The Top 3 Myths You’re Being Told On How To Be A Musician

Are you a musician who educates yourself by examining how your favourite artists went about achieving success? Are you constantly reading through interviews and taking notes of exactly how little or how much your favourite band practiced before getting famous? If this sounds like you, then we got some talking to do.

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The Top 3 Myths You’re Being Told On How To Be A Musician
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Are you a musician who educates yourself by examining how your favourite artists went about achieving success? Are you constantly reading through interviews and taking notes of exactly how little or how much your favourite band practiced before getting famous? If this sounds like you, then we got some talking to do.

I still recall being a young teen, learning to play my first (junky) guitar. I desperately searched for insider info on how to master my instrument, though all I really had to choose from at the time were magazines found at the corner store (ah the good old pre-internet days).

Little did I know, all this "important" information I was consuming was doing more to hurt than help me. My playing was not advancing at the rate it should have been, and I didn't even realize it could have to do with what the professional musicians were saying in their interviews.

Are all famous musicians evil? No, of course not. However, a famous musician is understandably going to have different motives than someone who teaches music professionally. Famous musicians have albums to sell, shows to sell out, and a fanbase they need to build. They are not concerned with giving accurate advice to their potential competitors. When asked questions about their career, they are going to lean towards telling a story that is interesting, concise, and makes them look good.

What I am saying is nothing shocking, it just makes sense. First thing a working musician needs to know is now to sell themselves, and that comes down to exactly what they say and how they choose to say it. Its not their job to be honest, it's their job to be entertaining.

"You Either Got It, Or You Don't"

There are a lot of people in the world that would like you to believe that there is a magical thing called "it" that determines if you will ever find success in music. If this were true than musicians, music teachers, and music education as a whole would not exist.

So why do you hear this phrase thrown around so often? Simple. Rock Stars are aware that just about anyone could be in their same place if they worked hard enough. Becoming a successful musician really comes down to how hard a person is willing to work for it. Hearing people say this does kind of benefit you in a way though, because either one of two things will happen:

It might actually stop you from pursuing your craft. If hearing this is all it took to make you quit, then there probably wasn't much hope anyway

Hearing this might have absolutely no effect on you which means good work, you have successfully made it through the first round of obstacles that will be thrown your way

The concept of one "having it or not having it" is what I like to refer to as the Harry Potter theory of musical talent and you may read the whole article I wrote on the subject.

"Rock Stars Don't Need Music Theory"

If I were to ask you who you believe makes better music and your choices were between someone who learned what they know from a teacher or someone who had natural talent, who would you choose?

While the value of someones music has nothing to do with the method in which they developed their skill, most people intuitively will feel like natural talent is more genuine and interesting. Because of this misconception, many artists will try to make it seem like their musicianship came entirely natural to them.

A wise man (Michelangelo) once (supposedly) said "If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all." This is exactly why Rock Stars may choose to downplay all the theory books they read through and rudiments they practiced.

It makes sense why they might choose to do this, but I am of the belief that it is in fact more wonderful to know how hard a person has worked to get where they are, rather then brushing it all off as natural ability. At the same time, it is a Rock Stars job to impress you, so whats more impressive than having you believe they were inherently born to perform?

"The Key To Success Is All About Timing And Luck"

I know many musicians who are diddling on their guitar just waiting to be "found". They think as long as you know the basics of your instrument, you have no choice but to leave the rest up to chance. These people find themselves in this situation because they have heard enough famous people say it to be true.

The truth is that Rock Stars will talk about luck like it was the key to their success to avoid coming off like a pompous prick. Not only do they not want to talk about all the struggles and hard work that got them there, but they know most people don't want to hear about it either.

This is not to say that those stories you often hear about a band playing a show the same night a big time producer is in the crowd have absolutely no element of chance to them. Though what is more important is being the right person in that situation. It doesn't matter how much luck is involved if you aren't good.

The Truth: How Good You Can Get As A Musician Is All Up To You

The real key to success as a musician comes down to doing the following things.

Find yourself a good music teacher who actually knows their stuff.

After you have chosen a teacher, listen to them. Don't waste anyones time and actually do the things that they tell you to do.

Stop sorting through magazines and celebrity interviews for your advice. If you have hired a teacher to help you, then let them be the ones helping you.

