Music is an art and also a business. As musicians we need to treat our job just like any other professional. Sure we work crazy hours, our income is sometimes inconsistent, and getting a job is largely based on networking- but that doesn’t mean that we can be lazy and unprofessional. About a month ago I asked some of my close friends and colleagues about how to be professional as a musician and came up with this list. I sometimes used their responses verbatim and sometimes edited them to my own words. What would you add to this list of ways to be professional as a musician? Leave your ideas in the comments below.
1. Be on Time
Early is on time and on time is late- if you’re late you might have as well have not shown up at all. Being late to a gig, rehearsal, or business meeting is the number one thing you can do to not get called back. Situations like traffic may arise where you cannot avoid being late but always plan ahead. Try the app Waze to check for traffic ahead of time. It is better to sit in your car taking selfies or checking Facebook than to be late. Being early also allows you to take your time setting up, catch up with/meet the other musicians, and maybe even get a bite to eat or a drink.
2. Be Prepared
Preparation is key. Do your homework as the separation is in the preparation. A lot can be said for faking a tune but it is better to know it in the first place. Make charts or better yet memorize the songs you will be playing. Make sure your gear is in top-notch condition and carry an OSB.
3. Be a Good Hang
At a certain point your musicianship should be assumed up to par or you wouldn’t be on the gig in the first place. At this point being a good hang on the gig is of the utmost importance. Nobody wants to hang out with someone talking about his or her life issues or much worse being reclusive and not talking at all. Know when you should make suggestions and when you should just go along with it. The gig will be over soon enough.
Always leave your workspace, stage, music, book, etc. better than you found it. Greet everyone with a smile and ask how they are. Look like you are having fun even if you aren’t. Smile on stage to the audience and to the other people in the band. Be courteous of other’s warm up and personal space. Never warm up more than you need to (i.e. don’t play that really hard lick you’ve been working on over and over). Help clean up and maybe even help the drummer load out. Be someone that you would want to hang out with.
Also be sure to extend this good hang to the other people in your work environment. This includes your audience as well as other people working including technicians, waitresses, bar staff, etc. Talk to your audience between sets and entertain their request for “Free Bird” even if you don’t know it. Also be sure to learn “Free Bird.” Being rude to a technician will only lead to them not caring about your performance. Does your mix sound bad? Then nicely ask the sound person to change it to how you want rather than assuming they have no idea what they are doing. If you’re getting free food or drinks you should still tip. Don’t yell out an order for a round of drinks from the stage- rather wait until the set break or quietly ask your server as they pass by. The more the audience and staff likes you the better off you are.
In addition to being a good hang be sure to be positive. Don’t talk about other musicians behind their backs. If you’re a sub or new band member don’t try tell the regulars how to play their own songs. Getting dark on yourself for not sounding your best can easily be interpreted as being dark about the gig and everyone involved with it. Likewise, acknowledge your mistakes but don’t dwell on them. It can be important that other musicians know that you are aware of a mistake and don’t simply lack the musicianship to know that you made a mistake in the first place. It probably doesn’t matter and the crowd probably didn’t notice. On that note: don’t make a disgusted face or laugh at your mistakes. That just gives it away.
4. Be Available
Networking is key. Be “on the scene.” Go to other people’s gigs and talk with them. Let them know that you play but don’t immediately tell them to hire you. After developing a relationship suggest that you should jam but avoid using “we have to play sometime” as a greeting. If you don’t feel up to their level yet ask for a lesson. People will not think to call you for a gig if you aren’t on their radar. Once you start getting busy as a musician it is important to know when to say no to a gig. Don’t spread yourself too thin. On the flip-side if you say no to someone too many times they will assume that you are too busy and not call you back. It is a fine line.
5. Be Business-Minded
Have professional recordings, professional photos, a website, a press-kit, and business cards. Be active on social media. Have a product to sell and promote that on the stage. Know about taxes and keep track of miles and receipts. Study how to run your business just like you study how to run your scales. Don’t get wasted on the gig. Set aside part of your day to upkeep your business by advertising, maintaining your website, doing an expense report, replying to emails, reaching out to new contacts, posting on social media, and more. Rather than spending your weekdays re-watching episodes of Breaking Bad treat them as your 9-5 (even if its more like noon-gig). I find it extremely helpful to have a home office for this purpose. In my office I work on business, practice, and teach lessons. My leisure time is spent in a separate room.
