Wednesday, August 23, 2017

In the Trenches of Running a Freelance Career

One year ago, I left the world of full-time academia and took the plunge into going freelance. What a crazy/scary/glorious year it has been! I spent the initial months meeting with potential collaborators, contacting performers and music organizations, formulating projects, going to a multitude of concerts, and applying to numerous competitions and grant sources. These strategies have paid off, as I have been quite busy since last December (which is when I went on my completely unintentional hiatus from blog writing). I’m finally coming up for air, and want to share with you a few themes that are shaping my new career and life:

1. Time is equally as important as money, even if time doesn’t pay the bills.

Because of the unpredictable and unstable nature of a freelance career, I have due dates scattered all over my calendar. If I’m not careful, I find myself justifying the need to work non-stop to meet my deadlines. But continually working comes at a price (see #3 below). I’ve learned to value the amount of time it will take me to complete each project equally to what I need to earn to financially stay afloat.

2. Be aware of overlapping due dates when committing to projects, and have a realistic sense of how much time you need to complete each one.

For a composer, this typically refers to commissions you take on. But the same is absolutely true about any grants that you apply for, and any competitions that result in a commission to compose a new piece. While you might not win or receive the majority of what you apply to, what happens if just enough of these come through? Should you get funded, can you really get everything done, and at your highest professional standard? I’ve talked about adding “cushion” zones to projects in other posts, in which I add 2-8 weeks of time to my composing schedule prior to a piece’s deadline. This time gives me a buffer against any unexpected issues that impede my time during the composing process (such as getting sick, taking an unexpected trip, etc.). I’d like to reiterate here how critical these cushion zones are for every single project, no matter how big or how small the project is. Sometimes I end up working through my cushion zone, right up to when a project is due; in these moments, I’m sure glad I put that cushion zone in my schedule!

3. Allow yourself downtime, even when your schedule is packed.

It is incredibly easy to let the pressure of upcoming deadlines get to me, which keep me working well into the night. What do I sacrifice when I get in a time crunch? Relaxation. Does this take a toll? YES. Mentally, physically… we all eventually get exhausted by our work, which can make less imaginative and less efficient the more drained we become. Even if you just schedule an hour or two a day to go running, watch Game of Thrones, take in a concert, or cook yourself a nice dinner, your brain and body need this critical down time to rejuvenate.

4. Outline a daily or weekly to-do list.

Lists help you get organized and keep from trying to retain everything you need to do in your head. Put everything on – pay bills, follow up with people who want to purchase scores, get a particular amount composed or orchestrated per day, update your website, go food shopping, etc. In addition to keeping me on track, I get a nice (albeit small) sense of accomplishment whenever I complete an item and cross it off the list.

5. Remember to dream BIG, and revisit your dreams on a regular basis.

I’ve got big dreams (OPERA!), and while it will take me some time to break into that genre, I find it very helpful every month or two for me to recognize what my long-term goals are, particularly when my short-term goals aren’t yet in line with these. When I look at my long-term goals list, I strategize what steps I can take in the upcoming months to make forward progress on that path.

A year ago, I was filled with trepidation as I stepped away from my full-time teaching position. Now, the trepidation factor has dropped to a low murmur, and the excitement factor is skyrocketing. To be in control of one’s career is exhilarating, despite the challenges of being one’s own boss. Hopefully, my initial experiences in the trenches will help others avoid a few early pitfalls of running a freelance career!