The initial mistakes (almost) every young musician makes

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Every young musician – or anyone starting out on a music career path – has a lot to navigate and understand about where to focus his or her time and energy. Here’s a quick guide to help you find your focus and take the first steps.

young musician career choices
As part of my touring schedule with Marbin, I get to teach a lot of clinics in universities all over the country. I was surprised to find out that a great percentage of music students are clueless about what they want to do after graduation. They know they want to be musicians, but they don’t fully comprehend what it actually means to earn a living as a musician. When pressed, they say they want to do a little of everything, but the truth is that’s not possible – at least not at a high level.

It takes different kinds of musicians with different skills to play original music, teach in a university, play jazz, play theater, compose music for film, or play in a wedding band.

If you’re a young musician, or find yourself in the same place as these students, I have bad news and good news for you. The bad news is that every field in music is extremely competitive. The good news is that once you decide exactly what you want to do, you will have a big advantage in finding success. Here are a few examples of musical career paths and some key points you might want to consider when choosing the right one for you.

Be part of a jazz scene

A jazz musician needs to know, by heart, as many standards as possible (i.e. hundreds). It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, most jazzers don’t rehearse and don’t decide on a set list in advance. If you don’t know some of the tunes being called, then it doesn’t matter how great you play, you won’t get called back. You won’t believe how many times I’ve met musicians who consider themselves jazz musicians who can barely play 10 songs without the Real Book.

Weddings and corporate events

Being able to sing is a huge help in getting these kinds of gigs; looking dapper goes a long way, as well. Invest in a nice suit and dress shoes. If you don’t sing, it’s important to play on an instrument present in many popular songs. It doesn’t matter how awesome you play on soprano sax, oboe, or French horn, it won’t be any help on a Bon Jovi song.

Theater

There are two important skills in theater: reading and doubling. The more instruments you play, the better. One song demands alto saxophone; a second, piccolo; and a third, bass clarinet. If you play moderately well on those three you’ll get hired even before Charlie Parker who is the best alto player in history. It’s the same principal if you don’t play a wind instrument. Bassists, for example, should play upright and electric, and learn how slap, play finger style, and with a pick.

Academia

You don’t need much formal education to teach private lessons or in a guitar store (though any and all experience is a benefit), but to teach at Juilliard you need at least a graduate degree, and a doctorate is even better. The school you went to also plays a big part in being considered for a teaching position.

Film scoring

A majority of original film scores these days are compiled with MIDI and samples. Most productions don’t want (or can’t afford) to rent a nice studio for a string quartet, pay four musicians, and then mix and master. A high-quality MIDI pack is expensive, but necessary, if composing for films is what you want to do.

Getting this and a small home studio to record vocals is a good beginning.

Original music

Practice, find (or start) a band, write songs (at least three hours of material), record an album, and let’s go. In the beginning take every show you can – even if unpaid. The rule of thumb I try to follow when booking is very simple: If the venue makes money, I want to make money, and if the venue is making money thanks to me, I want a bigger cut. If you play an empty club, you can’t expect to make anything. Your job is to create a strong experience that draws people in. That’s the reason you’re hired.

Be available

One last thing that’s true for whatever direction you choose is to be available. If you get called for a wedding and you’re on the road touring, they won’t call you again. When you have to teach jazz harmony 102, you can’t go on tour and miss half a semester. Every path is a full-time job. Treat it seriously and you’ll be rewarded.

If you have any questions, add them to the comment section below.

Road sign image via ShutterStock.com.

Marbin is an instrumental rock band that first started in 2007 as an improvised music duo consisting of Israeli-American guitarist Dani Rabin and Israeli saxophonist Danny Markovitch. Since 2008, Marbin has been living in Chicago and performing all over the United States, playing over 250 shows a year with John Lauler (bass) and Greg Essig (drums). Learn more and ask questions on Marbin’s Facebook page or email MarbinMusic@gmail.com.

A recently released video of Marbin playing their song “African Shabtay” off their fifth album, Aggressive Hippies. Purchase the album on CD Baby.

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9 thoughts on “The initial mistakes (almost) every young musician makes

  1. Im sorry but I disagree with this statement. “A jazz musician needs to know, by heart, as many standards as possible (i.e. hundreds)” You do not need to know hundreds of standards by heart. I know some working jazz musicians in the industry, and they do not know hundreds of standards. I had a lesson with Grace Kelly and she told me its more important to study 10 standards deeply than to try and memorize as many as you can. Also, maybe musicians care about how many standards a musician knows but regular people like to see original music more. I personally have more respect for jazz musicians who only knows 10 standards by heart and also has written beautiful original music vs. a jazz musician who knows hundreds of standards but has no original music.

  2. Being available is one of the most important aspects of working as a musician. Unfortunately a mistake that many of us make is to prioritize our social life over working. It’s easy to pass on a last minute job because we already have plans, but if we don’t take the job they might not ever call again.

  3. I was just wondering if I might be able to get some answers directed towards hip-Hop. I’m rather stuck and have not found much research as to the beginning. I do read where one in the genre might have came from but not really how they turned hip hop from hobby to Career. (Without any connections)

    1. Hi Mike!

      I don’t know too much about hip-hop, but I’m guessing that the business model is the same as the one I mentioned for original music. Get a solid set together. Find venues that cater to hip-hop. Play and make fans. That’s the way to do it.

      Hope that helps.

  4. Hello,

    I am currently in a band and we have finally put out an album. We also have found a guy that won’t mind doing booking for us. We are just about done with our website. Exactly what you have said we need to do, we have done. From here, what is a good way to get your foot in the door? We have a sound that we are very confident is entertaining and our own. Would it be recommended to just apply to some venues via their website, or is it best to make personal contact? First impressions are big, and it is hard to tell what the industry standard is for booking gigs out of town at somewhere that you have never played before. Thanks for the article, it was a good read!

    Mason

  5. very informative. I’d be interested in hearing more details about jazz and movies, but I understand it’s supposed to be a summery.

    great video btw!

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