How to Get a Musician Job at Walt Disney World

I am a substitute bassist at Walt Disney World in Florida. I sub at the Grand Floridian Hotel, which houses a society orchestra that plays mostly old jazz from the 1920s to 1940s. On a regular basis, I have questions from people all the time about how one goes about getting hired as a Walt Disney World musician. On one hand, it’s quite simple: you audition and get hired, like any other musical organization. On the other hand, Disney’s talent employment process is quite unique. It takes quite a bit of explaining, and makes sense to have an article about it.

Before we get started, I must mention this: all of my knowledge for being a Disney cast member is from the Florida park, but I believe the process is very close, if not identical, to the processes at the other four parks around the world. The parks even advertise openings from the same website.

Types of musician jobs at Walt Disney World

There are two kinds of musicians that work at Walt Disney World: contracted groups, and in-house cast members. Cast members then get broken down into full-time and seasonal musicians. Subs, like me, are considered seasonal musicians. Usually, it’s for employees that work only during busier times of the year. This is where subs are classified, however. I guess it makes sense to classify subs here, as they only work when called on, anyway.

Cast Member Musicians

The in-house jobs, where musicians are considered actual employees of Walt Disney World, are the cast members. These jobs are the more ongoing ensembles at Disney, where an actual budget is set-aside for them in particular. The musicians have full benefits and pension, as per the collective bargaining agreement with the Local 389 musician’s union.

The jobs that are included would be bands like:

  • The Main Street Philharmonic – a kind of marching brass jazz band in the Magic Kingdom.
  • Oktoberfest Musikanten – a German polka band at Epcot’s Germany pavilion.
  • Mo’Rockin – a Moroccan fusion ensemble at the Moroccan pavilion in Epcot.
  • Mulch, Sweat, and Shears – which is a rock band at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
  • Disney’s Grand Floridian Society Orchestra (my sub position) – which is a six piece jazz band, which plays early to mid 20th century period jazz at the Grand Floridian Hotel in the lobby. It’s kind of reminiscent of a cruise ship’s “big band” sets.
  • Disney’s Polynesian Hotel’s Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show Band – which, as the name implies, is the Hawaiian band that plays the music for the dinner show.

There is even a number of lounge pianists and harpists around the property as solo acts.

There are many more ensembles in the Florida park; these are just a few examples. As far as the cast member jobs, these are some of the older groups that have stood the test of time. Some of these bands work five days a week, and some work seven, using a second group of musicians that work two days a week. Some of these seven-day ensembles have a “two day band” and a “five day band,” and others have different schedules for each musician, so the band is pretty much the same all week, with a few differences in the personnel from day to day. The two-day musicians are usually the first call subs for the five-day guys.

It is the cast member jobs that I will be concentrating on, as they are what I’m most knowledgeable on, and what Disney is most interested in.

Contracted Jobs

Some jobs, like the ones around Downtown Disney, Pleasure Island, the annual Food and Wine Festival, or even a small handful of groups inside the parks, are brought in on a temporary contract. They are not Disney employees, and don’t have all of the same benefits. They are usually hired when Disney has a special need for a themed band, and they use the contracted musicians sparingly.

For contracted gigs, Disney contracts already established bands and acts that have put in the effort themselves for the rehearsals, costumes, equipment and anything else that goes into their show. In short, you are ready to play, and need minimal interaction with the venue; you’re pretty much pointed to the stage, shown where the electrical outlets are, and left to do what you do best.
Some examples of contracted jobs around Disney are:

  • The British Revolution – which is a 60s style rock band playing in the UK section of Epcot. I believe the name actually reflects the show, and not the band’s name, which may be something different. I have seen the same show with a different band in the last year, so I assume the bands are rotated in and out. This band is one of the few examples of the contractors performing inside of one of the theme parks.
  • Nova Era – which is a classical/fusion group that uses 18th century period costumes and electric string instruments. They perform in Downtown Disney.
  • Don Soledad Trio – which is a rumba flamenco group that occasionally performs at Pleasure Island or during Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival. Don’s group is an example of a contracted job that is hired on an as-needed basis. They do not work regularly, like the above two groups.

What instruments are needed?

