5 Traits of a Professional Musician

Being a musician is awesome. It’s almost a crime that people are allowed to play music for a living. But like crime, music doesn’t usually pay. To get the gigs that pay, and keep getting them, musicians need to exude a high level of professionalism that is often a lot less glamorous than the sexy life of a rock star. While these qualities might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many prima donnas out there don’t get it.

1) Follows directions well.

Because most musicians make a living playing music for other people, they have to be good at doing what those people want. If that sounds vague, it is. Whether you’re hired to play a wedding, write a jingle, perform as a sideman, be a studio musician, be a pit musician on Broadway (or your local community theater), you have to be good at taking directions.

More often than not, those directions are poorly communicated by people that don’t know music, but a professional musician knows how to translate any kind of instruction quickly, without getting frustrated, and make the client happy. Other times you’re getting quick directions from a music director that knows exactly what she wants, and your ability to adapt quickly is key. These are one way communications where there’s either no time to ask questions. Performing well in this type of scenario will get you recommendations and ultimately more work.

2) Well organized.

In a nutshell, keep a calendar and learn how to tell time. There’s nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than tardiness. In a world of great players scraping together $50 gigs to make ends meet, schedules are usually both busy and erratic. Everyone is trying to squeeze a rehearsal in before teaching a lesson and then get to a gig later that night. But if you can’t keep track of everything and be where you need to be on time, you’ll lose work. Plain and simple.

Additionally, you will probably need to keep track of a large amount of material. Many sidemen play in multiple bands and have to learn both original music by songwriters that hire them, and cover songs for weddings or corporate gigs. Storing all this music in your head gets easier with practice, but in the beginning you’ll need to learn how to organize it. Matt Baldoni, a successful and very busy freelance guitarist, wrote an article on learning music quickly and efficiently.

There’s a saying among musicians that goes something like this:

An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

3) Good communication skills.

When dealing with people that don’t know anything about music and not much more about the business, you have to be able to lead most of the conversation. Offer suggestions, draw up contracts, and know how to say what you want without coming off as brash or greedy. Don’t be too proud to ask questions.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll be dealing with other musicians. Show up to the first rehearsal with the music prepared. If it’s your gig or you are the music director, make sure your music is written neatly or created in a program like Finale or Sibelius. Make sure the sheet music communicates the road map of the tune clearly (repeats, coda, etc.). If you expect the other musicians to learn from a CD or MP3s, make sure they have the proper tracks and are aware of any key changes or cuts that are not on the recordings. These things will make the first rehearsal run as smoothly as possible.

4) Plays well with others.

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised. Not only should you be able to play your butt off, you should be able to tone it down and play what’s called for in the music. Stereotypically speaking, guitar players are notorious for turning their amps up too loud and never shutting up. Singers zone out when they’re not singing and miss their entrances. Drummers are too loud. Horn players don’t listen to each other and sound sloppy as a whole section. This is all Music 101, but it’s often over looked.

While it’s very important to nail your solo, it’s more important to blend in with the ensemble or make the soloist sound better. Playing tastefully and in the appropriate style will get you more calls than being able to shred.

5) Prepared for the job.

Ultimately, the big difference between a professional and everyone else is preparation. This is the same in any field. A professional salesman is expected to know his product. A professional marketer is expected to know her target audience. A professional custodian is expected to know what kind of cleaner to use on what surface. Likewise, a professional musician is expected to show up for the gig with the right instruments, dressed appropriately, and prepared to nail the music. Let me repeat part of that. A professional musician dresses appropriately. Whatever the gig, make sure you know what to wear. Flip flops are probably a bad idea unless a grass skirt is involved.

In summary, if you want to establish yourself as a professional musician, step back and evaluate these five qualities. Music is a highly competitive field, and mastering your instrument is simply the first step to becoming a working musician. For those that want to take their craft to the next level, the thing that sets professionals apart from the rest is what they can do beyond playing their instrument.

Published by

Cameron Mizell

New York guitarist Cameron Mizell is involved in a wide variety of musical projects. He has released many of his own albums independently, including his latest, Tributary. Cameron's experiences as a musician and former record label employee give him a unique perspective on the musician industry, which he enjoys sharing on MusicianWages. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

23 thoughts on “5 Traits of a Professional Musician”

  1. Excellent how-to post. And it shows how well-rounded most artists have to be — and why its best to save one’s quirkiness for one’s art. Musicians and other artists have to be able to function in the world if they are to survive. Really enjoyed reading your post. Thanks!

  2. Great stuff. My only comment on communication skills is to enlist others in joining me on a personal crusade to eliminate the repeat sign and the coda sign from printed music. Back when paper was expensive and hand copying even more so, I just don’t think they are worth it anymore. I say that repeats save paper and waste rehearsal time since somebody always misses them. Which is more precious in today’s age? The paper or the rehearsal time?

    1. I don’t know, Matt. One of the best reasons for saving paper is to minimize page turns. As a bassist, music will suffer if there’s no rests for a page turn, and the rhythm players are usually consistently playing. Repeats help out in that manner, as well.

      We all miss repeats or codas here and there, but that’s something that should rarely happen to the quality working musician. Happened to me once last week, and I was mad at myself while the bandleader was chuckling a bit and telling me not to worry. He knows I’m usually better than that.

      In the end, you’re going to get different notational practices with each chart you look at. It’s better to get familiar with every engraver’s musical dialect than it is to tell them and publishing houses to change their styles.

