5 Traits of a Professional Musician

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(This article was written by Cameron Mizell and originally appeared in MusicianWages.com)

photo credit: mdiocuh galeals

Being a musician is awesome. It’s almost a crime that people are allowed to play music for a living. But like crime, music doesn’t usually pay. To get the gigs that pay, and keep getting them, musicians need to exude a high level of professionalism that is often a lot less glamorous than the sexy life of a rock star. While these qualities might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many prima donnas out there don’t get it.

1) Follows directions well.

Because most musicians make a living playing music for other people, they have to be good at doing what those people want. If that sounds vague, it is. Whether you’re hired to play a wedding, write a jingle, perform as a sideman, be a studio musician, be a pit musician on Broadway (or your local community theater), you have to be good at taking directions.

More often than not, those directions are poorly communicated by people that don’t know music, but a professional musician knows how to translate any kind of instruction quickly, without getting frustrated, and make the client happy. Other times you’re getting quick directions from a music director that knows exactly what she wants, and your ability to adapt quickly is key. These are one way communications where there’s either no time to ask questions. Performing well in this type of scenario will get you recommendations and ultimately more work.

2) Well organized.

In a nutshell, keep a calendar and learn how to tell time. There’s nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than tardiness. In a world of great players scraping together $50 gigs to make ends meet, schedules are usually both busy and erratic. Everyone is trying to squeeze a rehearsal in before teaching a lesson and then get to a gig later that night. But if you can’t keep track of everything and be where you need to be on time, you’ll lose work. Plain and simple.

Additionally, you will probably need to keep track of a large amount of material. Many sidemen play in multiple bands and have to learn both original music by songwriters that hire them, and cover songs for weddings or corporate gigs. Storing all this music in your head gets easier with practice, but in the beginning you’ll need to learn how to organize it. Matt Baldoni, a successful and very busy freelance guitarist, wrote an article on learning music quickly and efficiently.

There’s a saying among musicians that goes something like this:

An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

3) Good communication skills.

When dealing with people that don’t know anything about music and not much more about the business, you have to be able to lead most of the conversation. Offer suggestions, draw up contracts, and know how to say what you want without coming off as brash or greedy. Don’t be too proud to ask questions.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll be dealing with other musicians. Show up to the first rehearsal with the music prepared. If it’s your gig or you are the music director, make sure your music is written neatly or created in a program like Finale or Sibelius. Make sure the sheet music communicates the road map of the tune clearly (repeats, coda, etc.). If you expect the other musicians to learn from a CD or MP3s, make sure they have the proper tracks and are aware of any key changes or cuts that are not on the recordings. These things will make the first rehearsal run as smoothly as possible.

4) Plays well with others.

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised. Not only should you be able to play your butt off, you should be able to tone it down and play what’s called for in the music. Stereotypically speaking, guitar players are notorious for turning their amps up too loud and never shutting up. Singers zone out when they’re not singing and miss their entrances. Drummers are too loud. Horn players don’t listen to each other and sound sloppy as a whole section. This is all Music 101, but it’s often over looked.

While it’s very important to nail your solo, it’s more important to blend in with the ensemble or make the soloist sound better. Playing tastefully and in the appropriate style will get you more calls than being able to shred.

5) Prepared for the job.

Ultimately, the big difference between a professional and everyone else is preparation. This is the same in any field. A professional salesman is expected to know his product. A professional marketer is expected to know her target audience. A professional custodian is expected to know what kind of cleaner to use on what surface. Likewise, a professional musician is expected to show up for the gig with the right instruments, dressed appropriately, and prepared to nail the music. Let me repeat part of that. A professional musician dresses appropriately. Whatever the gig, make sure you know what to wear. Flip flops are probably a bad idea unless a grass skirt is involved.

In summary, if you want to establish yourself as a professional musician, step back and evaluate these five qualities. Music is a highly competitive field, and mastering your instrument is simply the first step to becoming a working musician. For those that want to take their craft to the next level, the thing that sets professionals apart from the rest is what they can do beyond playing their instrument.

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