Musings

How to Not Suck at Being a Professional Musician


By John Roemhild, North Central University (MN)

Let’s quickly run through all the established good advice your music teachers have given you about becoming successful: skill is not equated to how fast you can play; take all the opportunities you can get to play because you never know where they might lead; if you’re looking to make a living writing songs or starting a band, don’t quit trying, but definitely don’t quit your day job; practice, practice, practice! And the golden rule — if you can imagine yourself doing absolutely anything else, do that.

If you’ve swallowed all this and you are still on-board, congratulations. You have climbed the first arduous staircase of breaking into the world of professional music. However, there is a whole other side of things your lesson teachers may or may not have mentioned that you need to take to heart if you want to make a living with your music.

If you want to not suck at being a musician, you have to not suck at being a good person. This is not newbie speculation into the workings of the professional music scene. This is plain-as-day fact. This is advice recited to me in many forms by many veterans of the scene with years and years of experience. The fact that I’ve been in the music program at school a mere three years and can already see this principle so obviously at work is a testament to its weight, not a discredit. Arrogant rock stars and celebrities are not the rule — they’re the exception. For you, me and the rest of the real world, character is more important than skill.

One Accord is the band my school sends on a nationwide tour every year. They are the face of North Central University, the finest musicians my school has to offer. The members get a huge scholarship and free housing for a semester, along with funding to buy new gear and put a little money in their pockets. So every year when it comes time to hold auditions for a new One Accord, the whole music department becomes very competitive.

This year, One Accord’s guitarist unexpectedly quit and a slot opened up for a new one. Yet, even though there were many very technically talented guitarists to choose from, they asked my roommate Clark to come in and audition. Clark will tell you himself that he knows nothing about music theory and hasn’t actually done anything in his lessons except talk about indie music with his instructor. The other guitarists could play arpeggios in circles around Clark with one hand tied behind their backs, but they still weren’t asked.

The thing is, One Accord knows that whoever is playing guitar with them center right stage is also going to be snoring next to them in a touring bus for the whole summer. They would rather have Clark than Lightning Fingers McGee because when Clark is asked to play, he quietly sets up his gear and lays down some solid guitar work without badgering the sound guy to turn him up. He never brags about his playing, and is a genuinely good-hearted guy who’s fun to hang out with. They picked him because he’s a good guitarist to work with, not just a good guitarist.

In my experience, the really bad musicians tend to be the ones who are the most full of themselves. They are the ones who complain when they don’t make a band, and they are the ones who continually badmouth the musicians they believe to be worse players. Don’t follow their example. The music world is relatively small, and the crap you say is bound to make it back to someone. Someone who may end up needing a sub and will feel less than inclined to send that opportunity your way.

That being said, the other half of not sucking at being a good person is about how you treat yourself. Last week in recital performance class, four of the school’s best musicians showed a team of faculty members what they had been working on in their lessons so far. All of their performances thrilled us in the student body. But as we sat with our mouths open, the instructors began giving their feedback. It was a chorus of “That was pretty rough at the start, you need to work on that end section, watch your articulations, put more emotion into it, spend even more time on your scales, the e-string was very out of tune,” and so on. Then they affably added this cherry on top: “but otherwise, that was a fun piece,” and sent them on their ways.

What was even more shocking than their seemingly negative response was how all the musicians took it. Anyone else probably would have either snapped the necks of their guitars or the necks of their instructors at those comments, but instead the four just soaked it all in without a wince and thanked the instructors for the advice. I suddenly realized my own lesson instructor never meant to intimidate me or hurt my feelings when he was criticizing me; it’s his job to tell me everything that I could possibly improve about my playing. His objective really has nothing to do with pride, he just wants to make me a better musician.

This is good advice for many things besides music: have grace for yourself and eliminate that foolish one year timeframe for your rise to fame — in fact, give up the whole rise to fame part altogether. Do what you love because you love it, and don’t worry about how long it is going to take you to get to where you want to be. If you’re lucky, you’ll get paid for doing what you love to do, and if you don’t, you’re still lucky for having the privilege to do it anyway. Don’t compare yourself to other people, because there will always be certain people who are more talented than you are, as well as people who are less talented than you are. You have absolutely no hope of discerning just how many people are on either side of that divide, so let it go. Instead of striving to be perfect, try to simply improve yourself one way at a time, and be content with yourself when you do. Be patient with yourself. You’ve got to deal with yourself whether you’re living large at the top or scraping by at the bottom. Be intentionally respectful with others. Everyone else has to deal with you while you work your way up the ladder, and no one wants to be treated like crap when they’re just trying to do the same.

John Roemhild is a columnist at The New Student Union. Reach him at johnroemhild@gmail.com.

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About NEW STUDENT UNION

The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email info@newstudentunion.com to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.

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