Tips on being a pro when you're still young

Written by Metro Music Makers instructor J.T. Lee (pictured above)

Being a musician usually comes with the stigma of being labeled with the normal stereotypes of an artist: being late, half put-together, and a bit of an airhead. Anyone who has been in the industry for more than five minutes knows that artists with these issues never make it. As someone who hires musicians often for various projects, there are a few things I look for in the people I’m booking. So what are some basic practices that you can start doing now, even as a student, to start looking like a professional?

1.Be on Time
We all know how quickly a short trip here in Atlanta can become a long one. Just last night it took my wife over an hour to drive to an event that is normally about 25 minuets from the house. It is especially important to account for things like that. When it comes to playing music, one of the surest ways to lose a gig is to show up late. The person you’re playing for doesn’t appreciate it, nor do the clients you’re teaching. The best musicians are always early to the gigs, so they can have time to set up ahead of time, and be ready to start on time. The easiest way to impress people is to be on time and stay on time.

2.Be Prepared
There are times when people can be forgiving if you’re a little late, but no one wants to work with someone who doesn’t know their stuff. You have to be ready to perform, or able to learn on the fly. I can’t count the number of times I have shown up only to have a new song thrown at me. Yes, it’s important to show up knowing what you’re supposed to, but it’s also important to know enough about your instrument to be able to go with the flow. That is why studying scales, having a deep knowledge of music theory, and being well-practiced in fundamentals is so important.

We all know life is busy, but the people looking to hire you for a gig don’t care what you had to do before rehearsal. Your job is to be prepared, know your stuff, and have all your gear and every other tool needed to pull off the show. All of your school clubs and homework are no excuse for being unprepared. People looking to hire musicians are looking for people that can take a huge workload, handle it well, and still perform.

Also, disadvantage for most young people is that you have to be overly prepared to succeed. Music directors tend to hire the same guys over and over because they can trust them. You may have to look twice as good as you are at a young age to get half of the respect, so being prepared is extra important when you’re younger.

3.Dress the Part
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a proponent of wearing traditional business dress. In fact, every area of music has a different style of dress. One of my former employees once made the statement that “every job has a uniform.” This is true even in music. No matter what style of music you’re into, wear something that communicates that style. Now, also be smart enough to know the limits of your audience. While I may always have on a pair of tight jeans, if I am walking into a traditional setting, I will do something to dress it up, like wearing a button-up and a blazer. Also, if I am walking into an orchestra concert, I’m probably wearing a tux (and a cool hat). As a teacher, I’m careful to look the part that people think I should, but without looking like a slob. Dress the part, according to your style, but also take your audience into account. If you need help with style, feel free to reach out and let me introduce you to my personal stylist, my wife. (For real, she’s great at it!)

4.Be Organized 
This one’s tough, even for me. I struggle with organization, but I have found a few things that help. The first is a simple excel spreadsheet. I love using Excel to organize my schedule, usually in thirty minute to hour blocks. I’m not always the best self-starter, but if I have a schedule to stick to, I can usually do it. This helps me plan in timed things like practicing and writing.

Also, create a rhythm to follow. I know that I teach pretty heavy at the beginning of the week, and I work more creatively in the middle and end of the week. Find your natural rhythm according to school, sports, work, and anything else in order to best utilize your time so you can grow musically. Some weeks are busier than others, but most people are creatures of habit and often have the same times available to work each week. Find your most efficient work rhythm and schedule like crazy to take advantage of it.

Finding rhythm can also help you in the practice room and on gigs. Find a way of working that best grows and showcases your talents. I know that when I sit down to practice, I need to warm up before jumping into anything too hard. I also know that I’m worthless without food (or coffee) so I never go into a practice room or show up to a gig or lesson with an empty stomach. Otherwise, I’m a bit of a jerk, and that’s the worst thing to be if you’re in an industry where people need to like you. Which leads me to my final point…

5.Be Nice 
No one wants to work with a jerk. The quickest way to look like an amateur is to be someone who loses their cool quickly and often. Do your best to have some self-control, even when people don’t deserve it. Being cool and being a good hang is a quick way to get a few callbacks. Every musician has an off day musically, but people will look past those sometimes if you’re great to hang out with. There are times that having a good attitude will be the key to getting you in the door and keeping you on the gig. So if you’re tired, hungry, or mad at the dude that cut you off on the way to the gig, GET OVER IT, and be the best person you can in the moment. The people you’re playing with and the people you’re playing for deserve your best, and that includes your best attitude.

So if you want to look like a pro no matter your age, be on time and overly prepared, dress your part, have some type of organizational system, and just be cool. Stay humble, hustle hard, and follow these few pointers, and you’ll go far!

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