Professional Musician: What I Learned From Playing Over 1500 Gigs

professional musicianAbout 2 months ago I celebrated my 16th year as a full time professional musician. Time definitely goes by quickly!

In honor of my ‘anniversary’ I thought I’d create a list of important things I’ve learned from playing 1500 gigs in 16 years.

Although, I could fill an encyclopedia with all the lessons I’ve learned, I figured I’d focus on an actionable list and narrow it down to just 15 for this series.

To keep it focused and actionable, I’ll list 10 of them below today. Then, we’ll do a follow up article in a few days where I list 5 more.

Things I Wish I’d Known Before I started My Career As A Professional Musician

I had to learn many of these the hard way. So, my goal is to help you save some time as you continue to develop your musical skills.

If you’re interested in performing one day, currently are gigging, or starting your career as a professional musician hopefully you’ll find this list very helpful.

(If you think there’s anything I’m missing, would like to add something to the list, or have questions then please let me know in the comments area!).

So, here we go…

1. Professional Musicians Must Have The Right Song Learning Strategy

If you want to gig regularly you’ve got to know tunes! Everything changed for me once I built a repertoire filled with the right songs.

Once bandleaders knew that I could come in and immediately play 90% of their songs they knew that the ‘training’ involved to get me up to speed on their gigs would be minimal.

Simply put, it became way easier to get gigs because of that.

professional musicianProfessional Musician Tip: Many bands play from the same list of tunes. So, your goal should be to learn the most common ones.

For example, everybody plays “Fly Me To The Moon”, “At Last”, “All The Things You Are”, “Brown Eyed Girl”, and “Margaritaville.”

Modern tunes like Uptown Funk, Happy, Blurred Lines, and John Legend’s “All Of Me” are must know tunes these days too.

2. How Solo Piano Gigs Can Be Triple Rewarding

professional musicianAnother benefit of learning a lot of songs is that once you have a basic repertoire you can go out and start playing solo piano gigs.

Solo piano gigs are actually a lot of fun. You get to wear nice clothes and hang at some really fancy venues too. Plus, they usually pay more much more than full band gigs. 

Maybe I’ve seen too many episodes of Mad Men, but I really enjoy wearing suits these days.

Looking good while playing solo jazz piano arrangements and making more money while doing it is a win across the board as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

Professional Musician Tip:  Build a solo piano arrangement for as many tunes as you can.

Don’t just play them with simple chords in your left hand. Build a real solo piano arrangement that people will enjoy listening to. If you don’t know how to do that yet don’t worry.

jazz piano lessonsIf you’d like to learn my insider method for building pro arrangements quickly check out this course I’ve created right here www.freejazzlessons.com/premium.

3. Reading Chord Charts Really Well Will Make You Money

You’ll want to play as many memorized tunes as possible on solo piano gigs as possible. That being said, I always advise that you bring some additional fake books featuring songs you haven’t memorized yet.

That way you’ll have a bunch of additional tunes you can play in case you get requests.

I’ll usually bring 5-7 additional fake books to a solo piano gig. This strategy has paid off many times over.

I remember one time I got a $300 tip for playing the tune, “When Sunny Gets Blue” when somebody requested it. I know the tune well now, but at the time I hadn’t learned it yet. So, I just opened up my fake book and fired off an arrangement…and bam…$300 tip. That was pretty sweet feeling I have to admit!

professional musicianProfessional Musician Tip: Build a library of fake books and start building arrangements of famous tunes.

If you’re new to this skill don’t worry. I’ll show you my strategies for building great sounding fake book arrangements inside “The Jazz Platinum Players Program” as well.

4. Do You Play On The Right Gear?

pro musicianIt’s incredibly important that you play on the best instrument you can afford. I’m always amazed by the amount of talented people who play crappy sounding instruments. People like to listen to good sounding instruments!

So, If you’ve put a bunch of time into practicing your music you don’t want to play on a keyboard that doesn’t allow you to showcase yourself properly.

Simply put…the vast majority of professional musicians play on high quality gear.

Rhythm and tone are so important when you play. Cheap keyboards almost always make you sacrifice control of both of those. They don’t have the technical capability to respond. They’re just not build properly.

Please know that I’m not saying you need to run out and get a $100,000 Steinway! I’m just saying that investing a little more on a keyboard can greatly improve the way you play.

professional musicianProfessional Musician Tip: At bare minimum find a good keyboard that has weighted keys, has a great piano sound, and is at least 76 keys.

If it has other quality sounds built in (organ, strings, clav, horns, etc. etc.) than it’s a bonus.

5. The Professional Musician Mentor Shortcut

I started my full time music career in 2001.

Although it felt good to have some success early (I started gigging 3 nights a week when I moved to Chicago) I knew that there was still so much to learn.

