Contract Negotiation for Musicians

Unfortunately there are a lot of important aspects of the music business that are never dealt with in college. After receiving two degrees in music, I can’t think of one instance where the topic of contract negotiation was discussed. This is unfortunate for the student because he or she will more than likely be taken advantage of the first time they are presented with contract work. Knowing what to ask for and how to ask for it can make any job that much better. In the contract world, there is no fairness, only shrewdness. Those who get paid more usually are the ones who ask for it.

My First Contract

My first experience dealing with contracts came after I graduated from college. Like most new graduates, I wanted a job and was willing to take anything thrown my way. I had been in contact with a couple of cruise lines and desperately wanted to get booked on a ship. I was offered my first cruise ship contract with Celebrity Cruise Lines. At the time they were using an agency to contract all of their musicians. Little did I know, getting hired for a cruise ship through an agency was not the smartest move. The reason is that any agency has to take a cut for finding you work. I believe their commission at the time was 20%. Now, musicians who have worked on ships before know that any commission taken out of how little we get paid is a crime. The standard for the agency was to start new musicians out at around $1,750/month after their commission. This was way too low! But I didn’t know any better and gladly took what they offered. So I signed the contract and boarded the ship.

After I proved that I could do a good job working in a show band, I was transferred to the flagship of the fleet. This would have been a perfect time to renegotiate my contract, but I was still a little green and no idea how to do it or what to ask for. So I took the job and hoped for a raise. I ended up getting $50 more a month. While I was working for $1,800/month, other musicians were making $400-$500 more a month than I was. They were older and had a relationship with our new contractor and were able to negotiate a higher pay. I couldn’t hold that against anyone but myself. If you don’t ask for it, you don’t get it.

I stayed at that pay rate the entire time I worked on cruise ships, which was about a year and a half. My last contract was for just one month and when I received my contract, the contractor had given me $1,750. A decrease in pay! I immediately called them and asked for more money. Their response was, “The contract has already been written. There’s no changing it now.” This is completely false! It was a contract that had not been signed or agreed upon. I had the right to renegotiate but they knew that they could strong arm me and get me to agree, which I did. They completely took advantage of me and my inexperience. This was not going to happen again.

The Art of Negotiation

I quit the cruise ship industry after that contract and went to grad school. Upon completing my graduate degree, I was offered a job playing for the national tour of Peter Pan. Again, I had no idea what the standard pay was for a non-union theater tour but this time I had a little more experience and knew that I was worth more than what any cruise ship had ever offered me. Their offer was pretty good but I was able to negotiate a little more being that I was being called to fill a spot that they had trouble filling. Apparently they had gone through three other trumpet players who couldn’t handle the work. This was a key point in negotiating. Not only did they need someone right away, but they also needed someone who could handle the book. They were willing to work with me and find a price that we could both agree upon.

Here are some points to keep in mind when negotiating money for a contract:

  • Always be polite. Show that you are grateful of the offer and opportunity. Say thank you.
  • Be willing to turn down a contract that doesn’t meet your needs. Be able to feel good about turning it down if you must.
  • Know what you are worth and be confident when asking for what you want.
  • When talking about money, let them make the first offer. It may be more than you were expecting. If not, kindly ask them if it is possible to raise it closer to your standard. In some cases they may come back with an offer without even hearing your counter offer. If they do ask for a counter offer, go a little above what you would accept and work your way down.

There are many other areas of contract negotiating that will be discussed later on.

After I completed my first tour, I was not eager to go back out on the road. Nevertheless, I was contacted by another company to perform on another tour. Just to see how much I could get out of the company, I made a list of demands in a very arrogant way to the contractor. He hadn’t even given me the official offer before I started in on what I wanted to make it worth my while. He was just calling to get a sense of who I was and if I was interested in the show. I immediately turned him off to the prospect of hiring me for the show. As it turned out, I didn’t get the tour and possibly ruined my reputation with that company. Bad move.

About two months had passed before I was offered another tour by another company. This company had a good reputation and I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that I had previously made. They offered me the role of second trumpet on the tour of Annie. Now, I have never been a fan of musical theater and this show was not what I considered to be on the list of high quality music. This contract was going to come down to numbers, plain and simple. I was very kind and respectful of the call and let them tell me about the company and the tour. After we had discussed various topics about the tour, i.e. how long the contract was, where it was going, etc., I kindly asked how much the position payed. It was well below what I had made previously. About $200/week lower than my last tour. I knew that this was for the role of 2nd trumpet but my standard had been set and I was not about to take any less than that. I politely thanked them for the offer, told them what my rate was, and told them to keep me in mind if another position became available that met my quote.

Sure enough, a few weeks after that conversation, the same company contacted me again with another offer for another tour, The Wizard of Oz. I found out as much as I could about the tour from the contractor which included one vital piece of negotiating information: they were hiring me as a replacement. This told me two things: they needed someone and they needed them quickly. After hearing their offer, I used the information that I had in order to negotiate a slightly higher pay. I politely asked them if they could bump up the offer to meet my quote. They came back and met my request. It wasn’t a show that I was dying to do, but at least I was getting paid enough to make it worth my while.

Additional Tips

My experiences have helped me to look after myself in the music business. No one else was going to do it for me. Freelance musicians do not have the luxury (or the money) of having an agent so we must know how to ask for what we want. Here are some additional points to keep in mind when negotiating contracts:

  • Find out as much as you can about the company. How big they are, what is their show budget, how many people they employ, their reputation, etc. This could help to determine how much you are able to negotiate.
  • Find out if you are the first call or a replacement. Replacements can usually negotiate more easily.
  • Discuss the housing situation. Will the company be paying for hotels or are you required to pay? If you are required to pay, does the per diem cover it? Most companies that pay for hotel rooms provide a per diem of $250-$300/week. If they do not provide housing, then the per diem should be enough to pay for it: about $500/week. All per diem is non taxed.
  • Find out if the company offers some form of health savings account.
  • Discuss if the company offers any form of incentive plan for completing the contract, such as overage compensation. In other words, do they give a percentage of the projected sales that are exceeded back to the company members at the end of the contract?
  • Make sure that you have an “out” in your contract. If you need to leave the contract for any reason (hopefully a better gig) have it stated in your contract that you must present the company with 3-4 weeks notice before leaving. This protects both you and the company.
  • Contact the contractor at the end of the contract to say thank you for the opportunity. This will keep you fresh in their mind and possibly first on their call list for future employment.

How can I learn how to be a Broadway conductor?

I often have people email me who are interested in becoming Broadway conductors. It’s often musicians still in high school or college who have been bitten by the theatre bug and have developed a passion, but maybe not the skills, for the industry. They ask me,

“How can I learn how to be a Broadway conductor?”

The answer I send back is usually long. There’s no easy way in, really. I mean – I was 12 when I decided I wanted the job and it took me until I was 30 to actually get the job. There are very few college programs geared toward the career, and the path to the top is usually known only by those who are already there. Yet, it’s one of the best jobs left in a troubled music industry and a viable career choice for many collaborative pianists.

I write about the job here on MusicianWages because I want to help others who are interested in conducting and music directing musical theatre shows. I started to feel like I was perhaps writing too frequently about music directing here on, so I helped found a new website,, to dedicate to the topic.

And now I’m helping organize an afternoon of master classes in NYC for anyone interested in music directing for theatre.

On June 25th I’m bringing together 3 Broadway conductors to each give a 2-hour master class. Joe Church (the original MD for Lion King on Broadway, now conducting at Sister Act) will discuss piano-conducting technique. Jeff Marder (Associate Conductor for Priscilla Queen of the Desert on Broadway and synth programmer for Newsies) will give a class on music technology and synth programmer. Sonny Paladino (Assistant Conductor for the Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar will talk about breaking down and performing all the different styles of music required for modern musical theatre.

It’s going to be very cool. And after the classes are done John Miller will join us for a 1-hour question and answer session.

If you are interested in music director for theatre or one day conducting on Broadway – you should register for these classes on June 25th. You’ll meet 4 Broadway conductors (including me) and John Miller and you’ll be able to ask all of us any questions you might have about how to get started in the business.

I wish I had something like this when I got started. I’m telling you, this is a really unique and valuable opportunity.

Class sizes are limited and there’s a chance they will sell out. So please register right away. Here is the ticket form, or you can find out more info our EventBrite page.

Learning Musical Styles with Transcription

I received an email today from M., who’s in college now and interested in working on Broadway one day. He asked me about a comment I made a few weeks ago.

I wrote an article talking about how I got my current gig, and I gave the advice that younger musicians shouldn’t over-emphasize their theatre experience when hustling this job. Broadway, in my opinion, prefers musicians that have learned different musical styles from outside of Broadway. Here’s the section:

Whether its true or not, Broadway music is largely seen as a derivative art form among the Broadway musician community. Look at shows like Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, In the Heights – these shows showcase rock n roll, country, hip hop and salsa – none of which originated on Broadway.

The last thing you want to say, therefore, is that you learned to play R’n’B by playing a summerstock version of Dream Girls. Broadway wants authentic players that have learned music styles from the source, not from itself.

I really think this is true. I just don’t feel like you can learn jazz by playing musical theatre scores. You have to learn jazz by playing jazz.

