Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and Profiles » Musician Job Description

Different Kinds of Musicians

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Anyone who makes and performs music is considered a musician. Some play instruments, others sing, and many do both. There are those who manage to climb the ladder of success and become rich and famous—but that is rare, as British folk musician Jacey Bedford explains: “Only a tiny proportion of people working in the music business are famous, and even with them it can be a here today, gone tomorrow thing. The musicians who have a long career are those whose ambition is to be good, not to be famous.”1

Professional musicians like Bedford have chosen music as their career. For them, music is not just something they do for fun. It is also how they earn their living.

Musicians may specialize in a certain kind of music, or they may perform a variety of different types. Jazz drummers, opera singers, country-western

fiddlers, and blues guitarists are all examples of musicians. There are big-band musicians as well as rap, ragtime, and reggae musicians. Some perform classical Bach, while others lean toward classic rock. Many musicians are also composers, which means they create their own music. Some composers also create music for other musicians to perform.

Musicians who work at recording studios and play backup music for singers and groups are known as session (or studio) musicians. Russ Miller is a session musician who has played drums for many top stars and has been featured on hundreds of recordings. Miller says that the most successful session musicians are proficient in a number of different styles. He calls this being “convincing,” as he explains: “Eventually, certain gigs [concerts] that you do and certain people and circles that you’re in are going to dictate what you do well and specialize in. But if you’re trying to make a living, get convincing in as many styles as possible.”2

Session musicians also play music that is featured in movies and television shows, as well as in commercials. Guitarist Michael Batio has performed in commercials for Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), among others.

One unusual type of musician is the turntablist, who is also called a DJ (disc jockey). The instrument played by these musicians is actually a record player. As a vinyl record spins on the turntable, DJs use the phonograph needle to scratch the record, which creates many unique sounds. One well-known DJ is Mike Gunn. More commonly known as Mix Master Mike, Gunn performs with the hip-hop group Beastie Boys.

The Same (but Different)

Most musicians know how to read music, but not all of them use it when they perform. One type of musician who absolutely must use sheet music is the orchestra member. People who play with symphony orchestras pay close attention to sheet music during performances. That is because the music they play is designed for many different instruments, and all the harmonies and melodies must blend together perfectly. According to Carter Brey, a cellist with the New York Philharmonic, this can be challenging for orchestra members. They must understand the music and know exactly how their parts fit into it. Also, each musician in a particular section—such as the cellos—must pay close attention to the music played by other members of the section, as Brey explains: “A lot of my responsibilities [as principal cellist] have to do with making sure that we’re all pulling the oar the right way. There has to be a kind of blend, and I’m responsible for that.”3 Timing is also important for orchestra members. During their performances, they must time their entrances and exits perfectly. Also, while they are performing they must pay close attention to the conductor, whose job is to lead the orchestra.

Making It Up

Unlike musicians who play in orchestras, some musicians do not perform in such a precise, disciplined way. For instance, jazz musicians often improvise, which means they change the music while they are playing it. Even if they play the same song over and over again, it will probably sound a bit different each time. Jazz trumpeter Marvin Stamm describes improvisation as a musical language. When musicians perform together, they use the language to “talk” to each other through their instruments. He explains how the process works: “If I desire, I can change the ‘feel’ and setting of the piece. For instance, I can play a composition in bossa nova style one evening and the next evening play it in a ‘swing’ style. Even if they continue to play a piece in the same style, most creative Jazz musicians strive not to be repetitive. They are always searching for new ways to express themselves and expand their ideas and skills of communicating.”4 Other musicians enjoy improvising as well. For example, members of rock and country- western bands rarely play songs exactly the same way when they perform.

Whether their specialty is strumming a guitar or blowing a trumpet, plucking a harp or playing a harpsichord, musicians’ lives revolve around music. Their styles and techniques may be totally different, but there is one thing they all share in common: a love of music. Because of that, they have chosen music for their careers—and most of them could not imagine doing anything else.

1 Jacey Bedford, interview by author, February 7, 2002. fn2. Quoted in Jake Sibley, “Interview: Russ Miller,” About.com (“Musicians’ Exchange” section). http:// musicians.about.com. fn3. Quoted in Beth Nissen, “The Players: Career Musicians of the New York Philharmonic,” CNN. com/Career February 23, 2001. www.cnn.com. fn4. Marvin Stamm, “How We Do What We Do,” Jazz 52nd Street. http://52ndstreet.com/kenton/ stamm.htm.

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