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What It Takes to Be a Musician

Most musicians realize the importance of talent. Some talent, such as a beautiful singing voice or the ability to play instruments, may come naturally. However, it takes many years of work to develop talent to a professional level. Jacey Bedford talks about what it takes to make it in the world of professional music: “You can decide to go pro and make a career plan, but unless you’ve got two essential ingredients, talent and determination, you won’t make it work.”5 Musicians must be motivated to work hard at improving their skills. Most say that no matter how good they become, they always keep trying to be better.

When it comes to education and training, no two musicians are exactly the same. Those who perform with symphony orchestras or operas almost always have college degrees, as well as extensive training in classical music. Many musicians have studied for years at music schools and/or with private instructors. For example, Tori Amos has had years of formal musical training that started when she was very young. By the time she was six, she was studying classical piano at the famed Peabody Institute in Baltimore. She was the youngest student ever to attend the school.

Not all musicians have formal training, however. Some have developed their natural talent and skills through years of self-instruction and practice. Russ Miller says that most musicians end up being their own best teachers. But he still stresses the importance of formal training, and he explains why: “The reason is that if you don’t have proper technique—particularly with a very physical instrument like drums—you’re going to get led down a path where it becomes difficult to play certain things once you reach a certain level.”6 Miller says one result of improper playing techniques is the risk of injury. He has known drummers and guitar players who have injured their wrists in this way. They must wear wrist braces much of the time, and they often find performing to be painful.


Whether they play instruments or sing, musicians must believe in themselves and their abilities. Some are confident by nature, while others are not. Yet even though it may be difficult, everyone who performs professionally must work at developing self-confidence. This includes overcoming stage fright, which can be a problem for any musician who performs live.

Musicians must also be able to handle rejection. Successful musicians are those people who have the willingness and the courage to keep trying—even when it would be easier to give up. According to music publicist Ariel Hyatt, facing rejection is just part of being a musician: “Trying to make a living making music is not for the meek. If you are not willing to work very hard and have a lot of doors slammed in your face, don’t try to make a go of this… and if you can accept this and plow forward taking risks and not taking no for an answer, things will begin to happen.”7

Coping with Unpredictability

Rejection is not the only tough part of being a musician. They also have to live lives that can be stressful and unpredictable. For instance, musicians who spend a lot of time touring can be away from home for months at a time. They hop from city to city and from hotel to hotel, which can be frustrating. John McCrea, lead singer for the rock group Cake, describes how unglamorous and difficult touring can be: “If anyone thinks it’s easy to do, let them leave their homes and families and everything else they know for two years and then come back to discuss it with me… For a while, it’s great to go out and play in front of people who clearly want to hear you. But then you realize it’s the exact same thing night after night, and you feel less like an ‘artist’ and more like one of those performing bears at Chuck E Cheese.”8

Even musicians who do not tour have to cope with strange hours. Those who perform in nightclubs and theaters usually work at night and are often not finished performing until 2:00 a.m. or later. Musicians who perform with operas or symphony orchestras also endure unpredictable schedules. Flutist Mindy Kaufman works five or six days per week with the New York Philharmonic. She rehearses with the orchestra about twenty hours a week and performs in concerts three or four nights a week. She shares her thoughts on the schedule challenges faced by musicians: “We work on Saturday nights and almost every holiday—if you don’t want to work on holidays, if you want to go away on the weekends, you shouldn’t be a musician.”9

Another unpredictable aspect of a musician’s life is income, which can fluctuate radically. Musicians’ earnings depend on many factors. Those who perform in small, local clubs may earn only a few hundred dollars per performance. Well-known musicians who perform in large clubs and resorts may earn thousands of dollars, and those who become famous may earn millions. When they are just starting out, most musicians are unable to earn enough money to make a living. So, they often work at other jobs until their music careers take off.

All musicians, whether they play instruments or sing, are unique in their own way. Their career paths are often different, as are their education and training. But there are qualities they all share, such as talent, a commitment to work hard, and a willingness to accept the bad with the good. That is what makes them professional. That is what makes them succeed. And that is what makes them musicians.

5 Bedford, interview. fn6. Quoted in Sibley, “Interview.” fn7. Quoted in Alex Teitz, “Ariel Hyatt: Making a Name for Yourself and for Every Artist.” Articles About Ariel and Ariel Publicity. www.arielpublicity.com. fn8. Quoted in Barnes and Noble, “Devils Food for Thought,” July 24, 2001. http://music.barnesand noble.com. fn9. Quoted in Beth Nissen, “The Players: Career Musicians of the New York Philharmonic,” CNN. com/Career February 23, 2001. www.cnn.com.

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