11 Tips On Playing Piano For Your Career

professional piano playerA few days ago I received an interesting email from a reader of this site by the name of Jake.

Jake asked,Hey Steve! What are the basic skills a piano player needs to play piano for a living, even a very basic one?”

I knew this would be a question many of the readers here would want to know the answer to as well.

So, I figured I’d share the answer with everybody and turn it into an article. Here’s my response:

Hi Jake,

That’s awesome that you want to do play piano for a living. A lot is required but the journey is well worth it.

You’ll need both musical skills and professional musician skills. 

So, I made a list of 11 fundamental things I suggest you have under your tool belt. Here we go…

1. Be Able To Transpose Quickly.

Not everybody can play well in all 12 keys. If you have the ability to and it helps the musicians you play with sound good in their favorite keys then you’re in great shape!

For example, I played a whole year of gigs with a string player who would change the key of the songs on every gig. It was very bizarre but it kept me on my toes and on the gig. :)

He was also terrified of flat keys and constantly learning new songs that were originally written in flat keys.

jazz-piano-careerSo, you never really knew what he was going to do from one gig to the next.

(It wasn’t the actual guy in this picture here but I think you get my point none the less.)

Oh, one more thing…singers will love you if you can play their favorite songs in their keys instantly.

2. Have Great Gear.

pro music helpIf you have a Casio keyboard you bought in 1986 and it has 33 broken keys it probably time to retire that sucker. It just won’t cut it.

Just like a carpenter needs quality tools to build nice things we need a quality instrument to build nice sounds.

So, always try to play on the best instrument you can afford.

3. Be Easy To Work With.

Otherwise known as smile at the bandleader a lot and just be cool to hang with overall. :) This may seem obvious but I’ve seen lots of people lose gigs over the years because of their attitude.

4. ALWAYS Show Up Prepared To The Gig.

You’d be surprised how far this will get you. This means ALL the music learned and practiced well in advance.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people only semi prepared for the gig. They figure their talent will just carry them through the gig. Sadly, this isn’t always true.

Talent x Preparation = Unstoppable Combination = Getting More Gigs and Furthering Your Career!

5. Have Reliable Transportation.

I know cars can be expensive but if you play piano (keyboards) or any other heavy instrument you’ll need a car to get to your gigs.

It shouldn’t break down every time you turn on the radio or your turn signal.

Actually showing up to the gig is um..lets just say…super important :)

6. Be Professional In Your Gig Correspondence.

This means return phone calls and emails promptly. Be proactive about getting recordings, charts, or any info you need to help yourself do great on the gig in advance.

jazz piano career

 

It goes without saying but you should also dress well. :)

 

 

7. Work On Your Musical Ear.

Lots of times there are no charts and a song is called and you just need to be able to hear where it’s going on the spot. This will also significantly cut your rehearsal time down.

Many times for gigs I’m just handed a CD or sent some MP3’s and just told to learn them off recordings. That’s sort of how it goes if you want to play contemporary styles for a living (jazz, blues, rock, country, etc.)

If you need some help getting started with ear training check out this basic lesson on jazz ear training.

8. Learn Common Chord Progressions In All 12 Keys.

ear trainingMany songs use the same chord patterns over and over again. So, if you know this common chord progressions you can learn music VERY quickly.

If you want some help learning some common chord progressions you can check out this lesson on the jazz blues chord progression.

You can also check out this lesson on the II-V-I-VI chord progression or any of these chord lessons.

Of course I also created a whole entire course with a whole library of chords called Premium Jazz Lessons Elite Membership.

9. Know Lots Of Songs In Lots Of Genres.

Jazz is awesome. It’s my favorite style by far and what I practice constantly.

And even though this is a jazz site and I’m a jazz musician I’m going to suggest you brush up on your other styles as well.

There are lots of other styles that also have paying gig and people also enjoy hearing.

Even though you may prefer jazz in the beginning you may have to just play whatever style you can get gigs in just to pay rent etc.

Later on you can specialize if you want to. So, keep trying to expand your repertoire in all genres.

If you know lots of songs and you know other musicians you will get work.

Make it a goal to learn at least 20 songs in various genres (rock, country, R&B, jazz, pop, etc.).

If you need some help choosing which jazz songs to learn check this article out jazz songs to learn.

