Robert recently asked a very insightful question in the forum. Essentially, he wonders what effect talent has on getting work as a musician in the real world.
For our purposes here, let’s define talent as a mix of natural aptitude, exhaustive training and years of practice that, when looked at objectively, distinguishes a musician as an expert. Let’s pretend that talent is a commodity that is easily quantifiable and that some musicians have more and some musicians have less.
(Even though we know that last part is not how this talent thing works. Pretend anyway.)
Do the Best Musicians Get the Best Work?
It’s a very good question. Logic would suggest that the most talented musicians would get the best work. The better you play the more people will want to hire you, right?
The validity of university music programs – especially the ones that focus their curriculum exclusively on performance and completely ignore business, entrepreneurship, or career-building – seems to be predicated on this talent myth. Become the best and you’ll succeed. Why else would you pay $100,000 for a fancy conservatory education?
But we all know the truth. We’ve all seen overwhelming evidence that the most talented musicians do not, necessarily, have the most success as working musicians.
How’s that fair? What’s the deal?
Yes, Talent Does Matter (To a Point)
To a certain point, talent is very important. If a musician doesn’t learn or perform music at a very high level, they will never make it as a professional musician. They will perform poorly at gigs and employers won’t call twice. Eventually it will become clear that this career is not for them and they’ll find another path to follow. It happens all the time.
So who are we left with? The best of the best. A pool of really talented musicians who can play anything you put in front of them.
So yes, to get to this level as a professional musician talent does matter.
An Abundance of Talent
However, it’s at this point that talent becomes such an abundant resource that having a tiny bit more or a tiny bit less of it doesn’t have a pronounced effect on a musician’s career. Put another way – when everyone is talented it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish yourself among the crowd based solely on this marker alone.
Employers may say that they are hiring you because you are the best, but you shouldn’t believe them. At the highest levels of the business, talent is simply not the reason that one musicians gets hired over another.
Here are some characteristics that employers look for when hiring musicians:
- Punctuality – Musicians who miss gigs or consistently show up late don’t get called again. Why would you hire someone you can’t trust when there are plenty of musicians that you can?
- Sight-reading – Musicians that sight-read well require less rehearsal time, and less rehearsal time means the employers save money. What is more attractive to an employer than the ability to save time and money while still maintaining the level of quality they require? That sounds awesome. Wouldn’t you want a great sight-reader if you were an employer?
- Sociability – Meaning, the ability and willingness to engage in activities and conversation with other people. Would you rather work with someone who’s nice or someone who’s a jerk? Easy question.
- Consistency – Professional musicians bring the same energy and accuracy to every performance. Employers value that quality.
- Flexibility – Which would you prefer – a musician that complains or resists every time something changes, or someone that rolls with the punches? Another easy question.
There are probably a hundred others. Also check out Cam’s article, 5 Traits of a Professional Musician.
These are the qualities that define a successful musician. These are the qualities that give one professional musician an advantage over another professional musician in the uber-talented, saturated freelance market.
When I meet new musicians looking for work, these are the qualities that I look for, well before I even care to hear them play.
There are two reasons for this: first, I assume that if they are working consistently at a professional level they must be talented, right?
And second, I know that even if they can play circles around other musicians, I won’t want to work with them unless they exhibit these crucial characteristics.
A Real-World Example
Here’s a real world story – I recently started subbing on a Broadway show. For me, this is my 2nd Broadway show.
The people that hired me to play keyboards on this show had never, not once, heard me play a single note before I played an actual, live performance of this Broadway show.
I had worked with them in a non-performance capacity several months ago. We got along great. I liked them, they liked me – and we established trust on the characteristics described above. And now, because I’m already playing on another Broadway show, they assumed I must be talented enough for the job, so they asked me to play.
There is virtually no way to argue that I landed this job based solely on my level of talent – and this is a great example of how the real world works.
To be successful as a working musician it’s first important to establish yourself as part of the pool of talented professionals, then distinguish yourself among the competition with secondary characteristics that are important to your potential employers.
What other characteristics are important for working musicians? Leave a comment below.
And Robert – thanks for reading the site and putting your question the forum! If anyone else would like to give Robert an answer, visit the original post.