Passion or paycheck? Music majors pursue careers in the industry

Musicians explain the challenges they face to pursue a career in the music industry. Photo illustration of Allen junior Catherine Stewart, choral music major. Sarah Pinkerton | Photographer

By Rachel Royster | Copy Desk Chief

When musicians answer the question, “So, what do you do for a living?” they are met with backhanded responses like, “You get to play an instrument for a job? That must be nice,” or even, “How are you going to make money?”

North Wales, Pa., graduate student Alejandro Alvarino studies percussion performance. He said doing something other than living out his dream as a percussionist wasn’t an option.

“You’re going into it knowing you’re not going to make a lot of money,” he said. “For the most part, it’s just small gigs like playing in churches or bars and stuff. And I have no problem with that. I wouldn’t have pursued it so heavily if I wanted to make a ton of money. That’s just the reality of it.”

Katy senior Aidan Gettemy, cello performance and math double major, chose to acquire a dual degree as an undergraduate so that if his pursuit of music doesn’t work out, he will have something to fall back on.

“There’s not a lot of 9-5 jobs in music, especially if you’re not going to be a teacher, so it can seem kind of abstract as to what you’re going to do,” Gettemy said. “Math is a way for me to work on the skills and maintain that type of thinking I had to do in high school when I was doing AP classes.”

Success in the field all boils down to the musician’s time in the practice room, according to Baylor flute professor and freelancer Cara Dailey. She said she remembers how difficult this was in her undergrad years.

“I probably cried in the practice room once a week, all four years,” Dailey said.

Now, Dailey is transitioning to be a contracted flutist in the U.S. Air Force Band.

“You’re constantly questioning if this is the right career path,” Dailey said. “Am I good enough? Will I make it? That’s what you’re living with in this tiny practice room — these constant criticisms of yourself.”

But getting gigs isn’t as simple as just being good at their instrument, said Randy Umstead, associate dean of the School of Music and voice professor. He explains it as similar to being a small business owner.

“You have to manage your finances, manage a schedule, you have to engage in marketing,” Umstead said. “It’s not just about going out and singing or singing well enough to get the next gig. There’s a lot of other work that goes along with it.”

Each musician knows that playing well and having connections in the industry are equal when it comes to what will get you into the audition room. Leander freshman Mark Bennett, trombone performance major, has already begun to understand that word travels through the grapevine quickly if you’re a poor colleague. Bennett said he has started to get his name out there by fostering relationships with other musicians but said he will never know enough trombonists.

“If you want to establish yourself in a big city, you’re going to need connections,” Bennett said. “You need people to say, ‘Hey, I could recommend this person to play this gig. They’re good, I’ve heard them play, they’re going to be on time, they’re going to know their part, they’re going to sound great.’”

Once they get that recommendation, musicians submit their resumes and are either asked to travel to the city of the audition or told to stay home. They first go into a large warm-up room surrounded by everyone competing for one spot. This can be a mental game given that they are hearing everyone play and trying not to compare themselves to those around them. They’re given a number and go into the audition room with just a few minutes to prove their worth.

“You get three minutes to make the best impression of your playing, and you don’t get to try again,” Dailey said.

In Umstead’s experience, the musician may never know why they were rejected from the job or even why they got the job.

“It’s not always the best X wins the job,” Ulmstead said. “There are a zillion other factors. What are the voices like of the other people that have already been cast in the opera? What are their heights? Even small things, like we’re using costumes from a previous production. Can this person fit into the costume we already have without significant alteration?”

If they make it through each round and get the job, they then have to decide whether or not they can take it. Dailey said when she got the news that she had gotten the U.S. Air Force flute spot, she was “part elated and part terrified.” She said she had to tell her husband if she took the job, they would have to leave their comfort zone and move across the country to Washington, D.C., with their two kids.

Although they are faced with challenge after challenge just to get a gig or job, many musicians will say that it is all worth it when they see the sea of smiles at the end of the performance.

“It’s almost like a drug that you chase,” Alvarino said. “Every time you get to perform in front of people, just the energy you get … the feeling and the rush you get, that’s why I do it. You can’t compare it to anything else.”