How I've Made Music
How I've Made Music
I get asked at least once a week what my day job is. Most people are surprised to find out that music is my full-time gig.
I have to admit that I didn’t always believe it was a viable option. But in the 9 years since graduating from college, I haven’t held any job that didn’t involve music. In this blog, I’ll share my career journey – from cover bands to cruise ships, libraries to churches, teaching to nursing homes and everything in between. It’s my hope that you’re inspired to let your passion pay your bills, whether it be in music, art, photography, craftsmanship, entrepreneurship or anything else you dream up!
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As a graduating college senior, I wasn’t big into performing. I was actually a little conflicted about winning the concerto competition at my alma mater Concordia College because it meant having to play with the orchestra in front of an auditorium full of people, which did not excite me.
Originally, I had planned to get my doctorate in music and become a professor. I studied theory and composition and graduate school was the typical next step. But by the time graduation rolled around, I realized I was burned out on academia. So I needed another plan – and fast.
It was my parents who first suggested playing on cruise ships. They had heard that one of my friends from high school was playing trumpet on ships and thought it could work for me too.
Even though I didn’t enjoy performing at the time, I decided to give it a shot. I mean, how could I turn down having no expenses, making money and traveling the world!
My first contract was a 3-month Alaskan cruise with Holland America Line. I signed on as the keyboard player with the HalCats variety band. Pretty soon I was playing production shows, accompanying guest entertainers, and playing dance music, ballroom classics and tropical tunes by the pool. The world of pop music was pretty unfamiliar to me as a classically and jazz-trained musician, but after three months of playing 3-5 hours of a music a day, I actually discovered a love of performing, even if I lacked confidence.
I signed another contract and then another. I even developed confidence in my abilities and was promoted to band leader for my third year. Leading other musicians was a first for me, but I actually found that I enjoyed the role.
In total, I worked on ships for 3 years, traveling to over 60 countries and seven continents. So you’re probably wondering why I would leave ship life behind.
Although cruising the world was a ton of fun, I knew that I couldn’t live in such close quarters forever. It was also tough to have friends come and go as contracts expired. I also felt somewhat isolated from the rest of my friends and family on land (internet access was sketchy at best and we were often crossing time zones, which made things even more complicated).
So in an effort to have some stability, I made a decision to move to Denver and try to make it as a professional musician. Granted, I only knew three people there and had no idea how to find gigs, but we’ll get into that in the next post.
*If you have any questions about playing music on cruise ships, I would be happy to answer any questions you have, either in the comments below or by emailing email@example.com
As you know from my last post, after three years on cruise ships, I was ready to get my feet back on the ground and try to make music my full-time gig on land. I wasn’t sure where to go, but a friend suggested Denver with its four seasons, beautiful mountains and warmer winters (a definite plus for a North Dakota boy).
Knowing three people and not knowing what I was getting into, I committed to six months in Denver. Unfortunately, networking and finding gigs were not something I was taught in school, so I didn’t know where to get started. On one of my first nights, I headed to the Dazzle with a friend for a jam session. Dazzle is one of the biggest jazz clubs in Denver, and I met many musicians, some of whom had come from cruise ships like I had.
These connections proved fruitful, and I began to sub in a big band and play for an event here and there. However, I knew this wouldn’t be enough to sustain me in the long-term, so I started a search for steady work.
Every day, I scoured Craigslist, searching for keywords like “piano,” “keyboard,” and “band” This led me to a gig with a worship band. The guitar player in the group suggested I contact a few local agencies to see if they needed a keyboard player for their cover bands.
I didn’t know much about agencies before, but this would be a turning point in my journey. Soon after, I got my first cover band gig – a wedding at a beautiful mountain resort in Vail, Colorado. Just like on cruise ships, I enjoyed playing with other talented musicians and was interested in doing more, especially if they paid this well.
Even with the few gigs I was finding, it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet. My savings were quickly becoming depleted, and I started interviewing for a few temporary office jobs to make ends meet.
Little did I know that I had a big break around the corner. Just as I was beginning to resign myself to the day job world, the same agency called me, asking if I would be interested in auditioning for their top cover band, promising over 50 well-paying gigs a year.
I can’t say I knew what I was doing, but I got the gig and was soon asked to be a permanent member. I didn’t realize that keyboardists were in such high demand. It turns out that keys players who were able to find all the right sounds and cover multiple parts were in short supply.