Local success felt good but my real goal was to start playing with big artists and touring around the world. All I knew was that I needed to up my playing and learn a lot more in order to do that.

jazz piano schoolI’ve always had the attitude that there’s ALWAYS more to learn. So, one of the best decisions I made was in 2004 I started working up with a mentor.

I took lessons as a kid but this was a different thing.

I wanted to work with somebody who understood how to teach an adult that already knew how to play. I wanted to find somebody who could help me get my playing to the next level.

That worked out amazingly and a lot of the training I received during that time really helped me get a lot of the bigger touring gigs I ended getting later.

(You can check out a list of some of the artists I’ve played with and the tours I’ve done here.)

My only regret was that I didn’t hook up with a mentor earlier than I did. It would have saved me a bunch of time.

Things that may have taken me 10 years to learn on my own, my mentor could show me how to do in an hour. It shaved years of my learning.

That kind of information was a priceless investment.

professional musicianProfessional Musician Tip: Regularly working with a teacher/mentor can save you years of practice.

Don’t just work with anybody though.You want to be trained by somebody who has a high level performance resume & can actually break down every move their doing too.

You and your music deserve the best.

6.How To Get Better From Every Gig

professional-musicianI’ve been a big fan of recording myself for years. So, I record every gig and every practice.

I’ve used recording myself and listening back as a tool to really improve my playing.

I’d get a lot from listening by myself but when I brought them to my teach everything got better!

So, I used to bring a bunch of my recordings from my practices and gigs and play them for my mentor. We’d go through all kinds of stuff and he’d give me an incredible amount of feedback on my playing. It was amazing!

Having a professional give me direct feedback and new ideas was a 100% game changer for me. This wasn’t things I could specifically learn from a book. It was custom tailored to me and my personal playing.

So, I recommend recording yourself regularly in the practice room and at gigs so you can go back and learn from it. Even better would be to play them for your mentor so you can get the pro feedback you need.

For those of you who are a little scared of recording yourself don’t worry. It’s just your ‘ego’ talking. I’ve listened to many recordings of myself over the years both good and bad. It’s just how you get better!

7. Are You Fun?

professional musicianI want you to take a second right now and think about your favorite friend. Now, think about some of the best times you’ve had hanging out with them.

Are they fun to spend time with? Do they make you laugh? Do they cause you stress or are they easy going? Do you look forward to spending time with them?

My guess you answered yes to all the questions above. So, guess what…I want you to model that behavior on your gigs. Please do not underestimate this.

Nobody wants to spend time with someone who is a pain in the neck. People like to hang out and spend time with musicians who are fun to be with. Even if you don’t love the gig you’re currently playing. Be cool!

Of course you have to play well but on the professional level there are 20 other people who could do the gig. So, being pleasant is surprisingly useful. You want people to associate you with fun.

I’ve seen plenty of guys who are MONSTER players but have horrible attitudes get fired from gigs.

So, be on your best manners and easy going when you are at rehearsals and gigs. Which leads me to to my next point….

8. A Simple Strategy For Getting Regular Gig Calls

If you’re a piano player, many of your gigs will be backing up other people. That’s why it’s incredibly important for you remember that you’ve been hired to make that person sound great.

Being able to comp well, accompany, and create the right chord and rhythmic textures that brings out that person’s best work is so important. When other musicians associate they’re best gigs and performances with your accompanying, they’ll call you over and over again!

professional musicianProfessional Musician Tip: Watch the bandleader’s foot tapping and body motions. Most of the time they won’t tell you how they want things to be rhythmically played.

Those subtle body motions let you know where they’re feeling the time though. Everything is there…you just have to watch for it. Adjust your time feel and note placement accordingly!

Also, don’t ever be afraid to ask for feedback. Say something like, “Hey I want to make sure I’m accompanying you the way you like. Did you like the types of chords (or rhythms) I was doing there? Was there something else you’d like done?”

These type of things are super subtle but trust me when I tell you these 2 things have been career changers for me.

professional musicianProfessional Musician Tip: If you’re comping isn’t at the level you want it to be I’ve got you covered. We’ll be spending over an entire month on comping inside the “Jazz Platinum Players Program”. I’ll be sharing a whole comping method and insider training with you.

This leads perfectly into my next tip…

9. Tranposition Skills = Singers Will Stalk You

News flash…not every song is played in the original key it was written in. 🙂 That’s why it’s important that you start to build your transposition skills.

Singers often times are the ones who hire you for gigs. Other instrumentalists get gigs too but for some reason singers tend to be bandleaders a little more often.

And singers regularly change the keys of songs to fit in their best vocal range.  So, when they know you can transpose songs to their preferred keys quickly…they love it! You suddenly become easy to play with and just like I mentioned in my previous tip… you’re helping other people sound great.

professional musicianProfessional Musician Tip: Being able to skillfully play in multiple keys is not that hard. You just have to build your jazz theory skills and practice with the right strategies. Fortunately, there are some incredible shortcuts to do that.

professional musicianI developed a course that shows you how to easily master all your 7th chords and chord progressions in all 12 keys.