And so, M.’s question to me was this:

I am classically trained and I personally feel any style other than classical has been learned from playing MT repertoire. I feel that I am very limited because of this. I feel intimated and do not know where to even begin learning these styles.

[Do] you have any advice on how to learn jazz, blues, gospel, latin etc…?

That’s a good question, M.

Commercial Music in Theatre

First off, there are plenty of good gigs for classically trained musicians in the New York theatre scene. Shows that are in the traditional theatre style might be a good fit – for instance the current revival of Porgy and Bess or the long-running Mary Poppins. These shows showcase old-school theatre or operetta styles and need great classical players.

However, Broadway’s musical styles have always followed popular music trends, and you can see that with today’s shows as well. Most of the shows on Broadway today are shows that require commercial musicians that understand how to play jazz, rock, funk and world styles.

The Twenty Year Itch

As a side note, I’d just like to register my own complaint about Broadway music – yes, we follow popular music trends, but must we follow so far behind? If you look at the shows open on Broadway right now – Jesus Christ Superstar, Mamma Mia, Godspell, Rock of Ages, Priscilla, Memphis, etc. – not one of those shows features music that was written less that 20 years ago. Among other reasons – how can we instill a passion for theatre in younger audiences if we ignore music written during their lifetime?

The exception this season, of course, is Once which features music from the 2006 movie. Bravo, Once. Where is everyone else? No indie rock musicals out there? No bachata musical?

Anyway – M., here’s my answer (and I’m sure others will have valuable answers in the comments below).

The thing about commercial styles of music – by which I mean most non-classical styles – is that they can’t be learned from books and sheet music. The rhythm, groove, and feel of commercial styles needs to be heard and felt.

So my best advice is to transcribe different styles directly from recordings.


And – these days – there’s no excuse not to transcribe. When I was coming up it was difficult to get access to recordings of different styles – recordings cost money back then (imagine!). Now you can get a Spotify subscription for $10/month and have almost anything you’d ever want.

For example – just the other day I found a Spotify playlist for every song in the Real Book. Are you kidding me? Do you know know how hard it would have been to gather all of those recordings together when I was in jazz school? Now there is no excuse to not have intimate knowledge of several different versions of each jazz standard.

Actually – I’ve thought a lot about this recently – I’m anxiously awaiting a new breed of musician to come out of the Spotify generation. There are kids growing up today who have unprecedented access to every style of music recorded over the last 100 years. I can only imagine what kind of musician I would be if I’d been listening to Miles at birth instead of discovering him – like most white, suburban kids of the 1990s – as a teenager in my high school band room.

The musicians that come out of music school in 20 years will have no excuse not to be monster players. What kind of jobs will be available to them…well that part is anybody’s guess.


Back to transcribing. M., transcribing gets better as you go. It’s tortuous as first, but addictive as you get the hang of it. Here’s how you should start:

Find a recording of a new musical style that you really dig. Put in on your phone and listen to it over and over. Listen to it as you’re walking to class, while you’re eating, when you wake up. Sing along to all of the solos, know the form, figure out the instrumentation. Get to know that recording really, really well.

Then – after that listening phase – sit down at your instrument and start playing along. Figure out the key, the harmonic structure, pick out of a few key notes. This is how I like to start – I just get a cursory feel for the harmonic content of the song. Some musicians are much better at this part – even without perfect pitch they can start picking out almost all of the song on the first go. Personally, I’m much slower at this, especially when I started out.

Then take sections of the song and learn every note. For example, I was once trying to learn to play a better jazz blues. I took the recording of “Freddie the Freeloader” from Kind of Blue and transcribed Wynton Kelly’s solo from 0:45 to 2:13. That’s a great solo to transcribe, actually, because you get to play along with Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) and their swing is so killing on that whole record.

And that’s the thing with transcribing – you are picking up not just the notes, but the rhythm, groove and feel that I mentioned before. You’re picking up on all the thing that sheet music can’t teach you.

Then transcribe more. Learn the difference between Basie swing and Ellington swing. Listen to the play between bass and kick drum in disco music. Listen to where the open strings are on Simon and Garfunkel recordings. Figure out what the hell that voicing is that Chick Corea is using on [insert Chick album here].

Write It Down

Under NO circumstances are you allowed to even glance at any published sheet music during this process. You’ll quickly find that sheet music is a poor representation of music, anyway.

However, that said, the next step is to write down what you’ve transcribed. This part can be particularly difficult – especially on, say, Charlie Parker transcriptions…so don’t start with that. But it gets easier.

Jason Crosby Solo TranscriptionHere’s an example of something I transcribed a few years ago. Jason Crosby plays a great Hammond solo on Susan Tedeschi’s version of Don’t Think Twice. I loved it so much I had to transcribe it and play it myself. Here’s a copy of my transcription.

Of course, you don’t have to write it out in Finale like I did – but it doesn’t hurt to practice those Finale chops. You’ll need those, too, when you get out of college.

Keep It Up

I think any commercial player will agree that learning musical styles by ear is the best way to absorb them into your playing. And I think everyone can all agree that it’s not an easy thing to start to do if you’ve been classically trained and haven’t learn music that way before.

But it’s invaluable. It’ll change your playing. And more importantly, it’s absolutely necessary. It would be nice if, instead, we could just go on tour with a great swing band like our past legends did…but those days are long gone. The best thing we can do is learn the recordings inside and out.

Although – by all means start a band and go on tour making new music. Then write an indie rock musical so I can play it.

(In 20 years.)

Breaking In To a New Scene

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a new series by Dave Jolley, an accomplished drummer who recently moved to New York City and is settling into a new life and a new scene.

Leave a comment below to connect, say hi and ask Dave any questions you have about breaking in to a new scene.

We’ve all had to do it.

Never because it’s easy, not because it’s fun. We’ve packed it all up and moved to the big bad city. In my case, the big bad Apple.

This is part one of a series about the ups, downs, trials, and tears of breaking into a brand new scene as a gigging musician. I will share what has worked for me and what hasn’t. Everyone has a different recipe for the mechanics of such an adventure and I hope to start a discussion about good strategies to that end.

Much of what I want to discuss will be based upon my experiences here in New York, but I think many of the ideas will hold in any market, large or small.


My wife and I moved to New York last summer. Prior to that, I was the drummer/percussionist on an international tour of a show with some very naughty puppets. Even prior-er to that I was the resident drummer for a regional theater in Phoenix for 9 years with bouts of touring peppered in there.

It has been a long time goal of mine to play on Broadway so a move to New York was required from a purely spatial standpoint. My wife is a wonderful and talented actress and rumor had it there was a bit of decent theater going on in NYC.

In March of 2011, we had two months left on the road and started to discuss our options. We were free agents for the first time in our ten years together. Extraordinarily freeing and not just a little bit scary.

After much prodding from our many friends in the city including Dave Hahn (cofounder of this site and champion of itinerant drummers), we found ourselves drawn to the idea of New York City. When you’re unemployed and the country is in the middle of a recession, what better idea could there be than moving to the most expensive city in that country?

Nothing ventured nothing gained. Greater risk greater reward. Cue ‘Eye of the Tiger’.

Getting There

In part one, I’m going to discuss the basic practicalities of our move to New York, the myriad of things that we had to think about. We all know what joy a move across town or across the country brings to us. It’s a fun filled stress free time in life.

First we had to figure out how to get ourselves, our stuff, and my drums from Phoenix to New York. We have a fly 2006 Toyota Yaris named Atticus and generous family and friends who allowed us to couch surf across the continent.

We decided that we were going to only bring what would fit in the car. No small task as drums tend to take up space. We shipped the rest of our belongings to my dad’s house via cube freight technology and went about dismantling and remantling my childhood room to accommodate our parred down collection of life’s important detritus. And drums. Mountains and mountains of drums.

Automobile Blues

The last day of August we drove into ‘the city’ for the first time. I would be remiss were I to say that driving here the first time wasn’t just a little crazy. Canine v Canine.

There was much discussion amongst our New York friends as to whether or not having a car here was a good idea. It’s not necessarily necessary but has come in very handy in transporting drums and being able to buy paper towel in bulk at the Queens Costco.

That said, I don’t drive anymore than I absolutely have to as New York has great public transit options. It was an added cost, however, to get the car registered and licensed in the great state of New York. And what they say about the DMV here isn’t true. A solid 25% of the people I encountered working there didn’t yell at or belittle me. Pretty good.

In an ironic little twist, a man was rapidly backing down a one way street as we were pulling out of the DMV parking lot. I honked for the 5 or so seconds before he plowed right into the front of us. The relief of having jumped every bureaucratic hoop to legally drive in the state quickly dissipated. His question to me was, “Why didn’t you get out of the way?” Translation: “Welcome to New York.”

Speaking of car insurance, Flo gave me quite a shock when I switched states. Luckily she said I could sign up for a program that tracks your driving habits for a specified length of time. Assuming you’re not a Nascar driver impersonator, this can lead to a pretty significant discount. I still have both kidneys, thank you very much.

A Place For Hat Hanging

Finding a place to live can be a daunting task anywhere that you move. New York finds particularly sadistic pleasure in this venture. Since we decided to bring just the basics, we settled upon that wonderfully common idea of the sublet. As luck would have it, we had friends who were going on the road for 8 months and for reasons that remain unclear, trusted us to live there. Great place and affordable (for New York).

