Monday, April 16, 2007

How to Get Work as a Freelance Collaborative Pianist

(Updated as of August 30, 2019)

So you're finished your degree in collaborative piano or accompanying, you've got the skills, you've moved to a new town, haven't got work yet and need to break into the scene. What do you do?

Getting set up

1. Time of arrival. Most pianists arrive in a city for the start of the season in September and then pine for the first few months while they wait for the phone to ring. A better idea might be to arrive in January or February, with the countless master classes, auditions, recitals, and festivals going on. Being able to initially pick up work at the busiest time of the year can give you a huge head start for the following season.

2. Make sure you have a reliable space for both practicing and coaching. If your home studio isn't optimal (geographically or acoustically) it may be necessary to find a regular studio space that can be rented either by the month or by the hour. Often churches in urban centers rent rooms at a reasonable rate by the hour that can be used for coaching or rehearsing, although the pianos often have much to be desired..

3. Figure out the geography of your target area. Do you only want to work downtown or are you okay driving longer distances to the outer suburbs and outlying cities and towns? Will you need a car or is the area accessible via transit? Do you know the major routes and necessary shortcuts? Your geographic comfort area can in large part determine the eventual scope of your work.

4. Arrive with some money in the bank. Just in case things are slow at first.


5. Identify your pre-existing professional network. Do you know anyone in town from a previous job, city, or from your student days? Often these connections are the easiest to maintain and the longest lasting. People you already know are much more likely to pass the word on regarding your abilities in a new place, since they have prior knowledge of what you do. People from your previous place of study or work can also assist you if they have connections in your target city.

6. Find out who the top collaborative pianists are in your area, introduce yourself to them, and ask if they could add you to their list. Most established pianists in urban areas tend to get quite busy and keep a list of others in their area that they can send referrals to when they get booked up. The only unwritten rule is that you send referrals back to those that helped get you started in the first place as soon as you're fully booked.

7. Go to concerts and be seen. You'll gradually get a feel for the area and begin to be noticed by those in the musical community, who will then identify you as one of the tribe and quicken your transition.

8. Join a professional organization in the area. Some examples are registered music teachers' associations, local chapters of the Music Teachers' National Association, and local chapters of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. NATS in particular is an excellent organization to join and is a quick way to get to know voice teachers in the area that might be in need of a pianist. The money you pay to join these organizations will repay itself many times over with the knowledge and connections you can glean from membership.

What's your thing?

9. Determine what your specialty will be. Take a look at my list of Career Options in Collaborative Piano to see the full spectrum of what people do in this field. To make things simpler, figure out if your specialty is in the vocal, instrumental, or ensemble field to determine where you will look for work. For example, if you are interested in becoming primarily an opera coach, you should initially look to not only opera companies but to top voice studios as well to get a start. Also determine if you are going to specialize in one field (ie. cello repertoire, low brass, art song), or work in several. You should also determine if you want to start a regular piano teaching studio, which is tremendously satisfying and provides regular income, but can cut down on your flexibility. Warning: some cities tend to favor either specialists or non-specialists. For example, I am told by many people that when in New York, you should specialize if you want to be taken seriously. In some smaller cities, it is often wise to focus on a wider spectrum of activities because specialists are often seen as hobbyists who aren't capable of playing outside their genre. Often it is necessary to wait and see where the demand is before deciding on what to focus.


10. Advertise in places visible to the musical community. Flyers are an old-school way to advertise but they still work. Consider places such as bulletin boards in music schools and rehearsal spaces.

11. Get business cards. You don't really need to go to high-priced designers for great logos and layouts, although it might be wise in these design-conscious times to have attractive cards. Otherwise just go to Staples order 500 or so business cards with your relevant contact info that you can quickly hand to someone when they ask how they can reach you.

12. Get your resumé in order. You will need to have a professional resumé in order to be considered for certain positions (such as at an opera company or local college). Many pianists have little or no idea of how to create a presentable resumé suitable for professional work. This is a fairly time-intensive activity, but spend the time creating one and you will reap the benefits. If you've taken a look at my resumé on this site, bear in mind that I have spent well over 40 hours getting it to where it is today. Resumés will also need to be updated on a regular basis in order that they can be readily presentable and not be relics of a bygone era.

13. Have an online presence. A professional website is critical so potential clients can Google you quickly and easily. It should also be quickly updatable so that you can add engagements and accomplishments as they occur. A contact page and/or online registration is also a must. Make it as easy as possible for clients to find and contact you. Social media is critical - in most North American markets, as of 2019, Facebook and Instagram are mandatory. A quick and reliable email system and messaging services (iOS/Android messages in addition to Facebook Messenger, Instagram messages and even WeChat or WhatsApp) is a must.


