About Me - November 13, 2005

Why I dropped out of music school

tuxedoEarlier, I mentioned that I quit music school after my second year of college (my first year at DePaul University). In that journal entry, I failed to mention the real tipping point…

Due to my chop problems and my lack of exceptional talent, I knew I'd never be a top-notch player. I was (and still am) light years behind similarly aged players like Nicholas Payton and Ryan Kisor. But even though I knew I couldn't attain their level of success, I still held onto the idea that I could make a living playing jazz in local clubs. This delusional line of thinking continued, until one night during jazz combo practice.

There was a local pro that helped teach/coach the jazz combos. He'd sit in with combo rehearsals once a month or so, giving students comments and suggestions. In my eyes, he was what we were aspiring to become. He put in the practice, he paid his dues, and he emerged as a full-time jazz musician.

On one of these nights that he was scheduled to join us, he failed to show up at the normal meeting time, so we started to rehearse without him. I had just finished taking a solo on our second or third tune when he walked into the room. The first thing I saw was his cummerbund. Then I noticed the black jacket, which he had draped over his shoulder. And finally, I saw the unmistakable black stripe that adorned his black slacks. Yes, he was wearing a tuxedo.

In between tunes, I thanked him for finally dressing appropriately for our rehearsal. He chuckled a bit, and then mentioned that he had just finished playing a wedding gig. My heart sank. I couldn't believe it. Our mentor, the guy that we were hoping to become, was playing in a wedding band?!?

The next day I started planning my new major. By the following school year, I had quit music school entirely and entered DePaul University's business school.

In retrospect, I probably overreacted to the wedding gig. It might have been a friend's wedding -- perhaps the wedding of a fellow jazz musician. Or maybe it was a really good paying gig where the band got to play music they liked, and the audience dug it. Or maybe he actually likes wedding gigs. Who knows? In my mind, though, it only meant one thing: to make it as a (jazz) musician, I'd inevitably have to take gigs that I didn't want, playing music that I didn't want to play, just to make ends meet. I knew I couldn't do that and still enjoy playing. I had to quit.

To all the happy wedding giggers out there, I apologize for the implication that wedding gigs are cause for reevaluating one's career path. I have nothing against the gig itself, it just isn't for me. I suspect many of you would feel the same way about having to stare at a computer screen all day ;-)

I'd like to close this entry by encouraging everyone to support live jazz in your city. It's not enough to simply see the national touring acts. Your local jazz scene needs you. Don't force them to play gigs they don't want!

Wedding gigs; from 1987 to 2003, I averaged thirty to forty a year. Businesswise, I would gross $2500.00, pay five sidemen $300.00 and net $1000.00 for the four hour performance, which would include two and a half hours of setup/teardown time.

I enjoyed the challenges of weddings because many times brides would bring me new songs that once I learned them, they became staples in my repetoire (Have I Told You Lately, Because You Loved Me, All My Life, I'll Always Love You, Unforgettable, etc...). During the dinner we would play jazz songs (All Blues, This Masquerade, Satin Doll,...) and when we would build the dance party to fever pitch with some New Orleans Mardi Gras music (Iko, Iko), I would dance out onto the floor with my horn and trade licks with the guitarist. The crowd would make a circle, the bride would bust a serious move and the energy levels would be higher than high.

I am a businessman who sells musical service. The wedding trade has been good to me because I make it an art. Events for jazz audiences make up such a small part of my annual sales that I couldn't begin to make a living. However, my community considers me their jazz musician, entertainer and music educator.

Weddings can be fun, profitable and musical. Sorry you have a bad taste about the business.

Comment by Mark Armstrong

First of all congratulations on a fantastic site! I am a professional trumpet player living in London, England and I have had great fun playing with your ear training tool and am very interested in your really well informed comments about learning improvisation. It's so refreshing to find a site from a US trumpet player who isn't just obsessed with "Dubba high C" (Dubya high Bush??) etc. but obviously considers playing the trumpet to be about art, not just sport!

With regards to your disappointment in your teacher's gig, I have to say that in this country it is practically impossible to make a living just playing jazz. Although I regard jazz playing as my main love and living I teach and play in pit bands for musicals, do recording sessions, do weddings, etc. as well. Quite apart from the financial neccesity of this I really enjoy the variety and crucially I think that all the mundane stuff can be approached creatively and feed in to the next jazz gig - even if it's only by adding greater tension as you express your frustration at having just played "In The Mood" for the millionth time last night!! Cheers, Mark

Comment by Rick

Mark,

You're absolutely right... playing (jazz) music is a form of artistic expression to me. I may not be a very good "artist", but that doesn't make it any less important to me than it might be to a fantastic musician. And that's where the wedding gig really struck a nerve. I felt that to compromise my "art" for the sake of others would destroy my love of jazz. Couple that with the fact that it's extremely difficult to make a living playing jazz, regardless of how much you compromise, and I knew it wasn't worth it to me.

Of course, compromise is a part of life and just about everyone has to do things they don't want to do at their jobs. But, those day-to-day compromises aren't nearly as severe to me as compromising my music. Or, looking at it another way, those day-to-day compromises are easier to make as long as I still have total control over my music.

