The Talent Myth

Am IdolDoes talent always propel one to the top? Of course not, says David J. Hahn, but it’s an important attribute to have in getting there. In fact, a musician won’t make it too far without it. But if it’s all a musician has, then he’ll find himself able to go just so far and no further in his career.

We’ve all heard it’s not what you know but who you know. Most of us can come up with a few names of people who have made it in spite of having absolutely no talent. (Or so we say.) But think about that for a moment. Is it really true? Could someone who was completely without talent keep getting better and better gigs? Of course not.

If you’re competing for gigs against some uber-talented players, you may not be able to top their chops. But according to Hahn, the good news is you can still land the gig by developing a few skills, most of which are completely unrelated to talent. They are as follows:

  1. Punctuality. Being late isn’t cool – it’s unprofessional. If you’re always late, word will get out that you’re unreliable.
  2. Sight-reading. Musicians who can sight-read have more employment options than those who don’t. If you can’t read, what are you going to do if a song gets substituted at the last minute, and you’ve never heard it? Reading skills also deepen your knowledge of music and theory, and you’ll be a better composer or songwriter if you have them.
  3. Sociability. Don’t be a jerk. You can be replaced.
  4. Consistency. Make sure the people who hire you always see you as being positive and upbeat.
  5. Flexibility. Like REO Speedwagon said, “roll with the changes.”

To be successful as a working musician, you must first make it to the level where others recognize your talent. Then you must set yourself apart from the scores of other talented professionals by learning and using secondary characteristics (social skills) so that employers will want to hire you. These skills will enable you to keep the gig – which is what all of those years of study were for, anyway.

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Are You Too Old To Be a Full-Time Musician?

I’ll admit it: when I first saw that headline, I felt more than a surge of righteous indignation toward whomever would dare ask such a question. (Obviously I was feeling a little old that day.) Exactly how old does one have to be before playing music full-time is out of the question? And who determines this number?

But the question makes the erroneous assumption that all full-time musicians have “made it” big. Really? There are plenty of people I know, both old and young, that are making good money as musicians and are doing so without the fetters of a Big Label Recording Contract. They’re not making Lady Gaga’s money, but they are supporting their families and paying the bills.

This article brings up the label execs’ argument that the public wants to see young, fresh faces, as those faces sell records (whatever selling records means anymore). While that may be true to a point, consider that the Rolling Stones are finally calling it quits next year, when most of them will be near 70.  At 53, Madonna staged a halftime show for the 2012 Super Bowl. I have even had some 13-year-old students ask me if I’ve ever heard of AC/DC. (I am not making that up.) Obviously they could care less about age; they just care about the music.

A better question might be how do you define success? Any musician, regardless of age, should first decide on a personal definition of success and then decide on what steps will get him there. As a working musician over 50, I know there’s a chance I won’t get the call to be Adele’s keyboardist on her next tour (ahem!), but it doesn’t mean I can’t work toward that goal. That way, if I get to play piano for her opening act, I will have done just as well. In the meantime, I can work on positioning myself to support my family by teaching piano, playing live and on sessions, and working as a collaborative pianist. It makes better sense for me to set realistic, reachable goals that will make me feel fulfilled musically.

That way, I’ll never have to say I’m too old to be a full-time musician.

How To Create a Great Press Kit

My previous article covered writing press releases, which is closely related to the press kit. A press kit is the link between your band and those who will hire or promote your band. It makes sense, then, to understand the correct way to put one together, as well as what pitfalls to avoid.

What Goes Into a  Press Kit

According to Al Lautenslager of Entrepreneur.com, a good press kit needs to contain the following elements:

  1. Letter of Introduction. This is where to say why the press should care about you. Contact information goes here as well.
  2. Band Information. A history of the band and biographies of personnel should go here.
  3. Band Photos. Don’t skimp here; hire a photographer to shoot quality photos. Make sure they convey the image of the band.
  4. Previous Press Coverage. Include clippings from newspapers, magazines, reviews, and links to media coverage.
  5. Press Releases.
  6. Tour Schedule.
  7. CDs and Videos. Include a copy of your CD or demo, as well as a DVD of any videos you have made.
  8. A Sample Story. Do their job for them: write something that the press can easily use right away. They can edit it as necessary, and it’s possible they may print it verbatim.
  9. Frequently Asked Questions. Good for guiding interviews.

Once you have it all together, prepare both print and electronic versions of the kit. Make sure that the printed materials are presented professionally.

