Spring is finally in the air, and I thought it might be a good opportunity to look back a bit as I prepare to look forward towards the rest of the year.
I’ve been in the trenches making a living as a working musician here in NYC for the last 22 years. It hasn’t always been pretty. It hasn’t always involved splashy big name acts. I’ve played with some good groups throughout the years and had some amazing experiences. I toured Europe with Bobby Watson’s Big Band. I subbed as an on-stage band member for the Broadway show ‘Swing‘ and had a featured duet with the star vocalist of the show. Played the ESPY’s with Chuck D of Public Enemy. I played in front of 40,000 people with Bootsy Collins at the Fuji Rock Festival and got to share the stage with the original members of James Brown’s band. Made a few recordings that I’m proud of here and there. Played many a late night salsa gig with amazing musicians back when the salsa scene was still thriving. (I loved that scene and wish that it would make a come back!) I’m sure that I’m certainly forgetting a thing or two that has happened along the way.
I’ve written 7 books on teaching music that I’m still trying to figure out how to get to a larger audience. I gained the knowledge that I needed to write those books by teaching music to kids for the last twenty years. (Something that I didn’t have a clue about doing when I started, by the way.) My studio is up to twenty three trombonists this last year.
I’ve also played so many club dates that I started hearing ‘I Will Survive’ in my sleep. (For those of you who aren’t from New York, Club Date = Wedding / Bar Mitzvah / etc. As I understand it this is from the days when most of these parties happened at actual country clubs.) I’ve worked as a cater waiter for more parties than I care to mention. I’ve been a doorman. I don’t recommend that one, though I did use the time that I spent on the midnight to 8 am shift in Brooklyn swatting mosquitos that had somehow decided to take up residence in the lobby, and writing one of those 7 books. I’ve been a research assistant at a ‘Big Time Media Conglomerate’. That was a sweet gig that taught me a lot about organizing, as well as how to handle the schedule of a busy executive. I completed a two year acting program. Taught myself to play bass. Taught myself to play guitar. Taught myself to not care so much about what people think about me and to be more myself.
Basically I’ve survived in NYC for 22 years as a musician. Have I flourished? It’s really difficult for me to answer that question, but I have gotten one hell of an education.
Anyone who tells you that that they know what it takes to “make it” in the music business today is selling you something. It’s such a rapidly shifting industry. No one has the answers. Everyone is out there throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks.
So, what is my advice to a young musician that’s just starting out? Learn to play your instrument to the best of your ability. Unless you’ve chosen the ‘All I want to do is play in an orchestra” career track, then learn to play multiple instruments. Have at least functional skills on the piano. If you can’t afford lessons, then teach yourself the instruments that you want to learn. (One word: YouTube. Or should that be two words?) Learn to use the DAW’s that are out there. Reason. Ableton Live. Maschine. Pro-Tools. Logic. Feel free to insert others DAW’s that I’ve failed to mention here ___.
Focus on building good habits. Practice and work habits. Sleep and exercise habits. ‘How you deal with the people in your life’ habits. All of these things matter. You’re going to have a lot to juggle as a working musician. Establishing healthy routines in these vital areas allows your brain more bandwidth to make the music that you want to make, and honestly will make you a more interesting and happy person.
Listen to music. Listen to more music. All of the great teachers in the world can’t help you if you’re not spending time with the music that you aspire to play. Learn enough music theory so that you’re able to communicate with your fellow musicians, but not so much that you’re in your head about the music that you play.
Try a bunch of things. Find the things that you like to do and keep doing them. Be willing to do things that aren’t in music and do your best to grow from those experiences. Be willing to learn skills that have nothing to do with music. Photoshop. Illustrator. Filmmaking. Be curious. Read. Study books that your teachers haven’t discovered and recommend those books to them. They may not always thank you for it, but it’s important to share what you learn with others so give it a try anyway. Paint. Draw. Use parts of your brain that you don’t normally use.
Most importantly, put yourself out there. Get out of your comfort zone. Be willing to fail. Be willing to fail a lot. Adapt. Evolve. Grow.
It won’t always be easy. There will be times when you want to say ‘The hell with it”. But music is a beautiful thing. It has the ability to feed you and reward you in ways that you can’t possibly imagine. Whatever you end up doing, your life will be richer for the attempt.