I arrived home that evening at around 11pm, I watched Netflix (currently obsessed with Nurse Jackie) for about an hour before dozing off.
Saturday morning, I drove an hour to Denton for my next rehearsal, which was thankfully not until 11am. Enough time for me to drink at least three cups of coffee. I walked into the little rehearsal space and sang and rehearsed Buxtehude and Bach with a few colleagues/friends in a small Baroque ensemble at University of North Texas. We all drank coffee (with the exception of one Red Bull drinker) as we rehearsed. I drove back to Dallas while putting on some makeup, braiding my hair, and changing in the bathroom of an on-the-way Starbucks, arriving at St Thomas Aquinas around 3pm for a small group rehearsal with a professional quartet. We rehearsed our anthems and the Gregorian chant for the 4pm mass. Sometimes after mass, I have to rush to another performance, but this week I had free time! I used the time to catch up on some of my reading for my grad school program and smoke cigars with a few close friends (I do not recommend this habit for aspiring singers, but it’s a guilty pleasure of mine).
Sunday morning, I was up very early to drive to McKinney for the 8am service. I was playing the organ for two services at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Sometimes I play the organ or sing other places, but this is one of my favorite gigs. The choir members are kind and eager to sing. After service this week, I went to brunch with some choir members and then headed back into Dallas to accompany children’s choir at Highland Park Presbyterian. Right now, the kids are working on a musical about ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den.’ It’s very entertaining.
Next, I head over to Southern Methodist University to rehearse and sing for a Compline service. This is one of my favorite gigs of my weekends. I get to sing with eight lovely professional singers for a candlelit service of chant and early polyphony. It’s very meditative and connecting for me. My only obstacles are finding a folder light that will not fall off during the procession (yes, it’s happened a few times) and trying to find a black robe in the back closet that fits me correctly… struggles of a short person. The service is at 8pm and usually runs about a half an hour. And generally, unless I have another late night Sunday performance, this concludes my weekend. Exhausting, but never boring!
David, Alto (Countertenor)
One of the most exciting aspects of being a working, freelance musician is the schedule rarely remains the same from day to day. Each holds its own set of adventures, leaving little time for boredom or monotony. Though at times it IS tough to juggle so many part-time responsibilities which somehow combine to make a “more than” full-time job, I wouldn’t trade it for any other position in the world!
After ending a full Friday of teaching private voice lessons to students at R.L. Turner High School in Carrollton, I hop in the car to attempt beating I-35 rush hour traffic to Denton. Fortunately, Carrollton is only about 20 miles or so south of the UNT campus, but those 20 miles could easily turn into an hour or more commute, depending on traffic, construction, etc. I’m in the process of completing a Doctorate of Musical Arts Degree in Voice Performance at the University of North Texas, and I have a meeting scheduled with my major professor concerning various final degree steps and dissertation progress. After ten years, I’m thankful to finally be completing the degree! I make it to Denton in plenty of time and actually hit the drive-through at Starbucks to grab my usual – cold brewed coffee (with light 2% milk and two Splendas) – I sincerely believe the sum total of these beverages has fueled the completion of this doctorate! After spending an hour or so updating my professor about my progress and getting his feedback on various degree-related issues, I retrace my path back down the I-35 corridor to the same place I started my day – R.L. Turner. I play piano fairly well, at least well enough to “fake” it, so I’m accompanying the RLT Show Choir’s pop show this evening. Because I spend so much time in the classical music world, I really enjoy working outside the box a bit in these different genres featured on the program – musical theatre, especially.
Saturday morning commences with a trip to Willis Library at UNT for a bit of dissertation research. After working for a couple of hours and finding most of what I need among the stacks of books, I treat myself to a cappuccino, a cinnamon roll, and conversation with a good friend at West Oak Coffee on the Denton square. By early afternoon, I head back to Dallas to judge a small voice competition for a neighborhood private music school. Most of the student performers are young, inexperienced, and VERY nervous. Though I have to admit I don’t always succeed 100% of the time, I always try to make them as comfortable as possible...primarily because I want them to KEEP SINGING! I also attempt to be as encouraging as possible with both my verbal affirmation and my written critiques.
Following the competition adjudication, I head to my regular Saturday evening gig – I’m the alto section leader/staff singer at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano. The church hosts a Saturday evening traditional worship service, and I’m scheduled to sing Monteverdi and Brahms (what a pair!) duets with the soprano staff singer during communion. I make it in time to rehearse quickly and catch my breath during the first part of the service. I’ve been a staff singer at SAUMC since February, and I LOVE singing here. Having grown up in a church environment, I appreciate the importance of musical excellence in a worship service. And this Saturday evening service is a nice way to end a busy day!
