Category — Tips
Just a brief update to yesterday’s post.
First, a question: Can you deduct donated services as a charitable contribution on your taxes?
Some people have suggested work-arounds; but those sound complicated and sketchy, if not illegal.
Enjoy. And don’t charge your mom.
March 31, 2011 No Comments
“Hi, we’d like to have live music at our event, but we have a limited budget…”
If you’ve ever tried to make money as a musician, you’re all too familiar with this scenario. On average, I get asked to discount my services or play for free about once a month. When I first started freelancing I’d always feel awkward handling these requests. But over time, I’ve developed a philosophy for how to respond in these situations.
For requests for donated services
I plan in advance how many services I will donate to non-profits per year — i.e. 4x a year, once a month. When a request comes in from an organization think I’d like to help, I ask them to email me more information about themselves and the event. I don’t make a decision over the phone.
My personal criteria are pretty simple: The organization needs to be I’d be willing to support with money, and the request must be well-defined. In all the situations I’ve encountered where the client doesn’t really know what they want (paid or not), I usually regret taking the job because it ends up creating more work than I expected.
When responding to requests that come in after I’ve maxed my donated services out, I say, “I do a number of charity events but have already made my commitments for this year.” Depending on the organization, I may offer a discount and/or ask them to contact me when they have another event. Usually I refer them to local college/university music schools as often students are required to do community service for scholarship purposes.
For non-charity requests for cheaper services
Maybe this sounds harsh, but I’ve put a lot of effort into pricing my services according to going rates. I believe that it’s better to work for free or full price, but not cheap. Designer Paul Scriven wrote a post about this that I think applies to all freelancers, including musicians. His main point is that if you undercharge,
You begin to despise design because it feels like cheap labor. Your creativity suffers along with your work performance. Instead of focusing on the job at hand all you do is worry about the guy down the street making more money than you.
It’s true. If the client has a limited budget, I’ll tell them what I can do for the money they can offer; or simply say that I’m unable to do the job.
If I can offer one more piece of advice — don’t get offended when people try to bargain with you. It’s not worth it. Some people will try to bargain anything, from musical services to groceries. Others simply aren’t aware of what reasonable musician rates are and will find out soon enough. Just be polite, offer your price firmly, and strive for excellence when you’re hired.
March 30, 2011 4 Comments
Awhile back I suggested 5 Tips for Better Practicing, which has since become one of the most popular posts on this blog. I thought I’d follow it up with a few more:
Practice in different rhythms
Hands down the quickest way, in my experience, to learn running note passages. One of my favorite versions of rhythm practicing is re-barring even-number note groupings into odd-number ones (and vice versa) through accents. So for sixteenth note passages, try adding accents every third or fifth note . . .
. . . and for triplet passages, every second or fourth:
Beware mindless routine
As mentioned before, I believe in choosing a consistent practice time. But I don’t stick to much of a practice routine otherwise. Some people swear by a daily scale/arpeggio regimen. If that helps you, great. I, for one, start forming my grocery list about a quarter of the way through the circle of fifths.
Needless to say, my scales don’t get better when I’m thinking about the price of tomatoes.
So for me, just attacking the technical problems within current repertoire yields better results.
A few other ways to avoid mindlessness:
- Switch up your practice order. Try starting with a different piece or section of a piece every day.
- Get into the habit of stopping every so often and asking yourself, “What am I trying to do?”
- When drilling a passage, focus on improving just one thing with each repetition. (Got this tip from a Timothy Eddy masterclass.)
Turn down the lights
If you’ve been working on something for awhile and are starting to lose interest, try practicing in dim light for small stretches. (Obviously, you’ll need to be well beyond the note-learning stage or memorized.) I find this technique forces me to listen more closely and exposes problem areas.
Habitually reading through through unfamiliar music can make certain aspects of regular practicing easier. Sightreading forces you to quickly recognize and remember note patterns. It improves rhythmic fluency. It challenges you to aim for accuracy on the first go. All these skills help you assimilate the technical aspects of music faster, freeing you up to concentrate on interpretation and artistry. Plus, it’s fun.
