[This article was written by Dani Rabin of Marbin, a progressive jazz-rock band from Chicago.]
As part of my touring schedule with Marbin I get to teach a lot of clinics in universities all over the states. I was surprised to find out that the majority of music students are clueless about what they want to do after graduation. They know they want to be musicians, but they don’t fully comprehend what it actually means to be a musician. When pressed, they say they want to do a little of everything, but the truth is that it’s not possible — at least not at a high level. It takes different kinds of musicians with different skills to play original music, teach in a university, play jazz, play pop, play theater, compose music for film, or play in a wedding band, etc.
If you’re in the same place as most of these students, I have bad news and good news for you. The bad news is that every field in music is extremely competitive. The good news is that once you decide what exactly you want to do, you will have a big advantage on your way to success. Here are a few examples of musical career paths and some key points that you might want to consider when choosing the right one for you.
Being a part of a jazz scene
A jazz musician needs to know, by heart, as many standards as possible (hundreds). It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, most jazzers don’t rehearse and don’t decide on a set list in advance.
If you don’t know some of the tunes being called, then it doesn’t matter how great you play, you won’t get called back. You won’t believe how many times I’ve met musicians that consider themselves jazz musicians that can barely play ten songs without the realbook.
Weddings and corporate events
Being able to sing is a huge help in getting these kinds of gigs; looking dapper is very important too. Invest in a nice suit and dress shoes. If you don’t sing it’s important to play on an instrument present in many popular songs. It doesn’t matter how awesome you play on soprano sax, oboe, or french horn, it won’t be any help on a Bon Jovi song.
There are two important skills in theater. Reading and doubling. The more instruments you play the better. One song demands alto saxophone, a second, piccolo, and a third, bass clarinet. If you play moderately well on those three you’ll get hired even before Charlie Parker who is the best alto player in history. It’s the same principal if you don’t play a wind instrument. Bassists, for example, should play upright and electric, and learn how to slap, play fingerstyle, and with a pick.
You don’t need much education to teach private lessons or in a guitar store, but to teach at Juilliard you need at least a graduate degree, and a doctorate is even better. The school you went to also plays a big part in being considered for a teaching position.
Join a gym. Aerobics and weights. Many musicians I know play well enough to play Taylor Swift’s songs, but not many people can get this job. To play with a pop star you need to look and dress in a certain fashion. Here is the Facebook profile of Roy Kariok, guitarist for the Backstreet Boys.
The majority of original film scores these days are compiled with midi and samples. Most productions don’t want to rent a nice studio for a string quartet, pay four musicians, and then mix and master. A high quality midi pack is expensive, but necessary if that’s what you want to do. Getting this and a small home studio to record vocals is a good beginning.
Practice, find a band, write songs (at least three hours of material), record an album, and let’s go. In the beginning take every show you can – even if unpaid.
The rule of thumb I try to follow when booking is very simple: If the venue makes money, I want to make money, and if the venue is making money thanks to me then I want a bigger cut of the money. If you play an empty club don’t expect to make anything. Your job is to create a strong experience that draws people out. That’s the reason you’re hired.
One last thing that’s true for whatever direction you choose is to be available. If you get called for a wedding and you’re on the road touring they won’t call you again. When you have to teach jazz harmony 102 you can’t go on tour and miss half a semester. Every path is a full time job. Treat it seriously and you’ll be rewarded.
Oh, and here’s a recently released video of Marbin playing the song “African Shabtay” from our fifth album Aggressive Hippies: