A Day In The Life

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Musician: Dave Hiltebrand

Dave Hiltebrand always knew he would be a professional musician. Here, he talks about how he has built a career — which includes a national tour with “Jersey Boys,” co-writing hit songs and building his own studio — and explains the value of sincerity and an open mind.

JMA: How did you get started in music? Did you always want to play professionally?

DH: My dad is a professional musician; he had been in the corporate world for most of his career and, in his mid-60s, he became the musical director of a church. My grandfather was a trumpet player, and my brother is a professional musical theater actor.

JMA: It’s great that you had role models in your family. Were they supportive of your choice to skip the 30-year corporate stint and go for a career in music?

DH: We had a lot of support growing up. That’s something I am really thankful for; I didn’t have to fight my parents to do what I loved. We had parents who understood — my mom was cautious about the pitfalls of that kind of world, but I was raised well. I know other people who had to fight to prove the worth and seriousness of a career in the arts.

JMA: What did you study, and what do you do today?

DH: I have a degree in jazz studies and commercial music and have been working in the industry full-time since graduating from college in 1998. I play piano, bass and guitar and work as a composer. Over the years, I have done a lot of studio work, live performing with various groups locally and nationally, and songwriting. Most recently, I was on the road with “Jersey Boys for 22 months. That was definitely a departure, but it was a great job. I didn’t want to live permanently on the road, but it was a great phase of my career.

JMA: What appealed to you about a career in music when you were starting out?

DH: This career chose me. Music was such an important part of my life growing up and I knew I wanted to study music. I had romantic ideas about being a film composer — and I have done some work in that area — but I knew it was going to be a bit of a wayward path.

There are so many things I like to do in the context of music that I wanted to tie them together. I’ve been in a Latin band, played with The Chicago Children’s Choir and explored so many different facets of music that I feel close to. I don’t limit myself to one path. The way music is now, you have to be like water; you have to learn new skills and technology.

JMA: Do you feel like school prepared you for life as a working musician?

DH: What was missing from my education was access to business skills. What you don’t realize is that you become a mini corporation: You have a website and business cards and, as your career grows, your body of work becomes your resume. The extent of our business training was a manager from Guitar Center coming to talk to a class. Where was the copyright lawyer? I mean, that’s the stuff we needed to know because that’s where you make the money.

A lot of actually getting work is word of mouth, and you have to work to build your reputation and learn how to network. Jobs often come from a phone call because someone recommends you. You never know who you will play with or who will hear you so you have to be consistently great and follow up with people you meet.

JMA: In a business where who you know is really important, how do you make a genuine connection and network in a way that doesn’t come across as too self-interested? 

DH: It’s really about sincerity. My parents are great — from an early age they taught me to be honorable. I started college in Dayton, which had an OK music program, but not a great one. Early on, a music professor urged me to transfer if I really wanted to pursue music. So I called my dad right away and said, “My teacher said I need to transfer.” I could hear him nodding over the phone and then he said, “You’re in school to be a great musician, but also a well-rounded person who happens to be a great musician.”

So while I did transfer, his words stuck with me. Music doesn’t define me, and I am not willing to step on anyone’s toes or sell anyone out. My reputation as a person translates to how I approach the people I play with, and I am attracted to people who do business well. Certainly, over the years, I have sought out people that I admire and wanted to work with and networked to get into those circles. So while there have been calculated moves, they were not schmoozy or fake. I like to work with people who keep good company. Networking is really about using your radar and hoping that you come off as sincere and honorable.

JMA: In the beginning, what made you nervous about a career in music?

DH: Anyone doing freelance anything in a quiet room by himself will relate to the peaks and valleys — and there are valleys between the peaks. During those valleys, you question everything, but I always had a strong inner voice telling me that this was going to work out.

