Thoughts on Musicians, the Orlando Shooting and the Power of Music

Do you believe in super powers?

I don’t either, exactly. But wouldn’t it be cool to have one? What if I told you we as musicians have something pretty close? I’m convinced we do.

The day after the Orlando shooting I had several private lessons and I discussed this Leonard Bernstein quote with my more mature students:

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I asked them what they thought it meant and we came to some important conclusions together.

One of them (which I hadn’t thought of) was that our reaction to the strife in our life can be to make music for ourselves. To practice our instruments or another art and use that as our way of dealing with the anxiety life hands to us. To express what is within in a constructive manner rather than a violent one.

The second one, the one I had in mind, was that our music-making can have a significant effect on the audience that hears us play. At any given performance, there will certainly be untold pain in the crowd. There may be recent divorces, family tragedies and financial woes.

What if the way we played our notes could lead the person considering suicide to give tomorrow a chance? What if the way we sang our lyrics made a couple considering divorce remember the magic they used to have? What if a well placed silence could be the thing that stops someone from walking into Pulse night club, killing 49 and wounding 53?

Many people use live music as a way to escape, for relief, as a way to recover. Whether its at a concert hall or a bar, a night club or a corporate gig we will always be handed the opportunity to make people feel. What they feel is up to hundreds of factors, yes, but one of those factors is us.

Is there potential for a well-delivered show to offer relief from a year’s worth of turmoil? It happened to me at the beginning of this year when Snarky Puppy came to Tampa and laid it all out before my eyes. I’m not a crier, but if I were a crier I would have flooded the place. While 2015 was the best year of my professional life it was easily the worst in my personal life. They took the misery off my shoulders, I felt it all flow, (maybe melt?) off my body. I don’t have an explanation for it, but I bet you have a similar story to tell too.

I think the ability to do that for people is a super power, or at least as close as we can get.

Maybe that’s arrogant, or wishful thinking but after so many “You made me remember my dad”‘s and “I’ve had a terrible week and you took it all away”‘s I’m convinced it’s reality.

May we be so devoted to our craft that the intensity and beauty of our music heals the hearts of our audience.

My condolences and moral support are with the families of the victims. My deep affection is with the survivors and with the many who are donating blood, money, time, and tons of love to those who have been affected. You are truly beautiful.

The terrorists win once we’re terrified. My prayer is that as the world appears to get darker and darker, we’ll see the light in the thousands who always react with love to tragedies and that we won’t let fear stop us from growing closer to one another.

What are your thoughts? Have you had an experience with the healing power of music? I’d love for you to write me an email and tell me about it.

Is Being a Musician Stable?

A top question I’m asked by students and strangers alike is the question of stability. Is being a musician a stable way to make an income? This is the wrong question to ask, of course. The better question to ask is “Is this musician stable?” or “Are you a stable musician?”

They’re asking if I’m scraping by monetarily or living comfortably. Again, this can’t be a blanket question for the whole career of music-making. It’s too broad. Each musician has a different career, a different set of income sources, a different set of abilities, and a different money history as well.

I’d like to present some questions that a freelancer in any capacity (not just music) could ask themselves or be asked to determine if they’re stable or not.

None of these are end-alls. For each of these I could point to a musician who’s making a good stable living but doesn’t have the “right” answer to a few of these. These are more like individual metrics that add up to “stability.” The more of each of these someone has in their favor the more stable they would be.

So here we go:

1. Are they well connected? – The size of a person’s network means a larger pool to pull work from. The more people aware of a person’s talent and to which a person’s talent is applicable, the more opportunity will come their way in the way of referrals and bookings.

2. Do they have a low overhead? – Car payments, mortgages, student loan debt, and high monthly expenses while not inherently dangerous, can become precarious when they start to add up. Someone who’s doing their best to keep these kinds of expenses manageable based on their income is less likely to get in money trouble.

3. Are they saving for “True Expenses” and rainy days? – The idea of a “True Expense” as far as I know was coined by the folks at YNAB, the budgeting software that I happily use. We should expect that our 6 month car insurance payment will be coming every 6 months, that Christmas will come every year, and that our cars will breakdown and will be expensive to fix. If we expect those and save for them now we won’t be caught off guard when the time comes. Stability is when sudden changes don’t catch you off guard. The better prepared a person is for True Expenses the more stable they are. Most emergencies and surprises don’t need to be.

4. Are their talents diverse? – The more abilities a musician has the more work they can accept. Musicians that can play almost any style of music authentically and can read music are best equipped to be successful. Being a good educator, being able to repair instruments, and being able to write and arrange music are just more strengths increase stability.

5. Are they well liked? – People want to work with their homies. It’s an assumption that we’re good at what we’re doing. After that, it’s all about being enjoyable to be around. I love working for and with people who have warm auras, friendly smiles and good quality hugs. Drunk people, loud people, egotistical people, and selfish people are not enjoyable to make music with. Actually, they’re just not enjoyable. Music is a people occupation just like most of the other arts. Good people skills lead to stability. Bad ones take away from stability, there’s only so much people are willing to put up with.

6. Are they professional? – Things like dressing appropriately, showing up on time, learning the music, playing the music appropriately and selflessly, answering the phone etc. keep band leaders happy and thus add stability.

7. Are their gigs diverse? – Similar to number 4, it’s good to work for a lot of different people. No gig lasts forever – this is the best assumption to work from. New musicians move into town, venues close, economies ebb and flow, and relationships get strained. It helps to not be too dependent on any particular gig. “What would happen if this gig ended?” is a good question to ask. If “not much” were the answer, that’s more stability. In this regard, a lot of musicians have more stability than “normal folks.”

8. Is there debt? – Debt is a crippling, paralyzing, anchoring nightmare of a monster. Simply put the more debt, the less stability.

In my own career I’ve made these 8 things a top priority. The result has been a stable living. At this moment I’m the drummer for two very busy bands, serve as the house drummer of a weekly jam session, occasionally play at Busch Gardens and Adventure Islands, teach 7 private lessons per week, and teach/write percussion arrangements for two schools. In between those regular weekly, monthly and seasonal gigs I sub for lots of drummers in the area, play musicals, freelance all around Florida and teach percussion and jazz classes in schools all around the county.

As I have the opportunity I’m cognizant of expanding my network and skill set. Practicing good money habits, especially aggressive budgeting (get YNAB!) and saving.

I use these 8 metrics to determine the stability of my career. Keeping my skills, network and jobs diverse, remaining professional and managing money well is all it takes to be a stable freelancer.

With a little bit of planning and effort its absolutely possible to be a stable musician.

What are your thoughts or questions on freelancing and stability? I want to hear from my readers, send me an email!