Had this not been the case, a large chunk of capital is required just to get into a place. And references. And good credit.

First, last, deposit, brokers fee. Sometimes one of these can be dropped if you’re lucky but that is hard to come by. Let’s say you found the perfect place for $1000 per month. We’re talking 3 to 4 grand just to get in the door. Granted that you get some of that back in prepaid rent and deposit if you’re not channelling the behaviors of a mid-80’s hair metal band.

Craigslist is an excellent resource in most major markets for housing. There is everything from nightly, weekly, and monthly rentals to long term sublets and multimillion dollar mansions in the sky. One just has to be cautious as there is not a lot of recourse if you get scammed. However, some of the best and lowest fee deals are under the heading ‘by owner’.

The Devilish Details

Above are the bigger ideas involved in moving but what about all of those little things that keep that tend to get neglected?

  • Change of address
    • Do this through the post office,, and any online accounts
  • Find a ‘local’ or nationwide bank
    • Look for that ever elusive ‘free checking’ account
    • Look at credit unions and online banks for the best deals
    • Check to see if your union has a bank affiliation
  • Find a place to practice
    • It is rare that your neighbors appreciate your ‘art’ as much as you do
    • Private lock out studios, shared spaces, and hourly studios are available
      depending on you budget

I’m sure I have missed some things. I’d love to hear any of your stories or suggestions about making this inevitable happenstance in life go smoothly.

Stay tuned for part 2 where we’ll wax philosophical about setting up shop in a new market.

How I Became an Associate Conductor on Broadway

This article is an addendum to the 5-part series How I Became a Broadway Musician.

2011 was a prosperous year for my career, as it marked not only the first time I played as a musician on Broadway, but also the first time I acquired my own chair on a Broadway show.

What does it mean to have a “chair”?

Having my own “chair” on Broadway means that I have a full time job on a show. I have 3 subs that I can call to play for me on my days off (the union contract allows Broadway musicians to sub out up to 50% of the shows in any month), but the position is mine. A chair on a Broadway show is a difficult thing to get, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have one.

Acquiring a chair on Broadway is a different process for keyboard players, conductors and MDs than it is for instrumentalists. If you are an instrumentalist, being hired for a chair is a little more straight forward, and (perhaps) even more difficult. When a show is ready to hire an orchestra for a new show, the music department and producers hire a music contractor to handle the hiring and personnel issues. Big name contractors in the Broadway scene include John Miller, Michael Keller, Howie Joines, “Red” Press and others.

But don’t call the contractors if you want a job. You’ll never get a job that way. The contractors are under enormous pressure to hire not just the best of the best, but also to hire orchestras that will work well together in the cramped, underground chambers of New York’s Broadway pits. As such, it’s very unlikely that they will hire someone who has not already proven that they can be successful in this situation. The contractors will want to hire someone that has already played in Broadway pits – either someone who has had their own chair before or has subbed regularly (and successfully) on Broadway for a long time. So the best way to get your name in front of a contractor is to sub regularly on the other shows that they contract.

Straight from the source

Another thing I want to add, and I know this is counterintuitive, is this: if you want to be a Broadway instrumentalist I recommend against emphasizing your theatre experience to the people in the scene. Whether its true or not, Broadway music is largely seen as a derivative art form among the Broadway musician community. Look at shows like Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, In the Heights – these shows showcase rock n roll, country, hip hop and salsa – none of which originated on Broadway.

The last thing you want to say, therefore, is that you learned to play R’n’B by playing a summerstock version of Dream Girls. Broadway wants authentic players that have learned music styles from the source, not from itself. If you want to get into the Broadway scene, I advise emphasizing your close-to-source experience in addition to (or more than) your theatre experience.

Keyboard chairs

Back to keyboard players and conductors. The Broadway scene for keyboard players is a lot more robust than it is for other instrumentalists. There are many more job opportunities for pianists – playing auditions, accompanying classes and lessons, vocal coaching, vocal directing, music directing, etc. And then the are jobs than often come from these jobs – arranging, copying, orchestrating, sequencing, programming, conducting, etc. There is a rich scene in the Broadway community for smart, talented and resourceful pianists.

And for that reason, the keyboard spots on Broadway shows often sprout from this scene – as it did for me. In my case, I was working my way through the standard jobs – first as an audition accompanist, then as a classroom accompanist, then as a copyist for new shows, then as a keyboard programmer for new shows – and in the process I made friends with other keyboard players.

Specifically, I made friends with Jeff, who I mentioned before in the 5-part series. If you read the series, you may remember that Jeff gave me my first subbing opportunity on his show.

Jeff is very good at his job and in high demand inside our scene. He is in such high demand, in fact, that he can’t possible do all of the opportunities that come his way. Such was the case when he was asked to be the assistant music director for the workshop of a new musical in the summer of 2010. The show was a revival with (as yet) no Broadway plans, and the workshop was 4 weeks long.

Jeff was busy with other projects and was unable to commit a full 4 weeks to the workshop. The management asked him for a recommendation, and he gave them my name and a few others.


Eventually I got the job. I worked on two workshops for the show, mostly performing as a copyist for the score and the pianist for dance rehearsals. A year later the show picked up a celebrity star and a Broadway run was announced.

Because I proved myself valuable during the workshops, and because of the dedication I showed to the team, the conductor asked me to be his associate conductor and pianist for the Broadway run. And that’s how I became the associate conductor to a Broadway show.

I should note, however, how incredibly lucky and unlikely my story is. There are hundreds of new shows being workshopped in New York every year and the vast majority of them do not make it to Broadway. It’s almost impossible to guess which ones will and won’t make it and the workshops often pay poorly and require a huge amount of work for the music teams. Yet music directors like myself almost always say yes to the job – because you never know if the next one is going to make it all the way to the top and take you with it.

You can see, of course, how lucky I am to have this job.

Interested in playing on Broadway?

If you are interested in working in the Broadway scene in New York City, my advice is to move to NYC and get as involved in the scene as you can. Ask people like me out for coffee, ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening. Make (authentic) friendships and do your best on every single gig. If you re humble and help others as much as you can, you’ll soon find that people will help you as well. As you’re working your way into the scene try to find a source of income that gives you some stability but does not interfere with your goals.

If you are a music director, be sure to join the Theatre Music Directors Facebook group and get involved in their discussions in a positive way. There a many, many wonderful keyboard players from around the world in that group, and they give wonderful advice.

Best of luck!

How To Find Work as a Gigging Musician

There’s a scene in the movie Inception where Cobb asks Ariadne how they came to be sitting outside a cafe in Paris. When she couldn’t recall, Cobb pointed out that we can’t remember how our dreams start; therefore she knows she’s dreaming if she can’t remember how she arrived someplace.

Sometimes I try to remember how I arrived at this point in my career as a musician and struggle to define when it even started. When did I become a professional musician? Was it when I got my first $20 weekly gig when I was 16, or when I told the IRS my occupation was Freelance Musician? Waking up every day and practicing guitar for work and not knowing how I got here… yeah, this is starting to feel a bit too much like a dream.

How does a musician find gigs?

Regardless of whether you aspire to tour as a sideman, play in a symphony, work in a Broadway pit, compose for TV and film, teach private music lessons, or more likely doing some combination of all these jobs, there are two factors that will directly effect the frequency and quality of your work:

  1. Your skills as a musician.
  2. Your reputation and ability to network.

First, you have to be a superb musician. Period.

That said, the best jobs do not always go to the best musicians. Most gigs do not require insane technical chops or mastery of the melodic minor modes. They do, however, require timeliness, cooperation, preparedness, and professionalism.

Finally, you need to learn about the people that hire musicians make an asserted effort to connect with them. It’s up to you to make the first inroads for your career.

Hone Your Skills

At the risk of offending some of you, one of the reasons you might have trouble finding gigs is that you’re just not good enough. Yet.

Music is a very competitive field with many factors outside our control. Our skill level is not one of them. Every outstanding musician went to great lengths to practice, practice, and practice some more. If you want to be a professional musician, practicing is your 9-5. Learn how to practice.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have a neighbor that played viola in the St. Louis Symphony. He outlined some of the basic skills I should start working on immediately:

  1. Ear training: Know what a minor chord sounds like compared to a diminished chord. Recognize the sound of every interval inside an octave. Learn the sound of music theory. Musicians communicate with these sounds, you must learn the language.
  2. Learn to read and write music. You don’t have to be the best sight reader, but if you really want to make a living as a musician, you can’t afford to turn down work because it involves written music.
  3. Finally, have a performance ready piece of music, that you can play by yourself, ready to go at all times. If you can’t sound great on your own, you’ll never sound great in a group.

That is some of the best advice I was ever given. I would have learned it eventually, but I’m thankful for being schooled early on, allowing me to internalize all of those skills.

In my experience, one of the best way to develop these skills is through transcription. Learn how to play exactly what the masters play. Teach yourself by ear, then write it down. Every great musician starts this way.

Honing these skills will help you learn new music faster.

To make a living as a musician, you’ll probably have to start by spreading yourself across many different gigs. Your private students want to learn new songs every week, the singer/songwriter you accompany just wrote three new songs for the gig this weekend, and you have to learn three hours of cover songs to sub in a wedding band. It’s a lot of work, but with practice, you’ll be able to learn music quickly and efficiently.

