Getting Gigs as a High School Student

February 18, 2019, 11:23 AM · I just turned 17 and my father said he would buy me a car provided I attempt to make money on the side through my violin playing. I feel a bit overwhelmed by my ignorance on the subject; I have no idea where to start to be honest. How does one attain a few side paying jobs, assuming the quality of my playing isnt a chief concern (according to my teacher). Any and all advice is appreciated. My teacher said something about a union?

Replies (33)

February 18, 2019, 11:38 AM · Getting gigs as a teenager is very difficult. It's not impossible or unheard of, though. If you want to earn money, it is much easier to earn a decent amount of money if you work at a store or something just like most teens. Earning money by gigging is very difficult and you won't earn a lot.
Edited: February 18, 2019, 11:46 AM · Union: American Federation of Musicians. Dues might be $300 per year, so you need to figure that into your economics.

Your best bet for making cash in the near term is probably busking. I grew up in suburban Detroit -- in the "Downriver" area which is packed with little cities along the Detroit River. Every town had it's own community theater group, and there were endless musical productions that needed violinists. I made $10 or $15 per show in our area (minimum wage was probably around $3 per hour, so it wasn't much better than that considering rehearsals and travel). Even though Detroit is very much a union town, I never needed to be an AFM member to play in pits. I only needed it when I subbed on piano in a big band (Ed Nuccilli's Plural Circle) that was playing at a Detroit Lions game. I didn't have it, so Ed just told me to lie if anyone asked me. Fortunately nobody did.

Funny story -- the director of a local chorale called me and invited me to join his pit orchestra. I asked him about the fee, and he said he didn't have money to pay me but I'd be getting experience. I told my mom about it, and she said (something like) "No way! You already have experience! You've been playing in musical pits for three years. Call him back." Which I did, and I got the standard fee which I think was $50 for two rehearsals and two shows. Mom's a tough negotiator! I learned from the best.

My advice is, if you want gigs, be prepared to hustle.

Edited: February 18, 2019, 11:53 AM · Plenty of gigs if you want to work for free.
People in America have no appreciation for classical music. Like you said, they much prefer more upbeat music that's in fashion. The rapheads are complete trash, but I can understand R&B and rock and (to a limited extent) pop. That's what people like, because all their friends like it, too. Not to mention some of it is also great music in its own right.

If you play in those styles, you may have more success, but you have to be able to convincingly perform music you may not like so much.

Not ideal, but you can definitely find some pub gigs if you look around. Preferably some open-air bar in a nicer part of town. They usually have a house band that plays weekly you could ask to play with.

February 18, 2019, 11:54 AM · Learn some wedding repertoire. Put together a couple of recordings, and get in touch with wedding planners in your area. You might also team up with a pianist to have a wedding duet.

You could also look at ways to advertise your services for free, such as in Craigslist.

February 18, 2019, 12:00 PM · Weddings are a great way to go, my brother does this and teaching on the side. He also tutors maths to younger students, so perhaps tutoring in a subject area you are good at could be a good shot?
Edited: February 18, 2019, 12:12 PM · There is a lot more to playing for a wedding than simply being able to get through the notes of the gig arrangements. I would never recommend that a student try to jump into that cold; at the very least, the OP should have played some wedding gigs alongside experienced musicians before attempting to market himself. Weddings are pageants put on by amateurs and the potential for unpleasant surprises and/or missteps is pretty big. The most stressful part of playing for weddings is getting through the processional smoothly--you have to be able to stop on a dime in a way that at least does not sound musically obtrusive, and you have to be able to respond to the unexpected in the blink of an eye.

The high school students that play gigs in my area mostly get them through their youth orchestra, their high school orchestra directors, or sometimes their private teachers. Some of the local private teachers will hire an advanced student to play second violin in a wedding quartet with them (I don't though).

There are plenty of paying gigs for experienced professionals but you'll probably need some help from a teacher or other professional acquaintance to break into the gig scene.

