practice

Implementing Good Habits to Take Charge of Your Career

The following is the first of a two-part Guest Post by good friend and fellow musician Frank Gulino. In this first excerpt, Frank addresses the importance of practicing effectively. Frank is a trombonist with the Capital Wind Symphony, composer, and entertainment lawyer based outside DC. His website can be found here.

Musicians are among the most gifted, dedicated, educated, focused, and hardworking individuals you will ever encounter, and yet so many of them find themselves struggling professionally. There are a multitude of unfortunate reasons for this, including the declining number of professional opportunities, heightened levels of competition, and the systematic under-compensation of musicians across the board. One phenomenon in particular, however, stands out: the “art” of music and the “business” of music are more disparate today than they have ever been, and too many musicians focus exclusively on developing their art rather than taking the time to develop both facets.

When I say that the “art” of music and the “business” of music have diverged, what I mean is that it is now appreciably more difficult to make a living in music by working for someone else than it has been in the past, making it more necessary for today’s musicians to be entrepreneurial thinkers rather than solely artists. As recently as two decades ago, there were many more opportunities for symphony musicians, more tenure track professorships in music, packed orchestra pits on Broadway, full big bands on cruise ships, and live music was ubiquitous. There were enough opportunities that, by perfecting your art, it was feasible to win the audition or land the pit orchestra job without having to be especially entrepreneurial or business-minded. In recent years, however, with orchestras folding, tenure track professorships being replaced by adjunct positions, and the widespread use of synthesized theater music, opportunities to be employed by someone else in the music field have become few enough that simply being the best player or interviewee is no longer the most consequential determinant of whether or not you succeed at making a living in music.

While artistic qualification and ability can still carry the day at the very highest echelons of the profession, the vast majority of musicians will need to allocate considerably more time to developing their “business” than they realize. Today, musicians have to be more prepared than ever before to work for themselves. And, as with almost anything else, the implementation of good habits is key.

Good Habits for Developing Your Art
1. Practice

There is no substitute for spending time with your instrument. No cutting corners, no feigning familiarity with the repertoire, no fooling anyone into thinking you’re prepared when you aren’t. Music directors, colleagues, and audiences alike will see through a lack of thorough preparation sooner or later. Practice smart and practice enough, but keep in mind that practicing your instrument is just one part (albeit an important one) of building your career.

I am a proponent of breaking up the day’s practicing into three sessions when possible. By practicing once in the morning, once during the day, and once in the evening, your body and mind will get past unhelpful conceptions such as the belief that “I can’t play first thing in the morning!” or “I never sound good this late at night!” You never know when you’ll be the person assigned to the 8:00 a.m. audition slot, or whether that wedding reception your band just got hired to play is going to last all night. Those become non-issues when you are accustomed to playing your instrument at any time of day.

2. Improve Your Concept
Two players of identical innate ability and practice habits will be readily distinguishable from in front of the audition curtain if one has made a conscious effort to inform and improve his or her concept of sound, while the other has never given thought to the matter. Listen to the best recordings you can, attend live performances, study with great teachers, and continue to refine the sound you desire. Take advantage of comp tickets, and familiarize yourself with the variety of genres and styles in which your instrument is used. The more you listen to great artists, the more you will be able hone your individual concept of sound. The informed desire to sound a particular way is what will ultimately set you apart from everyone else who plays your instrument.

3. Stay Healthy
Music is more of an athletic pursuit than many give it credit for. Sooner or later, eating poorly, neglecting exercise, and depriving oneself of sleep will all have an adverse impact on your ability to make music at the highest level. Eat well, exercise, sleep enough, stay hydrated, stretch, read, make time for relaxation, and surround yourself with wonderful people.

4. Play With Others
No amount of solitary, technique-focused time in the practice room will equip you with the ensemble skills necessary to play in most professional settings. Achieving a desired dynamic result with a decibel meter in the practice room does not mean you will be able to achieve the perfect dynamic balance within an ensemble; similarly, tuning a note to a tuner in the practice room is not the same as tuning a chord with other musicians. There is no substitute for making music with other people, and ensemble skills are absolutely essential to being a complete musician.

Coming Soon: Frank’s perspective on the entrepreneurial aspect of being a 21st Century musician.

5 Essential Practice Tips

A wise man once said “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” That wise man was Albert Einstein, and he happens to be a pretty smart dude. In fact, he felt most of his scientific breakthroughs came as a direct result of improvising on the piano and violin – so put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Music is a journey. Gaining musical proficiency requires both disciplined practice as well as patience. The process is about developing oneself through your ears and out your soul. If you do it right, you’ll notice changes in yourself – how you play a piece, how you perform with others reflects your personality and your day to day life.

Whenever I am struggling with a piece, technical exercise, or memorizing a new program, I find myself falling back on a variety of methods to dig myself out of a hole. Everyone is different, some may need to focus on only one or two of my tips below, others may need to do a little of everything. Below are the best ways I know of how to improve dramatically – even over the course of a day – and really begin to understand problems in your playing in an objective manner.

Listen to yourself: I firmly believe that the better you are at listening, the better you become as a musician. When you practice or perform a piece, how often do you really listen to yourself? Are you aware of that slight noise when your fingers touch the string – or do you just let it slide? Do you hear that gap when you shift from one fret to another down the neck? Take the time to listen to the sounds you create. Listening to each note from its inception until the last audible vibration is the best way to honestly appraise your playing. Start each day by playing/singing one note or chord, close your eyes and listen to it ring out. Take a breath. Repeat. Now you’re ready to move on.

Record yourself: This goes hand in hand with listening. If you record yourself playing for practice or even a performance, and objectively create a map of the things you want to improve you set yourself up for success. Hell, use a webcam, cell phone, video, audio – doesn’t matter. In fact, if you manage to sound great on a terrible recorder you know you’re practice is beginning to pay off.

Stop whatever you’re doing and do the opposite: Want to get faster? Forget speed for a few weeks and go back to basics at a snail’s pace. If you find yourself hitting a wall in your practice, sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break. Spend two weeks practicing something entirely different. Cultivate an awareness of your body and instrument and truly own the notes.

Perform for others: This is the biggest way to improve. Play for others. Play for friends, set up a small house concert. It doesn’t matter if you crash and burn – you’ll be better off after running the gauntlet. I’m convinced that the reason people get so nervous and notice what can seem to be an insurmountable amount of mistakes in performance comes from that fact that not only are you no longer on practice-room-autopilot, but you’re actually listening to yourself – AND – so are other people.

Set Goals:
This is simple, but it’s amazing how often people forget. My personal favorite is writing a weekly practice log. Sometimes I break it down into small daily goals. At the extreme, there have been times where I’ve written up a sheet of paper for each piece I’m working on as well as every gig I had coming up. I wrote dates and goals on each page and taped them to my bedroom wall. Every time I accomplished a goal or finished a piece, I checked it off with green marker. Learn to love the green marker. Even if you come up short, aim high. You can only end up ahead.

These are my 5 go-to practice techniques – if you have any other effective ideas, post below!

Everything is an Opportunity

Early on, finding success can seem like a total mystery. You hear about friends and colleagues winning competitions, recording a CD, or having a concert and you wonder how they got so lucky – “why can’t it be me?” And this is the problem. The competition or gig or CD was not their “success” – it was the manifestation of the fruits of their labor, the intersection of timing and preparation. It was the moment when their hard work paid off. Success is total commitment to the process of work and practice.

With that in mind and after working long and hard on your craft, only then will what seems like luck to the untrained eye will reveal itself as opportunity. Everybody you meet and everywhere you play has the possibility to lead you someplace new. You just need to keep your eyes opened.

A rather wealthy, older gentleman who comes to many of my performances took me to lunch one day. We ate and spoke and we tossed around the idea of putting together a CD release concert, with him playing Host and taking care of the audience. Over the course of lunch, I asked him what he was doing when he was my age and how he ended up in the position of being able to help young musicians. What he said has stuck with me ever since: “Instincts – I look at everything and everyone as an opportunity.”

Hello World!

About Me

Let’s face it, if you’re not world famous – you haven’t been doing enough to put yourself out there.  This is what separates a moderately talented musician who achieves fame and success vs. the best pianist you’ve never heard, who sits alone in his room practicing all day.  Part of making money as a working musician comes down to the amount of value you can add to your student’s, client’s, and audience’s lives.  Practice and playing just for yourself is a hobby at best and selfish at worst – music is gift to give to others.

I started this blog as a means of keeping myself accountable and continuing to improve my success as a musician.  Over the years, many friends and students have asked me for advice regarding teaching jobs, practice habits, emailing event planners, and booking gigs.   The biggest part of the process is staying humble and living in a constant state of learning from your mistakes, trying new things, and from interacting with the world around you.

Gig Smarter will show you how to give others that gift and make money in the process.