So You Want to be a Professional Musician?- by Dan Wilensky

Saxophonist Dan Wilensky recently moved to Portland for NYC and has been a nice addition to the scene here. He sent me this article, which will soon be published in Downbeat.


by Dan Wilensky

If you are a considering, beginning, or rekindling a career in music, you have a few choices to make.  Clearly, you have to practice and study a lot, play with as many people as you can, and recognize good opportunities when they arise.  But should you go to college?  Or back to college?  If so, should you get a degree in composition or, say, physics?  Where should you live to maximize your employment possibilities?  Are you ready for the road?  Is it a good idea to transcribe solos?  Should you take the time to master Garage Band and Pro Tools?  Do you want to focus exclusively on one type of music, or become a jack of all styles?  If you're not independently wealthy, are you ready to face financial Armageddon?

It's enough to make you reconsider your chosen vocation.

At sixteen, I was well along in my quest to be a professional musician: I developed voracious practice habits on saxophone, flute and piano, composed and transcribed every day, gave lessons to younger kids, street-played, sat in and gigged at local clubs, and spent a year studying with Joe Henderson. Then I deferred a scholarship to Eastman to tour with Ray Charles for 6 months .  By the time I arrived in frigid Rochester for the spring semester, I fancied myself a bonafide road warrior.  Though Eastman was and is a superb school, the lure of academia quickly faded, and I hightailed it down to NYC.  35 years later, I can say that it was the right path––for me.

Times have changed, and two trends have conspired to make things more difficult for musicians of all ages: there are more musicians than ever, and fewer places to play.  Technology––always a double-edged sword––has done it's part, and the occasional economic catastrophe hasn't helped.  But there's another "culprit": the preponderance of college graduates with degrees in jazz performance and the like.  Let's deal with this thorny issue first.

Somewhere along the line, people stopped going to school merely to get a good education.  Now, even junior-high kids obsess about their career paths, and a basic liberal arts education is viewed by many as quaint.  For the purpose of this article, I'll (somewhat reluctantly) assume that you were never interested in procuring a B.A. in poetry.

But if you're harboring delusions of busting out of music school, degree in hand, and living la vida loca like some Duke Ellington or Dave Brubeck, get real!  Different times, different audiences.  You've always had to play better than the next guy.  But now, in addition to being a superior sight-reader, doubler and arranger, you have to master studio and computer skills, networking, self-promotion and graphics, plus have a winning personality to get even a whiff of a career in music.  Shoot for the stars, but keep in mind that success stories like Wynton Marsalis are extremely rare––the NBA of the music business.  There are a lot of other kids on the block that play good hoops.

A perfunctory look at the current music marketplace should convince any college-bound musician to consider a variety of options.

If you are ready for the big time (i.e., you can really play, and a whole gaggle of experienced musicians and teachers have told you as much), it wouldn't hurt to simply go forth and do your thing.  You'll never know unless you try, and  you can always go back to school later if things don't work out.  If you lack the desire or confidence to pursue that dream, think about what sort of degree would be truly useful.  Obviously if you intend to teach music in a public or private school, a degree in music education is essential.  And if you want to be in an orchestra, you probably won't even get to audition unless you've graduated from a superior music school.  A masters in composition might come in handy too.

But there's another, possibly more practical choice: keep working on your music while you secure your future with a degree in something else.  Even with all the stories in the press about MBAs living with their parents, you are much more likely to make a better living if you have a college degree.  Then you can subsidize your jazz habit with a decent job.

If you have any spare time, learn Pro Tools, or at least Garage Band.

Regarding location, you exponentially increase your employment opportunities by living in a big city.  That model has been somewhat altered by over-the-internet recording technologies, but there's still a ton of other stuff happening in the world's great music metropolises.  That's where you'll test your mettle and make the most connections.

And the questions about what and how to practice?  Try it all.  See what's right for you.  I heard Chris Potter discussing the merits of learning songs and solos by ear.  Can't argue with those results!  But you can find numerous luminaries who copiously transcribed every last Charlie Parker solo.  I did a lot of both.  Learning by ear gives you a leg up when you're on the bandstand; you sharpen your response time in the heat of the moment.  Conversely, transcribing solos helps by slowing everything down; you can analyze the compositional structure, cop the nuances, improve your manuscript, and create a useful document.

When you practice don't give yourself a concert; you should work on what you don’t know and continually challenge yourself with material that is slightly more advanced than what you can play now.  Practice every day.  If your neighbors aren't complaining, something is amiss.  Listen to recordings of your own playing with a critical ear, and assess where you need work.  Don't bother to listen to that “perfect” solo for the tenth time unless you desperately need to boost your ego.

Be sure to go out to hear your mentors and your colleagues play.  You'll (hopefully) be inspired, increase your visibility, and gain insight into what works and what doesn't.  Ask to sit in; if you sound less than mellifluous, address it the next morning. Go back out there and kick some ass.  It's that determination and perseverance that will see you through the inevitable ebb and flow of a career in music.

