10 Things Aspiring Musicians Should Keep in Mind

March 17, 2012 § 9 Comments

My accomplishments in music have been pretty modest.  Whatever you make of my achievements though, I assure you that I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve learned quite a few things along the way.
Becoming a real musician–the kind that plays shows, makes records and makes a career of it–is a long, weird road, so I’d like to share a few tips for those of you who may be considering following the music.

#1: You will not be good right away

There is no such thing as a natural musician.  Music has been ingrained in humanity for as long as humanity has existed.  Absolutely everyone has musical genes; it’s just that some people’s musical genes express themselves more and better than others depending on how musically rich their childhood was.

I’m not sure why the myth of the natural musician persists so much in our culture, perhaps because we want to elevate certain musicians to the status of gods and goddesses.  In reality, every great musician becomes great through lots and lots of hard work.  Chas Chandler said of Jimi Hendrix: “Jimi used to play guitar eight or nine hours a day.  It was no accident that he became as good as he was.”  People often point to Mozart as an example of the natural musician, or the prodigy, but in reality he spent his entire childhood learning and playing music every single day, so it’s no miracle that he got as good as he did.

This being said…

#2:  Getting good is not enough

During my times in rural BC I often heard stories like this: “There’s this guy in my hometown, my buddy’s brother Jeff, and he’s the best musician I’ve ever seen!  He plays whatever’s on the radio.  He can just listen to the radio and play it by ear!”  They give you a look like you should be amazed, “yeah man, anything: he can play it.”

I don’t doubt that there are all sorts of talented people out there with great technical skills, but what’s the point of all that if you’re just going to spend it regurgitating other people’s music?  The fact is that some people–lots of people– think that the goal of learning to play music is to impress their friends by learning some cover songs note for note or a few fragments of heavy metal songs.  This is folly.  Who cares what music you can copy?  Not me.  I’m interested in musicians who express themselves in a personal, meaningful way, and if that means re-interpreting some other people’s material in a personal and meaningful way then great, but note for note cover versions are boring as hell and playing certain ones to impress the easily impressionable is not only cheezy and unsavoury, it furthers the twisted expectation that all musicians should be able and willing to regurgitate popular music.

It’s not the getting good that’s important, it’s the decisions you make once you’re good that matter.

#3: Music is not a sport

Many young musicians look up to certain musical acts purely for their technical ability.  There are guitarists out there that only other guitarists listen to because the degree of difficulty of their playing is high.  If you want to become a real musician you must understand that fast and flashy playing for it’s own sake is juvenile and pointless, and it’s for good reason that it doesn’t appeal to non-musicians.  There are no olympic medals for speed guitar and power drumming.  Music is art and communication.  Technical prowess itself doesn’t guarantee good music.  Music is about expressing something meaningful and if somebody does so with impressive technique then great, but it’s not the  technique itself that makes it great, it’s the meaning.

Also, bands are not sports teams.  You don’t need to foster competition and attempt to blow other bands out of the water.  It’s best to get to know other bands, foster community and be mutually supportive so we all win.

#4: Say goodbye to your social life

Remember the good ol’ days? You know, back in high school: pit parties, young love, organized sports and all that?  I don’t.   It’s not that I didn’t want to do all that stuff–I was a social misfit, so I spent most of my youth playing guitar, writing songs and mastering Baseball Stars for NES.  I now consider myself lucky that I spent all that time developing my craft rather than doing normal things, because by the time I hit my 20s I was well equipped to play music in bands, and when you chase the music magic happens.

It takes a long time of patient dedication to get good at anything.  Some say it takes specifically 10 000 hours to become an expert at anything, and I believe them.  So long as this system persists,  capitalism is going to steal time from you.  That means that once you get out of your parents’ house you’re going to have to decide what your priorities are and focus on them.  If that means focusing on music then it means sacrificing other things.

#5: You will be treated like scum

Firstly, let me give you a small example.  For years whenever I was busking, especially if I was playing near somewhere where people were drinking, people would stand in front of me and yell “JUICY FRUIT!” right in my face or else yell “JUICY FRUUUIT!” from moving vehicles if I happened to be walking with my acoustic guitar or yell “JUICY FRUIT!” at me and then laugh hysterically about it with their friends as they walk by.  I learned years later that this is because there was a stupid gum commercial featuring a guy with an acoustic guitar.

Musicians train for several years and then spend several more years developing their talent.  In fact, real musicians train, practice and develop their skills at least as much as a doctor or dentist.  Music has been an essential part of every culture.  Why is it then that musicians don’t get medical and dental coverage, don’t have an effective union, can rarely afford insurance to cover their equipment, virtually never have job security and aren’t even guaranteed a wage for their work?

As a matter of fact, there is a whole class of venues that make like they’re doing musicians a favour by letting them come play at their establishment.  Often at these venues the musicians are reduced to passing a hat to collect donations from patrons, an audience they were expected to spend money attracting to said establishment so they can pay exorbitant fees for beer and food.  Many of these venues see young musicians coming, and knowing that musicians tend to enjoy having a drink with their friends, take advantage of this fact by encouraging them to bring their friends to their establishment and drink the $7 pint night away, which of course usually ends with the musicians themselves owing the house a pretty penny at the end of the night.  And what have you done if you’re the musician in this scenario?  You’ve brought you and your friends to some guy’s venue so he can profiteer off of your party when you could be doing the same thing at home without the markup.

Would these venues expect their cooks and dishwashers to come to work on the hope that some people may appreciate their efforts and chip in a few dollars?  Do they expect their servers and hostesses to coerce their friends to come out and support their employer’s business?  Sure, music is fun, but if you’re a real musician you are not just in it for the fun.  Music is serious business, and I think more musicians need to stand up for their right to be paid decently for their services.

