I recently had an interesting conversation with a young man who had aspirations to be a professional musician. He was a songwriter, a guitarist, and also helped lead worship at his church. In my opinion, he is a gifted young man with a lot of potential.
In the conversation, I was trying to encourage him to take the steps necessary to make his aspirations a reality. He knew I was playing regularly at a local restaurant in town, and was surprised at how much money I made for three hours of work.
“It’s not that hard,” I told him. “Just learn about fifty songs, and get out there and play.”
He thought pensively for a moment. “That’s a lot of work,” he replied.
At that point, I held my tongue. And maybe I shouldn’t have. But I thought to myself, “A professional musician will practice and play 4-6 hours a day to attain the level of proficiency necessary to master his or her craft. Wouldn’t you rather get paid to practice?”
In a separate incident, another young man was eager to meet with me. Over coffee, he told me of his aspirations to be a worship leader, maybe even as a vocation. I encouraged him in his desire to carefully consider the cost of this very special calling. A few weeks later, he was in rotation on the worship band, and I handed him some sheet music for a piece we were to play that Sunday. He looked at it like it was written in Klingon. “If you’re going to be a worship leader, you’ve gotta learn how to read notes,” I stated assuredly but matter-of-factly. That was the last time he talked to me about being a worship leader.
I think there’s a prevalent attitude out there that writing a good song and having a good voice and a pretty face—and then getting a few lucky breaks—is all that it takes to “make it” these days. Consider the continuing success of “American Idol.” And maybe that might still be true for a few people out there—though I don’t know of any. But the majority of professional musicians are either working their butts off, or they get out of the business.
Talent and natural ability and proficiency are not the qualities necessary for success in the music business. They are prerequisites for success. Then there are people skills, business savvy, gigs, endlessly practicing your instrument—and just a whole lot of sweat equity. Why is touring a necessary element for the up-and-coming band? Not only to promote your music, but to gain experience and expertise on stage, to work on your stage presence and develop your style and musicality.
We are artists. And the Latin word for “art” is tecnicus, from which we derive the word technique. It is implied in the label that the artist has skills that must be developed and honed and rehearsed, in order to attain skill and competency.
At the risk of sounding ancient, I use the Beatles as an example. When they exploded onto the music scene in the early sixties, it seemed like they came out of nowhere. But people forget that by the time they hit the Ed Sullivan Show, they had amassed maybe thousands of stage hours (not including rehearsal hours) in clubs in Hamburg, Liverpool, etc. Those hours forged them into a tight band with a unique chemistry and a special sound.
Now I’m not saying that you can’t have fun. On the contrary, if you aren’t having fun, then maybe you should seriously rethink your career goals. But the path to success in most any endeavor—including music—simply requires work.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice.
More recently, I was talking to still another young man, about the same age, who was up visiting his parents from the LA area. He was attending Musician’s Institute, and was loving it. He told me he was practicing his guitar constantly, maybe 6-8 hours a day, learning the different variety of musical styles, theory, technique, and also the business of music as well. He had just taken a master class on funk from the rhythm guitarist for Earth, Wind, and Fire, and he was learning that the difference between funk and punk was more than one letter.
His parents told me recently that he and a few friends had just landed their first gig—a long, four hour set at a club in the LA. He and some fellow students pooled together 30+ tunes in a week’s time, took it to the club, and had a blast playing there. And they were asked back. When I heard that, I thought to myself, “Well then, maybe he just might make it.”
Of course, hard work is no guarantee for success. But the lack of hard work is almost a guarantee of never having it.