Build Your Reputation & Network

When I recently looked over the past two years on my gig calendar, I realized about 95% of the work I’d done can be traced back to my musician friends, either because they were already on the gig, or they recommended me.

In this regard, the best piece of advice I can give you is something you’d expect to hear from your mom:

Work hard, be a good person, and associate with other hard working, good people.

If you do this, you and your network of friends will get in on the ground floor of each others careers have a greater chance at becoming successful working musicians.


My dad once told me that he would follow up interviews with a hand written note. People remember those kinds of gestures, and even if you haven’t asked for anything in return, there’s a good chance your thoughtfulness will be repaid.

This, he explained, is called reciprocation–the act of responding to a gesture with a similar gesture. People do this all the time without realizing it. We’re all programmed to keep balance in our lives.

I transferred schools my junior year of college. Being the new guy on campus I wasn’t getting very many calls for gigs, but I wanted to play. I set out to book as many gigs for myself as possible. I needed people to play with me, so I called the musicians I’d become friends with, paid them whatever I could, and helped us all get some more working experience.

Many of the musicians I was hiring were playing with other people as well. Gradually, the guys playing on my gigs recommended me to other musicians in town. The work I was creating for some was reciprocated through a job with somebody else.

Paying it Forward

This idea of reciprocation goes beyond the “I give you a gig, you give me a gig” scenario I just described. Musicians that have more established careers know the importance of helping each other out, and often pass work to younger players that they feel have earned a shot at more lucrative jobs.

Of course, these seasoned pros don’t necessarily go looking for their proteges. You have to be proactive and reach out to musicians who are doing the kinds of jobs you want to do. There are a lot of ways to reach out: go to their gigs, ask to sit in, take a lesson from them, or simply offer to buy them coffee and talk shop.

In turn, pay it forward as you become more successful.

College Connections

The core of my network happens to be friends I met in college. It’s been 10 years since I was a student, but I work regularly with musicians I met in college, including Brad Whiteley, the keyboardist in my trio, and Dave Hahn, my MusicianWages cohort.

If you’re undecided about whether or not to study music in college, I interviewed several pro musicians that majored in music for another MusicianWages article called Advice On Using a Music Education. Each of them felt studying music in college gave them an advantage after school.

There’s also a certain camaraderie felt among music alumni. I’ve worked with guys that went to the same school as I, but at a different time. Immediately, we’ve got some common ground.

Additionally, there’s credibility associated with going to one school or another. It assures other musicians that you probably know what you’re doing. It’s a thin veil, though, lifted as soon as you start playing.

How to Really Use the Internet

As I mentioned, about 95% of my work comes from my network of friends. The other 5% comes from my internet presence or being at the right place at the right time.

A good internet presence is important for musicians, but only because it reinforces the networking you do offline.

People you meet should be able to quickly find you online by searching your name and maybe the instrument you play. Once they find your site, make it easy for them to contact you, buy your music, etc. All this is possible with a well optimized website.

Similarly, social networking sites are a great way to stay connected with people you meet on the scene. Drummer Jeremy Yaddaw wrote an article about Facebook networking for musicians that describes exactly what I’m talking about.

Who Hires Musicians?

Let’s take a look at some of the people and places that hire musicians. Click on a list item to skip ahead:

  1. Music Venues
  2. Other Musicians
  3. Music Contractors / Music Directors
  4. Music Producers
  5. TV/Film Professionals
  6. Churches
  7. Schools
  8. The Military
  9. Event Planners
  10. Regular People

Music Venues

Public places that regularly book live music typically fall into one of two categories:

  1. Those that use live music to attract their clientele.
  2. Those that use live music to enhance the atmosphere of their establishment.

The Bitter End in New York, Hotel Cafe in LA, and The Basement in Nashville are all examples of places people go to when they want to hear live music. Since the music is the primary draw for customers, bookers or talent buyers are interested in artists that will fill their room with paying customers.

If you can sell tickets, you can make a lot of money.

Restaurants, wineries, and hotel lounges are the kinds of places that hire musicians as background music. These gigs often go to solo musicians or smaller groups that play niche styles. For example, a solo jazz guitarist could be a good fit for Sunday brunch, a string quartet would sound nice at a winery, or an accordionist playing traditional Tarantella would create the right atmosphere at an upscale Italian restaurant.

If you can play music that will enhance or add authenticity to an establishment’s atmosphere, you should be able to find some work.

In both cases, you’ll probably have to deal with a talent buyer, manager, bartender, or some other employee at the venues. While in college, I worked at both types of venues–a bar that booked bands six nights a week, and a restaurant that hired background musicians on the weekends. I learned what to do, and what not to do, if you want to be booked at these venues, and wrote another article called What I Learned Working at Venues.

Other Musicians

Booking your own gigs is great, but it’s also a lot of work. Another way to land the same type of gig is to be hired by other musicians.

These are typically sideman jobs, that is, you are hired to be a supporting band member for another artist. Some of the best musicians in the world have lucrative careers recording and touring alongside popular artists.

Fellow musicians might also hire you to help with tasks they can’t do themselves, such as transcribing, writing charts, or acting as their music director.

In my experience, the first musicians that are going to hire you will be your friends. As you perform more often and continue meeting and working with other musicians, your network will expand. When artists need to hire somebody for their band, they ask often their friends and band members for recommendations. If you’ve built a solid reputation, people will start recommending you.

MusicianWages has several articles on working as a sideman. To better understand the job, check out A Guide To Being a Successful Sideman.

Music Contractors/Music Directors

Music Contractors and Music Directors are two different jobs with different responsibilities, but because they’re sometimes done by the same person, I’m grouping them together. Both jobs are management positions that oversee performing musicians.

Music Contractors, also called Music Supervisors in musical theatre, oversee the hiring of musicians for a particular gig. Even though the contractor does the hiring, he or she usually isn’t directly involved with the music.

Music Directors are responsible for teaching the music to the performers. In many cases, the MD is also in the band.

Jobs with Music Directors on board typically enjoy bigger budgets, which means more pay to the musicians. The most lucrative jobs are very competitive. Contractors and MDs often act as a filter to find the right musicians for a job, and they usually start with people they know and trust.

Again, this comes down to being a great player and networking. If Contractors and MDs hear your name enough, eventually they will call you with a job. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to reach out and let them know you are available.

Dave wrote a great series explaining how he became a Broadway musician, and discusses exactly how he reached out to music contractors, music directors, and everybody else that works with musicians on Broadway. If you haven’t read that series, I highly recommend you check it out. Even if you don’t want to play on Broadway, you’ll find some vital information in his articles.

Music Producers

In the music industry, the music producer’s job is to oversee the making, or production, of a recording. Originally, making a recording was simply (or not so simply) a matter of capturing a live performance in a studio. As technology progressed, multi-tracking and post-production sound manipulation broadened the role of the producer. Today, for better or worse, the technology needed to produce a modest recording is easily accessible to anybody with a couple thousand dollars.

One of the producer’s roles is to hire musicians for recording sessions. They need musicians that can learn the music very quickly and nail their parts in few takes. Having a great ear, professional sound, excellent time feel, and the ability to sight read are all important skills for a studio musician.

The recording scene has been greatly decentralized with the rise of home studios. Now, wherever somebody is making an album, there is potential for studio work.

One problem is that most people with home studios are trying to make albums as inexpensively as possible, and cannot afford to hire session musicians. Sometimes, though, opportunities to work with young producers can turn into long term collaborations that will be valuable to your career down the road. It’s important to know when to take an unpaid gig, but occasionally they can pay off in the long run.

It’s also possible to work for producers without ever actually being in the same room as them. Virtual session musicians record their parts at home and send them to the producer online. For a thorough read on this topic, check out Scott Horton’s How To Be a Studio Musician Without Leaving Home.

Finally, some of you may have dreams of working in high end studios and playing on pop stars hits. I hate to break it to you, but the days of storied groups of dedicated studio musicians like the Funk Brothers or Wrecking Crew are long gone. Session work at that level isn’t as sustainable as it used to be, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. It still exists but on a smaller scale, allowing fewer musicians to make a good living playing sessions exclusively.

TV/Film Professionals

Composing for TV and Film can generate a great income for musicians, but the industry has been changing over the last decade or so. Instead of in house composers and studio bands, much of the music you hear on TV and in the movies now either comes from a music library or is licensed directly from an artist or record label. Nonetheless, there is still good money for musicians in film and TV placements.

Ethan Stoller, who composes, produces, and edits music for TV and film, wrote about his career for MusicianWages. He offered a few pieces of advice for musicians interested in these jobs: Be prepared for the job you accept, be someone people want to work with, and connect with people in your local film making community.

Once again, hone your skills and network. Read his story and you’ll see how his connections from high school turned into his big break.

Note: If you’d like to do this type of work but are not in proximity of film makers, you have to consider moving.


Churches, synagogues and other places of worship have always employed musicians. There is a wide variety of music in churches, from traditional and classical to contemporary rock, pop, and gospel.

Most churches employ at least one full time musician, such as an organist, who might also be responsible for all music related activities. In larger churches, there may be more full or part time musicians on staff to share these responsibilities.