I also teach complete arrangements of jazz standards as well inside the Premium Jazz Lessons Elite Membership course.

professional musicianJust so you know that I practice what I preach. Here’s a pic of me on a country gig in Norway early in my career.

Check out the cowboy hat. :)

 

(I’m sitting with keyboard legend Art Neville of the Meters and The Neville Brothers after the gig.)

10. Have Sight Reading Skills.

Even though most of my gigs I have to learn the music off recordings I still get sight reading gigs from time to time.

Being able to sightread can open many doors to things like church gigs, accompanying gigs, classical gigs, and musical theatre gigs.

11. Be Able To Take A Great Solo.

jazz improvisationWhen it’s your moment to shine you want to sound good and have fun doing it. So, make sure you know how to improvise over various chord progressions.

Need a place to start? Well, check out this Bill Evans lick,  this free Wynton Kelly lick or any of the other jazz licks sample lessons.

I also created a whole DVD on jazz licks and learning jazz improvisation called the Jazz Masters Method. You can check out The Jazz Masters Method right here.

Hope this helps you Jake and welcome to the community!

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Steve Nixon is the proud owner of Freejazzlessons.com. He is a world touring jazz and blues keyboard player and educator.

Steve is the author of Premium Jazz Lessons Elite Membership (A comprehensive all-in-one online jazz piano course.)

He is also the author of the The Jazz Masters Method DVD (A study of 9 legendary jazz piano players).

If you are a blues piano fan you can also check out his popular Learn Blues Piano DVD Course.


  • Robert

    This is so useful for me right now! I’m sitting in my day job right now (hating it). This is the type of information I need. Thank you Steve!

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      My pleasure Robert!

  • Herman

    Another article with great feeling for musicians practical needs. Thanks Steve, you’re a great coach and guide for all of us working on the jazz track (and in other styles, as you mentioned ;-)))

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Herman. Man, that’s real cool of you to say. I’m thrilled to know you’re enjoying the material.

  • rico

    A tremendous amount of work required to be able to play for money ! I play to amuse myself and know my limitations; its fun and relaxing and takes my mind off worries, sharpens concentration and makes me feel good.

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      That’s still very awesome Rico. Not everybody plays for food so to speak. I think it’s great you play for fun and relaxation. It seems like you have a fantastic approach as well.

  • John

    Thanks so much Steve! This was more than helpful!

  • Luis Brathwaite

    Steve, if I order the online stream of “The Jazz Masters Method” DVD will I be able to burn my own copy from that?

  • Saramada7979

    .Thank you Steve. These are good ones ; here I tell you mine.I’ve been playing for a living, and another great tip, is to get a good agent in flexible terms and that honors your desires or some of them( life is not perfect). Sometimes, is best to get your own gigs, but sometimes is best that somebody, handle the gigs hunting part. that way venues respect you better and also you have time, to get the other skills together, including, fixing your car to get to the gig … ;)

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Saramada,
      That’s some great advice as well! Nothing wrong with getting an agent so you can focus more on your music or your car :)

      • Saramada7979

        Oh! thanks for your quick reply, Steve. BTW Congratulations for tis great site for musicians, and jazz lovers. I’m a musician and I’m now in the way tol get back to school to do Music Education .I learn piano in Cuba, I play and sing latin jazz or what me and my band call” ” tropical jazz “.Your tips and lessons come very handful

        • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

          Thanks Saramanda! Cuban music mixed with jazz is a beautiful combo :)

  • Kruttika Sequeira

    hey steve,
    i love your tutorials. helped me a lot. I was learning the keyboard for 8 years and recently shifted to piano. I’m finding the transition very difficult and my fingers very weak. Also, i have a vision problem called macular dystrophy , because of which, i cannot sight read, I fear i may never be able to play like elton john or chick corea. I really want to be a great pianist and singer.
    -kruttika.

    • http://www.freejazzlessons.com/ Steve Nixon (freejazzlessons)

      Hi Kruttika,
      Thank you for the kind words! I wouldn’t worry much about sight-reading. You can still become a great player with the right dedication. You just have to strengthen your other musical skills. I would recommend you try and develop your ear training and musical ear as much as possible. That will be the key to your success. There have many great pianists who either have been completely blind or had vision issues by the way (Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Art Tatum, Marcus Roberts…just to name a few). Anything is possible my friend. I have faith in you!