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On Playing Music Professionally

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Last weekend, I played my first professional gig as a clarinetist after a 15-year long hiatus. The gig was professional because someone actually paid me to play the clarinet. Having made my living as a freelance musician in NYC for almost a decade, I was quite surprised about how refreshing it felt once again to be in demand as a musician, when others hire your exclusively for your clarinet playing skills.

This experience got me thinking about the issues of jobs and compensation. In the 15-years that passed since I left NYC to get a Ph.D. in Computer Science, I made a living working at a whole variety of jobs. I held a full-time Software Development position at a large company, survived on meager Graduate Assistant wages in graduate school, provided expert consulting services in a lawsuit, etc. Finally, now my main job is as a faculty member at a major research university. All these jobs ranged widely in terms of their expectations and compensation. As a university professor, my job is so multifaceted that I often find it hard to figure out how my salary compensates me for the whole slew of activities I engage in during a typical workday: teaching, mentoring, writing, outreach, reviewing…

Hence, there was something very refreshing to be hired specifically to play the clarinet. Upon earning tenure a couple of years ago, I started practicing the clarinet again on a regular basis. My professional music degrees and a huge prior investment in mastering my instrument enabled me to get back in shape rather expeditiously. As a result, I was able to participate in several performances with musicians of various levels of professional preparation. And yet, it was only now that I got to play a professional gig. Even though my engagement comprised of a short piece played with a choir, it was very satisfying to execute it without a hitch despite having had only one rehearsal.

The ability to play a musical instrument professionally comes from a rigorous preparation routine, decades of studying with brilliant teachers, regularly confining yourself to the isolation of practice rooms, auditioning, concertizing, analyzing, improving, etc. I surmise that this is the reason why I have found playing a professional music gig again so fulfilling. Making music at the level when people are willing to pay you for that validates the enormous investment of time and passion required to master your instrument. I welcome this validation very much and keep looking forward to other professional playing opportunities!

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