February 01, 2014 by Don Russo
One of the best things you can do for your musical career is to become more versatile. It opens up a lot of doors, helps you discover yourself as a musician, and creates more sources of income. Here are a few ways to make yourself more versatile:
My dad was giving me one of those “life” speeches and advice about my musical career. He said, “Son, if you ever want to make it as a musician, you need to play as many styles of music as you can.” Of course, I pretended to not hear him, as he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. This statement, however, has rung true throughout my career. I have played in a rock band, jazz group, original band, bluegrass group, classical gigs, reggae, etc. I have dabbled in almost every style. I found that each style has certain techniques and skill sets that are unique to that style. Blues is good for basic improv; jazz is good for applying theory; country guitar uses open strings and hybrid picking, etc. The other aspect of having versatility in style is that you can pick up many more gigs. You typically don’t rock in a nice restaurant, play blues in a prelude for a wedding, or play reggae covers in a listening room; however, if you can do them all, you will have your pick of gigs.
Learning various styles may sometimes lead into learning various instruments. Playing in a bluegrass trio caused me to get more into playing mandolin. Becoming a competent mandolin player has allowed me to pick up gigs, studio work, and different kinds of students. Learning a new instrument is great for reinforcing what you have already learned and allows you to approach music from a different angle. A lot of players that tour and play in the studio now are “utility players,” which simply means they can play several instruments. If you can play multiple instruments, you make yourself more valuable to hire. Don’t forget your voice is an instrument, and a very valuable one. If you can play an instrument and sing harmonies, that will add a level of value to you as a player. Sometimes people actually begin to flourish on an instrument other than their first one. My friend Ryan Monroe (name drop…ahem), keyboard player for Band of Horses, started as a drummer. I have several students that are successful bass players that started as guitar students. Be open minded and challenge yourself.
Sometimes you just don’t know what you like until you try it. The same holds true for the various branches of profession within music. There are so many ways to make money with occupations that are related to music. Here are just some options: touring musician, studio musician, private teacher, school teacher, college professor, songwriter, recording engineer, producer, luthier, booking agent, record label employee, marketing consultant, social media specialist, and much more. I started teaching with no intentions of making a future out of it. I wanted to be a touring musician, recording artist, or writer. Fortunately, I have been able to do all three of those things, but I have fallen in love with teaching over the years…to the point where I opened Freeway Music. Teaching has become a viable career for me. I still get to play gigs, record, write, and even book gigs. Trying many jobs as a musician is similar to trying many styles. Each one has a different skill set and makes you grow as an artist and a professional. Each thing you try will give you a more concrete idea of which aspect of music you are passionate about and enjoy. Also, similar to learning styles, you will be more successful and have more sources of income.
The bottom line is that versatility equals more opportunity for success in your musical career. Experiment with various styles, instruments, and jobs to stretch yourself and discover what generates happiness and a viable career for you. If you are spinning your wheels in your career, maybe you need to shake things up a bit. Good luck on your musical journey!