• James Stranahan

So, You Want to Be a Musician? Some Advice for Young Artists

Music comes out of my very soul. I’d honestly be lost if I couldn’t play the piano or the drums. As a musician, I have an innate desire to express myself through the emotions and sounds of music, and if I suddenly couldn’t play anymore, I would be devastated, I think. It’s why I empathize with young people who come up to me sometimes and ask for advice on a music career. I know the struggles ahead of them because, let’s face it, the music industry isn’t much easier to break into than Hollywood, but I also know that when someone is a musician, they simply have to play their instrument.

The first thing I tell the next generation of pianists, guitarists, and other instrumentalists is that they simply have to listen to their hearts. Is it a cliche? Maybe, but when music is part of your very being, you understand what I mean without having to ask. I ask them this question: if you lost your instrument tomorrow and could never play again, how would you feel? Some would be okay with it and are the people who probably won’t make music their careers. That’s perfectly fine because they’ve got other talents and will go on to do something just as meaningful. I can tell by the look in the eyes of other people, however, that they would be devastated to lose their instrument, and these are the ones who I encourage to keep going no matter what obstacles they face. Music is part of their spirits, and they have something important to express to the world.

To these musicians, I say this: get ready to study. You’ve got long hours ahead of you of scales, drills, practice, practice, and more practice. Most people are not prodigies, and even they have to spend hours with their instruments every day. Take the piano, for instance. It takes an incredible amount of time to reach the point where each finger is independent of the other and can pull its own weight when you play. It’s worth it, though. When you look down and see your fingers, even the notoriously weak pinkies and ring fingers, moving effortlessly over the keys after years of practice and expressing what’s in your heart, you’ll be glad you put in the work.

Play pieces from every genre that interests you and even a few from those that don’t. The classics are loved for a reason: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Rachmaninoff were geniuses and deserve to be explored. Try out jazz. Jazz intimidates some people because you have to improvise, but while it can be a hard skill to learn, it’s also very freeing. You can play anything you want to so long as it’s in the chord of the piece, and this is where you can discover your individuality as a musician.

Learn to read music. Yes, it’s awesome if you can pick out notes simply by listening to a song and matching them to your instrument. It’s even better, though, if you can look at sheet music and read its language. Why? There are so many incredible pieces out there that will be lost to you if you don’t know how to read notes on the treble and bass clefs. You’ll also get to understand how dynamics are expressed as well as staccato and non-legato notes. Being able to read and interpret the music will take your ability to a much higher level even as you continue to enjoy playing by ear.

Sight reading is another important skill to develop. So many musicians are afraid to pick up a song they’ve never seen before and simply play it because they’re worried they’re going to make a mistake. Of course they’re going to mess up! Everyone does, but remember this truth: as long as you don’t give away the error through your facial expression, your audience will never know. It’s one of the best things about performing: non-musicians are extremely easy to impress.

Remember to take care of your hands (or your voice, if you sing). It may not seem like it now when you’re young and have your whole career ahead of you, but your hands will take a beating as you play. More muscles than you think are involved in playing an instrument, so it’s the wise musician who stretches their arms, back, shoulders, wrists, and hands throughout a practice session. Doing so now could save you from injury or even carpal tunnel when you’re older, which is no fun for anyone, let alone a musician.

Lastly, I heartily recommend playing for the sheer joy of it. Nothing ever beats sitting down with your instrument and just marveling at what it can do. Sometimes you need to set aside all expectations and the quest for perfection and just sit down and play. Nothing will ever beat playing for fun and reconnecting with the reason you love music so much: you can express your heart in a way that no other form of communication allows you to do.

Now get out there and play. See you on stage!

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