Becoming a Musician

How hard is that?

We were talking the other day about what it takes to be a professional musician. I remarked that being a professional just means that you have had at least one paid gig in your lifetime – it may not be paying the rent. A friend responded that many of the finest players make very little money compared to engineers and computer geeks. He thought this was unfair and I tend to agree. Life is unfair in many respects. Let me count the ways.

If you spend time at any competitive sport you will always find the same small group in the winners circle. When I used to run the Robert Hamilton ten mile event in Calgary I always met the same four or five runners at mile four. They were already at mile six on the return lap. This would happen around thirty minutes into the race. I ran a seven minute pace; they ran a mile in five minutes.

Now a pace of five minutes a mile is world class running so only a very few people out of the thousand or so who enter these events will ever run that fast. What can we say about the folks who were still a minute faster than I was. Well, they were mostly professional athletes, people who could make a living on the the playing field.

The moral of the story is that you have to be very very good to get paid for doing some fun gig like running ten miles, or playing professional soccer or ice hockey. My only claim to being a professional athelete is that I taught skiing at Paskapoo ski hill in Calgary for a few years. I became a Level II instructor. I was not a ski racer or a manual groomer. Those are the real pros on the hill. Level II ski instructors are often paid minimum wage, but they have one of the best jobs in the world.

In my case the difference between my efforts at seven minutes a mile and the pros who were a minute faster was likely wind sprints. To become a Level III instructor, a real pro, would have taken at least a year running race courses and becoming a Level II coach. I thought that was just too much work and besides I had a day job. I was content with my pace; it was about a minute better than average and I was there to have a good time.

Rick Beato says all you have to know to be a real pro, a session musician, is the three hundred or so tunes in the “Real Book” — in every key. These are all Jazz standards so you don’t get to use a capo. I don’t expect to ever be that good but that is the way I’m going.

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