In addition to their staff, churches often hire freelance musicians for holiday services, musicals performed by the youth, or sidemen for contemporary worship bands. Churches may also commission music by freelance composers.

Staff positions are typically hired by church leaders. For example, when my parents’ church recently hired a new organist and music director, candidates met with the pastor and a congregational committee. When churches need to hire musicians for their staff, they’ll likely post the positions on musician jobs boards, religious jobs boards, or in classified ads.

Freelance positions, on the other hand, are usually hired by the music director. It’s possible she’ll post the jobs in classified ads, but more likely that she’ll look for musicians in the community, either through members of the congregation or by recommendation of other church music directors.


Schools, like churches, have several methods of employing musicians.

First, there’s staff. Band, choir, and orchestra directors, and if the school has a large enough program (and budget) they might employ private instructors, accompanists, and other specialists. If you’re interested in being a music teacher at a school, you’ll need a degree in music education (bachelors at least, masters for higher education). Then you’ll be able to apply for teaching positions as they open up.

Next there are contracted positions, for example, somebody hired to help instruct the drum line in a high school marching band. These are part time positions that aren’t needed during the entire school year.

Finally, there are clinicians–professional musicians hired to teach a masterclass or give a lecture. These are basically freelance jobs that typically last a day or a week, less than the contracted positions.

Clinicians and contracted musicians are hired by a school’s music teachers. To start finding this type of work, contact your old high school band director! Start with the people that already know you and try to learn who is hiring outside help for their programs.

In my opinion, musicians that are passionate about teaching make the best teachers. Education takes a lot of patience, planning, and expertise. Just because you’re good at music does not mean you’ll be good at teaching it to others.

The Military

Joining a military band isn’t something most musicians consider when they first pick up an instrument. However, it can be a great gig with a salary, benefits, and plenty of playing opportunities. I’ve known a few musicians that joined a military band because they were struggling to make ends meet, and they ended up loving their military career.

Granted, this gig isn’t for everyone, and I don’t know enough about it to give you proper advice. Lucky for us, Staff Sergeant Joshua DiStefano, a pianist in the U.S. Army for 14 years, has been a regular contributor to MusicianWages. Read about Josh’s experiences in The Life of an Army Band Musician.

Event Planners

Event planners are people or companies that organize and oversee upscale private parties, weddings, corporate events and other special occasions. Most of the time, these events include live music. Musicians call these jobs “club dates.” Club dates are commonly high paying jobs, especially in large cities.

Because club dates and private events can pay so well, there are companies that operate multiple corporate party bands and event planners specifically to book these gigs. They hire musicians through auditions. If you’d like to play in one of these bands, contact corporate bands in your area and ask them for an audition.

Many times, however, the event planner usually deals directly with one musician acting as the music director, who in turn hires the rest of the band. When events only need a small group or soloist, the event planner might deal directly with the musician or group.

If you’d like to be hired directly by even planners, search the internet for “event planners” or “event planning” in your area. In a big enough city, you’ll find anything from large companies to individuals offering event planning services. In all cases, event planners need a network of trusted vendors, including musicians, to do their jobs effectively.

Don’t expect them to call you, though. Make first contact, explain what you can offer (type of ensemble, repertoire, etc), and tell them you’re available immediately. If they don’t have an event for you on their calendar, politely follow up every few months.

Regular People

Finally, there are plenty of jobs to be found from people outside the music and entertainment industries. Regular people hire musicians to teach private lessons, write a song for a special event, perform at their anniversary party, company holiday party, or a house concert.

How do these people find musicians? The internet, neighbors, churches, schools, local music venues, or anywhere musicians work.

I haven’t looked at a Yellow Pages in years, but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t much of a musician section like, say, plumbers or pest control. There aren’t many directories people can use to find local musicians, so it’s up to you to let people know you’re available. By simply mentioning you do private events on a business card, your website, or postcards at your other gigs, you’re making it easier for people to hire you.

Tying it All Together

This article is just the beginning; there are many links embedded throughout it that lead to words of wisdom by other musicians. Learn from every opportunity, strive to be a better musician, a good hang, and contribute to the musician community by helping others. Please feel free to share your tips in the comments below!

Good luck everyone, and happy gigging.

Interview with UK Music Director Mike Dixon

Since he first started his career in musical theatre in 1979, Mike Dixon has become a respected and renowned music director and music supervisor in the UK. After talking to him, it is easy to understand why he is so successful, as he is as kind and inspiring, as he is passionate about his craft.

What does it take for someone to be a music director?

To be a theatre music director you need to know what drama is all about, and you need to know what music is all about.

Lots of people in theatre don’t understand music, the nitty gritty of how music looks, and they get quite scared about that. I think one of your jobs is to be able to put people at their ease about that. You have to say, “look, we’re looking at a 18-piece orchestra, we can make that change, but not like that.” Sometimes you do have to explain that.

Here is a case in point. When I was first talked to about We Will Rock You the producer said: “All the music exists, so we don’t need an orchestrator or vocal arrangement.” I said: “So where does it exist?” “Well, its’ on cds.”

So you have to say: “Look, say we get the show up and running in London with people who can work from their heads, but what if the show goes abroad and we can’t be there? How are you going to transmit exactly what the show is gonna be?” You have to take them down the path of understanding.

Enjoyment is also really important. If you are up on the podium, or in front of your piano, and you look like you’re not enjoying yourself, that will transmit to whoever you’re working with.

Do you prefer to be a piano conductor or a standing conductor?

They are very different things. In my early career, I really liked to have the keyboard in front of me, and get into the playing of the piece.

The first time I stood up in front of an orchestra was when I was the associate music director for La Cage aux Folles. After I conducted the orchestra for the 1st time, a brilliant saxophone player, John Franchi said: “You did a really good job. You were completely clear, we all understood everything you were doing. But just answer this question. You know the beginning part of the song “Masquerade,” how did you subdivide that into 28?!!”

Because my hand was shaking and the tempo was very slow, his joke was that it looked like if I had subdivided it into 28 (laughs)!

And when you play the piano, people can’t see you shaking!

That’s not true! For the Queen Jubilee concert in 2002, we did four songs from We Will Rock You with the full cast. I was playing the piano and conducting, and just before the big moment, the camera was right over me, and you can see very clearly my fingers absolutely shaking, just as I’m playing!

What is the difference between a music director and a music supervisor?

Being a supervisor is like being the music director, but once the show opens you leave and let the show happen, just like the director and the choreographer do. The music director needs to conduct the show every night, while the music supervisor sets up the show and gently goes off into the background.

Does the music director loose some of his authority when there is a music supervisor?

Yes, I suppose he does. I try to empower the music director and to give him or her responsibility, but sometimes there are some decisions where the music supervisor has got to go “it’s gonna be like this.” If you’re in that rehearsal together, the supervisor is the head.

How should a music director handle difficult personalities?

I think you should always treat people as equally as you can. If you treat people how you would want to be treated if you were in that position, then usually you’ll do ok. You have to respect people’s sensibilities and where they’re coming from. When somebody continually gets something wrong, try to figure out what it is that’s so hard.

You also have to be able to diffuse a situation. I think I’ve lost my temper maybe three times in my career, and two of those times in the first couple of years!

I’ve seen some music directors absolutely shouting to people and being unpleasant. I don’t think it gets them anywhere. Personally I prefer to have people working and performing with me because they enjoy it, not because they’re frightened.

What do you think are some common mistakes that young music directors make?

I think the biggest mistake is thinking that they’re really important. Of course music and being a music director is an important thing, but I think a lot of young music directors think that when they’re called a music director, it gives them importance, and it doesn’t. Because like any other position of authority, any respect you get is earned, it isn’t automatic.

Part of being young is having an idealism and a drive, to want to make things exactly right. I think a lot of young music directors find it difficult to compromise. That’s one of the things they have to be careful of.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first got started?

The one aspect of music directing that isn’t talked about very much is how important it is to be a communicator and to be a receiver; to understand that you might have an absolute view of how music goes and how it should be, but musical theatre is a completely collaborative process.

If you think that music is more important than anything else, you’re wrong. Music is as equally important as the lyrics and the book.

In which ways has your music directing changed over the years?

As you get older, you are more able to see a bigger picture. If someone makes a mistake and you’re younger, you will want to go over that mistake and make sure that doesn’t happen again. As you get older, if you’re dealing with experienced musicians and they make a mistake in rehearsal, you don’t make a big thing about it. Maybe you just have some kind of eye contact with them, and then let them make the decisions as to whether they want to do it again.

Obviously you never stop learning, and you also learn from people much younger than you lots of time as well. One of the nice compliments I’ve had from a number of people is “you’re just the same as you were Mike,” which is a nice thing. I’m always amazed at the quality of the musicians and of the actors that I work with. I’m lucky, and I sometimes pinch myself and go “have I really been doing this since 1979?”

Any last thoughts?

Real life is more important, it’s not a matter of life and death. I know if a show has not been received as well as you wanted it to be, or if things are going badly in a show, it feels like that. But you have to go: “This isn’t real life. I’m doing something that 90% of the people in the world don’t get to do, and I’m in that lucky 10%.”

