I am soon to turn 65 years of age. I have applied for Social Security, I have embraced Medicare, and due to health conditions have pretty much retired from active playing (I am a bassist/guitarist) .
Having been at home fairly constantly this last year due to the pandemic and my health concerns, I have had a lot of time to reflect on what I think is important – and I have had a good deal of time to look back on my life and tally up what I did right, and what I did that could have been done better.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way first. The most important things I got right have to do with the woman I married and the children we raised. THOSE things… I nailed.Wanted to let you know that up front, as the rest of this will not be a family advice episode. But everything I WILL speak to is laid on a foundation of a wife, children, and grandchildren that love me and believe in me; and God Who has found me and saved me. I am unabashedly a Christian and that tradition frames my every thought and deed.
One further contextual note -I have been teaching private music lessons full-time since 2000, and much of what you will read in this section will come from conversations and experiences I have had with various students throughout these last twenty-one years.
1. Take the time to do the work while you have time to do the work.
This is one thing I tell any of my students who say they want to be REALLY good. While you are in Middle School, High School, and College, you have MUCH more time you can devote to upping your music game than you will have once you are out of school. Real life will come at you like a freight train. Put the practice time and study time in NOW before your spare time goes running away like the Roadrunner at a Wile E. Coyote family reunion. I don’t demand that my students practice much, but this is how I tell if they are committed or not, and I adjust my lessons accordingly. Now before you get all hoighty-toity with me, let me tell you what I have discovered over the years of teaching. There are a few reasons kids take lessons. – THEY want to, their PARENTS want them to, or it is a welcome respite from the craziness of their lives. None of these are bad. When I figure out which one of these categories a student falls in to, I adjust the lesson and the workload accordingly, and I adjust my expectations accordingly. You just cannot use a cookie-cutter approach to teaching music. It’s a highly individualized art form, not a cookie-cutter everybody-does-the-same-thing art form. Me? I wanted to learn, and AND it was a respite from the craziness in my life. I spent several hours a day playing the guitar for my first few years. I no longer have several hours a day to devote to practicing anymore (real-life), so the time spent as a young student practicing has paid off. I took advantage of the time when I had the time.
2. Learn How to Practice
Did you ever hear the phrase “Practice makes perfect” when growing up? It’s a lie. PERFECT practice makes perfect. When I was at the Armed Forces School of Music (1975-1976), there were five bassists in the program at that time. Of those five bassists, I was the fifth best bassist when we started (you do the math). When I graduated, after all those hours in the practice rooms and performances, I graduated fifth out of the five bassists (I just HATE math!). I never made it out of the basement. Why? I think the answer is found in a conversation I had with the best bassist in the school. I asked him why I was struggling with every lesson and he breezed through each lesson, even though we were using the same bass books, had the same instructor, played in the same bands etc. His response jarred me. He told me:
“You have no focus. You always start your practice time with the assignment, but in a matter of minutes you just wander off into stuff you already know. When I practice I will take 10 minutes and do JUST ONE THING. If it’s a scale I will do that scale for 10 minutes. In that ten minutes, I will probably play that scale 80-90 times. I will OWN that scale after 10 minutes. The second 10 minutes I will do another thing he wants me to work on. The third ten minutes, I will devote to another thing etc. For ten minutes at a time, I am focused on one thing. Until you get that, you will always be in the basement.”
Tough words. True words. I have never forgotten that conversation. And this is the first thing I teach every student. Learning to practice like this will also benefit you when that “real-life” thing comes barreling at you after college. You would be surprised how much 10-15 minutes of focused practicing can benefit you.
3. If Music is going to be a big part of your future… DIVERSIFY
If you are learning music for your own enjoyment and have no intentions of playing or writing for anybody else, then ignore this. But if you have intentions of making music a major source of your income, you must diversify. You must listen to and study different styles, whether or not you like those styles. You MUST pay attention to other musical disciplines i.e. music production, recording, sound engineering , song-writing (composition) and so on.
I had a bass student that only lasted two lessons with me. In our first lesson I asked him what I ask every brand new student: “what would you love to do more than anything else in the world with your music?” His response to me was “I would like to be a professional musician like you are” – the ensuing conversation was more or less like this:
Me: “ let’s look at some southern rock bands and learn some of their tunes first.“
Him: “I hate southern rock.”
Me: “let’s look at some blues bands then.”
Him: “I hate the blues.“
I think you can see where this is going. I covered all the genres that you would hear in a pop and a rock and blues world. His response was the same that he hated whatever the genre was. I then asked him “what music DO you like?” He responded “I like thrash metal!” I just stared at him for a minute and said “Thrash metal is fine. But you said you wanted to make a living as a musician. And you have to realize that you are deep in the heart of Dixie, and yet you say you will not play any of the music that people in this part of the country love to hear”. He only took two lessons with me and then he was gone. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with thrash metal, but if playing for others is in your future, you need to be able to provide the music that your audience wants to hear. Of course you want to write your own music and have that accepted – I get that. But if you are playing in a public venue deep in the heart of Dixie, there should be some Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman brothers etc. in your playlist. Over my 40 years as a professional player I learned to play everything from big band music of the 40s to the rock tunes of the 60 and 70s, country tunes straight out of downtown Nashville, and any of the popular tunes that were popular in the year that I was playing them.
