When someone mentions that they are pursuing a career in music, the first thing that pops into most people’s minds is performing. It’s only natural, and while there is a lot written about performance careers, there’s less information about non-performance, offstage music careers.
So let’s look at three such offstage music careers — music therapist, venue manager, and piano tuner — to investigate whether they might be something you’d consider. I’ve interviewed professionals in each field to get a take on what their respective career paths offer.
Healing through music: Music therapy
Music therapy is first and foremost an allied health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address the physical, psychological, cognitive, and social needs of individual clients. A successful music therapist must have a genuine interest in people and the desire to help others empower themselves while developing caring and professional relationships with people of all ages and abilities.
Trained music therapists are musicians first, so a background in and love of music are essential qualifications. Music therapists may be added to an interdisciplinary care team to provide services to children or adults with cognitive or developmental disabilities, speech and hearing impairments, psychiatric disorders, or physical or neurological impairments, among other conditions.
Music therapy is not simply playing music at the bedside of a client. Instead, music therapists carefully assess the strengths and needs of each client before developing a plan for indicated treatment that may include creating/writing, singing, and moving or listening to music. Through musical involvement, the client’s abilities are strengthened and transferred to other areas of his or her life. Music therapy also provides alternate ways to communicate for those who find it difficult, for whatever reason, to express themselves with words.
A strong body of scientific evidence supports the fact that music therapy can help improve client outcomes with respect to physical therapy or rehabilitation, motivating people to cope with treatment, providing emotional support for clients and their families, and providing an outlet for the expression of feelings.
Northern California-based Jennifer Geiger, MA MT-BC, is a music therapist who serves as the Past President of the American Music Therapy Association. Geiger maintains a private music therapy practice serving older adult clients. I asked what was it that prompted her to pursue music therapy as a career.
“Music therapy combined two of my interests in college: psychology and music. Originally, I decided to be a music major with a psych minor, but I didn’t really feel the pull to be a full-time musician or music teacher, so I investigated a profession where I could use my music skills to help others: music therapy.”
Geiger explains that music therapists are trained to use a range of instruments when designing appropriate courses of therapies for individual clients. “Guitar, voice, piano, and percussion are the instruments in our toolkit as therapists, so one has to develop basic competency to pass proficiency tests on each instrument. We use any of these or a combination of instruments for the benefit of our clients.”
Geiger played the tuba for fourteen years growing up and through college, but she laughs stating, “That’s one instrument I have not yet used in any of my work.” Still, the musical experience she gained playing tuba was essential to developing her musical ear, timing, and sensibility.
As for the necessary training, Geiger explains that the minimum requirement is a Bachelor’s degree from an academic program approved by the American Music Therapy Association, Inc. As part of a music therapist’s training, she says, “We study music, of course, but also psychology, statistics, and health sciences — including anatomy and physiology — to understand the human body. During a music therapist’s training, he or she will undergo a total of 1,200 clinical hours, which includes 1,040 hours of a music therapy internship. At that point, with Bachelor’s degree in music therapy in hand and the required clinical training successfully completed, you are ready to sit for the national Board Certification exam. Once that is passed, you receive the nationally recognized credential of MT-BC, Board Certified Music Therapist from the Certification Board for Music Therapists, and are ready to start your practice or join an institution’s therapeutic staff.”
What type of personality or personal traits might be compatible with the mindset of a successful music therapist? “Well, first empathy. If you are the type of person who enjoys helping others and you are sensitive to the role that music is able to play in our lives, you might be a good candidate.
“For instance, if you or someone you know exercises with music and it motivates them to achieve their goals and go farther or longer, that would be an example of music’s impact. Or if you use music for relaxation or studying and detect a positive impact as a result of using music in those settings, you are likely already aware of the role music can play in our lives.”
She concluded, saying, “Music therapy is much more than simply listening to music or giving someone an iPod filled with songs to listen to. I always say that music therapy only happens when three things come together for a common purpose: a client, music, and a board-certified music therapist. If any one of those is missing, it cannot be called music therapy.”
