Who’s A Professional Musician?

East Africa’s singing duo: Radio & Weasel do their thing on stage at Coke Studio Africa

If you ran into any regular Ugandan musician now and probed if they were professional musicians, they would reply “yes” at once.

If you stuck at it to ask how they could possibly bear out the same, you’d unequivocally be astonished at how unapprised most of them are about what a professional musician should be like.

Professionalism comes with etiquette, ethics and humility of deportment, as well as a few other things, including adaptability.

Unfortunately since many of our musicians just stumbled across this well-paying job in music, you scarcely ever find enough of the qualities that make a professional. And they’re neither bothered by this inadequacy nor they do make the extra effort to better their brand – after all, they’re still getting paid. This is where managers come in; to stand in the gap. However, a good number of our musicians lack these too!

Furthermore, absurdly, many musicians, even the very “big ones” have found professional conduct very uncalled for and have dimly discarded it and derided the role of their own managers. As a result, everything in this industry is a “grab and take” or “fluke your entry” – there’s simply no standard behavior.

No wonder; there’s a total murkiness and listlessness, in terms of cooperation and improvement of the local brand!

Being a musician is splendid. It’s an honor that people are allowed to play music for others. To get the gigs that pay, and keep getting them, however, musicians need to show a high level of professionalism that is often a lot less attractive than the elegant life portrayed out in the public. While these qualities might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many don’t have a clue.

  • Following instructions.

Because most musicians make a living playing music for other people, they have to be good at doing what those people want – they’re the clientele. Whether one’s hired to play at a wedding, write a song, perform as a curtain raiser, be a studio musician, a musician in a band or local community hall, one has to be good at taking directions and working on them.

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 or a producer in recording studio and your ability to adapt quickly is crucial. These are one-way communications where there’s either no need or time to ask questions. Performing well in this type of scenario will get you recommendations and in due course more work contracts.

  • Well organized.

We’ve heard of musicians who didn’t turn up to the events they have been advertized for, because they didn’t keep record of their engagements. At the end, the agenda conflicts. A professional musician ought to keep a calendar and learn how to tell time. There’s nothing more frustrating and embarrassing than tardiness. If you can’t keep track of everything and be where you need to be on time, you’ll lose work. Plain and simple.

Furthermore, you will probably need to book everything ahead of time. Many backup artistes and dancers, for example, play in multiple bands and have to learn the original music of songwriters that hire them, and cover songs for weddings or corporate gigs. When they don’t have enough time to rehearse with you, errors may surface at your performance. This also is why it is important to master your own stuff that you won’t make any error, and when they [backup group] mess up, you hold the performance together up to the end. Best way to do this is by storing all this music in your head. It gets easier with practice, but in the beginning you’ll need to learn how to organize it – for you and for the “helpers”.

  • Humility/ Openness.

This also helps in being well organized. When dealing with people that don’t know much 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 impatient 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 show or you are just the music director, make sure your music is written neatly or created in a program. 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.

  • Blending as a team.

Any professional musician should not only be able to play or sing their butt off, they 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. Piano players don’t listen to each other and the whole group ends up sounding sloppy as a whole section. This should be like music’s first lesson 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.

  • Preparation

The biggest distinction between a professional musician and everyone else is “homework”. This is like in any field. A professional merchant is expected to know his target audience well just like a teacher ought to know the class he instructs. Similarly, a professional musician is expected to show up for the concert with the right instruments, appropriate costume, and all set to nail the music.

Note: It is very important for a professional musician to always dress appropriately. Whatever the case, make sure you know what to wear vis-à-vis the occasion.

In conclusion, if you want to establish yourself as a professional musician, step back and evaluate the qualities of professionalism. Music is a highly competitive field, and mastering your voice or music instrument is simply the first step to becoming a professional 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 the obvious.

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