Thank you (Mark) and Arnett for writing and for sharing your experiences as professional musicians.

-Rick

Glad I came across your site! I look at it this way. You can either:

1) Work a regular day job to pay the bills and spend some of your free time on nights and weekends playing gigs for fun and/or artistic expression (but not too late with that job).

or

2) Play one wedding per week to pay the bills and spend the rest of your time composing, practicing, playing with friends, recording......growing musically.

Comment by Lee

So the question is whether or not you feel like you made the right decision now with a few years of separation to consider it. I dropped out of Architecture school for the same reason. I designed a house for my dad and his new wife and while they said they loved it, they came up with a long list of changes they wanted. Several of the things on this list were really no big deal but his new wife also wanted several changes that just fundamentally changed the character of the house and were in my opinion just yuck. It become obvious to me in a single moment that i'd always be either conceding to people like her and or butting heads trying to get them to understand why the changes were just artistically unacceptable.

I've also started playing the trumpet as an adult, some 20+ years after high school. I played trombone in high school, and really had no love for it, because I was one of those that was told my embouchure just wouldn't work for the trumpet. I've been playing for about 4 months and have worked up to playing a high C its not very solid yet but I'm fairly happy with the progress and I enjoy that I'm doing it just for fun - there is no agenda or timeline just doing it for the joy and challenge of playing.

Congrats on your continued comback and for sharing your ride - I really enjoy the site.

Comment by John Donnelly

I completely agree and understand your comments about wedding gigs -- or "club dates" as they are called in New York. And as many others who have made comments, I had an experience that turned my head around -- fast!

I was living in New York and was called for jury duty. On one of my lunch breaks the winter weather broke so I went outside and came across in the park across the street from the court house. As I walked through I came upon a park bench, and sitting there was none other than Bob Cranshaw.

For those who don't know, aside from being a wonderful and friendly guy, Bob's resume as a bassist dates back to Blue Note dates from the 50's. In addition he has been one of the busiest studio musicians in New York, with Sesame Street, Saturday Night Live, Letterman, and numerous Broadway shows, just to name a few. (One day he gave a presentation at the Musician's Union about the pension fund -- his printout was thicker than the Magna Carta!)

In our conversation I brought up the "whine" about wedding gigs, and he looked at me and told me about his wedding band. He had a group that had all the musicians from his studio gigs, including players from verious versions of Blood Sweat and Tears, Letterman, SNL, and on and on. Yes, of course they knew all the bar and bat-mitzvah, wedding, ethnic, Sinatra -- the full range of requests at such an occasion. But the idae was that they were with great players, all friends, all acting as professionals, and making big money and having a great time!

Shortly after that I had a string of calls for "club dates" and it turned out that Steve Kuhn was the keyboard player. I was in awe of hie for his having recorded with Coltrane. He was just there making a gig and having a good time without any pretense. When it was time for a few Stones songs, he played them like he was Jagger! When it was time for standards, Steve knew everything that was called and we had big fun!

You've got to just go for it!

First off, congratulations on a great site, Rick. I've enjoyed reading it quite a bit.

I wanted to stick in my two cents about wedding bands and other similar gigs. For well over a decade it was my main source of income and I HATED it. I have always been interested in composing and playing with others who create original music and "jobbing", as it's called in Chicago, gives you none of that. Add to that the fact that we were frequently ordered to do absurd load-ins when a simple front door entry would have been easy and that I was regularly "ordered" by guests to bring more salad dressing or another spoon to a table and it became just too much for me. I got fed up and decided that if I was going to do something I hated for money it might as well pay really well and steadily so I took a day job. I quit jobbing and decided to only concentrate on original music - be that mine or working with other composers on theirs -- although I did play jazz regularly, which isn't technically original music if you're playing standards, but it still has that feel of creating something new when done well.

In the years since then I have been wonderfully happy with my musical life. I've recorded three albums of my own music as well as guested on several others. I have had the opportunity to play concerts and festivals on four continents either as a soloist or with incredible musicians from various parts of the world. I recently have taken early retirement from that jay job and now play full time again but without jobbing. The best thing I ever did for my music career was to quit playing full-time!

I have no disagreement with the other pro-wedding gig comments here. If it works for your psyche, it can be a fine way to make money playing music. It just doesn't work for me.... although if I played gigs with Steve Kuhn or Bob Cranshaw I might think a little differently!

Rick,

Charlie Parker sometimes played wedding gigs.

Thought you might like to know.

Comment by Dave

Wow thanks for sharing that personal story. I guess 95% of us will have to take gigs that we don't want to do or that we feel are taking us off our 'artistic path', but unless you're incredibly lucky, compromises have to be made. If that is something one can cope with, great, but it looks like your decision was really brave, confident and uncompromising, which is totally admirable.

This guy talks about this very struggle: http://www.functioncentral.co.uk/blog/2015/05/how_to_make_living_playing_jazz/

POST A NEW COMMENT

Name

Email

Your Website (optional)

Comment

image
Security Code: type the numbers you see in the image shown above
Note: I collect email addresses to have a direct method of contact with contributors to this site. Your email address will not be displayed online or shared with anyone else.