Sunday morning brings another church service at St. Andrew with the same two duets and a choral anthem, followed by quick brunch with the other staff singers. On Sunday afternoon, I’m scheduled to rehearse at St. Andrew with my collaborator accompanist for my upcoming lecture recital which completes the UNT dissertation process. We spend an hour or so rehearsing arias by Mozart, Britten, Handel, Cesti, and Purcell. Fortunately, I have no Evensong responsibilities on this particular Sunday, so my weekend is basically complete! I have just enough time to prepare for my teaching week and continue written dissertation progress. I love my job!
Depending on the season, the weekend of a classical musician can look like so many different things. Summer is a particularly interesting time, especially for those of us in academia, as many of the demands placed on us during the school year cause us to go into hibernation. Sure, there are things we could be working on to get ready for the school year, but the civic pool is finally open, and a day in the water is certainly the best plan when the thermometer skyrockets to 109 degrees F…
Being a freelance musician comes with many ups and downs. Ups: getting to make beautiful music on a daily basis with friends and colleagues. Downs: spending way too much time in the car driving from gig to gig, especially on the construction minefield that is 35E. Generally, of course, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Drive…Stop…Drive…Stop…*pebble from a semi-hits the windshield*…*crack*. In the words of my dad, “it is what it is.”(Note to readers: if you spend as much time driving from gig to gig as I do, full-glass coverage is your friend!)
My Friday begins with teaching private voice lessons at my apartment in Denton. I’m currently finishing my DMA (doctor of musical arts) degree at UNT in voice performance and pedagogy, and having a home studio is a luxury. This particular day it was a plus, because as I was teaching, the windshield repairman was at work on mine in the parking lot.
“Yes, now try that again, but remember to keep the space in the back…think a yawn!”
“Hi sir, all done with the windshield. Just don’t take your car through a carwash for 24 hours.”
(Singing) “Suuuuuuuuuuure on this shiiiiiining niiiiiiiiight--”
Never a dull moment. After finishing teaching lessons, I head to the UNT library to get some work done on my dissertation. The end is in sight. The day disappears, but the document gets longer: success! Friday concludes with a rare treat: dinner with one of my musical mentors and his wife. The evening ends with great conversation and a delicious meal.
During the school year, it’s so easy to say, “I can’t wait until summer. Then I’ll have all the time in the world to work on my dissertation.” Well folks, the time is upon us! I spend my Saturday in the oddly-vacant library with my laptop and coffee, enjoying the AC. Saturday evening ends with a bit of score study and practice on music for an upcoming recording project.
Sunday morning rolls around, and this means church. I take my coffee in a to-go mug, and I am Dallas bound at 7:15 am. Today’s anthems include works by Samuel Wesley and R.R. Terry. Two services down, a quick lunch, and I’m off to teach another private student, this time at her house in Dallas. After this, it’s back up to Denton, and a short nap is certainly in order. As a singer, and because my instrument is a part of my body, I think it’s important to prioritize exercise. My evening (and weekend) ends with a long walk, which also allows me time to organize in my mind everything the following week holds. Cheers!
Many pro singers find they cannot support themselves solely on stringing gigs together and they either cobble together a few part-time jobs with all of their singing engagements, or, like me, they have a full-time job and primarily sing after work and on the weekends.
Given the scenario above, I often find that week after week during the academic year, I do not have a day off, and often am working from early morning to late evening, nearly every day of the week. I recently had a week where I had a rehearsal every night for three different groups, after my full-time job. And the weekend…
My part-time church job is definitely the most involved and demanding of such gigs in the Dallas area. I have been on the staff for 13 years. If a staff singer has to be out for a Sunday, a wedding, a funeral or some other required event, they are required to supply an approved substitute to sing in their place. Obviously, funerals most often happen with extremely short notice and are typically in conflict with full-time day jobs. So, I just started a new job, after working in insurance for the past five years. Since I am new on the job, I haven’t built up a lot of “flexibility” or time off. I knew in advance I would be missing part of Friday afternoon, for a dress rehearsal for Dallas Bach Society, which was pre-arranged when I took the job. However, mid-week, we had a funeral announced, and I could not find a substitute. The HR department at my new job was nice enough to allow me to make up the hours I needed to miss. So, my weekend started off by leaving work early, singing a mid-day funeral and then singing an afternoon rehearsal for a production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen.
Saturday began with a special, Saturday communion service at my church job. This was followed by grabbing a snack for lunch and heading over to another dress rehearsal for the Fairy Queen. I had just over an hour to do an errand and grab a small bite, before returning in the evening to perform the Fairy Queen with the Dallas Bach Society.
I finished off the weekend singing two morning services at my church job, as well as Evensong in the early evening. Afterward, I went to see some friends in another classical music conference – because, no matter how busy we get, we should always be supporting our peers, other groups, and other classical music disciplines.
I was back at work at 8 am on Monday morning, an hour early, to begin making up the time I missed from the previous Friday.