Musical backgrounds pay off for students

For Matt Aelmore, making money as a musician is a “tricky situation.”

Aelmore is one of many Pitt students who work as musicians and hope to make a little money on the side while doing it. According to the Department of Music’s website, there are about 40 graduate students and 50 undergraduate music majors, and Pittsburgh offers a host of venues for student artists. The competition is tough, but Aelmore and other students learn how to network with employers, manage time and update their skill sets in a way that beats sitting in a cubicle. 

When he plays at bars with his band, the AM Faces, they usually get a cut of what the bar makes at the door. The band has played at bars such as Gooskie’s in Polish Hill and Howlers in Downtown. Aelmore said he didn’t feel comfortable giving an exact figure of his earnings, but said it’s “not much.”

“To really make money, it’s kind of a lottery thing,” Aelmore said.

Aelmore plays the french horn, guitar and electric bass, but he actually gets more jobs as a composer than as a performer. As a commissioned composer, Aelmore, a doctoral student studying music theory and composition,  writes experimental music theatre. 

It’s tough to get paid jobs, but for him, making money in music is mostly working with perseverance and making friends and connections in the music world. 

Benjamin Clifton agrees with Aelmore’s approach but says getting paid gigs is not hard if you know the right people. 

“Going to these jazz sessions as a music player is the same thing as a job interview in the corporate world,” said Clifton, a senior majoring in math and jazz music. “You go and listen to and play with people. If they like what you are playing and they have a gig, they will call you up.”

Never leave a gig with less than $100, he said, although getting paid for performing depends on the level of the player.

“It’s kind of hard to set your own rates because a lot of times when people call you up, they already have a set rate that they are going to pay you,” Clifton said.

Perhaps more difficult than setting a rate as a student musician is setting a weekly schedule. 

Balancing school with music does get hectic sometimes, but Aelmore has become accustomed to working on multiple projects simultaneously. 

Similarly for Clifton, making room for both work and play isn’t much of a hassle. 

“I have a lot of opportunities to play, but the nice thing about being a student and a keyboard player is that I can choose how much I want to do,” Clifton said. 

The music Clifton plays for gigs varies depending on the event. As a jazz musician, Clifton doesn’t have to rehearse a lot because jazz musicians are well-versed in the standards. 

“I’ve shown up to gigs where I don’t even know what I’m going to play, and most of the time I don’t know who I’m playing with,” Clifton said. 

Working as a student musician might not pay much, or even at all, but when it comes to travel opportunities, the job has its perks. 

Last year, Aelmore went to Germany for a week to put on an hour-long music production. Aelmore also had the opportunity to open for Eddie Money in 2006 with the song “Two Tickets to Paradise” for a crowd of 10,000 people. 

He’s currently working on a piece for a British flutist, Lucas Jordan, and next week, he starts playing with the Dangdut Cowboys, an Indonesian pop band. 

Like Aelmore, senior Emily Rohrer uses her musical talent to escape the campus bubble.

Rohrer, a nursing major, is a soprano singer in the Heinz Chapel Choir and musical director for campus a capella group The Pitt Pendulums. While Rohrer doesn’t personally receive compensation for paid gigs, the Pendulums receive money by those who book them,which is used to cover her and other members’ travel costs and group merchandise. 

As musical director, Rohrer is in charge of getting the group to create a musical product that is a performance. 

This entails preparing for and running rehearsals as well as organizing music for the semester. The group puts on a concert every semester and does other gigs on the side.

The Pitt Pendulums get requests for gigs around every two weeks on campus, Rohrer said, and they choose them based on the group’s availability.

As with all three musicians, the trick to making money in the music world is to try new things and to share song in many different forms.

“My goal is to have many, many baskets to put my eggs in,” Aelmore said. “The model that works for me is different aspects of performing, composing and teaching and hopefully they all come together in different ways and I’ll make a living.”