As for music therapist’s salary prospects, according to the 2016 Berklee College of Music Salary Guide, the annual earnings for a Board Certified Music Therapist in private practice ranges from $20,000 to $123,000, with the average being $50,227.
Behind the scenes: Stage or Technical Manager
Ever stop to wonder how all the pieces of the puzzle of staging a concert, opera, or musical theater production get put together perfectly, just in time for the curtain to rise and the show to commence? The person orchestrating nearly all of the technical, physical, and logistical requirements for every one of these live events is usually known as the Stage or Technical Manager/Director, and every large hall or venue will have such a person.
If you thrive on the many small details that it takes to prepare and stage a live event; have outstanding people skills to handle personalities of all types, from divas to the occasional recluse; and know or can learn the fundamentals of crowd control, sound, lighting, and public safety; a career as a Stage Manager might be a great fit.
A capable stage manager helps to ensure that all the necessary particulars for the technical, logistical, and creature comfort areas have been identified, planned out, budgeted for, and are ready on the day or week of the show. This includes sound, lighting, electrical, staging, access, and any other issue that may affect the artists’ or crew’s ability to pull off a successful show. Stage managers oversee the onstage and backstage areas and all activities in each area during the contracted times for a particular event. If extra power must be brought in, they arrange for the generator, if the need for instrument rentals arises, they arrange for rental, delivery, and set up of the necessary instruments. If a monster truck show is planned, they will figure out how to move a few hundred cubic yards of dirt into the arena and clear it out after the show!
The stage manager is also usually the one to hire, train, and supervise all venue staff such as ushers, house sound technicians, on-stage crew, and house lighting staff, and he/she may also manage the box office staff, depending on the size of the venue.
One of the most critical functions of a successful stage manager is acting as a liaison between the artist’s touring staff and the local or house crew. Miscommunication can hamper set-ups or tear-downs, so a good stage manager keeps information and relevant questions flowing back and forth to make certain the day-of-show timetable is adhered to.
To get an insider’s take on the work of a stage manager, I spoke with James Gonzales, the Stage and Technical Manager of the Conservatory of Music at the University of the Pacific (where I teach). Gonzales has handled the job for 12 years and recalled that while he was a music performance major in college, he had the opportunity to work part-time doing stage crew work to earn some extra money. By the time he was ready to graduate, he was the student lead for the crew and had learned all of the various technical and service roles involved in managing a theater and concert hall.
After graduation, Gonzales used his audio and technical skills to work for a Sacramento-based sound contractor, Associated Sound, where his primary role was as an audio engineer and technician. “We did a wide range of events from concerts around Sacramento in various sized venues to corporate audio-visual set-ups to press conferences at the state capitol, which required TV and radio broadcast audio feeds. Looking back, I also learned how each of these venues or location crews worked and was exposed to troubleshooting and working with a lot of different gear. Probably just as important, I came to understand how a smooth event flows, how to organize things, and what timing is optimal between each part of a particular event.” With this broad range of experience, Gonzales found out about the job opening at Pacific and landed the job soon after applying.
At Pacific, Gonzales is in charge of all aspects of running the 867-seat Faye Spanos Concert Hall, the 109-seat Recital Hall, numerous classrooms, large and small rehearsal spaces, and a wide range of audio and staging equipment. The Conservatory of Music is the most active arts-presenting organization in the region, staging more than 120 concerts or recitals each year. Gonzales has managed performances by a range of artists, including Regina Carter, The Clayton Hamilton Orchestra, Pete Escovedo, The Anonymous Four, Dave Brubeck Quartet, SF Jazz Collective, and many more. He also handles hiring, training and supervising a crew of 15 students who are learning house management and stagecraft.