#6: There’s a lot to being a musician that doesn’t involve playing music

Right now I’m staring at a computer screen.  I just got back from a friend’s place where we stared at a screen and adjusted some of the sounds coming from the machine.  I sit at the print shop, I put up posters, I lick stamps, I tinker with my engine.

If you want your music to get out there in the world you’re going to have to put it out there, by going around playing it live, getting on the internet, getting on the airwaves and getting in people’s heads.  All this take lots and lots of work that you’d rather not be doing, and nobody else is going to do it for you, at least not for a very long time, once you’ve proven that you’re a valuable commodity by working your ass off.  There’s no such thing as getting discovered anymore.  If you make it at all in this game, it’s because you’ve worked the hardest.

#7: You will be expected to act like a “professional” long before you actually start being paid like one

This is a funny quandary. In the music world you hear lots of talk about being professional.  ‘So-and-so did such-and-such and it was so unprofessional’ and so on, but it’s never explained why musicians are expected to be on time, have the right equipment, not get excessively drunk and high before their performance and treat others with respect when they’re not guaranteed to get paid at all, let alone a living wage.  Sadly this is the case.

#8: Bands are not democracies

Democracy may or may not be a good system of government for a nation, but it sure isn’t a good way to run a band.  Young musicians often assume that being in a band automatically means you have equal say with the other members about how the music will be.  The hard truth is that what’s ultimately important in a musical act are the songs and the singer.  For a band to be effective everyone must be aware of their role, and if your role is not songwriter or singer then your job is to support the people who are.

It’s impossible to get anywhere as a band with everyone dithering over every little detail and stepping on each others toes.  (For a graphic and hilarious demonstration of this watch Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.)  It is best to assign people with roles that accentuate their strengths and be mutually supportive.  The ‘band of brothers’ who come to consensus on every little thing is a myth.  Most great bands are driven by one main creative force whose vision is supported by the other members.

#9: Don’t be afraid to learn the structure of music

I believe that what is commonly referred to as “music theory” is actually ‘music structure’ (and what they call “music appreciation” is actually “music theory”).

Sound is like a rainbow you hear, and centuries ago certain people decided to divide the sound rainbow into 12 units, and those are the notes we know in western music.  Music structure is a system of expression using an infinite number of possible combinations of these notes.  It’s a way of explaining what’s happening in music.

Of course, something so specialized has technical sounding jargon.  I might say, for example, that I’m going to develop some counterpoint by superimposing the phrygian mode overtop of a blues scale, and do it to a 5/4-6/8 compound rhythm.   This kind of terminology scares some people, and can sound decidedly uncool, so young musicians often shy away from learning what it means.  Also, since people often believe the myth of the natural musician, even if they know their “theory”, some musicians pretend they don’t in order to further the myth that they are somehow genetically different from other people.  I suppose still others are just lazy. Why wouldn’t you want to learn the structure of something that’s so important and that you work with so intimately?

Think about it like a map.  If you didn’t know your way around town you could just wander about, and you may find some neat places, but you’re not likely to venture too far away from home.  But with a map you can venture wherever you like and find your way back home.  You can find all sorts of interesting places to go and efficient little shortcuts to places you already know.

#10: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Because of the myth of the natural musician, asking for help or learning music structure is tantamount to admitting that you’re not a prodigy.  In reality every musician has learned from other people, and great musicians go out of their way to learn as much as they can from the people around them and seek out guidance.  To do this you must be humble enough to admit that you don’t know everything, and that there are elements of your craft that could use improvement.  This goes for the organizational aspects as well as the musical ones.
So, does working your ass off for years to become a real musician only to wind up enduring years of disrespect and poverty as a result sound a bit daunting, but you still want to feel like a musician and enjoy the benefits of being one?  You may want to consider getting your parents to buy you some DJ equipment and familiarizing yourself with some current trends.


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§ 9 Responses to 10 Things Aspiring Musicians Should Keep in Mind

  • Really interesting! I loved it!

  • Reblogged this on Exotic Guitar World and commented:
    Really interesting

  • Jim Chisholm in Campbell River says:

    That’s my life. Going out to play again tonight. Lucky me!

  • Io says:

    Excellent points but there is an underlying condescending tone that is a big turn-off.
    DJing is another avenue of music…. there are those who are lazy and mainstream, but there are also incredibly talented people with good taste who maintain it as an artform. Don’t bash it just because it’s not your artform.

  • A thoughtful and realistic appraisal of the current climate for professional musicians. A small correction re #9: there are 12 notes.
    best wishes,


    • G says:

      Hey thanks, that was a typo.

    • this is an important post and i am humbled. i agree with everything but have a tiny exception to #9. i paid to be taught the kato havas technique with the violin. my teacher showed that it’s good to be in touch with the structure by silently repeating each note played,”a sharp b sharp c sharp, d flat”. that worked for me and i understand the advantage.
      on the other hand, when i play the guitar i abandon that system and go to the #2 mode, because it’s just for pleasure and i’m not a professional musician.it’s lazy but more fun.
      with drums, it’s a combination. i invented my own notation and wrote down all i was taught about african drums in a style i can understand .i only repeat old rhythms and beats but they are good enough for now. in a sense, there is nothing new under the sun.
      i appreciate those who are creative because i can only aspire to be imitative at best. even being a good imitator is probably beyond my reach. i’m going to pass this on to my musician friends who are actual professionals.

  • Reblogged this on Thestifledartist's Blog and commented:
    I don’t usually reblog other blogs, but really, I think this is great advice.

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