How to be a “PRO”
I’ve made my living playing music, and also played a lot of music for free. I am by no means a particularly successful musician in conventional “career” terms. But I have had the great privilege of playing all kinds of music that I love in all kinds of contexts with all kinds of people, things I dreamed of doing from when I was quite young and never really expected I would get to do.
I’ve played 11,000 seat amphitheaters and I’ve also played a gig in a Hot Topic store at the mall (really). I’ve played music with 4th graders who have just picked up an instrument for the first time, and with major label artists who are musical heroes of mine. As a kid I recorded “albums” with two tape decks running at different speeds (retuned for every take!) and have since done sessions in some of the more famous recording studios in Chicago.
Every one of those experiences has been, at its core and in its essence, the same: music making. Listening and responding. Listening and allowing one’s ideas, associations and emotions to emerge in dynamic, responsive sound, as part of a larger whole. And sometimes the most musically satisfying and interesting experiences have been the least “pro.” That Hot Topic gig was actually amazing; one of my favorite singers held an audience of 8 teenagers rapt as she poured out her heart in sound, without even a PA, and then we stuck around and talked music with our tiny audience for almost an hour. MUSIC is not a profession; it’s MUSIC.
I kind of hate the term “pro” as applied to musicians. It implies that if you make your living making music you are somehow different than players who don’t. Common assumptions:
- Pros are better players.
- Pros know more about music.
- Pros know more about gear.
- Pros do things differently than you.
- Pros know stuff you don’t know.
I believe all of these assumptions are often false, and always unmusical. Focusing on such assumptions leads professional players, and non-professionals alike away from what is essential to good music making: listening and responding. We may be stuck with the term “pro,” but I’d like to redefine it. I want to suggest that we think of a “pro” musician as someone that others want to make music with. Someone who can bring their self to a musical situation but channel that self in a way that becomes part of, and adds to a whole, even if that whole is just one person playing and an audience responding. If someone asks me (as people sometimes do) how to be a “pro” guitarist, here’s some of the (perhaps slightly annoying) ways I answer:
- How can you be a pro? I don’t really know—there’s no clear answer. I sort of fell into it and you probably will find a more interesting and original way than mine.
- Show up. Seriously. I think 75% of the reason I get called for gigs and sessions is that I show up early, prepared and ready to listen and respond musically. That’s the least I can do.
- Sound like YOU. Versatility is a useful thing, but musical personality is more important. That doesn’t mean that you should seek to put your musical stamp on every (or any) musical situation—that’s the wrong way to think of it. Rather sounding like YOU can mean responding musically with the emotions, ideas, influences and associations that are YOURS. That will always sound more interesting and fit into a whole better than you attempting to approximate someone else’s. It’s not an easy thing to learn to do—in fact I think in some ways it becomes harder as you become a more experienced player. But it is a simple thing to do. To sound like YOU, you simply need to listen and respond as spontaneously as you can. Play what you think sounds good and right. Listen to how it works or doesn’t. That will always lead you toward the best sounding YOU—the one that is listening and responding all the time.
- Listen to OTHERS. Listen to what everyone is playing around you and to the whole sound. Listen to others’ ideas, especially their criticisms of your playing, or their ideas that seem most uncomfortable or different to you. You don’t have to agree with them, but you should at least try everything that others suggest and then decide what you hear and what you think. Even criticisms that you decide are flat WRONG, will help you hear things in a different way and will give you new ideas that are RIGHT.
- Forget about YOU. No one actually cares if you are awesome or not. No one cares if your solo showed off your chops. No one cares if you are a “pro.” The only thing we all care about is how everything sounds together. It’s not easy to stop thinking about you; in fact it’s pretty hard and maybe impossible for most of us to do it all the time. But the more we can do it, the more we can really hear what’s happening in real time and respond in real time in the most musical ways, the ways that add the most with the least. The less we think about ourselves as MUSICIANS and GUITARISTS, the better we will sound as part of a whole and the better the music will sound. And THAT will make people want to play music with you.
There are all kinds of other things that can help one to be an effective collaborator, a good bandleader or sideman, and a successful, paid musician. And there are many other people better qualified to pass on tips about those things. They are important things—knowing how to make a living at this IS important. But it’s not as important as knowing how to play good music, how to listen and respond. Some of the best players I’ve had the pleasure of making music with have never earned a dime from their playing and don’t even have particularly developed chops. But when you get down with them to make some music, you know that damn near every time something will come of it that is new, exciting, original (even if it’s a cover), surprising, and that sounds much greater than the sum of the parts. Call them pros if you want to, but those are the people I want to play with.
“Just Nick” Jaffe is a musician, recording engineer, teacher and editor. In addition to being a member of several bands and sharing stages with some of the biggest names in the industry, he’s also made a name for himself with his incredible video gear demos and lessons. Nick was based for many years in Chicago and is now based in Saint Paul, MN