Three times perfect
I’m sure a few of my students detest this practice technique, but it works. If you have a mistake to correct, don’t move on until you’ve played the passage correctly — rhythm, notes, fingering, articulation, dynamics — three times in a row. If you mess up on the third go, you have to re-start from 1. If you have a lot of trouble doing this, try a smaller chunk and / or go slower. It’s harder than you think — but if you can repeat perfection three times in a row, odds are you’ll nail it most of the time.
March 17, 2011 1 Comment
I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with taxes.
For musicians, taxes can be supremely confusing and annoying. Many of us are at least partially self-employed, which means a bunch of extra forms and paperwork come tax season. Plus, tax laws can change every year so right when you think you’ve got it all figured out — wham! Think again. I always get a sinking feeling when the first “IMPORTANT TAX FORM ENCLOSED” envelope arrives because even after a few years of filing, taxes always present a challenge.
But that challenge can be a good thing. Whether I like it or not, I run a business; and tax time forces me to evaluate how things went the past year and reorganize for the next.
I also have a nerdy
obsession fascination with finding deductions and credits. If you’re new to the self-employed world, I’ll bet you’ll develop it too.
I’m definitely not a tax professional and I’m not going to try walking you through the forms. Good online resources exist for those seeking help with line-by-line, schedule-by-schedule questions. But after a few years of wading through the miry world of taxes, I do have some practical advice for setting up a system that makes the process less of a headache.
The key: Keep up with your records throughout the year.
I am convinced that the key to reducing tax-time troubles involves adequately tracking your money the rest of the year. I learned this the hard way after the first year of filing as self-employed. There is absolutely nothing fun about muddling through a year’s worth of statements and receipts. I STRONGLY advise coming up with a simple record-keeping system to minimize headaches later on.
My record-keeping boils down to three basic things.
1. Excel Spreadsheets
The bulk of my record-keeping involves two Excel spreadsheets: one for income and one for expenses.
For income, I track every job that doesn’t withhold taxes for me — generally, all income from teaching, small orchestra gigs, weddings, background music. This includes work that doesn’t issue a 1099 (only required if you were paid over $600 by that person or organization).
My income spreadsheet has four columns:
- Category (i.e. teaching, orchestra, opera, etc. This is more for my own information than for tax purposes.)
That’s it. Super simple.
Expenses are slightly more complicated: five columns!
Setting up the right categories here is important, particularly if you’re filing a regular Schedule C and itemizing expenses. ArtsTaxInfo offers a free checklist and helpful information to get you started. Some of the more music-specific expenses you can deduct include:
- Music gear (stands, strings, tuner, batteries, etc.)
- Professional journal / magazine subscriptions
- Sheet music and CD’s / mp3s (if it’s really for business — be careful and honest)
- Advertising: business cards, demo fees, headshots, domain names and website fees
- Office supplies: paper, envelopes, photocopies, stamps
- Membership fees for professional organizations and unions
- Professional fees (attorney, manager, agent, accountant)
- Continuing education — lessons, concert tickets (again, be careful and honest)
- Travel expenses
Again, read up on the different categories as some have very specific allowances or rules. Also note that you’ll need to keep receipts as records for these expenses . . . more on that later.
2. Google Calendar
I list every appointment, rehearsal, gig, lesson etc. on GCal. This proved especially helpful this year as I started tracking mileage. I also periodically check my calendar against my spreadsheets to make sure I remembered to list everything.
3. Regular Record Tracking Time
I try to do this twice a month — once mid-month, and once end-of-month. Basically, this involves:
- Reviewing bank and credit card statements
- Updating income and expense spreadsheets
- Filing receipts, both physical and digital
- Calculating mileage
A few other notes
You’ll need to get in the habit of saving receipts as documentation for expenses in case of an audit. For physical receipts, I label each one with the appropriate expense category and stick them in an envelope. For digital ones, I label them as a business expense in my email account and note the category in my spreadsheet.
As much as possible, I deposit all self-employed income into the same bank account and pay for all business expenses with the same card. Not only is this a clean way to keep track of your money, but you can also use monthly and year-end statements to your advantage.
Xpense Tracker App
This year I’m trying out the XpenseTracker App for iPhone, and so far I love it. It integrates with Excel and makes tracking mileage much easier. Plus, I can write it off as a business expense!
Any questions or other advice? Please share!
