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Music as Career and Hobby: Creating a Performance Project by Andrew Richardson

Oct 26, 2020, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Most music students are probably told at some point to enjoy the performance opportunities you have in college because, upon graduation, you will have to work to set up those opportunities for yourself. For some, this recognition is inspiration to dig into orchestral excerpts, hit the audition trail, and win a gig. For others, it means playing every extracurricular gig that comes along in order to make contacts and, hopefully, continue to play in those community July 4th concerts, Christmas/Easter services, and dinner parties after graduation. Others may choose to buy an instrument and focus on solo or chamber playing or join/start a band. And for some it means accepting that professional performances will be a rarity after college, and focusing on other skills and opportunities for a career in music. All these paths, and many more, are perfectly valid, and some people will likely switch from one path to another and back again.

For those who don’t join an orchestra, start a band, or focus on solo/chamber performance as a full-time endeavor, what does creating performance opportunities look like and why do we do it? As someone whose first job out of college was actually several part-time jobs, much of my performing had shifted from ensemble member to ensemble director. I thought playing a few paying gigs each year with different regional groups, along with yearly solo recitals at the schools where I taught, was great. I was able to make a little extra cash with some gigging and perform solo when I felt compelled. (Perhaps this sounds a lot like you or someone you know.) At some point, however, I decided to spend some time making music with no strings attached regarding venue, repertoire, audience, contests, or academic calendar, just as I did in my high school garage band. The goal was simple: perform live, in public, at least once a week for an entire year.

Although this project was several years ago, my hope was always to share the idea to inspire others to take on a similar project. What follows is a brief outline of the details, some memorable moments, venue ideas, and potential benefits, should you take on a similar project. As you read through, maybe you’ll come up with your own plan for exploring how you can re-connect with performing as a hobby. 

These are the rules or goals I set for myself, and I list them here as a model. You can modify any or all of these as appropriate for your situation. The first “rule” was that most of the performances would have to be solo or small groups. Secondly, because this challenge was not financially driven, none of the gigs needed to be paid, but if there was pay involved that was acceptable. In this respect, professional performances could count as the weekly performance if needed. The third rule/goal was to perform in new settings. My venues included retirement homes, coffee shops, private/corporate parties, local middle/high schools, and even street corners. The fourth goal was to explore a variety of instruments and styles. Instruments I performed on included solo vibes, solo/chamber steel pan, drum set (jazz combo), orchestral percussion (professional gigs), and solo marimba. My styles and repertoire included jazz charts (solo and combo), traditional, contemporary solo percussion, and rock/pop tunes.

As I went through this process, I required myself to keep a journal in which I would write a few sentences after each performance about the positive aspects. Here are a few of those entries:

  • “Played short vibe concert at Full Circle Adult Day Center [daycare-type facility for the elderly]. It was nice to play for them because they showed great appreciation. I could hear some people singing/humming along with “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Blackbird.” Overall, it was a nice way to start the project.”
  • “Played with M in front of Starbucks. He played a variety of shakers, I had my pan. The wind was bothersome. We couldn’t really play anything too intricate because I knew at any moment I may not have the right page open. I should memorize more tunes.”
  • “There was a guy across the street doomsday ranting, but we just played on…”
  • “Played vibes at Arbor House [retirement home]. Typical vibes gig with rushed setup, but was comfortable. I think this idea is working.”
  • “Nobody was at the desk when I arrived and I didn't really know where to go…”
  • “All my reading practice and groove practice paid off.”
  • “Played pan on the street corner with B and C. Nice to be able to go out and do that, only practicing the pan the day before.”
  • “Set up the gig and then couldn't practice for a week or two, so only had a few hours before playing to run through my rep. Goes to show that the project is working and beneficial to performance prep and mental comfort.”
  • “[Performance for local middle school students is] a good way to get more comfortable with just walking in and playing.”