6. Be a Good Leader
Are you leading the gig? My number one tip for a band leader is to pay your musicians before the gig. I cannot stress this enough- don’t leave them waiting around to get paid after the gig! Paying your musicians before the gig will ensure that they are not worrying about getting paid throughout the gig and can be a pleasant surprise. This all leads to your musicians trusting you and creates a sense of unity within the band.
It is also important to develop diplomacy for communicating with your band members. Just because you are leading the band or got the gig does not mean that you know best. Know how to take advice from the people you are in charge of. Also know how to tell someone to do something differently to meet your artistic goals. Offer suggestions rather than demands. Your musicians are people and artists just like you and are hopefully trying to serve the music.
If you are using sheet music be sure to have legible and beautiful charts. It is my preference to give someone a chart even if they know the song just so that we are “on the same page.” While studying jazz arranging with Paris Rutherford at the University of North Texas he instilled in me the fact that the better your music looks the better it will sound. As a sideman, if I look at your handwritten chicken scratch chart I will probably not play it as well as a legible and concise chart made in Sibelius. After all, Sibelius really is better than Finale.
7. Be a Good Follower
Are you playing in someone else’s band? Always be early, make charts, be nice, and say thank you when people hire you or help you. Respect the hierarchy of working professional musicians so you don’t step on the wrong person’s toes. Have a pencil for rehearsals and use it. Remember to play the gig you’re hired for- your uniqueness doesn’t necessarily make you useful. Never complain about the money on a gig because you didn’t have to say yes. And lastly, look presentable. Don’t look like a homeless person in a suit. Know how you should dress for each gig and be sure to maintain yourself. Shave your face (or maintain your beard), get a haircut, and always take a shower!
8. Be a Good Communicator
Return phone calls, text messages, and emails. Know how to tell someone they aren’t sounding good in a polite way. This will hopefully inspire them to practice before the next gig. If it doesn’t inspire them to practice find a way to let them know that you were giving them a chance and hopefully they will be prepared for their next gig. There is a fine line between the personal and professional for musicians. Ultimately it is best when the personal and professional can coexist and be symbiotic- though that isn’t always the case. After all we are “playing” with each other. It can be difficult to do when the personal side of things is out of balance and sometimes that means that you need to find someone else.
It is also important to be good at communicating with potential employers or press contacts. When looking for a gig or write up have a solid and concise press kit that has been edited. Include contact information, local dates you’re playing, high-resolution photographs/videos, and at least two complete songs. Unorganized press kits go to the bottom of a booking agent or journalist’s priority list. When trying to get coverage for a show give as much advance notice as possible (i.e. three weeks or more). Email first, call the next week, and if you haven’t heard back don’t be too persistent and move on to the next opportunity.
9. Be Humble
Be confident yet humble. Never stop learning. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. Ask questions. Keep an open mind. Don’t talk about your gigs in public. Do all of these things or you have to play better than your personality dysfunction. Let your musicianship do the talking rather than talking about your musicianship. As Frank Zappa once said, “shut up and play yer guitar!”
10. Be Healthy
Maintain your health physically, mentally, and spiritually just like you maintain your chops. None of these other tips can be fully implemented without a healthy body and mindset. This healthy balance can be achieved in many ways- going to the gym, walking, running, biking, swimming, meditation, yoga, church, reading, and more. Find what works for you and stick to it. If you fall off the train dust yourself off and get back on. Persistence is key.
A special thanks to these people for their input to this article (in order of their responses on Facebook):
Daniel McKena, Ginny Mac, Connor Kent, Tony Camponovo, Colin Hinton, Robbie Kerchner, Kelsey Mire, Lindsey Miller, Emily Merrell, Jeremy Green, Keith Packman, Spenser Liszt, Jonathan Mones, Ryan Martin, Justin Schenk, Chris Vallejo, Mikaela Kahn, Pete Weise, Benjamin Greenberg, Noel Johnston, Melissa Crowe, Christian Dorn, Rip Phelan, Jon Richardson, Aaron Hedenstrom, Natalie Moran, Chris Henry, Monique Gabrielle Salazar, and J.R. Byrd.