Interview with UK Music Director Tom Carradine

Tom Carradine is currently the Children’s Music Director on the UK tour of The Sound of Music. He previously toured as the music director for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Hi-De-Hi, and worked as the music programmer for the current tour of Evita. He also worked as the assistant music director on the UK tours of Scrooge and Cabaret.

He has music directed multiple regional UK shows, such as Red Peppers, The Jungle Book, Babes in the Wood, Mother Goose, Oklahoma!, Spring Fever, Iolanthe and The Mikado, Dick Whittington, and a studio cast recording of the rock musical Area 51.

What is it like working as a children’s music director?
I really wanted to do it for years. I love working with kids. They’re sometimes better behaved and more switched on than the adult performers.

On The Sound of Music we have three teams of kids, and each team does three to four days, and then has a week off. My job is to make sure that when they come back, they fit right back in with the show. If the show has changed even slightly in the time they’ve been away, they have to fit back into that show perfectly.

I’m often inspired by the kids energy, professionalism and adaptability. Only last week one of our Kurts had to come off the show during intermission as he wasn’t feeling well. As we don’t tour an understudy boy, the other kids had to take on his spoken and vocal lines, and some of his staging. They took this all in their stride and continued as if they’d always done it that way.

Are You A Music Director? hosts a job board for regional theatre companies seeking music directors. If you are interested in these kinds of jobs you should bookmark that page, visit often and subscribe to it’s RSS feed.

Theatre companies are also encouraged to use this resource.

If you are a theatre music director, you should also visit and join these resources:

Music Director Groups

Yahoo email list: Ask questions to MDs in this private email list where only MDs are allowed in

Twitter: Network in a fun way with other MDs @MusicTheatreMD

Facebook: Find and post articles, videos and jobs

What’s the difference between music directing a long running show and music directing a show from scratch?
On a long running show, you’re stuck within a framework that’s already been set out for you. Tempos and stylistic things are set, so it’s your job to bring consistency to the project.

For example, when I music directed the UK tour of Joseph, the show worked well, so my responsibility was to make sure that the band and the vocals remained consistently tight, within the realms of the ebb and flow that you have on a show day to day.

It’s a tricky thing to find that balance between consistency and letting the performers “breathe,” – responding to the audience every night when they’re feeling a moment. That’s how you’re creative as a music director on a daily basis.

When you do a show from scratch, the creative freedom is broader. You’re working with a director and choreographer, and you can mold things and change things as the new production is created. Collaboration is important.

What are the challenges of music directing a long running show?
You have to be producing the same product eight times a week, even twelve on the UK tour of “Joseph.” That’s quite hard. You have to be consistent within the realm of creative freedom.

I also find it tricky to be at my peak level of performance for the show. You get up late in the morning, have an afternoon rehearsal, or relax, and then have to be on top for the show at 7:30 pm.

You’ve also worked a lot as an assistant music director. What are those responsibilities like?
Depending on the producer or music director, you’re often responsible for leading the daily vocal warm ups before the show, for playing a keyboard part in the show, playing for rehearsals, and taking understudy rehearsals.

In addition to that you may also regularly conduct the show, in order for the music director to take notes from out-front or take time off. This really depends on the producer. As assistant music director on Joseph I would conduct the show twice a week, whereas on the tour of Scrooge I conducted only one performance on the whole tour.

It’s also an organization job. You have to keep an eye on things and make sure that the “dep diary” is up to date with who’s on or off in the band. For some producers, I’ve had to keep the arrangements, orchestration and band parts up to date when changes are being made in the show. On a touring show the assistant’s responsibilities may also include packing and unpacking the scores and band parts in each venue.

I pride myself on being a good assistant. You have to second guess everything, and always be a step ahead of the music director.

How did you get into programing and sequencing? Would you say that those important skills for music directors to have?
I think it’s important for music directors to be aware of the technology that’s out there – what it’s good for and what it’s not good for.

It’s useful to know how to reprogram keyboards, for example if something goes down during a show, or an understudy needs to change keys which may require changes to the programming. You may have to change the mapping- set the keyboard to play more than one note when you play a single note in order to simplify complex sections.

I learned that the hard way. I did a production of Cats with a West End production team in Cyprus for the Larnaca International Festival. When we arrived, we realized that both Key 2 and 3 were missing the chain of patches for Act 2. Unfortunately the back-up floppy disks for these had been left in the UK.

The other keyboard player Tim Davies and I had to reprogram the keyboards for Act 2 on the afternoon before the dress rehearsal. I’d never used a Kurtzweill before, and it was completely different. I learned how to program quickly that day!

What is your advice to new music directors?
Do everything: fringe, cabarets, cocktail piano, auditions, rehearsals, amateur shows. To be a good musician, especially for musicals which imitate so many different styles, you need to have an awareness of every style.

You never know who you’re gonna meet. In this business it’s definitely not what you know, it’s who you know. You only get one chance to prove that you can do it.

Also, be careful to not pester music directors and band fixers. I’ve been on the receiving end of persistent emails and, even though I’m more than happy for people to come and sit in on a show that I’m working on, I know quite a few people who have been black listed because they’re persistent in a bad way.

What are qualities that you think music directors must have?
Be humble. As a music director you’re there to facilitate the performers, both on stage and in the pit, to give their best performance. Trust your musicians and don’t get in the way of them doing a great job.

For young music directors it’s probably even more important. Don’t assume that if you’ve music directed a number of small shows, you’ll only ever work as a music director.

Confidence is also an important thing. It takes a lot to stand up in front of pit full of talented musicians, in front of a stage of experience performers and in front of an auditorium.

I like to be personable and approachable. I think the only way to get a good company and band feel is to have a happy working environment. Being humble helps. I don’t think you can get a good performance from your performers if you instill fear into them.

Also, I’m all for going with the guys for a beer after work and I think you have to be willing to have a joke and a laugh, but it’s important that you, and the players working for you, know where that line stops.

Resources for Broadway Musicians

This list of part of a 5-part series on becoming a Broadway musician. For the full story, visit the series home page:

How I Became a Broadway Musician


Music Director Community

  • Theatre Music Director Yahoo Group – A private email list exclusively for professional music directors in the theatre industry. Discuss topics with colleagues and post jobs openings. Note: If you would like to join this group, please include a brief summary of your experience as a professional music director with your application. *
  • Theatre Music Director Facebook Group – Find and post articles, videos and job listings. Leave the group a wall post including something about yourself – where you’ve worked, where you live, etc. *
  • @MusicTheatreMD on Twitter – A fun way to network with other music directors online. Send a tweet and say hello. *

Theatre Musician Community


  • American Federation of Musicians – The musicians’ union for all of North America.
  • Local 802 – The NYC chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, which negotiates and enforces all union Broadway contracts. All Broadway musicians are members of the Local 802 AFM.

Further Reading

* Moderated by music director and blogger Geraldine Boyer-Cussac.

Part 5: Playing the Part

In November of 2008 I moved to New York City. I’d been working in local, regional theatre and tours for over ten years and I was determined to get a job playing keyboards on Broadway. This is part 5 of a 5-part series.

For the full story, visit the series home page:

How I Became a Broadway Musician

The final chapter in this story is different than the others.

In Parts 1-4 I was able to pinpoint specific actions, conversations and opportunities that helped me advance my career.

I spent years building my experience and my resume on tours and regional theaters. I moved to New York. I was able to meet other keyboard players through email and coffee meetings. I connected with other music directors online through social networking websites, email lists and blog posts. I took every gig seriously and did my best to establish a good reputation.

At every dead end or roadblock I’d try to uncover what “the next step” was for my career and then I’d find a way to execute it.

Yet, after I’d been in New York for a couple years I mostly stopped all of the things I came up with in Parts 1-4. Eventually I stopped keeping up with my spreadsheet of current Broadway keyboard players and I stopped writing my introductory emails. I stopped posting as many articles about Broadway and music directing (and for awhile – about anything) here on

There were 3 reasons for this:

  1. I made a lot of great friends. Somewhere between emailing strangers for advice and tweeting my thoughts on Forever Plaid vocal arrangements I made some very genuine relationships with colleagues in my field. I mean, it’s not surprising that a lot of the MDs I met were a lot like me, right? Everyone came from different backgrounds, but we were all doing the same thing.

    We’d all go out for drinks, or a show, or whatever. We’d talk about anything…home, people, gossip. You know – friend stuff. I didn’t really need to email strangers anymore. I was friends with people that were playing on Broadway.

    It was fun – and easy, in the end – to meet so many people with the same interests as I had. It was cool to be a part of a community.

  2. I had enough work. Eventually – in spurts – I would suddenly have more work than I could handle. I went to LA to program the synths on a new musical, I arranged parts for a concert at Town Hall, I was the assistant music director for a major reading. I finally wasn’t totally broke all the time. (What a relief.)

    There were still dry patches when no work would come in (November thru January seems to always to be a slow time here in New York if you don’t land a holiday gig), but it wasn’t like that first winter spent on unemployment checks.

In hindsight – I guess I’d broken into the scene, right? That’s what it feels like. Suddenly I was just inside of it – playing piano for auditions and classes, music directing projects here and there, going out for drinks with my friends.

I’d say it was mid-2010 when I’d started to be part of the scene. Part of me is glad that it was so difficult, and it took me so long, to get to this point. It taught me to really appreciate every opportunity that came my way.


