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Steps to Becoming a Professional Musician

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Being a professional musician can mean a lot of different things. Recording sessions are done in a variety of ways these days — from in-person, in-the-studio dates to remote collaborations using pre-recorded tracks and file-sharing. Live music performances can range from one-night stand-alone gigs to pit band theater runs, tours, and more.

But whatever gig you land as a professional musician — whether you are recording a song for a producer or being hired for a live music performance, there will be specific expectations, depending on the style of music and scope of the project.

Preparation for professional music gigs

If you want to make it as a professional musician, you need to constantly practice and hone your chops, whether your goal is studio work or performance gigs.

Practice with backing tracks

Playing live with great musicians is the best way to become a pro, but you can also use backing tracks, drum machines, and DAWs to woodshed and build up to those live performance experiences. Creating your own multi-track recordings, playing as many parts as you can, will help you understand how to build a song while providing a good base to work with when practicing your part.

In addition to learning your part, this multi-tracking approach will help you learn other parts that you don’t usually play. This obviously doesn’t make you an expert in all instruments, but it will help you develop arranging skills, which are really useful when playing and recording with other musicians. Knowing what someone else will be playing allows you to make better decisions about your own parts.

Learn music theory

Knowing music theory is a skill that is sometimes ignored or met with hostility. You don’t have to be a pro at music theory, but understanding music basics is important. Online guitar lessons are simple, detailed, and affordable, so it’s easy to find ways to learn your theory and improve your technique. So, do everyone a favor and study your music!

Each professional music gig is unique

It would be nice to say that all paying opportunities are straightforward and filled with professional musicians and producers who know their stuff. But music, like any industry, means that sometimes you work with people who do not have the skills or abilities they imagine they do, and as you develop your skills and gain experience, you’ll see it really quickly.

While your goal will be to avoid the bad projects and shows while taking on the best gigs with the best pay supported by knowledgeable people, you’ll run into problems sometimes. Just remember, if you are being hired as a session artist, lyricist, or producer for a project, it is not your job to fix underlying problems. All you should be doing is providing the necessary musical service.

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Live gigs

If you follow social media and plug in to your local music scene, you will find many bands and projects are looking for people to fill in or join. If you hone your skills with persistent practice, you could earn a reputation playing for bands that command good-paying gigs. Just be sure to keep your behavior professional and remain drink- and drug-free during performances. The better you act and perform, the more chances you will have at landing future gigs.

The best way to gauge how a live show will be is during practice — there you can assess any potential problems that may end up coming off as more amateur musician than professional. Any creative situation is bound to have its issues, but keep your eyes on the prize and play through.

Recording sessions

Studios come in all varieties these days, including small garages and rooms in homes. They may all be suitable places for fulfilling work — don’t assume the best equipment and a pristine space equates to working with a top pro. Some excellent small-time composers may provide tracks for large streaming services and many need to hire guitarists, drummers, and other session artists for recording.

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It is common these days to be sent tracks from other musicians for you to add onto — this has become a modern component of playing together. While this method has benefits — you can spend more time working on ideas or learning parts — it can also feel a little less organic, though repetition and experience working like this makes it more and more comfortable.

All these experiences are great practice if you are working up to playing with larger, A-list studios. If you can build an impressive portfolio with smaller projects, you may get the attention of these bigger players. Whether you are in a ritzy studio or recording a simple track for a home producer, both situations will run smoother and lead to more projects if you work hard, know your stuff, and accept criticism.

Learn from your mistakes

There is no single path to becoming a professional musician, songwriter, session artist, performer, or instrumentalist — everyone in the industry has a unique career. But you must be responsible and practiced in your craft to help others succeed, and learning from your mistakes will help you grow as an artist and help you determine which clients and shows you’re best suited for.

Getting paid

Music isn’t always the most lucrative occupation, especially when you’re starting out — there is truth in the reality of paying your dues — but if you want to be a pro, you need to view it as a job, and you must be compensated. When everyone has real money to work for, there is a tendency for there to be less of an urge to fight, nitpick, and create drama. Maybe the upper echelons of famous rock stars can get wild, but the regular working musician needs to play the gig, record the song, enjoy the process, and find the next job!

The best you can do is put yourself out there and take as many jobs as you can while avoiding situations that may be troublesome. On your way to being a professional musician, practice your craft, learn about music, and keep an open mind and you are bound to have great experiences and flourish in professional music settings

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About Shawn Leonhardt

Shawn Leonhardt is a freelance writer for Guitar Tricks, the original online guitar lessons program since 1998. With over four million members, Guitar Tricks is the premier guitar lessons platform for beginner guitarists and advanced players alike.

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