14. Have a foolproof organization system. You will need a calendar that can be brought with you on the road and be instantly available. The most common system is still the little black book with all engagements and phone numbers easily at hand. Having a calendar on your iPhone or Android phone is great, but make sure that it is set up to sync with your other devices. Remember that if you lose your calendar and phonebook info, you're doomed.

Once You're In

15. Be the quickest to respond. Pianists tend to get busy at certain times of the year and dn't always get back to clients as soon as they could. As a newcomer to a city, be the one that is the fastest and most reliable getting back to clients. They will remember this and continue to use your services in a community where consistency is often more important than genius.

16. Your commitments must be written in stone. Many pianists are known to bail on pre-existing commitments whenever they get better work. This is unprofessional. If you get a reputation as someone that has rock-solid reliability, your phone will continue to ring, even though it burns to turn down a radio broadcast when you're already booked to play a concerto class at the local festival.


17. Determine your fee structure. Lessons, coachings, rehearsals, auditions, recitals, festival classes, and full-day competitions out of town will all need a specific fee. Do you charge less for students and more for professionals? Or do you charge only one rate? A flat fee for a recital or per-hour billing? This needs to be figured out and communicated to clients in a straightforward way. Consider creating a comprehensive rate page on your website so everything is spelled out - take a look at Allison Vest's website as an example of how to do this in a fully transparent and professional manner.

18. Keep track of the money. You'll need to determine who owes you how much and keep track of that once you are paid in order to determine income for personal budgeting and tax purposes. Whether you use Quickbooks Online or a musician-specific service such as My Music Staff, this is something that must be taken care of.


19. Play at the highest professional level.

20. You must continue your development as an artist. Collaborative piano is not a service organization! Rather, it is field of artistry, expertise, and knowledge just like any other in the arts. You have to find your own path in the profession if you're not to burn out 10-15 years down the road, whether that path requires extensive practice, research, or continuing education.

I haven't finished thinking about this topic. As I come up with new ideas, I'll update this list...

(Photo courtesy of Omar Prestwich on Unsplash)


  1. Simply awesome.

    Under "Networking" I might add: if your city has a university with a music department, see if the office there has a list of pianists that they distribute to students, auditioners, etc. and if you can be added to it.

    I suspect that if I did everything on this list I'd be deluged. Probably "How to decide how much collaborative work you can handle (while still having time to practice, eat, sleep, breathe, play with your children, and, most importantly, knit ;) " is a different list altogether.

  2. Anonymous4:59 AM

    Thanks for your sharing. It is never easy to be a full time collaborative pianist. In my country, Malaysia, most classically trained pianist are doing full time teaching only. There is were the most revenue available.

  3. Anonymous4:41 PM

    Loved your list, Chris! I wish someone had been around to pass on tips like that when I was starting out.
    Just a couple of suggestions: I would add to #18-- get clear which expenses are tax deductible asap and keep all appropriate receipts up front, even if you don't know if you'll need to pay much tax that year.
    #20. I love what you say. I would add that I think it's vital to take a minimum of one day a week off and also take a vacation every year. That might sound silly, but I know people who work seven days a week for long periods of time and then wonder why they feel burnt out. It's easy to go to a place of anxiety where you never feel secure enough to take time off, but DO IT ANYWAY ! You can't afford not to.

  4. Anonymous6:14 PM

    Do you have any suggestions for how a college student can get work as an accompanist? I was doing some accompanying earlier this semester but had to pass off those students to the person who is now the full-time accompanist. I will not be needed for accompanying at school in the future and I'm not sure how to go about finding other work as an accompanist. I know some of your suggestions apply to students, but others are only for those who are making a full-time career as a collaborative pianists. Do you have any other tips specific to students?


  5. Thanks for the comment, Lauren! Your questions have been answered in a separate posting:

    1. Hi Chris,

      I was wondering if you have an advice on how to find and get hired for a summer collaborative piano job (not a a student or fellow but as their actual faculty). From my last summer's search and experience, it seems like a lot of the festivals work kind of like a "family" system- everyone who works there is either from the same school or somehow related and it is hard to get inside of this circle of chosen people...Thanks for your tips!

    2. Thanks for the email Janke. I hope my response was useful!

  6. Anonymous4:40 PM

    When going to someone's home for a lesson for the first time, how can you take precautions for your safety?

  7. I know this is an older post, but I just discovered it!

    If you can play the organ at all, I'd recommend joining the local chapter of American Guild of Organists and giving them your name as an organist substitute. In most cities, good organ subs are extremely difficult to find. Playing at churches puts your skills on display, and it also offers great networking opportunities with choral conductors and soloists. In my town, you can turn your name to the group as a potential sub even if you're not a member, but first consideration for hiring goes to member subs, so it's worth paying the dues.

    If you're not an organist, plenty of churches utilize pianists. It would be a good idea to send around a letter of introduction to the church choral programs in town.