Welcome to the second installment in a new interview series created by Continuum Web Design called Freelancing Artists: How They Make it Work.
How do freelancing artists do it? How do they piece together work to create a sustaining and stable career? Through this interview series, I aim to get to the heart of those questions by talking to various artists about how they make freelancing work for them.
In our second installment, we talk with NYC-based pianist, vocalist and composer Deanna Witkowski, an artist who moves with remarkable ease between multiple musical languages and cultures.
Heralded for her “consistently thrilling” playing and her “boundless imagination” (All Music Guide), Witkowski was the winner of the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in 2002 and has appeared on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. Her ever-inquisitive nature has led her to the worlds of Brazilian music, jazz, sacred, and classical music, to perform in venues ranging from jazz festivals to church sanctuaries to clubs in Rio de Janeiro. Yet underpinning Witkowski’s musical diversity is the heart of a jazz player: a willingness to improvise, to breathe in the moment and to respond with well-honed musical reflexes.
In the interview below, Deanna talks to Continuum Web Design about coming up in the Chicago jazz scene, the importance of personal time, why egg-timers are cooler than you think, how she learned to market herself, and her secrets to staying financially solvent in a sometimes unpredictable freelance career.
Describe a typical day.
Because I’ve just started a part-time church music job, not all of my days follow the same pattern—actually, before this job, there wasn’t necessarily a “typical” day schedule either! I try to spend some time in the morning doing something for myself, like prayer or meditation or swimming, before I delve into work. I find that when I don’t take time for myself at the start of the day, I usually feel more stressed about little things (or big things) that come up during the course of the day.
I am a pretty organized person when it comes to making lists of what I need to get done, and in doing music business stuff like sending out booking inquiries via email; researching venues to play on a tour; designing my monthly e-newsletter; fielding requests for interviews; planning music for church services that I’m playing out of town; etc. I spend more time than I would like to in front of my laptop. Often this work will start in the morning and will last all day if I allow it to—I have to force myself to take breaks.
Have you ever had a “day job”? If so, was it music related or non-music related?
When I moved to New York in 1997, I moved with a full time position as music director at All Angels’ Church, an Episcopal parish on the upper west side. It was definitely a full time job. Each Sunday, we had three services, two in the morning and one in the early evening. The evening service had a regular gospel choir, so I often had a choir rehearsal in between lunch and the 5 pm service. What most people who don’t do church work don’t realize is that the bulk of the time- at least for myself, when I’ve been the only musician on staff- is spent in searching for, or composing or arranging, music for weekly services. This requires keeping in mind a lot of different factors (i.e., what kinds of pieces can the congregation sing well as a group?). If I’m composing something new, I need to write melodic lines that don’t have too many jumps and have to think about how I set up syncopations. I also arranged music according to whatever instrumentalists or vocalists I had in the congregation. And of course, I was sensitive to the liturgy—the readings, whatever season we were in (Advent, Lent, etc), and the flow of the overall service. To me, planning music for church services is much more involved than planning two sets of music for my trio to play in a club or concert setting. So it took a lot of time! I was at All Angels’ for two and a half years.
When you were getting started freelancing, did you seek out specific opportunities or did you take whatever came along?
My undergraduate degree was in classical piano (though jazz was incorporated into my program). When I started my graduate work at DePaul University, I was in the jazz studies program. I met a lot of musicians while at DePaul and started going to a regular jam session at a bar called Deja Vu, which was located fairly close to the school. Jeff Newell, a great alto player who also lives in New York now, ran the session, and I learned a TON of tunes by going practically every week. I would write down the names of tunes I didn’t know, go home, pull out the Real Book, and learn them. So, even from that experience, I met more musicians and got calls for work. I did a lot of big band work when I was in Chicago- I am glad that I had the opportunity to play a lot of Thad Jones charts and had camaraderie with a lot of players. Chicago was a great learning place for me.
I also definitely sought out my own gigs. I ended up getting a steady, five-day-a-week solo piano job from noon to 2 pm at a seafood restaurant located just off of Michigan Avenue. It paid $40/day (the sad thing is how many gigs in New York pay about the same thing now!). Through this gig, I met one woman who became a patron of my work. I also was able to get in a lot of experience in playing solo jazz piano.
Besides my solo gig, I formed my own quintet- in its first formation, it was called “Odd Fish” (named after one of my compositions) and we played a steady gig in the back room at the Bop Shop for maybe four or five months- I can’t remember how long. I also applied for and received a small recording grant from the city and recorded my first release as a leader, “Having to Ask,” just before moving to New York in late 1997.
What factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to take a gig? Has this changed over time? If so, how?
This is definitely changing for me, because I’ve just started a part time job as artist-in-residence/assistant musician at Park Avenue Christian Church on the upper east side. I’m currently composing a new choral work to be premiered on December 19 at the church, am putting together music for a Mary Lou Williams concert in February, and am playing for one weekly and another biweekly rehearsal for the gospel and classical choirs (besides playing each Sunday). So I now have more on my plate. And I also have a salary!