What To Avoid

Mike King, an instructor at Berkleemusic.com, notes that while creating a good press kit is fairly straightforward, many bands still get it wrong. Among the turn-offs:

  1. Too much information. Keep it brief.
  2. Too little information. Make sure your contact information is on each piece of the kit, including the demo. Include some business cards as well.
  3. Package too flashy. If the demo isn’t any good, a leather portfolio will not land you the gig.
  4. Poor grammar and spelling. This is one place where you can’t afford to make mistakes. Pay an English teacher or graduate student to proofread every written piece in your kit. It’s worth the money.

By taking the time to do a good job on the press kit, you will have something that represents your band well. Take equal care in distributing these kits, and you’ll increase your chances of getting the gig.

How to Create a Press Release for Your Band

At about the same time my band started getting a bit of a press buzz, I ran across this article by Ariel Hyatt that details how to format a press release. There is a proper way to go about it, and I imagine that getting the release ignored is the penalty for not following this format.

The release itself is made up of 8 separate parts, including the line FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE at the top, contact information, headlines, and so forth. All of the elements are important, but I’m going to focus only on steps 5, 6, and 7: Opening Paragraph, Unique Selling Points, and Final Details, respectively.

  • Opening Paragraph. The opening paragraph should start with the city, state, and date, and it must grab the reader’s attention (remember high school English?). Any questions the reader might have must be answered here. Why is the release important? Who is it about? What’s going on? Where and when is it going on? Links to relevant websites need to go here as well.
  • Unique Selling Points Paragraph. If you have some performance of CD reviews you can quote from, this is the place to do it. Punch up what makes you unique.
  • More Information. Tour dates, a link to your website, a link to your electronic press kit (including downloadable photos), social media info, and iTunes links should go here.

Be sure to send out press releases for major events, such as festivals, concerts (either opening or headlining), CD releases, and tours. By following the proper format, including good information, and proofreading, you’ll go a long way toward building a buzz about your band – which is what it’s all about.

How to Listen to Music

Is it possible that we really need instruction on this activity? In his 1982 book, Elliott Schwartz gives an emphatic yes, arguing that we’ve learned to tune things out, possibly owing to the onslaught of technology. In short, we hear music without really listening to it. And although his book is now out of print, author Maria Popova has outlined what we need to do to rediscover this lost art in her article, “How to Listen to Music: A Vintage Guide to the 7 Essential Skills.” Among them are the following:

  • Develop your sensitivity to music by really listening to all sounds. Notice how sounds are related to other sounds, or how they seem to occur in patterns. Schwartz gives the sound of an ice cream truck and children’s games as an example.
  • Develop a musical memory. Look for a pattern you’ve heard before in the work you’re listening to now. Schwartz acknowledges that this ability will take some time to develop, but that once you do, “life will never be the same.”
  • Learn to look for musical landmarks in a composition. By doing this, you will develop listening “stamina,” and thus easily navigate anything from a current pop hit to a symphony, to an opera.
  • Learn about the music you are listening to. Who wrote it? When? What can you find out about this person that may heighten your awareness of musical elements? Simply by doing this will help make listening less of a passive activity.

Understanding these skills is important if we are to truly appreciate that which influences us so easily. But the critical element in learning how to listen to music is this: we must make the time to apply these skills. Turn off the TV, get off Facebook, and put on some music. Take the time to actively listen to what’s going on, to look for patterns and landmarks, and to learn about what you are listening to.

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While Elliott Schwartz’s book, Music: Ways of Listening, is out of print, Amazon has some used copies available. Click here for more information.

What To Consider Before Buying a Piano

Nearly anyone who has considered taking piano lessons for himself or who has considered enrolling her children in lessons has asked the prospective teacher, “What piano should I buy?” It’s an excellent question, because new acoustic pianos can be very expensive: an average Baldwin upright (below) can go for around $7,500; a Steinway Model D (pictured at left) can set you back nearly $150,000. Needless to say, most parents are wary of investing several thousand dollars in an instrument if they believe their child might not stick with the lessons.

The likelihood of a student focusing on lessons is one of the points Dr. John M. Zeigler raises in his article, “Top Ten Considerations In Giving the Family a Piano.” Rather than address the question of which piano to buy (the subject of another Zeigler article), he instead addresses some practical considerations one should ponder before the purchase.

Dr. Zeigler’s first point is sobering in its intensity: do your children actually have the time to learn the piano? It won’t do much good to buy a quality instrument if the children are so involved in other extracurricular activities that they don’t have the time to devote to serious study, or if the parents don’t have time to be involved with practice. And why bother with learning if one cannot be serious about it?

Other issues worth contemplating include:

  • Acoustic piano or electric keyboard? (Remember, you may have to buy an amp, stand, and seat with the keyboard.)
  • Is there enough space for a piano?
  • Are you prepared for the ongoing costs of an acoustic piano (tuning, regulating, etc.)
  • Should I learn the piano at home?