Surely there are some of you out there right now who are questioning my motives as a teacher who is promoting music teachers. Which is fair (I always support critical thinking). I am not saying you must specifically choose me as a teacher. All I wish you to do is to find one who truly fits your needs as a player. As someone who has been playing music for a very long time, I know how important a proper teacher was to my own growth as a guitarist, and I also know how much it can help you reading this article as well.

So toss out those guitar magazines, find a professional that wants to help you (online or offline) and don't leave anything to chance.

About the Author

Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar

24 comments sorted by best / new / date

    ReplicantSix
    "This is not to say that those stories you often hear about a band playing a show the same night a big time producer is in the crowd have absolutely no element of chance to them. Though what is more important is being the right person in that situation. It doesn't matter how much luck is involved if you aren't good." I agree with everything in this article except for this. Success in the rock and pop world has always been about marketability of the band with music being of secondary concern, it's just that in the last decade, the composition standard of popular music dropped dramatically. Do you think that Jay-Z or whoever it was who found Bieber on Youtube was as quick to sign him as he was over musical prowess and sheer skill, or do you think it was because he had an obvious appeal to teen girls who listened to that "brand" of music? There was ultimately nothing "Biebs" could've done to guarantee someone like the person who "discovered" him would have done so. There are people who are completely terrible (Lil' Wayne), even by their own niche or genre's standards, but still sell millions of records and got huge simply by crossing paths with and marketing to the right people. Just look at how many modern "film composers" can score big-budget films while writing for the orchestra like it was a damn synth pad.  These are just the facts. There are tons of young kids who can play and compose circles around Bieber, Lil Wayne; composing symphonies at single-digit ages or play like Petrucci, but they don't have the "popstar" aesthetic and despite thousands of plays and subscribers, they still never see any real success and it's not for lack of "hard work." and many of them never will. I work in music for films games, etc. I've traveled to film festivals, gaming conferences, studied and practiced my ass off, etc. got my first scoring gig and have been at it since before I was legal Canadian drinking age. All of my best connections and gigs to date have come from completely chance encounters. I met people from the film business via a shitty dayjob I had years ago, I got a video game deal from a random person I met at a bar, and so on.  Being "good", by whatever metric you want to use, is not enough. Success in the music business, no matter what you're doing, is like finding a storm and running around with a lightning rod doing the best you can to get hit, but it's ultimately out of your control. You can certainly increase your odds, but even then — some just never get struck.
    tommaso.zillio
    Translation: you have to do networking. I agree - but you still have to be the right person. If I had a cent for every person I know that got to talk, meet, hang out, etc with famous people and are still where they started, I'd be rich.  The point is: WHO you encounter, may be due to chance. IF you work with them, is due to less chance than you think. As for Bieber or Lil' Wayne: they are giving their fans what the fans want. Don't blame them. Educate the fans. This start by educating the people who already understand something about music. There are places where I can't mention Petrucci that someone HAS to barge in and say "but Guthrie Govan is better". With this attitude we are not going far. At least Bieber fans know how to have fun.  (Just to be clear, I like both Petrucci and Govan - and many others. They know how to have fun. Some of their fans don't)
    ReplicantSix
    Right, but that's the thing: Who you encounter matters. Otherwise, you can wind up being the "busy idiot" as they call it, who does a lot of work that doesn't actually take them anywhere. and my point about Lil' Wayne and Co. is that despite not being an overly skilled musician, he is a superstar in spite of it. I don't mean to seem like I'm crapping on your article; it's just that, when I was younger, I fervently argued that all of my, or anyone else's, successes in "the business" owed exclusively to dedication and skill, and that luck had nothing to do with it. As I've gotten older, more experienced, and met more people, I've come to realize that it's only partly true. Outside of academics, everyone I'm aware of who wound up being able to quit their dayjobs and do music full-time — regardless of whether they're a rock musician, film composer, producer, or all of the above — can trace this back to a moment(s) that was ultimately beyond their control, and had it not happened, they'd still be where they were before. That's why I disagree these rockers you speak of in the article are simply being modest — they're being honest. All you can do is work hard, study, practice, keep improving, networking, and hope for the best.  
    miguel-m