February 15, 2011 No Comments
If you plan to make music part of your career, freelancing is almost certainly in your future. Most musicians, even those who hold full-time positions in the business, freelance to some degree — through teaching, performing, recording, contracting, arranging, etc.
I’ve been freelancing since my mid-teens and have gone from a few summer gigs to making it about 60% of my career. Though I’ve made my share of mistakes in this business, I’m thankful that I received a lot of good advice at the beginning. For those of you who are starting out or thinking of establishing a freelance career, here is some of the best advice I’ve received:
Get your materials in order
If you’re serious about freelancing on a regular basis, invest some time and money towards developing basic marketing materials. (If you end up making money, you can write your costs off as business expenses anyways.) At minimum, you should have the following:
Keep a stack with you all the time; you’ll run into possible contacts in unexpected places. Shell out a few dollars for something that looks professional. Digital printing is fairly inexpensive at online vendors such as Overnight Prints or Print Place; and you can usually google a coupon code to lower your cost even more.
Short (100-150 words) and long (300-400 words) versions. Update it once or twice a year. If writing and grammar aren’t your strengths, run it by others for editing.
High-resolution (300dpi) jpegs. Self-portraits taken with your smartphone or your face cropped out of a family picture are not eligible.
It doesn’t need to be fancy — just informative, simple to navigate, and easy to read (i.e. no red text on black background).
This is especially important if you plan to do weddings and other work with individual parties. Here is mine as an example; feel free to adapt for yourself.
Know the going rates
Pricing your services is probably the most intimidating issue for the beginning freelancer. I highly recommend talking to more experienced colleagues in your area to determine the going rates. Once you’ve determined fair fees, stick to them. Even practice saying them aloud so you can quote them to clients without sounding apologetic or tentative. Determine your service area (i.e. how far you will go to play) and how much you will charge for extra travel as well. (Note: you will be asked to play for less or for free more times than you can imagine. I’ll save my philosophy on how to handle that for a later post.)
Communicate in a timely manner
If you want to freelance, you need to be reachable. You don’t have to be a slave to your phone; when I’m out, I often let people leave voicemails so I can check my calendar and avoid the whole phone tag game. But returning correspondence within 24 hours goes a long way in making you come across as professional. If you discuss a job over the phone, ask the person to email the details so you have something in writing, and keep a list of other players you can recommend close by so you can pass names along when unavailable.
Allow plenty of travel time
Take the Google/MapQuest travel time and double it for your average local gig. Granted, I’m more insistent on this point than many musicians because moving a harp necessitates extra time for everything. But few situations will ruin your professional reputation faster than showing up late to a gig.
Be quiet and do your job
Flexibility is key to surviving as a freelancer — if you’re in this business long enough you’ll encounter your share of less-than-ideal performance situations and colorful personalities. In general, try your best to be accommodating. Practice hard, play well, and don’t be a diva. Making yourself pleasant to be around is a huge part of getting called again and/or recommended.
January 4, 2011 4 Comments
One roadblock to maintaining a sense of wonder (see yesterday’s post) is that we fail to actively see what’s around us.
I remember the first day I returned back to the Northwest after my first semester of college. I felt as though my eyes had undergone perception corrective surgery. Mountains, trees, and water had never before appeared as beautiful as they did that day. Even the paint colors in my house were more vibrant — white wasn’t just white. It was more custardy in one room, and vanilla in another.
We shouldn’t have to go away for months to recognize the beauty around us. But sadly, as fallen creatures we often tune out the shouts of nature which constantly testify to the ultimate Creator.
Thankfully, with some thought and time, we can train ourselves to see with renewed perspective. In his book When I Don’t Desire God, John Piper includes advice from his former professor Clyde Kilby on how to maintain wonder at God’s creation. I think for most of us, even adding just a few of these to daily life would reap benefits (emphasis added by me):
- At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above me and about me.
- Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death, when he said: “There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”
- I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parentheses in my existence but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual manhood.
- I shall not turn my life into a thin straight line which prefers abstractions to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which of course I shall often have to do.
- I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to. Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.
- I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.
- I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”
- I shall follow Darwin’s advice and turn frequently to imaginative things such as good literature and good music, preferably, as Lewis suggests, an old book and timeless music.
- I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, as Charles Williams suggested, “fulfill the moment as the moment.” I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is just now.
