Musician, Composer, Recording Artist, Teacher
Mentor, Shelby Eicher
Shelby is a well-known musician who is a founding member of the National Fiddlers Hall of Fame and served as Education Director for 10 years. He grew up in a musical family in northwestern Ohio and was given a fiddle for his fifth birthday. Shelby was first taught by his grandmother and received formal lessons when he was eight. He first began performing with his family in a square dance band, Shelby Eicher and the Fulton County Sand Sifters. Shelby became interested in Bluegrass music during high school and after graduating went to Claremore Junior College, now known as Rodgers State College, in Claremore, Oklahoma, which had a program in Bluegrass. After graduating, he made his way to Nashville and landed a job playing with Jimmie C. Newman on the Grand Ole Opry and then joined country artist Mel McDaniels before getting a job with Roy Clark. He worked with Roy for fifteen years touring and recording and performing ten years on Hee Haw. Shelby then developed a career as a performer in his own right. He has constantly expanded his repertoire to include a variety of music besides Country and Western including Jazz, Western Swing, Cajun, Pop, Rock, Latin, Dawg, Americana and Gypsy Jazz. He also began teaching the fiddle, mandolin and guitar. By using Skype, he has worked with students from all over the world. In his article, Shelby points out the variety of career opportunities for a stringed instrument musician and the best schools to attend to help you prepare for a professional career. He also talks about the business aspects of being a professional musician and what you must do to build a successful career. His article will be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about the changes taking place in the music business and how a talented musician can build a successful music career.
I grew up in the small town of Wauseon, Ohio about thirty five miles West of Toledo. My grandmother had five great uncles that were fiddlers and I was given my first violin for my fifth birthday. The word fiddle is slang for violin and fiddle music is what most people associate with rural music whereas violin is considered to be Classical music. For the first few years I was taught to play the fiddle by my grandmother who played piano. But when I was eight, I began formal lessons where I also learned to read music and play by ear. Most fiddle players play by ear and I was one of the first generations of fiddle players who could do both. I later played in a square dance band with my father, mother and grandmother and took all the music classes I could in high school. But since the school did not have stringed instruments, I played saxophone. While I was in high school, my grandparents took me to a Bluegrass festival. I loved it and was captivated by the sound of the Blues that I heard in the music. After I graduated from high school, I studied at Claremore Junior College in Claremore, Oklahoma earning a music degree. They were a college at that time that had a program for Bluegrass and Western Swing; it was the Hank Thompson School of Country Music. After I graduated, some of the contacts I had made in college helped me get auditions that led to jobs in Nashville. These included playing on the Grand Ole Opry with Jimmie C. Newman and a stint with Mel McDaniels. After six months with Mel, a friend who was a steel guitar player told me that Roy Clark was looking for a fiddle player. I called, got an audition and was hired a month and half later. We immediately went on the road starting in Reno, Tahoe and Las Vegas. I worked with Roy Clark for a total of fifteen years including performing with him on Hee Haw for ten years. We also made appearances on the Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, the Grand Ole Opry and toured around the US, Canada, Bulgaria and Russia as well as playing on five of his albums.
Roy was a great person to work for and he gave me opportunities to step out front and perform individually. Here is a link to a video of me taken from the Roy Clark Live show in 1987:
When I left Roy, I decided that I wanted to explore music beyond the narrow commercial field. I felt that would give me the chance to be more artistic and choose the music I wanted to play. I had been composing music since I was a teenager and wanted an avenue to do more of it. I expanded my repertoire to include Jazz, Blues, Gypsy Jazz, Latin, Dawg, Americana, Rock and Western Swing and formed new and different sized groups with other musicians to be able to play a variety of music and music venues. Along the way I had opportunities to record with J. J. Cale, Leon McAuliffe, CowBop, Hank Thompson and do sound track work for a number of projects: Roy D. Mercer’s fishin’ report, Cowboys in Tallgrass (six part documentary) and two Treasures of the Gilcrease for the Gilcrease Museum. It was during this time I produced an “Old Time Fiddling” CD to connect what I was doing to my roots. The next project was “Dance of the Gypsies” which was all original compositions. A few years later I formed a great acoustic Jazz Quartet, Mischievous Swing, with two of my sons and we released a self-titled CD. The project I have for release next is a star studded Western Swing CD of the Tulsa Playboys with: Vince Gill, Roy Clark, Riders in the Sky, Wanda Jackson, Leroy Van Dyke, Becky Hobbs, David Frizzell and many more. Here are some of my groups along with a few videos:
- Mark Bruner and Shelby Eicher - 29 Ways -This video was produced from a TV show performance in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2008.
- Mischievous Swing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AATwATM1iB0
- Tulsa Playboys https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TOFHBZkLSk
- Cow Bop Route 66 Jam Session where I play my alto guitar on See You In My Dreams,
This expanded repertoire has given me an edge and allowed me to book a number of different gigs. I generally play about twenty times a month although it varies each week. I have played as little as three times a week or sometime eight or nine where I had gigs twice a day. Having this large repertoire has also helped me get jobs as a studio musician where you have an advantage if you are able to play a number of different styles. It is all kinds of work whether it’s Jazz at a cocktail party for a country club, at a restaurant playing Americana or Pop, a private event doing Country or Cowboy music or a Western Swing dance with the Tulsa Playboys, opening for Asleep at the Wheel at a big concert venue or in the studio recording tracks for a jingle or someone’s CD.