The third reason things changed for me is a guy named Jeff.

Let’s go back for a minute. I met Jeff in 2008. At the time he was the Associate Conductor for a new show on Broadway and I’d written him in the first wave of emails I sent out in Part 3. Jeff wrote me back a really encouraging email with a lot of great advice in it. Later we met for a quick dinner before his show.

From day one Jeff was an incredible help to me. He recommended me for work with important people, he hired me for side projects and, essentially, opened the door for me to the Broadway world and mentored me as I walked in.

And very soon we were friends, too. We went out to dinner with our girlfriends. I played piano at his wedding when they got married. I found (nearly) every one of his jokes to be (nearly) funny. (I kid, I kid!)

We had a lot of similar interests in keyboards, technology and theater. So when Jeff had a project come in that he couldn’t take, he would send me as his sub.

And the gigs Jeff got calls for were incredible! Cirque du Soleil flew me to Japan for a week just to meet me on Jeff’s recommendation. Remember that synth programming gig in LA that I mentioned? Jeff. The major reading I was the assistant music director for? Jeff recommended me.

And the night I first played on Broadway? Jeff again.

Now if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he never gave me anything I didn’t deserve and he didn’t do me any favors. He’s a nice guy like that.

But you’ve read this whole story – right? I mean, you can see what a difference my buddy Jeff made on my career. It is immeasurable.

Playing on Broadway

Ok, so it’s early 2011 and Jeff is going to be the the Associate Conductor to a new Broadway show. (Because the only pants he wears are fancy pants, duh.) He asks me if I’ll be one of his 4 subs.

He gave me the K2 book in February to start learning.

I was excited – of course. I worked on the book until everything sat just right in my fingers. I went in before shows to practice on the rig. I listened to recordings of the show on the subway.

As you can imagine, I didn’t want to screw this up.

So one day in March, a few weeks after the show opened, Jeff called. The conductor needed to take a sick day. Jeff’s was going to conduct the show and they needed me to play K2.

I put on black clothes and I left for the theater.


Getting a musician job on Broadway isn’t impossible. For that matter, getting any gig you want isn’t impossible – making a living as a musician isn’t impossible – and don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise.

So if you there’s a gig out there that you really want – start working towards it. Identify the roadblocks in your way and find a way around them. If it takes 8 years or it takes 20 years – who cares? Do you want the gig or not?

If there’s anything to take away from this story, it’s this:

  • Community is everything – find your community and do your part to help it grow. Make friends with like-minded colleagues and help people when you can. If you can’t find a community – make one yourself.
  • Find a survival job that works for you – I once put together this list of best and worst day jobs for musicians. See what you think. Find something that doesn’t interfere with your music career – until that day when you don’t need a day job anymore.
  • Use the internet – I used social networks, blogging, email and countless other online tools to help me find my community and get the gig that I wanted.
  • You need help – It was the help of friends like Jeff, Michael, Ryan and others that allowed me to achieve my goal. Did I mention community is important?
  • Use your strengths – Blogging and writing doesn’t have anything to do with playing keyboards, but it’s something I could do – so I tried to find a way to use it to my advantage.

The End

Thanks so much for reading this story. I hope it helps someone out there. Please leave a comment below with your thoughts – every comment is emailed right to me and I read every one. I always look forward to hearing from readers.

Also, check out the resources page for this series that also posted today. There are a lot of resources on that page for both aspiring and veteran Broadway musicians.

Thanks again for reading – and please use the social network links below to share these articles with your friends and please consider subscribing to the site through email or RSS.

Part 4: Reputation Building

In November of 2008 I moved to New York City. I’d been working in local, regional theatre and tours for over ten years and I was determined to get a job playing keyboards on Broadway. This is part 4 of a 5-part series.

For the full story, visit the series home page:

How I Became a Broadway Musician

It was 2009 and I had started to find some work in NYC. I was accompanying for private musical theatre classes, giving a few vocal coachings and generally getting my feet wet in the NYC theatre scene.

I needed more work, but I was also stubborn. I didn’t want to take any commitments that would interfere with my goal of working on Broadway.

Which is a pretty bold thing to say, no? Come on, right? I was flat broke.

Well, yes, that is all true. But there’s another side to that. Even by within my first year I’d already become familiar with a problem I knew I needed to avoid.

The Catch-22 of Survival Jobs

See, and I’m sure you already know this, New York City is an expensive place to live. A cheap beer is $6. Rent is too damn high. Every time a bell rings the MTA raises the subway fare.

It can be very difficult. One of the traps that performers often fall into is grabbing a job that they legitimately need to survive, only to find that their job doesn’t allow them to pursue the goal they came to New York City to achieve. Two years down the line, they are financially stable and also terminally miserable in a job they could have done back home. And they never had the time to chase their goal.

This city can eat dreams just as quickly as it can make them.

(In all fairness – that’s not always how things go. But I felt that was how it what would happen with me if I didn’t keep my eye on the prize.)

So my next step was to find work that fit one of two criteria:

  1. The job didn’t interfere with pursuing Broadway work.
  2. The job was in, around or moving toward Broadway work.

Job, Type 1

The first gig I found was a church job.

My friend Ryan taught me how to play his church organ and I started to sub for him at his church gig. $100/service and somewhere between 2 and 5 services a week. The gig helped get me through some very thin months and it very rarely interfered with theatre gigs. I’m still so grateful to my buddy Ryan.

A few months later I was recommended for my own organist position at a nearby church. I still have that same church gig every Sunday.

Job, Type 2

One of the MDs I had interviewed for suggested that I try getting a gig at CAP21 – which is a musical theatre school for actors in NYC. They often hire pianists and I could make some good connections there.

I emailed them right away and asked them for work. CAP21 happened to be looking for pianists right when I called and they gave me a job a few weeks later. I was so glad to have the job. I still work there from time to time.

I made great connections at CAP21 and I feel a lot of affection for their program, the administrators and the teachers. They were very good to me and it was a job that met all of my #2 criteria – it was in, around and moving toward a job on Broadway.

Reputation Building

Getting work as a musician in the Broadway scene is all word-of-mouth. That’s the reason that community building is so important, as I discussed in Part 3 of this series.

The next step is reputation building. You not only have to surround yourself with a vibrant community of genuine relationships – you also have to be very, very, very good at what you do.

Here’s the thing about Broadway work – since the collapse of the recorded music industry, Broadway work has become one of the best jobs in New York City for commercial musicians. It pays a living wage, provides health insurance and pension benefits through a union contract with the American Federation of Musicians. This is a deal that, outside of Broadway work, is largely available only to symphony musicians in ICSOM orchestras.

Famous sidemen who used to play for Sinatra or Bon Jovi are now playing on Broadway. Look – say what you want about having to play the same music every night – nobody can deny that it’s a good gig.

So nobody plays on Broadway these days except the best musicians in the world.

Moreover, it’s not just about playing well, it’s also about working well with others, communicating clearly, working with humility and flexibility and, generally, being a nice person. You can be the best, baddest bass player alive, but if you have a bad attitude, no one is going to recommend you for a long-term situation like a Broadway show.

Working It

So I took every gig – big or small – very seriously. I knew that my work would come (or go) from raves (or complaints) about my playing and demeanor.

I met great, talented people. I learned something from everybody. One gig would lead to the next. At the gigs I’d pass out a business card if asked for one, I’d send a short thank-you email with my info if not.

That’s not to say I didn’t mess up a few things. The first all-sight-reading gig of Sondheim music was not my finest work. The first time someone asked me to both sight-read and transpose down a minor 3rd didn’t go very well. My knowledge of musical theatre composers and their signature styles improved immeasurably. My sight-reading became laser-sharp.

I was starting to see more theatre – both because I could better afford it, but also because I started to know someone who knew someone who had free tickets, etc. I learned a LOT about the art and business of theatre. I learned so much, just by being around the scene, that it was hard to believe that I knew much of anything before I’d moved to New York City.

A year after I’d arrived, in 2009, I started music directing projects here and there. A gig at Symphony Space, a reading at Playrights Horizons, a class at NYU.

More gigs started to come in – a music directing gig at Town Hall, another reading, an off-Broadway show. Projects with big names and a little larger paycheck.

Using My Strengths

As you may have guessed by now (what is this? Part 4 already?), I like to write. It’s always been a hobby of mine. As I said before, Cameron and I had started this site about a month before I’d moved to New York City. Before this, though, I’d written a few other blogs, briefly worked on the side as a freelance copywriter and had a (very) small amount of luck as an amateur writer.

The union paper (now a glossy magazine) in New York, Allegro, started publishing articles from in 2009. I thought it was a neat thing. Allegro is mailed to 10,000 NYC union musicians every month, including all of the musicians on Broadway, and I figured that couldn’t hurt.

Once Allegro printed an article I’d written about creating a musician resume that included a copy of my resume in it.  Cool, right?  In other words, my resume was printed and mailed to every member of the New York City musicians’ union.  I got a few phone calls after that one.  That’s probably my favorite story about

The union paper in LA also asked to publish our content.  Then the International Musician, which is sent to over 100,000 North American union musicians, published 2 of our articles.

