How to Become a Professional Musician

Principle no 1: there are no shortcuts:

Let me say that again; there are no shortcuts. Now there’s a part of you that knows it’s true, but there’s another part of you that thinks ‘but I’ll be different, I’ll find a quicker way. You won’t, and it’ll take you just as long as anybody else. The reason all those websites promising ‘pro secrets’ or ‘7 day success’ exist is to exploit your ‘shortcut mind’. You know it’s a lie but still want to buy into it (sometimes literally). So the first thing you need to do is forget about short cuts. Then all that wasted energy can then be focused towards actually improving, slowly and surely.

Principle no 2: ask yourself why you play music

If the answer is to impress people with your skill or to become famous, then you’ll never be a great musician. The reason great musicians are great is because they speak to us. They have something to say other than ‘look at me’. So many musicians think that becoming great is just about acquiring technique. Skill is important, but it’s what you do with it that’s important. Technique is the vessel through which you say something. Most musicians sing words or play notes but don’t say anything with them. They’re afraid that if they do, people will reject their message. If you want to be great you must get over being timid and throw your personality into your music.

Principle no 3: being great doesn’t mean you’ll be an instant success

Becoming a great musician doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to lie back and wait to be discovered. That just doesn’t happen anymore. You’ll have to work on being great and work on promoting yourself. I promote some of the finest acoustic songwriters in the UK. These musicians aren’t just good, they’re spellbinding. A friend of mine, Sam Beer ( is doing everything right. His music is compelling and unique, his songs are as good as they get and he has the right image. Yet still he has to struggle, seeking out gigs and making himself known.. Sam will get there in time, he’s just too good, but it will take time. Are you prepared to wait? If you have a time limit on ‘becoming a success’ you’re pressuring yourself, and you’ll react by trying to please everyone.

Principle no 4: always enjoy your music

Many musicians think that to be a proper musician you must be serious, and that means squeezing all the joy out of it. Music should lift you, even on those difficult days. If it doesn’t do that you need to be asking yourself; why not? Being a musician can be a struggle but what keeps me going is playing music. All the rubbish, rejections, disappointments and success is just a means to an end to keep on playing as much as possible.

Principle no 5: find your uniqueness and highlight it

Find the things you do differently and build on them. Great musicians have a unique way of doing things, that’s why people are attracted to them. All too often musicians try to please everyone (except themselves) and end up being boring players. Great music divides listeners because of its uncompromising vision. If one half of your audience hates you but the other half loves you, you’re onto something. If everyone says it’s nice or ok, you need to think about what you’re trying to communicate, because you’re not hitting anyone at a deep level. Yet being unique isn’t about ‘just expressing yourself’, it’s about working hard on your music whilst developing a voice. Kurt Kobain worked damn hard to be so unique, yet many musicians fall into the trap that all they have to do is ‘be genuine’ and not worry about practice or technique.

Principle no 6: simple does not mean easy

It annoys me how many musicians think they are beyond ‘simple things’ such as timing, feel or basic chords, yet can’t play very well at all. I once knew a guitarist who knew all the solo’s on Ok Computer but couldn’t play G to D. He was so focused on learning complexity that he forgot to lay a foundation. The reason he couldn’t play solo’s was because he hadn’t learnt simple chords. Jimi Hendrix spent years and years playing simple rhythm guitar. Whilst it didn’t stretch him in the least it formed his style. His playing always weaved rhythm and lead so that they became one, laying complexity on top of simplicity. You are never ‘past simplicity’, if you think you are you’ll never get far.

Principle no 7: learn from people who are better than you

This is a difficult one, but once you give up trying to pretend you’re a genius you can learn from all the great music that surrounds you. Rather than wasting energy feeling you have to compete with something you can embrace and learn from it. Another trap to fall into is that you end up trying to reason with yourself that better music is just different, when deep down you know it’s really better. Look for musicians around you who aren’t famous yet still brilliant. It’s easy to say that you’re not as good as Bob Dylan, it’s harder to say it about a peer musician.

Principle no 8: keep a sense of humor

I see learning music as a spiritual challenge, and the better I get the easier it is to touch something divine. But within this journey there are massive ups and downs. Take all the setbacks lightly, don’t let any success go to your head, and always be glad for any good luck. It’s normal to get frustrated, but don’t let this become a default setting in your life and music.

Principle 9: don’t listen to everyone

There’s a time to listen to criticism or advice, and there’s a time to ignore it. In the stage of building something up you want to avoid judgment, otherwise it’s in danger of being torn apart. Once you have created something fully formed then you can invite judgment. Because you know what you have done and why you can evaluate criticism, and judge if it’s relevant.

Principle 10: don’t just tell one story

It’s natural to tell a story through anything you do, including music. But many musicians just run one story; I’m a singer songwriter; I only play fast metal guitar, I want to be a rockstar. One story musicians are walking clichés. As well as making you a boring musician, it also makes you narrow minded. You won’t listen to acoustic guitar because you only play electric, you won’t listen to punk because you’re a classical musician. Developing a unique sound requires you to cross pollinate. Creativity comes from the curiosity ‘what will happen if I take that and put it there?’. Try not to be limited by the stories you have about your music. For sure everybody has an image of what ‘kind’ of musician they are, but that needn’t be set in stone. A good thing to do is go to the library and find something ‘far away’ from where you are. If you’re a singer songwriter you don’t need another Neil Young CD, you need one on Indian raga songs or a George Gershwin musical. When you ‘stretch your musical wings’ you begin to have a lot more stories running and your music becomes a lot more creative.

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