Diversification in music also involves other disciplines within the music world, not just the different genres. Over the years I took advantage of opportunities to do musical things that did NOT involve my playing. I learned how to run live sound for a band (an excellent place to learn this is at your local church – it seems EVERY church is looking for volunteers to help in the sound world); I learned to use Logic ProX and learned basic recording techniques; I even went back to school when I was 58 to get a graduate degree in music composition!
Diversification is all about giving yourself options. In life everything ebbs and flows, and inevitably some gigs might go away, but if you have skills developed in other areas, you can often make up the difference from ANOTHER area you have skills in. It takes time to do all this, but if you’re going to make a living as a musician, Say what the Mandalorian would say: “this is the way”. Which leads me to the next section.
4. Expand your view and get lots of buckets
When I left the Navy Music program in 1979, I decided I was going to make my living in the music world as a player. It was all I knew, and in my mind’s eye – that was what a professional musician did to make his or her money. But there was a small problem – at the time, the musician’s union in that area (Oakland and San Francisco) held sway over the best gigs. No problem. I would join the Musician’s Union – which I did. But here’s the problem. I had to be ready to drop whatever it was that I was doing if they called me up for a gig. With a wife, a child, and another child on the way, there was no way I could afford to sit around waiting on that call to come. So I quickly decided that it wasn’t in the cards for me to be a professional musician. My family is more important to me than music will EVER be, and they did not deserve to starve while I pursued my dream. My thought was “I can’t be a professional musician because I can’t get the studio gigs.”
What a narrow and nearsighted view THAT was of being a professional musician. I needed a bigger and more inclusive view of what it means to be a professional musician.
Fast forward to late 2001. I had become a network engineer. The events of 9/11 unfolded and my company laid off a lot of people, myself included. I started a video production company, which folded within the year, taking all of my money with it. I went through bankruptcy, losing everything except my house and one car. The only job I could find was teaching guitar lessons at a local music store. It was not nearly enough to support my wife and I (the kids were out on their own by this time), so I added some homeschool teaching gigs to the week. Within a couple of years, I found myself teaching private lessons in three locations, and teaching music at three private academies. I had the occasional gigs with bands and some studio work as well. Not one of these endeavors was enough in and of itself. But collectively, it added up to enough. One day I woke up and realized… I AM making my living solely from music – I had realized my dream of being a vocational musician. Each one of the jobs I had was like a small bucket collecting money. Together, all those buckets were enough.
So – diversify yourself as far as skillsets go (player, sound engineer, composer, etc), but ALSO diversify your income sources. Today’s professional musician has to become “King of the Hustle”.
My view of what a professional musician looks like today is a much bigger one than the one I had back in 1979. I have lots of small buckets of income . I record, I play live (a little), I have composed music for choirs, dance companies and a few short films, and I teach private lessons locally and online.
My life has its ebbs and flows – and since the pandemic, my personal private lessons have taken a hit. But I have increased my online lesson activity to help make up the difference. One bucket went away and another bucket was added.
Diversify… that’s a good word.
5. Don’t forget to have fun.
This may be the most important thing I would want to tell my younger me. In the process of hustling to make the money, it
can get easy to forget just WHY you became a musician. For me – it was simple – I LOVED music. I would play for hours and never call it practice – it was fun. But there came a time after 2001, when I became a full-time musician, when it became a job like any other. You wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner… wash, rinse, repeat. I was playing or writing music others wanted me to play and write (and that’s not bad – our job as a musician is primarily to provide the music an AUDIENCE wants, not necessarily what I want). I don’t know when precisely it happened, but at some point a switch flipped and I decided to learn how to write sacred choral music and to study counterpoint. Why? There was no “market” for what I would come up with. Nobody was listening to the style of music I wanted to write/compose. My sole reason for doing this was – I wanted to. That style fascinates me, and the sound of that music captivates me. So I do it – for the sheer joy of it. It is so different from anything else I do musically. It’s like composing choral music is an oasis of joy in the midst of all the busy-ness of my other endeavors.
So have SOMETHING you do that is just because YOU want to do it. I have a good friend who is a marvelous bassist… and the the thing he loves to do is build bass guitars. That is his happy place.
Well, that about covers it. I don’t believe in regrets, because I believe everything in my life – good and bad – happens for a reason. Everything I have experienced and seen throughout the years has molded me to be the person I am right now. And I like this version of me. Having said that, though, there ARE things I wish I would have known which I have enumerated here. These are the things I tell any of my students who are considering music as a career.
One last piece of advice from older me to younger me: Don’t sweat it. You’re going to be fine.
Mr G out.