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Opportunities For Playing The Piano: 20 Considerations by Charles Cook
1. Make a list of all the opportunities for a pianist in your area. While it is undeniable that where you live can be limiting factor, there are opportunities everywhere. Don't overlook anything: restaurants, service clubs, lodges, country clubs, organizations and associations, community theaters and singing groups, churches, private parties, fundraisers, local stores and malls, receptions, recording studios, artists-in-the schools programs, etc.
2. Start by assessing what it is that you can do. Include both broad categories(classical, pop, jazz) and areas of specialization (The Beatles, movie themes of the 1950's). Also, think about what else you might do besides solo piano work. Can you accompany? Do you sing? Are there other musicians (violinist, singer) you might team up with occasionally?
3. Don't think strictly in terms of existing opportunities. You can create your own. Several months ago I met an aspiring pianist from a small town that only had one nice restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant already had a pianist who had been there for twelve years. I suggested that she approach the owner about playing lunches or even breakfasts. She obviously was persuasive. She wrote recently to tell me that she is playing breakfast AND lunches.
4. Keep in touch with what is going on in your community. Read the society pages of the local newspapers. Note posters in supermarkets. It is important to be informed about upcoming events, clubs that need programs, annual fundraising events, etc. Suppose that you read in the newspaper that a local charity is sponsoring a dinner that will be followed by a Roaring Twenties Ball featuring the Chuck Charleston Combo. Contact the person in charge and suggest piano music during the dinner hour. You might point out that this would provide a continuity of atmosphere. As a further enticement you could offer to play during Chuck's breaks.
5. Whether you intend to play for profit or pleasure, have business cards printed. They are inexpensive and absolutely necessary. Your name and number scrawled on a half-sheet of notebook paper won't do.
6. Distribute your business cards to everyone you can think of who might use your services (restaurants, clubs, organizations). Just as important are those who don't directly need you but are often asked for recommendations (caterers, bridal salons, photographers, florists).
7. Don't be stingy with your cards. I recently had lunch with the catering director of a large hotel. A musician had sent her a business card as a followup to a telephone conversation they'd had. She showed me the card and laughed, "ONE card! What am I supposed to do, make photocopies?" He should have sent her at least twenty-five cards. They only cost pennies, but they may eventually be worth upwards of a hundred dollars-- apiece.
8. Keep an updated information sheet of places and functions you've played. Later on this can serve as a resume that can be distributed with your business cards. Keep a copy near the telephone. When someone calls and asks for references, and you are operating from memory, invariably, as soon as you hang up you remember the four you should have mentioned first and forgot altogether.
9. Suppose that you don't have any references. Don't invent them, go out and get some. Church socials, amateur talent shows, parties in your aunt's living room - everything counts. And, in the process of starting your resume, you'll get a clearer picture of what works for you. You'll raise your level of confidence.
10. Don't be over-eager to latch onto every playing opportunity that comes along. If someone contacts you with a specific need you can't meet, don't accept and impose unrealistic expectations on yourself. It is foolhardy to promise to deliver classical music, for example, with the secret hope that you will be able to "pick it up" by a week from Saturday.
11. On the other hand, don't be timid about negotiating a reasonable alternative. Find out why the person wants classical music. Perhaps the only reason is that a secretary thought it would create a quiet, more refined atmosphere. Nine times out of ten you can convince the client that you can provide music that will create exactly that kind of atmosphere. Sometimes there's a problem with terminology. A woman once called me and requested classical music. When I asked if she meant Mozart and Beethoven, she said, "Oh, no, I HATE that stuff. I mean classics, like "As Time Goes By" and "Stormy Weather." Obviously, what she calls classics are what I think of as standards.
12. If the client is adamant about a kind of music you can't provide, perhaps you know of someone who can. Your musical friend will appreciate the job lead and will be more inclined to return the favor. Also, the client will not forget your helpfulness and honesty should a future need for your kind of music arise.
13. Don't let the fact that there is no piano deter you from going after a job. I once got a call from a man who was planning his wedding reception. He wanted to know if I could recommend a harpist or a flutist. He explained that since the reception would be held in an outdoor, park-like setting, piano music wasn't a possibility. In the course of the conversation the groom-to-be mentioned that the wedding was costing in excess of $7000. I pointed out that a piano could be rented for $100. or so, a rather insignificant sum in relation to the total. The man called a couple of days later and said that he had arranged for a Baldwin to be delivered. I arrived on the wedding day to find that the piano had been placed in a beautiful gazebo. Playing that reception was a marvelous and memorable occasion, but one that I would have missed if I hadn't thought of a way to get the job.
14. Don't let the fact that a piano isn't a possibility shut you out of a playing experience. I once entertained at an elite $600-a-ticket fundraiser for a museum that was held in the press-box of an 87,000-seat football stadium. Fortunately, we live in an age in which a wide range of keyboard choices exist. A piano dealer provided a Roland 2000 88-key, touch-sensitive electronic piano at no charge in exchange for a program credit.
15. Have someone who can substitute for you in case of an emergency or illness. The show must go on. A wedding, at least in theory, is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for the bride and groom. Having the pianist call an hour before the wedding and say, "I can't make it" for whatever reason will definitely put a damper on their special day.
16. When someone calls you about playing opportunity take careful notes during the conversation. Those notes can save you considerable embarrassment later from showing up at the wrong time or the wrong place. I have found that the more information I can get, the better things will go, I like to find out how many people will be attending. If there will be several hundred, I'll know to have the piano miked. I also ask if most of the people attending will be under or over thirty. That is helpful in knowing what kind of music to select. Often the person will make specific musical requests. If not, I ask. It doesn't hurt to play songs that are personal favorites of the person who is paying you.
17. Have some sort of organized system for storing this information. As soon as I hang up, I write the name of the function, the date and the time in the calender in my briefcase as well as on the year-at-a-glance calender that takes up most of the side of my refrigerator. then I recopy my notes and put them into my playing information notebook. Because I am often booked months in advance, that notebook is essential. A client is appreciative and impressed that after "all those months" you remembered that her three favorite musicals are Evita, The Most Happy Fella and The King and I and featured highlights from the scores.
18. Treat each playing opportunity as a unique event and tailor the music as carefully as possible to the client's needs and desires. This will not only help assure a more pleasurable experience, it will do wonders in terms of repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.
19. Don't limit yourself to playing opportunities. Think about what else you might do with music. can you arrange or transcribe? Do you like to talk? Clubs are always looking for programs. Over the years I've lectured on everything from the history of the blues to Showboat. I was once asked to give a program ten minutes in length. I talked about the history of Chopsticks and concluded by playing an elaborate concert version of the piece. On another occasion I was asked by a club that consisted of young mothers to speak. The topic I selected was "How to Survive your Child's Music Lessons." I was subsequently contacted by other groups who had heard about that lecture and wanted me to repeat it for them. My favorite kind of programs are those in which I can combine playing and chatting. Because of the background preparation involved, doing programs is a good way to increase your musical knowledge. It is also an excellent way to promote yourself.
20. Nobody else on the planet has your exact combination of personality and musical knowledge. Perhaps you would be interested in a musical career. Perhaps you are perfectly satisfied with what you are doing now, but would be interested in supplementing your income by playing occasionally. Maybe you would be content to play for free once a month at a retirement home with a small group gathered around the piano. We often hear doom-and-gloom statistics about the oversupply of musicians in relation to the demand. This is nonsense. Music is one of our greatest sources of joy. If you feel you have something worth sharing, do it. there might be, at some point in time, a glut of computer programmers, but there will never be too many musicians.
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