According to an old joke, there is just one way to get to Carnegie Hall: practice! Becoming a professional piano player does not necessarily require formal study, but it does require hard work and dedication to succeed in a highly competitive field.
Professional pianists play music of one or more genres. They may perform individually or as part of an ensemble. Performances might be live, in front of an audience, or in a recording studio. Some pianists write and arrange music for themselves and other musicians. Some pianists teach private lessons, or they may be part of the faculty at a college, university or conservatory.
Most professional piano players started taking lessons at a young age, sometimes as early as age 3. A piano teacher instructs students in reading music, which includes interpreting melodies, harmonies and rhythms. The teacher both demonstrates and observes students as they play scales, exercises and progressively complex pieces. A good teacher helps students develop a practice plan as well as to provide motivation and constructive criticism.
Depending on the type of music a professional piano player performs, formal education and a degree in music may not be necessary. Concert pianists, unlike those who perform in other venues, have undertaken rigorous classical training and reached a very high level of performance ability. Most have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in piano performance, and many have also earned graduate degrees.
The Chinese pianist Lang Lang , who won the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 12, was taking lessons and practicing six hours a day at the age of 5. Although Lang Lang is exceptional in both his ability and the rigors of his childhood practice routine, all concert pianists have dedicated themselves to many hours of practice on their instruments.
Professional piano players work in a variety of settings. Some perform in lounges or clubs, either solo, with a singer, or as part of a group. Some piano players work in recording studios as session musicians, meaning they are not a regular part of a band but contribute to the making of a particular song or set. Professional piano players find work on cruise ships, where nightly entertainment is always on offer. Some may find work with bands or orchestras that perform in any of a number of different kinds of venues, including theaters, dance clubs, houses of worship, reception halls and event centers.
Salary and Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks data and makes projections for all civilian occupations. Although there is no specific data for piano players, the BLS reports statistics for musicians and singers as a single job classification. The average reported salary for musicians and singers as of 2018 was $28.15 per hour. The professional pianist salary is difficult to gauge precisely since it depends on the individuals and the type of piano playing they do.
The jobs website ZipRecruiter reports that the average annual salary for a concert pianist is $39,588 per year, with a range of $11,000 to $121,000. Because it is difficult to make a living as a concert pianist, many professionals supplement their income by giving piano lessons or teaching at universities or conservatories.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that overall employment opportunities for the category of "musicians and singers" will grow about 6 percent a year through 2026, a rate that is as fast as average compared to all other occupations. The music business is highly competitive. Those who want to dedicate their lives to a pianist career must be dedicated to hard work and remain open to a variety of opportunities.