Why are you reading this magazine? No, seriously. It’s not just because you’re a musician – there are plenty of New Zealand musicians who don’t read NZ Musician.
I’ll wager it’s because you are either a professional musician, or you are interested in pursuing music as a profession. Underlying all these flash page layouts, glossy adverts, and thoughtful articles is the understanding that this is part of a long, always-changing and never-ending guidebook to a life path: music as an occupation, not just a hobby. So let’s really examine what it means to be a professional, and not waste any words.
I’m putting this one first, because that’s where it belongs. Longtime professionals in the field of music have a certain vibe about them that invites respect and awe. Younger musicians and music students may see them as role models, but don’t always understand earning respect is the outcome of taking responsibility – apart from any material success they might have achieved. A career in music is not the daily grind of punching a clock. Rather, it’s a constant series of new challenges and unexpected situations. The professional must meet these challenges with foresight, intelligence, and character – not stupidity and whining. When things go wrong, and they will, a pro will make the best of it, and add the situation to their learning curve. They won’t sit around and moan about their misfortunes. Well, not too much.
Being in control
If you’ve got any kind of determination and experience, then you’ll value the simple benefit of being in control. It’s not so much about laying off the refreshments at a gig, though that can be part of the equation. It’s more about being the type of musician who doesn’t get taken for granted. If you want to build a career on your own terms, then you have to be the one in the driver’s seat. Keeping your hands on the steering wheel can be very tricky at first. But it’s important to have all the elements of a successful career in your firm grasp at all times, and to build on them at every opportunity.
Being prepared and in the zone
An experienced player has the confidence to play any type of gig on very short notice. What’s more, as the frequency of those gigs becomes greater, the essence of being on stage becomes the common denominator, and day-to-day living gets shaped by that awareness – not the other way around. A professional is on most of the time, their edge honed to a fine point, ready to sit down and do their job with maximum excellence and minimum warm up. The rest of the world just has to deal with it, and get over itself if it can’t handle that.
Having high standards
The whole point of having such an ingrained focus on the last three qualities is that they help a seasoned pro to maintain a high standard of performance. A musician who is in control of their situation will take responsibility to ensure that they are prepared for the next gig (see how I used all three in that sentence?). That means practising wisely, not just frequently – using that precious opportunity to be alone with your instrument to chip away at your technical problems until they transform into great strengths. That also means that your practice time is seen as an essential part of your working habits and way of life, with a direct relationship on the smooth progress of your career – not some chore that you have to take care of. A professional finds the process of self-improvement fascinating and absorbing – even when its also quite discouraging at times.
Seeing music as a process, not a goal
A beginner thinks, “I want to be a musician!” – but a professional musician thinks “I want to stay in the game for as long as possible.” If you’ve only played a few gigs then music may seem like an athletic competition, where you prepare and then give it your all in one mighty effort. But if you’ve played dozens, or hundreds of gigs, you start to see music-making as a rhythm, with familiar patterns and interesting, sometimes treacherous variations. Change and improvement doesn’t come with a quick flash of glory, but in small, carefully laid steps – though occasionally, that one phone call or gig will suddenly elevate the playing field. Even then, the consistent, reliable work done by the professional will make the difference between making the most of an unexpected opportunity, or having it be a flash in the pan.
Ensuring adequate compensation
Here are some simple economics. The better you want to get at your craft, the more time you have to spend with it. If you want to be the best at it, then ultimately you have to do it to the exclusion of other employment. That means that your craft has to provide a level of financial support that logically increases as you become more dedicated and capable. This is why professionals have a bottom line, and they get to it as soon as possible in any negotiation. Only someone ignorant of the realities of artistic achievement could see this as money-grubbing – rather, it’s a measure of respect that musicians be compensated for their efforts. Honouring musicians is one of the signs of a healthy, vibrant culture, without which our national level of identity and self-respect erodes.
This doesn’t mean that music is all business. In fact, the financial side isn’t the defining factor for the average professional musician. But it is often the deciding factor. So its important that you learn how to judge the monetary situation and how it applies to you and your artistic goals. What amount from which gig will allow you to take bigger steps towards a more involved career? Asking that simple question often helps clear away the uncertainty in making decisions.
Delivering the goods
I regularly work with musicians at the top of their field in jazz, pop, rock, and classical music, and each one of them has a different perspective on what constitutes a professional outlook. But they all would agree on one fundamental principle: the ability to deliver the goods.
There are so many factors riding on that one simple phrase; like the quality of ones fellow players, the amount of preparation, the level of energy, the mood of the audience, and the relationship of the player to their repertoire. Those factors and many others may influence the way the music is played. But if a musician is in the zone, in control, and has set their standards very high, then the outcome is bound to be excellent, even if events conspire to betray the performance. Then the musician can set aside the business, the travel, the preparation, and the pressure, and really just let the music take off.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Che Fu, The Idea of North, and Canadian jazz superstar Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Vector Wellington Orchestra