The importance of being self-sufficient as a musician
After many interviews for my podcast, members of the audience have asked me several times to question guests about the path towards “professionalisation”, although such a term can be questionable in such a poorly-regulated sector. The reality is that there is no one path, but rather there are people who have reached a point that they can live off music, solely by playing or working in the industry (teaching, music shops, etc.) or any hybrid between those two things. And yet, because of the real nature of music, nothing is forever, and you can as easily get to the top as you can drop to the bottom, and many times without seeing it coming, as is the case now. While it’s true that everyone carves their own path and it’s hard to extrapolate to the specific experiences of our favourite musician, I have seen common elements that I think may be helpful to all of us. And one of them is to be self-sufficient as a musician and a human being. For me, it’s an element of the so-called “professionalisation” process that I am often asked about. Part of wanting to get serious about music no one needing to be on top of you.
First of all, I want to explain what I understand by being self-sufficient. For me, it’s the quality of feeling safe and satisfied with yourself, a deeply ingrained feeling of internal integrity and stability. That is, to be at peace with yourself and to know that you are capable of overcoming the problems that present to you. Related to self-esteem, and linked to a strong self-awareness.
As an instrumentalist, self-sufficiency at least implies for me a collection of skills that go beyond knowing different styles and working on coordination and independence, although I am not saying those are not essential. When it comes to work, when work means playing on stage or in the studio in exchange for financial compensation, some of the aspects that play a major part are knowing the style you are playing thoroughly to make the appropriate musical decisions, being technically proficient on your instrument, having a superior command of your gear and owning what is necessary to carry out the work you are going to do, and possessing the technical knowledge of the environment in which you work to be able to communicate with who you work with, as well as a passion and genuine curiosity about art as a whole. In short: repertoire, equipment ready, and the necessary musical preparation. To learn many of these things, of course, you need hours of dedicated study, but also to share musical moments with other people, even if the style is not your favorite, the bassist is not particularly your best friend or there is no financial reward, as Toni Mateos, seasoned session musician from Spain who has played in stages worldwide and tracks for producers and artists across the globe, mentioned to me in an interview:
“For those who want to become professional drummers one day, my recommendation is to diversify. If you want to be a session drummer, that’s perfect, but try to play with different artists, tours, clubs, recording … also learn and study something else to have a plan B. In a world as uncertain as it is today, you need options.”
As for the characteristics of any professional musician, we drag the concepts discussed in the previous paragraph and apply them to a larger context. When I started working, it became clear to me that I needed more tools in my arsenal than just to be prepared as a drummer. The ability to be mobile and be able to be where you are asked to is always a plus. In many cases, especially as a session musician, you are first asked not to create problems and not to be someone who detracts from the group but adds, because, as it is often mentioned in my podcast, you are hired for the travel and time away from home, to play for many is the reward or to rest after what I just mentioned. This is why, in my opinion, one has to remain flexible, and has to learn to navigate change, as different and unexpected situations arise constantly in the life of a musician. Additionally, of course you have to be punctual and knowing how to communicate with others, which I believe is a strongly underrated trait to have.
As someone who strives to be completely self-sufficient, you need to consider two areas that are always present outside of music, whether we like it or not: finances and emotions. For the firstly-mentioned, I will be brief since I understand that it can be tiring to talk about money. Basically you have to consider tax regulations and keep some money aside for darker days, sometimes by keeping our ego and pride aside and working non-music jobs if we have to. When it comes to emotions, I’ll leave a fragment from an interview with Pablo Díez, a proficient producer and drummer:
“I think it is very important to start by accepting who you are in the instrument, to say “look, I’m play how I play and that’s enough, I’m going to play a show in five minutes, I can’t get overwhelmed because I have not studied something very complicated and specific for enough hours this week, because there is nothing I can do right now, I can only be calm because I am going to do well tonight”. It took me a long time to get into that mindset, and I can’t just change anyone’s thinking right now, but it (the work on the emotional side of music) is a job that each of us must do.”
Being at peace with yourself seems essential to our work as a musician. As artists, our work relies, to a greater or lesser extent, on the ability to convey a certain emotion through our medium, in this case, music. I note that if there is no certain peace and control over our emotions, it is not impossible, but I think it is very difficult to accurately express a message. My worst days on the drums are almost always linked to periods of, let’s say, emotional bump for one reason or another. In the same way that we need to worry about being in shape, having an optimal attitude, and understanding rest as a restorative tool, it is mandatory to take care of what is happening in our mind. It can be very difficult to be focused on what you need to be when there are problems creating noise inside your head, which causes mental clarity to be particularly absent. I do not mean that we should ignore our problems, regardless of their size, but rather the opposite. We shall rely on professionals as well as proven mental health strategies (exercise, meditation, socializing, socializing …) to simply ‘be better’ with ourselves.
Nonetheless, the risk of being too self-sufficient is also there. Pulling the blinds down, trying to control everything, being so perfectionists that we reject everything we do not do on our own… These are sins that many of us have committed, but it is very important to know that it is impossible to conceive our work without collaboration and teamwork, elements implied in the nature of being a musician. No one gets anywhere by themselves. Being a musician depends on you. Whether many people listen to you depends on many factors and not all depend on you. Trying to control everything would be extremely exhausting.
Lastly, self-sufficiency is an aspect that we need to know about and work on in the short, medium and long term. According to people who are self-sufficient, they have the ability and desire to determine their own path, to make their own decisions before others decide for them. They trust their own instincts and are willing to go their own way, even if it is opposed to someone else’s view. According to this definition, the recommendation is to pay close attention to the details that make us autonomous and independent in our work, and those in which we are dependent on others. If we need help or external collaboration, fully embrace it, but always be aware of adding something to the equation, be that musically or professionally.