The greatest struggle young jazz musicians face, is truly knowing what one needs to do to get their career started. When you first start out, it seems as simple as just playing your instrument. What few realize, is that there numerous other elements imperative to becoming a professional musician.
Music, at times, can seem overwhelming. How do you get gigs? Where do you get ideas for projects, CDs, compositions? What is all that equipment attached to that person’s instrument?
The solution to your questions and concerns lies with studying under a good teacher. A good teacher should be able to answer your questions because they have had experience as a professional musician. A good teacher should also be able to “kick your butt” – tell you when you are doing poorly and tell you how to fix it. They will also help you find your own shape as a musician and not mold you into their clone.
The next thing that you really need to start working on, after developing beyond basic proficiency on your instrument, are connections. Your connections really start with the students you play with in band and with your teachers. I personally think that your private teacher (if they are a working, professional musician) can be your best connection. If you have potential, you try hard, and you do what he or she tells you, they will notice. If you get to a high enough level, they may even recommend you for gigs or invite you to sit in with them at their performances. Also, if you go to their gigs, you get to hear live music and meet more professional musicians (if your teacher introduces you to who he or she is playing with) – thus, more professional musicians that you know. Meeting other musicians and networking is very important – it gets your foot in the door of the music world.
Another important thing to do is listen and “steal”, or emulate things other players do. You need to develop a sense of what you like, what you want to sound like (what sounds good to you?). Listening to other musicians play creates an awareness of what other people are doing. You begin hearing and deciding what you think sounds cool, learn it, and make it your own. Initially, it is important to emulate other players’ ideas to begin building up your jazz vocabulary. Your jazz vocabulary is the foundation for anything you can play – so the more you know, the more you can do.
As far as establishing yourself as a musician at a young age, the process is very difficult. Because you are young, not very many people will be willing to take you seriously. The only way to really change this is by actually being able to play well. To be taken seriously as a musician is like being one of the adults. So, in a way, to be seen as one, you have to play like one (and act like one). There really isn’t a way to cheat the system and to be taken seriously as a young musician with little skill. Adult musicians who perform poorly aren’t even taken seriously.
Lastly, and most importantly, is that you practice. The only way to get better is to practice. The greatest misunderstanding is that you are practicing if you are playing something you already know – it’s not. Working on something you don’t know is practicing. Think about it – playing or working. When you practice, it isn’t supposed to sound good. You are improving something you can’t do, so it will be awkward and you will make mistakes. If you only work while you are practicing, it can be very easy to get burnt out on your instrument or with music in general. It is important to spend some time just playing and having fun (as long as you don’t confuse playing with practicing).
It isn’t always fun being a young musician but you are at an important stage in your development – socially and musically – both essential to who you will become as a professional musician. It is important that you don’t try to rush either aspect of your personal development.
A lot of young musicians tend to compare themselves to how other musicians play. It is important to learn that sometimes people may not be better or worse than you – just different. They may do some things better than you, but you may also do other things better than them. If they do something that you wish you could do more like them, just figure out how they are doing it and learn to do it too (or ask them!).
Expanding your ability and versatility on your instrument will help you grow as a young musician and it is easier to learn while you are young, so it is best to start now. The foundations of your musicianship are set with what you are doing now – don’t let yourself miss out on any opportunities.
Want more tips? Check out our popular FREE eBook – Advice for Young Musicians: From Established Music Professionals.
1. There is actually a good argument that it is not easier to learn when you’re young, it’s actually that you have more energy and free time to dedicate yourself to learning different skills. Therefore, if you are not necessarily a “young” musician, that doesn’t mean it’s too late. If you put in the time, you can get far.