Music Teacher's Helper Blog

The Savvy Musician and Music Teacher: building a creative career

David Cutler wants to help musicians succeed in today’s world.  An accomplished musician and composer himself, he has written one book to help musicians build a career and expand opportunities for income and outreach; and is working on a new book focusing on music teachers in particular.

The first book is called The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living & Making a savvy2Difference, and addresses a broad range of ideas relevant to musicians, such as how to create opportunity, how to make your work stand out, how to create supporting products, marketing yourself in today’s internet world, how to deal with the new paradigm for recording and selling music, how to better work with people, ideas for managing finances, and last but not least, musical ideas for improving your performance skills.

The new book he’s working on is called The Savvy Music Teacher, and seeks to aim music teachers towards an income in the $50,000 to $100,000 range, with vignettes of over 150 teachers – not well-known stars, but hardworking, typical music teachers – who have found ways to put together a workable and enjoyable career.  Cutler hastens to point out that the specific income range is all relative – what may seem a lot of money in one place may not be much in another.  But the book seeks to offer blueprints for helping readers craft sensible solutions that can add up to a good income.

Let’s take a look at some of Cutler’s ideas for musicians and music teachers, but first, who is David Cutler and where did he pick up on all these ideas?

What Do I Do With My Life?

Have you ever had the thought that despite all your training and abilities, music hasn’t exactly opened a door to the land of milk and honey?  Cutler faced this dilemma after having had excellent musical training at U. of Miami, Eastman School of Music, the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna, and just before going for his final degree at Indiana University.

One day, after having had many lively, in-depth musical discussions, he asked his mentor one simple non-musical question:  What do I do with my life?  He received a blank stare and a bland comment to the effect of, “You’ll be fine.”  Not exactly an inspiring answer.  In fact, it eventually set Cutler on the path of delving into ways to help himself, his colleagues, other musicians, teachers, students and eventually whole musical institutions find ways to proactively create meaningful and rewarding careers.

Multiple Income Streams

One of Cutler’s job titles tells the story in a nutshell.  He is Director of Music Entrepreneurship at the University of South Carolina.  And he clearly practices what he preaches.  At one point, he says, he calculated that he was earning his living through 24 different income streams.  He characterizes himself not just as a musician or music teacher, but as “a jazz and classical composer, pianist, educator, arranger, conductor, collaborator, concert producer, author, blogger, consultant, speaker, advocate, and entrepreneur.”  Using a colorful palette of success skills, Cutler breathes life into the careers of individual musicians and institutions.

In his new book Cutler seeks to identify how successful music teachers are making a good living for themselves.  When I spoke with him, his current list included seven different income streams that have proven most useful.  Some of the most common include lessons, classes, and musical events, but Cutler has found that creative music teachers often develop additional ways to share their talents and earn something for their efforts.  Some of these teachers lean toward independent work; others seek to join or create a group, such as a music school or company.

Cutler points out that being self-employed as a musician means running a small business, and yet musicians are generally not trained to be business people.  However, musicians do have the discipline, passion, and creative problem-solving skills to make a small business work.  Music schools may not teach business skills, but with a little attention in the right direction, musicians can learn what they need to know.

Going With the Flow

It’s important to keep adapting to the times.  We think of the arts as creative but often we see musicians play the same way, teach the same way, set up the same environment for lessons, recitals, concerts, and even wear always the same clothing, so we might be excused for asking, “where is the creativity?”  Cutler has written about how giants of industry from the past, such as the railroad, Borders bookstores, and record labels, were once the very definition of their respective industries, but then fell by the wayside as times moved on.  “Changing the rules changes the game,” writes Cutler.

Some of Cutler’s own methods were sketched out in a letter praising his 2007 Creative Teaching Award at Dusquesne University.  The letter describes him as having moved students beyond a sole focus on performance excellence to additional competencies required of professional musicians: collaborative learning, promotion and audience development, alternative kinds of presentations, and the integration of technology.


In addition to materials presented in his Savvy Musician book, and in his upcoming Savvy Music Teacher book, Cutler offers regular insights in his Savvy Musician blog.  Some of the recent entries include:

  • Why arts education matters:  a collection of video commentary by various experts and leaders in the arts, education and politics
  • Rethinking the model for arts and music education in higher education, showing the traditional model and an alternative approach
  • Thoughts on dreaming big:  big dreams often result in big results, even if not as big as the original dream
  • How musicians can make an effective website
  • Recommendations of books that can help musicians succeed in their careers

To explore these entries for yourself, here’s the link to the Savvy Musician website, which includes the blog and other resources.

In closing, here are a few quotes from David Cutler:

“Fan-funding methods are not the key to building a devoted audience. Quite the opposite: Building a devoted audience is the secret ingredient to fan-funding!“

About free downloads and other products:  “Leverage Free in order to earn income through other avenues.”

The digital age is “good for the Earth (without the need to manufacture physical products), for the music (much more is being heard by a greater variety of people than ever before), and for aspiring and midlevel artists (who now have a path to reaching audiences and disseminating their wares that never before existed).”

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]


  1. Kyle Cullen

    I’ll be adding those books to my xmas list and checking out his website. The link in the article doesn’t work by the way. I’m trying with the multiple streams of income. I have a couple books out. which is not only is great for an income stream but also sets me apart as an industry export amongst other local teachers that are ‘just’ local teachers. I have also had articles published in magazines. This is someone who was expected to fail English at school so if I can do it everyone can.

  2. Ed Pearlman

    @Kyle — thanks for alerting me, I have fixed the link now!

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