Here’s a list of cast member bands from the top of my head. There may be more, and these may change as time goes on and park interests change. Take these as a guide to know where to start when looking into your instrument at Disney. Most of these groups can be searched on YouTube to see what their gig is all about:

Mariachi Cobre
Mo’Rockin’ (electric violin)

Spirit of America Fife and Drum Corps (fife spots, of course)

Fantasy Woodwind Society (Sax quartet)
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra

Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Main Street Philharmonic
Oktoberfest Musikanten

Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Main Street Philharmonic

Grand Floridian Society Orchestra (can replace bass)
Main Street Philharmonic
The Notorious Banjo Brothers and Bob
Oktoberfest Musikanten (tuba/bass double)

Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Off Kilter (Celtic Rock Band at Epcot)
Mariachi Cobre (Guitarron)
Mulch, Sweat, and Shears
Oktoberfest Musikanten (tuba/bass double)
Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show

Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Off Kilter (Celtic rock band at Epcot)
Oktoberfest Musikanten
Main Street Philharmonic
Matsuriza (Japanese taiko drumming at Epcot)
Mo’Rockin’ (Zen Drum and hand percussion spots)
Mulch, Sweat, and Shears
Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show
Spirit of America Fife and Drum Corps

Off Kilter (Celtic rock band at Epcot)
Oktoberfest Musikanten
Mariachi Cobre (also vihuela spots)
Mulch, Sweat, and Shears
The Notorious Banjo Brothers and Bob (banjo also, of course)
Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show

Oktoberfest Musikanten
The Ziti Sisters (female comedy troupe)

Casey’s Corner Pianist (ragtime pianist at Magic Kingdom)
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Grand Floridian Lounge Pianist
Off Kilter (Celtic rock band at Epcot)
Mulch, Sweat, and Shears
Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show

Dinner Music at Grand Floridian

Orchestral spots:
There is one seasonal gig worth mentioning: Disney’s Candlelight Processional. It’s a Christmas concert that happens during November-December at Epcot. A full orchestra is hired, and is compiled of seasonal musicians making up some of the best orchestral players in the Orlando area. If you didn’t see your instrument above, and are classically trained, you may find yourself suited for this annual gig.

What are the jobs like?

The job at Disney varies greatly depending on the ensemble. For instance, the Hawaiian band at the Polynesian Hotel plays two shows per night, five days per week, which is divided into three sets. The Grand Floridian Society Orchestra plays four sets daily during the late afternoon to evening. Most of the bands around the parks have multiple show times, which are usually 30-45 minute sets performed on regular intervals throughout the day. Costumes are usually made to go with the show; Hawaiian shirts, or tuxes, or minutemen uniforms, etc. Yes, the German band wears lederhosen.

The Main Street PhilharmonicThere are few indoor jobs, such as the Grand Floridian Orchestra and the German band, which are considered the “best” jobs for the simple fact that they are indoors. One of the reasons Walt Disney chose this area of the U.S. was because of the relatively mild weather year round. However, the summers in Florida aren’t much cooler than the rest of the eastern seaboard, with highs still being very close, if not over, 100 degrees, with very high humidity. This can easily take its toll if you didn’t grow up in this climate. It also can still experience highs below freezing during the winter seasons. This is why indoor jobs are considered more desirable, but the outdoor jobs are given consideration to this fact, which is why sets are shorter throughout the day.

The way the music is learned also varies. There’s one group, the Grand Floridian Society Orchestra, where the job is strictly reading on the gig, with no rehearsals. One or two ensembles have charts, but they must be memorized before performing. There are also many ensembles where the music is learned from recordings, and put together through rehearsal. These groups have no printed music. Some of these bands allow you to make your own charts and read them at the beginning, and some require memorization.

Even the times vary. Some groups start as early as the parks first open, and the hotel bands seem to play the latest, usually striking the stage at around 10pm. The contracted musicians that play in Downtown Disney, Pleasure Island, or on Disney Boardwalk, play even later than that.

As much as the physical aspects of the job vary, the musical aspect is very similar. Each musician is highly skilled. Some of the musicians have come from bands such as Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, Maynard Ferguson’s big band, and one was even the busiest New York bassist in the mid-20th century, recording with all the heavies then, and performing at the legendary Copa Cabana. It’s both humbling and exciting to play along with such high-class musicians.


Pay works slightly differently between the contracted and cast jobs. Contracted jobs are paid per job. There are three kinds of cast members: full time, part time, and seasonal.

Cast members are typically paid 8 hours per day at the parks, and also paying into pension and benefits. Rehearsals, when scheduled, are also paid. Orlando Local 389 has a collective bargaining agreement, which represents all musicians working at Disney, whether they are a part of the union or not (Florida is a right-to-work state, meaning you don’t have to be in a union to work a job). The local has a close relationship with Disney and they both work together and get along great. The starting pay at Disney is very competitive, which tends to bring in the best talent to desire these jobs.