Your teacher was referring to the American Federation of Musicians--I am sure there is a local in your city--and yes, you can join it as a high school student. Realistically though, a contractor hiring through the union is going to hire the experienced pros that he/she knows, not an unknown student who is a name on the list. There are other reasons to join the union, but it's unrealistic to think that you'd be getting a lot of work through union membership.

February 18, 2019, 12:37 PM · It's been a LONG time since I was in HS (and I was playing a different instrument) but I was able to start making money freelancing starting around age 16. I got gigs by a combination of
a) connections and references, b) self-promotion, and c) being able to sight-read any piece of music that was thrown in front of me. Use your connections to land a gig (even if it's just subbing for someone or a non-paying gig). Then be outgoing and get to know everyone you play with, and behave professionally (don't be a disaster or a show-off). If you do well, someone at the gig might remember you the next time they need someone. And remember that the best ability is availability - if you turn down an opportunity, it's likely that they won't call you again.

Also when I was in HS, our AFM local allowed students to play union gigs without actually joining the union. Contact your local affiliate and see (it serves the dual purpose of answering that question as well as letting someone know you're interested in gigging). I developed such a good reputation for sight-reading that eventually the local's president would call me anytime a show, pageant, etc. was coming through town (since those gigs usually only had one rehearsal, which was mostly just to let us know what cuts they were taking).

Mary Ellen's advice about wedding gigs is spot on. At a gig like that, you need to know the ropes enough to know when to play which piece, extend things for when the processional is taking too long and cut to the piece the bride requested for herself, etc. It calls for a lot of improvising and situational awareness that takes some experience. For your first gigs, you're better off sticking within some well-defined parameters.

February 18, 2019, 12:41 PM · My son does some gigs (he's in 8th grade). The first thing you need to figure out is if you need a work permit in your state. By 17 probably you are OK in most states, but important to check. Incidentally, we tried to get one for my son and were turned down until he reaches age 14.

Most of the gigs he has done are things like play in church orchestras for Christmas and Easter services and some weddings. He is usually asked by people at his music school who know him. Most of the weddings have been someone we know or are related to or a friend of a friend. The weddings can be really challenging -- in most of them, I played with him (accompanying) to help with things like knowing when to play, when to start, and when to stop. Receptions where you just play are easier, but you need to have a lot of rep.

We've also busked for ice cream money -- usually we bring the little sibling with us for these because the cute factor tends to get more money.

My son also does gigs at nursing homes and other more service-like performances. These are not paid, but he is required to do them for his music program scholarship, so they sort of end up being paid.

Most of the money he has earned this year has come from playing in competitions. If you win or place, you usually get a few hundred bucks in local ones -- more in bigger ones. You also often get performance opportunities out of them that help you network and get your name out there.

Edited: February 18, 2019, 12:45 PM · Network while still at school, is good advice, but at 17 you've left it a bit late to start. Spread it about like crazy at college. Mind, the only gigs I ever got were Gilbert and Sullivan (oboe) and playing piano for a ballet teacher. Weddings can be really heavy duty. My teacher plays viola at weddings among other things. Her quartet's repertoire is seriously heavy - I can't remember how many pieces of music it includes, but we're talking literally hundreds.
Edited: February 18, 2019, 1:48 PM · Adam posted some background here at the start of this school year (September 2018): LINK

He never did post a video in that thread, but I'm going to make the assumption that he's playing a viable student-level Bruch.

He also apparently lives in the NoVA area, which is covered by DC's AFM. I live in his area, too, so I'm going to give some local-specific advice.

The good news is that there's no shortage of gigs in this area. The bad news is that many of them aren't union gigs -- and there are nevertheless an awful lot of professional musicians who are willing to take non-union gigs (despite it technically being against AFM rules), plus lots of "amateurs" (a significant percentage of which are ex-pros or retired pros) who moonlight.

