Finding Success as a Freelance Musician
Cellist Ginger Murphy is a busy freelance musician with a journey to share.
By Christine Witmer
Living the life of a freelance musician. Ahhhhhh. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Hopping from gig to gig, playing all sorts of different genres and types of music, and ultimately being able to contribute to multiple performances and artistic showcases sounds pretty great, right? And you can get PAID for it? But wait. What exactly goes into being a (successful) freelance musician? And what exactly do you need to do in the meantime to get started?
Luckily, our friend Ginger Murphy was willing to provide some insight. You may not know Ginger Murphy, but you’ve definitely HEARD her playing cello on shows such as American Idol, America’s Got Talent, How I Met Your Mother, and The Voice, among others. She’s also been out on the road with Josh Groban as the cellist on the “Straight to You” tour.
Music Begins with Family from a Young Age
Murphy came from a musical family and began playing cello around the age of nine while growing up in Chicago. She participated in the Chicago Youth Symphony and found her passion in performing in string quartets. It was after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in Cello Performance that she found herself at a crossroads. She stayed in Chicago for a bit and took some major orchestra auditions. What she really wanted to do was play in a great string quartet, but she wasn’t content with the current repertoire they were performing. After some more thinking, and some advice from her mentors, she decided to take the plunge and move to Los Angeles, and try and make it as a freelance musician.
She Took the Plunge and Moved to LA
Murphy acknowledges that there are a ton of unknown factors to ‘making it’ and good timing and luck is involved in everything. After living in Los Angeles for less than a year, she took a job through the AFM Local 47 Musician’s Union and performed with Gwen Stefani at a fundraiser. On this job, she had the creative license to slightly change some of the works on the program, and had the opportunity to arrange a new part for the strings. This was a pivotal moment for her. Even though she was interested in composing, the composition program at Northwestern was only for classical music, and didn’t explore this type of writing. This opportunity expanded her skill set as well as her passion, which then lead to more opportunities down the road.
From Classical to Pop
As Murphy expanded her work with popular and contemporary music, she also continued to act as a substitute in orchestras. Murphy states that that’s how musicians get names and that networking is a huge part of success. It leads to more and more work, both in the classical world and in the contemporary world.
About 5 years ago, Murphy was playing in a string quartet, performing new and contemporary music, and having young composers write music for the quartet. Murphy’s husband, Stevo Theard, is a musician as well and has a background in jazz and pop music. He began writing music for the group that was well received. The quartet was performing in varied venues, including Los Angeles Community College, retirement homes, hotels and cafes, etc. This allowed the group to touch diverse demographics and get the word out about their compositions. Eventually, the writing expanded to some expanded instrumentation and genres, creating a fusion of cultural influences that include classical, jazz, funk, tango, and many more. They dubbed this project the Sun Sol Orchestra. Their recent album was just released April 28th, 2015.
Taking the Right Opportunity at the Right Time
Freelance work leads to some decision-making. When Murphy received the offer from Josh Groban to go on tour, there was some considerations that had to be made. She would be out of Los Angeles for quite some time and had to put some independent projects on hold while she was gone, particularly the Sun Sol Orchestra, which was a disappointment. Murphy strives to consider artistic decisions when she receives offers, not just the financial impact of the job. She had worked with Groban before, and had always wanted to go on a tour. Additionally, she would have the opportunity to work with a pared down set consisting of a string quartet, which was of particular interest to Murphy. She had always wanted to go on tour, and this was the right opportunity that came up at the right time.
“Go to a ton of concerts. Reach out to different musicians. Everyone’s career path is unique and has a different way to get to their career”.
When asked about what advice she would look back and give to undergraduate self, Murphy hesitates. She explains that she’s imagining young people reading this article and completely alternating their plans based upon her advice. And that awareness goes back to her whole point: she wants young musicians to have an open mind. “Go to a ton of concerts. Reach out to different musicians. Everyone’s career path is unique and has a different way to get to their career”.
Formal Education in Classical Music
Murphy stresses the importance of a formal education in classical music. She’s confident that her training created the foundation for her to be just as successful with classical music repertoire as in popular repertoire. Ultimately, everyone has a different experience and will have to try different things to reach their individual goals. For some, a Master’s degree and additional formal training in the music field is the way to go. Murphy chose a different path that has lead to both a satisfying and successful career.
Author Christine Witmer serves as the Director of Education and Community Engagement with the Pasadena Symphony Association. Christine graduated from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music with a degree in Music Management. A trained classical saxophonist, Christine is a member of the North American Saxophone Alliance as well as an alumni member of Sigma Alpha Iota, a professional women’s music fraternity.