I checked. I'm not the only person who has struggled to learn this skill. Entire books have been written about it.
Yesterday, on a quick break between students, I returned a call from someone whose name I didn't recognize. I explained that I had a student arriving soon.
"Perhaps you should call me back when you have more time?" she asked.
Not a good sign since she hadn't even told me who she was or what she wanted.
The bottom line was this: She'd donated an auction item of a fancy concert and fancy dinner at her big fancy home and was looking for someone to play said fancy concert. She barely told me what the charity was, but thought that I might be willing to play the fancy concert. She'd gotten my name from a former student. Well, actually, her friend had gotten my name from a former student. She didn't actually know my student. There was something about someone knowing someone from church. I don't think she knew who I was or what I did.
The concert date was flexible - any time this summer or early fall.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm not taking on any new commitments right now. My summer schedule is completely full."
"Maybe we could do it in the fall?" she suggested warmly.
"No," I said.
"Well, maybe we could pay you something," she offered earnestly. "Would that make a difference?"
"No," I replied.
"Because maybe we could pay you something," she repeated.
"No," I repeated.
The strange part in this exchange was that someone had already donated services and thought that mine should be the ones they had donated. And I'm pretty sure that she had no idea that she had done anything other than try hard to do something good. I'm sure it's a lovely charity and I'm sure that she will host a lovely event.
As musicians people will always want our services. We have something to give and we should give it if and when we want to. We should be paid when we want to. (Almost always.) And we get to make the choice about which is which.
Sometimes I do donate my services. This afternoon I'm accompanying a young singer for a video audition. Last season I did a benefit concert for the San Francisco Girls Chorus.
But I also say no to almost everything I'm asked to do. I have to, or I wouldn't be able to keep a roof over our heads. I wouldn't have time to teach a lesson. If I accepted every student or took every speaking engagement I wouldn't have time to do the things I think I'm best at. Even if you're not as established as I am, you're probably asked to do all kinds of things.
"Could you please accompany Jane on her trumpet performance at All State? You'll do such an amazing job!"
Or perhaps, "Could you possibly teach my neighbor's little kid, Tommy? He's really smart and I know you'd like him. They can't pay you, of course, because well they just can't, but I think you two would really get along."
The key is saying "Yes" to the things you want to do. Donating your services only when you want to - to a cause, organization or person that you support.
Sometimes, and probably more and more often as you get more experience, people will do goofy things like donate your services without asking you. And you get to say no. Because "no" is always an option. Learning to say it with grace and persistence is an art form. Start practicing it now.