How to Become a Professional Musician
You may have asked yourselves this question after watching an amazing concert at Wembley or after talking to your favourite frontman on his return from a world tour. If you play the guitar, bass, keyboards or drums, sooner or later, you will think of starting a band and start having EXPECTATIONS. This is something that expectant mothers experience, only with the difference that their expectations end after nine months. But for aspiring musicians, it can last for years and in the most tragic cases, never end.
If you want to be a professional, i.e. make music for a living, think about a few things before you take that big step. I will try to outline a few questions and topics that you should consider before pursuing your dream job (or calling?).
The More I Practice, the More "Pro" I'll be
One of the most common misguided resolutions. You need to practice on the instrument, but you need to know what your goal is. Do you want to be the fastest guitar player in the world? Do you want to be a jazz virtuoso? Do you want to play the frantic runs of flamenco? Do you want to play weird rhythm patterns and complex harmonies? There is an endless number of possible goals. Think of some attributes with "best" at the beginning. They're very dangerous if you can't tame them right from the start. If you want to be the best at something, start in your street. Be the "best" in your neighbourhood, district, county, etc. Pick one specific area where you will be the ultimate master. If you're a metal guitarist and want to play insanely fast arpeggios and solos, pick one idol of yours and copy it perfectly. Learn all his tricks and then start experimenting and searching for your own identity.
First, you need to master the technique. And that, my friends, takes years. There is no shortcut. Being a master of your field really means spending the legendary 10,000 hours playing the instrument. But don't let that discourage you. You will enjoy those thousands of hours if you have a clear goal—what you want to achieve. Another example. Do you want to play jazz, funk, soul or R'n'B? Choose one genre—yes, just one—and study it thoroughly. A jazz guitarist or bassist must have a great knowledge of music theory and notes. Without that (unless you're George Benson or Django Reinhart) you just can't do it. Jazz, like any musical genre, has specific rules that must be honoured. But I don't want to discuss musical styles here.
Of course, great works of art always transcend categories and attempts at classification, but the FACT is that there are musical styles that require certain skills and techniques from instrumentalists and singers. Opera singers need to know the technique used to sing famous arias. A funky guitarist must know how to play chords and accompaniments in a way that just sounds "funky." So the path to excellence is through limiting your choices and setting a clear, simple goal. Within a week, I'll learn to play "Clear Message," within a month "Wonderwall" by Oasis and within a year "Enter the Sandman" (with the solo) by Metallica. Bam, straight to the point. No more strumming, strumming, waiting for inspiration and similar romantic notions. Mastering the technique is simply a job that requires regularity, discipline and commitment.
The Virtuoso Trap
If you've made it this far, you're not yet a virtuoso, but you've certainly mastered your instrument enough to expect a fee for your performance. However, you haven't made it to Carnegie Hall yet. How is that possible? A lot of excellent instrumentalists get stuck on solving technical issues, such as scaling, sweeping, slapping, tapping, shredding, etc. This is a mechanical activity where you learn to play specific techniques faster and faster. Nowadays, when you have manual and perfect instructional videos for everything, basically anyone can get to a high technical level of playing. Of course, being a virtuoso player requires an extra level of commitment, diligence and talent, so that's why the world isn't crowded with Malmsteens, Vais and Wootens.
Have you ever wondered why you need all these technical skills? Sure, you want to play bebop, modern jazz, experimental metal, progressive rock, djent, technical death metal or instrumental crossover. Um, now think again. Are these not alternative styles that interest a very limited audience? At gigs, you will find that the few people who listen to you are also musicians and do something similar to you. So they're not going to buy a CD or a T-shirt because that would make them fans and they're colleagues, comrades in arms.
Music focused on the technical side of things and the instrumental skills of the players will always suffer from a lack of true fans—i.e. people who don't actually understand music but just consume it. Fans love their chosen ones and will do anything to get to their gig and show their unlimited support. Fans buy CDs, t-shirts, and posters, give LIKEs on Facebook or YouTube and most importantly, come to your concerts in large numbers. Without them you are nothing, with them you are gods. So either accept the fact that you play great music for a demanding audience or change your approach and try something different. Top instrumentalists are always welcome as studio players or as backing for a famous band (e.g. Chris Broderick in Megadeth).
Am I Really Serious?
Finally, let's ask ourselves this question. Am I really serious about music? Can I handle the financial uncertainty, the long separation from friends and family on tours, the endless travel, and the pitfalls of alcohol and drugs? As the saying goes, fortune favours the brave and it's the same in the world of music. If you make the decision and persevere, be sure that your dreams (whatever they may be) will come true and you will live the life you've always wanted. The world of music is a wonderful infinite universe where anything is possible and only the rules you set yourself matter. Believe me, I have been a professional musician myself for over a decade. And my love for music grows every year.
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