Also, note that a lot of gigs will not be readily reachable via Metro. You either need the car already, someone who can drive you, or you'll lose part of your pay to taxis/Uber/Lyft.

The best way to get union pickup orchestra gigs is to (a) join the union and then (b) meet people who play union gigs, play with them, impress them, and hope that you get recommended to their usual contractors (or they are contractors themselves). However, union dues are not cheap, and to join the DC AFM for the first time will run you about $350 (a combination of the Federation initiation fee, the Local initiation fee, and first year's dues).

If your teacher believes in you, and does union gigs, he should be willing to recommend you to his usual contractors. If he says he doesn't want to do that, well, you know how he really feels about your playing level. (This is how I got started gigging in high school, by the way. The conductor of my high school orchestra was a union contractor and would either directly hire or recommend me to his contractor friends. And my teacher, a conservatory prof, would also recommend me for some gigs.)

It's a good idea to begin gigging in the company of someone who knows you and is willing to teach you the ropes, though, so you grasp the etiquette.

My guess, though, is that you're going to have a really hard time getting union orchestral gigs. The ones that people tend to be searching for players for tend to be out in the boonies, requiring a long drive. And they often involve next to no prep time, so people have to have faith that you can sight-read close to flawlessly. Your best luck is getting your teacher to recommend you when there's a last-minute "Joe is hopelessly sick and we have to replace him at tomorrow's concert" sort of thing. And then you had better hope that you can learn orchestral repertoire overnight.

There's intense competition to play pit, because there are a lot of good amateur violinists who want to do that. There are often nights here and there when they need to cover a gap, though, so if you're willing to take $30 to learn the whole score and likely go to an unpaid rehearsal, in order to play one night, that might be periodically viable.

I assume you do not have a quartet, so those sorts of gigs are out.

That largely leaves you with busking. I hear that Eastern Market is a pretty good place to do so, but this isn't a good time of year to play outdoors unless you have an outdoor violin you don't mind subjecting to the elements on moderately cold days.

And yes, there are competitions with big-money prizes, but 17 and playing Bruch/Lalo isn't really going to be a winning formula. The winners in this area are bound for top conservatories and are highly accomplished.

February 18, 2019, 1:45 PM · "Plenty of gigs if you want to work for free."

Um it's not a gig if you don't get paid...that's charity.

Gigs most of the time really comes by word of mouth. When I did more freelancing/weddings/orchestra subbing, I was hired by friends who I went to conservatory with, and gradually contractors got my name on their lists. What kind of gigs really depends on your contacts — perhaps through your church, your teacher, etc.

"Her quartet's repertoire is seriously heavy - I can't remember how many pieces of music it includes, but we're talking literally hundreds."

I would say that in all the wedding quartets I've done with many contractors, you're just expected to be competent enough to sightread anything in the binders.

Union is mostly for orchestral musicians. Not sure how applicable it is for you, meaning joining a union has very little to do with getting hired for gigs...often an annoying requirement in my case. It might be the simplest to go busking with a string quartet doing Pachebel's canon if your main goal is cash. Good luck!

February 18, 2019, 3:46 PM · Adam,

Why the tradeoff? I understand a parent preparing to purchase a car for a teenager wanting the teenager to have some income to pay at least some of the expenses.

Does your father have an issue with you playing violin or the fact that he is paying for your lessons?

There are lot more lucrative opportunities for a teenager that violin gigs. Starbucks and some other chains have really good plans that can fit a busy high school schedule and still allow you to make decent cash in a moderately nice work environment.

My father, when approached about violin lessons when I was in seventh grade made it clear that he wasn't going to fund my interest. He also, on many occasions, played head-games with me and my unemployed status being a student (he had no respect for school and less for people with "degrees.") I get a weird vibe from your question - like there is another agenda that you haven't mentioned.

FWIW: My parents never purchased a car for me. I got to rent family vehicles once I had my license and had to pay for my own gas.

