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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  • This is not true. I've tried it to no avail, as have many fellow musicians along the way. All the successful musicians I've ever met are flippant characters who are generally unreliable, unpredictable, egotistic and wayward, but they make great music. No one really wants to listen to super-organized, career-minded hacks carrying around business cards and press kits and playing by the rules. That's not what it's all about.

    • Chris R. at CD Baby

      Really? Pardon me if your post is meant to be sarcastic, but in my experience as a producer, session-player, hired-gun, and band leader, I don't have time for people who are unreliable, no matter how talented they are. There are too many talented people playing and making music out there now to suffer egotistical, volatile fools. Sure, everyone is late to practice now and again. Occasionally, good players are forgiven for being under-prepared, but the minute it becomes habit, that is when I start going through my list of OTHER players.

      • Jynxlex

        so THAT’S why we’ve never heard of you except on CDBaby… derp…

  • There's a difference between the eccentric artist and the skilled professional musician, but even the eccentric types have a method to their madness. Those that lack a sense of professionalism tend to lack a number of the other traits of successful musicians.

  • I'm with you Chris R. I was the headman for a band for 10years so I know what you're saying.

  • Great article. Thanks for posting.
    In response to Jim Baron's comments, frankly, it sounds to me like you've never made a dollar playing music. I see what you're saying about musicians being egotistical, wayward, etc. but musicians I play with manage to check all that stuff at the door.
    I make a living as a trumpet player and vocalist. In the scenes I'm in, if the bass player shows up after downbeat, he may not be on the next gig. I've seen it happen. If the singer has too much of an attitude, the band leader can find someone else.
    The truth is, every successful musician I know wants to PLAY. So, how do they keep playing? They need gigs. To get and keep gigs, I think it is a must to be prepared, play well with others, have good communication skills, be well organized and be able to follow directions.

  • Ian S

    Here is a more pragmatic list.
    1. Drink and smoke responsibly
    2. Show up to rehearsals and gigs on time
    3. Practice your music before hand
    4. Have properly maintained gear and backups
    5. Return phone calls/text/emails immediately and consistently

  • #5 has driven me mad before! Good tips.

  • washburn1919

    the only job i ever wanted and the only job i ever had has been "bar entertainer". i heard someone [really good] do it when i was 12 and never wanted to do anything else. i've been at it for over 40 years. i work steadily and expect to be paid decently. when i was a kid, everyone told me that in the arts "you can make a fortune, but you can't make a living" it's not true . here's my rules :

    practice every day as if you're gonna never going to be allowed to play again if you don't (cause that's what's going to happen).

    be so reliable and professional that it's embarrassing to anyone who's not (which most people aren't : "the sound man's sound asleep, the light man's been out for days. the club owner and arithmetic have long since parted ways")

    work as if you're working (you ARE)

    play as if you're playing (if you're not having fun, the audience won't either)

    don't cop an attitude with the audience (if they're not there, YOU're not there)

    don't cop an attitude with the staff (you're one of them. you need each other. if you're not on each other's side, the gig is over)

    always always always always take care of your gear and have a spare EVERYTHING. there's no excuse for not having whatever tools you need to do the job even if something breaks (which it will. and often)

  • Amen!

  • TGB

    Some good points, both in the article and the comments. I'll say for myself, I am a mediocre musician, but I've worked thousands of gigs. My gear works, I know the songs, I work well with others, I'm not afraid to be supportive of the song. On time, with my instrument in tune. Man, it sure helps.