How do you become a professional musician? When I was in my 20s, the only path I knew was to practice hard and hope that I eventually won an audition for a full time gig. I played the trombone extremely well, and eventually I did win an audition for a full time playing job in the Air Force, which was working out great up until the point my chops gave out due to an overuse injury. (I've already written about this experience in an earlier post.)
When I won that Air Force audition, I was a one trick pony with a really good trick. Once I began learning to play the guitar a few years ago, I decided to take a second stab at a musical career. I already knew that it would be years (if ever) before I would catch up to other guitar players with more experience. I couldn't afford to be a one trick pony anymore, because my trick was never going to be better than theirs.
It's doubtful that I will make a career out of performing alone, so I've had to assess my strengths and learn a few new tricks. I'm cobbling together a career through music engraving, gigging, teaching, and working as a church music director. Things seem to be heading in the right direction as of late. I'm performing more often, my roster of students is slowly growing, and there is a possibility that my church hours will increase in the future.
So, to address the original question of how to become a professional musician, if you have one really great trick, then congratulations and good for you. You are part of the small minority. For the rest of you, figure out what useful skills you possess. Discover what you are best at, start with that, and use and develop your other skills to diversify and create your own niche.
You may not be the best at any one thing that you do, but very few people will have your particular combination of skills.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.