What does a typical week include? “We have regular rehearsals of our large ensembles four days a week, so I coordinate each ensemble’s set up to its own particular requirements, arrange for the move of any large instruments such as pianos and percussion, and ensure all the necessary chairs and music stands are available.
“This week we are doing the set up for an opera with all the additional sets, props, and wardrobe spaces, and configuring a pit area for the orchestra and rigging additional lighting. When we aren’t using the performance spaces for our own rehearsals or performances, we accept booking from outside clients. For outside clients, I will answer their questions and be sure to ask some of my own to help them understand the best ways to have a successful concert or event. While a good deal of my job involves day-to-day on-the-scene management and operations, a stage manager must also have good customer service and listening skills.
“As stage manager for venues like ours, the job is a balance of ensuring the safety and comfort of everyone in the house,” Gonzales continues, “performers, audience members, and crew. You have to enforce rules such as fire and safety codes, capacity limits, no food or drinks in the hall, no audio or video recording, and so on. Ultimately, a stage manager is working to help ensure the experience of the concert attendee is pleasant.”
I asked what type of training would help someone prepare for a role as a stage or technical manager. “It’s helpful to have been a performer, since you’ll know what the basic requirements are onstage. Being able to communicate intelligently with the artists, as well as the artist’s crew and personnel when they have them, is also essential. A good understanding of audio, lighting, and props can help bridge any gaps in communication and identify any problems before they arise.”
As for how to get started on the path to a career as a stage or technical manager, he advises, “The best way is to learn by doing. Find a local venue or club in your area and make friends with the current stage manager or audio tech. Ask if he/she would be open to having you shadow them at a few set-ups, sound checks, and shows. If you are able to volunteer and help out, you’ll learn a lot about what is required in this role.”
According to the 2016 Berklee College of Music Salary Guide, the annual earnings for a Stage or Technical Manager range from $24,000 to $75,000-plus when in a full-time position. If working as a freelancer, reported weekly salary varies widely based on experience and the scope of the gig, from $500 to as much as $5,000 per week for arena-level shows.
Hands-on: Piano tuner/technician
If you have an interest in musical instruments, are good at problem-solving, and are comfortable and self-motivated enough to run your own business, a career path as a piano tuner may be one to consider. Not to mention there are an estimated 17 million pianos in the US, so the need for piano techs won’t be drying up anytime soon.
Piano tuners and technicians can find steady work anywhere you can find a piano, including schools, churches, concert halls, music stores, recording studios, and private homes. It is this variety of settings that makes the job and life of a piano tuner different each day. Some piano tuners may be employed by a university or other institution with a large collection of pianos, but a number of these institutions choose to rely on a contracted freelance tuner for their maintenance. Not only do piano tuners actually tune pianos, they also undertake basic repairs and routine maintenance, and some also specialize in rebuilding pianos completely. As for musical abilities, yes, a piano tuner needs to learn to play a few simple pieces so that he or she may test out a piano’s mechanical performance as well as hear whether the instrument is in or out of tune. An interest in mechanical devices (pianos have many moving parts inside them) and some level of manual dexterity are needed, as are basic business skills and a solid customer-service orientation.
Piano tuning and repair are learned skills, just as the first two careers profiled above. A professional association known as the Piano Technicians Guild (PTG) offers excellent information online about piano technicians and an introduction to what it takes to train for a career as a successful piano tuner and technician. The PTG also offers membership to those pursuing a career in the field with two levels of members: Registered Piano Technicians (or RPTs) who have completed a rigorous series of examinations on the repair, maintenance and tuning of pianos; and Associates, who are learning the trade or may be piano refinishers, rebuilders, or retailers.
For insights on the work of a piano technician, I spoke with Marty Weiner, a Northern California-based piano technician and tuner. Weiner owns his own business, Weiner Piano Service, and came to the field mid-career, having run his own business and working in the communication industry for a number of years.