Finally, I haven't suggested specific scales, exercises or songs for you to practice as I assume you’ll practice everything.  And I assume you will listen to everything; don't confuse "don't like" with "can't do."  You should surround yourself with music, books about music, and musical instruments; teach and take lessons; go to concerts; listen to and play something new every day; eat and breathe music.  Then take a vacation.


Dan Wilensky has toured and recorded with hundreds of artists, including Ray Charles, Jack McDuff, Slickaphonics, Steve Winwood, Joan Baez, Cornell Dupree, Mark Murphy, R. Kelly, Manhattan Transfer, James Brown and David Bowie.  He has played on numerous jingles, film soundtracks and TV themes, and can be heard on over 250 records.  His books, Musician! and Advanced Sax, and his four CDs as a leader, are available at danwilensky.com and other channels.

Dan's web site


Posterous disaster

Some of you may have noticed that many of my media links haven't been working. That is because Posterous, the web site that was hosting of my media files, is now defunct. I'm in the process of migrating all of these files to a Wordpress blog. I have four years worth of files that I had to change all the links for, so it has been a total drag. I'm finished now. Thanks for your patience!


The Music of Jerry Bergonzi- free PDF download!!

Jeff Elwood just finished compiling and engraving a PDF of Jerry Bergonzi's original tunes. Jerry wanted to offer the 244 page PDF for free as a digital download. There is a both Bb and a concert PDF. I have a session set up tomorrow at my place to read some of the tunes.

Here's what Jeff has to say about the project:

"This project was a labor of love. Having been a fan of Jerry’s playing and writing since 1st hearing the Standard Gonz recording, I decided recently to send him an email to see if he would be willing to share some of his lead sheets.  I then received emails from Jerry and saw that everything was handwritten. I asked Jerry if he ever thought of making cleaned up versions of his tunes and selling it as an ebook. He loved the idea! Who would have known that I would do close to 200 tunes? I enjoyed every minute of the process, but mostly enjoyed my conversations with Jerry. What a kind, humble man!

In talking, Jerry then decided he wanted to give the book away for free. He is truly honored by people taking interest in his music. Jerry is a well-respected musician and educator, and this book will help to preserve his great legacy. Since this book is being given away for free, I ask that you purchase Jerry’s recordings, as many of the tunes will be difficult to play without hearing them. Please enjoy this great catalog of compositions!- Jeff Ellwood"

Download The Music of Jerry Bergonzi


The Music of Kurt Rosenwinkel blog- How does he do it?

 I just saw Kurt when he came to Portland last February for the PDX Jazz festival. He gave a clinic earlier in the day before his show, which was really more of an interview. I was struck by the level of devotion of his young guitar playing devotees. We got a chance to catch up before his concert and he told me about his upcoming show at Madison Square Garden with Eric Clapton and Alan Holdsworth, solidifying his guitar god status if anyone had any doubts. A buddy of mine just forwarded a link to a blog written by a heart-core Rosenwinkel disciple call The Music of Kurt Rosenwinkel (how does he do it?). The blog is a clearing house for all things KR, there are videos, transcriptions, lessons, gear and recordings. This is definitely a player's blog for players and if you love Kurt's playing you need to check this site out.

The Music of Kurt Rosenwinkel- How does he do it?

The Jazz Conception Company

 Interactive Jazz educational products have come a long way since the first Jamey Aebersold play-alongs. Do any of you remember putting pennies on top of the record player stylus to get the pitch lower? That shows how old I am. I have reviewed several different online and DVD products on this blog in the past and each year more high tech educational products are released. I have used Jim Snidero's play-along etudes and Walt Weiskopf's books with my students for years so I was excited to see that the two of them had collaborated on a multi-media product.

 The Jazz Conception Company has put together two series of video lessons that feature Snidero and Weiskopf that you can use with an iPad or a desktop. The first is a 10 lesson Jazz improvisation series (with 19 play-alongs) for all instruments and the second is an 8 lesson Jazz saxophone series (with 8 play-alongs). The production values are top notch and the price point is much lower than many other interactive products, with a year subscription for the improvisation lessons running $49.99 and the saxophone lessons at $39.95. That for about 4 hours of improvisation lessons and two and a half hours of saxophone lessons, plus all of the play-alongs.

 I was a hoping that the lessons were aimed at towards advanced players, but they are more for beginning and beg-intermediate level players. The play-alongs aren't as challenging as Snidero's play-along books and you won't get the advanced level material that you might see in Weiskopf's improv books. That said, the lessons are very good and the presentation is excellent for a beg-intermediate level player. I have done a lot of video and DVD production in my time and I can say that the production quality is fantastic. You really get a lot for your money compared to other multi-media products and the use of mobile technology is groundbreaking. It looks like the company is planning more lesson series in the future so I really look forward to seeing what direction these more advanced lessons will take, since both Snidero and Weiskopf have a track record of creating some of the best Jazz educational materials on the market.

The Jazz Conception Company


Drop 2 worksheet

Thanks to Dan Gaynor for this one
(Click on above graphic for a larger version)