- If for nothing more than the sake of a change of view, I shall assume my ancestry to be from the heavens rather than from the caves.
- Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life in the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls Himself Alpha and Omega.
September 14, 2010 1 Comment
My final thoughts on considering colleges concern finding a church. It’s no secret that many young adults, despite growing up in the church, stop attending during college. The reasons behind this fall-off are numerous, and I don’t intend to wade through them in this post. Suffice it to say that yes, it’s true: many stop attending because they never wanted to go in the first place. But many others drop out because they’re overwhelmed with the task of finding one.
I truly believe that for a Christian, access to a solid church needs to be a criterion for evaluating colleges. Don’t wait until after you’ve settled into the dorm to start looking around; but apply the same amount of care you put into selecting a school towards selecting a church. For many people (myself included), college is a time of spiritual struggle and transformation. Many “church kids” come to terms with what they — not their parents — truly believe; and they need to be part of a community committed to guiding them biblically.
I need to acknowledge the profound and active role my parents played in my college church search. The care they took to call up pastors, ask for recommendations, and plan church visits — before I even chose which school to attend — reinforced to me the seriousness of the task. Even though I had attended church my whole life, I had absolutely no experience searching for one; and I’m grateful that they guided me through the process. Yes, ultimately I “chose” what church to attend during college; but knowing why they suggested certain ones helped me make an informed decision.
The primary concern in finding a church is spiritual solidity. Consult with your current pastor for suggestions or possible connections. Here are a couple of good overview articles on what to look for in a church:
Some practical advice:
- If you won’t have a car, look for churches that are within walking distance or that offer reliable weekly transportation. This will give you fewer excuses to skip church once you get “busy.” No matter how well-intentioned we are, we can all use some preventative measures — especially if getting yourself to church is a new responsibility.
- College students are notorious for being “pew-warmers.” Look for a place where you can not just attend, but serve. Some churches require membership to serve in certain areas, so inquire about those processes early. Once you decide where to attend, make the commitment to find ways to plug in and get started early.
August 31, 2010 2 Comments
So you’ve narrowed your college choices down, and you’re ready to check out a few in person. How can you make the most of your campus visit?
If you’re a high school junior or senior, you’re probably inundated with postcards for “prospective student days/weekends.” Honestly, I think you get a more realistic picture of a place by visiting at a different, non-peak time. Schools, like people, will “clean up well” when company’s expected. Nothing’s wrong with that; but if I’m going to live somewhere for 4 years, I’m mainly interested in the normal, not-necessarily-company-ready state of the school.
Also, if you call far enough in advance, you can request many of the “perks” normally offered at these prospective weekends: campus tour; appointments with admissions officers, financial aid advisors, and professors; overnight stay in dorms; opportunity to observe a class; etc. If you’re a potential music major, sometimes you can observe part of an ensemble rehearsal or studio class as well.
Prepare Your Questions
In my previous post on this topic, I suggested a few questions to ask current students and potential instructors. You’ll want to prepare similar lists for any appointments you’ll set up. Here’s a good list of starter questions that you can tailor to your needs.
Do yourself (and your interviewers) a favor and browse through the school and department websites in advance. Even though school websites are notoriously difficult to navigate (see above), the information you’re seeking is usually somewhere below the surface.
Listen, Observe, Listen, Observe
When visiting a new place, I attempt to live like a local by taking public transportation (or walking), hunting down resident-recommended spots, and just watching daily life unfold. Maybe that sounds strange, but I’ve found it’s the best way to really “learn” a place.
You can do the same at a college campus. Stroll through campus on your own. Spend an hour or two in the residents’ favorite restaurant/coffeehouse and observe people interacting around you. Do you hear predominantly loud conversation or are people quietly studying? Do students generally appear relaxed or stressed? Social or introverted? You’ll get a real sense of atmosphere and character — and you’ll probably gather pretty quickly whether or not you’d like to live there.
Next time: Searching for a church
August 26, 2010 No Comments
My brother Tim is in the process of applying for colleges. He’s planning to major in music (hey, I didn’t scare him away!), so these days we’re chatting frequently about teachers, music theory placement exams…and, of course, the all-important school visit and audition.
