School of The Rock


Exercise Professionalism              

Written by Paul D. Race for SchoolOfTheRock.comô


Not everybody with talent and drive can support a family on their music.   Some communities don’t have enough opportunities, some genres don’t have enough paying venues, and so on.  So not everybody can be  a “professional” in that sense.  But every musician can, and should exercise professionalism.

There are a lot of relatively specific tips below, based largely on failures that my friends or I have observed over the years.  To a large extent, they boil down to:

  • Take music seriously, and
  • Don’t be a jerk.

However, many of our acquaintances seem to have trouble applying those two imperatives in their day-to-day lives and interactions with fellow musicians.  So I’ve broken it down into a number of more specific examples.

Continuously Improve as a Musician - Whatever you perceive to be your unique value, there are always folks better than you, and they’re getting better all the time.  Nearly everyone who is in a position to help your career will expect you to know more and play better than you did the last time they saw/heard you. You should also learn the “classic” songs of your genre.  Even bands that don’t always do covers occasionally pull one out, and if it turns out you don’t know some tune that everyone else in your circuit knows by heart, you expose yourself as a poser.  Lose the computer games, the funny cat videos, or whatever else is eating into your practice and learning times.

Fulfill Your Obligations - When you’re supposed to be some where, be there.  Never break promises - The career musicians you want to join permanently already know dozens, if not hundreds of flakes just as talented as you - they don’t need you raising the flake quotient in their lives.  This includes:

  • Showing up on time, for practices, gigs, meetings, etc.
  • Learning your part before band practice.

Keep Your Instruments in Good Working Order.  That includes keeping extra sets of strings, reeds or other consumables, as well as taking ready-to-play backup instruments to festivals or distant gigs.  The last thing you need to do is to show up at a gig with an allen wrench or super-glue because you need to make some adjustment before you’re ready to go on.

Have Enough Depth to be Able to Play Convincingly in Related Styles - Sometimes opportunities arise in styles that aren’t exactly your forte.  It’s possible that the person inviting you to fill in for a missing band member at a gig doesn’t know the difference, say, between Heavy Metal and Acid Rock, between Bluegrass and Celtic fiddle, or between Dixieland and Swing saxophone.  Or maybe he’s just assuming that you can adapt “on the fly.”  Real musicians can.  Virtuosos who can only excel in their own niche are seldom given a second chance to cross genre barriers.

Don’t Be Dismissive of Other Genres - On a related note, every genre has songs that are cheesy and performers who are shallow.  Every genre has songs that will move you and performers who can reach any audience through sincerity and sheer talent.  And you would be surprised how many professional musicians who have achieved success in one niche are totally fluent - and even well-connected - in some other genre altogether. Back in the early “Grateful Dead” days, who would have thought that Jerry Garcia was a huge Bluegrass fan, for example?  So making cracks about Country in a room full of rappers or vice versa can backfire in ways you would not expect. 

Follow Directions - Even if you’re smarter than the guy in charge.  There are a lot of idiots in positions of power in every industry. Many of them are where they are because of who they’re related to or some such, but they still have influence.  Refusing to cooperate with some moral request because it compromises your aesthetic sensibilities or some such is a good way to shoot yourself in the foot.  “I showed them!” might sound good in an after-gig pizza binge, but it doesn’t really build your professional resume.

Organize Your Musical Life - Especially your money and your calendars.  Never miss appointments.  Also, pay your bills, and be careful to keep and avoid money troubles.  Again, the pros you want to hook up with already know enough flakes.

Learn How the Music Business Works - Even if someone else in your band or posse usually handles that end of it, you need to be able to discuss business aspects of music intelligently or you can expose yourself as a wannabe in a heartbeat.  (For instance, a friend of mine once had a national hit with a Joni Mitchell song, and never saw a cent from all that airplay.  If you don’t know how things like that can happen, learn. Quickly.)  At the worst, you can get tricked into a bad agreement or contract because you don’t know how things are supposed to work. 

Don’t Geek Out When You Meet Your “Idols” - This is very hard for some folks. Intruding into private conversations to introduce yourself, etc., flags you as an outsider.  If you’re introduced, say something polite, and listen way more than you talk.

Maintain a Good Attitude Everywhere - in practice, on the phone, before gigs, during gigs, and after gigs. If you need to go back to your house and punch holes in the wall, fine.  Better that, than getting a reputation as a person who “flies off the handle” or “can’t handle disappointment.” 

Be Generous With Your Colleagues - not in terms of money - unless it’s appropriate - but in terms of giving credit, and giving them room to grow.  Never give your colleagues reason to believe that working with you is a dead end for them. 

Be Courteous to Everybody All the Time - As Dave Barry says, “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person.”  Even if, in your heart of hearts, you’re a complete jerk, you never know who is sizing you up when you think no one important is looking.

Be Fair to Everybody All the Time - Don’t use people as steppingstones.  This includes attempts to “leapfrog” over people who graciously brought you into contact with someone higher up the “food chain.”

Recognize When People are Doing You Favors - Also on that note, If you’re invited into elite company, don’t assume you’re there because they recognize your intrinsic value.  You still have to earn a permanent place at the table.  Show respect, if nothing else, and listen way more than you talk. You can learn a lot more from them than they are likely to learn from you at this stage.

Reciprocate - When you have a chance to reciprocate, do.  When I used to do coffeehouses all the time, I frequently asked friends along to trade sets, etc.  Most of my friends returned the favor when they got the chance.  Some didn’t.  I’m sure you don’t have to ask me which group I stopped calling to see if they wanted to come along on the next gig.

Avoid Self-Destructive Lifestyles - Lose the cigarettes.  Yes, you may think you look cool, but you’re hurting yourself and the people around you.  Getting addicted to alcohol or pain-killers or whatever will not make you a better musician. In most cases, it will just end your career prematurely.  In the worst cases, it will end your life prematurely.  Neither Janis nor Jimi nor Jim nor Kurt were better musicians because of their addictions.  But you only recognize those names because they were still well known when they died.  What about the thousands of musicians you never heard of whose addictions destroyed their families, their careers, and in some cases their lives before they ever got that “big break”? 

In my cover band days we learned to avoid musicians that we couldn’t trust to play at bars where the band drank for free.  How much worse is it to try to work with someone who “drops the ball” constantly because some chemical is more important to him than his music? 

Keep the Faith - Yes, this article is targeted to Christian musicians, but even if you’re not a Christian, you need to find and keep a moral center and some means of keeping your life focus on something more important than all the music industry and career trivia that threatens to consume your time and attention 24/7. 

Frankly, Rock and Roll was my god for a time, many years ago, and I proved just how fast I could make a mess of my life.  Today, I try to keep God and my family ahead of everything else, including music, church, and day job.  If you are a Christian, God and family should be your priorities, too.   If you’re not a Christian (and I can’t talk you into reconsidering that), at least recognize that the well-being of your soul and your family is more important than “follows,” downloads, and even sales.

Helpful Links:

We have been building a library of helpful tips from professionals at our Careers forum on  The following links will take you directly to some of those tips that are related to this topic. 

As always, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc.  If your response is responsible, I'll try to include it in the "reader response" section below.

God bless,



Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

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