Edited: February 18, 2019, 4:44 PM · I have never heard of a teenager needing a work permit to play a gig.

Editing to say that I agree with George that this is a strange request. It would be more typical to ask you to get a part-time job (food service or retail are the traditional teenage employers) to help defray the costs of your car. The primary purpose of lessons at your age is to develop your ability to play the violin, not to provide you with income opportunities.

My parents did me the favor of making me buy my own first car, which I did at age 24, and I am paying that forward with my kids. I was, however, permitted to use a family car when need arose, particularly when that was convenient for my parents (i.e. getting myself to violin lessons), and I am paying that tradition forward as well. Ha.

February 18, 2019, 5:47 PM · Haha Mr Wells, there is no agenda (I think?). They do seem opposed to idea of me just getting an ordinary job though. Ms. Goree, i do have a similar arrangement which lets me use to family car for errands or for when they don’t feel like driving me. Perhaps I’ll hold off on getting a car...
February 18, 2019, 6:20 PM · You might also consider learning some good n' hot fiddle tunes, and start a duo with a guitar player for busking or parties.
Edited: February 18, 2019, 6:35 PM · I'm with George Wells. The "deal" your dad is offering you sounds really contrived. George is correct that you're unlikely to make much more playing entry-level gigs (such as community theater musical pits) than you are working at Starbucks, especially if you're being realistic and accounting for your travel time, practice time, and all of that. I did musical pits during high school (starting in middle school actually) even though they didn't pay that much more than minimum wage because I didn't really have much social life anyway, and the shows were on weekend nights when I didn't have school the next day.

I was so stupid... when I got a call to play for "Fiddler on the Roof" for a local high school (!!), I thought I would get to play the solo parts. I think I was maybe 12 years old. When I got to the first rehearsal I discovered they hired a pro to do that.

About weddings. I play tons of jazz piano gigs in local venues. It's easy, and I make scale or better, and sometimes tips can be okay. I have 20 years of experience doing this. The idea of playing a wedding gig terrifies me. My friend who is a standout guitarist plays weddings. He told me how hard it is. But he makes good bank doing it, so maybe it's worth working yourself up to.

February 18, 2019, 6:58 PM · Mary Ellen Goree regarding the work permits -- the info I was given may or may not be accurate. I inquired about it once my son was filling out W9 forms for gigs and that was what I was told for my city (Chicago). We decided things like church orchestras really were not "employment" and did them anyway. I'm not entirely sure on the legality of it, and the only thing I was told about kids under 14/15 was they could only work as models and actors. I guess it doesn't come up often!
February 18, 2019, 8:27 PM · You might want to see if a local music store needs help. Someone has to check in/out rentals, help with sales and such.
Edited: February 19, 2019, 4:59 AM · To do gig type jobs, you do not need a work certificate (which Illinois requires if you're under 16 and want to work, say, at McDonalds). You can babysit or hold a paper route or the like without one, and gigging is arguably more like that. Doesn't interfere with the school schedule, etc.

(Susan, for some reason I thought you were in Boston!)

Edited: February 19, 2019, 7:39 AM · My teacher's "wedding" portfolio contains around 900 pieces. That's how big weddings (and similar social events) are!
February 19, 2019, 7:36 AM · Well then I am glad we haven't been breaking the law! I'm not surprised I was given incorrect information by the city. They looked at me like I had two heads.
February 19, 2019, 8:36 AM · That makes more sense to me regarding the work permit question. My first paying gig was when I was in junior high, so about age 12, playing Vivaldi Gloria at a church. There was no mention of anything required other than showing up and playing the notes.

For the OP, that particular gig came through my school orchestra director.

February 19, 2019, 9:58 AM · By the way, we did not file tax paperwork for me when I was a minor. I'm not sure whether that was a good idea. Rather, my dad simply claimed the income on our family taxes. (I had a SAHM so my dad was otherwise our only income.) Dad was not happy about the tax consequences since nothing had been withheld, and putting it on his tax filing certainly boosted the tax rate above what I would have paid myself. (I made enough money gigging when I was 14 to have almost been able to pay for the contemporary violin I was using -- and it would have purchased a decent used car.)