Most prospective music students get plenty of advice about auditioning. They spend months choosing and practicing repertoire, recording, and performing so they’ll be in top shape for the real thing. But with all the focus on the audition, the rest of the school visit is often overlooked. I think this area deserves more attention; because if you plan ahead and ask good questions, you’ll learn a lot about whether or not a particular school is a good fit for you.
Pre-Visit Investigative Work
Quiz Current Students: One of the most helpful things I did before choosing my undergrad school was talking to students in my intended major. Ask the admissions counselor or potential private teacher for the name/contact info for a current student. Seek honest feedback about this person’s school experiences, using questions such as:
- What is the best thing about working with [private teacher]? The most difficult thing?
- What is the size of the current [instrument] studio? Number of undergrads/grads?
- What other schools did you consider, and why did you choose this one?
- How would you describe the atmosphere of the music department? Of the [instrument] studio?
- Do you find the academic coursework challenging?
- What type of performance opportunities have you gotten?
- Do you have any major frustrations about the school?
- What are your career goals?
Evaluate teachers: For prospective music performance majors, your potential private teacher should be the most heavily-weighted factor in your final decision. Most music majors’ overall impression of their school experience depends on their relationship with their teacher. If I’m forced to choose between a great teacher + mediocre school and mediocre teacher + great school, I’ll take the first option every time.
Your current teacher is probably your most helpful resource in selecting possible future teachers, as they may have personal connections or experience with different faculty. Your teacher also knows how you are as a student, so s/he should have insight regarding what type of teacher will benefit you most.
If you don’t have the luxury of taking a lesson with a potential teacher prior to your audition, try setting up a phone or email conversation with him/her. Ask questions like…
- What are your current students doing (i.e. repertoire, competitions, auditions)?
- What is the size of your current studio (both at the school and private)?
- What do you like best/least about the school?
- How would you describe the quality of the ensembles and overall music department?
- What is your teaching philosophy?
Next time: Tips for the real-live school visit
August 24, 2010 1 Comment
When it comes to fighting the blues, oftentimes I turn first to physical “fixes”: food, exercise, sleep, medicine. Now I don’t want to discount the physical aspect of depression. Unhealthy habits undoubtedly affect mood, and we cannot neglect caring for our physical bodies.
But when I feel down, the root emotion I am experiencing is hopelessness: a spiritual issue. Physical changes may temporarily relieve symptoms; but if I ignore the deeper matters of the heart, the infection of hopelessness will return no matter how bodily fit I am.
I have found the following helpful in fighting the blues:
Preach to Yourself
“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?”
-D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures
Strong emotions are persuasive. They convince us life is a certain way; and the more we listen, the more we grow in our confidence of that interpretation. Therefore, we must fight feelings with truth.
In addition to the Martyn Lloyd-Jones book listed above, I highly recommend Richard Baxter’s sermon The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow, by Faith. Yes, the English is old-with-an-e; but it is well worth the effort. Baxter offers a mine of practical wisdom to both those who battle melancholy and those close to the melancholy. Especially helpful is this list of truths to apply to the heart during times of hopelessness.
Hopelessness is isolating; we feel that no one understands what we are experiencing. Not true. I am often amazed at the number of famous Christians who suffered from seasons — sometimes extremely serious, almost paralyzing seasons — of hopelessness: King David, Charles Spurgeon, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Edwards. Reading about their struggles and triumphs reminds me of God’s faithfulness throughout history and provides comfort for the present.
Do your Duties
“Be sure that you live not idly, but in some constant business of a lawful calling, so far as you have bodily strength…If you will not be persuaded to business, your friends, if they can, should force you to it.”
-Richard Baxter, The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow, by Faith
Refuse the urge to mope and wallow in self-pity. If you’re acting useless, you’ll feel useless. Arm yourself with the truth, and then get moving. We all have things we are called to do; and fulfilling our purpose does wonders in uplifting the soul.
- Audio: David Powlison & Russell Moore: The Darkness of Depression — Great conversation on a biblical understanding of depression
- Book: John Piper: When the Darkness Will Not Lift — Free e-book
- Book: John Piper: The Hidden Smile of God — Biographies of suffering Christians
- Music: Come Weary Saints — Album of truth-filled songs for troubling times
- Website: Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation — Offers a number of resources (some free) on fighting hopelessness
August 23, 2010 No Comments