With the momentum of having some steady work, I turned my sights to a few other side jobs. I accompanied a couple fantastic choirs, as well as a big string studio. I started teaching in-home piano lessons where I learned how to be an effective and inspiring teacher. I also became a part-time music director in a small church to supplement my income. Through this, I learned to play the organ, direct a choir, select music for worship and even become more comfortable singing – skills that would prove valuable in my next move. But for the moment, I was sitting pretty with my combination of cover band gigs, piano lessons, church and even a few solo concerts.
I loved Denver, but, after three years, I still missed my Midwestern roots. As I brainstormed places to move, the Twin Cities kept coming to the top of the list. I already had an established social network there of friends, my godchildren and my sister, and Minneapolis-St. Paul was a drivable distance to my hometown of Minot, ND.
I knew it would be a challenge to re-establish myself musically, but I also knew I could take the lessons I learned in Denver and apply them to a new location. In May 2016, I made the move to St. Paul, MN.
True to form, I began my new journey at a jam session. A friend of a friend who was playing there introduced me to the other musicians in the group. The first thing they mentioned was playing in cover bands, which was no longer intimidating for me.
Soon I started subbing in cover bands for a couple of the keyboard players I had met that night. However, when I was approached to join a band full-time, I realized that I was getting a bit burnt out and wanting to play more of my own music. Nevertheless, the cover bands proved to be valuable for networking, and it wasn’t long before I was getting asked to do other gigs through their recommendations. And I do still enjoy subbing in cover bands a couple times a month.
I wanted to play more solo gigs, so I started advertising on some event sites and found myself playing for weddings, corporate parties and private events. Event gigs tend to come in waves – weddings in the summer, holiday parties in the winter – so I knew some other steady income would be helpful.
From my experience teaching a few piano students in Denver, I started to find piano students and started teaching in my new home. I also enjoyed my first experience working as musical director at a small church in Denver, so after applying for a few jobs in the Twin Cities, I was hired to be the part-time music director at a great church in Bloomington, MN. More about these experiences to come in future posts.
In addition to all these musical opportunities and income streams, some new avenues would open up, which would bring me to unexpected places, including the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
One thing that has remained constant in my career is that anyone can be a great connection. Not too long after moving to the Twin Cities, I met a couple who plays over 300 nursing home gigs a year. Our paths crossed through a bi-monthly volunteer gig that I had been doing at a local home for people with Alzheimer’s. They let me pick their brains, and before I knew it they began passing some gigs onto me. I wanted to become a better singer and entertainer, and seniors were a great audience for me to hone skills. They are wonderful at showing their appreciation and are lots of fun. Through these experiences, I also realized that I loved playing for seniors, and this has also become a steady stream of income and joy in my life.
When a friend from college heard I was moving to Minnesota, she reached out over Facebook to see if I was interested in doing a music program for 10 libraries in western MN. This was a gig I never would have thought of on my own, but I jumped at the opportunity. I wrote and performed a show about Minnesota composers and their music for both kids and adults. Through those first 10 shows, I was able to book 15 more shows in libraries.
Another lucky break came when a friend spotted a sign at the airport. They were looking for pianists, and I didn’t hesitate to apply. I got the job and have been playing at both terminals at MSP for almost two years. Not only does the gig pay, but it is also a great opportunity to sell my six albums. I’ve also gotten some pretty interesting tips, including a snack pack from a little kid, a winning scratch off lottery ticket, many handwritten notes, and of course cash! On top of all of this, I have also booked a few gigs from passengers who were listening to me play while waiting for their flights.
I have played countless other gigs for friends’ weddings and referrals from both musician and non-musician friends for all sorts of great gigs. Friends can really help your career out and I am so thankful for them!
Cover bands have been one of my most steady streams of income. I had never played keyboard in a band (aside from a jazz band) until I boarded my first cruise ship. There I was thrown headlong into the gig and had to learn hundreds of tunes in a short period of time in a week!
In a cover band, the keyboard player’s role is to fill out the sound, so it sounds more like the original recording. It is also to create live energy by adding different sounds (string, organ, and phaser pads, etc.).
Playing in cover bands forced me to learn more by ear and experiment to find the right sounds and figure out which parts needed to be covered. It was a lot different than playing classical music, where every note I needed to play was already on the page.
As I mentioned in a previous post, when I left cruise ship life and moved to Denver, playing in cover bands helped me get my feet on the ground. Even though I had built a solid library of tunes, there was still a lot more to learn.