Some of the other perks include:

  • Pension for all cast member musicians
  • Full health benefits for full-time musicians
  • 20% discounts to merchandise
  • Varying discounts with most sit-down restaurants on property (this is my favorite perk). After lots of experimenting, I’m starting to see the pattern. If you’re waited on, you probably get a discount. They range anywhere from 10% on up. There’s a nice little hidden southern-style buffet in Fort Wilderness that has great food, and with the discount, came to under $15 per person. It’s my favorite place for the combination of price and taste, even if it is out of the way of everything.
  • Discounts at participating surrounding businesses, including restaurants, hotels, retail stores, etc.
  • Free park admission. All cast members get this. In addition, each year, you can get in three people or less six times. This resets every January. You also get a couple of comp tickets each year. I believe this perk changes with your employment status with the company and the time you have been with them.

For any discount, it never hurts to ask. If you can’t get a discount at a certain place to eat (pattern I’ve noticed: if there’s a counter for you to order from, the answer is probably “no”), they already know most cast members are going to try, and they apologetically tell you it won’t work. I even sat down at a Pizza Hut just outside of the property, mentioned I was a cast member, and was given 10% off.

For the record, alcohol is full price for everyone.

How does one actually get hired at Disney?

First of all, keep checking the audition calendar. Vacancies and open call auditions are posted there.

There are 104 regular musical positions around Walt Disney World in Florida. The most common way one is hired for a Disney job is through auditions. Five times a year, there are “open call” auditions. The main purpose of these auditions is to find talent for the sub lists around the parks, and to hear local bands looking to be contracted. Each musician or group is scheduled through the union, and given 15 minutes to show the audition panel what he or she can do. The president of Local 389 is present at all auditions as an observer. According to Mike Avila, the Union President, “these auditions last about 15 minutes per individual and I call them ‘the friendliest auditions on the planet.’” If the musician is competent, and there is a need for his or her abilities, they will begin the hiring process.

When there is a vacancy for a specific position, such as a musician leaving, or Disney creating a new musical act, the auditions are much like the open call, with a few differences. If the vacancy is with an existing group, you actually play with the band for which you’re auditioning. These auditions are the most fun. I’ve done a few of them. I auditioned for lead trombone with the Main Street Philharmonic, and the audition was mostly reading down two charts, and performing them with this band. Talk about high energy. With the Hawaiian band, the guitarist explained the tune as fast as he could, then the drummer counted us off.

Usually, when there’s a vacancy, Disney auditions for that spot as full-time, and also auditions every other spot for sub players. For instance, the Hawaiian audition I was at was actually for a new steel guitar player, but I came to audition bass, and there were ukulele players, guitarists, and drummers at the audition, as well.

When invited to these auditions, you are encouraged to watch the group for which you are auditioning and come prepared to show the company why you are the right person for the job.

As for fairness, the president of the union told me this:

“In my 12 years as President of the Local, I have observed Disney auditions to be very fair. Contrary to popular belief, the company does not go into auditions already knowing who will get the job. I have heard so many people say this over the years, however, as one of the individuals who sits on the panel (as an observer for the union only), I can say that it is just not true. Disney has an impeccable record for hiring the person who ‘won the audition’.”

Okay, they liked you. Now what?

Before this is explained, I need to mention this: I’m not sure how other Disney parks around the world are, but Walt Disney World is in a very large, vast, out-of-the way piece of land. Don’t make any other plans the days you mean to go out to Walt Disney World. Everything there takes plenty of time, especially traveling. And the most important thing is to give yourself plenty of time when going there. Make sure your punctuality is fine. I tend to show up as early as I possibly can when I need to do something at Disney. I live only about 20 miles from the exit I need to get off for my job, but give myself well over an hour driving time. And depending on what job you have, you may have a lot of walking, a lot of connecting bus rides after parking, costume changes, or anything else that can take plenty of time.

Once you’re hired to be a Disney cast member musician, you must first go through the process that each employee on property goes through. First, you have a full security background check, fingerprinting, the works. This can take a few hours. Once you’ve passed, you’re given a date to a training day at Disney University. It’s basically just an eight-hour class about some of the rules, how certain things work, and little games that help you learn. It’s not a bad day, and you’re getting paid your musician wage to do this day, which is not bad at all. This is why Disney doesn’t hire a lot of people as subs, because they have to pay each just to be able to sub. So it costs them money to have subs not working all the time.

Once you’re finished there, you’re given your nametag, your ID card, and sent on your way to your gig. You then speak with your bandleader about the job.

How did I get my job?

My situation came about a little differently. I couldn’t make an open call audition, and didn’t want to wait two months for the next one to come around. So, I had a special audition set up with the talent director. I played all four of my instruments for her, and at the end of my audition, she told me where she thought I would fit best as a sub: The Grand Floridian Society Orchestra. Not only that, but the great thing here was, since it was not in any of the theme parks, I could swing by and talk to the bandleader personally without having to pay an admission. So I did just that. I visited about once a month for about six months, and they finally made the call to have me statused as a bass sub with this band. Persistence does pay off! I’m even renting the bandleader’s guesthouse now, too, so it even worked out better!

