Freelancing in classical music

 24 January 2012

Working as a freelance musician allows you to play the music you want, with the people you want, when you want. You can structure your days and take on as much work that suits you.

Classical music is a very competitive area of work. Photo: Korean Cultural Centre UK
Classical music is a very competitive area of work. Photo: Korean Cultural Centre UK

That’s the ideal, anyway. Any freelance career requires a lot of hard work, focus and determination – and classical music is no different.

If you are looking to become a classical musican, here are five pieces of advice for going freelance:

1. Understand what to expect as a freelance musician

Classical music is a very competitive world, so it is common for most musicians to undertake a variety of freelance work, especially at the early stages of their career.

These freelance roles can range from working with orchestras and ensembles, to participating in education schemes, accompanying singers and playing in recording sessions.

Keep in touch with fellow musicians, especially those who play the same instrument

It helps if freelance musicians have the ability to work well with a wide range of people, and have an outgoing and sociable personality.

Freelancers are often expected to work at weekends and evenings and in venues throughout the country, so patience is a necessary virtue.

2. Maintain creative relationships

Like many disciplines, a proportion of getting work in the classical music world is about who you know.

The importance of having good personal relationships with colleagues in the classical music world can’t be underestimated: if they like you, they are more likely to want to work with you.

Keep in touch with fellow musicians, especially those who play the same instrument, and establish friendly connections with other musicians at every performance you give.

Most importantly, be flexible and keep your ears – and options – open for any new opportunities that might crop up.

3. Join a diary service

Classical music freelancers need to be flexible in their approach to work, open to new ideas and willing to grasp opportunities.

Being a successful freelance classical musician is a juggling act: firstly there is work to find, but then there are future engagements and commitments to work out, and contracts to be negotiated.

These issues can all be assisted by joining a diary service, which remains one of the most popular routes into securing freelance work.

Advantages of a diary service

These institutions maintain and update individual work diaries, so if an offer of work comes through, the diary service team can immediately accept it (or not) on the musician’s behalf.

In addition to specifying when they are available for work, freelancers can also specify what type of work they would prefer, as well as the location.

The advantage of using a diary service is that in the UK, most of the main orchestras, ensembles and recording studios use them.

The orchestra fixer, who books musicians for performances, can sort everything out in one easy phone call, rather than contacting every musician separately.

Using a diary service often results in many musicians getting work they would never have secured using personal contacts alone. Most diary services also offer career advice and assist with the creation of musicians' CVs.

Disadvantages of a diary service

The disadvantage of a diary service is that it doesn’t automatically result in more work. Freelancers still need to forge their own relationships.

Some diary services also have huge numbers of musicians on their lists, so it can be hard to stand out – and some freelancers feel there is an alphabetical bias in selecting musicians.

However, once a musician has been selected for a job, fixers often specifically ask for the same musician next time. Diary services also require an annual administrative fee.

4. Attend auditions

A good way of getting known – and getting work – is through attending auditions. These are a useful opportunity to play in front of influential colleagues, including the relevant orchestral fixers.

Fixers can add the musician’s name to their extras list. So when the orchestra needs an additional player, they can select freelancers they know from their own compiled list.

Freelance musicians need to have a good level of confidence and strong self-discipline.

Attending auditions also helps to establish the ever-important personal relationships with others in the business.

It’s good to get your name out and about and to become recognised. You never know where you will meet these people again – but once you are a familiar face, it’s easier to strike up a conversation.

As auditions can crop-up with fairly short notice, it is important that freelancers have the motivation to put in long hours of practise around their working schedule, as well as the ability to accept constructive criticism.

Many freelancers contact orchestral fixers or section leaders directly and ask if they can arrange a performance. Like an informal audition, these are a very useful opportunity to meet the relevant people, and give freelancers the opportunity to have a unique, one-to-one performing experience.

Unlike a more formal orchestral audition, these sessions also allow the musician to show their personality, rather than just musicality.

As most section leaders can add freelancers to the extra lists, these informal occasions can be a good way to start securing work.

5. Be flexible

Classical music freelancers need to be flexible in their approach to work, open to new ideas and suggestions and willing to grasp opportunities as they arise.

It is important to be aware of possibilities and openings in the industry. Regardless of how the work sounds on paper, every job is a new chance to meet new people and new organisations – and who knows where it will lead from there?

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