  3. great list –
    i think , you must be more organzied, reliable , aware and flexable than most… almost like being a psychologist and translator in some situations.
    its more than just practicing and knowing your craft.

    many think musicians are unreliable .. i dont find this true at all.

    jazz /metal grtz ..rhsc nyc

  4. Musician is definitely one of the jobs that required people skills. I guess if you are an amazing soloist, you can do whatever you want; but the fact is that all of us do have to collaborate with the others at some point. I am currently working with a musician who does not own a cellphone and is always 10~20 minutes late for our one hour rehearsal. She also often changes the rehearsal time THROUGH EMAIL an hour or two prior to our regular rehearsal time. I just simply couldn’t understand what was the logic behind this action …. Very difficult to work with and definitely left a bad impression.

  5. As a person who became a church musician later in life, I appreciate reading your five qualities of a professional musician. In addition to playing for a church, I’m trying to play 60 pipe organs before I turn 60. Pipe organs rock!

  6. Pingback: The Talent Myth
  7. I can’t believe you didn’t mention the most obvious one: leave the drugs/alcohol until *after the gig [or rehearsal].

    Showing up stoned/baked/buzzed/whatever before you’ve even played a note just doesn’t fly these days…

    1. The whole point is, as a professional, you shouldn’t be into that stuff anyway. If you are playing music, but are a druggie, or drunkard, then a pro you are not, you might be good, but not a pro. Play like there’s no tomorrow, but leave the drugs to the party people.

  8. I appreciate this commentary;especially as it applies to musicians of all ranks and ages. I was privately trained as a pianist by some really great teachers,all with a similar philosophy of professionalism. It’s always unsettling when I see “college degreed” musicians who quite often just can’t pull it together., My brother is one of them and even with a doctorate in music (or perhaps because of it) can’t get through a single rehearsal without falling to pieces: arguing, wanting to un-do or re-do entire programs, wanting the be the prima-donna…even when his gigs don’t warrant (in dollars or common sense) the time it would take to simply follow the five points you’ve outlined. Thanks again, and I’m forwarding this article to my dear, but hopelessly off-track brother.


    1. A big pitfall us collegiate musicians fall into, is that we’re taught the “artistic” value of music, and have been primed to feel that if it’s not an deep, awesome line or groove or time signature or whatever, then the music isn’t worth playing. We forget that our career is dependent on who we get listening to us.

      College teaches us that we’re better than all the music already out there and that we can do it better. You end up learning how to truly make a living when nobody’s calling you back for more work.

  9. I don’t know how I missed this article, but this is a great one, Cameron.

    Note how none of the traits were “most technically proficient.” It’s not the best player that gets and/or keeps the job, but the most professional.

    I always see good players going out in the scene and badmouthing other musicians just because they’re working more than the “better” player. That’s the fastest way to keep yourself from gigging, and your losing the gig has nothing to do with how great you play, but how much you’ve alienated yourself from other musicians.

  10. #3 makes a huge point!

    I had a gig earlier this year where I was supposed to learn about 40 songs for a gig and I only had one rehearsal whit the band. The band leader handed me a playlist of all the songs, only cover songs so I thought that everything was fine and I should be able to learn all the songs fairly easy. I learned the songs more less like the original, like the versions on the playlist I was given. BUT at rehearsals found out that there was a lot of differences between the bands versions and the original ones.
    So we sat down whit the guitar player and the singer trying to write down as much as we could on my lead sheets. So basicly I was sight reading throu out the whole gig, and I managed to pull the gig of by the skin off my teeth.
    The good thing about that whole gig is that the band leader have contacted me again, wanting me to play whit them again. And I learned that you can never practice enough sight reading.

  11. I agree with you Cameron. Follow Directions, and also have a nice 7th sense of Impromptus when you know it’s coming. Be Organized and leave room for a little randomness as a musician. Communication skills are excellent, also communicate with your star player(YoSELF). On the fourth step play well, although on your own time, memorize, jam, and concentrate on your part and you can play GREAT, nevertheless…first, play with others. Step Five, couldn’t agree with you more buddy. Being involved in a band, especially School and College Marching Bands, you HAVE to be prepared. Thank you for this article. It was very helpful.

  12. Yep great stuff here!I think people skills are one off the most under rated skills for a musician both with employers and with band members and it goes without saying the audience!
    also you will fall on your face,be out of your league and just go down badly from time to time.learn how to pick your self up at these times while being humble when you are flying.

  13. All good pointers, but I can’t believe that timeliness was left out. It’s amazing to me how many musicians see nothing wrong with being late, or showing up at the last minute.

    To be on time one has to be early whether it be for rehearsal or a gig!

    Old School and Still Rockin’

  14. I love all the articles and positive and negative stuff equally. All I have to say is that as musicians we have a choice of where to play and what to play. As a drummer I have always chosen to play what I like and if there is a paying gig for an original band I do what I can to get it. If it’s pay to play I try to make sure I end up with at least pocket change profit. Music is a business and you can play covers and make a lot of money…..so that what many people do. It’s smart business in a way….lol …..ou can do both you know it is not a crime! Check out my new band Windsor Circle who has been lighting
    up the scene in NYC. All comments appreciated..good, bad or vulgar.



  15. Great article! Also wanted to say I’m glad this site is ongoing. 53 year-old pianist here, veteran of the bar band wars (with hearing loss to show for it), now playing solos/duos and intent on shoring up his chart-reading and overall timing and professionalism.

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