Now that I have a company ID, I can go into the parks and discuss subbing with other bands. Some are interested, some aren’t sure I will be useful with their already full sub list. But we’ll see.

There you have it. Much of this information is very hard to come by unless you have a good friend in the company. I had to learn this as I went along at Disney. So, if you’re interested, keep an eye on auditions, do your homework, and good luck!

5 Tips to Keep Your Gig

Much has been written recently on the topic of networking, and as a freelance musician, I fully understand and appreciate the importance of constantly seeking new sources of work.

But what about keeping the gigs you already have? Assuming you have a handle on the most commonly discussed factors like punctuality, reliability, playing in tune, keeping your chops up through regular practice, and even personal hygiene and social skills, there are other less obvious traits I’ve discovered (many through trial and error) that can make a lasting impression.

Unlike musicians who perform and compose their original music, a sideman’s key to success is understanding, meeting and ultimately exceeding the expectations of the artist to stand out from the thousands of other players available for the job.

1) Immerse yourself in the material.

This issue is a personal favorite, and one I feel very passionate about.

As a freelancer, there may be weeks when you’re learning material for 4 different bands, and full immersion simply doesn’t seem feasible, but I highly recommend listening to the songs at least enough to recognize each one by name. A blank stare at the mention of a specific tune can make it appear that you’re planning to mail it in.

I’ve found songwriters to be very appreciative when a band member demonstrates that he or she isn’t hearing something for the first time at rehearsal or intending to just sight read the charts and hope for the best.

There’s an excellent article on this site by Matt Baldoni titled, “Learning Music Quickly and Efficiently,” which thoroughly examines this topic and details a ritual I’ve successfully followed for years.

When people ask what music I’ve been listening to lately, my response is usually, “The songs I have to learn for shows this week.” It ‘s definitely a sacrifice that can seem excessive, and perhaps even a little obsessive, but if you ace the gig and get invited back regularly, the steady work is well worth the initial time investment.

If it turns out to be a one-time thing for reasons beyond your control (the songwriter moves away, decides he can’t afford a band and goes solo, etc.) the effort still isn’t wasted because you establish a reputation with your musical peers as someone who does his homework.

2) Be a supportive team player.

During a typical week, I record, rehearse and perform with a wide variety of people in a handful of different projects. When songwriters choose to hire full-time freelance musicians, they’re usually aware that our survival is dependent upon keeping busy with multiple bands, and willing to accept a smaller overall time commitment in exchange for efficiency and professional musicianship. That being said, I believe that during the two hours you spend in the club or practice space, the artist deserves 100% of your energy and enthusiasm.

If the bandleader has a carload of PA equipment, grab a heavy speaker, and unwind a few cables. If there’s a rush to start on time, offer to help with the set list.

If you’ve already recorded and uploaded a rehearsal to supplement your own learning, it only takes a few extra minutes to email the files to your band mates. Not only does this ensure that everyone is on the same page (especially with last-minute arrangement changes) but it also shows that you’re genuinely interested in the overall success of the performance, and not just in it for a quick buck.

You can separate yourself from the competition by consistently going above and beyond for the people who hire you, and becoming a valuable, and hopefully irreplaceable, part of their support system as a team player. If you maintain that reputation over an extended period, it’s possible that someone may even value your contribution enough to have flexibility with booking and plan shows around your schedule.

3) Play the part you were hired to play.

A few years ago, I got a call from a drummer friend to fill the bass position in a singer/songwriter project. As with many bands of this type, it quickly became apparent that my role was to provide a simple, solid foundation with the kick drum. After the first rehearsal, he expressed relief and thanked me, explaining that the previous bassist was an accomplished fusion player who used the songs as a vehicle to showcase his ferocious chops and rarely ever played a root note–clearly not playing the part the singer/songwriter wanted to hear.

In other situations, with wedding and corporate event bands, I’ve seen world-class jazz virtuosos fired because they felt it was beneath them to learn a Billy Joel song or insisted on re-harmonizing the chord progression of a Journey power ballad.

One of the most difficult challenges for younger musicians, especially recent music school grads with a high level of proficiency and a strong improvisational background, can be adapting to a sideman situation where a “less is more” approach is required. If you agree to work with an original or cover band and the idea of playing a three-chord song just like the recording makes you cringe, remember that you’re getting paid to execute the material a certain way.

It’s not always about you, so whenever possible, be flexible, be aware of what’s expected of you, and most importantly, be willing to check your ego at the door.

4) Be thorough with your pre-gig communication.

