So You Want to Make a Living with the Guitar
Survival Strategies for Classical Guitarists, Part 1
by Daniel Roest
One’s income is generally a private matter, but for this column I will share the facts of my own career. Even though I haven’t set the world on fire or played Carnegie Hall, I’m generally considered successful in having a life in music. If you aspire to a life as a professional guitarist, you’ll need a plan. Don’t let being financially challenged or a lack of information discourage you from making the guitar your career.
Many people think of successful professional classical guitarists as something like Bigfoot – they’ve heard of them but never seen one. This small exaggeration has given rise to guitarist jokes like, “How do you get a guitarist off your porch? Pay for the pizza,” “What do you call a guitar player without a girlfriend? Homeless,” and “What’s the difference between a large pizza and a guitarist? The pizza can feed a family of four.”
Seriously, you’ve probably already met professional guitarists who were your teachers or were performing. But they’re not people you meet commonly around the neighborhood like the plumber, school teacher or the more typical jobs that support families. Consequently you may wonder where to find more role models for how to pay the bills with the guitar. In my state of California, besides the guitar instructors at the nearest music shop, you might find those role models at guitar festivals like the biannual Healdsburg Guitar Festival, La Guitarra California and the South Bay Guitar Society Guitar Solo and Ensemble Festival. These are concentrated environments of performers, teachers, builders, retailers, niche market representatives, presenters and other guitar-related professionals.
The SRO attendance at “Making a Living in Guitar,” a clinic I presented this spring for the SBGS festival, indicates that young guitarists hope they can make guitar their “real job” and keep it that way. Either that or they just came to see if it was an April Fools’ joke! This series of articles is drawn from that clinic and will cover ways you actually can make it with the guitar, including supporting a family. Not to say it will be easy. The truth is that having a life in the arts is generally very challenging, and your efforts must be born of a passionate desire to express yourself in music and represent yourself to the world as a professional. The following information will include a cautionary sub-theme of the personal tradeoffs involved. But if you’re really sure that you want to pay the bills with the guitar, be comforted that all careers involve tradeoffs, and you might as well enjoy what you do.
Majoring In Guitar, Minoring In Unemployment
Writing and preparing for the clinic forced me to review my life and distill what works and what doesn’t. Back in college, most of my fellow classical guitar majors didn’t make it in the long run as guitarists. At some point after graduating and trying to hang-in there, they chose to rely on other paths to pay the bills, particularly after getting into close relationships with partners, and perhaps starting or planning for a family. It’s incredible to me that the promise of college - to prepare you for life after college in your chosen field – was so overlooked.
In the entire time I went to college getting three degrees in music performance, there was not one course or seminar on running a studio, writing contracts, getting gigs, or many other things essential for life after college. You’d think that would be an obvious and important part of completing a guitar major. If you are still in school, I would suggest that you demand of your school a clear vocational element of marketing and business courses alongside the theory, applied music and music history coursework, and here’s a good example of why:
In 1979 I took part in Christopher Parkening’s annual summer masterclass in Boseman, Montana, and he brought out his agent from New York to speak to us. He did us all a favor when he said,
“You are all undoubtedly talented, maybe the best in your city or region. And I know you want to follow in Christopher’s footsteps. But I am here to tell you that there are over 600 colleges and conservatories with degree programs for guitarists, each graduating one or more per year who aim for careers as performers, maybe touring the world and playing the big stages. The fact is that the world only has room enough for one or two new faces per year, if that. A Manuel Barrueco, David Russell, Christopher, someone of that caliber.”
When we processed what we had just heard, most of us adjusted down somewhat our concert career expectations. There’s an old saying, “Disappointment comes from unfulfilled expectations.” The mistake is in expecting the world to beat a path to your door with concerts and prestigious teaching posts because of your great talent and training. Adjusting your expectations according to real people in the real world makes much better sense.
There is a period in a young guitarist’s life when his or her resolve is sure to be tested. The early years require faith in your talent, an unusually elevated work ethic, and a willingness to adapt to the widely divergent needs of any number of performing situations and students paying for lessons. Taking a non-music job for an employment base is a typical move. A major trial is the extended crisis of non-music employment sapping your strength and using up your time. Many musicians languish longer than necessary in these traps. My real education about how to support myself and my family after college came outside of college, even as I worked on my degrees. I taught privately and took gigs in restaurants, hotels, parties and even a cruise ship, and it was in those venues that I learned many valuable lessons. Along the way I developed skills in marketing and communicating with students, clients and employers, while becoming a better performer and teacher. While music programs offer many valuable and unique experiences and relationships, the actual employment a guitarist finds requires these basic business skills.
