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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Attending Music School

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With some of my students graduating college heading out into “real life”, and others graduating high school heading to college in the fall, it made me think about things I wish I had known ahead of time. Below are some tips that I either figured out during my college career or after I graduated that would have saved a bunch of time if I had known about them in advance.

1. No Gig Lasts Forever. All gigs come to an end because of one circumstance or another. A venue closes, a tour ends, someone quits, the band breaks up, someone dies, you get bored of playing the same thing, you start a family, another performance option arises, and the list goes on. No matter how good (or bad) things may be in a performance situation, it will end. Knowing and accepting that should give you a different approach when entering a position. Hopefully that is one of enjoying the opportunity while it lasts, and cherishing the people you are working with at the time.

2. Rehearsal Is A Luxury. In high school and college, there were a lot of rehearsals. Also, tons of practice time for said rehearsals. That is largely taken for granted when they are part of your academic schedule. Once in the “real world” there are many more tasks vying for your attention. Bills to be paid, chores to be done, groceries to be bought, schedules to figure out, emails to answer, social media to “like”, sleep, etc. Squeezing in hours upon hours of practice/rehearsal time just isn’t as easy. I highly suggest you spend your time in school learning how to rehearse efficiently and effectively, as well as maximizing your practice time.

3. Practice Quality Over Quantity. When you do get to practice, it isn’t about how long you can go for. It is more about how effective you can be in that time you have. Stay off of social media (easier said than done) and stick to the task at hand. Make goals for yourself and strive to achieve them in each session. Start slowly at first. Also, learn how to “practice” when you aren’t in the practice room. When I have to travel somewhere and don’t have drums in my hand, I make playlists of the music I need to perform and listen (and internalize) it on repeat, ad nauseam. That is just one example of how to maximize the time in your day to your musical advantage. (For more examples, see my blog post from Feb 2015)

4. Flexibility And Versatility For Longevity. Flexibility applies to not just on the stage. First, knowing that no show will ever be “perfect”, and that most times “something” happens, it will be out of your control. It is how you adjust and recover to keep going and make the show great. Next, the more you start working, there will be conflicts. Scheduling, budgeting, traveling, personalities, anything you can think of. You will need to be flexible when those come up too, while keeping a level head. Lastly, the more versatile you can be with your playing, the more you will get called to work. It is ok to specialize in a particular style of music, but if you can play many genres (very well), then you will get called by more people to work. Which in turn will lend for your flexibility with scheduling to work with several different groups and artists.

5. Collaboration Over Competition. There was a point where I wanted to be “the best” percussionist and I would compare myself to others (in my head). Growing up there were always competitions to audition for and enter in. Then one day I asked myself what does “the best” mean? When I realized that it wasn’t a competition and that there is room for everyone, music became more fun. I also started to realize the same people I was comparing myself with (in my head) ended up being musicians I would share the stage with or sub for on gigs (or call to sub for me). Realizing that we were all in the trenches together, and that paths would cross often, made playing music a more family-like camaraderie.

6. Off The Stage Is Just As Important. If you are a great performer, who knows all the notes, and can play every inversion of every chord invented with blazing speed, that’s great. Kudos to you. However, that can be all derailed if you don’t have things in order off of the stage. Showing up on time (early), learning your music BEFORE the gig, being a kind person to be around, regularly grooming (and cleaning) yourself, dressing with the proper attire for the gig, and treating EVERYONE with courtesy and respect. These things are usually looked at as secondary to your playing, but I know for a fact that people can get hired because they have the “off the stage” skills on point while maybe being just an OK musician. Your playing doesn’t supersede being a great human being.

7. It’s Who Knows You. Networking is an important part of any business, especially those careers in the arts and entertainment. I have constantly heard, “It’s all about who you know!”, but I would beg to differ. I know a lot of people. There are even more who I know of. My phone doesn’t ring as much by those people as it does with people who know me. Those people that know me and what I do are the ones who call me. There is a level of trust and respect that has been built by me doing my job well which keeps my name and number in the minds of people that call me for work. The more that I work, I realize that the group of people making all the decisions and calling all the shots gets smaller and smaller.

PRO-TIP: I have also heard the phrase “You’ve gotta be in the right place at the right time” more times than I can count. That is only part of it. You also need to realize that you are in the right place at the right time, AND take the initiative to seize the opportunity at hand.

8. Marathon Not A Sprint. With all of the reality talent shows (i.e. American Idol, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, etc.) people can get enamored with overnight success not realizing how many years went into what is being witnessed on a 60 minute TV show. There are always tricks and gimmicks to gain awareness, and they may help you go viral, but the ones who continuously work hard and put out great content have longevity in their careers. There are no shortcuts to becoming great and those that cut corners will eventually be revealed for what they are. Put in the time and work each day and you will eventually be rewarded for it.

9. Your Body Is Part Of Your Instrument. This is especially true for vocalists. You need to take care of your body to be able to perform your instrument at the best you can. Setting yourself up for success is the first step in having a prosperous career. Keeping physically fit is part of taking care of yourself, but so is respectfully dealing with substances. This can mean alcohol, drugs (legal or illegal), supplements, and medicines. Monitoring your diet, allergies, getting enough rest and staying hydrated are all included as well. Staying healthy means you can work and make music. No one can hire you if you are sick or in a hospital.

10. Learn The Business Of Music. Music is an art form, but it is also a medium in which business is conducted. You should learn how basic businesses work. This can include contracts, marketing and promotion, building websites/social media pages, giving people enough time to react to the information given, doing taxes etc. There are also specific aspects to the music industry like royalties, the musicians union, song rights and licensing, among others. There are endless stories of musicians being taken advantage of people who were more knowledgable on the business side. I encourage you to become as savvy with the business of music as you are with navigating the music you are playing.

I hope you have a long and lucrative career in music and you never get taken advantage of or injured. Love what you do and remember that you GET to play music for a living (or are on your way to making this happen for yourself). There are far less attractive and enjoyable jobs you could be doing day in and day out. Stay humble and respectful and realize you are very fortunate.