Another way to make a good first impression and instill confidence in your musical employers is to be thorough with your communication and address any aspect of the set list or the material itself that isn’t clear.

With original gigs, I usually start out by asking if there are mp3s and/or charts for the songs, and whether they accurately reflect the most current arrangements. Even if charts exist, I compare them to the recordings, and frequently end up making my own if I discover discrepancies or omissions.

In subbing situations, clear communication can be even more crucial, especially for weddings and club dates, where players are often expected to show up and nail a list of 40-50 songs with no rehearsal. Most seasoned musical directors will include the keys and artist names with the title and tell you up front whether they generally stay true to the original.

When you receive emails containing audio files, always listen to the attachment, and never assume anything, even if you’re convinced that the version in your iTunes library is the definitive one. Within the standard club date and wedding repertoire, there are multiple versions of many popular songs.

For example, if the song list includes “Soul Man,” you can avert a potential train wreck by asking if they’re doing the original Sam and Dave version or the Blues Brothers remake. The latter is in a different key, and repeats the intro for four extra bars after the bridge.

There are also common titles shared by completely different songs (“Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars and Billy Joel), as well as extended dance mixes, acoustic versions, and even an occasional customized edit a bandleader might make to fit a special dance request or guest entrance. Never assume anything!

5) Have patience and a sense of humor.

There’s a good reason for the immense popularity and widespread quoting of This is Spinal Tap among musicians. I read once that The Rolling Stones couldn’t bear to watch the movie because it hit too close to home, but I personally love to exchange stories about double booking debacles, no-shows and blown lighting systems.

Obviously, when you’re in the middle of a set, a technical meltdown is anything but amusing, but when you’re sharing stories of past shows, are you more likely to recall that funk gig where everyone nailed the outro section of “What is Hip,” or the retirement party where the jeweler downstairs went ballistic because the bathroom flooded and leaked all over his display counter?

One of my first paying gigs during college was a beach party for some wealthy young clothing company executives who offered $20 per man and free boxer shorts as payment. Every few years, when I mention the event to any of the other musicians from that night, nobody really remembers what we played, but everyone recalls very clearly (and with hearty laughter) that the band set up on a narrow concrete pier in a lightning storm, and made it though about 5 songs before the skies opened up and the guests lunged forward to cover our equipment with wet, sandy tarps.

When you perform several nights a week, year after year, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter plenty of adversity. A large part of paying dues as a musician is repeatedly dealing with humbling experiences, like getting ripped off by shady club owners, or arriving to play at a crowded house party with the promise of great exposure and learning that you’ll be singing to a pile of coats in a remote bedroom.

If a band loses a weekly engagement because one of its members has a volatile temper and engages in altercations with belligerent drunks over Skynyrd requests, there’s a good chance that person won’t have their job for long or won’t be asked back at all if they’re a sub. There will be nights when you want to sell your drums as firewood, or slam your guitar down mid-song and make a dramatic exit, but your ability to keep a cool head and see the humor in these absurd fiascos will endear you to your fellow musicians and demonstrate that you’re mature, professional and emotionally stable.

All of these tips basically boil down to having your act together and being so dependable and reliable that, when you’re committed to a date, the person hiring you feels more relaxed and confident. Obviously, self-discipline, musicianship and dedication to your instrument are very important, and helped you land the gig in the first place, but to keep it, you need to exhibit a greater sense of professionalism that can’t be learned in a practice room.

How Do I Get a Job After Music School?

T., a guitarist and soon-to-be music school grad, wrote us last week with this question:

I’m getting my degree soon, but I feel that I don’t really have a lot of actual work experience to flesh out my resume. How far do you think a degree can take me and where would be the best place to help get some work with my skills?

That’s a good question, T., and I’m sure there are other MW readers that are in the same boat.

So, you’re about to leave music school and you need a job. You don’t have a lot of credits on your resume and you’re not sure how to get started.

Let’s start off with what jobs are available these days. I often think about jobs in the musician industry split into to categories:

  1. Your music
  2. Other people’s music

Your Music

There are two of us that maintain – Cameron Mizell and myself. Cameron is an expert in category #1, so instead of rambling on about things I don’t know, I’ll defer to his incredible breadth of knowledge.

Here are some of Cameron’s articles that will help you create a career with your own music:

Also read the archives of Cameron’s articles, I’m sure you’ll find a ton of useful information.

Other People’s Music

Although I do write and record my own music, I make my living playing other people’s music. I freelance as a Broadway musician, a church musician, a for-hire accompanist, a music director for theatre, a vocal coach, and many other things.

So let’s say you’re like T. and you’re about to graduate college and you want to be a freelance musician like me. Aside from experience (which I’ll get to later), what do you need to succeed?