After graduating from the local state college’s four-year guitar performance program cum laude, I thought I would certainly qualify to teach guitar at one of the local community colleges. When I applied, another applicant already possessing a masters degree and already teaching at another college got the job. I thought, “Dang, you have to have an advanced degree just to teach guitar at a two-year college?” And I went back to school and more into debt to get another degree. So, three years later and thousands of dollars more in tuition and books, I had my masters. It was another three years before I landed a college job, one night a week, and clearing about $400 a month!
After building up class after class and “succeeding” at being a professional college instructor, I bumped up against the limit part-time teachers may teach, 60% of a fulltime load per district. This is typical of the profession. I became a road warrior traveling hundreds of miles a week to teach my beloved instrument in different districts. I enjoyed the work very much, though, and some of the students came to study with me privately. I started to realize that my income was not likely to increase, and something had to change. Private teaching and performing took more and more importance in my total income production. Most of my peers and I thrive through a combination of teaching and performing. Now let’s look at some numbers:
It Adds Up
We start with a very modest $40 an hour teaching guitar, one of the most generous, noble and rewarding jobs you can have. At five hours a day, that’s $200 daily. At $50 per hour, it just takes four hours. At five days a week, you have a grand a week and two days off. This is for a half day of work and before any performing income, and already you have about $50,000 per year. If you’re able to put that together with a spouse/partner with a similar income, you start to qualify for a comfortable standard of living.
The other main source of income for classical, flamenco and fingerstyle guitarists is performing. It tends to involve different hours than teaching, though they sometimes overlap – and can really boost your total annual income. As you develop your performing career, you’ll make more and more. I started out at $20 per night and tips at an airport bar. Now I make as much as $500 for twenty minutes onstage. That’s an exceptionally good gig, but I can count on half of that or more every time I go out, and it just becomes a matter of bagging enough gigs to make sense professionally. With thousands of weddings happening annually in larger urban areas, you can work up to three or four grand a month during wedding season and focus on corporate receptions and private events, clubs, restaurants and even concerts the rest of the year.
Each of these main focuses, teaching and performing, is a fulltime job in terms of not only doing the work but preparing for it and administering it. To do well in either job is a fulltime job. Doing well at both will be like working two fulltime jobs, and I can tell you it’s exhausting. The bright side is that it’s a satisfying exhaustion, one of giving of yourself to others with what talent you are blessed with. Any successful business has the service or product, marketing and accounting, often with employees devoted to just one of those. You will most likely have to do all three.
Roll Up Your Sleeves
As stated above, it’s not just a matter of doing the teaching or performing; it’s running a business. To do that means learning some non-music skills. It won’t kill you. If you don’t have the drive to perform or confidence as a performer, teaching still allows you to work daily with the guitar, and your students appreciate your skill, which by the way you still have to develop to a high degree. Whether you become a performer or a teacher or both, or go off wholly or partially into a related field using the guitar, you have to devote a portion of your energy to marketing. Embrace the law of supply and demand. I know that can be a downer for the artistic-minded individual, but the upside is that marketing translates into more income for you. For a business to succeed, it has to be visible. If no one knows you exist, the phone won’t ring.
In next month’s column, we will cover ways to support your professional identity, including a website, selling CDs and music online, making inexpensive advertising, presenting others in concert, running a studio, writing contracts, and other business tools and strategies. In the meantime, resolve to have a successful life in the arts by adjusting to the real needs of the community for your talents and services. You CAN make it, but it will require building and balancing music and business skills. In the long run, it is sooooo worth it.
Copyright © 2007 Daniel Roest
- All Rights Reserved
About the Author
Daniel Roest (pronounced “roost”) started playing the guitar at the age of seven and never stopped. He has performed in countless solo and ensemble events in nearly every type of venue. His CD Great Guitars! 2004 has consistently received 5-star reviews. His concerts are praised for being entertaining and informative. For ten years he served as President and Artistic Director of the South Bay Guitar Society based in San Jose, CA. He is recognized for supporting gifted guitarists such as Laurence Juber, Peppino D’Agostino, Muriel Anderson, Jeff Linsky, Franco Morone, Michael Chapdelaine, Richard Gilewitz, Chris Proctor, Sharon Isbin, Carlos Barbosa-Lima and many others.
Roest earned three degrees in music performance and has participated in dozens of masterclasses. He has taught guitar and music fundamentals at California State University Stanislaus and De Anza, Foothill and San Jose City Colleges and maintains a fulltime teaching studio. He has adjudicated several multi-instrument competitions, presented music clinics and introduced many new audiences to the art of the classical guitar.