Setting up performances for yourself gets easier with practice. Cold-calling a potential venue can be daunting at first, but you’ll soon realize that the person on the other end of the phone will either be excited to have you come or simply decline and never think of it again. In the first case, you get to share your music with an audience. In the second, it’s almost as if you never called, so there isn’t anything to be nervous about. By “practicing” setting up performances, you will build confidence to book high-profile events and audiences if you wish to do so.

This type of project gives you a chance to perform the same music several times. Repeat performances, especially in low-stress environments, allow you to build a deeper relationship with the music and with your own performance style. 

Exploring a variety of performance spaces and types of audience gives you many opportunities to deal with distractions and strengthen mental focus. During a performance at an assisted living center, a resident approached me and started talking to me while I was playing. I had a choice to ignore the person (a bit rude as the person was standing right next to me), try to talk to the person while playing (that would be odd for everyone else), or figure something out (but what?). I decided in the moment to improvise a little bit with the piece and find a place to end, answered a few questions for the resident, and politely offered to play another tune.

You are bound to make some memories of great performances, and of unique situations. All too often, we finish a concert and instantly start thinking about all the moments we would want to do over. By keeping a journal of positive memories, you will have a permanent record reminding you what you enjoy about performing for others. Nobody ever gets stressed out to do a hobby; I have never once heard my mother say, “Well I got through that jigsaw puzzle, but I was really nervous and could have done much better.”

When we get out into new performance venues and interact with new audiences, we make connections that can provide even more opportunities. If you’ve ever played a concert and had audience members come up afterwards asking if you can play for their event, or teach their child, or simply want to come to your next concert, you know the benefits of networking. Imagine meeting community members every week who might have further opportunities—perhaps even money-making opportunities!

Performing 50–75 times a year won’t sound like much to a gigging musician or someone who is a member of a regularly performing orchestra; however, for everyone else, this type of project can be a great way to do more performing on your own terms. Young professionals (or students) interested in this lifestyle will get a crash course in making your own opportunities. Professionals of any age who focus on another aspect of music can use this as a chance to reconnect with the feeling of making music as a hobby. Additionally, if you’ve ever felt your own self-worth directly proportional to how “good” you play, a project like this can help ease those tensions. Even if you have a less-than-stellar performance, you know you have another one in a few days to focus on so it’s a bit easier to let it go. Each performance can be passionate but detached from a sense of self-value.

Most importantly, start by setting up your own schedule, one that works for you in your current situation. Maybe once a week sounds good, maybe once a month is more reasonable. Any amount is acceptable, but should be planned and something to which you will commit. Also consider starting with a reduced timeline. Instead of a whole year, try once a week for a month, or two months, or during the summer. Know that a scheduled performance might fall through, even last minute. That’s okay! Focus on consistency over the project.

Keep a journal; this is huge! Record your thoughts after each performance, especially positive outcomes and demonstrated growth from gig to gig.

Use whatever instruments you have. Percussion can be tricky to move, set up, or simply to find instruments to use. There are many speedbumps: what kind of car you have (if you even have a car!), what instruments you own, what instruments you can borrow, what music you think you like to play. All of these can be overcome with some creativity, whether that means finding instruments (check out used instruments, demos, and state surplus auctions), learning rep that doesn’t require a 5-octave marimba, or challenging yourself to use what you have in a new way. Focus on the process, not the tools.

Most importantly, have fun! When you are done (or ready to start round two), please share with me or others whom you believe would benefit from this experience.

Andrew RichardsonDr. Andrew Richardson serves as Interim Director of Percussion Activities at the University of Oklahoma. Additionally, Andrew is a member of the Norman Philharmonic and is the Oklahoma PAS Chapter President. He has performed and given presentations at PASIC, the National Conference on Percussion Pedagogy, OkMEA conventions, and numerous universities and high schools. Andrew is published in Percussive Notes, and his compositions are available through Tapspace Publications and Boxfish Music Publishing.

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