I never dreamed of being a rock star, and that’s fine for people who do — I always wanted a balanced life. The reality is that there’s no script. Only looking back does my career start to make sense and can I see how the dots have all connected. I grew the most during all of those valleys. It’s an odd thing for some people, but it’s exciting to me to be in the valleys or coming out of them. I would rather be there than on a straight line working toward something that I don’t care about. 

JMA: As someone comfortable with the ups and downs, what do you think about today when it comes to career planning and longevity?

DH: The contract with “Jersey Boys was great. I was able to join two unions and start a retirement account because they made contributions for me — and I can continue to contribute.

The stable paycheck was great, but in the true tradition of a freelance person, I eventually quit that job. I could have stayed out on the road for multiple years, but going back to my dad’s advice, my whole life isn’t music. Dating and having family life was impossible living in hotels, and those things meant more to me than the paycheck. That job allowed me to come home, invest in studio space and work on taking my career to the next level.

Today, I am rooted in Chicago. I felt a lot of pressure to move to LA and I had several friends who moved and have done very well there, but every time I got close it didn’t feel right. Once when I was out there, I met with some of the biggest film composers in the business and I found that as I was talking to them, I didn’t ask about film scoring at all. I asked lifestyle questions and learned it was competitive and crazy — my gut told me that wasn’t the move.

JMA: What do you love about your career?

DH: I love the unknown. I have learned to embrace the things I’m afraid of. Even though there are times I like knowing what’s next, there’s a thrill in improvising — both in my career and musically. I am more comfortable making things up than playing someone else’s music or recording something exactly. I write pieces on the spot or score a moment. I like not knowing what’s around the corner.

I also love networking and connecting the dots and looking back and saying that person got me a big break — and then being able to help someone else meet the right person because I understand how much it really means. 

JMA: What has been the most surprising thing about a career in music?

DH: The whole thing has been a surprise. I’m always meeting incredible people who bring me new energy; I thrive on meeting new people. The older I get, the less I know. I like that.

I am keeping my mouth shut a little more and accepting that there is a lot of mystery in how all of this works and seeing what could be a life-changing spark. The joy isn’t just playing the music — the human interaction is everything.

JMA: What is the hardest thing about your career? 

DH: It’s lonely. I love solitude, but I spend a good majority of my life working on my own. The hard part is trying not to compare yourself to other people — I thought I would be married and family-bound in my 20s, but this schedule isn’t the best prescription for family life. When you want certain levels of stability — but also thrive on instability — achieving balance is really hard.

JMA: What does your best workday look like?

DH: I love going to work in my studio space. It’s kind of Zen-y and chill. It’s funny because I have started to turn my life into a day job a little bit — even though that’s exactly what I avoided for my whole career. Having my piano and gear out of my house is really nice and I don’t think I could go back to living and working in the same space. I like not eating a meal and seeing my work stuff.

JMA: What’s the salary range for a musician?

DH: The moderate years, you might expect to make $40,000 - $50,000, and in the good years it might be closer to $70,000. A really good year might be $140,000. The salary range is really wide. Music teachers can make $30,000 - $100,000, depending on lots of factors. Some years I have royalty checks and perform a lot, some years I don’t. As with any arts profession, a musician’s salary is an across-the-board question mark, but I know a lot of people who make a solid living in the arts — contrary to what we’re told, it is possible.

JMA: What’s the bottom line about a career in music?

DH: The arts fields are so colored by expectations of failure. You don’t go to law school thinking that you won’t make it as a lawyer. It’s a poisonous mentality and we already have enough insecurity as human beings.

It’s unfortunate in arts schooling that people graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and no idea how to make a living. Artists leave school with no idea what they are worth, so we take anything and it does feel like a privilege to be paid to play, but then it devalues the entire system. A doctor never graduates from medical school not knowing what to change for services.

Dave Hiltebrand has composed music for Nike, Allstate, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Rust-Oleum, The Nate Berkus Show, The Big Ten Network and the feature film “Fallen Souls.” He spent two years as bassist and "Thug" with “Jersey Boys” Broadway Second National Tour. 

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