OP, remember to track what you're paid, and plan to pay your taxes.

February 19, 2019, 1:19 PM · Lydia, not a good idea for you...your father also got credit for the increased income for his social security benefit calculation. That income should have been credited to you and included in your future benefit calculation. Probably wouldn't be making any difference whatsoever given your career trajectory since but it might make a difference to others reading this.

Which reminds me (and apologies for the tangent), gig and private teaching income is not tax-free, not even if you're paid in cash, not even if you are confident that the IRS would never know, not even if you're convinced that social security will have imploded before you turn 65. Keep records of all such income and pay the self-employment tax due, if any--probably none to negligible due anyway for the typical dependent minor playing the occasional gig. Aside from the basic idea that committing fraud (stealing) is wrong, income that is not reported is income that you cannot use in the future to qualify for a car loan or a mortgage, and it is income that will not be included when calculating your eventual social security benefit.

February 20, 2019, 7:33 AM · Mary Ellen Goree do you know the tax responsibility when it comes to competition winnings? I totaled up what my son earned this year between gigs and competitions and it isn't enough to have to worry about, but he plans to do more competitions next year when he is in high school.
Edited: February 20, 2019, 8:29 AM · I am not in any way a tax professional so please ask someone who would be knowledgeable, but my guess would be that competition winnings count as income.

I am pretty sure that people who win on those game shows are taxed on their winnings.

February 20, 2019, 12:48 PM · Competition winnings should be like self-employment income, which means you can also track your competition expenses to offset the income. I wouldn't go overboard on general violin expenses but anything directly competition-related should be fair game, such as participant fees, travel, rehearsal pianist, sheet music, and the same goes for gig expenses. (I did my own W-2 and self-employment taxes for a while before enlisting a professional to handle some more complicated stuff and also just to learn from. By the way, to show more taxable income for purposes of loan qualification, IRA eligibility, etc., one can choose not to deduct expenses and the government will happily take your money. It's pay now or pay later!)

Another tangent - "valuable musical instruments" could be covered like jewelry under a rider on home insurance but if being used to make money, would need to be on a separate policy that covers business use.

February 20, 2019, 2:46 PM · If your violin and bow are valuable, they really should be on a separate musical insurance policy, regardless of whether you use them to make money.

Modest competition prizes are almost certainly not worth filing taxes for. If a prize is in the thousands of dollars, you do need to research the tax consequences. If a prize is called a "scholarship", it is generally not subject to taxes.

Edited: February 24, 2019, 12:45 PM · Susan I bet your son is plenty bright enough to start getting an education about how he's going to manage the business end of his career in future. Perhaps books on this?

https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tips/self-employment-taxes/beginners-tax-guide-for-the-self-employed/L2HLojrj5

Edited: February 22, 2019, 8:03 PM · Have you considered teaching? I found it easier to get consistent income from students (either privately or at a teaching school) than to get gigs at your age. It'll still be hard as you're very young, but if you lower the fees, you shouldn't have trouble finding some students. It's also a good skill to develop ASAP if you plan to be a pro one day.
February 23, 2019, 8:56 AM · Regarding teaching when one is still a high school student: I am generally not in favor of it but if you must, the way to do the most good and the least damage is to work with middle-school or late elementary kids who are already playing through their school programs but who cannot afford private lessons with a qualified teacher. Charge a very low fee and work with those kids. Avoid young beginners and please refer anyone who can afford lessons with a fully fledged teacher to one of those teachers.
February 23, 2019, 12:37 PM · Amen to Mary Ellen.
February 23, 2019, 12:48 PM · I was busking at your age. Was fairly decent money in a short amount of time and got me used to large numbers of people being generally indifferent to my playing!

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