Investing in any musical instrument of quality should never be a hasty decision. If you’re thinking about buying a piano, I highly recommend reading this article several times. If you know someone who is considering a purchase, send this article to him or her. In any case, do your homework, but remember – the real fun begins after the purchase.

How to Make Money In a Wedding Band

It isn’t guaranteed work, and it certainly has a peak season. But, once established, a working wedding band is a good way for a musician to have a solid income base. As Musician Wages website author Joe Beech says, “starting up … a wedding band offers a better guarantee of regular income than you might have with your original music.” He offers a good step-by-step plan for getting a band off the ground in “Start Your Own Wedding Band.” While I’ve outlined a few major points below, the article is a must-read for any musician considering getting into this business.

Most musicians may think only of the reception, assuming the service music will be taken care of by someone else. But why can’t one (or more) of the band members be that someone else? When forming the band, try to pick members with abilities in multiple genres, such as sacred music for the service or jazz for the cocktail hour. You increase your chances of getting hired, you’re able to command a larger fee, and the bride will be relieved that she only has to deal with one band.

In addition to picking good musicians, the wedding bandleader must also consider dress and repertorie. No shorts or jeans here, folks; very likely you’ll wear formal attire, or at least suits and nice dresses. And the set list will probably include several tunes you probably wouldn’t play in a bar. “Sunrise, Sunset” comes to mind as an example.

Remember: this is an industry, and you’ll need good marketing tactics. Booking agents are one way of getting gigs, but they may not be as consistent as you’d like, and they’ll also add to the cost. Other marketing avenues include networking with wedding planners, attending wedding expos or bridal shows, brochures, wedding planning phone apps, and the obligatory video demo.

As I’ve said elsewhere in my blog, it is critical for musicians to diversify their incomes from many different sources, even as they work toward their ultimate dreams. But whether that dream is writing the next big hit, becoming a regular session player, landing a job as a Broadway orchestra musician, or touring with a famous band, the bills still have to be paid. And good wedding bands make good money – from $1,200 and up – without the hassle of promoting the show. So while performing in a wedding band may not be your ultimate goal, it is certainly one way of making sure that your progress toward that goal remains funded.

How to Deal With Stage Fright and Mistakes

If you perform in public in any capacity, then you’ve undoubtedly experienced some degree of stage fright, and you’ve probably made a mistake or two during a performance. Performance anxiety is completely normal: most professionals admit to feeling some anxiety over doing badly prior to going out on stage. But what do you do about it, and what do you do if you mess up?

In her article “Stage Fright: Five Tips,” author and pianist Melanie Spanswick provides some excellent advice for performance anxiety, all of which is based on her own experience as a performer. The first thing she stresses is preparation. “Know the piece or pieces you are going to play inside and out – literally,” she says, adding that you shouldn’t stop if you make a mistake. And if you do make a mistake, it’s a good thing to have places in the music where you can regroup your confidence, so identify those in advance. Finally, Ms. Spanswick suggests ignoring any negative self-talk that might float through your head prior to or during a performance.

While preparation is a powerful tool in combating stage fright, it is equally important to know what to do when (not if) a mistake occurs. An employer of mine once put it this way: plan to fail. I understood the message, but I always thought it sounded too negative. Noted musician and educator Gerald Klickstein prefers the kinder and gentler term error response, a simple process he outlines in “The Primary Error Response.”

Echoing Ms. Spanswick’s advice, Mr. Klickstein advises performers to play through a mistake, adding that “audiences connect most deeply with the pulse of our music.” Hence, they are more likely to notice a change in tempo than a quick improvisation. As you play through, release the tension by controlling your breathing. Finally, even as you ignore negative self-talk, let your body language project a positive image.

I’ll never forget the first time I played in a praise band for a church. The band leader walked around before mass and chatted easily with some parishioners,  the priest, and other musicians. He was completely laid back and at ease with himself; I was a borderline basket case. He sensed this and approached me.

“Listen,” he said quietly as he clapped his hand on my back. “You know this music. You’re good. So just go up there and knock it out. The congregation really wants to connect with us, so help them do that.”

Remarkably, it worked. I felt the tension drain out of me with the first note, and I focused completely on having a good time and drawing the congregation into what we were doing. In fact, I’ve kept that bit of advice close, and I use it still today.

Remember: there is a reason you perform, and whatever it is, it’s powerful enough to override your comfort zone setting and force you out onto a stage. So practice, prepare, and above all, enjoy yourself!