Successful Musician Series Part 2 – Piano Career Paths

Welcome to part two of my Successful Musician Series. If you missed part one, where I talk about all the different ways in which musicians can be successful, you can catch up on that here. This week, I want to talk to you about the different career paths a college student who is studying piano can take.

I don’t know about you, but when I was in college, I only saw a few options: teach at a university or teach privately (or some combination of the two.) Maybe I was just too busy to see beyond what was right in front of me, or maybe I didn’t have the guidance I needed. Either way, there are a lot of ways a pianist can create a successful career. Here’s a short list of just a few that can be stand-alone options, or combined together to create a multi-faceted lifestyle: Solo pianist, Orchestral pianist, university teacher, private teacher, freelance pianist, recording artist, grade school teacher, church pianist/organist.

Many professional musicians do two or more of these things. It’s rare that you’ll find someone who only plays piano in an orchestra (mostly because there’s not that much demand for it…), or someone who only teaches privately. Most musicians of any instrument combine a few career tracks into their ideal job.

So how do you decide what’s right for you? Honestly, for most people it just kind of ends up the way the cards are dealt. Someone who’s teacher has the right connections will be put in touch with the right people and end up recording jingles. Another person will fill in with small ensembles or orchestras which leads to a paying position or two. I’m going to focus on the two most obvious professions: teaching and performing.

Performing

In grade school, I had a private piano teacher in high school who was also a church pianist. She groomed me to be able to play for churches and gave me the opportunity to fill in for her at her church. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was the pianist for a local church, leading the music for worship and the choir each week. After graduating college (with two degrees in oboe…), I subbed at many churches while I moved around, and finally found a full time position at a church in my area. But it took me almost 12 years to find the right job at the right church! Yes, I settled a few times, but if I was honest with myself I knew I couldn’t do those jobs for the long-term, and held out for the right position to come along.

Specifically speaking to pianists, there are many places you can earn a little extra cash by playing. Hotels, bars and restaurants, for instance. Too nervous to play for a big crowd like that? Play at a nursing home or hospital first. Become a wedding pianist (you end up playing many of the same songs for weddings). Substitute at local churches, set up a keyboard and play at a vendor event, like a farmers market. Get out there, get seen, get known. You’ll have to do some work for next to nothing, but once you’re established you can start charging more. And honestly, the only way to be good at performing is to do it all the time.

Teaching

There are some special niches you can get into when teaching piano. I’d recommend picking something you’re good at, something that makes you unique, and using that to build a studio. That strength might be playing for churches, or using iPad apps to teach music concepts, or Dalcroze Eurhythmics. Whatever it is, take it and run with it.

You can also get into music development by teaching preschoolers or music appreciation. In the past decade, several new programs for teaching preschoolers have been developed, like Wunderkeys, Roadtrip! and Kiddykeys. These programs work in a private studio or at a facility like a preschool. Personally, for the amount of work you put in to travel to a preschool to give an hour program for minimum wage, it just wasn’t worth it for me. However, if you have your own preschool music program or are trying to develop one, it might be worth it. You could also consider putting together a summer music enrichment camp for kids.

One of my dreams has been to put together a non-profit organization that supplies after school programs with a piano lab. This would include handful of digital pianos with iPads connected to them that a student could use to teach themselves piano with apps like Piano Maestro or Piano Marvel. Ideally, these labs would have a proctor, or maybe once a week group classes for the kids.

You Do You

Make sure that whatever you choose speaks to you. For instance, teaching more than one child at a time makes me want to pull out my hair, and leaves me emotionally and mentally exhausted for like a week. So putting together a Kindermusik program isn’t for me. And although I love playing in musical or opera pits, the time commitment is just too much on any given weekend.

However, I love teaching individual students, and I enjoy enriching worship services with piano music. So these are the things that I settled into after several years of trial and error.

Successful Musician Series 3

In my next successful musician blog post, I’ll give you some ideas to narrow down the path that’s right for you, make sure you can make a living at it, and get the ball rolling.

If you like this post, subscribe to my email list so I can let you know when I put up a new post. 

How have you put together a career? Is it what you envisioned when you graduated college?

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