I also enjoy teaching new students and regularly work with between fifteen and twenty students teaching the fiddle, mandolin and guitar. Teaching is an area where Internet technology had changed things. With Skype, it is no longer necessary to be in the same place as your student. So I can now work with people all over the world.
The Business of Music
The large, commercial music business is based on singers who are promoted by large companies. It’s as much about the image/brand of an artist as it is the music. But the route for an instrumental artist that isn’t interested in producing another musical hamburger is a bit different. To make a living as a professional musician you have to separate what you need to do from what you want to do. There are many different ways to make a living as a musician. You could be a teacher (private or in a school), live performer with a commercial group, studio musician, film scoring, jingle work, writer, etc. It’s important to decide what kind of work you want to do and develop your career around the skills that will let you accomplish those goals. The career you start building is the one you’ll end up with. I was able to establish a reputation for myself working in the band with Roy Clark. When I went out on my own and formed my own groups, I used that experience and my expanded repertoire to allow me to perform more of the music I liked and music that I created. Based on that experience, here are the key things I feel you need do in order to be a professional independent musician:
Treat your Music like a Business
You are providing a service of music. Have a website, facebook page, business cards, the gear you need: instruments, amps, PA, cords, effects extension cords, a cart, stands, lights, etc. and be on time.
Build a Network of Contacts
I began in college building a network of contacts and have continued to do this throughout my career. A lot of the opportunities in the music business are not advertised and the only way you will learn about them is if you do a good job and are referred by someone you worked for or worked with. It is also much easier to get auditions or book your bands if these gigs come to you from referrals.
Build your repertoire
This includes not just adding to the number of songs you can play but also learning to play a wide variety of music and learning fifty or more songs in different genres like Jazz, Country, Bluegrass, Pop, etc. If you’re interested in playing Pop music, it doesn’t make much sense learning a bunch of Bluegrass material unless you find something interesting that is usable. Many times you don’t know where something will lead you until you take the opportunity and experience it. In the end, you’ll learn a lot and you’ll grow as a musician and an artist.
Make Yourself Accessible
I have a number of websites/facebook pages for myself as well as my groups with e-mail contacts and my phone number. It is important to return phone calls promptly. You would be surprised how many musicians lose opportunities because they don’t return phone calls in a timely manner.
Always Look Appropriate
I always dress for the occasion or venue. I always ask my client what is appropriate attire? What are guests wearing? You would be surprised to see how many musicians don’t dress appropriately for their gigs. Ask the person who has hired you about what you should wear. If they say “business casual”, I will ask, “slacks and a dress shirt?” “Should I wear a tie or jacket?” You should look like you have been hired to provide a musical service.
Who’s managing your business?
Who’s booking, roadie, sound person, chart writer, wardrobe, MC, etc.? You probably are in many instances and you’ll have to wear each hat at some time.
How to Prepare Yourself for a Career as a String Musician
If you want to become a professional string musician, I feel that getting a college degree is important. First knowing music theory helps you learn the fundamental elements of music such as rhythm, harmony and form. While all are important, I believe that rhythm is the most important. Knowing music theory gives you the tools to understand how music works. If you are unable to play by ear, you have a piece of the puzzle missing. All of these elements allow you to then unleash your creativity when you compose and play. College is a great resource where you can often make the contacts that will lead to jobs when you graduate. Here are the two best colleges in my opinion for a string musician:
- Belmont University School of Music in Nashville
- Berklee School of Music in Boston
Both schools are well recognized in the music industry where there are scholarships for people who have shown ability as an undergraduate. The better musicians graduating from these schools are usually working right after graduation.
I love what I do. Nights when I am not playing a gig, I am playing music at home or working on an arrangement for a future show. I am grateful for the opportunities that music has given me to meet a lot of wonderful people and provide for my family. But understand that being a professional musician is competitive. You not only have to first establish yourself and build a reputation, you have to continue to grow your repertoire if you want to stay competitive. You also have to build a strong network of contacts in the industry to be able to get the referrals that are key to professional success in the music industry. If you have good musical ability, are creative and willing to develop the business skills necessary to be commercially successful, then being a professional musician can be a good career choice for you. All of this being said, you never know what door may open and take you someplace you that wasn’t planned. Be prepared to accept unexpected opportunities and good luck. I’ll look for you on a gig!
US Bureau of Labor Statistics for Musicians and Singers
The BLS last salary survey in 2014 showed that 38.900 people were employed as full time musicians and singers in the US.
The median wage estimate was $24.16 per hour with the top 10% earning over $66.11 per hour and the bottom 10% earning $8.98 per hour.
Private sites that recruit just musicians show higher average pay scales of about $35 per hour. Musician salaries have risen more than the national average for the last five years.