6 minute read

What Musicians Do

Young people who dream about becoming professional musicians may think only about the magic of being on stage. However, a musician’s career is about more than just performing. It also involves a tremendous amount of work. Many of them continue studying music even after they have become professional musicians. They also practice and rehearse on a regular basis. Those who tour spend hours traveling from one place to another. Sometimes musicians have so much to do that their lives are unbelievably hectic.

Creating New Music

Musicians who write their own music spend a great deal of time creating it. No two musicians follow exactly the same steps because there is no “right” way to compose music. Some musicians start by writing their ideas on paper. They create scores, which are musical charts that show the different parts of the music. Other musicians create music on electronic instruments called synthesizers.

No matter what process they use, most musicians say it starts with an inspiration. Curtis S.D. Macdonald, a composer from California, shares his thoughts on creating music: “All types of music can be composed, and composers, through hard work and training, can create anything they hear in their head… music that can tug at your heart or music that scares you to death.”10 Macdonald says composing is similar to building with Legos of different sizes and shapes. The farther he goes along, the more his music takes shape. His first step is to sketch the music on paper, which gives him an idea of how it will flow. Then he uses his computer to add the sounds of various instruments. As Macdonald works on a piece of music, he may follow his written sketch exactly, or he may improvise. It takes him about thirty minutes to compose one minute’s worth of music.

Practice, Practice, Practice

One activity that musicians share in common is regular practice. Practicing helps them play music more smoothly so they are less apt to make errors while performing. Also, those who play instruments depend on certain muscles, and practice helps keep their muscles in shape. Singers practice to exercise their vocal muscles. The time they spend practicing, and the methods they use, often vary. Some play or sing music scales, while others just run through their songs over and over again. Some practice by themselves, while those who play as part of a group may rehearse along with other musicians.

When Mindy Kaufman was in high school, she enjoyed practicing so much that she never thought of it as a chore. Now that she is a professional musician, she still practices from one to three hours every day. She explains the importance of this: “It’s almost like playing tennis, where you have to work on your serve, your backhand, your forehand, the lob—you have all these different shots, and you have to work on all of them because they’re all part of the game.”11

Being Onstage

Musicians invest a great deal of time and energy in their careers. So when they finally get a chance to perform, it is their reward for a lot of hard work. Most musicians find performing to be the most enjoyable part of what they do, as Jacey Bedford explains: “You can’t really beat the feeling of walking out onto a stage and having twelve hundred people leap to their feet cheering. Okay, that doesn’t happen every time, but when it does, it makes up for all those times you’ve played to three people and the theatre cat.”12 Even musicians who perform in smaller venues and clubs enjoy the rush of performing before live audiences.

When musicians are scheduled to perform in the evening, they often spend part of the day preparing. Jane Eaglen, an opera singer in Seattle, warms up her voice by singing scales and singing in the shower. She arrives at the theater about an hour and a half before the show. First, a makeup artist does her makeup. Then she is assisted with her costume and wig. The performance lasts for three hours, and afterwards Eaglen accepts flowers from her fans and signs autographs. She says that most performances go well, but she describes a few times when that was not the case: “I have been in performances where sets fell, curtains came in early, and once I was even kneed between the legs to get me off a high note when the other singer was not happy with the sound he was making, but that is rare!”13

The Physical Side

Musicians like Eaglen work in theaters where there are crews to handle equipment and stage setup. However, many musicians handle this themselves, and it can be an exhausting task that takes hours of hard work. Musicians must set up speakers and amplifiers that are often large and heavy. Drums, keyboards, microphones, and guitar stands must be placed in the right position. There are cables to be strung for the sound system, and there is stage lighting to be set up. Once everything is in place, the musicians must do a sound check, or test, to make sure all equipment works properly. After the performance is over, the musicians may leave the equipment if they are performing in the same place the next night. If they are on tour, however, they need to repack everything and load it all into trucks so it can be taken to the next gig. Jeff Abercrombie, bass guitarist for the rock band Fuel, talks about what this was like when his group was just starting out: “Our life consisted of driving to the gig, setting it up, playing our show, breaking down the PA, driving back home. Then doing it all again the next day and just on and on.”14 According to Bedford, her group spends about three hours setting up their equipment for a two-hour performance. Once the show is over, it takes them another hour to tear everything down again.

Getting Attention

Another important task for musicians is booking gigs. Some hire booking agents to handle this, but many do it on their own. This involves keeping in touch with the people who schedule performing acts. Many musicians send out promotional packages, which include information about the band and a sample CD. Then they follow up with a telephone call. Sometimes they must perform a live audition before being booked.


Musicians who are well-known or famous usually hire music publicists. However, most musicians handle their own publicity. This involves setting up interviews with radio stations and talking with newspaper and magazine writers. It can also involve scheduling promotional events, such as personal appearances at music stores.

Just as no two musicians are exactly alike, their tasks are different as well. Some practice an hour a day, while others practice for three hours or more. Some perform on the same stage night after night, and others tour the country for half the year. Some have achieved fame, while others only dream about it. Yet no matter who they are or what they spend their time doing, their reward is the same: the chance to share their musical talents with their fans.

10 Curtis S.D. Macdonald, interview by author, February 13, 2002. fn11. Quoted in Nissen, “Flutist Mindy Kaufman.” fn12. Bedford, interview. fn13. Jane Eaglen, “Diary: A Weeklong Electronic Journal,” Slate, October 22, 2001. http://slate.msn.com. fn14. Quoted in Jodi Summers, Making & Marketing Music. New York: Allworth Press, 1999, p. 44.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesMusician Job Description