That being said, I still want to play as much as possible, but I can’t do $50 keyboard gigs where I have to take a cab. It depends on either how musical (and, therefore, fun) a gig will be; how much the gig pays; and increasingly, how easy or hard is it to get to the gig! There are also times when I will deal with lower pay in order to have a gig as a leader—but I’ve stopped doing small gigs where I know at the outset that I will lose at least $100 to play. I won’t ask side musicians to play for under $75.
Is the ability to hustle part of one’s personality or is it a skill that can be developed?
You can definitely develop business skills; however, I don’t believe that you can completely change your personality. I am a naturally introverted person. I feel much more comfortable sending booking emails rather than making phone calls. But sometimes I have to do both. When I have a gig planned for out of town, I work extremely hard to book additional dates- both to make the trip financially feasible as well as to have more opportunities to play.
What is the opportunity you made for yourself for which you are the most proud?
There are several that come to mind: my new church position came from attending a conference, meeting a music director who was interested in my work, and then staying in touch with the director for almost a year before being invited to bring my trio to lead music on a particular Sunday. Then, after being invited back, I mentioned looking for a part time church music position. Literally as soon as I mentioned this, the director asked how many hours per week I was seeking to work. The church created my current position- partially due to an opening, where their main accompanist was leaving- and due to my own gifts, which is where the “artist-in-residence” and compositional side comes in.
Many of the gigs I’ve done at colleges have come from staying in touch with professors for years before being offered a performance or residency. I also toured one summer with vocalist Lizz Wright when I knew that she was looking for a pianist. I asked her if I could audition, and got the gig.
Do you have any specific methods for managing your time on a daily basis?
One thing that I’m doing as I type is using an online egg timer- eggtimer.com (I also have a regular manual egg timer that I sometimes use). There are often tasks that I feel intimidated by, either because of the type of task, or because it’s something that’s going to take hours of time. When I feel unmotivated to get something done that I know has to be done, I’ll say, “OK, I’m going to set the egg timer for 20 minutes, or 30 minutes, and then I can take a break.” Sometimes I’ll get so into the task that after the timer goes off, I’m ready to keep working. I stole this idea of the egg timer from composer/keyboardist Steve Sandberg.
I also write down lists of tasks that need to get done- but find that if I write down too much, I feel overwhelmed. I try to reward myself for crossing items off the list after they’ve been accomplished—a reward might mean making an espresso, or turning off my phone and computer and playing piano for a half-hour, or walking outside.
Were there any books or other resources that were instrumental in how you manage a freelance career?
I’ve read a fair amount of business books, and also have gone to some Meetup events for an organization dedicated to women small business owners called Count Me In. Chamber Music America also has a once-a-month seminar that often focuses on various aspects of freelancing.
A few books I’ve read and found helpful include: Play Like a Man; Win Like a Woman by Gail Evans; The Girls’ Guide to Building a Million-Dollar Business by Susan Wilson Solovic; and A Life in the Arts by Eric Maisel. This last book is really a workbook that helps with the psychological aspects of being a performing artist.
About a year and a half ago, I bought a book called The Money Book. It’s for freelancers, and has a lot of great tips in terms of how to stay financially solvent when you don’t know what your income will be for whatever amount of time. As a result of reading this book, I opened an online savings account and started setting aside percentages of every payment I receive into different accounts within that larger savings account. I label each account—i.e., “taxes,” “emergency fund,” “charitable donations,” “money for my recording,” etc, so that I see exactly how much I have going to a specific thing. It helps me to feel more secure- and, unlike, a traditional bank, I do receive interest (even though the rate is very low!).
Have you put much effort into how you market yourself?
Late last year, I hired a branding consultant for a specific period of time. She formulated questions that I sent to about ten “investors,” meaning people that are vested in my career (not necessarily in a financial sense). I also read through every review I’d received from my four previous albums, and noted adjectives and phrases that I liked or didn’t like, trends I saw or didn’t see, etc. The consultant came up with about six or seven ideas of specific things to emphasize in upcoming press releases and even in performance settings. I’m just starting to get back to this now as I look ahead to releasing my solo album in the spring.
I’ve also always hired separate print and radio publicists for each of my releases. Radio- yes, old-fashioned radio- has really helped me in terms of my touring. Whenever I’m in an area that I haven’t played in before- or I’m in an area that I’ve played in many times- I contact local jazz radio stations. Usually, even if I know no one at the station, chances are that, because of my releases, the station has given me airplay. They’ll often have me do an on-air interview, or will announce my local gigs along with airplay.
To what do you attribute the success of your freelance career?
Being a driven, organized, persistent, and passionate person.
What advice would you offer to other artists trying to make it as a freelancer?
Make sure that you absolutely love the work you want to do. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Remember that it is OK to take jobs that you don’t want to take because you need to keep the lights on. Save percentages out of every payment you receive- cash or check- before you pay bills. Seek out community, both musical and non-musical. Remember that your life is not just about your work.