When I asked Weiner what a typical day was like, he said, “It’s a mix of tuning, repairs, and sales. Today, I’m spending the day working on a rebuild of a grand piano; tomorrow, I have four in-home tunings scheduled with regular customers. When I first started out, one of my piano tuning mentors was retiring, so he passed on his contacts and phone number to me, so that helped a great deal in getting enough business to stay afloat. I also advertise via my website, and calls come in through positive word of mouth from other clients.”
A significant part of Weiner’s overall business is the work he does for the University of Pacific Conservatory of Music, where he maintains a collection of 70 pianos all over the campus.
When I asked him how long on average he spends tuning a piano, Weiner says, “I normally book a two-hour appointment, although a basic tuning usually takes a bit less time. But that gives me a little cushion in case any small repairs are needed. If I’m spending the day over at Pacific, since there’s no driving, I may get seven or eight pianos tuned in a day. For my in-home clients, they’ll usually book an annual tuning – as I’m finishing up, they’ll usually just make their next appointment for 12 months in advance.”
When the topic of training came up, Weiner explained there were basically two paths to learning the skills needed to be a piano tuner. “One is to find a mentor and use a home study course; the second is to attend one of the two piano tech schools, either in Boston or Chicago. The length of time one takes to develop the necessary proficiency varies. The schools offer a two-year course of study. Learning from a mentor, it might take a year to understand how to properly tune a piano. Then you can further develop your skills by tuning pianos in people’s homes.” Weiner learned the craft from his mentor, Bob Davis, who served as piano technician for the Conservatory at University of the Pacific for 40 years.
“At the beginning, it was a steep learning curve for me” Weiner reflects. “However, a musical background is not essential. Having analytical and tactile skills, and some mechanical aptitude, is essential. You really learn in stages, there are plateaus you get to and then after you gain more experience, you’ll advance your overall knowledge a step further.”
We also touched on the fact that actual piano tuning and repair makes up only a part of his business. “You have to be able to maintain your business and financial records, take care of sales, make and return phone calls, travel to and from appointments, go to the bank, resolve any problems with clients – all the normal manager activities that any small business owner must take care of. I wish I had discovered piano tuning when I was 20 years old. My job never ceases to thrill, I never get bored, and it seems that on nearly every piano I open up, there is always some new surprise or challenge I have to solve.
“The other great aspect of my job is the joy it brings. For instance, bringing grandma’s old piano back to life in a couple of hours for her grandchildren to learn to play on. You leave a job and people are very thankful for the service. They’re happy to see me when I arrive for an annual tuning and smiling when I leave, paycheck in hand, as their piano is ready for more enjoyment. It’s a great career.”
The going rate for a piano tuning ranges from $100-185, according to the 2016 Berklee College of Music Salary Guide. Other sources annualize earnings for a freelance, self-employed piano tuner and cite various ranges, from $30,000 up to $159,000 in a major market for an experienced and in-demand technician. Piano tuners were also identified as having a relatively low-stress career in a Washington Post article cited by some piano tuning schools on their websites.
All three of these offstage music careers provide a unique opportunity to be involved with music every day. They also require a caring, thoughtful individual to assess the needs of their clients or patrons and engage in helping them to achieve their intended goals, whether that is to enhance recovery for a client after treatments or restoring the sound and feel of a vintage grand piano. All three offer financially stable, rewarding career paths for the musically inclined.
Photos of music therapy students and opera performance courtesy of the Conservatory of Music, University of the Pacific.
American Music Therapy Association
Includes loads of information on the field, what type of education and background is required, and links to schools offering professional training. The AMTA’s careers page includes a list of programs offering degrees and/or certifications as well as a variety of scholarships for students and members.
International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM)
This trade association offers a range of information, an annual conference, and different levels of membership. At the time of this writing, the job listings page showed 32 postings in the venue management and operations field.
Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to the Disc Makers Blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros He was recently featured offering a range of music industry career advice in Episode #33 of the Scharff Brothers’ Mentoring for the Modern Musician Podcast.
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