It was around then that Cam and I both started to have the – especially at first – surprising experience of meeting a musician who knew us from our articles.  I’d be out on a gig and a musician would say – “Hey man, I read your article.” (Or, more frequently, “Hey man, now my resume looks just like your resume!”)

The content was making their way around the scene and that felt pretty cool. Blogging works. (Don’t forget how I landed my first tour – see Part 2 – that was also, indirectly, through blogging.)  Sometimes it’s subtle, but it does work.  It helped me with the reputation building that I knew I needed to continue to do.

Closer and Closer

Along the way someone had told me that it would take 3-5 years to break into the Broadway scene.  At this point I felt like I was going the right direction and just had to keep going. But would it really take 5 years?

Tomorrow I’ll talk about how I finally got a gig on Broadway.  I’ll also post a list of resources for aspiring and veteran Broadway musicians as we wrap up this 5-part series.  Please consider subscribing to the site through email or RSS.

Part 3: Community Building

In November of 2008 I moved to New York City. I’d been working in local, regional theatre and tours for over ten years and I was determined to get a job playing keyboards on Broadway. This is part three of a five part series.

For the full story, visit the series home page:

How I Became a Broadway Musician

My First Apartment

An actor friend of mine knew an actor who knew an actor who knew an actor who needed to sublet his apartment in Queens. I was at the end of a regional theater contract and I jumped on the offer. $600/mo for one bedroom in a two bedroom apartment in Queens.

When I moved to New York in November of 2008 I thought I had all kinds of connections in “the city”. After all, nearly everyone I had worked with on tours and regional theaters lived in New York. Even some of the musicians I worked with on cruise ships were here. It’d be easy to get a gig, right?


You may notice that keyboardist, pianist, accompanist, vocal coach and music director all seem to be used interchangeably in this series of articles. That’s another peculiarity of the industry – everyone who works in the music director field is typically expected to be proficient in all of these skills (and often more). This is especially true outside of the Broadway scene.

Inside the Broadway scene, however, there are enough resources to allow music directors to specialize in certain skills – for instance, orchestrators, conductors and keyboard players.

It turns out I had a lot of great friends, but I didn’t really have many connections that could get me any work. I knew actors, directors, choreographers, stage managers – but very few of them seemed to have any connections to piano/keyboard/MD work.

I learned that it would be other music directors that would recommend me for the work they couldn’t take themselves. This taught me a very valuable lesson – If I want to work in New York City as a music director, I have to know other music directors.

The reason I didn’t know any MDs stemmed from one of the peculiarities of working as a music director: Especially outside of New York City, there’s typically only one music director on each gig. So we rarely meet each other.

Ok, so it turned out that I didn’t have any connections in New York City. Woops. What now?

It Can Be a Tough City…

Things didn’t go very well in New York at first. Not only did I misjudge the number of connections I had, it was also November of 2008 – right at the beginning, you probably remember, of the worst recession in generations. AIG had failed 3 months prior and 2 months later 11 Broadway shows closed – taking 150 musician jobs with them.

It was – to put it nicely – not a good time to try to break into the scene.

I lived off unemployment checks for 5 months. I found a few gigs here and there, but nothing that paid very much.

Very soon I was dead broke. It was the middle of winter in New York City. My apartment had rats and cockroaches that would shift and crawl through the walls at night. My friends were telling me to move back home.

For many months I tried very hard to get a day job. But it was hopeless – the unemployment rate in NYC was almost 10% at that time. In a city of 9 million people that’s a lot of unemployed workers. I was competing for temp jobs with Wall Street execs with Yale degrees. I kept sending out my (day job) resume, but I just never heard anything back. It was very frustrating.

I kept thinking…what else can I do? How can I turn this around?

Creating Connections

Ok, so I had this one really glaring problem: I had no connections. But what are connections, really? What does it mean to be connected?

Being connected means to be part of a community. It means that you have friends that you help and that help you, too. It means you go out to drinks and tell stories and have a good time. And when gigs come along you and your friends hire each other.

What I needed was a community of music directors that I could be a part of. I either needed to find that community – or build my own from the ground up.

So I did both. I began contacting the existing keyboard community and I started to build my own.

Contact the Existing Community

Step one, I emailed every single musician that was currently playing keyboards (or conducting, or contracting, or anything related) on Broadway.

I made a spreadsheet that listed every show on Broadway. Next to each show’s name were columns for:

  • Music Contractor
  • In-house Contractor
  • Conductor/Music Director
  • Key 1
  • Key 2
  • Key 3
  • Key 4
  • Synth Programmer
  • Copyist

I went to, a website that lists all of the personnel of each Broadway show, and filled in the names of every position on every show.

Then, using the union directory (See? I knew that union membership would come in handy eventually), I found all of the email addresses I could.

Then I sent an email to each musician.

Here is an example of the kind of emails I would write:

Dear [Name of Musician],

My name is Dave, I’m a piano player and keyboardist originally from Chicago. I’ve worked primarily in theatre for the past 14 years. I’ve been an accompanist, conductor, keyboardist, copyist – you name it. I studied jazz piano, I worked on cruise ships, MD’d the Wonderful Town national tour and worked as a consultant for Hal Leonard. My resume, bio, recordings and photo are all at

I moved to NYC a few months ago and I’m looking for work. I’m certain you often receive emails to that effect, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to write you anyway. I’m a member of the 802 and I found your name and contact through them.

I wonder if you are in need of any subs for [show the musician plays on]. Also, if you have any advice for me about getting rehearsal and audition accompanist work in the area, I would be very, very grateful.

Thank you for your time –

Piano, Conducting & Keyboards
(630) 740-9274 | WWW.DAVIDJHAHN.ORG

The emails followed a basic formula that I still use today:

  1. Who I Am – Of course, you have to always assume that no one knows who you are. Obviously, at this point in the story, that was a pretty safe assumption.
  2. What I’ve Done – I like to list credits in threes – as in, I list three things I’ve done in one sentence. It’s powerful. The example above doesn’t show this very well – do you see I listed 4 things? Like this:

    I studied jazz and classical, I worked on cruise ships, MD’d the Wonderful Town national tour and worked as a consultant for Hal Leonard.

    Three things would have been better. Like this:

    I studied jazz piano at Northern Illinois University, I worked on cruise ships in Europe and conducted the Wonderful Town national tour.

    I got better at this as I went along.

  3. What Do I Want? – People often skip this part when they write introductory emails. You can’t expect strangers to read your mind – you have to ask for things. It can be done politely:

    I wonder if you are in need of any subs for [show the musician plays on]. Also, if you have any advice for me about getting rehearsal and audition accompanist work in the area, I would be very, very grateful.

When I wrote someone I would highlight their name in yellow. If they wrote back I would highlight it in blue. If they told me they couldn’t help (aka “stop bugging me”) I would highlight their name in red.

Then I would write back the names in blue. I’d ask if we could meet for coffee. If they said yes I would highlight their names in green and set up a meeting.

I don’t know how many people I wrote. Dozens. A lot of them wrote back – maybe half of them. They all said they couldn’t help, but 3-4 of them agreed to meet me for coffee. One said I could come sit in the pit for Wicked (YES).

I didn’t do this just once. I kept up with the scene. As shows closed I would move them to another spreadsheet called “CLOSED”. As new shows opened I would add them, and all of their personnel, to the spreadsheet. I spread out emails so I wouldn’t annoy anyone – no more than one every three months.

Eventually I started to understand which shows I would be best for, and which ones were probably not right. For instance, if the keyboard player also doubled on the zither, it probably wasn’t worth bothering that guy.

Build a New Community

Step two, I used the internet to try and help create a music director community. Cameron and I had launched MusicianWages about a month before I came to New York, and we’d already started to see traffic from like-minded musicians. So I used the site to help with the community building.

I started writing articles about Broadway, the union, music directing and anything else for which musicians like me might be searching Google. If someone on Broadway emailed me back I would ask them if I could interview them for the website. I would post their interviews.

I was hoping that all the writing might attract people like me – you know, other music directors, etc. It worked pretty well, really. Try it – go to Google and look up “broadway music director”. You’ll find my articles.

Then I started a private email list for music directors. I started a Facebook group and a Twitter group (that I later closed – try @MusicTheatreMD now). I used MusicianWages to let people know about the groups.

After I had a little email list I put together a meet-up in NYC. There was another MD in the group who was much better than me at event planning and I asked her if she’d help me find a place to have it. She took care of the venue and I worked on getting people to come. I wrote, again, to every player on Broadway, as well as every music director I’d found, and every contractor in town.

It was a good event. A few dozen music directors came to a small restaurant in the theatre district and we had a good time. We exchanged business cards and soon after we all started trading work between ourselves. The great Broadway contractor John Miller even came to the party and let us ask him questions about how to get a Broadway gig.

Little By Little

Little by little things started to get a little better at this point. I started to find a little work. I moved to a cleaner, cheaper (but smaller) apartment in Harlem. I was still dead broke all the time – but I had work, so I wasn’t feeling so desperate.

I’d found a way to turn things around and finally started moving in the right direction in NYC. But it would be another two years before I’d play on Broadway.

At this point I had spent years building my resume and my community and, in hindsight, I was more than half-way to my goal. The next step was to build a combination of experience, reputation and more community.

Continue reading – Part 4: Reputation Building →