Wouldn’t it be great if all of our gigs were in the same town we live in? Or at least within an hour of our home? Sadly, if you want to make good money as a freelance musician, you have to travel and stay overnight from time to time. This means long car rides, a roommate you don’t know in a cheap hotel, and lots of uncertainty. Is this the right place? Did I remember my socks? Did I leave the iron on?
At any time, I play in about four different symphonies all over Georgia, plus two in Florida. Most of my jobs are within an hour or two and don’t require an overnight stay. There are a few, however, that are pretty far away (I’m writing this in Tallahassee, FL – five hours from my home), and come with a different set of variables. Below, I’ll talk about five things traveling musicians need to make their traveling gigs simpler, more enjoyable, and cheaper.
1 – Reliable Transportation
How are you getting to the gig? This article deals with regional work that you can drive to rather than flying. Flying comes with its own set of problems. I love long drives by myself. It may be cliche, but there’s something about the freedom of the open road (unless you’re in Atlanta, then you’re stuck in traffic all the time) that I love. Unfortunately, my bad back doesn’t love the long drives as much anymore, but I’m still doing it.
If you’re driving, you need a reliable car. Notice I didn’t say “good” car. Who cares what kind of car it is? You need something that gets good mileage and won’t break down somewhere on I-75. Do your scheduled maintenance. Change your oil. Rotate the tires. Get a tune-up. Get new brakes. Trust me, any of those things are cheaper than having one of them fail out on the road.
Get the newest and best vehicle you can afford. Don’t overspend, but try and get a newer model. It’ll have features like Bluetooth and back-up-camera that really come in handy when you’re in a town you don’t know. Many states are going to hands-free as the law, so Bluetooth built-in will be a feature you really want.
Finally, when you travel, you want good mileage and reliability. Consumer reports does a wonderful job judging both. Check them out before you buy.
2 – Good Cellular Phone with Plenty of Data
I’ve been traveling a lot more than usual these first few months of the year, and my wife and I have noticed that we always go over our data when I’m on the road. At first, I couldn’t figure it out. Was it the unreliable Wi-Fi in hotels? Was it the uncertain signal out in the country? Aliens? After plenty of thought, I finally figured it out. Navigation.
When I’m traveling to out-of-town gigs, obviously I’m using GPS since I’m traveling to a place I don’t know. It’s unavoidable unless you are traveling to somewhere you have been a few times. The trick is, turn off the navigation once it says, “Stay on Interstate 85 for 57 miles.” No reason to burn up data for the next 45 minutes while your cruising down the highway at 75 miles per hour. Just take note of the time and judge when you should turn it back on.
Also, consider upping your data with your provider. The extra few dollars a month might be less than the overage cost. While you’re at it, you should probably upgrade your phone. Let’s use iPhone as an example. You should have at least last year’s version if not the current one. An old iPhone will burn through battery and data trying to run the current version of IOS but it’s a losing battle. A really old phone won’t run it at all. The latest phones (both Apple and Android) are more efficient and actually cost less in the long run than that dinged-up 2012 model you’re hanging onto.
3- Travel-Sized Paraphernalia
I can’t believe this, but I’m going to actually recommend going to Walmart to shop. They have a great selection of travel sized shampoos, soaps, deodorant, and toothpaste. Even though Walmart is the 9th circle of hell, the prices and selection are pretty good when it comes to stuff like this.
Packing your everyday shampoo, conditioner, gel, hairspray (does anyone still use hairspray?), and toothpaste takes up valuable room in your luggage. Even though you’re driving and don’t have to pay for extra bags, you should still pack as light as possible. Who wants to make seven trips to the car when they check into the hotel.
You can use the hotel shampoo/conditioner if you like. I usually do. But sometimes I stay in a private home instead of hotel, so I need to make sure I’m prepared. Many orchestras are doing this as a cost-cutting measure. Out-of-town players stay with board members or other local music-lovers. It’s a wonderful solution for everyone involved.
You should at least buy a small bottle of shower-gel or bring your own bar of soap. You might have a roommate in the hotel and you do not want to share a bar of soap with him. You never know where he rubbed that soap before you wash your face with it.
Speaking of roommates, bring some air-freshener or matches. I’m not kidding. You’re going to have to, you know, do your business and despite what you think, yours does stink. Your roommate will thank you, and you’ll be happy when he has to go.
4 – Extra Supplies
I’m talking about things like strings, mutes, and batteries. When you travel, you might not have access to a violin shop to replace a broken string. You might get stuck with that garbage they sell at Guitar Center. Mutes are a dollar a piece at most online musical supply outfits. Make sure you have extras in case you drop one and lose it. You could make one out of a dollar bill in a pinch (I actually saw someone using one on a YouTube video of the Vienna Phil), but why not spend some pennies and always have extras on hand?
Make sure you have two bows. I own two violins and three bows, but when I travel, I take all three bows just in case. Anything can (and will) happen so be a boy scout and be prepared. Have more than one pencil. I use mechanical pencils for gigs so I never have to worry about the tip breaking. However, they will eventually fail as well, so have more than one.
Last but not least, have lots of business cards. Be prepared to give out your info to new people you meet. Don’t shove them in everyone’s face, but if asked, have them handy. Use your (upgraded) phone to trade info. Friend everyone you meet on Facebook. You’re not necessarily friends, but freelancers usually have dozens, if not hundreds of other freelancers as friends on FB.
5 – Bring your Best Attitude
All freelance musicians should always be friendly and courteous at gigs in order to get more work. If you are willing to travel for jobs, that is a plus. Don’t complain about the traveling. Make it clear that driving five hours and staying in a Motel-6 with someone you don’t know is just fine. Most of my traveling gigs put me in much nicer places than that.
Remember, being someone who people want to work with is the key. Learn your music ahead of time. I have just recently discovered forScore, a great music reading app for iPad. Most orchestras will send your music ahead of time via PDF. Why waste ink and paper when you can use your iPad to practice the music? Android has some great apps too if you have an Android tablet.
Smile. Always smile. Be flexible. Who cares where you are sitting? You’re getting paid the same as the stand in front of you. Offer to help anyone who needs it. Don’t be a know-it-all, but assist those in need. Also, remember the etiquette of the orchestra. Any question you have should be asked of your section leader, not the conductor, even if you know him. Your job is to fit in, not stick out. If you stick out, you will not be asked to play next time.
Travel Gigs – Final Thoughts
If you are able to travel for gigs, you have an advantage. It’s like playing two instruments – it makes you valuable, which gets you more gigs. That’s what you want, right?
Keep very careful records of your expenses, especially gas. Most performing organizations will pay you travel expenses in addition to your per-service rate, but that usually doesn’t cover everything you need. When you do your taxes next year, you’ll be happy you did!
Finally, have fun. Do some sightseeing during your off time. I’m a photography hobbyist and I often bring my camera with me to a new city. Be sociable also. If invited, you should always try and attend a group function whether you want to or not. If you behave and have fun, more people will remember you. The opposite is true also, so behave yourself.