Playing Piano For A Living: Everything You Need To Know

From playing background music in restaurants to staging full concerts, pianists can make a living with their passion and skill with the instrument. Keep reading this article and discover the ins and outs of playing piano for a living. 

How Much Do Piano Players Make?

First, let’s talk about money. How much do pianists make? This all depends on the type of gigs that the pianist does and how much they play::

  • Concert pianist earnings can gross up to $50,000 a year. If touring or holding concerts earnings will depend on ticket sales.
  • Pianists can also play regularly for churches: weddings, funerals, choir rehearsals, etc. on average, these can pay anywhere from $50 to $200 per gig.
  • Pianists can play for production pit bands and local or touring bands. These gigs will include rehearsals ($50 – $100) and shows ($150 – $1000). 
  • Pianists can also work for studios and create songs with an artist with day rates of $150 to $500.
  • Many pianists rely on piano background gigs, playing in hotel lobbies, bars, or restaurants. The pay for this type of gig goes from $100 to $300 per show.

Of course, these numbers are based on the average working pianist. It is entirely different for the top concert pianists. With just one concert, they can get up to 80% of ticket sales which can result in six-figure earnings in a year. 

A Quora author perfectly sums up just how much famous concert pianists can earn:

“I’ve heard that the going rate for the top pianists is $80,000 per night. I’ve also heard that exceptions to this are Uchida, who charges $60,000 and Pollini, who charges $100,000. This was from a friend who says he investigated the matter thoroughly. He says that if you consider how many concerts they play in a year, they make about five million dollars a year.”

[Source: Quora]

Do you need a degree to be a professional piano player?

The simple answer is: no, a degree isn’t required. However, in the field of piano playing, there are some jobs or employers that require a degree in music:

  • Music teacher
  • Concert pianist
  • Classical pianist

About 57% of pianists have a bachelor’s degree, while about 15% have a master’s degree.It should be noted that a degree isn’t required in order to succeed, but it will help. Getting the right degree will provide the following things:

  • Correct instruction
  • Many connections
  • Extensive exposure

Getting these will help an aspiring professional piano player get a major head start in his or her career. 

Many music enthusiasts and music students agree with this,

“In the world of playing, classical pianists usually have at least a Masters and most have some level of post graduate study whether at a university or in (very expensive) private instruction from a recognized artist.”

[Source: Quora]

“No, you do not need a degree to be successful, but the cards are stacked against you if you don’t earn one in this era. Not only do you get a complete musical education in a conservatory or collegiate program, but you get to hear the progress and difficulties of fellow students almost daily. Most importantly, if you attend a prestigious school, your piano teacher will probably possess the connections in the profession to help you with recommendations after you graduate.”

[Source: Quora]

While some say that a degree isn’t required, except in certain situations:

“You don’t need a degree if you just want to play at professional level for concerts, parties, weddings, and etc. However, I have not seen any serious concert pianists who doesn’t have a college degree.”

[Source:Quora]

“You won’t need a degree (unless you’re looking for a teaching job) but the chances are you WILL probably have to win a major competition to get any serious attention in the classical field. Unless you have some connections.”

[Source: Quora]

What type of jobs can piano players get?

Performing isn’t the only occupation for a pianist. Professional piano players can work different jobs in the music industry:

  1. Music Teacher
  2. Music Therapy
  3. Accompanist for:
    1. Church services
    2. Choirs
    3. Orchestras
    4. Local and touring bans
    5. Pit bands 
  4. Composer
  5. Piano Technician
  6. Youtuber

Professional piano players do not need to limit themselves to performing. An accomplished pianist can do a variety of jobs. 

Where are Piano jobs advertised?

A piano player looking for jobs can go to these websites that post classified ads:

  1. Gumtree Jobs
  2. Jora
  3. Musical Chairs
  4. Seek
  5. Indeed

Looking for jobs is easy with these websites as filters can be used to sift through the available jobs. Other than using the internet, some employers may advertise through:

  • Classified ads in local newspapers 

Newspapers that report on the ongoing trends and happenings of the music industry are likely to have an ads section with jobs for piano players

  • Recruitment agencies

Piano players can join agencies that specialize in the music industry, to find lucrative jobs.

  • Social media

Social media is a powerful recruitment tool that most employers use today. Piano players can search on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for job postings.

  • Word-of-mouth

This is where connections come into play. Pianists looking for jobs can connect with anyone in their community for job vacancies or possible work experience opportunities.

How Can I Become a Lounge Pianist?

A lounge pianist is someone who:

  • Anonymously plays in the background of lounges, hotels, bars, restaurants, clubs, private parties, etc.
  • Has a large repertoire of songs covering different genres; show tunes, classical music, movie songs, and pop music.
  • Builds a connection with the audience by matching the general vibe of the room and taking requests.

According to several music enthusiasts and pianists these are the right choices to do when trying to make lounge playing a career:

  • Study all the music styles but concentrate on your favorite styles and songs

“Study all styles as much as you can. Just about anything goes with cocktail piano, the more variety the better…concentrate on your favorites so that you enjoy playing it. Good to learn some classical as well as to play by ear. Learn the common jazz chord progressions/Circle of 5ths”

[Source: Piano World Piano Forums]

  • Expand your repertoire

“Have at least 100 or 150 songs in your repertoire. Everything from old standards… Beatles tunes, a few show tunes. Make sure that you have something from every decade… rock songs (Doors, Pink Floyd, etc). You need to have a deep repertoire to play to the crowd. Depending on the audience, you change your set list.”

[Source: Music Player Forums]

  • Get comfortable with playing before an audience

“I think its very important to start getting comfortable playing for an audience. For many musicians it is a different experience to play at home for themselves vs playing outside for an audience.”

[Source: Piano World Piano Forums]

  • Start training your improvisation skills

“I would strongly recommend that you start improvising right now. By improvising, I mean sitting down at the piano and just playing by ear, with no concern for theoretical niceties, or whether you are doing things the right way or not.”

[Source: Piano World Piano Forums]

Is being a Lounge Pianist The Same as being a Cocktail pianist?

Yes, it means the same thing. Both terms refer to a job where the pianist plays in the background of hotels, bars, lounges, or clubs and helps set the ambience of the room.

Do piano skills help you get other jobs?

Aside from performing, having piano skills can help pianists get other jobs like: 

  • Voice Coach

This job will require pianists to know singing techniques, too. It isn’t such a far jump from piano playing.

  • Piano Technician

A job like this requires practical and technical knowledge of how a piano works.

  • Composer

Pianists with a creative bent can exercise their skills by making music. They can either sell their music or make a living as a studio musician, working with other artists to make music.

  • Youtuber

Many musicians show their skills by establishing their own Youtube channels and uploading their own compositions or covers. This will also help establish an audience base and will create work opportunities for pianists.