You can explore it right here —–> Zero To Jazz Piano Hero Course

10. Time!

professional musicianThe stereotype of a musician is that we’re all supposed to be flaky right? We may be super creative, fun and even passionate but when it comes to being on time…not so much.

The stereotype is that musicians always run late. Ugh…that’s stereotype is the worst! Actually, you know what’s the worst? That for many of us it’s true!

So, one of the things that you can do to set yourself apart is make a pact with yourself right now. Make it a goal to ALWAYS be on time.

I know this sounds like the most simple concept in the world but trust me when I say this…if you’re always on time to rehearsals, gigs, and sound checks you’ll be putting yourself in an elite class. Lateness is a horrible issue in the music business. So, if you can do this it will be a way to immediately separate yourself as a professional musician.

Why is this so important you ask? When you’re on time you’re taking pressure off the promoter, the bandleader, and the other musicians you play with. You’ll get a reputation as reliable.

That’s a darn good thing in the music business. Trust me on this. This is the easiest win on this list!

What’s Coming Next?

In the next pro musician strategies article we’re going to discuss…

  • How To Learn Music Lightning Quick.
  • How To Turn Every Gig Into An Opportunity To Get 5 More Gigs.
  • How To Get Organized To Maximize Your Music Learning Time.
  • How To Breakthrough Excuses.
  • And More…

So, watch for the next article in the series and enjoy your practice.

Update: You can check out the new article right here ==> how to become a better musician

In the meantime, if you have any questions or have some tips to add to the list please feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

professional musician

  • JD

    Steve – congratulations on your 15th anniversary!! I gather from one of your posts that you attended music school at the university level. Did you find that helpful in advancing your pro career.

    Cheers.

    • Thanks JD! Yes, I got my degree from Berklee. It was an enjoyable experience and I learned a lot. I can’t say that music school was the main ingredient though in building a pro career. It did provided a good stepping stone. In my opinion, my real education came after college…from thousands of hours on stage and in the practice room.

      • Kappé

        Hi Steve,
        I had been wanting to ask that question of getting a degree. After many years of ‘playing around’ I decided to get a degree and I almost done with the general courses. What I’ve learned is that the same way I apply myself for a “A” in class has got to be the same or better to be a professional musician. It has also become increasing clear, like you mentioned, a mentor is key to progress. I feel so llimited with books and material to study. Having someone customize instruction to enhance my style is priceless. I’m going to start looking for someone!
        Thank yo so much Steve!

        • Awesome Kappé. I’m happy to hear you’re taking your playing and commitment to the next level. I hope to share music with you further along your journey and look forward to hearing about your progress.

  • Georgi Parmakov

    I would add being responsible and learning your songs on time . I`ve seen way too much players who learn songs in the last moment when they already know they are not good enough to make arragement on the spot .

  • Mr. chat

    Great article Mr. Nixton…can’t wait to read the next post..

  • Sandy Luginbill

    I REALLY APPRECIATE YOUR ADVICE AND THE TIME YOU TAKE TO SHARE YOUR IDEAS, ETC… I’VE PLAYED PIANO FOR “GIGS” FOR MANY YEARS (32 YEARS MUSIC TEACHER ALSO) SO DO
    UNDERSTAND HOW IMPORTANT YOUR SUGGESTIONS ARE.
    THANKS MUCH!…SANDY (PIANOLADY)

    • You got it Sandy! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      • Sandy Luginbill

        GREETINGS FROM SANDY! ….AND REMEMBER!!…..
        ..LIFE:….is like a piano!….What you get out of it…..
        .depends on HOW you play it!…

        ——————————————–

  • ReRe

    please! put pressure on piano manufacturers to build a weighted keyboard 76 keys – with no extra bs on the end of it – my 88 is too long for most stages with the band, and all the 76’s have a wheel or something on the left so it’s still as long. I’m walking thru a crowd with my gear and it’s like a Laurel & Hardy movie: I turn and knock people down. and under 20lbs. there are several 88 models that could be 76 easily.

  • Sam Mendel

    hey steve. I wanted to ask you how you went about finding a mentor. did you have to pay him, or did he just want to kind of take you under his wing?

    • I have always made a point to pay/reward my musical mentors and teachers. I respect the relationship immensely and I know there is always other things they could be doing with their time. Successful people’s time is very valuable. So the fact that they are generous to spend it with me means I have to treat them the best way that I possibly can. I am privileged to learn from them.

      So, whether it be financially, taking them regularly to dinner, helping them with website work, or even washing their car and doing yard work (which is what i used to when I was 16!)..anything to support them because they’ve helped me a million times over.