  • Sight-reading

    I would say that this is the real value that I give to my employers – if you take everything else away, this is the one thing that they are really paying me for. I show up and I play whatever they put in front of me. It saves them time and money – it cuts down on prep and rehearsal time, it allows them the convenience of thinking about other things, and allows them the flexibility of changing music at the last minute.

    If you’re sight-reading isn’t up to par, you can improve it. I’ve written about the subject before, and it basically boils down to practice. The more you sight-read the better you’ll become.

  • Recommendations

    I never audition or apply for positions in my business, all work is passed around through word-of-mouth. That can be really frustrating for someone starting out, but I promise it gets easier. Make sure that you keep in touch with your fellow classmates from your music school – those will be your first contacts. As they find work, they will pass work to you and vice versa.

    Giving away work is worth pointing out – you should have a small list of colleagues that you pass work to now and then. They’ll do the same for you when they have gigs they can’t take.

    There are some colleagues that will take the work and never pass anything back to you – and those are probably the wrong colleagues to have on the list. Generally, creating a sense of generosity and community around you is much more effective than creating a sense of competition.

  • Geography

    Look, if there isn’t any work where you are, you should move somewhere else. If you want to work as a freelance musician, I’m very sorry, but you just can’t live anywhere you want. You’re career will always be limited by the amount of work available (divided by the number of musicians) in your city. I just don’t see any way around that.

    When I was just out of college I moved back to my home town in the suburbs of Chicago. I took all the gigs I could get. I music directed local theatre shows, I played cocktail music at the country club, I accompanied at the local schools, I joined a band, I taught lessons. I made about the same amount of money as my friends that had entry-level day jobs. It was cool for awhile.

    But check it out – I was playing every gig in town. I’d already hit an income ceiling and I was 25. I tried Chicago for awhile, but I felt like the scene in that city was locked up tight and paid worse than the suburbs. So I left.

    I worked the regional theatre market for awhile, and eventually settled in New York – not because I necessarily wanted to live in New York – but because there was a lot of work here for my skill set.

    I think I’ll always live in New York. I can make a living here. Other players like me are making a living here. It’s not a musician utopia or anything like that – but there is a need here for musicians and I am a musician – so this is where I ended up. Luckily, I’ve also grown to really enjoy living here.

    You don’t have to live in New York. There’s a good discussion in our forums about the best cities for musicians. See what other musicians have to say.


Ok, so now on to your actual question – how far can a degree get you and how can you get more experience.

Your degree is a piece of paper, and it won’t get you a gig. What you really paid for at your college, as I touched on before, is the connections you have with your faculty and fellow students. This is for real – stay in touch with your fellow students. That’s where your work will first come from.

There are several entry-level positions for freelance musicians. None of them are particularly well-paid or comfortable, which is why they are relatively easy to get.

  • Cruise Ship Musician

    Cruise ship musician is the route I took. It’s pretty easy to get a cruise ship job – you take an audition with a talent agency and then wait for a call. Read this article for more info on how to book the job.

    If working on a cruise was a totally amazing, satisfying, well-paying gig, nobody would ever leave it. But in reality, it can burn you out within a few contracts (see: What Was There To Be Dark About?). But if you are just looking for some experience, it’s perfect. Take a contract or two and hone your chops in the real world. Think of it as your internship.

  • Theme Parks

    There are other gigs like the cruise gig. There are summer gigs at theme parks. Try this link at and search for “Theme Parks”. Expect the gigs to be long, hot and poorly paid. But don’t worry, just work the gig and get the credit on your resume. You gotta pay your dues.

  • Non-Union Broadway Tours

    Non-union musical theatre tours are a step or two up from entry-level. They can be pretty cool gigs if you get on a good tour. They can be brutal if you don’t.

    Jobs at this level start to be word-of-mouth placements for musicians, but you can submit your stuff. Networks is a major non-union touring company. Bookmark their jobs page and send your resume and website to You can also visit (search for “Musical” under the Departments category), they sometimes list these kinds of jobs.

    Also, dive into this discussion in the forums for more info about non-equity tours.

  • Jobs Board

    I have to give a plug to our musician jobs board here at MW. We have a growing list of musician jobs categorized by instrument and location. Subscribe to the RSS feed and have the jobs sent to your feed reader. I moderate that list myself, so it’s only good stuff going up. You might find a gig there.

I hope that helps – good luck T!

5 Traits of a Professional Musician

Being a musician is awesome. It’s almost a crime that people are allowed to play music for a living. But like crime, music doesn’t usually pay. To get the gigs that pay, and keep getting them, musicians need to exude a high level of professionalism that is often a lot less glamorous than the sexy life of a rock star. While these qualities might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many prima donnas out there don’t get it.