On cruise ships, sheet music was provided, but now I was expected to learn all the tunes myself. I realized that learning by ear, while a little more work up front, helped me retain the music better. This was a good skill to have, as sheet music wasn’t always readily available for newer songs.
Many cover bands can’t afford to hire all of the musicians needed to recreate the original bands, so I was often expected to learn horn parts (brass and woodwind lines). I learned from feedback that finding the right sounds, playing all the parts, blending with the band and being technically proficient provided challenges for most keyboard players. So my ability to juggle all these roles really gave me an advantage.
Playing in cover bands meant lots of long days and nights, especially with all the set-up that’s required. Much of the work is at weddings, corporate parties, bars and festivals. Fortunately, the food and drink is good, and the audiences generally want to be there and have a good time!
In addition to being a good source of income, cover bands have really connected me to other musicians. Especially when I have moved, cover bands have given me a community and helped me make my new city home. So many talented musicians play in these bands, and their recommendations have brought me further in my career than I ever could have alone.
With so many gigs that happen on the evenings and weekends, I realized I needed to fill up my daytime hours. I brainstormed different possibilities, and nursing homes came to mind. I’ve been playing at the assisted living homes and nursing homes where my grandparents live since high school and have found that seniors are a welcoming and encouraging audience.
At first, I struggled to find gigs. When I lived in Denver, it was hard to find the email addresses for activity directors and, consequently, hard to find bookings. In the Twin Cities, I didn’t fare much better until I did a volunteer gig at a memory care facility.
At this gig, I met a couple who does over 300 nursing home gigs a year. They asked me to play a couple gigs with them and soon after asked me to sub for gigs they couldn’t play. This continues to be a great connection to have, and we become good friends.
I longed to fill my calendar with more of these gigs, so I asked one of the activity directors how I could book more. She told me that whenever she was sent a flyer in the mail, she booked them almost immediately. I heeded her advice and mailed letters advertising my music programs to all the nursing homes I could find via Google.
This was the breakthrough I had been looking for, and I got a great response (about 35% compared with 5-10% for other forms of marketing). I’ve found that most places will book me a few times a year, giving me steady income and solid relationships in the community.
Another benefit of doing nursing home programs has been the opportunity to develop new skills. Singing has not always been my forte but has been a skill I have wanted to hone for a while. Seniors were a non-threatening audience where I could practice my singing without feeling a lot of pressure. Now I really enjoy singing Sinatra and Elvis and have literally found my voice. With more than 50 songs under my belt, I am consider myself more of a singer and have been able to add this to my repertoire for other events.
On top of that, I feel encouraged and truly appreciated each and every time I perform. I love to see how much they enjoy the shows and how much it means to them that I come. They truly are one of my favorite audiences!
An essential part of being a musician is getting your name out. Most musicians aren’t well-versed in marketing themselves, and I was no exception. Since I didn’t know where to start, I decided to google “Minneapolis pianist” and “Minnesota wedding pianist.” Gigmasters and WeddingWire were the top results, so I decided to make accounts there since I knew that future clients would easily be able to find me.
Another great feature of these sites is reviews. After booking a few gigs through both of these sites, I started to gather reviews and show up higher on the search results of both sites. Clients could also be more confident in booking me after reading my reviews. As an added bonus, I also had some great quotes from these reviews that I could pull out and use on my website and writing emails and letters to potential new clients.
The challenge of these sites is that clients can “auto-add,” which basically sends a request for bids to all available similar musicians (e.g. solo pianists). This often turns into a bidding war, and it can be difficult to decide what the right quote is to land the gig.
I’ve learned over time to stick to my normal rates rather than make a low-ball bid. When I make a quote, instead of putting a spotlight on my accolades, I tell them how their event will benefit from my musicianship. This helps them see that I am accommodating and am invested in making them happy.
The unexpected benefit of this is that higher paying clients tend to be easier to work with and trust you to do your job well. Conversely, bargain-seeking clients tend to micromanage and require more effort to satisfy.
Being listed on these sites has made me more visible and trusted in the community. Many past clients have referred me to their friends or had me return for future events which has made this a worthwhile investment. If you want to get an idea of how I market myself, check out my profile and reviews on Gigmasters and WeddingWire.
Nate Hance is a professional pianist, entertainer and composer living in St. Paul, MN. He grew up in Minot, ND but has traveled around the world playing music. You can listen to the six albums that he has written as well as check out his goofy music videos on YouTube