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 to build a career as a professional musician 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.

If you need help doing this we have a whole 2 hour class we created on how to play any song, lick, or pattern in all 12 keys. You can check out the transposition secrets masterclass here.

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.

Many 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