1) Follows directions well.

Because most musicians make a living playing music for other people, they have to be good at doing what those people want. If that sounds vague, it is. Whether you’re hired to play a wedding, write a jingle, perform as a sideman, be a studio musician, be a pit musician on Broadway (or your local community theater), you have to be good at taking directions.

More often than not, those directions are poorly communicated by people that don’t know music, but a professional musician knows how to translate any kind of instruction quickly, without getting frustrated, and make the client happy. Other times you’re getting quick directions from a music director that knows exactly what she wants, and your ability to adapt quickly is key. These are one way communications where there’s either no time to ask questions. Performing well in this type of scenario will get you recommendations and ultimately more work.

2) Well organized.

In a nutshell, keep a calendar and learn how to tell time. There’s nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than tardiness. In a world of great players scraping together $50 gigs to make ends meet, schedules are usually both busy and erratic. Everyone is trying to squeeze a rehearsal in before teaching a lesson and then get to a gig later that night. But if you can’t keep track of everything and be where you need to be on time, you’ll lose work. Plain and simple.

Additionally, you will probably need to keep track of a large amount of material. Many sidemen play in multiple bands and have to learn both original music by songwriters that hire them, and cover songs for weddings or corporate gigs. Storing all this music in your head gets easier with practice, but in the beginning you’ll need to learn how to organize it. Matt Baldoni, a successful and very busy freelance guitarist, wrote an article on learning music quickly and efficiently.

There’s a saying among musicians that goes something like this:

An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

3) Good communication skills.

When dealing with people that don’t know anything about music and not much more about the business, you have to be able to lead most of the conversation. Offer suggestions, draw up contracts, and know how to say what you want without coming off as brash or greedy. Don’t be too proud to ask questions.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll be dealing with other musicians. Show up to the first rehearsal with the music prepared. If it’s your gig or you are the music director, make sure your music is written neatly or created in a program like Finale or Sibelius. Make sure the sheet music communicates the road map of the tune clearly (repeats, coda, etc.). If you expect the other musicians to learn from a CD or MP3s, make sure they have the proper tracks and are aware of any key changes or cuts that are not on the recordings. These things will make the first rehearsal run as smoothly as possible.

4) Plays well with others.

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised. Not only should you be able to play your butt off, you should be able to tone it down and play what’s called for in the music. Stereotypically speaking, guitar players are notorious for turning their amps up too loud and never shutting up. Singers zone out when they’re not singing and miss their entrances. Drummers are too loud. Horn players don’t listen to each other and sound sloppy as a whole section. This is all Music 101, but it’s often over looked.

While it’s very important to nail your solo, it’s more important to blend in with the ensemble or make the soloist sound better. Playing tastefully and in the appropriate style will get you more calls than being able to shred.

5) Prepared for the job.

Ultimately, the big difference between a professional and everyone else is preparation. This is the same in any field. A professional salesman is expected to know his product. A professional marketer is expected to know her target audience. A professional custodian is expected to know what kind of cleaner to use on what surface. Likewise, a professional musician is expected to show up for the gig with the right instruments, dressed appropriately, and prepared to nail the music. Let me repeat part of that. A professional musician dresses appropriately. Whatever the gig, make sure you know what to wear. Flip flops are probably a bad idea unless a grass skirt is involved.

In summary, if you want to establish yourself as a professional musician, step back and evaluate these five qualities. Music is a highly competitive field, and mastering your instrument is simply the first step to becoming a working musician. For those that want to take their craft to the next level, the thing that sets professionals apart from the rest is what they can do beyond playing their instrument.

Establishing Good Practice Habits as a Professional Musician

One of the most difficult duties of a professional, freelance musician, is finding time to practice. Yet practicing should be at the heart of the musician’s daily routine. Much like a professional athlete needs to constantly maintain their level of fitness, so must musicians keep their skills sharp. Yet unlike an athlete, musicians’ skills can continually improve over decades before peaking, making for a long, fruitful career. It’s just a matter of focused practicing.

Since college, I have struggled with keeping a steady practice routine. Life has always been full of distractions. Some distractions have nothing to do with music, like day jobs or TV, and others have everything to do with music, such as writing new music or booking gigs. Unlike college, when I’d practice roughly eight hours a day, I now rarely have a solid hour of uninterrupted time for practicing.

But let’s face it, everyone deals with the same types of distractions. The people that are the best at what they do have simply established better practice habits than everybody else. Everyone has their own methods–here are some I’ve adopted to improve my own habits.

Set Goals

What are your goals as a musician? What skills do you need to reach those goals? This seems obvious, but knowing what you want to do as an artist is the first step towards being the best. John Coltrane didn’t happen by accident!

