More Tips?
Receive the latest blogs, advice, lessons, theory and discussion

Riley Music Academy Music Cast: 10 things professional musicians do

FREE 10 Step Guide to becoming a better musician

Enter your details on the homepage to receive your FREE 10 Step Guide


10 things professional musicians do

After almost 15 years working as a freelance session musician, here are 10 things that I’ve realised professional musicians always do…

#1 – Warm up

A lot of musicians have been told by their teachers to warm up but many just noodle around for a bit and have no clear regime.  Professionals seem to always have a system in place for getting their bodies and perhaps more importantly, their minds warmed up.  When I play piano at the ideal temperature then my physical warm up is usually just a few finger stretches and some chords, but in the cold I have to work harder to get my hands ready for performance.  This usually involves exercises to get the blood pumping.  When playing sax I always spend time setting up my reed and projecting a sound in my mind so that when I play my first note I’m aiming for the tone I can hear in my mind.  If I don’t use this mental preparation then I’m usually disappointed in the sound and have to start again anyway.  It’s incredibly important to get ‘in the zone’ mentally.  You often see it with sportspeople.  Take tennis players for example – asking for 3 balls before a serve then rejecting one.  It’s all mental preparation; ready for the physical act.

#2 – Play with passion

To sing a wrong note is insignificant, but to sing without passion is unforgivable.” Ludwig van Beethoven

Amateurs often hit/blow/strum their instruments with a certain amount of insecurity and for good reason.  It’s human nature to be cautious when approach something new.  This, I think, is why learning an instrument is a wonderful process because it teaches us to raise our game and take risks.  If you go for a note and miss it then it will not be the end of the world and most people will respect the commitment and authority in which you attacked it.  I always encourage people to play stronger and be courageous with their playing.  There are some individuals however, who I encourage to rein in their approach as they take too many risks!  The metaphor for these people is: when feeling shy in a crowded room they talk too much and exude false confidence.  Finding the balance between confidence and accuracy is an incredible life skill to learn and to express the passion you have is vital – otherwise people switch off.

#3 – Wing it (a little bit!)

Speaking of confidence; many professionals know their skill set well and because of this, they are happy to show up with very little or no preparation.  Sight-reading a theatre show, improvising in a jazz club, accompanying a singer; many of these situations will seem very daunting but to professionals it is another day in the office.  That’s not to say they do not become nervous, but they know deep down that they can deliver.

#4 – Make mistakes

This may seem surprising to some that professionals make mistakes.  I make mistakes ALL the time!  In fact, I now take comfort from those mistakes because I have realised that I have pretty much made all the embarrassing mistakes I can think of (and more)!  Squeaking on the saxophone, playing the wrong piece, playing the wrong note (classic), playing at the wrong time (another classic), getting lost, forgetting chords…the list could go on!  The difference is that a professional will cover it and keep going.  In fact, sometimes a mistake can lead you down a musical avenue you might not otherwise have explored.  Do not fear them.

“Somebody played a wrong note and jazz was born” (I thought this was a Louis Armstrong quote but it could have been Art Blakey)

#5 – Battle self doubt

Another surprising one perhaps?  Many professional musicians have huge egos and play with such confidence and technical proficiency.  Yet, they get the same crippling self doubt as anyone else; more so, perhaps.  I talk to a lot of pro players and it’s a topic that comes up time and time again.  It is battled in different ways but that negative voice inside your head will be there.

#6 – Play in tune

This is one of my pet hates.  If you play out of tune it will sound bad.  It is your own responsibility to learn how to play in tune.  All professionals will play in tune and you will often see them tuning before and during a performance.  It’s part of their practice; to recognise the change in pitch, to cope with fluctuations in temperature and humidity, to adjust to new reeds/strings/skins and sometimes to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.  I once did a gig in Twickenham where the pianist decided to play the lovely grand piano on stage.  The intro started and I played the first notes of the melody to realise that the piano was a quarter-tone flat.  Playing saxophone I managed to bend most of the notes down to cope and we just about got away with it.  Its not a situation I wish to repeat though!

#7 – Look after their gear

I think professionals fall into 2 camps here.

1.  Mr/Mrs particular  - I worked with drummer once who had the shiniest kit I had ever seen.  You couldn’t look at it for long as it started to burn your retinas!  He refused to allow anyone to help pack it away and wore disposable gloves whilst grappling with it.  He packed it neatly into custom cases and put it into the designated spaces in his van (fitted with protective carpet, luggage nets and bungee cords)

2.  ”Its held together with blue-tac and cling film but it works” – wind players are particularly notorious for this.  They can sound amazing but you look at their horn and you wonder how they have not developed some hideous lung disease (as it happens there is a condition called ‘saxophone lung’, named after a clarinet/sax player who didn’t clean his instrument for 30 years)!

Whatever camp they fit in, pros always know if there’s something wrong with their kit.  They usually fix it on the spot or spend their entire months gig money on buying something new!

#8 – Know how to communicate ideas to all other musicians

Pro players know how to talk to all the musicians in the band.  They use terminology, jargon, shorthand, body language and aural cues to get their point across.  They know what chord the guitarist is playing, they know which beat the drummer is accenting, they know the melody is being played by the trumpet whilst the trombone plays a counter line.  They can manipulate the sound in real time by changing their articulation, dynamics and phrasing.  If a mouse sneezed in the middle 8 – they would probably hear it!  I call this the musical radar and it often escalates into a musical telepathy (particularly if the musicians have worked together for some time).

#9 – Musical historians

If you ask a musician their influences, you will almost certainly get an answer which will take an age to explain.  The influences are all linked and you can easily end up talking about the history of music and travel back in time several generations.  Most musicians have amazing historical knowledge and usually have a vast vinyl/CD/MP3 collection to back it up.  My advice: buy them a drink and listen to the passion they have for artists in their niche.  Warning – Do NOT pester them if they are a) playing, b) eating a meal, c) about to drive home or d) using the toilet!

#10 –  Soundcheck properly

The soundcheck can be tedious but it is essential for a great sound on and off stage.  Professional musicians always know how to get the most out of it and are incredibly efficient.  They don’t noodle around and waste time.  They play all the different settings, sounds, volumes that will be expected during the performance.  They are courteous to the sound crew because they know that they control whether the gig sounds great or terrible.  They do not mutter and giggle in microphones or play half hearted.

I wanted to write this article to obvious ‘big up’ the profession but also to offer learners the opportunity to delve into the professional world and get some applicable use from it.  I hope you have enjoyed it and gained some knowledge – thats the aim..

If you really, really enjoyed it then please share it with people you know.  It’s always hugely appreciated.


Anything to add? – post below

Leave a Reply