Advice For aspiring pro musicians

The following are some questions that a young, aspiring jazz guitarist asked and the answers I gave. I thought this exchange might be beneficial for other young people who are contemplating a career in music: 

  • What kind of educational requirements are generally accepted for people attempting to become pro musicians?

This can vary quite a bit. The bottom line is pretty much always going to be: Can you play? Can you do what's required for the gig? I think, in the classical field, more weight is placed on educational background. Someone who has graduated from a highly respected conservatory may receive more attention initially than someone who went to community college. In jazz, and to some extent in popular music, the extra status of a music education might carry some weight. A few schools are well-respected in the jazz community, and some employers or band-leaders might give more of a chance to a Berklee or University of Miami graduate than to someone with no educational background. However, this depends on the the individual; some people tend to feel that education stifles creativity and might actually be prejudiced against someone who's been through music school. I'm a graduate of the University of North Texas and the University of Miami, and I've noticed that when I meet another musician who has been to one of these schools, it gives me a bit of an automatic "in" with them. 

  • Also, what kind of education would you recommend for a high-schooler before starting college?

If you haven't already, I definitely recommend finding a knowledgeable private teacher to get you started. If you plan to go to music school, it may be helpful to find someone who went to school who can let you know what to expect. It would be even more helpful to find (if you can) someone who went to the school you want to go to. Music school has become more and more the norm for aspiring jazz musicians, but it's not for everyone. I know several excellent musicians who flunked out or dropped out of music school. One of the best parts of my university experience was the opportunity to be around a bunch of other people who were working toward the same goals I was. I learned as much from my classmates as I did from my teachers. Plus, in school, there will be a sense of camaraderie and even friendly competition that can be very inspiring in this formative time in your life. 

  • What kind of education does a musician undergo after their formal studies have concluded? 

For a musician, education never ends. That's one of the great things about being a musician; you never reach the "end of the line." You can always improve. 

  • What are the advantages and rewards of being a musician as well as the disadvantages or hardships. 

The biggest reward of being a musician is that you (presumably) are doing something you truly love and are passionate about to make your living. I personally believe that music is a great spiritual and healing force and feel that my role in society is very important. It brings me a lot of happiness to think that I may be helping to enlighten and bring others to a higher level of being through my music.

However, there can be some pretty major disadvantages to being a musician, including: 

  • relatively low pay (for most musicians, unless you're a "star") 
  • most of the time, no steady income or guarantee of work (you sometimes don't know where next month's rent is coming from) 
  • lack of respect for your job from people who aren't musicians (people who don't realize how many hours of work it takes to learn an instrument, think you must play just for fun, don't realize that you might not actually enjoy playing "Uptown Funk" three times in one night, etc...)
  • Many musical artists aren't very business-savvy, so people who are in positions of power (club owners, booking agents, record companies, etc...) may try to take advantage of them.

Also, keep in mind that, although you are an artist, the moment you start playing for money what you do becomes a business, so art has to, by definition, take a back seat to the bottom line. Most of the folks who run the music business are going to look at you strictly as a potential income producer... "Can this guy get people in the door and buying drinks?" "Can this girl sell records?"

  • What are some challenges that one would face on the road to his dream of being a pro musician? 

Many people aspire to be "stars" and/or professional musicians, so you will face lots of competition at all levels. You may become discouraged when you feel like things aren't going your way, particularly when you see others who you may feel are lesser musicians but who have achieved commercial success. Keep in mind that music is an art form, and there are no absolutes. It's easy to become bitter and discouraged, but to me, the secret to being happy as a musician is to never forget the wonder you felt the first time you picked up your instrument. Also, remember that no one ever guaranteed you the right to become successful or even to become a professional musician at all.  Every day that you get to play music for your living is a gift.  The vast majority of people who have ever lived never had the option to do something they loved for their profession.

  • Please tell me about your personal experiences, about how you reached your personal level of success, as well as what influenced you to decide to begin this lifelong journey. 

Since I first heard The Beatles at the age of thirteen, I was hooked. I knew from that moment that I wanted to play music for a living. I started out interested in rock, then became interested in jazz and classical music and decided to go to music school. After music school, I basically was thrown out into the real world and had to start making a living. I have very gradually, over the years, become established where I live and developed enough of a reputation among my fellow musicians that I get called for enough work to make a comfortable living. Making a living as a musician is very dependent on word of mouth and reputation among the musical community. Some musicians are very aggressive and have a knack for business, but many don't. The ones who do have that business acumen tend to become good at self-promotion and get work that way. I am actually a very shy and relatively reclusive person and have pretty much had to rely on word of mouth, so I probably fall toward the opposite end of the spectrum. 

  • Are there any general requirements that employers would look for in hiring musicians? Please be specific, such as X years of college, X studies, etc. 

Once again, there will rarely be a time when you'll be asked to show your educational credentials at an audition or when you get called for a gig. The proof is in the pudding, as one might say. If you want to teach (or have to teach to supplement gig income as many musicians do), that's when a degree becomes a necessity. If you want to teach K-12 music, you can major in music education in college and get a job with a bachelor's degree, but a master's degree would make you more competitive in that field. To teach at a college or university, you'll need a masters degree or even a doctorate. With that said, many accomplished jazz musicians who don't have degrees, but who are well known and respected in their field, get jobs at universities as something like an "artist in residence," which is basically just a teacher who doesn't have a degree but who still has plenty to contribute. Something I heard a long time ago, which always stuck with me, is that one shouldn't become a professional musician unless you couldn't possibly imagine yourself doing anything else. For me, it was never really a question of "Will I be a musician?" I knew I had to and that there was no other choice for me. During rough financial times, I've actually tried to get other jobs and could never get hired doing anything else. I really don't think I'm cut out to be anything but a musician. 

  • How is the salary, and more specifically, how much do you make? 

Remember that most musicians are self-employed, so you make your own career.  Because of this, incomes can vary wildly.  I've made anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 a year, which is pretty low compared to the average income of someone holding a master's degree.  Again, don't get into this because you want to get rich; do it because you have an all-consuming love for it and because you can't imagine yourself doing anything else.

  • Where could I find more information as I try to find these things out? 

One of the reasons I decided to take the time to reply to these questions is that, when I was a teenager, I always wished that someone would have been able to give me this information. The "how" of becoming a musician always seemed like some big secret or mystery that no one could answer for me. I'm sure that, now, you can find thousands of videos on YouTube laying out all the details for you.

  • What sort of qualifications did you possess as you started out, and what qualifications would you recommend for someone starting out...if different. As you progress, how do these qualifications change with your experience? 

Though my answers were primarily aimed at an aspiring jazz/pop player, I think they could apply somewhat to almost any style. Also, because as a musician you kind of have to invent your own career instead of getting hired full-time by some company to "musician" from 9:00 to 5:00 every day, the more versatile you are, the more potential you'll have to make money. The more different styles you can play, the more gigs you can get; though jazz is my first love, I have done gigs in styles from classical to country. Also, you can teach, if that appeals to you. If it does, try to get a master's degree. If you are a good reader and have developed good ear-training skills, you can hire yourself out for studio sessions. You can also learn other music-related skills such as recording engineering/producing, live audio production, instrument repair, and so forth. Well-rounded, well-prepared, versatile musicians will always have a place in the music business.