Updated: Dec 1, 2020
(Cover Photo by Keagan Henman)
Over my career as a drummer and producer I’ve learned A LOT. As I became better at my instrument the more I realized how little I actually knew. The Dunning-Kruger Effect states in short that the more you know, the less you know. And this is true when it comes to music. Numbers 8-10 are the most important. (If you want to skip through I won’t be offended, but I’ve also kept this article nice and short for you.) Without further ado, here are the 10 things all pro musicians do. Here we go.
1) ...Read Charts/Sheet Music
It doesn’t get any more black and white than this. *Get it?. When I went to music school it was an expectation that everyone there could read charts. All of the ensembles worked with charts and we studied sight-reading in our classes. Charts and sheet music are the language that all musicians can understand, so instead of asking the guitarist to play that “chunk-chunky” sound you can provide a chart that describes what she should play. When you practice with a band, charts will keep the rehearsal on track. When you record, charts will save you from botched takes for silly reasons.
2) ...Study Music Theory
Look, I know how daunting that sounds. You don’t need to learn ALL of it. Nobody has! Here’s all I have to say about music theory (again, coming from someone who has completed all the Music Theory classes at a music school): You don’t have to understand any of it. You can be as successful as you want to be without it, but knowing the language will help you find what you’re looking for 10x quicker and you’ll understand and hear music at a greater depth. Learning music theory just gives you better tools to make music. It's like buying a 100-color paint set. Sure you can make all those colors from Blue, Red, Yellow, but it will take you a lot longer to paint a portrait, and you might not get exactly the right color you want. With Music Theory, you know exactly how to get the sound and feeling you're looking for.
3) ...Practice Daily
Of course if you want to be a pro, you have to be good, and to be good you have to practice. There is no such thing as ‘raw talent’ - sure some people are in a better starting position to become great, but I PROMISE that not a single person who is successful got there without working their ass off. Pro Musicians stretch their boundaries and learn things that are hard for them. Take the approach of Arnold and focus on your weak points first until they become your strong points, then find your new weak point. Record yourself with your phone or computer and listen back critically. Does it feel good to listen to? Why not? Study the minute details and make them great.
4) ...Study The Greats
“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” - Winston Churchill
Without understanding where music came from, we cannot know where it can go. Don’t guess. I guarantee you if you listen to something you’ve never heard before you’ll have a new idea about your own music. Go home and decide what your top 3 favorite genres are. (Don’t pick rock, classic rock, and alternative rock.) Get on Spotify and make a playlist of the best of the best of that genre. What is common between the songs? What makes the style that style?
5) ...Respect the Music
As a drummer my mantra is to ‘serve the music’ - this means to only play what the music is asking for, nothing more, nothing less. Just because I’ve been practicing a super fast drum fill for the last 3 days doesn’t give it the right to sneak its way into a ballad. Also, respect the audience! This is the same thing, believe it or not. Don’t shred your new lick all over the wrong kind of music. Only play something if it fits and sounds great.
6) ...Invest In Their Gear
This sounds obvious but you would be surprised!
If you have no respect for your instrument, it shows that you have no respect for yourself as a musician. This also means that when the time comes, you are responsible for upgrading your setup. Make sure you show up in tune, and your tone is taken care of. Drummers- buy new heads! Bassists - time for new strings! Singers - if you smoke, seriously consider what the costs are. The way you and your gear look is a direct reflection on you and your sound. Show up polished and clean and I bet you’ll play cleaner, with more intention.
7)... Listen to Valuable Feedback
This one is tough. Musicians are especially sensitive to hearing criticism. Only we know the long hours we’ve put in only to receive lukewarm applause or an outright rejection of something that is deeply personal to us (ie: an original song). Here’s the most important thing. If you think the feedback is based in truth, then listen even if it hurts to admit you made a mistake or could do something better. What you need to be careful of is criticism that has no basis in truth and is only meant to pull you down. When someone criticizes someone or discourages them from their success, it is only a sign of their own bitterness and disbelief. If someone hasn’t become successful in their field, it makes them feel better to project criticism and discouragement. Don’t take feedback from someone you wouldn’t take advice from.
8) ...Leave Their Ego at The Door
Here’s something you need to understand right now if you want to pursue music as your career. You will NEVER be the best. You are never better than everybody in the room. Each person has their own experience that you might not be able to see right away. Coming in with an attitude can have huge consequences. There was a point in my life when I thought I was WAY better than I actually was. At one point I had landed a gig with a pop artist. I thought ‘Oh it’s just pop music, I can play that with my eyes closed!’ So I didn’t practice. I kind of listened to the songs, but not really. We had practice and the first song we played came to an abrupt ending when I missed the first hits. Long story short I struggled through the rest of practice, embarrassed. Treat each musician as if they were your idol, but don’t lose respect for yourself either which brings be to number 9..
9) ...Know Their Worth
Your years of practice, your gear, your transportation, your performance, your taste, musicality. Those are all the things that make you valuable as a musician. Make sure to get paid what is fair. Also, don’t ever allow yourself to work with someone who doesn’t respect you. Whether that’s a client for a wedding or a band leader. A lot of bands have a non-negotiable statement in their wedding gig contracts that says if the band isn’t supplied shade, they don’t play. Make sure you always demand respect from every person you work with. You deserve to be treated like a professional, because you are one.
10) ...Have a Mentor
Don’t go about this alone. There is no reason to do everything yourself. Whether you find a music teacher you love and trust or someone in the industry with more experience than you, become a student of theirs. You’d be surprised how many successful musicians will sit down with you for coffee and tell you everything you need to know and not charge you a single penny. This goes both ways though! Make sure you are open to help your peers, no matter what. Even your direct competition.
And one more bonus:
10.5 BONUS) ...Support Their Fellow Musicians!
Even if they are your direct competition! There is always going to be enough work for everybody. We’re all doing the same thing, trying to create and live a successful life. Make sure you treat them with admiration and never jealousy. If someone is better than you in a certain style, admit it! Praise them! Learn from them! They are no different than your idols. Be nice always and you’ll be surprised how things find their way back to you. Remember when you were first getting started and how important it was to have encouragement. Support your younger peers! They look up to you more than you think.