Pursuing a career in music is a risky decision, because by the nature of the industry few artists can “make it big.” Most artists aren’t pop stars, or even full-time career musicians, and all musicians also teach to remedy this. There are many paths to becoming a professional cello player, and depending on where you start it might be easy or hard to earn a reputation and start making money. I followed an academic path, studying classical music at university and then continuing my research in graduate school under a generous fellowship from the Tulsa Symphony.
These qualifications opened certain doors, and have led to success in teaching and recording. This article will give you advice on what it takes to get to the professional cello level, and how a professional earns and keeps their reputation.
Even with online platforms and recording technology, it can be years or decades before you are noticed. Dedication is everything, because not only will you continue to improve with practice but you will outlast the musicians who give up easily. This is why some teachers will tell young beginner cellists to quit outright; if you’re willing to give up that easily then you don’t have the dedication it takes.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
No matter what level of cello you play, your professional status depends on professionalism. People don’t want to play in an ensemble with someone incompetent, or on the other hand someone who feels like the whole performance is about them. The best compliment I received in my chamber music courses at university was that I was a supportive player, that I brought out the best of my ensemble.
There’s another saying, “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” In a musical context this means you won’t always nail it at every performance, but if you show up early and have a positive attitude despite any hiccups, you’ll help your band make great music, and they’ll remember you the next time they need a professional cello player. Try to be friendly and upbeat, even if you aren’t especially outgoing.
Build a network
The best tool you can have as a professional is an extensive list of contacts, including other musicians as well as venues, organizers, sound engineers, and promoters. One important thing to remember about building this network is that you shouldn’t be asking for gigs all the time. Trust me from experience, you don’t want that reputation. If you’re at the gig, just focus on playing the gig! Any professional will tell you, gigs lead to more gigs. I have built my network mostly by meeting the audience after performances, and simply thanking them for coming to hear the music.
Never play for free
Many managers (venues, festivals, bands) will ask you to play for free, or for exposure. Never, under any circumstances, should you agree to volunteer your talents to help someone else make money. This includes churches and other not-for-profit groups, who are especially bad about expecting free talent. They don’t respect that what you offer is based on hard work and preparation, and if you don’t expect payment then you are agreeing with them. This might seem contradictory to building a network of contacts, but a professional cello player is for hire, not for free.
Keep producing consistently
The modern standard for the rate of music production is extremely high, because of how rapid distribution has cultivated a taste for constant new music. If you have a social media platform with a good following, try setting up weekly (or biweekly) publishing days to put out a new recording. Don’t worry, it won’t be perfect! But if it is consistently released every week or two, you’ll get into the habits of a professional cello player, such as listening to your own recordings and feedback from other listeners.
This will also help with any performance anxiety, or stage fright, to some degree. One of my problems as a beginner was how to receive compliments well. It’s nice to be able to read the comments at your own pace and measure your emotional response to them. Then when you go to perform you’ll be better at regulating your emotions and expectations.
Remember, There are Many Kinds of Professional Cello Players
There are many kinds of professional cello player, and this article only reflects some of my experience coming from the classical world. What is common among all successful cellists is starting with a good teacher and a dedication to practice.