Five Questions to Ask Yourself Transitioning from School to A Freelance Career

beccaAfter graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2014 Rebecca Patterson moved to New York City and has become an active member of the the cities rich musical community. She can be heard subbing on the Lion King and Wicked on Broadway or someone around the city with her dynamic big band with co-leader Ron Wilkins that features some of her original compositions and arrangements comprised of some of NYC’s finest musicians. An album will be recorded in 2018. Since her move to New York she has had the opportunity to perform with a diverse range of ensembles on Tenor and Bass Trombones and Tuba including performances with: Christian McBride’s Big Band, Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, The Mingus Band, John Colianni Jazz Orchestra, Birdland Latin Jazz Orchestra, Steven Oquendo’s Latin Jazz Orchestra, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Livio Almeida’s Brazilian Dectet, Chris Potter, Kansas, Marcos Valle, The Ed Palermo Big Band, Metro Chamber Orchestra, Billy Vera Jazz Orchestra, Mariachi Vargas, and San Antonio Wind Symphony. Rebecca also maintains a private lesson studio and makes guest artist appearances with schools and programs around the country. She is an artist for Shires trombones and Giddings mouthpieces. 

Transitioning from music school to the freelance world can be incredibly intimidating. When I finished my degree, I moved to New York City hardly knowing anyone. It took a mere few hours in my new apartment to realize I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. 

That was four years ago. Each year gets better and work has become steady, but that result has taken constant attention and evolution. Here are some questions that I seem to constantly ask myself throughout this journey.

1. What is your goal?

This may sound like a “duh” question, but this is something that I constantly ask myself. As my career develops I actually find that my answer changes. It’s important to have a degree of focus in your goal, but it’s also equally as important to be flexible.

You may have to journey down some avenues that might not seem so intuitive to reach your goals. For example: if your goal is to be the ultimate side-person, don’t you think it’s important to be a leader at some point to know what a good side-person looks like from a leaders perspective?

It’s also important for your goal to be an informed one. If you plan on getting into the New York Philharmonic or land a major university job right out of college, you might need to realize your goal is not a realistic one. Take a few steps back, come up with goals that act as stepping stones to achieving your dreams.

2. What sets those who are successful on your envisioned career path apart from their peers? 

You’ll find a surprisingly wide variety of variables when you start to examine the careers of others. Though it may seem noble to; don’t limit your examination to musical ability alone. I’ve seen people thrive off of their exceptional business/interpersonal skills.

While someone like Jimmy Heath may have the career you’ve envisioned, it is equally as important to look to up and coming peers that are having success. Living legends started their career in a vastly different industry climate, it’s important to study the changes that have taken place and what is now demanded. This can mean developing a skill doubling, building a small remote recording set up, or knowing music notation software.

3. What skills do you have that set you apart from your peers? If you can’t think of anything… it might be time to develop a new skill.

In today’s freelance climate, it’s important to develop a variety of skills. You may be an exceptional sight reader, but if someone puts changes on your page, can you also improvise? You may be a great improviser, but can you blend in a section? Can you conduct if necessary? Are you able to compose/arrange? Teach? Experience with music technology? There are lots of people who can do one or two of these things extremely well, but the more you can do at a high level, the better. You will also find that many of these go hand in hand. Improvisation demands instrumental proficiency, advanced aural skills, compositional techniques, and rhythmic studies. It’s also worth mentioning, that jack of all trades and master of none is not what I’m talking about. Music is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t force it. With time and effort you will begin to make connections and be able to practice several advanced things all at once.

I also include rehearsal etiquette as a “skill” which includes things like: being on time, promptly responding to emails from a bandleader, not noodling in a rehearsal or warming up super loud before a gig. One piece of advice I received that has worked very well for me is trying to call subs that are better or as good as you. It gives you a chance to call people you look up to, and also shows the band leader that your primary interest is best serving the music. If you get called for a gig and send a bad sub, the bandleader is more likely to replace you. Believe it or not: this can actually lead to contracting work.

4. What am I doing to develop my musicianship? 

Consider that your answer should include things beyond sitting with your instrument in a practice room. Music is about telling a story, and if you don’t experience life, it’s hard to have a story to tell. It is also hard to find out how to reach an audience/effectively communicate with other musicians from inside a practice room.

A big part of developing your musicianship is going to see live music and seeing how other artist connect to you as an audience member. Seek out opportunities to hear live performances of musicians performing music that you may be unfamiliar with or even ensembles that don’t include your instrument. For me, the unfamiliarity factor of the experience helps you understand how universal music is and the powerful feelings it can evoke without excessive analysis.

Take lessons with masters of your instrument. If you are doubling, take lessons from master doublers. If you live in a place where it’s geographically hard to reach one of these people, reach out for a Skype lesson.

Want to learn how to better express yourself musically on that concerto? Learn to improvise and convey your own musical ideas. If you can convey your musical abilities through your own “words”, it will come through much better when speaking the musical ideas of someone else.

5. What am I doing to actively create opportunities for myself and other musicians? 

In many ways, we all rely on each other. There are more opportunities to create work than just being a bandleader. It can be something as little as letting a bandleader know that you know someone who would do a great job on a certain chair if they didn’t already have someone in mind, or something as big as putting a music series together at a neighborhood restaurant, or even getting friends together to play in the subway. This shows that you have initiative, and that you care about the community enough to give back from which you reap benefits from.

You may find that this actual question becomes your goal. If you’re passionate about helping underserved communities, you can start a music series for women band leaders or black artist or gay artist, etc.

It is never too early to mentor. Though I mentioned generally trying to call people better than you, it’s also equally important to give new faces opportunities to learn and grow. Eventually those younger people will be a vital part of our workforce and will remember your generosity.

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