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



Blake said...

I think you're right on man. I'm working on a DMA in jazz performance, if I had to do it over again I would do business or IT and support myself with that and enjoy leading my own groups. I want to teach college music but dang, there are a lot if us out there.....

Adam said...

I'm not for this "no pain, no gain" philosophy for practicing, though. When you're enjoying a good jazz musician's craft, you're witnessing someone having a good time doing something that brings them joy. You can tell when you're listening to someone who spends most of their time shedding terse, technically challenging patterns in all 14 keys, etc. and it's a real drag. If you're not having fun, your audience won't. Less hair shirt and more hash pipe, I say. (Take THAT, neighbors!)