When time is limited, you need to be very focused with the time you have. If you’re not sure what exactly you want to do, keep working on the skills that are in demand for better paying gigs such as sight reading and memorization. Those can come in handy in a variety of musician jobs. It’s also always valuable to use your metronome and work on your tone. Excellent time and unmistakable tone are the two things every great musician has in common.

And remember that making a living as a musician isn’t necessarily about being front and center. Highly skilled sidemen are always in demand. Guitarist Gary Melvin recently contributed an article to this site called A Guide to Being a Successful Sideman. In it, he recommends starting out with a broad skill set in various genres that can become more focused later:

Chances are, you’ll end up working in only a couple main genres with an occasional gig in another, but you want to start out with this mantra in mind: my specialty is not having a specialty. This leaves you open for many types of gigs, and once you get going you can steer yourself towards the genres you prefer.

Most importantly, by setting goals you can determine what not to practice. If you have no ambitions to be a studio or theater musician, then sight reading could be a lower priority. If you want to be the first call accompanist in town, then sight reading should dominate your practice routine.

Honest Self Assessment

If you don’t study with a private teacher, then it’s up to you to evaluate your own skills. Record yourself whenever you can, date the recording, and save it. I learn the most from video taping my gigs. Seeing myself play live really helps diagnose the weaker points in my guitar playing and musicianship. I find recording to be the best method of self assessment available, and listening to recordings made over a year ago really helps me chart improvements.

One Hour Before Noon

If you need to force some practice time, I’ve found that the One Hour Before Noon rule works for me. Regardless of what I have going on each day, I can get up and give myself one hour of dedicated practicing before noon. The idea is that once your day starts, you’ll have more distractions and find more excuses to not pick up your instrument. But if practicing never happens later in the day, at least you had your hour before noon.

I’ve also found that by giving myself this hour I can warm up for the day. Then if I have a few minutes here and there, I can pick up the guitar and my hands feel ready to go. These small chunks of time add up to more hours.

Practice Before Bed

When you learn something new, your brain forms new connections, or synapses, between neurons. Through repetition, these synapses become stronger and permenant, which is essentially how learning takes place. There have been studies that suggest sleep enables these connections to become stronger.

Understanding this idea in college, I never pulled an all nighter. I also discovered that if I practiced a new transcription or etude before going to sleep, it was significantly easier to play the next morning. If you’re into efficiency, practice the really hard stuff right before bed, and your Hour Before Noon will be even more productive.

Practice in Your Head

I used to have an hour commute between home and work, and it was a great time to zone out and visualize myself playing guitar. Because a great deal of playing music is just knowing what you’re going to play, visualization can be highly effective. Your brain won’t know that you don’t have your instrument, yet you’ll continue to strengthen the connections between neurons.

Tip: You need to be idle to do this properly. I don’t recommend visualization while driving or listening to your significant other.

Keep Your Instrument Easily Accessible

Most musicians don’t have a problem keeping their instruments out of the case and ready to play, except after a gig. I’ve gone days without even realizing my guitar is still in it’s case (granted I have several sitting out), but now I take it out after getting home from every gig, so it’s ready to go the next morning. Sometimes, just the act of doing this leads to an hour or so of inspired practicing before bed.

Practice vs. Maintenance

One mistake many beginners make is thinking that noodling counts as practicing. Professionals make the same mistake, but the noodling is just fancier.

I used to be a competitive distance runner. When you first start training, you make huge improvements through relatively less intense workouts. When you reach your peak fitness level, it takes more intense workouts to make incremental improvements.

It’s easy for a skilled musician to just keep working on what’s already in their bag because it’s full of great things to play. There’s nothing wrong with this, but sometimes we need a little shove to get outside our comfort zones and work on the stuff we can’t do. At this stage it takes a lot more work to show smaller signs of improvement, but unlike distance running, the improvement is virtually limitless. Be honest with yourself and know whether you’re practicing or maintaining.

Turn off the Computer

We have control over everything that distracts us, yet it can be so difficult to get away from something like your computer or TV. Just remember, nobody will really care if you saw the latest episode of American Idol, or are caught up on all your blogs. But you will only disappoint yourself if you screw up on the next gig!

Schedule Practice Time

Finally, set aside the time for yourself. Allow yourself a solid chunk of several hours a few times a week to really practice. Put it in the calendar ahead of time so you don’t book yourself with other activities. I’m not suggesting you turn down a paying gig, but schedule your social life around your personal improvement. I know people that work their schedule around their favorite TV shows, so I doubt your friends will mind!

Now then, get away from your computer and give me 15 minutes of arpeggios!