    " As I've gotten older, more experienced, and met more people, I've come to realize that it's only partly true.  " This is true. Making it in the music business is rarely about talent. There is autotune, DAWs, editing, studio magic and whatnot to make anyone sound listenable. It is all about luck, and being at the right place in the right moment.
    tommaso.zillio
    I consistently see that people that believe in luck do not get successful, and people who believe in themselves and put in the hard work DO get successful.  And sounding good is a necessary part, but about 10% of what it takes to make it. Again, it's music BUSINESS - not just "music".
    tommaso.zillio
    I still disagree. Everybody I know that is successful had a moment when they decided they were going to be successful AND put in their work AND they networked AND they did not stop until they met the right person.  "Chance" encounters are easy... because everybody in the music industry is not only accessible, but they are actively on the hunt for artists and collaborators. You have to do the right kind of work though. "Composing symphonies at single-digit ages" is impressive and admirable, but it's only part of the job. It takes cares of the "music" part of music business", but not the "business" part. "I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the luckier I get." (Gene Simmons... and a number of people before him)
    ReplicantSix
    If you work hard and network long enough, you will see some good come of your efforts; I've no doubts there. But making money isn't all there is to it. You have to make enough money, and consistently to be "living the dream". I stand by the assertion that luck/fate is the arbiter of whether or not all of your efforts allow for this. It would be rude and unprofessional of me to name names, but I know a guy who composed the score to an extremely high-selling, high-budget video game several years ago. It was the first "AAA" project he had done and when it came out in 2009, he felt that he had "made it." That from then on, he was a composer of "big titles".  It remains the biggest gig he's ever had, and 2010 wound up being the poorest financial year of his adult life. 
    Mattdobson
    ReplicantSix I know you're a friend and all but, I really do want to know what this game was... From my experience gigging, most local bands believe in this sort of random selection process and try to do everything they can to get on the back of somebody elses name. I know one band who paid £5,000 (that was about $8000 back in 2011) to record with Lily Allen's Producer because they thought they would be magically picked up and whisked into the industry. Obviously, that did not happen at all and they disbanded about 2 years after, and as you had mentioned in the article, they idolised bands who had "come from nowhere" failing to realise that they've put in a tremendous amount of hard work and they had not moved on from playing standard power chord progressions and pentatonics.  The hard work involved is not playing every single gig offered to you but actually working on what you want to produce as an artist/band, whether it is through learning more theory or improving technical playing or even just developing a specific sound for your project. It's all individual do it is difficult to say what "works" and what doesnt but I think it's safe to say acting like a rock star before anybody has even heard of you is one way to put yourself in the category of people who "used to be in a band"
    tommaso.zillio
    Mmmh, your story is actually the best demonstration that a lucky break or a single event is NOT what matters to make it in the music business, in the very same way that winning at the lottery does not make you rich. In any other freelance profession there would be no controversy that hard work and becoming the right person are the factors that lead to success - not chance. Music is not an exception.
    Brad Litton
    I wish I'd heard this 18 years ago. This would have saved me so much trouble. Thanks for the great article!
    Leo_Smith
    Good stuff as usual, Tommaso. Thanks! Maybe this will help me stave off a few 'but Hendrix does it like...' conversations with my students, so we can get back to work.
    City_Machine
    Nice to have an article I can actually read instead of watching a Youtube clip. 
    tommaso.zillio
    For a while videos seemed to be more popular, so I did more of them. Makes no difference to me... so the question is, what do you guys here prefer, videos or articles?
    City_Machine
    For me personally, reading articles. People are generally more succinct in text and we read faster than hear/talk anyway. 
    charge112
    oh boy tell me about people saying you've got to have "it". It's annoying as hell but it's not going to stop me. In my opinion everyone should just do whatever you love, it doesn't really matter if you get good at it or not. Just enjoy
    astrocreep71
    Right, the truly lucky ones have been the ones who, despite the hard work, Still enjoy it to the degree that it isn’t work. Let me rephrase that. That it doesn’t feel like work. (Even though I’m sure it sometimes still does)
    tommaso.zillio
    astrocreep: great point. It may feel like a struggle at time, but it never feels like work This comes down to choices more than luck too.
    tommaso.zillio
    The only "it" you need to have is "drive". Everything else you can learn. Even Mozart had to study composition.
    JohanTillgren
    Great article, especially the point about the rock stars wanting to amaze people and not admit how hard they worked to get where they are.