Life as a freelance musician: "Scary, but a lot of fun"

Erica Burton performs with Jeremy Messersmith at the MPR studios in 2011
Nate Ryan/MPR

Erica Burton's music career began with a cardboard box.

It's a way for children to learn how to shoulder a violin or viola, before they pick up a bow or place their fingers on actual strings. When it does come time to choose what they want to play, many opt for violin — its size makes it easier for narrow shoulders to carry and small hands to reach notes.

Burton, who started in her elementary school's string program at 7, made the unusual transition from box to viola. The reason was simple: her teacher, a violist, had put purple ribbons on all the school violas, and promised that anyone who chose the instrument could keep the ribbon. Burton wanted the ribbon, so viola it was.

These days, she's going to graduate school at the University of Minnesota while making her living as a freelancer. Freelancing isn't the life she expected — as an undergrad, she discovered a passion for teaching, and also thought she thought she might pursue chamber music. Those interests have remained, to a degree — she's part of a quartet, and gives lessons to nearly 40 students — but her gigs include work for local darlings Dessa, Doomtree, and Jeremy Messersmith.

"This is not at all what I anticipated," Burton said, "but it's way, way more interesting than I could have ever imagined, and more fun."

Freelance musicians who have spent decades in the field tell a similar story. Marya Hart, a pianist and composer who's done everything from Sunday nights at the 400 Bar to outdoor operettas and teaching classes at the Children's Theatre Company, said it's not what she imagined as a college student. "I think that the idea of being the freelance music person never, ever really occurred to me," she said. "I don't even know what I thought."

Like freelancers in any field, freelance musicians worry about where their next paycheck will come from, and when. Sometimes there won't be any work for a while, Burton said, and then suddenly she'll be busy again.

This life is a matter of learning how to piece things together, a skill that music schools don't teach. Violist Judy MacGibbon, like Hart, has worked as a freelancer for many years. She gives music lessons, plays with both the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra and a quartet, and works as a ski instructor. The balancing act includes things that have "nothing to do with music," she said — keeping track of jobs, for example, and driving across town to get to gigs. And it's something that musicians learn on their own.

For Burton, this has meant learning how to market herself. It's important to believe in what you have to offer, she said, but also to keep a certain amount of humility.

"There's always going to be someone who's harder working or more talented or more passionate than you," she said, "but I guess you just kind of have to remember for yourself that every individual has something unique to bring to the scene."

So, is this lifestyle sustainable? At some point, Hart said, "something's gotta give": finding the energy for constant gigging becomes more difficult, and there's a desire to have more control over the nature and pace of the work. Still, she said, it's a great life. All three women agreed that the actual work — and the people they get to work with — make it all worthwhile.

"It's been scary," Burton said, "but it's been a lot of fun."

Third in a four-part series. Read more:
* Young musicians face fears on the classical job market
* What do you do with a music degree — when what you do isn't music?
* Auditioning for graduate school: "Your mind is like a laser beam"

Emma Nelson is a senior journalism student at the University of Minnesota.