I once was invited to be part of a panel discussion at the International Trombone Association’s annual convention. The subject was orchestra opportunities for trombonists. When I arrived at the venue, I looked at the sessions and concerts that had gone on in previous days, and I saw that a sackbut quartet had given a concert the night before. (The sackbut is a precursor to the modern trombone and dates from the fourteenth century.) I thought to myself, “What is that all about? Those guys must get together once a year and haul out their sackbuts and jam. They can’t make any money at it!” I voiced this thought to the trombonist friend of mine who invited me to the conference, and to my surprise at the time (but not now in retrospect) I learned that those guys are in demand all over the world! They were on their way to Europe right after the conference. They are doing their own thing. Their music is too specific to do it full-time in Des Moines or Denver or even New York City, but they apparently dominate the sackbut world market, and they do very well playing the music they love, on these old instruments, for lots of people.
Think about Bella Fleck or Jake Shimabukuro—banjo and ukulele virtuosi, respectively. They have taken their particular instruments and put them into musical contexts that were previously unimagined. The lesson for me is to do your thing, very well, and then figure out how to get to the audience that wants to hear you and is willing to pay for it. It’s not that big a stretch if you are very, very good.